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Abiy Ahmed’s Counterrevolution

The Tigray conflict is a struggle over the idea of Ethiopia.

On November 4, 2020, Ethiopians awoke to find that their country was in civil war. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed—the fresh face of a reformist agenda—announced that troops loyal to the previous government had attacked army bases in the northern region of Tigray, and he was launching a “law enforcement operation” to bring this “criminal clique” to justice. Hostility towards the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the leading party in the coalition that had ruled Ethiopia for twenty-seven years until Abiy took power in 2018, was already running high. Through November, Abiy’s operation seemed to be going according to plan. While drones destroyed the armor and artillery of the rebel region, federal forces closed in on the regional capital of Mekelle and occupied it. Abiy declared victory, claiming “not a single civilian” had been killed; the last remaining job was to round up renegade TPLF leaders who had fled to the hills. Some were captured or killed over the following weeks.

Since then, this rosy account has unraveled, despite a blanket communication blackout. Abiy was first compelled to concede that there were indeed massacres needing to be investigated, most notoriously in the city of Axum. The killing of hundreds of civilians was painstakingly documented by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Evidence for dozens of other massacres seeped out, along with stories of mass rape. Having denied that the army of neighboring Eritrea was involved, Abiy then admitted their presence, hinting at their responsibility for abuses. A leaked report from the U.S. State Department said that the western part of Tigray had been ethnically cleansed by militia from the Amhara region, which were fighting alongside the national army. A humanitarian crisis deepened, its scale and nature obscured because journalists and aid workers were at first debarred from Tigray entirely, and then could only reach a handful of towns. Médecins Sans Frontières announced that most of Tigray’s hospitals and clinics had been ransacked. Eyewitness testimony and satellite imagery have revealed a scorched earth campaign of arson and pillage, with Eritrean and Ethiopian forces using starvation as a weapon and destroying farms, factories, and services. Tigray is on track to a man-made famine.

Wars do not happen overnight. Before November, Ethiopia’s political road was rocky, with inter-ethnic conflict in many regions and an increasingly mercenarized and transactional political arena. Tigray was made particularly combustible by the involvement of Eritrea, the most closed and dictatorial of all regimes in Africa. Eritrea’s president Isaias Afewerki rules a country with no constitution, parliament, free press, or judiciary. The Eritrean state is little more than a vast army and security agency dedicated to its despot’s will—and his long-cherished goals have been annihilating the TPLF and its constituency. Had Abiy attacked Tigray alone, we would have seen turmoil. With Isaias as his partner, his project has turned into a campaign of ethnic extermination.

The two men are united in their egotism. The former Eritrean foreign minister Petros Solomon—who vanished into Isaias’s oubliette twenty years ago—said the president considered himself bigger than the country he commands. Many who have met Abiy report that the Ethiopian leader likewise believes he is on a God-sent mission. Today, they cannot let go of one another. Abiy needs Isaias’s army and security agents; Isaias needs Abiy’s international credibility and funds, fading though they may be.

Ethiopia prides itself on thousands of years of unbroken statehood, but that is of course a myth.

The Tigray war is also a counterrevolution: a ruthless repudiation of the progressive ideals that animated a generation of Ethiopians. The first act of the Ethiopian revolution unfolded in 1974, when popular protests challenged the feudal regime of Emperor Haile Selassie, and a military junta stepped into power. Over the next forty years, a cohort of radicals in Ethiopia and Eritrea shaped their country’s destinies. They fought the ancien regime and one another, enacted dramatic reforms, and the leaders of the two countries diverged bitterly. Under Isaias, Eritrea relapsed into totalitarianism. Under Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia became an authoritarian developmental state—with remarkable achievements in reducing poverty, eliminating hunger, and expanding education. By 2017, with Zenawi gone, his hapless successors were exhausted, and people pressed for democratic change. Reform was always going to be fraught, more likely to result in a turbulent market in political allegiances than a mature democracy. But, mismanaged by Abiy, the process has descended into something far more alarming: war, mass starvation, and the disassembly of the state itself.

UN famine relief camp in Korem, Ethiopia, 1984. | UN Photo, John Isaac.

