Viewpoint

Abiy’s botched centralization fuels Ethiopia’s feuding centrifugal forces

The only way forward for Ethiopia is allowing greater autonomy.

The “indefinite humanitarian truce” declared by the federal government on 24 March was welcomed by Ethiopia’s international partners, but led to highly divergent predictions.

For some, it brought “a glimpse of hope“, “a cautious optimism”, and is a “first step towards a complicated peace”, indicating that the time for talks finally seems to be upon us.

For others, Addis Abeba’s covert goal is buying time to prepare for new military offensives. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed wanted a ‘humanitarian truce’ to “camouflage his military plans. He just recently rearmed. He wants blood,” claimed Rashid Abdi, a prominent analyst.

Let’s try to start with the facts.

First of all, for four months, the Tigrayans have not gone on the offensive again to try and break the blockade. Two explanations, which are not mutually exclusive, spring to mind: (1) They do not have the military strength to do so, and (2) The Tigrayan leadership continues to hope that the secret talks with Addis Abeba will eventually succeed.

According to credible diplomatic sources, these discussions expanded to involve Tigrayan and federal military commanders and then, despite denials by both sides, at least one extensive phone exchange between Abiy and Debretsion Gebremichael, Tigray’s president.

But only Addis Abeba and Mekelle were reportedly negotiating, without involving or even consulting, other Ethiopian parties—let alone Asmara.

The parties set out the terms of a 30-day cessation of hostilities, the specifics of lifting the blockade, the continuation of negotiations to achieve a permanent ceasefire, and, beyond that, an attempt to address Ethiopia’s fundamental political problems. It was agreed that it would be made public simultaneously in Addis Abeba and Mekelle, thus committing both to its terms.

Suddenly, however, the Ethiopian government unilaterally announced on 24 March the “indefinite humanitarian truce” with the purpose to “ensure the free flow of emergency humanitarian aid to all those in need of assistance.”

Once again, Abiy had reneged on his commitments.

A truce is a time-limited suspension of fighting, often for humanitarian reasons. A ceasefire is more formal, commits both sides, and normally opens the path to peace talks.

By declaring a truce—notably without specifying its geographical scope, the practicalities of its implementation, and any plans to advance the negotiations—Abiy distanced himself from the agreement with Mekelle and released himself from the obligations of a cessation of hostilities.

Conflicting imperatives

Yilkal Kefale, president of Amhara, which is governed by Abiy’s ruling party, reiterated bellicose statements against the TPLF last month. Two days before the truce, he said that the goal was to “conclude the war” and claimed “the plan to finish it has been concluded and the ENDF is working on it.”

In late February, Gedu Andargachew, former Amhara president and Abiy’s national security adviser, said that because TPLF’s threatening activity continued, “the war is not over yet.”

According to the website Tghat, Awol Arba, president of the Afar region and a staunch supporter of Abiy, stated strong opposition to aid getting into Tigray, due in part to the TDF occupation of parts of Afar.  Thus, it is likely that the Amhara and Afar leaders got wind of the Addis Abeba-Mekelle agreement, leading Abiy to change his plan.

The prime minister is caught between competing interests.

First, he faces Western pressures, particularly from the US, and the additional risks posed by SR.3199 in the Senate and H.R.6600 in the House of Representatives. Those bills threaten to cut off funds to Ethiopia, except for humanitarian purposes, and require the US government to defend this position in international financial institutions.

UK Minister recently said that across Ethiopia “almost 30 million are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance.” This proportion of vulnerable people is more than double that of a ‘normal’ year. In addition to the fighting, the drought is the worst since 1981. Those in need cannot be helped without massive donor support.

Despite Abiy’s pipe dreams, the economy is collapsing.

Annual food inflation is above 40 percent, creating a risk of hunger riots. No improvement in the economic situation is likely without sustained foreign assistance, both public and private, which Western governments typically provide.

Signs of mistrust between Abiy and the Amhara elite, a key pillar of his coalition, are multiplying, and so are gaps with Asmara.

Last but not least, one should not lose sight of other fronts that Abiy might for now consider even more threatening than Tigray.

The main one is Oromia and the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), now active around Ambo, about 100 kilometers from Addis Abeba. If Abiy wanted time to rearm, this is perhaps to intervene there more than in Tigray. The government has launched a campaign to eliminate the “terrorist” group, said the national broadcaster on 9 April.

