Viewpoint

Five reasons why Ethiopia ended up at war

Opportunism, ideology, vengeance, money, ego—war.

First, Abiy saw an opportunity to gain support from a new constituency. He spent a good part of his political life espousing the struggles of the Oromo people. Until a year ago, he was a senior member of a wholly Oromo party.

After he became Prime Minister, however, he abandoned his regional nationalism and embraced pan-Ethiopian political agenda.

It started when he created the Prosperity Party (PP), formed by dissolving eight ethnically organized parties and amalgamating them into one. This started Abiy’s fallout with much of his Oromo constituency, so much so he locked up his Oromo opponents and accused them of terrorism. Not even his friend Lemma Megersa was spared.

He then embarked on searching for a new political base. He found it among the Amhara who have an axe to grind with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) that runs the Tigray region. When the war started four weeks ago, the first to overrun Tigray were the Amhara—to reclaim a good chunk of land they rightly or wrongly believe is theirs. Abiy is now a hero among them. The TPLF failed to resolve the territorial disputes with the Amhara for long. It snubbed numerous peaceful requests to bring resolution to the dispute. That stubbornness is to be its undoing.

The potential threat to the federal system is the second reason for the war. Ethiopia’s ten regions that make up the federation are demarcated along language and ethnic lines. As much as this system has supporters, many vilify it, especially the urban elite. They argue that the system is the cause of the deadly conflicts among communities, and in some cases, it may have led to mass killings. Besides, they say, the federal system is breaking up Ethiopia, a nation that remained more or less intact for quite some time. Abiy and PP have their sympathies with this camp.

Supporters of multinational federalism see it differently. For them, the current system is a beacon of self-determination and a way of avoiding centralized hegemony. The TPLF is in this camp. Abiy and PP are bent on destroying the TPLF to pave the way for reforming the constitution and the federal arrangement. To what extent the reform will go and what the country will look like then, we can only wait and see. Again, the TPLF ignored the various calls to reform the system. For example, there is a genuine case for giving minorities that live within a larger region some kind of special status. The TPLF’s refusal to initiate such reforms is proving to be the cause for its fall from grace.

Seeking vengeance is the third likely reason for the war. TPLF and Abiy’s PP were in coalition under the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), governing the country for 28 years. Behind the high economic growth rates and relative peace during this period, the EPRDF committed grave human rights violations. Thousands were sent to prison. Many were tortured. Hundreds were shot dead in broad daylight. Not only the reports from international and local human rights organizations testify to these crimes, Abiy and his colleagues also apologized for what they have done. Abiy said it in parliament, “it’s we that tortured”. How did this lead to the war?

Well, when the victims sought justice, they got one. Abiy and PP blamed the TPLF, backing their accusations with ruthless propaganda. They arrested a few and issued warrants for the capture of other senior TPLF members. The victims see Abiy as the man delivering justice on their behalf, lending him their support unreservedly. This shrewd move angered and alienated the TPLF’s leadership who felt betrayed by their protégés. But it was more like a case of when one was pulling the nails; the other was passing the pincer with a smile.

Losses and gains in economic patronage make up the fourth reason. The EPRDF ran a “developmental state”. A sort of mixed economy where the state and party-affiliated enterprises take the larger share in the production and distribution of goods and services. Abiy and PP came up with a slightly different model. They announced a massive privatization scheme to sell off key firms—from the national airline and the telecom company to the railways and sugar factories. Abiy forged a new alliance with the international financial institutions, and he has some cosy deals going on with the royal family from the United Arab Emirates.

Personally, he is focused on the tourism sector, managing the construction of the new parks, museums and promenades in Addis Ababa under his pet project.

Abiy’s economic plan didn’t go down well with the TPLF’s leadership who claim to have a tradition of progressive and left-leaning approach to economic policymaking. Abiy’s change of direction meant that the TPLF members were losing the patronage they built over the years. Again, they could have been a little more compromising, given the country had not leapfrogged under the previous model either. Instead, they began to ridicule Abiy as a naive neoliberal enthusiast.

Finally, narcissism has something to do with it too. Simply put, there is a streak of an emperor in Abiy. More than once, he said he had known from the age of seven that he would become the king of Ethiopia. He said his mother had told him that. Another example is the book he published after he came to power. The promotion of the book was a national event. School children are urged to read it and their parents too. Abiy believes Ethiopia will be on the road to prosperity if only people read his book and follow him when he calls them from the pedestal.

Naturally, a heavily armed TPLF that undermined him by holding a regional election in Tigray, while he postponed it because of COVID-19, didn’t go down well with his persona. He wanted no more disregard for his kingdom. He decided to flex his muscles; to display his high-tech weaponry. The TPLF on its part could have gone along with the postponement of the election, if only it had been interested in the stability of the country. If only it had known how Abiy was planning and preparing for the conflict.

