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Ethiopia on the edge — can Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed pull back from the abyss?


Abdi Ismail Samatar is a senator in the Federal Parliament of Somalia, an extraordinary professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Pretoria and professor of Geography at the University of Minnesota.

Abiy Ahmed’s plans for and rhetoric around a harbour and naval base on the coast of secessionist Somaliland has inflamed sentiments such that even the terrorist group al-Shabaab has declared its intention to become active in Ethiopia.

Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power in 2018 and promised a new era of peace and democracy in his country and in the Horn of Africa, a region that had known little peace. Six years after his accession to power and with a Nobel Peace Prize to boot, it is time to assess what has become of the promise.

The historical context

Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa have known more than their share of human misery for several decades. Millions of Ethiopians, Somalis, South Sudanese, Sudanese and Eritreans have perished due to wars and famines induced by authoritarian regimes or savage warlords.  

The horrific Ethiopian famines of the 1970s and the 1980s took millions of lives because Emperor Haile Selassie and his successor, Colonel Mengistu Hailemariam, presided over a system that failed to come to their people’s rescue, or used food as a weapon of war.

Such abuse of power led to the rise of resistance movements. The most successful was the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) which ousted the old regime in 1991. The TPLF brought together junior resistance groups into a coalition government under the umbrella of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front that dominated the country for two decades.

This government significantly altered the country’s politics by ushering in a federal system where the provinces were identified with particular ethnic groups – the Amhara, Oromo and Somali regions, etc.

The ethnic regionalisation of the country was meant to give cultural and political freedom to most Ethiopians who were subjects rather than citizens in the land of their birth. But in a classic Animal Farm scenario, despite cultural freedoms being attained by previously marginalised communities, the new liberators’ (TPLF) domination of the country was total and the promise of justice and democracy faded away. There were no famines of the magnitude of the past during Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s rule, but that regime left behind a deeply fragmented and mistrustful society.

Gaining power

Zenawi died in 2012 and the TPLF-dominated party elected Zenawi’s deputy, Hailemariam Desalegn, as prime minister. Despite the new leadership, the TPLF cadre remained in charge until 2018 when Desalegn resigned. A few days later, a major historical rupture took place as an ethnic Oromo, Abiy Ahmed, was elected prime minister for the first time in Ethiopian history.

The Oromos were among the most subjugated communities in modern Ethiopian history. Many did not believe that the old political ethnic establishment would allow such a development unless they were confident that they could pull strings from behind the scenes. It was not long before Ahmed told the public that the old guard tried to tame him after which he disbanded them.

The challenge

Liberated from the grip of the old clique, Ahmed announced his “radical” agenda for the country. He proclaimed that Ethiopia would relinquish its claim on the territory along the border with Eritrea. The latter was the cause of a brutal war between the two countries in the late 1990s that claimed nearly 120,000 lives.

He subsequently flew to the Eritrean capital, Asmara, and signed a peace agreement with the Eritrean leader, Isaias Afwerki. The Nobel Peace Prize Committee was so impressed with this decisive act that it honoured Ahmed with the 2019 Peace Prize.

Despite such promise, a new civil war between the Tigray regional authority and the national government broke out within a year. It is estimated that nearly 600,000 lives were lost before a peace treaty was signed in Pretoria in 2022.

In the meantime, several other conflicts broke out between Ahmed’s government and other ethnic-based organisations, such as the Oromo Liberation Army and the Amhara militia known as Fano. These conflicts have spread to areas close to the Ethiopian capital and diplomats’ travel outside the capital is restricted. Further, relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia have significantly deteriorated since the Tigray-Ethiopian peace accord.

Old wine in a new bottle

Parallel to the worsening security conditions in the country has been the use of state power and resources to marginalise opposition political parties from competing fairly in the 2021 elections. The prime minister’s Prosperity Party won more than 95% of the vote. Such a surreal victory confirmed that the prime minister’s promise of a new Ethiopia was nothing more than an old wine in a new bottle. As Ahmed and his team reinvent Ethiopia’s traditional authoritarian political system with a democratic façade, the cruel essence of failed politics raises its heinous head in the form of massive famine in three provinces: Tigray and parts of Amhara and Afar.

Just when the existential conditions of ordinary Ethiopians demanded the government’s undivided attention, the prime minister made another political blunder. Throughout 2023, Ahmed insisted that Ethiopia could not remain landlocked and must get its own coastal territory and seaport in order to develop.

On 1 January 2024, Ahmed declared that he had reached an agreement with the leader of Somalia’s secessionist province, Somaliland. Although the memorandum of agreement remains secret, it is reported that Ethiopia would get 32km of northern Somali coast where it can develop its own port facilities as well as a naval base. In exchange, Somaliland will get unspecified Ethiopian Airlines stock and a cheap electric supply from the Ethiopian grid.  

This development generated a political firestorm between Somalia and Ethiopia. The Somali government condemned the agreement as an attack on its sovereignty and territorial integrity. Subsequently, all major world powers and international and regional organisations, such as the AU, UN, IGAD, the US, Russia, China and the EU, have reiterated the sanctity of Somalia’s territorial integrity.

The memorandum and Ahmed’s attempt to whitewash it have resurrected old colonial memories among Somalis. Even the substantial Somali populations who are Kenyan and Ethiopian citizens have rejected the prime minister’s territorial design.

Despite such severe diplomatic and political pushback, Ahmed insists that he has no intention to harm Somalia. But his plans and rhetoric have inflamed sentiments such that even the terrorist group al-Shabaab has declared its intention to become active in Ethiopia.

Without wise leadership the people shall perish

Self-indulgent dreams of many African leaders have led to national catastrophes that endured for decades. The political record of the Ethiopian prime minister since 2018 shows a trajectory that mimics past destructive Ethiopian policies and practices.

First, the illegitimate monopolisation of political power renders the promise of democracy moot. Such a political order invariably leads to violent conflict.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Ethiopia’s transitional justice process may amount to quasi-compliance without solid political will

Second, the use of military power to solve political problems in a country where political trust is non-existent has never produced peace, has historically impoverished the population and led to horrific famines.

Third, the maintenance and reproduction of political tribalism prevents the birth of civic political identity, and that deepens the endemic trust deficit.

Finally, imperial territorial ambitions have been the source of deep hostility and mistrust with Ethiopia’s neighbours. The most recent case with Somalia will certainly derail the prospect of progressive and peaceful regional integration.

It is not too late yet for Ahmed to realise the political cul-de-sac towards which he is marching. Pulling back from the precipice would be the mark of a wise leader. DM


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