 

Amid another major ongoing operation against OLA, it is clear that Tigray is no longer the only military front for Addis Abeba. But the destruction of the TPLF remains a top priority for the Asmara-Amhara axis, as is the removal of Isaias’ regime for the TPLF.

Abiy has no option but to try and manage these conflicting imperatives. In this case, if the current balance of power persists, he would modulate the situation daily, keeping Tigray on life-support—but not allowing it to recover.

In other words, he would allow enough humanitarian aid to resist pressure from the West, and make sufficient concessions to prevent the TPLF from resorting to a military option, but not concede too much to avoid cutting himself off even more from the Asmara-Amhara axis.

In practice, this involves making a few tactical concessions but otherwise continuing the strategy of strangling Tigray via the blockade. This approach is confirmed by the lack of any sign of actual unrestricted aid access to Tigray: less than 150 trucks have reached Mekelle more than a month after the “humanitarian truce”, despite TDF now withdrawing from Afar.

Economic leverage

There are some immediate lessons to be learned from Abiy’s retreat.

Roland Kobia, the EU ambassador in Ethiopia, tweeted after a meeting with Foreign Minister Demeke Mekonnen that in the face of the “current political situation… dialogue and engagement are key for better understanding and finding solutions.” In fact, the opposite is true: sanctions and the threat to increase them were probably decisive in bringing about this truce.

The economic and humanitarian hurdles have become key.

As the overall situation continues to worsen, more fiscal pressure on Abiy’s government should get additional concessions, especially on humanitarian aid. But, the prevailing tone from Western diplomats does not seem to be hardening, except perhaps from the US Congress or Samantha Power, USAID’s administrator.

During her meeting with Finance Minister Ahmed Shide, Power stressed that “much more can be done to facilitate significant and sustained humanitarian access to all Ethiopians in need,” without mentioning the need for a total withdrawal of TDF from Afar and Amhara.

The $300-million World Bank grant to the finance ministry, appraised by the European Commission as “premature” and possibly “counterproductive”, displays a lack of coordination among the Western powers.

The second lesson is that Abiy has had to postpone, at least for the time being, his plans to bring down the TPLF militarily. He has de facto recognized that the party will continue to rule Tigray and that he has no choice but to play the long game by continuing to blockade the region. His ambition to secure his authority over the whole of Ethiopia has been stymied.

The final lesson is that Abiy is not totally bound by the Amhara nationalists and their more or less autonomous armed groups. Rashid Abdi predicted that “Abiy cannot deliver on truce… war has already been hijacked by ethnic militias.” Yet, even the Amhara elite had to grudgingly accept the compromise inherent in the truce.

What did they get in return? Probably a freer hand over Western Tigray to satisfy their irredentist thirst.

It is doubtful that it was only by chance that Getachew Jember, Amhara’s vice-president, led a delegation of 600 people in early April from all over the region to visit Welkait-Tegede-Setit-Humera Zone. He said: “We will work to legalize the territorial and identity issue” of the area. It was the same day that the first aid convoy in three and a half months reached Mekelle.

One worthwhile hypothesis is that Amhara nationalists may also have received assurances of stronger engagement against OLA. Amhara elites are increasingly vocal in denouncing the rise of Oromo nationalism, of which they consider OLA the most threatening component.

Regarding conflicts in the Oromo Special Zone in Amhara, one Amhara security official recently said: “We have to speak up and fight before we die.”

Contradictory information   

Presently, the information coming out is so biased and contradictory that it has become nearly impossible to decipher the truth.

For instance, there is no reliable information on the status of military forces—ENDF, TDF, OLA, and so on—such as size, weaponry, and morale.

In what appeared to be a leaked audio, General Tsadkan Gebretensae, a member of TDF’s Central Command,  said that Abiy’s “military capability is under severe crisis.” According to him, Tigray’s army is now stronger as the youth fighters who reached Debre Sina during last year’s march to the capital “have become soldiers.”

On the other hand, Birhanu Jula, ENDF’s Chief of Staff, retorts that the Tigray forces “suffered huge morale damage”; it is so weakened that it had to “hire a lot of mercenaries.”

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This, of course, is classic wartime propaganda.