In the end, the former friends are not even able to sit down and resolve their differences. Rather, they divided the army along ethnic and ideological lines and chose to bomb and blast one another.

The military victories in the past week tipped the balance of power. Abiy and his PP colleagues are now in their last stage to eliminate the very people who groomed them and allowed them to be the politicians they are today. The irony is, without the TPLF, Abiy wouldn’t have come close to the palace. Unless what he had known since he was seven is true.

When the war ends, the insurgency will follow. Abiy and PP will go to great lengths to finish the job.

Fear for Ethiopia.

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This is the author’s viewpoint. However, Ethiopia Insight will correct clear factual errors.

An Ethiopian refugee and her child collect mats at a transit site in Hamdayet, Sudan; © UNHCR/Olivier Jobard

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About the author

Fassil Hailu

Fassil is a pen name for a regular Ethiopia Insight columnist. He is an independent analyst and writes on development and political economy, with a special focus on the Horn of Africa.

12 Comments

  • This is a great piece I enjoyed reading all of it . Thank you. I would like to emphasize on some of the issues you have raised . First of all it is true Abiy Ahmed wouldn’t be here if it was not for EPRDF and I also believe Lemma megersa played the biggest role in this but let’s not forget he had been sidelined like the TPLF. It is for sure that Abiy Ahmed wants to be the 7th king , it shouldn’t be taking lightly saying it was his mother’s wish like other mothers wish for their children, it is beyond and above that . But on his process of building his empire he knows he will not get support from the majority of Ethiopian people specially from Tigray & Oromia which are pro ethnic federalism in Ethiopia specifically on their power to exercise self determination, but on the other hand he have a popular support from the Amhara elite in general and the Amhara militia in particular, with the mind set of Unitarian & expansionist but one thing I don’t understand is if they are against the ethnic federalism ideology and believe in one & United Ethiopia why bother claiming territories I mean why does it matter if the land stays with Tigray or any other region ? I find them hypocrites . And we should all understand that the war in Tigray have nothing to do with law enforcement but rather it is a struggle for power , Abiy Ahmed waged the war because he found the TPLF a threat to his power and his dream to become a king . Secondly if it was for a mere reason of law enforcement why are different internal & external actors such as Eritrea, UAE drones , Somali & Amhara forces involved ? And why is this law enforcement of capturing 40-50 officials of TPLF targeting Tigrayans ? Non of Thai officials were captured but the Abiy announced victory on Nov 28 as soon as the federal forces took control of the capital city Mekelle, wasn’t this law enforcement against TPLf? And on another note why do we have 50,000 refugees flee to Sudan and more than one thousand killed and looted their property by Eritrea forces and Amhara forces ? And why did Abiy Ahmed denied the people of Tigray from getting humanitarian assistance when we have more than 2.3million children in need of food and medicine? And also why is he ethnic profiling and arresting ethnic Tigrayan? So the way I see it this was not about enforcing law but rather a genocide on Tigrayans.

  • Gowaa barre.
    The war started b/c supermacist TPLF attacked the northern command, simple as that. It made tigrayan soldiers betray their comarades, killed soldiers in their sleep, took soldiers that were defending it hostage, repeatdly lied about as it committed henious crimes on them.
    All the rest is muddying up the waters to absolve it of its crimes.
    And another thing, NO SUCH THING AS MULTINATIONAL FEDERALISM EXISTS IN ETHIOPIA. The so called federalism only exists on the constitution’s papers and was effectively used by TPLF to subjugate the people of Ethiopia. At least PP in action, writing and statements upholds the constitution and the federalsim dicatated by it.

  • Too many assumptions about what is the Amhara are for. The author seems to think that the PM has unqualified support by the wider Amhara. If one had a shred of truth in one’s mind, one would ask why Amhara are against a system of government which entirely is formed by excluding the Amhara and making them the punching bag for every ill the country faced.

    The lead up to the conflict was very oblivious for all who saw the developments from when the PM was elected. TPLF never had any intention for Abiy to come to power and once became the PM, TPLF made sure that the political landscape became riddled with mines to potentially blow up the leadership at early stage.

    If anything, the PM was seriously scrutinized by the larger portion of Ethiopians for his tolerance in the face of open and ugly belligerence by TPLF. The constant ethnic based clashes and targeting of the Amhara people in various parts of the country by OLF extremists with support of TPLF did indeed reached a point of do or die moment for the PM. Despite the PM being of Oromo heritage, he still is the leader of the country and responsible to at least protect the lives and properties of all equally.

    The deliberate omission of the final spark that triggered the war is also something that speaks volumes about the intentions of the writer. TPLF opened fire on the Northern Division Command of the ENDF which finally forced the PM to take counter actions to undo TPLF and its misguided adventure. If TPLF had the upper hand in this conflict we all wondered how fast the country could have descended in to an all out civil war.

