Viewpoint

Abiy promised Ethiopia’s democratization but is delivering its disintegration

Coercive centralization is fueling centrifugal forces.

Once hailed as a great reformer, a unifying voice for democracy, it is clear that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s push for a strong central state is causing Ethiopia to unravel.

Despite coming to power in 2018, following widespread youth protests and general public discontent, it now increasingly looks like Abiy’s assurances to implement democratic reforms were just a mirage of false promises masking his push for domination from Addis.

The country is enmeshed in a devastating civil war in Tigray, ethnic tensions are rising in the Amhara, Tigray, Oromia, and Benishangul-Gumuz regions, with armed insurgencies in the latter two regions, and an upsurge in civilian massacres in Tigray at the hands of the Ethiopian federal, Amhara regional, and Eritrean national forces. These destructive elements have left millions displaced, at risk of starvation, and embroiled in violent turmoil.

Not only does the situation highlight the weakness of the reform process, but it also demonstrates that Abiy’s mismanagement of a delicate transition has left the country at risk of a dangerous fragmentation along ethnic lines.

Given the volatility of the Horn of Africa, the fallout from Abiy’s failed leadership is a major threat to regional stability.

Flawed centralization

Ethiopia has a complex history that involves a long list of unitary heads of state who did not recognize the unique identities of its more than 80 ethnic groups.

A recent example is the Derg military dictatorship that reigned between 1974 and 1991 under Mengistu Hailemariam after overthrowing the imperial system. Mengistu’s regime not only consolidated all state power at the top, but also disregarded the needs and desires of local communities in an attempt to create a monolithic political system.

However, the assimilationist nationalism—’Ethiopia First’ was its slogan—that defined the Derg did not fare well, as it led to several ethno-national insurgencies and protracted civil war that would eventually overthrow the regime and its unitary system.

The Derg’s 1991 collapse led to the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) ethnic-based federal government structure comprising the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM), the Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organization (OPDO), and the Southern Ethiopian Peoples’ Democratic Movement (SEPDM) as the core regional ruling parties.

The premise of this new system was that by empowering ethnic groups through regional autonomy and instilling a constitutional right for “nations, nationalities, and peoples” to secede, multinational federalism would lead to genuine and greater national unity via voluntary collaboration.

However, Ethiopia’s federalist system started to wobble once long-simmering public discontent—initially stemming from land grabs around Addis Ababa and later broadened to include bad governance, political restrictions, and human rights abuses—led to the resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn in early 2018.

Despite being appointed to govern until the 2020 elections, his replacement, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, has sought to recentralize all state powers within the federal government thereby effectively undoing the multinational federation established in 1995. The so-called reform process involved the systematic sidelining of the TPLF from federal power and the demonization of its leaders, and so, by proxy, its people.

Despite claims of greater political pluralism and increased recognition of the cultural and linguistic rights of all Ethiopians, Abiy’s moves toward a  strong central state and brazen consolidation of power tell a different story.

As many marginalized communities view it, this move may lead them back to the oppressive and authoritarian leadership reminiscent of Mengistu’s authoritarian centralized state. Notwithstanding these misgivings, Abiy solidified his desire for such a state when he dissolved the multi-ethnic EPRDF and formed the Prosperity Party (PP), a pan-Ethiopian national party.

It could be argued that the change in Ethiopia’s political makeup is unconstitutional, as the undermining of the federal system, in which the major ethnic groups administer their own regions, denies the unconditional right of every nation, nationality, and people in Ethiopia to self-determination, including the right to secession. This change also comes at a time when scores of Ethiopia’s ethnic groups are calling for autonomy and the protection of cultural rights.

Ethiopia’s history with assimilationist nation-building during Haile Selassie’s reign demonstrates the cultural erasure that is likely to result from a strong centralized state and the political collapse that follows.

In fact, both Sudan and Somalia are also examples of unitary states that failed in their attempts to unify their people through assimilationist policies. These examples illustrate the tendencies of a centralized state to privilege certain groups and trigger fears that the ills that plagued Ethiopia’s previous assimilationist nation-building efforts may resurface.

