Date: Saturday, 25 February 2023
There are nations with states and nations without a state. And in Sub-Saharan Africa, there is a third category: states without nations. One such case in point is Ethiopia. Ethiopia is a Federal Democratic Republic with two chartered cities and nine ethnically based autonomous regional entities. With more than 90 distinct ethnic groups and 80 languages, Ethiopia is one of the world's most ethnically and culturally diverse countries. 43.5 percent of the country follows Orthodox Christianism, while another 33.9 per cent follows Islam. The rest of the population follows Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, and traditional religions. It is Africa's second most populous country and is expected to become the largest economy of East Africa soon.
The year 2022 was a busy year for Ethiopian democracy, where the country witnessed a seesaw battle between the national army and a coalition of rebel groups led by Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) throughout the year. Nonetheless, the year ended on a good note when in November 2022, the Ethiopian federal government and Tigray rebels signed a peace deal to end the two-year-long metastasising war. However, even three months after the signing of the peace deal, there is hardly any dialogue between the two parties, thus, making the future of the peace deal doubtful. Since the peace deal, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed only once has held a meeting with the rebels, on 3rd January, for a brief period.
So far, an estimated 600,000 people have lost their lives in this war, making it one of the world's deadliest conflicts of recent times.  Another 900,000 Ethiopians left Ethiopia and escaped to neighbouring Sudan. Additionally, there were 2.75 million internally displaced persons in 2022, meaning 52 percent of Tigray's population fled their homes. Now, as two parties signed the peace deal in Pretoria, the world has decided to move on from the Ethiopian conflict with the empty vessel of "African solutions for African problems." However, several thorny questions remain unanswered. What will be the future of the TPLF rebels and TPLF as a political entity? Will there be any punishments for the war crimes committed by both sides? What will be the future of the Prime Minister's ambitious reform agenda? But most important of all, will the peace deal hold? Because if the violence breaks out again, this would not be the first time a treaty will be relapsed into a conflict.
In 2018, Abiy Ahmed became the PM, riding through an anti-government wave. As part of his reform programme, in 2019, Abiy founded the Prosperity Party to curtail the ethnicisation of politics. The new political entity had all eight regional states. However, TPLF declined to join the alliance and remained outside, claiming that Abiy was acting to consolidate his power. He also tried to scrap article 39 from the constitution, which gave each province constitutionally granted autonomy in a decentralised political system and a right to secede.  Abiy's supporters contend that his policies are pan-Ethiopian and geared toward creating a more unitarian state. However, his detractors accused him of attempting to centralise power. For them, it is against the constitution and will reduce the autonomy of ethno-nationalist forces.
In May 2020, Abiy Government postponed the general election scheduled for August 2020 due to the pandemic and proposed rescheduling it to June 2021. However, the TPLF proceeded with the election in the Tigray region in September 2020. Later, in November 2020, the TPLF attacked one federal military base resulting in many fatalities, injuries, and property damage. The rebel organisation from Ethiopia's northern Tigray region justified their attack as a preemptive strike because they feared an attack from the federal army. In response, Ethiopian forces, with the help of neighbouring Eritrean troops and local militias, retaliated and quickly took control of the whole Tigray province, including the capital Mekelle.
In this seesaw battle, TPLF made several dramatic comebacks and once was on the verge of attacking Addis Ababa. However, with the assistance of drones that were purportedly provided by Turkey, Iran, and the United Arab Emirates, the Ethiopian army again took control of the situation around December 2022. The government declared its readiness for a humanitarian truce and unwavering intention to participate in productive negotiations with the African Union as the mediator. However, the violence continued on a smaller scale. In March 2022, everyone was surprised when both sides agreed to a ceasefire out of the blue. Peace prevailed for the next few months, and Ethiopia's situation was slowly returning to normal.
Unfortunately, it was only a brief pause in a long-protracted war as violence erupted again in August. And when it was thought to be over, the five-month-long humanitarian truce collapsed again on 24th August when TPLF launched a fresh attack on Raya Kobo. And it became another full-blown war when Eritrea joined the fight in September. As last time the civil war raged again within five months of the humanitarian ceasefire, the fear of a similar renewal of violence can't be ignored. It is to be seen whether the current peace deal holds or the vicious cycle repeats itself.
Currently, both sides have stopped their violent and destructive conflict and taken basic steps toward political and security stabilisation, including the restoration of essential services such as electricity, communications and banking in Tigray. However, the two-year-long conflict dealt a significant blow to the Ethiopian economy that will hurt growth and increase basic commodity prices in the coming months. As per some estimates, rebuilding only northern Ethiopia will require approximately $20 billion over the next three years.
