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Is Ethiopia’s disintegration an inevitable and necessary evil?

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Potential harms of disintegration must be weighed against consequences of holding Ethiopia together by force.

Ethiopia is a failing state rapidly rushing toward disintegration.

Whether violently or through a carefully managed breakaway, the disintegration of Ethiopia appears to be inevitable. The real question is not if Ethiopia will disintegrate, but when and how.

This reality traps Ethiopia between a rock and a hard place. There is a real possibility of either the status quo or disintegration leading to all-out civil war with unimaginably devastating consequences for Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa.

Viewed more optimistically, nations within Ethiopia may avert the violent bloodshed by opting for an orderly, negotiated breakaway to form independent nation-states. If done properly, it might lead to a better outcome than what has transpired in Ethiopia over the last century and a half.

So far, the international community has operated under the assumption that Ethiopia is too big to fail. The focus should instead be on ensuring the country’s inevitable disintegration transpires in a manner that averts the looming volcano of violence in favor of a smooth and orderly birthing of new democratic states.

Such a move would require Western powers to abandon their commitment to holding states together in places like Ethiopia, no matter the cost. A better approach would be to support and broker an all-inclusive dialogue to avert undue bloodshed and bring about an orderly coming apart of the empire.

Existing Obstacles

The challenges of breaking apart a country must nonetheless be recognized and include the potential to trigger mass migration across the newly drawn borders, the eruption of conflict within and between the divided states, and quarrels over the division of land and assets between the leaders of these states.

Also, because no ethnic group lives in homogenous and contiguous territory, any state that emerges from the rubble of the Abyssinian empire would need to ensure that minority rights are protected.

However, such challenges pale in comparison to a violent process of disintegration that resembles Yugoslavia during the 1990s. There, after much bloodshed, promising new nation states have at least emerged.

The barriers to ensuring this disintegration happens peacefully, though, include Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who would stop at nothing to try and hold Ethiopia together, and quarrelsome ethnic elites, such as the Amhara who lay claim to territories that rightfully belong to Tigray, Oromia, and Benishangul-Gumuz.

The status of Addis Ababa, known as Finfinnee in Afaan Oromoo, is another particularly intractable sticking point. Oromo nationalists claim it as the center of their traditional Gadaa institutions and envision it as the capital of a federated, confederated, or independent Oromia state.

Amhara nationalists also make claims to ownership of the capital. The reality is that no colonizer willingly gives up its claim on the colonized unless they are forced to.

Another reality is that, although Oromo nationalists claim Finfinnee as the center of their indigenous homeland, it has since become a multiethnic capital that is the political, administrative, diplomatic, social, and economic hub of Ethiopia, and so convincing any central government to relinquish power over it would be a tall order.

Cycle of war

The main argument in favor of striving for an orderly disintegration relates to the cycle of war created by constant efforts to hold Ethiopia together.

Ethiopia was created as a dependent colonial empire with the assistance of European imperial powers in multipronged wars of conquest waged by Emperor Menelik II in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

During the wars of conquest, the fragmented Abyssinian states were centralized, came to wield state power, and settled their people in the territories of Oromia, Somali, Wolaita, Sidama, and other southern nations.

The settlers were given land taken from the colonized nations, while the religion, language, culture, political systems, and way of life of the settlers were promoted and those of the colonized nations were suppressed.

The colonization of southern nations also involved creating a system of quasi-serfdom where the land of the conquered peoples was converted into the property of the settler colonialists.

The aftereffects of these wars of conquest remain simmering, sometimes in the dark, hidden from plain view, and other times in the open for anyone to see.

The conflicts never end, nor are their ills addressed. The grievances remain active, continuous, and uninterrupted. In this system of shifting alliances, friends become enemies as quickly as enemies become friends, and one community’s legitimate grievances are often used to justify inflicting harm on others.

Ethiopia’s leaders, from Menelik II, to Haile Selassie I, Mengistu Hailemariam, Meles Zenawi, Hailemariam Desalegn, and Abiy Ahmed, have all confronted the seeming impossibility of holding Ethiopia together without resorting to brute force.

As in the past, Abiy’s attempts to use state power to pummel recalcitrant nations into submission have produced disastrous conflicts, this time in Oromia, Tigray, and Amhara.