Furthermore, by redistributing power and moving the country away from multinational federalism, rather than working alongside ethno-nationalist groups to assure all needs are met in an inclusive reform process, Abiy has barred any avenues to rescue the situation. As a result, he has forced ethnic groups and regional states to once again defend their constitutionally mandated rights by, in some cases, taking up armed resistance, as in Tigray, Oromia, and in Benishangul-Gumuz by Gumuz groups.

Ultimately, it was Abiy’s dilution of regional autonomy that laid the foundation for the civil war in Tigray. Given their commitment to multinational federalism—notwithstanding the shortcomings of the former federal leadership in respecting the self-determination rights of regional states—the TPLF refused to join the Prosperity Party on grounds that the merger was “illegal”.

This rejection made the TPLF the most vocal opponent to Abiy’s efforts to re-centralize all state powers. Tensions between Abiy’s administration and the TPLF-run regional government continued to escalate when Tigray moved forward with elections for its State Council despite the federal authorities’ postponement until up to a year after the pandemic subsided.

In refusing to adhere to Abiy’s deferral of federal elections, Tigray’s opposition exposed the postponement for what it was: an unconstitutional delay designed to prolong Abiy’s rule. As a result of the election, tensions between the two administrations continued to rise, with each rejecting the legitimacy of the other, and Abiy’s government implementing harsh measures (including blocking COVID-19 and locust assistance and diverting the regional budget) as a means to cripple Tigray.

The Tigray morass

Abiy’s inability to garner Tigray’s support in his efforts to consolidate power led to an internationalized civil war between the federal defense forces, with the cooperation of Eritrea’s army and Amhara forces, and, on the other side, Tigray’s regional government.

While Abiy cited the 3 November assault on Northern Command by Tigray regional forces as his rationale for deploying troops, there is strong evidence that Abiy’s administration was preparing to attack Tigray. These include reciprocal visits made by Abiy and Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki to each country’s military bases/training sites; attempts made by Abiy to reshuffle the military leadership of Northern Command; statements by Amhara officials on pre-war mobilization; and talks between Abiy and Sudanese officials to secure the Ethiopia-Sudan border as a means of blockading Tigray.

While Abiy presented the conflict as a quick law and order operation targeting only a few top TPLF leaders, the large-scale offensive, clearly designed to inflict massive damage on Tigray, has now turned into a gruesome, prolonged conflict that has sparked a humanitarian crisis.

Despite the deliberate communications blackout and limited access to Tigray, reports have emerged regarding atrocities committed by Ethiopian and Eritrean forces. Reports of wide-scale sexual and gender-based violence, weaponized starvation, civilian massacres, and indiscriminate violence are consistently being brought forth. Displacement is also hitting record numbers, with an estimated 2.2 million internally displaced and more than 60,000 people fleeing over the border to Sudan.

The worst may be yet to come. With talks of looming famine and no end in sight to ongoing war crimes, Tigray’s survival and the cohesion of the country are at risk.

Oromia insurgency

Abiy’s centralization efforts have also not fared well in his own region of Oromia, where many believe a strong central government will diminish the rights of an already marginalized group. While tensions have been festering in Oromia since Abiy’s transition away from multinational federalism, the region has experienced a sustained period of instability since the death of Hachalu Hundessa, a prominent Oromo activist and musician, in June.

Since then, unrest quickly spread across Oromia and to Addis Abeba, turning deadly with ethnic attacks and property destruction. Abiy attempted to mitigate the rise in violence by arresting political opponents his attorney general branded extreme ethnonationalists working to destabilize the country. However, the authorities’ attempt to thwart dissent by arresting thousands of opposition activists, politicians, and protesters has only furthered divisions.

The Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) is now Abiy’s most staunch critic and strongest opponent in the region. Once the armed wing of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), a political party established by Oromo nationalists to secure the self-determination rights of the Oromo people, the OLA broke away after its demands went unmet in a peace agreement forged between the Ethiopian government and the OLF in 2018. The group is currently involved in an armed insurgency, declaring its intention to fight for the self-determination rights of the Oromo people.

The OLA claims that the Ethiopian government is involved in the extrajudicial killings, arrests, violence, and detentions of OLA supporting Oromo civilians. However, Abiy’s administration has labeled the OLA a terrorist group responsible for the ethnic-based killings in the Oromo and Amhara regions. Regardless of each group’s demonization of the other, it is clear that Abiy’s political vision is furthering instability and fragmentation.

