When Abiy Ahmed assumed office as Ethiopia’s prime minister, he inherited a country grappling with long-standing internal tensions, including an imminent civil war in the Tigray region. Abiy’s initial approach of cracking down on the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the dominant party in Ethiopian politics over the past thirty years, culminated in a brutal and protracted conflict with far-reaching consequences for the country’s political and economic infrastructure. Through the support of neighboring strongman and autocrat Eritrean president Isaias Afwerki as well as Turkey, China, and the United Arab Emirates, Abiy eventually emerged victorious, but not without significant costs. As Ethiopia continues to grapple with enduring tensions and internal conflicts, and as Abiy attempts to establish a lasting legacy as a peacemaker, the role of regional actors, including Afwerki, is emerging as a critical factor in the country’s stability.
In April 2018, when Abiy became Ethiopia’s prime minister, he faced the challenge of managing a country on the brink of a civil war. His predecessor, Hailemariam Desalegn, resigned under duress, paving the way for Abiy to make history as Ethiopia’s first Oromo prime minister. As an ethnic Oromo married to an Amhara wife, Abiy was enthusiastically received by the wider Oromo community, showing their contentment with Ethiopia’s political trajectory by showing up in large numbers on the streets. In 2019, Abiy was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in ending a twenty-year conflict with neighboring Eritrea.
However, Abiy’s ascension to power coincided with deep-seated tensions between the Ethiopian government and TPLF. When he began cracking down on Tigrayan officials holding powerful positions in Ethiopia’s government, he faced multiple assassination attempts as a result. Escalating tensions eventually led to elections in September 2020, a controversial display of TLPF autonomy from the central government in Addis Ababa. The Ethiopian government deemed the move illegal, and in November of the same year, the TPLF attacked the Northern Command of the Ethiopian military, sparking the Tigray war.
Initially, the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) overran the TPLF and ousted the rebels from the Tigrayan region capital, Mekelle. However, the TPLF, resorting to classic guerrilla tactics, engaged in a game of cat and mouse with the ENDF. The ENDF’s frustration with the recalcitrance of the Tigray people, a tight-knit, highly politically conscious society, led to the full wrath of its power being brought onto the civilians in Tigray. Cases of rape, torture and extrajudicial killings were widely documented by international human rights organizations.
In June 2021, the TPLF retook Mekelle, and in November of the same year, it declared that it would push toward Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. During that period, the TPLF's brutal retribution for the ENDF's occupation of Mekelle extended to new areas in the Amhara and Afar regions, where it unleashed large-scale atrocities against civilians with almost equal measure. Abiy temporarily handed over his duties as Ethiopia’s prime minister to his deputy and led the army himself. With Turkish and Chinese drones and Eritrean troops on the ground, the ENDF launched a blitzkrieg against the TPLF, taking back the territories that the TPLF had occupied in the previous three months in just three days.
This time, Abiy demonstrated a capacity for learning from past missteps. Specifically, during the 2020 incident where the ENDF overpowered the TPLF, the Ethiopian government was reluctant to acknowledge any potential for third-party mediation and failed to capitalize on the favorable momentum to establish a peace agreement. However, during subsequent events, the Ethiopian government signaled a willingness to consider the African Union’s peace agreement that was spearheaded by Olusegun Obasanjo, the former president of Nigeria, as a mediator. The African Union acted quickly, organizing a peace conference in Pretoria, South Africa, in November 2022, almost two years after the commencement of hostilities, and invited representatives from both the TPLF and the Ethiopian government. Subsequent rounds of negotiations emerged as a result of the peace conference, ultimately contributing to a de-escalation of tensions and culminating in the TPLF surrendering its heavy weaponry in January 2023.