When Tsadkan claims, in the audio, that there is “communication on a daily basis” between him, Tadesse Werede—TDF’s top commander—and Birhanu, the ENDF supremo denied it and played on the word “meet” by declaring that “I didn’t meet with a person called Tsadkan.”

Debretsion addressed a pressing appeal to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to end the siege and warned that “if peaceful options are no longer viable, we will be forced to resort to other means to break the devastating blockade.”

Tsadkan, on the other hand, said, “we don’t expect anything from others [international partners].” He further said that Addis is so weakened militarily, economically, and diplomatically that it would have no choice but to negotiate.

Fresh settlement

We must try to look beneath this froth at deeper currents.

Over the longer term, the question is whether this truce marks the first step towards at least an incremental pacification of Ethiopia. This would mean assessing the impact on the country’s fundamental problems and the heart of the crisis, namely, constructing a new way of living together between the country’s 80 or so “nations, nationalities, and peoples.”

The bigger picture behind this truce is increasingly bleak. Fragmentation is the major dynamic in Ethiopia today. That has led to, among others, the proliferation of local baronies with more or less autonomous control over fairly extensive territories.

Regional state and non-state armed groups are militarizing to assert themselves. According to credible sources, the total of all regional forces plus Fano and equivalents is now double the size of the ENDF, without even counting the kebele militias.

These centrifugal forces are inseparable from the rise of increasingly fanatical identity-based sentiments, at least among the main ‘nations’ of Ethiopia. They include a general feeling by multiple communities of being besieged and the victim of genocide.

It’s highly symptomatic and symbolic that one of the strongest unifying links in Ethiopian society, the religions, particularly the Orthodox and Catholic churches, has been tested due to ethnic rifts. More recently, there has also been sectarian violence against Muslims in Gonder.

These feelings are inseparable from an increasingly pronounced irredentism: almost all kilils have territorial claims on other kilils that border them. All this leads to a growing conflict in this centrifugal process, marked by the intensification and multiplication of deadly clashes, where armed forces of all kinds confront each other in an increasingly barbaric manner.

The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project assessed that “conflict events” increased by 161 percent in 2021. The federal government and almost all regional states have long since lost their monopoly on violence.

As this indicates, we are dangerously close to a confrontation of all against all.

According to Ezekiel Gebissa, an Oromo academic and activist, the main danger for Ethiopia is no longer balkanization, but what he calls “rwandization”.

Last but not least, Ethiopia has de facto lost large parts of its sovereignty. With the weakening of the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF), the Eritrean army is one of the strongest in the Horn, and it occupies parts of Tigray.

Asmara is rumored to have gained a strong position in Ethiopia’s security services. Meanwhile, it is bypassing Addis Abeba to forge increasingly close political and military links with parts of the Amhara elite.

Eritrea’s long-held strategy towards Ethiopia remains unchanged: to destroy the TPLF and make Tigray its hinterland, while at the same time weakening Ethiopia, whatever the cost, to the point where Isaias can play the puppet master, pulling the strings behind the scenes.

Centrifugal forces

This violent scattering is too far-reaching to expect that what remains of the central power could find the strength to put the country back together.

Whether we like it or not, the events of the last few years have answered the key conundrum: where can a possible answer to the existential question at the heart of the crisis in Ethiopia be found? It now appears that Ethiopia can only reach some order in a very loose ethnic federation. Fighting this reality would only intensify the centrifugal dynamics to the point of balkanization.

Tigray is a showcase in this regard. Getachew Reda, who was previously a strong supporter of keeping the region in the federation, had to admit that the main popular demand among the Tigrayan public now is independence or “statehood”, particularly among what he calls “the resistance.”

It is often said that the so-called Amhara ‘hegemonists’ or ‘expansionists’ would be united in their opposition to such a loose federation. But this is only partly true.

First, the gap is growing between the most radical Gonder Zone and the more moderate Gojjam, Shewa, and Wello zones.

Second, one must also consider the meteoric rise of Amhara nationalism, the refocusing of the Amhara pan-Ethiopian vision on ‘Amharawinet’, and its gradual impact.

Informants in Amhara Shewa, when recently asked about what people around them were thinking, reported more or less the following: “We thought and acted more like Ethiopian citizens than Amhara. Because of this, we have not been able to come together and organize ourselves, be strong as Amhara, and resist the invasion of the Woyane. Our priority now must be to build a strong Amhara nation.”