The story begins with the old feudal empire. Ethiopia prides itself on thousands of years of unbroken statehood, but that is, of course, a myth. The idea of a special nation beloved of God validated the long reign of Emperor Haile Selassie—champion of African liberation abroad, practitioner of autocracy at home. In the tradition of France in 1789 and Russia in 1917, the Emperor met his end in 1974 in a sanguinary revolution, led by students and hijacked by army officers. The victorious military junta proclaimed itself socialist and allied with the Soviet Union, which supplied almost unlimited weaponry, while Cuba sent combat troops and East Germany provided intelligence expertise. In the ensuing “Red Terror,” the junta’s leader, Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, murdered tens of thousands of young people on suspicion (sometimes valid, sometimes not) of supporting rival camps.

There were in fact several revolutions bundled into one. The first was the armed struggle for independence in Eritrea, part of the empire that been spun off to become an Italian colony in the 1880s. After driving out the fascists in World War Two, the British set up a temporary military administration and then dithered over what to do with the territory. They handed the problem to the United Nations, which approved a liberal constitution but decided that Eritrea should be federated “under” the Ethiopian crown. The transfer of sovereign authority took place in 1952. Ten years later, Haile Selassie abrogated the terms of the federation, dismantled Eritrea’s representative institutions, and suppressed opposition by force. The student revolutionaries were sympathetic to the Eritrean cause, but Mengistu vowed to crush them. He launched fifteen annual offensives—every year, except for his first and last in power—promising that the next one would break Eritrean resistance. In fact, they broke Mengistu, and won de facto independence in 1991, internationally recognized after a referendum in 1993.

The second revolution was economic: an end to the famines that recurrently devastated the peasantry and “land to the tiller”—abolishing feudal land tenure and the exactions that accompanied it. This began well, but the junta’s Soviet-inspired agricultural policies and its scorched-earth counterinsurgencies meant that famine made a comeback, worst of all in 1984.

The third was ending the myth of a divinely mandated Ethiopia, its culture in the image of its aristocracy: Orthodox Christian, Amharic-speaking. There are many different ethnic groups in the country, especially in the frontier zones of the nineteenth century imperial expansion. The empire placed them in a hierarchy with the Amhara at its zenith; next their historic partners and rivals in state-building, the Tigrayans; below them the largest group, the Oromo; and lastly, a host of others considered slaves or potential slaves. Some had previously had their own principalities; others were stateless peoples or pastoral nomads. After 1974, leaders of the Oromo argued that Ethiopia was ripe for decolonization. The Tigrayans of the northern highlands made a similar case for self-determination. After the urban revolution had been drowned in blood, Oromo and Tigrayan guerrillas continued the armed struggle in the mountains. The TPLF proved particularly skilled at waging people’s war. In alliance with the Eritreans, they defeated the junta in 1991.

The victory of the guerrilla armies gave the revolutionary generation a second chance. Eritrea took its independence. The TPLF had in the meantime constructed a coalition of ethnically based parties—the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF)—with a shared program. An alliance between the EPRDF and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) lasted just long enough for the two to agree on a federal constitution that enshrined the right of the major ethnic groups—“nationalities” in the day’s communist parlance—to linguistic and cultural rights, self-administration, and self-determination within regional boundaries.

The EPRDF did not, of course, invent ethnic politics. What it did was formalize a particular version of ethnicity into constitutional form. Those wedded to a unitary Ethiopian project objected in principle. Others were concerned that the grouping and drawing of boundaries would impose an arbitrary grid on far more complex and fluid reality. And some—notably the OLF—objected to how the federal system was stripped of its democratic vision and instead turned into a new centralism. The OLF stayed in government only briefly, rebelled, and was militarily defeated. Nonetheless, in the years after the EPRDF took power in 1991, there was a genuine sense that peace had finally arrived and that democracy was in progress.

I first met Meles when he was a guerrilla, on the back of a truck trundling through the TPLF-controlled mountains.