Although the current situation in Ethiopia is taking an enormous human toll, causing political instability throughout the Horn of Africa, these events are not entirely unfamiliar in Ethiopia. In its 60-year political discourse, Ethiopia has experienced alternating periods of peace and conflict. The first Italo-Ethiopian war, culminating with the Battle of Adwa (1895-1896), remains a watershed moment in the history of Ethiopia. The battle ended with the Treaty of Addis Ababa (1896), recognising Ethiopia's independence. In 1974, amilitary group known as the Derg overthrew the monarch, Haile Selassie. The head of the Derg, Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, launched a deadly purge to transform the country into a communist stronghold, infamously known as the Red Terror. Mengistu began a collectivisation programme while the nation was experiencing one of its regular droughts, and hundreds of thousands perished in the famine.
In 1991, a coalition of rebel militias overthrew Mengistu's Marxist military regime, thus putting an end to a violent seventeen-year civil war. The Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), the most ferocious and well-organised of the rebel organisations, rose to command the ruling alliance. The TPLF-led government first named the country the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. Later in 1995, they introduced a new constitution explicitly endorsing the different ethnic groups' rights to self-determination(article 8) and secession without restriction (article 39).
Adopting this outdated Soviet Communist theories of governance gave ethnic identity and space priority over national identity. In a way, it denied Ethiopian citizens their status as citizens who transcended nationality and acknowledged them as primarily ethnic creatures. Immanuel Kant, a prominent philosopher of enlightenment, appropriately identified this phenomenon as "public reason" with "private reason." The 1995 constitution simply replaced the supremacy of private reason with ethnic reason.
Although this radical ethno-nationalistic tilt of the 1995 Constitution was anticipated to lessen violent conflict in Ethiopia, issues related to ethnic conflict persisted, and the country remained divided on important national narratives. Nevertheless, during the three decades of TPLF reign, Ethiopia experienced respectable economic growth, averaging approximately ten per cent. The TPLF initiated a programme of economic modernisation, which over time, yielded tremendous benefits. In fact, some people have begun referring to Ethiopia as the China of Africa, and the nation has emerged as a stable nation in the disturbing, violent Horn of Africa.
Through the peace deal, TPLF survived its doomsday and got another opportunity to achieve politically what it failed to achieve militarily. Going forward, they may try to form some ethno-nationalist bloc under the pretext of fighting the central regime against federalism. However, their dream of an independent state doesn't look viable from a realpolitik perspective. Tigray is a landlocked region situated between the rest of Ethiopia, with which it is still at loggerheads, in addition to the central government, and an antagonistic Eritrea on the other side, which just assisted Abiy's government in putting down its insurrection. Moreover, if their independence were acknowledged, it would spark a chain reaction of nationalist movements, causing the continent to become unstable. What would prevent other regions of Ethiopia from trying the same thing? Definitely, African Union will staunchly oppose this move as the domino effect may impact many other countries of the continent.
Indeed, in many parts of Africa, there is a strong emergence of the pre-1991 politics of nationalism. This particular genre of politics undermines the right to national self-government by ideologising a centralised unitarist state in the guise of unity. This type of nation-building effort was made in Somalia under President Siad Barre, which eventually led to the breakdown of the state and the unilateral declaration of independence by Somaliland in 1991. Sudan's attempt at the Arabisation of South Sudan in 2011 also resulted in the state partition and the longest civil conflict in Africa. Ironically, a once hegemonic TPLF itself re-joined national movements for self-determination, often known as federalist forces, which it side-lined and oppressed for over a quarter-century.
Ethiopia's assimilationist nationalism has yet to yield any notable outcomes, and its aspiration for a nation-state remains elusive. A state can be defined based on its political sovereignty, geographic scope, and institutional framework. However, the idea of a nation is broader since it takes into account a variety of additional features, such as a shared cultural, historical, and linguistic background. And from that perspective, it is a long-drawn process to be achieved over a long period, and not by imposing it from the top. Going forward, Ethiopia may need to change its steadfast top-down strategy for creating an indivisible nation-state, which prevents the society's federal structure from flourishing. Ethiopia may instead initiate a bottom-up international federalisation process that matches society with the state. Until then, Ethiopia's quest for a nation-state will continue to be elusive.
On a positive note, Ethiopia has had multiple civil wars, a socialist revolution, two coups, and countless droughts, famines, and pandemics. And yet, it attained Africa's highest GDP growth rate, averaging 8 and 11 per cent yearly in the last decade until 2016. Probably Ethiopian nationalism was strengthened by these successive civil wars. History has demonstrated that nothing can bring a nation closer than difficult times. The question is whether Ethiopia can break these vicious cycles of violence and whether there is a silver lining for Ethiopia as a nation.
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(The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>