Nevertheless, international backers – notably the EU and U.S. – have worked with successive Ethiopian regimes, providing diplomatic credence along with massive amounts of bilateral, security, and humanitarian aid. This unholy alliance between national and international actors has enabled Ethiopia’s repressive system and undermined the just demands of the colonized nations.

One common refrain of both Ethiopian and Western leaders involves highlighting the ills associated with Ethiopia’s potential disintegration. These parties keep reminding us that the disintegration of Ethiopia is an evil that should be avoided, even if millions perish to avert it.

Status quo

Since Abiy came to power in 2018, multipronged wars have once again erupted between the Ethiopian state and its constituent nations, namely Tigray, Oromia, and Amhara, even with the help of a foreign, bloodthirsty antagonist, Eritrea, in Tigray.

The ongoing hidden war in Oromia was reenergized in 2018 within months of Abiy being named prime minister by the then-ruling party, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).

The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), as the senior party in the EPRDF coalition, was forced to accept a new prime minister from a junior member, the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO), due to the unrelenting struggle of the Oromo youth—known as Qeerroo/Qarree.

The new government quickly turned against the Oromo popular movement and denied the protesters’ demands. It adopted mass killing and imprisonment while systematically dismantling their peaceful struggle, effectively forcing many of them to join the armed resistance led by the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA).

When its attempts to obliterate the OLA failed, the Abiy regime turned to a state-sanctioned policy of “drying the pond to kill the fish.” It deployed the federal and regional security forces, Amhara and Oromo militias, and local settler Amhara groups in Oromia to loot, rape, and kill at will.

In the meantime, Abiy demolished the ruling party and formed a new party in 2019, the Prosperity Party, to promote his imperial ambition in the mold of emperors Menelik II and Haile Selassie I.

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TPLF, with 27 years of government experience, battle-hardened military leaders, and an expanding regional military, was seen as a formidable force that would frustrate his goal to centralize power. Thus, the regime had to wage war against Tigray and did so with the help of Eritrean and Amhara forces.

The guns were silenced in November 2022 after two years of intense warfare that saw the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives through massacres, starvation, and combat, the use of rape as a weapon of war, the displacement of millions, and purposeful economic devastation.

Various Amhara political and armed forces thought the government should not enter into a peace deal with their rivals, the Tigray forces. They feared being forced to return the lands unconstitutionally annexed from Tigray and turned their guns against the Abiy regime, which they had been helping against nations such as Oromia and Tigray.

Multiplying wars

On top of this, there are horizontal wars within many states.

For instance, Amhara has been at war with itself – as the embattled regional government is confronting Amhara militias – and with all its neighbors, including Sudan and three adjacent Ethiopian regions. Amhara militias have been implicated in atrocities in Benishangul-Gumuz, Oromia, and Tigray.

Most notably, at the beginning of the war between the TPLF and federal authorities, Amhara region forcibly annexed Western Tigray and engaged in a campaign of ethnic cleansing with the tacit or direct support of the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments.

Amhara leaders, mass media, and activists openly debate seizing and annexing Gumuz and Oromo ancestral lands in an effort to recapture their former imperial glory. These Amhara elites are working to erode the foundation for peaceful coexistence between the Oromo and Amhara communities.

One lamentable outcome of this inter-regional struggle has been a slew of massacres of Amhara civilians residing in Oromia. Oromo civilians have also been targeted in a series of cross-border massacres, especially in Eastern Wollega, Northern Shewa, and the Oromia Zone in the Amhara region.

Even more hidden from view is unrest in the south. Among these conflicts, the Wolaita nation’s demands to govern itself were met with brute force, including the killing of peaceful marchers in the public square and the removal of elected leaders from office.

Also, the Somali region has its share of political entanglements and thousands have fled the conflict in Benishangul-Gumuz, seeking refuge in war-torn South Sudan and Sudan.

The Abiy regime has also been beating war drums against neighboring countries, including Sudan in the past and now Eritrea, in the most recent example of one-time friends becoming adversaries.

Imperial ambition

Successive Ethiopian governments have failed to transform Ethiopia into a harmonious multinational country.

Being short-sighted, they failed to imagine a country where all its nations and individual rights are respected. As a result, armed and peaceful resistance by the colonized nations has flourished.

In my lifetime, Ethiopia had squandered three chances to transform itself: in 1974, 1991, and 2018. Had it not wasted these opportunities, and instead forged a democratic order, peaceful coexistence of Ethiopia’s constituent nations could have been achieved.