They added: “Let the Tigrayans do what they want to do at home, trying to go as far as Mekelle is absurd, all we want is to take back our territories that they are occupying.”

Desalegn Chane, former president of the National Movement of Amhara, an Amhara nationalist party, was asked: “If you had to choose, who would you stand for, Ethiopia or Amhara?” His answer was convoluted: “Amhara can serve as a center and can advocate for the rights of other nationalities while fighting for its own rights as well.”

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This is a far cry from the original goal of de-ethnicizing the federal system.

Finally, the fact that Gonder mainly seeks and finds more support in Asmara than in Addis Abeba says a lot about the identity-based withdrawal of parts of the Amhara elite and therefore the strength of the trend towards seeking more autonomy.

Abiy has always fought that trend—probably not for any ideological reason, however, but due to opportunism. This trend is the main obstacle to his personal ambition of becoming a true nationwide ruler. His personal position weakens with each passing day, so he maneuvers on a day-to-day basis to try to survive, but with no consistent direction.

His struggle, paradoxically, accelerates the autonomist trend.

The foreseeable failure of the farcical so-called “national dialogue” and the mass offensive against OLA confirm once more Abiy’s military adventurism. For him, “there is a military solution to political problems,” despite the disasters that his military adventures led to, said Ezekiel.

Oromo first

If we assess Abiy’s record and compare the state of the country today to what it was in April 2018, there is no area of sustained positive development.

His Prosperity Party is undermined by divisions, within or between its regional branches. The PP’s general assembly had already demonstrated these fractures.

Unable to map a way out of the crisis, it could only agree on formulations that could be read as everything and its opposite: nation-building must be based on “a strong foundation of Ethiopiawinet on multinational fraternity” or “national unity based on multinational federalism.”

The ‘Oromara’ alliance is well and truly dead, as evidenced again by the recent surge of fighting on the Amhara-Oromia border, mainly in the Oromia Zone of the Amhara Region and West Wellega. The war of words between the two sides is also raging.

Oromia Broadcasting Network, Oromia region’s media, interviewed a West Wellega official who said: “Amhara extremists have taken Oromo land by force, to settle on it, and cultivate it.”

When a Fano chief said that “the main war is yet to start,” he must have this confrontation in mind.

Finally, there is general disenchantment.

Probably the majority of the population no longer supports the war with TPLF. Even the main wing in the diaspora, the “conservatives” who idolized Abiy, turned their back on him, mainly after they were shocked by the release of Sebhat Nega, a TPLF co-founder.

Some even believe that the war in the north has been launched to weaken the Amhara and bring the Oromo closer to hegemony.

If Abiy is still in power, it is mainly thanks to the weakness of his opponents. They are too divided to achieve the weight that their numbers should give them. With no signs that a credible roadmap or a strong opposition leadership will emerge, it is hard to see how Ethiopia can recover.

In the interim, as long as these opponents consider Abiy useful during this reshaping, they will not really threaten his position.

It appears that only the Oromos can be the driving force behind Ethiopia’s recovery, because of their numbers and Oromia’s relatively valuable natural endowment. They are also, above all, the main proponents of the ethnic federalist vision.

What appears to be a must is a two-stage construction of a common front that would implement this ethnic federalist project. First, between the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), and OLA. Then, this intra-Oromo coalition would need to form a strong alliance with like-minded ethno-nationalist forces from other regions.

However, this is a responsibility that the Oromo have historically never managed to assume—and that Abiy will do everything in his power to prevent.

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

Main photo: Main photo: Armed Fano members in Mota, East Gojjam Zone; December 2021; Mota City Communication Bureau.

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Published under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. Cite Ethiopia Insight and link to this page if republished.

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About the author

René Lefort

René has been writing about sub-Saharan Africa since the 1970s and reported on the region for French newspapers. He is now a researcher and publishes in academic titles such as The Journal of Modern African Studies.

12 Comments

  • The war on Tigray is the culmination of a long running Amhara and Tigray antagonism, going back to the time of Eritrea’s war of secession, and then the ethno-federalism put in place that was generally accepted as a political settlement and a practical response to the rise of identity politics at that time. The description the Rwandization of Ethiopia alluded to in the article refers to the infamy and the tragedy of tribal warfare.