For a while. The Eritrean and Tigrayan allies fell out; in 1998, there was a bloody border war. Ethiopia won, and the Eritrean regime withdrew to lick its wounds. Eritreans enjoyed a brief blossoming of civic debate, but in September 2001—while the world’s attention was distracted by Al Qaeda—President Isaias cracked down. He imprisoned most of the senior leadership, who literally disappeared into his gulag. Even their families have not heard from them for almost twenty years. As noted, Eritrea has no constitution, no parliament, no press, no independent judiciary. All eleventh graders must join the army for indefinite national service, which is cruel and dehumanizing. After Syria, Eritrea is the world’s most prolific generator of refugees relative to its population size. Isaias’s justification was that there was an ongoing cold war with Ethiopia, which refused to withdraw from a small piece of land it had occupied during the war, against the ruling of the International Court of Justice. So Eritrea became a garrison state, maintaining its trenches and its artillery.

The TPLF didn’t recover from the war either. Despite winning, Ethiopia’s ruling party was riven by infighting, eventually resolved in favor of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who expelled most of the veteran leadership and allowed the grassroots mobilization to wither away. Today, leaders in Ethiopia claim that there was a TPLF clique dominating the country for almost thirty years, enriching Tigray at the expense of everyone else. The reality is more complicated. After the TPLF split, Tigrayans stayed on at the helm of the army and security, but Meles shifted his political base to the Amhara and Oromo parties within the EPRDF. Tigray, previously among the poorest regions, merely caught up with other regions on the indicators for development. Meles’s strategy was less revolutionary, more conventionally authoritarian.

But Meles retained one progressive goal. In his first press conference after taking power in 1991, he was asked about his ambition for the country. “Ethiopians should eat three meals a day,” he replied. On this issue, he was consistent, single-minded, and creative. Ethiopia cut poverty in half and child mortality by two-thirds, doubled income per head, and put in place welfare and emergency relief measures that ended famine. Ethiopia became a favored aid partner, despite the fact that it was following state-led policies, which ran counter to the reigning free-market orthodoxy. Meles in fact modeled his vision on East Asian developmental states such as Taiwan and South Korea.

Isaias Afwerki and Abiy Ahmed | Chief of Staff, Prime Minister’s Office, Ethiopiar

I first met Meles when he was a guerrilla in the 1980s, on the back of a truck trundling through the TPLF-controlled mountains. (We traveled at night to avoid the relentless aerial bombing that took place after sunrise). The truck was a mobile seminar in which we debated politics, economics, and philosophy. I continued those debates with him after he was in power, while he was catching up on his studies; he completed a master’s in economics from Britain’s Open University and began, but never finished, a PhD thesis on the political economy of African state-building. He was ready to listen to harshly critical arguments—over the laws restricting civil society, his clampdown on opposition parties, or his military intervention in Somalia—though he rarely compromised on strategy. Meles argued that if Ethiopia didn’t escape its poverty, it couldn’t achieve stability or democracy.

Whether to allow unfettered markets in land or retain state control, whether to maintain the system of ethnic parties or to unify them—these weren’t academic debates but questions of national survival. “National disintegration cannot be ruled out,” he warned.

Meles died of an illness in 2012. His successor, Hailemariam Dessalegn, lacked the acuity of analysis and skill of maneuver. While Ethiopia’s economy boomed—it nearly doubled in size during Hailemariam’s five years in office—unmanaged political tensions were mounting. Throughout the agriculturally rich southern part of the country, commercial farms and vineyards had been established, and small farmers resented the modest compensation they received for their land. New industrial parks and fast-expanding towns generated jobs but also rivalries over who was entitled to them. Most controversially, a plan to expand the federal capital of Addis Ababa into the surrounding countryside, and thereby annex parts of Oromo region, generated fierce opposition. A federation designed for an agrarian country couldn’t manage the transition to a capitalist economy, and the rising expectations of the young were ripe for being channeled into a zero-sum calculus of ethnic conflict. Ethiopian corruption is small potatoes compared to many other countries; notably, elites tend to reinvest their ill-gotten gains in the national economy rather than smuggling it abroad. But corruption nevertheless became conspicuous. Hailemariam also licensed the national security agency—headed by a particularly notorious Tigrayan officer—to mount the largest-ever crackdown on widespread youth protests in 2016–2017, led by Oromo democracy activists.