The 1974 revolution that overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie I was thwarted by the Derg regime from ushering in a country where the rights of nations and individuals were respected. Colonel Mengistu’s ‘Ethiopia Tikdem’ ideology was opposed to ethno-nationalism, and the military leader slaughtered anyone who opposed him.

In 1991, after rebels from Eritrea, Tigray, and Oromia overthrew the Derg, another opportunity was squandered, this time by the imperial ambition of the TPLF. Despite ushering in a multinational federal system, TPLF leaders ruled the EPRDF coalition through subservient political parties in Oromia, Amhara, and elsewhere.

Most recently, since 2018, Abiy and his opportunist followers’ aspiration to recapture Ethiopia’s so-called ‘glorious’ past thwarted any hope for progress and genuine peace.

Political deadlock

There is a political deadlock caused by the ruling elite’s refusal to transform Ethiopia into a political arrangement that accommodates the country’s diverse nations, languages, cultures, political systems, religions, and worldviews.

Time and again, Ethiopia has demonstrated its inability to change by accommodating democracy and the rights of national self-determination. Successive Ethiopian regimes have instead chosen to imprison and kill their opponents.

Though now at war, the central government and Amhara nationalists share an imperial ambition. Their wars against other nations arguably represent the continuation of the wars of conquest at the end of the nineteenth century.

Amhara elites insist on dismantling the multinational federal arrangement, which is embraced by the colonized nations—who support the existing constitution despite being frustrated by its non-implementation since being adopted in 1994.

The ambition of Amhara elites to break Oromia, Tigray, and Benishangul-Gumuz into pieces, deny the rights of other nations, and return Ethiopia to its supposed past glory has put any possibility of saving Ethiopia in jeopardy.

Peaceful disintegration?

Ethiopia is at a crossroads and the roads all lead to disintegration. The only real unknown is whether this results from multiple future bloody civil wars or is done through a negotiated orderly breaking apart supported by international actors.

A map of the regions and zones of Ethiopia; 29 November 2023; NordNordWest

Since the 1980s, the world has seen the birth of new nations. The breakup of the former Yugoslavia was an extraordinarily violent affair that dragged on throughout the 1990s, while Eritrea and South Sudan only became independent following decades of civil war.

The consequences of how these countries were created include simmering tensions in the former Yugoslavia, political instability, intercommunal conflict, and civil wars in Sudan and South Sudan, the Ethio-Eritrean war from 1998-2000, and Eritrea’s devastating participation in Ethiopia’s most recent civil war.

On the other hand, the splitting apart of Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union was accomplished through a negotiated and peaceful breakaway. Regions like Quebec in Canada have also peacefully held referendums on the question of secession.

The question is whether the Ethiopian regime and its Western allies are willing to avoid a violent disintegration that costs millions of lives, destroys the meager regional economy, destabilizes the region, and leads to chaotic mass migration.

Opting for a peaceful, orderly breaking apart requires that Western powers and others give up their policy of maintaining the political and territorial status quo in Ethiopia. This would necessitate moving away from the policy of supporting this autocratic Ethiopian regime regardless of its epic failures and egregious crimes.

Although the immense obstacles to achieving a peaceful disintegration must be recognized, they are not insurmountable if external actors support such a process.

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Main Image: Regions of Ethiopia; 8 September 2020; Jfblanc

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

Published under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. You may not use the material for commercial purposes.

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About the author

Hambisa Belina

Hambisa (Ph.D.), an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, is an assistant professor of accounting at Morgan State University in Baltimore, MD.

24 Comments

  • So it seems the world is too small for “Ethiopia” to exist…. then why was our name changed to “Ethiopia” to begin with? The British and the United Nations created “Ethiopia” for their own agendas so our demise would only come from them. The problem is their agendas are not finished and more so than that, they have invigorated these same agendas for the new generation. That’s why Abiy Ahmed was made Prime Minister. The Nobel Peace Prize winner of both “Oromo” and “Amhara” extraction who is evangelizing the country through Prosperity!

    I don’t think the Western countries want us to dismantle, they would much rather see us in constant turmoil. Due to the stupidity of our people, they achieved this very easily.