  • Looks fair commentary eventhough it would have been much better if folks like Rene’ LeFort, who have written a extensively about this topic, moved away from Abyssinian- centric prospective (mainly of the North and Highlanders ) and to a broad and holistic analysis. But then again, such views were conditioned. cultivated and fed to expats by the sectarian scholars. exclusionist policy makers and other ethnic bureaucrats who predominantly hail from those same regions in the last hundred years .
    True, the botched and ill-thougjt power centralization policy intent of Abiy has gravely exasperated the ongoing political situation and ethnic conflicts. If anything, the only binding thread and common ground among the diverse nations, nationalities and regins of centrifugal forces is the hope of strengthening and maintaining the federalism system status quo , but not the vice versa. If observation and actions of the last few years to go by, Abiy is hell-bent to undermine this idea by commission or omission. And the big motivating is political centralization by any means necessary. Amharas groups whether extremists or moderates were the only other centripetal forces along with his solo, destructive mission to undo it except few political opportuinsts of every shape,color and background in the Property Party outfit. What’s more, even Amhara extremists are disvowing his approach and leadership style lately and not because his not an aspiring autocrat or centralist figure but because of not doing enough and fast enough to complete the circle. The sad thing is that as one tries hard to appease and reward an extremist mindset, the more he pushes and demands for the same . Sooner or later, he should realize the unattainable task of spoonefeeding or rather fingerfeeding to a hungry lion.
    Furthermore. I am not in the view that the old empire’s unravelling would come from Isias, outsiders , foreign invasions or any sort. as some would argue incessantly. It would come within its own rotten socio-economic disparity, ethnic ravelry and lack of good governance or visionary leadership. Of course, some elements will be an external nature but this is an overblown and outdated fear believed and propagated by Habesha elites, who were long dependent on foreign help or intervention to cling on power since Menilik.

  • Looks fair commentary eventhough it would been much better if folks Rene’ LeFort, who have written a extensively about this topic, moved away from Abyssinian- centric prospective (mainly of the North and Highlanders ) and to a broad and holistic analysis. But then again, such views were conditioned. cultivated and fed to expats by the sectarian scholars. exclusionist policy makers and other ethnic bureaucrats who predominantly hail from those same regions in last hundred years .
    True, the botched and ill-thougjt power centralization policy intent of Abiy has gravely exasperated the ongoing political situation and ethnic conflicts. If anything, the only binding thread and common ground among the diverse nations, nationalities and regins of centrifugal forces is the hope of strengthening and maintaining the federalism system , but not the vice versa. If observation and actions of the last few years to go by, Abiy is hell-bent to undermine this idea by commission or omission. And the big motivating is political centralization by any means necessary. Amharas groups whether extremists or moderates were the only other centripetal forces along with his solo, destructive mission to undo it except few political opportuinsts of every shape,color and background in the Property Party outfit. What’s more, even Amhara extremists are disvowing his approach and leadership style lately and not because his not an aspiring autocrat or centralist figure but because of not doing enough and fast enough to complete the circle. The sad thing is that as one tries hard to appease and reward an extremist mindset, the more he pushes and demands for the same . Sooner or later, he should realize the unattainable task of spoonefeeding or rather fingerfeeding to hungry lion.
    Furthermore. I am not in the view that the old empire’s unravelling would come from Isias, outsiders , foreign invasions or any sort. at some would argue incessantly. It would come within it’s own rotten socio-economic disparity, ethnic ravelry and lack of good governance or visionary leadership. Of course, some elements will be an external nature but this is an overblown and outdated fear believed by Habesha elites, who were long dependent on foreign help or intervention to cling on power since Menilik.

  • Grear article, thank you.
    Cannot deny that Ethiopia is a land of a million issues without a single viable solution. Ethiopia has no independent thinking institutions and this is a big trouble. Ethiopia has no non biased or impartial politician or citizen today. The old age tribal issue would have persisted regardless of the Ethnic Federalism setup by TPLF. So Ethiopia today has THE PERFECT STORM. Western intervention of financial support will only lengthen the misery by keeping the status quo and UAE, TURKEY, & IRAN’S drones will also sustain the dowward spiral……

  • Again it is one long biased analysis, without external players this conflict wouldn’t have existed, the war is the interest of external actors not Ethiopian from any corner, no one wanted to fight. TPLF were war mongering hoping the support of US, Getachew reda clearly said that on their own TV. Oromo people have no interest fighting the government the so called OLA is the product of a parti with in Abiys partie, OLA killed many civilians not only Amhara it massacred Oromo as well ,OLA doesn’t have public support. Amhara forces,militias,special forces armed to defend themselves as attack on Amhara kept increasing for the last 30 years.