At this point, the EPRDF swerved into the path of real debate and reform. In a series of meetings, it agreed to end the state of emergency imposed after the protests, release political detainees, and end de facto press censorship. It also sacked Hailemariam, right in the middle of the parliament’s term in office: just enough time, the party hoped, to prepare for elections scheduled in May 2020. The leaders of the protest movement weren’t in parliament, and the most prominent reformers were in the regional assembly, not the national one. For the time being, they elevated a little-known but personable politician—and long-time intelligence officer—to serve as head of government: Abiy Ahmed. He took office in April 2018.

It is easier to dismantle than to build, and knocking down unpopular structures wins quick plaudits. Abiy rapidly plucked the ripe fruit at hand: he emptied the prisons, allowed a free press, welcomed back political exiles, appointed a cabinet with fifty percent women, and acted on the party’s instruction to remove the blockages to making peace with Eritrea. He reveled in the praise. A talented preacher at his Pentecostal church, Abiy put his rhetorical skills to good use, promising Ethiopians that if they could embrace one another and reach across their divides of faith, ethnicity, and historical bitterness, the country’s troubles could be swept aside.

Abiy gave Isaias the key to escape from prison, and all he got in return was a medal from a committee in Oslo.

The Nobel Peace Prize committee also likes to recognize charismatic individuals, and they gave the 2019 prize to Abiy for his visit to Eritrea and embrace of Isaias, overlooking African diplomats’ disquiet over the fact that the two men then shunned the African Union—the continental organization that was the custodian of the formal agreement—and instead signed the deal in Saudi Arabia, where its substance stayed secret. The committee didn’t share the prize with Isaias. A year after making peace, the Eritrean dictator hadn’t freed any political prisoners, lifted any restrictions on political life, or demobilized his army. In fact, he had taken the opportunity opened up by the lifting of international sanctions to re-equip his forces.

The sclerotic EPRDF had been the unexpected engine of reform, and within its ranks was a spectrum of views. Abiy, though, was an impatient negotiator. Just as the party leaders were compelling him to find a compromise that accommodated all the different political forces, Abiy won the Nobel Prize. For him this was a gift from God. He took it as an unlimited personal mandate and decided to cut the Gordian Knot—he dissolved the EPRDF entirely. Instead Abiy created a new one, the Prosperity Party. Its ethos is an admixture of the prosperity gospel, self-help business manuals, and worship of its leader and his ill-defined ethos of medemer—“synergy” or “coming together.” The TPLF refused to disband itself and become the “Tigrayan wing” of the Prosperity Party. Abiy vilified it as obstructionist.

The TPLF escalated the confrontation. As if to advertise their intransigence, they not only welcomed the now-dismissed security chief, wanted by the federal authorities on criminal charges, but elevated him to their central committee. When Abiy postponed the elections due to Covid-19, they went ahead with their regional elections insisting that the federal government was no longer legitimate when its term expired.

Western governments took Abiy’s reform agenda at face value. But he had over-promised, telling every constituency what they wanted to hear. Before long, he had to choose whom to disappoint, and first in line was the Oromo democracy movement—the very people who had brought him to power. In June 2020, following the killing of a popular Oromo musician and protest leader named Hachalu Hundessa, he arrested their leaders, clamped down on their media, and set about dismantling their political parties. The much-postponed national elections are now scheduled for June. Abiy is engineering the process so that the next parliament will contain members of the Prosperity Party, his closest allies, and a swath of bribed independent candidates who will give a veneer of pluralism to the results. It is a political marketplace in which loyalties are individually bought and sold—a reversion to a formula familiar from many kleptocratic systems of rule.

International donors had been impressed with the results of Meles’s developmental state. But they didn’t trust its independent-minded architect and his defiance of liberal economic orthodoxies. When Abiy promised economic liberalization—privatizing the most valued state assets, including the telecoms and airlines—Western governments were smitten. Meles had gambled that Ethiopia could overcome poverty before its political strains became unmanageable, but the winnings of that bet were proving too tempting to the new political elite and a fast-growing band of cronies and admirers. They were impatient to cash in.

