A little over a year ago, Africa’s youngest leader came to power in the form of Abiy Ahmed Ali — and with that, Ethiopia pitched into its most dramatic attempt yet at democracy. But fears are mounting that Abiy’s attempt to straddle the country’s ethnic divides will fail, igniting a murderous civil war.
When Abiy stepped into the prime minister’s office at the age of just 41, the continent was agog at the rapidity and ambition of his reforms. Politically, his election marked the end of an authoritarian system still deeply marked by the Marxism of the Derg military junta, which ruled from 1974 to 1987. Economically, he set the country on a liberal trajectory that is expected to result in the economy growing at 8.5% by July — arguably off the back of the agrarian revolution of Soviet-backed dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam.
But the primary danger for the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front — a coalition that won the civil war against Mengistu in 1991 — lies in the ethnic faultlines of Ethiopia. These social cleavages are deepened by "ethnic federalism" — a system used to balance ethnic powers and so reduce tensions in a handful of countries, including South Sudan, Pakistan and, disastrously, Yugoslavia.
Under this system, Ethiopia is divided into nine ethnic regions and three multi-ethnic urban enclaves, including the capital, Addis Ababa. The problem, says Professor Kjetil Tronvoll, Ethiopian expert and director of Norwegian think-tank Oslo Analytica, is that this divide-and-rule structure was held in check by the heavy surveillance of the authoritarian system; democratisation may cause the control mechanisms to fail.
Tronvoll says each ethnic region has its own militia, which reports to a regional president and is backed by regional military units and regional police forces.
The three largest such militia are those of Oromia (with perhaps 400,000 under arms), Amhara (300,000) and Tigray (250,000). Together, they vastly outnumber the federal defence force, which can muster just 162,000 soldiers.
"This security plurality is extremely dangerous, with each region having its own force, and with territorial claims all over the country," Tronvoll says. "The Amhara-Tigrayan border is one of most securitised in Africa — and that’s an internal border. You could have a severe civil war in Ethiopia fought by public military forces; it’s a scary scenario."
But any demobilisation decree from Abiy would likely be seen as "an act of war" by the Tigrayans, a powerful ethnic minority.
Regional militias have done more than rattle their sabres: an Amnesty International report notes that the Liyu police — a special force in eastern Ethiopia — and local Ethiopian militia "extrajudicially executed hundreds of Oromos … Among those killed were infants as young as six months."
Tronvoll says these killings have "a semblance of ethnic cleansing in some areas".
Ironically, two drivers of ethnic tensions can be laid at the door of Abiy.
First, his purge of the securocrat hierarchy — about 60 old-guard generals and many lesser ranks were dismissed and some face criminal charges — has involved a partial dismantling of the national intelligence apparatus, which previously kept a close watch on social tensions.
The result, says Tronvoll, is that many ethnic Tigrayan field agents have refused to report, leaving Abiy, an ethnic Oromo, blind in one eye.
Speaking to the FM from Addis Ababa, The Reporter journalist Samuel Getachew calls the purges "a cosmetic change" at the top that has left a "bureaucratic and incompetent" base untouched, and trouble brewing even within ethnic groups.