    Eritrean president Isayas Afeworki is consistent with his policy against TPLF which Abiys party don’t have, for that matter Isayas is very popular among TPLF real victims that include Amhara people. From the Amhara people perspective TPLF is fair and square enemy ,that is not based on wrong assumptions, what TPLF have done, said and plans as well as its authorities ,supporters hatful approach.. for these matters and more Eritrea and Ethiopians share common interest, both people have the interest of their future without TPLF and its political ideology.

    TPLF dominance around East African politics is well and truly over

  • The conclusion seems that the TPLF gets food and the Amhara gets the Wilkie , at least in the short run!
    But why did the writing missed the possibility of TPLF Eriteria going into new direct clash ? Does the Russia Ukraine war brigs support to TPLF to fight Isaias Afework as he is the supporter of Putin ?
    Is there a possibility of splitting Amharas region , at least Wollo and Agew ?
    I think something different may brewing as the prodded is so complex !

  • The natural solution is dismantling the Ethiopian empire that was put together with the help of European colonisers.

  • It is hard to imagine a more complex situation than the one very well described here by René Lefort. It is also impossible to imagine how a satisfying solution can be found as long as ethnicity remains such a powerful force in Ethiopia. Clearly, a totally new vision for the country is needed. For those interested I include below a letter I wrote to the Financial Times (published on 23 December 2021) – “Ethiopia needs a new model to heal its ancient divisions” – which suggests that geography and a new “geo-constitution” based on river basins should be at the heart of efforts to restore peace and build prosperity. Such a “geo-constitution” was discussed after the fall of the Derg, but Meles decided instead on new constitution based on ethnicity which is clearly the root of today’s problems.

    https://www.ft.com/content/4db68c3f-3b02-4e9d-859e-910fa0d1d8ea

    The seed of this idea came from Ethiopia expert Professor Kjetil Tronvoll of Oslo university when he wrote in War & the Politics of Identity in Ethiopia (2009) “geographical community is [still] a much more salient source of identity and object of loyalty for the highlanders than an ethnic or clan affiliation”. Indeed, the rallying cry and slogan for the first Tigrayan uprising in 1941, adopted decades later by the TPLF, expresses this geographical source of identity: arriena gereb — “we have united around our rivers”.

    FT Letter (23/12/21):

    There is one line in your editorial on Ethiopia (FT View, December 22) that should put all Africa watchers on high alert: “When the fighting does eventually end, it may be difficult to put Ethiopia back together again”. History shows us just how difficult that might be as the country has collapsed before with devastating long-term consequences.

    The first collapse of the centralised state, beginning in the seventh century, resulted in Ethiopia’s “Dark Ages” lasting until the restoration of so-called Solomonic rule and central control in 1270. The most recent collapse, in 1769, ushered in the Zemene Mesafint, the “Age of the Princes”, when regional lords fought for control of the centre to become Negus Negaste or King of Kings (Emperor), a chaotic period lasting until reunification and the founding of modern Ethiopia by Emperor Tewodros in 1855. Since then successive emperors, juntas and prime ministers have held the country together (with the exception of breakaway Eritrea) by force, which current leader Abiy Ahmed is now attempting.

    In a recent essay in Foreign Affairs magazine, “Can Ethiopia survive?”, Nic Cheeseman and Yohannes Woldemariam write “whichever way the current conflict plays out . . . the survival of the Ethiopian state will require the country’s leaders to devise a new vision for the country — one they currently seem incapable of delivering”.

    The three post-imperial “visions” for Ethiopia include a Marxist state (1974-1991), a federal republic divided into nine ethnic states (1994-2018) and now, under Abiy, a united, capitalist Ethiopia. None of these have healed the country’s ancient divisions nor fulfilled its huge potential.

    To avoid another Zemene Mesafint, the only realistic vision for holding such a vast, diverse, ecologically fragile and climate vulnerable territory together must be based not on history, ideology or ethnicity but on geography where people unite around nature.