    For those who cheer for ethnic federalism and identity politics, you all shall see how such a system is against minorities in the country while giving enormous influence to the ethnic groups with bigger size. Such a system was deliberately not practiced by TPLF while the party was at the helm controlling everything in the country. If such a system is genuinely be implemented , I see why the Amhara will be against it as some seem to think.

    Finally, like most mothers, Abiy’s mom had a great dream for her son and constantly told him that he would be the future king. I am not sure why this is portrayed as something in the negative. It is what mothers do ..to tell their children to be someone when they grow up, be it a doctor, a president, a king , a lawyer… or so big deal? no!

  • Ethnic federalism was fought to death by Tplf because it is the only way their small population of 6% could get equal voting rights at the federal table. That is how they would claim to be equally powerful as Amhara or Oromo.

    To defend such scheme, they used to spread narratives that would put the larger groups at each other’s throats. They would kill innocent Amhara and say “look what Oromos did…” and vice versa.

    Too bad they could not outsmart the likes of PM Abiy and the Oromo generals who came to Mekelle in order to shove the Ethiopian truth back at them. The truth that Ethiopia will remain a symbol of diversity under unity!

  • Good analysis and aptly summarized. I like follow of the ideas. Question (s) is : is there any peaceful recon option left on the table for the antagonizing parties? very unlikely. Isn’t there anyway to avoid a long drawn war, not only with Tigrai but with Nations and Nationalities such as Oromos and Somali in the federalism system? No chance , unless Abiy banished and new actors take over through elections or other means that can can turn things around, because he exsposed himself so much negative light in short period . It is only matter before the things take their natural course of civil war.

  • Oh, how easy it is to pontificate. Isn’t that the case always? You have erred on one of the most important points you are trying to make: that Abiy Ahmed somehow is a protege of TPLF and someone that was willingly accepted by TPLF. THAT’s factually wrong, and because it’s the central argument of this essay, the falsehood of that assertion debunks any other commentary that the author rovides.
    Fact– TPLF didn’t want Abiy to be the President of EPRDF. They didn’t want him to be in power. It was Shiferaw Shigute that they had wanted elected in the March 26th, 2018 internal party deliberation. TPLF knew there was no way Debre-Tsion Gebre-Michael (TPLF’s own suggested candidate) would have the necessary votes.
    The author conveniently forgets that there was a change coming no matter what. Around June 2016, a mass protest in Gondar was triggered by after an army officer refused to be captured and killed 10 federal police in Gondar. The officer had been instrumental in requesting a solution for Welkait and Tegede and Raya region which was gerrymandered away from Amhara region (specifically from Gonder) and added to Tigray region. Though I might be biased on this, there are confirmed reports of ethnic cleansing, ethnic reengineering of the area in Welkait, Tegede, and Raya to increase the population numbers of local Tigrayans. Though, the former point can be debated, what was sure was that there was strife that the officer tried to fight for and when the federal government tried to arrest him for inciting violence, the whole kegg blew back as he killed the 9 officers that were sent to arrest him. Learning of such an attempt on the Colonel, the population in Gondor went to the streets in thousands (estimated at one point around 100K). This is around August 2016 timeframe. At this point, a barricade starts being formed by Amhara milita not to allow commerce from Tigray to travel into Amhara region, though the two regions are neighbors.
    Four months from the protests in Amhara region, in broad daylight, on October 6, 2016, Aghazi soldiers (which is a Federal special police unit structured under the military and which heavily recruited its members to be from Tigray region, estimated at 90%) opened fire at crowds that had gathered to celebrate a Oromo traditional celebration in Bishoftu (Debre-Zeit) after the celebration event errupted into a protest against the government. Estimates for deaths conservatively were around 300 though there were reports of numbers as high as 500.
    If you are reading this up until now, you might wonder why the historical backdrop is necessary. Well, what the author seems to conveniently ignore is the challenge EPRDF faced around the 2015 and 2016 and how much that started an internal strife within the party’s structure- specifically the power wielded by TPLF (argument can be made undully and by autocratic and other times repressive schemes but I wont because one only has to look at the cables from WikiLeaks concerning Ethiopia to realize the repressive regime that was existent in Ethiopia around 2012. Around 2016, nothing had changed except Meles Zenawi was dead and still the same party, EPRDF was in power)
    The author seems to completely ignore the internal structure of EPRDF and how the balance of power within the structure was tilted towards TPLF. Though there were four parties that were each based on ethnicities, the representation on the selection of the president for the party was on equal vote grounds, although the actual composition of each party’s represented ethnicity within the general population had a large differences. For example, OPD and APD, which represent the Amhara and Oromo ethnicities, had 45 seats each, but the respective ethnicities are the largest 1st and 2nd in population size in the composition of Ethiopia, at 43% and 34% respectively. Contrast that with only 6% of Tigray citizens making up the population of Ethiopia.
    Within the backdrop of this fact, when the internal deliberations for President of EPRDF began in March 2018 after the PM’s resignation in February 2018, the OPD and APD made a deal behind closed doors without TPLF being aware of it. APD agreed to withdraw their candidate Demeke Mekonnen (which had been a vice prime minister for at least 10 years prior) so as not to split the vote when it came to the selection for president.