Amhara discontent

Once Abiy’s primary source of support, many people in the Amhara region have become fed up with the leader’s inability to safeguard against ethnic attacks. Ongoing clashes between members of the Amhara and Oromo ethnic groups have led to several civilian deaths. There are also reports of attacks against Amhara civilians and politicians in the South Wollo and North Shewa zones of the Amhara region.

The region has also been a hotbed of ethnic violence against other groups, as there are reports of targeted attacks against non-Amharas. These events have led to an unprecedented number of internal displacements, as many Ethiopians no longer feel safe outside of their own region. Taking into account the massive wave of violence and the instability in the region, Abiy instituted a state of emergency in the southern part of the region.

With many blaming OLA for the massacres, several ethnic Amharas condemn Abiy for his inability to protect Amhara civilians. On 20 April, hundreds of thousands across the Amhara region came out to protest against the targeted ethnic attack of Amharas. Protesters not only denounced the attacks but also called for the removal of Abiy’s Prosperity Party. The unrest is likely to threaten both peace and stability in the region, and potentially delegitimize the federal government, as Abiy’s newly formed Prosperity Party risks fragmentation if he loses a key ally in his ruling coalition.

Existential crossroads

As of late, there seems to be no end in sight to the ongoing war, ethnic strife, or armed insurgency. The Tigray Defense Forces vow to continue fighting until all invading forces leave Tigray and the legitimate government of Tigray is restored to power. Insurgency militias elsewhere remain steadfast in their fight against state authorities, and reports of ethnic-based persecution continue to rise. By refusing to address the concerns of groups loyal to the federal system, Abiy will continue to destabilize the country.

The dire situation has left the country at a crossroads, with a centralized state at one end and disintegration at the other. Given Ethiopia’s geopolitical significance, the negative impact of its disintegration would be massive for the entire Horn of Africa and further afield.

Thus, Abiy must decide whether his vision as supreme ruler is worth the potential collapse of Ethiopia and severe regional instability.

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

Main photo: PM Abiy Ahmed at a large rally supporting him and the reforms he made after taking power; Addis Abeba; 23 June 2018; Reuters

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About the author

Feven Girmay

Feven (Ph.D.) is a higher education researcher and administrator based in the U.S. She is also a member of the Global Society of Tigrean Scholars, an organization dedicated to uplift and develop the Tigray region.

15 Comments

  • Very interesting read and thought🙏🙏 language is not the end it is just the means ad far as amharic or any other language is concerned every language can be tuned to articulate peace or war and so I disagree on this point👍🙏

  • The writer of this article equates Sudan with Somalia on assimilation issue.Sudan
    had been heterogeneous nation before the break up of the former but Somalia has been homogenous nation-state.Somali nation pre-existed before the birth of Somali state. The root cause of Somali crisis has been the Somali territory occupied by Ethiopia empire.
    Somali fought with Ethiopia 1977/78 and defeated the oldest and strongest army in Sub-Sahara Africa.Th ex-Soviet Union
    and Cuba sided with Ethiopia and participated the Ogaden war. The withdrawal of Somali troops in Ogaden
    had weakned Somali state. This is core factor of intra-Somali war but not assimilation policy that Mogadishu regime implemented in Somali.The Somali nation in the Horn of Africa share the same language culture and socio-economic system.The Somali nations under Ethiopia empire and Kenya occupation that have been victims of assimilation imposed the former by Addis Ababa and Nairobi.

  • In Ethiopia the tradition of hierarchical organizations is entrenched. The movement from Haile Selassei to Mengistu to EPRDF to PP shows that the iron law of Abyssinian autocracy ensures that dictatorship reproduces itself even when an entirely new group comes to power.

    From the very beginning Abiy immediately embraced a dead absolute monarch emperor Menelik and a living autocrat Isayas of Asmara. Abiy is killing and maiming in all parts of Ethiopia. In Oromia prisons are full with the youth who brought him to power. He incarcerates young mothers with infants because the husbands have joined the resistance. In Tigray he invited Eritrean army to loot, rape, and kill Tigrayans, and destroy irreplaceable historical treasures in the region. In parliament Abiy acknowledged the rape, but did not denounce it. The Eritrean askari fascist army is now in Oromia. (Eritrea is colonizing Ethiopia on behalf of Egypt.)