Eager in turn to appease the Trump administration, Abiy made his first foreign policy blunder. Ethiopia had long wanted to build hydroelectric projects on the Nile, but ran into opposition from Egypt, which considered the river a matter of national security—and any Ethiopian dam a direct threat. Ethiopia cannot stand alone against Egypt, and over decades it had constructed an alliance of African states that share the Nile waters. The dam was the centerpiece of Meles’s developmental state, the African coalition its diplomatic extension. The most important partner was Sudan, which Ethiopia was particularly careful to keep onside. But, aggrandized by his Nobel prize, Abiy abandoned the coalition and met with Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi alone, offering direct talks with the U.S. treasury as mediator. Al-Sisi must have been dumbfounded when Abiy essentially discarded every card in his own hand. Trump, of course, sided with his “favorite dictator”—al-Sisi. Within a few months, public pressure in Ethiopia forced the Abiy to backtrack, and this angered Washington, which suspended some aid. Abiy is now stuck up this blind alley, trading threats with Egypt from a position of weakness—the grand dam now a symbol of national pride.

As a sidebar to this story, the third country in the talks—Sudan—had no choice but to side with Cairo and Washington. Ethiopia lost a valued friend. Today, the Sudanese are in the midst of a troubled transition to democracy, and Ethiopia has embroiled them in a border war.

The other dictator who smartly seized his chance was Isaias. Eritrea had been languishing without money or international legitimacy, under sanctions for destabilizing its neighbors. Abiy gave Isaias the key to escape from this prison, and the only thing he got in return was a medal from a committee in Oslo—and a military pact against the TPLF. For Abiy, the TPLF was a political problem that should have been amenable to compromise. The Tigrayan leadership had accepted their diminished status and retreated to Mekelle, though they were playing hardball on regional autonomy. For Isaias, however, the TPLF is an enemy to be destroyed completely. This means reducing Tigray and its people to abject destitution, unable ever again to challenge Eritrea. His dream was that the two forces he feared—the Ethiopian national army and the TPLF—would destroy one another, leaving him to play divide-and-rule over an unstable, diminished neighbor. By declaring war on Tigray, Abiy played into his hands.

The Prosperity Party is little more than a personality cult.

There was no shortage of warnings that war was imminent. The world’s attention was, of course, distracted by the U.S. election. Abiy controlled the narrative on day one. The TPLF botched its pre-emptive move: most of its takeover of the army bases was done without violence but several federal units resisted, and the Prime Minister could justifiably portray the attacks as mutinous. Miscalculating again, the TPLF was unprepared for the onslaught that followed. The biggest attack came down the road from Eritrea. Drones from the Eritrean airbase at Assab relentlessly destroyed the Tigrayans’ armor and hunted down their leaders. This airbase had been used by the United Arab Emirates for drone flights in the Yemen war, but those operations stopped in October. In November, drones flew from the same base to Tigray. The UAE hasn’t publicly said anything and nor have its western allies, but the drone strikes stopped in January when the Emiratis packed up their Assab base.

For the first few months, Abiy’s military campaign was largely popular in Ethiopia, as people accepted the official script, relished the humbling of the Tigrayans, expecting a return to peace and the reform agenda. That expectation—never well-grounded—is fast draining away. Abiy’s public denigration of TPLF political leaders became a license for soldiers to humiliate ordinary Tigrayan people, most horribly manifest in  sexual violence against women and girls. Similar animosity is growing commonplace across the country, directed by each group against its neighbor, with everyone blaming the Prime Minister for conspiring against them. The Prosperity Party is little more than a personality cult, whose leader opens public parks and tweets daily visions of a glowing national future. With barely a month left before national elections, scheduled on June 5, Ethiopia is trapped between Abiy’s dash to win a popular mandate and a rising tide of discontent and violence. Scarcely more than half of the country’s fifty thousand polling centers are likely to open.

Twenty-five years ago, one of Isaias’s leading advisors remarked that Ethiopia was an “overdressed Zaire.” It was meant as an insult, referring to that infamously kleptocratic state, just then plunging into bloody convulsions. But unless Ethiopians can pause in their mutual destruction and set aside their bitterness to begin a civic dialogue, it may also be a forecast.