This recent chapter in Ethiopia’s historical narrative marks a crucial and transformative moment, characterized by a departure from the country’s violent past. Ethiopia has struggled with intermittent civil conflicts that have seldom been resolved through peaceful means. The reign of Emperor Haile Selassie during the 1930s was tumultuous, culminating in his alleged assassination by the orders of Mengistu Haile Mariam, who staged a military coup in 1975 to overthrow the monarch. In the 1990s, Mengistu himself was forced to flee the country after being ousted from power by a rebel faction led by the TPLF. Furthermore, the unexpected death of Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia’s prime minister since the 1990s, in 2012 left a leadership vacuum, and concerns over a peaceful transition of power emerged. Hailemariam Desalegn, who succeeded Zenawi, resigned under the weight of TPLF’s reluctance to relinquish its hold on power, thus passing the baton to Abiy Ahmed. Abiy’s approach to peace in Ethiopian politics is distinctive in that it effectively reconciled opposing factions, a feat that was previously unaccomplished in the country’s history.
Nonetheless, despite the success of Abiy’s innovative approach to peace in Ethiopian politics, it remains uncertain whether his efforts have earned the approval of his Eritrean ally, Afwerki. Afwerki’s deep-seated personal animosity towards the TPLF dates back to the 1998 war between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Furthermore, the recent loss of power by Somalia’s president, Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo, to Hassan Sheikh Mohamud in May 2022, has weakened Afwerki’s position in East Africa. Farmajo had cultivated a special relationship with Afwerki, an arrangement that was not welcomed by Djibouti, a neighboring country with linguistic, ethnic, and religious ties to Somalia, and whose part of its land has been occupied by Eritrea since 2008. The changing political dynamics in the region, with the departure of Farmajo and the emergence of a new alliance between Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Kenya under the banner of the “Somalia’s Frontline State Summit” in Mogadishu in February 2023, may marginalize the tripartite alliance between Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia, formed during Farmajo’s time in office, thus further isolating Afwerki. Such developments may lead Afwerki to work against Ethiopia’s peace process, thereby undermining the potential for sustainable peace in the region.
Despite Abiy’s apparent consolidation of power in Ethiopia, there remain deep-rooted tensions that continue to simmer in several parts of the country, creating a potential opportunity for Afwerki to exploit and undermine Abiy’s efforts toward stability. In Oromia, for instance, the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) continues to mount attacks on the ENDF, occasionally gaining control of territories. Similarly, there are unresolved disputes between the Afar and Somali ethnic groups, which have escalated since the outbreak of the Tigray conflict. Armed Afar groups, equipped with ENDF weaponry, have seized Somali towns they regard as historically belonging to Afar, leading to the massacre of civilians, particularly women, and children. Moreover, the Amhara militia group known as FANO, which has played a significant role in the conflict against the TPLF, is not in a completely stable relationship with Abiy. Additionally, the recent tensions between Ethiopia’s Orthodox Church and members of the Oromo ethnic group may open new fronts of religious tension in the country. These simmering tensions offer Afwerki a window of opportunity to interfere in Ethiopia’s internal affairs and maintain control over Abiy, exploiting any perceived lapses in his leadership.
The recent successful negotiations that culminated in the TPLF surrendering its heavy weaponry and de-escalating the Tigray conflict are significant steps toward Ethiopia's journey to stability. The African Union’s mediation efforts, combined with the Ethiopian government’s willingness to consider third-party intervention, proved to be a winning combination. The strategy employed in this situation could serve as a model for resolving other brewing conflicts in Ethiopia, such as those involving OLA, FANO, the tensions between the Afar and Somali ethnic groups, and the issues concerning the country’s religious groups. By establishing a similar framework of transparency and rectitude in these situations, Ethiopia can create guardrails for peace and deter further attempts to undermine its trajectory toward stability. The African Union and the Ethiopian government must work together to ensure that the lessons learned from the Tigray conflict are applied to other conflicts in the country, to ensure that Ethiopia continues to move forward on a path of peace and stability.
Ethiopia’s quest for stability has undergone significant transformations under Abiy’s leadership. The Nobel laureate’s unorthodox path from a peacemaker to a war leader has brought into question the sustainability of his leadership and opened the door for Afwerki to exploit Ethiopia’s underlying tensions. Furthermore, Abiy’s pragmatic approach to emerging regional alliances has significant implications for Ethiopia and the region at large, which could define his rule for years to come.
Mahad D. Darar is an academic based in Colorado, USA. Mr. Darar has a graduate degree in International Relations and Conflict Resolution. His research focuses on the Middle East and East African region. Follow him on Twitter at @organizermahad.
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