    When the world cringes at the horror in Tigray and Oromia and asks Abiy to stop the war on his people, he screams about his sovereignty over Ethiopia. He thinks the Ethiopian people are his slaves with whom he can do whatever he wishes.

    The Ethiopian tradition of autocracy has the power to turn a democrat into a dictator. But Abiy was for autarchy from the very beginning. I realized this when in the first few months after coming to power he expressed his love for qine, the Amharic literacy form of hide and seek. Not all qine is bad, spiritual and social commentary qine are perhaps harmless. But political qine is a disaster. Democracy and qine cannot coexist. One requires transparency and honesty, the other requires secrecy and cunning. From the first beginning Abiy used qine to denounce the people of Oromia no less on the eve of the Ethiopian New Year as he celebrated it from Menelik palace. He let the qine read for him and the nation by a hired reciter.

    All Abiy does is qine. He praised the people of Tigray when he first visited the region, and majority of Tigrayans gave him their blessing. He reciprocated by declaring a vicious war on them because they run a local (not federal) election. He played qine on Europeans when he visited Eritrea to make peace, but actually he was making a war pact with dictator Esayas. He played qine with the UN general secretary telling him that Eritrean troops are not in Ethiopia, but just getting their territory back. He tells Ethiopians that Eritrea will federate with Ethiopia while letting Eritrea occupy Ethiopia and wage a vicious war of vendetta in many parts of Ethiopia. He is letting Eritrea prepare Ethiopia for colonization by Egypt. When he plants trees, build parks, fills cabinet positions with women, he is playing qine. Unfortunately, Ethiopians are brainwashed into admiring those who play qine on them. They trade truth and goodness for stupid art form.

    If Ethiopia survives Abiy, and another chance to democratize arises, the first thing to do is to prohibit political qine by law. Actually, Amharic should not be the federal language of Ethiopia. It should be restricted to regional use. Amharic is a language of violence, soldiers, autocracy, chauvinism and qine. It has no tradition of democracy. None whatsoever. People give their children names such as: Qitaw (punish them), Demelash (blood avenger), Shibru (the terror), Ashebir (terrorize them), and Gizachew (rule over them). You can see where Ethiopian intransigence and refusal to solve internal problems peacefully come from.

    Democracy requires an enabling culture which in turn requires an enabling language. Amharic does not do it. Any other Ethiopian language randomly selected as a national language is much better. But because of jealousy no other Ethiopian language will get a wide support. The best solution is to have English as the national language of Ethiopia.

    • Tesfu Baisa

      It absolutely makes sense.. The truth is we are what we made and molded of or grown up linguistically. culturally, environmentally, speaking and othe sets of societal values beliefs and notms such as the vertical (hierarchical) or horizontal/circular (egalitarian) power structure.. Definitely, a rigid hierarchical and patriarchal tradition system is deeply embedded in our values and social psyche that invariably imacts the way we conduct ourselves.tiday., our leaders We should curb languages values and vocabulary attributesld to the rampant violence, deceit, militaristic notion and subjugation of others. Amharic tongue has primarily such peculiarity. It should be limited Its use to the Orrthodox Church and in Amhara region if we want to break with the past and live in p.eace.

      • Dont forget popular traditional and belligerent Amharic namesakes like Abiyot or Abiy ( revolution), Yifraw ( the feared one),, Kengnaw ( avenger), Giffaxhaw ( pusher or beater),,,etc.

    • Very interesting read and thought🙏🙏 language is not the end it is just the means ad far as amharic or any other language is concerned every language can be tuned to articulate peace or war and so I disagree on this point👍🙏

  • what is to be done now that so many horrific atrocities have already taken place in Tigrai so far ? eternal fighting on the part of the government is self-destruction; The only way out is to listen to the advice of the whole world, forget his useless die-hardness, acknowledge his mistakes and exit the war. This,I believe, is a way a sagacious leader would follow.