  • I am not sure why the author sees the breakup of Ethiopia into smaller states as a solution. The principal problem, as he himself pointed out, is the lack of democratic process in Ethiopia, and not that there exists many ethnic groups in the country acting with hostility towards each other. In fact, only a handful of nations can be considered ethnically homogeneous. So the problem is not in Ethiopia’s ethnic diversity and multiplicity, but in the lack of rule of law that is democratically founded. If that is the case, then why perceive the disintegration of Ethiopia as a solution? Secondly, Ethiopia is not, as I have mentioned elsewhere, a country of a half dozen ethnicities of comparable size and occupying comparable land areas. Ethiopia, as we have been told repeatedly, is nation to some eighty ethnic groups of varied size occupying varying size lands. By the very logic of the author, each one of these should form a nation of its own. Since they can’t, can we simply leave them to their own devices? Neither the former Soviet Union, nor the former Yugoslavia are models for Ethiopia. In fact, none of the larger ethnic groups in Ethiopia can achieve any meaningful self-sufficiency on their own, like the republics of the former Soviet Union or Yugoslavia. The focus should be really on devising a constitutional scheme that can both fulfill our centrifugal as well as centripetal tendencies:i.e., a new constitutional arrangement that respects better our ethnic aspirations while at the same time fulfills the necessity of staying united.

  • Thanks for your time to write the article -Peaceful Disintegration of the “Ethiopian Empire” . you already complicated the existing problem with strongly biased stories and allegations on all actors in general and Amhara in particular-amassing all political sins on Amhara does not help since you installed Amhara free governance system by the so called ‘Colonized’ nations. what is funny is that you request “the Western allies, powers etc… “to support your ambition for independent statehood. no nation in this planet earth formed its state hood and kept its integrity. even the almighty God used war to establish the state of Isreal by the leadership of Muses(after annihilating 31 nations ) if you remember the bible -hope you remember. in a nutshell nobody including your western friends can not stop the genuine survival struggle of the people of Ethiopia. blood and Iron is the longlisting
    solution to keep a country rather than crying for help from unrealistic and failing allies -me and you hambisa will decide nobody.

  • It’s really perplexing to read an article wish for peoples’ disintegration – and form a PASTOR of evangelical. I want to ask him just a simple Q.
    1. Dear Professor, have you ever evaluate colonial expansion Vis-à-vis feudal mode of governance?
    2. Could you tell us any country on the earth, created in its current form, without passing through war of either integration or disintegration? Didn’t Bismarck created Germany though bloody war? just to mention one!
    While siting at distance, tens of thousands of miles away, propagating disintegration of people and citing things of the feudal era; by a professor and evangelist pastor is puzzling!

    God saves our Biblical nation!!!

  • Hambisa Belina should stick to teaching
    accounting.

    One has to suffer from genocidal impulse to propose this kind of dystopian project: the dissolution of Ethiopia.

    The historical basis of this theory is the OLF propaganda which is now taught as history in Ethiopia.

    And this from an evangelical minister?

  • Another, Abiy’s misleading thing to stay in power is fairytale of he (dreamed) or got free port in Somali ocean. another surprise, Abiy liked to recognize Somaliland as a state because Somalis moved to intentional space last year. he can’t realize Somalia might return its old dream of *Greater Somalia* & declare Ogadenia🇬🇲Tigrey🇻🇳Oromo🇮🇶Amhara🇨🇬Afar🇸🇱Sidama🇬🇦so on as Republics that might convince Eritrea🇪🇷Sudan🇸🇩Djibouti🇩🇯South Sudan🇸🇸Kenya🇰🇪to do the same @ IGAD because all of them have problems with Ethiopia🇪🇹. in addition,🇪🇹Ethiopia constitution simply allows it.

  • Excellent article👍.
    my opinion; I assume disintegration in Ethiopia would end up a bloody civil war. proved simply by Ethiopians’ mindset that adjusted in 1980s military views. for example, Amhara debates & shares only their views & opinions & framed “Ethiopia people🤣interest” as its true for Tigrey & Oromo. Somali, Afar & Sidama does not even matter to mention. However, reality in Ethiopia is; Abiy party rules regions; Somali, Addis, Sidama & parts of SSNN. Another part, Oromo ruled by 3 warlords; Tigrey is headed by one warlord; as it’s true for Afar people by one Warlord. Strangely, Amhara nation has 4 military warlords assuming to accupy Addis with HayleSalase papers of 1940s. Amhara🇨🇬doesn’t understand a failed state of Ethiopia🇪🇹is in practically independent states & Allah knows # 11 or 13 nations. if Abiy has no power to stop Oromo killing Amhara; how Amhara rules Oromo. As many predicted first; Abiyahmed might be or follow Gorbachev Soviet. he already wasted 5yrs & is entertaining a free port from🇸🇴Somalia that only gained condemnation from international community & surprised shock from Somalia🇸🇴Eritrea🇪🇷Djibouti🇩🇯

