Ethiopia - Abiy Ahmed in a bind

The Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed cannot give up Tigray - but he cannot conquer it either

Recently hailed as a savior, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, today decried as a warmonger: Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. He started as a reformer in April 2018 and had the courage to make peace with his archenemy, the breakaway province of Eritrea, from state to state. And that after decades of grueling armed conflict. A cheaper compensation for Eritrea, because Abiy Ahmed decided not to reclaim the port of Assab on the Red Sea. Access to the sea had been Ethiopia's central war goal in the fight for Eritrea.

The peace agreement was important because otherwise neither foreign aid nor investments would have flowed. Regional powers such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were satisfied. The US relied on Abiy Ahmed and his government. It actually managed to contain years of civil unrest, because of which its predecessors had failed. Ahmed benefited from being chairman of the Revolutionary Democratic Front of the Ethiopian Peoples (EPRDF), an alliance that came to power in 1991 when the Marxist-Leninist military government was overthrown. The EPRDF represented primarily ethnic communities and only secondarily obeyed programmatic ideas. The situation was similar with the People's Liberation Front of Tigray (TPLF), which had dominated politics in the country for a good 30 years, although the Tigrers only represented a minority of around six million among the 112 million inhabitants of Ethiopia. The TPLF had influential positions in the Ethiopian state, as well as many managerial posts in the economy and most of the officer positions in the army. Since ethnic nepotism also prevailed, it was no wonder that the Tigrians were hated everywhere. As head of government, Abiy Ahmed also tried to modernize the country by removing the power of the Tigrians in economy and society. That made him popular with many except the elites in Tigray. He was seen as a beacon of hope who ensured international recognition, brought capital into the country, launched major projects such as the new metro in Addis Ababa or the Great Dam on the Blue Nile.

Suicide in installments

Parliamentary and regional elections were due to take place in August 2020, but these were postponed twice due to the corona pandemic and open logistical problems. The TPLF then held its own vote in its homeland Tigray in September 2020, which it was expected to win. But Addis Ababa declared the vote illegal. Shortly afterwards the TPLF attacked bases of the Ethiopian army in the province and took over heavy weapons stored there. The attacked promptly struck back with all their might, the federal army marched into Tigray and quickly overran the most important cities. Both sides had been preparing for this conflict for a long time; it had to come. Only who would fire the first shot on which day was uncertain.

Since then there has been a civil war in Tigray, which the Ethiopian army is waging with all brutality, supported by militias from the neighboring province of Amhara and troops from Eritrea. No asymmetrical confrontation, because everyone involved has decades of experience in guerrilla warfare. Both sides have artillery and rocket launchers, know how to use them, and are similarly organized militarily. At the end of June, the conflicting party Addis Ababa unilaterally announced a ceasefire and withdrew from the provincial capital Mekele. The TPLF rejects this ceasefire and continues its advance after the recapture of Mekele. In return, the Ethiopian air force is bombing villages and towns in Tigray again. The Eritreans, who have officially withdrawn, and the Amharic militias are also involved.

Despite the situation in the north, the government did not want to be disturbed in holding parliamentary and regional elections on June 21, in which Abiy Ahmed's Welfare Party won with a clear majority and can now count on 421 of the 436 members of parliament, the Shengo, that Place for a second term. Apparently Abiy's party has established itself as a political force in large parts of the country - except in Tigray. The Tigrers could not vote any more than the citizens in other 54 electoral districts, in which the voting should be made up according to the electoral commission. After this vote of confidence, it should not be long before Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sets further reform projects in motion. Half of his government consisted of women ministers, which is unlikely to be any different in the next cabinet. A computer scientist and political scientist by training, the head of government relies on a strengthened federal state; he does so in accordance with the Ethiopian constitution of 1995, which provides for an "ethnic federation". Abiy's reputation as a peacemaker has been ruined, but he can live with it as long as it is possible to stop the disintegration of the multi-ethnic state with more than 80 ethnic groups and 70 official languages.

South Sudan There has been another ceasefire between the conflicting parties around former Vice President Riek Machar and Head of State Salva Kiir since June 2018. But that is fragile because the ethnic tensions between the Nuer and the Dinka people persist. 5.500 UN blue helmets are currently deployed to monitor the ceasefire in the completely impoverished state, which has only been independent since 2011.

eritrea Led by the Popular Front for Democracy and Justice under Head of State Isayas Afewerki, the one-party state is not a refuge for the innocent. His troops intervened massively in favor of the government army in the recent conflict in the Ethiopian province of Tigray. Officially, your own border should be protected. Ethiopia's Prime Minister Ahmed only admitted this when some of the associations began to withdraw at the end of March.

The war in the north will ultimately decide whether this succeeds. This prognosis is also valid because across the border with Sudan lies the Fashaga triangle, 250 square kilometers of fertile land for which the two countries are fighting. Almost 100.000 Tigrers have fled there in the past few months, who, like a quarter of a million needy people in other areas, are threatened with hunger, according to the UN. And there are more every day. Abiy Ahmed is in a tight spot: he can't give up on Tigray. He cannot tolerate a provincial government that uses heavily armed units against his armed forces. To shoot down parts of one's own population with the help of foreign combatants would be political suicide in installments. Scare off his foreign financiers and investors - he certainly cannot afford that.

Even if Abiy Ahmed wanted to make peace immediately - the TPLF would refuse, as would the Eritrean dictator Isayas Afewerki, for whom the war against the arch enemies from Tigray is just right. In addition, the Amharic militias want to take the opportunity to get back land that was slammed into Tigray under TPLF rule. Finally, Sudan is busy securing pledges in the border dispute over Fashaga. Barely veiled relief services for the TPLF serve as a welcome leverage against Ethiopia. Their military chiefs sometimes stay in Khartoum to negotiate evasion across the border as well as the supply of weapons and ammunition. Sudan does not deny reports about it.

Above all, however, the dispute over Ethiopia's most important major project, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), provides a reason for further armed forces in the region. The dam is not yet finished, but a 650-kilometer route has already been put into operation to conduct electricity inland. One can easily imagine Abiy Ahmed's worst nightmare: The TPLF is targeting this prestigious project, possibly with the clandestine help of Sudan. And how did Egypt react?

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