  • Sadly, Tigrey🇻🇳went through horror & genocide that initiated by Tpft leaders’ political gamble & PP ruling leaders. PP leaders assumed securing to Ethiopia’s long-term power only block were Tpft politicians in Tigrey nation. it ended up big trap both of them fall down & Ethiopia as well🇪🇹.
    However, in this stage, PM Abiy to save himself, he should let go🇻🇳Tigrey referendum🇻🇳an option to have 🇻🇳independent Tigrey🇻🇳before the rest of Ethiopia🇪🇹disintegrates.
    There’s also the need to have a new constitution of🇪🇹,in the long run,

    🇪🇹Confederation nations of Ethiopia🇪🇹

  • Sorry, my bad. Let me rephrase my two cents correctly lest some of people misunderstood the content. I wrote it hastily and in clumsy way before

    First of all. I don’t get until now how a new poitical party becomes legit if only it supplants on or co-opts with an existing another party political without changes of its rules, bylaws, structures,etc , not to menion the ideological underpinnings and keeping with the same old personalities and cadres. So the TPLF, with all its shortcomings was right all along in calling the spate an spate.
    Secondly, Abiy aspires to become a full fledged autocratic ruler deluded with some theocratic musings: the notion of great Gospel accordig to Abiy. . The writings have on the wall for sometime to see it. He obfuscates.he plays seek and hide political and public persona. he runs around in circles but he can’t hide from this fact. Thirdly, Abiy is opposed or not committed to a workable multinational federlaism model and he is animus to the current constitution and any idea of democratic norms . He would dismantle or delute it in the first opportunity. The upcoming sham elections would probably serve be such purpose of illegitimate uindertaking. Brace for the worest to come’

  • First of all. I don’t get until now how a new poitical party becomes legit if only it supplants on or co-opts with an existing another party without changes of its rules and bylaws, structures,etc not to menion the ideological underpinnings abd with the same old personalities and cadres. So the TPLF, with all other its shortcoming right was right along calling spate an spate.
    Secondly, Abiy aspires to become a full fledged autocratic ruler with deluded with some theocratic musings: the great Gospel accordigto Abiy. . The writings have on the wall for sometime. He obfuscates.he plays seek political and public persona and runs around in circles but he can’t hide from this fact.
    Thirdly, Abiy is opposed to a workable
    multinational Federlaism and he is nimus to te current constitution . He would dismantle or delute in the first opportunity. The upcoming sham elections would probably serve be such such purpose and illegitimate uindertaking. Brace for the worest come’

  • It has been said that Abiy is opposed to “ethnic federalism”, however it is now apparent that Abiy is not opposed to “ethnic cleansing” of Tigray people, when Abiy gave Amhara militia a free hand to terrorize and forced over 60,000 Tigray people to flee to the Sudan as refugees. These Tigray people have no hope of returning to their towns and villages, as this act of wholesale ethnic cleansing is expected to remain in effect. Ethnic cleansing is classified as a crime against humanity – along with all the other gruesome atrocities, willful destruction, and using deprivation of food as a weapon. From the promise of a hopeful future three years ago, Ethiopia has turned into a horror story of chaos and tragedy in Horn of Africa, with the help of a vengeful Isaias.

  • Definition of Federalism from Wiki – “compound mode of government that combines a general government with regional governments in a single political system”

    The Ethiopianists whom ethnic nationalists characterize as Unitarists actually believe in the above definition of federalism. They understand that Ethiopia is a place of diverse religions and cultures. So the so-called assimilation by Amhara is just simply false. They just need an alternate and more realist federalism where all ethnic groups can live without feeling like outsiders in the places where they are born.

    Ethnic Federalism does not work in Ethiopia because all the cities represent a mingling of every group. Nobody has the right to claim a city as its own. How crazy would it be to see white people claiming London as their native land and calling the others outsiders? Please stop talking about ethnic federalism like it is a true federalism.

  • Very strong ideas presented in this writing. The unelected Abiy Ahmed has brought a major power house in the HOA to a point of no return. Ethiopia, whether she stands United or not in the aftermath, will not ever forget this tragic time in history. Abiy Ahmed is Ethiopia’s last straw.

  • Very insightful article, explains in detail the current situation in Ethiopia. Dr. Abiy was supposed to be the one to lead Ethiopia in the right direction. This lead has done just the opposite. We need the war on tigray to stop, the mass rapes the mass executions.

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