    • Somaliland was gained independence from Britain in 1960
      Like that of south sudan united with north sudan in 1947 and Eritrea united with Ethiopia in 1952.
      I feel sham of You that Your ignorance is tremendous.
      If You are a human being find a solution , knowing that The UN and British created a time Bomb in East Africa , since The above mentioned countries international united and called them .

  • Very simplistic version in understanding Ethiopian fabrics.

    Sadly this Ethiopian disintegration wishing accountant witness disintegrating Ethiopia is difficult, if not impossible.

    Ethiopia survive forever despite evils wrecked politician inject into it and its peoples.

  • Fake narration from Oromo nationalist writer. His likes, Oromo nationalists falsely blame Amharas while causing a lot of massacre and misery on Amharas, blaming of victims by victimizers. It is the Oromo nationalists who are expansionist then and now. Amharas are being killed by Oromo forces of Abiy Ahmed and OLA for >5 years and TPLF for >27 years. The last time Amharas were in power is more than >50 years. Amharas are under existential threat and resisting. >50 000 Amharas are killed and> 1 million displaced from Wollega Zone of Oromia region alone.
    We ask the world community to stand with Amharas as they continue to face genocides similar to the Tutsis of Rwanda by modern day Adolf Hitler Abiy Ahmed and his Hutu militia like Oromo extremist followers

  • Interesting to read comments by a “man of god” fomenting ethnic hatred and division. Must be an oromuma recruit. Dream on, Ethiopia will prevail.

  • I believe it is already happening. My prayer is that for it to happen the Czechoslovakia way, and not the Yugoslavia way.

  • Wow, this poison is written by a pastor? Most likely a person whose origin is from Wolega area. The indoctrination from the German Missionaries can be traced from this negative article. If the Oromo PP is forced to accept democracy it is easy to make Ethiopia a great country. The people is very peaceful. The problems always comes from the ruling elites. The current Government power rests only on the PM. The elder Oromo politicians should engage with him to stop his dictatorial ambition and democratize the country. Otherwise the current division of states within the country won’t be accepted if separation is pushed by anyone.

  • It is historic analysis. But you don’t give a solution to the disintegration. Any article must be summarize by solutions. The only responsible part for the consequence of disintegration is the crazy ruling pp.

    You quoted when and how to solve the chronic problem of many centuries?

    The answer should be as soon as possible . How to implement the solution? it based on strong freedom struggle.

    Source,
    Hambisa Belina
    Hambisa (Ph.D.), an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, is an assistant professor of accounting at Morgan State University in Baltimore, MD.

    Thank you for sharing me your idea.

  • Thank you Dr. Belina for the wonderful expository article,

    You are right on the money. Western actors know in their heart that the outdated policy of territorial integrity is no more sustainable and struggling to find how to depart from it. No one group or person can change the trajectory of disintegration that the Ethiopian empire is on. Speaking of disintegration, it is already in motion for sometimes now. The areas effectively controlled by the ruling party is less than 30% of the country, mostly around Finfinne and some major cities. The rest is controlled by the Oromo Liberation Army in Oromia, Fano factions in Amhara region, and the TPLF in Tigray. TDF is still intact. The best the West can do is, as you stated, to support/facilitate a managed divorce and create an economic zone in the likes of European Union where states/nations can advance their interests together, heralding anew beginning to the to Horn of Africa.

    • Ethiopia will never disintegrate. You are scared of future technology. It’s obviously why. Technology will make it easier to rule Ethiopia and that is why you want Ethiopia gone. You will never achieve your wish.

  • The only way out of the endless cycle of war and political gridlock is “peaceful disintegration”. Ethiopia is a colonial empire. The only remedy to bringing peace and harmony among its constituents is dismantling it in a peaceful and orderly manner. That is the glaring reality in front of our eyes.

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