    Kenyans understand this. Their decentralising landmark 2010 constitution divides Kenya into 47 counties with clearly defined geographical boundaries aimed at fostering “participatory governance, inclusive and sustainable development, human rights and the rule of law”. Such a “geo-constitution” could work well in Ethiopia by using the country’s 12 major river basins as geographical units for administration, management and planning. Anything else risks prolonging the current tragedy for Ethiopia and for the whole of Africa.

    • I guess regardless how evident it is, you still missed the main reason behind the current civil war. If ethni linguistic federalism was was just TPLF’s stance, the reconfiguration of region could have been done the moment they stepped down from 27 years of leadership. The reason why we have so many die in the country is because the current leadership is trying to weaken regional authority. Many will die protecting their region than standing for ‘ethiopiawinet’ that never existed, they were oppressed under and resisted for centuries. The way forward is not to dismantle regions as this will only dismantle the whole country, but resolve conflicts through dialogue, address border conflicts and conduct free and fair election to bring the true representatives of the people to the parliament. I just do t understand how people write and call from their comfort zone to reconfigure regions based on geography. It is a call for a blood shade. We are past this stage and it is untimely. Abiy tried to merge the WPRDF party and formed PP, this is one of the core reasons for chaos in the country. Look closely. Even he changed his direction- the structure of the lady he formed is now exact same as EPRDF. He dropped what PP stood up for. Maybe in many more years if there is peace and stability the conflict between regions will fed away through economic, cultural and religious ties b/n regions. But deliberately enticing conflict between regions to make the ethnic linguistic federalism look bad can only cause more people to die.

      • I actually agree with Michael Street. I think this is that would be the only way to keep the country together. Ethnic-federalism was seen as something that could help to solve some of the problems, namely of access to power and resources as well as of identity preservation, but it seems clear now that it has failed. Ethnic-federalism again created second class citizens – this time inside the regions -, a feeling that territories are exclusive of certain groups, exacerbated the creation of distinctive groups and made politics become mainly mediated through ethnicity – so much that the majority of common political debates in Ethiopia go mainly around the question of ethnicities and the relationships between ethnicities.
        Some scholars – such as Donald Levine – had noticed that, at least until recently and for many of the ethnic groups, the main form of identification was regional and not so much ethnic (although an ethnic component could be present as well). I wonder if Switzerland would not provide a good model of political administration, which is mainly focused on regional administrative division instead of ethnic ones.

        • Thanks Rene for your deeper insights that all actors in Ethiopia should read, understand, ask questions and find solutions.

          @Filipe, I like the way you you tried to present the problem with ethnic Federalism in favour of geographic federalism. But you and Michael Street didn’t mention, the limitations geographic federalism has in responding to the burning questions of nations and nationalities that TPLF manipulated without establishing autonomous and democratic federal systems (it was a fake one with strong control from the center by TPLF). Had the TPLF ensured democracy and autonomy to each regions during its rule, we couldn’ t have faced all these crises today.

          We have tried geographic administrative approaches for over 150 years since the creation of modern Ethiopia. Let us not re-invent the wheel each time change comes and then miserably fail without addressing the root causes of the problems. Rather, we need to build and do radical reform by correcting the fault we made in the past 27 years by democratizing the current Federal System. Our problems for decades are lack of democracy, rule of law and respect to individual and group rights. If you ensure these rights and install democracy and democratic institutions, you can democratize the current federal system, make it autonomous and also inclusive. It will then correct itself gradually and we may eventually go for geographic federation in the long-term after building trust among our diverse groups of people specially after properly responding to those burning questions of nations and nationalities by democratizing the current ethnic federalism. Dismantling it now is a recipe for disaster as we are witnessing it in front of our eyes what is going on in Tigray, Amhara, Iromia and other regions in the past two to three years.

          Unless some one wants to destroy our country, such recommendation of removing the current federal system at this time is a very wrong and immature. It will not reflect the reality and practical needs of majority of the oppressed peoples in Ethiopia from Tigray, Somali, Oromia, Sidama, Agaw, Amhara, Afar, Benishangul, Gambela etc., Rather democratize the current federation, make it inclusive and autonomous instead of the fake federalism under TPLF.

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