    This article makes it as if TPLF supported Abiy’s rise to power. That’s not true. The truth, at the end is that TPLF had no choice but to accept the change. SEPDM, the 4th party within the EPRDF coalition, put made a deal with TPLF for their candidate Shiferaw Shigute instead of Debre-Tsion Gebre-Micahel, TPLF’s candidate for the party’s presidency. At the selection, as stated, Demeke Mekonnen withdrew his candidacy, leaving the selection to three candidates: Shiferaw Shigute, Debre-Tsion Gebre-Micahel and Abiy Ahmed, OPD’s candidate.
    It’s good to note here, the vote conducted at the EPRDF’s executive selection of the president of the party was in secret. Maybe its hubris, but such a repressive regime such as EPRDF would abide by a democratic election scheme within its rank is mind boggling to me.
    As explained, the voluntary withdrawal of Demeke Mekonnen during the election proceedings in conjunction with some votes from SEPDM siphoned towards Abiy on top of all votes from ADP. At the end, TPLF was outmaneuvered. It’s a dishonest to suggest, like the author did, that TPLF wanted Abiy to be voted as their preferred candidate was Shiferaw Shigute.
    If what I described above is not enough, the parliament response (2 hours) that Abiy Ahmed gave on November 30, 2020 (available at EBC channel on youtube) should make it beyond doubt clear for any impartial observer that TPLF sought at every opportunity to oppose the policies of Abiy Ahmed, and was never a fan from the get go. To be fair though, it is curious then why TPLF would sign on with patching relations with Eritrea? This is the greatest mistery to me because I don’t believe Abiy Ahmed had the political capital and will within the EPRDF structure to convince TPLF to agree for a peace deal with Eritrea. I am not so sure that the only impetus for TPLF was the acceptance of the UN brokered peace deal that Meles Zenawi had agreed upon years back.
    Just one last note, for whoever wrote this article – it has the hallmarks of a non-ethiopian “Ferenji” tinge, start talking to Ethiopians before you make assessments that are baseless.

  • The misdeeds of the TPLF have been deliberately avoided. In fact, people thought Abiy was disturbingly patient and he was accused of unduly tolerating the evil TPLF. Now, we know why.

    The TPLF’s massacre of the northern command was the last nail on their coffin. Abiy had no choice he had to take them out and he did. What is left is labeling the TPLF as a terrorist organization. The leaders of TPLF deserve to be brought to face justice by the law of the land and ICJ for all the inhumane crime of genocide and ethnic cleansing in Welkait.

    Glad to see the TPLF old guard suffering the intense heat and excruciating cold in the Rocky Mountains of Tigray fleeing for their lives. They had been abusive and now they are forced to sleep on the dirt in the bushy mountain tops. The luxurious life style they have been enjoying is gone. Our hope is Abiy will capture them after some time and drag them by their noses to justice.

  • Nice analysis. However, the criticism on Abiy’s approach shifting from regional nationalism to pan-Ethiopian politician seems to be based on poor knowledge of the expectations from his two different roles/positions. This shift is required and expected of any federal official let alone the Prime Minster. To assume office at federal level the constitution requires one to be more loyal to national than regional interests. Thus, the shift from regional nationalism to Ethiopianism comes with the shift of his role from regional official to a national official.

  • I really doubt if the numbering of the points is correct. At least the second one should be at the first place. Mr. Abiy was left without choices when TPLF headed for elections alone. TPLF tried the brachial way and got a bloody nose. Hopefully this will make the way fee for broader reforms of the economy leading to the end of party monopoly in enterprises, more competition and cheaper prices for the people of Ethiopia. To get a good and cheap car from to say Germany to Ethiopia doubles the price at least.
    Mr. Abiy does not behave as a king, and what his mother has told him is the same as many mothers tell their children. 🙂 Mr. Abiy is a modern leader, a visionary, quite different from the typ of leader in the totalitarian times of Ethiopia. He put a lot of women in high positions. Supporting him in those times of the transition will bring the land forward. United, with the right reforms, the Ethiopia has a great future. Tribalism, political or ethnic, is an enormous brake – the TPLF is a best example in the recent time.

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