When a Nobel Peace Prize winner goes to war little more than a year after receiving the world’s most prestigious honor, it may come as a shock. But when Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who won the prize in 2019, announced last week that he was launching a military offensive against one of his country’s ethnic regions, the news didn’t surprise close observers.
Despite the sudden outbreak of large-scale fighting between federal forces and the heavily armed Tigray regional government, tensions had been building steadily since Abiy became prime minister in 2018 and later dissolved Ethiopia’s ruling coalition, which included the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and three other ethnically defined regional parties. The TPLF refused to join the new national party that Abiy formed to replace the ruling coalition, so it was left out of power after having dominated the national government since 1991, when Mengistu Haile Mariam’s military dictatorship was toppled.
Abiy had outmaneuvered the TPLF, but the party continued to rule the Tigray region. The other reforms Abiy enacted immediately after taking office were transformative, and were greeted with euphoria by most Ethiopians and the international community. He welcomed back exiled opposition leaders, reached a peace agreement with neighboring Eritrea and vowed to build a strong, lasting democracy in Ethiopia.
But even then, it was clear that once the excitement died down, Abiy would still face the very problems that have now brought the country to the edge of a civil war, which could potentially spell calamity once again to the entire Horn of Africa. A few months after Abiy took power, I wrote about the many obstacles he faced. “The most difficult,” I noted, was “transforming the current political landscape, dominated by ethnic and tribal allegiances, to one where citizenship—loyalty to the country as a whole—transcends narrower divisions.”
Ethiopia’s federal system divides the country into 10 ethnically distinct regions, which are controlled by their dominant ethic groups. Tigray’s leaders have lost the most power and influence under Abiy, but it is not the only region where tensions had been lying just below the surface.
The TPLF has chafed under Abiy’s efforts to expand the national government’s influence. They have accused Abiy, a member of the country’s largest ethnic group, the Oromo, of displaying authoritarian tendencies and using repressive measures against them, firing Tigrayans from government posts and persecuting them. Human rights groups have warned that his administration was starting to display some of the repressive traits of its predecessors.
Abiy, not surprisingly, sees it differently. His government has tried to fortify Ethiopia’s national identity and strengthen the central government’s role from Addis Ababa. To Tigrayans, that looks suspiciously like an effort to dismantle the federalism that gave the regions a measure of autonomy.
The conflict started coming to a boil in the past few months. In June, Ethiopia’s federal parliament announced that, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the terms of all regional governments would be extended past their scheduled expiration, and national elections would be postponed.
Tigray rejected that order and held its regional elections in September. Abiy viewed that as a dangerous defiance of his and Addis Ababa’s authority. In response, the government announced it would stop recognizing the Tigray regional government beyond its original expiration date, in October, and would stop transferring federal funds to it. The TPLF called that “tantamount to a declaration of war.”
Abiy has rolled the dice with his high-stakes move against the rebellious Tigray region.
Tensions kept escalating, with troop movements and menacing language. On Nov. 2, Debretsion Gebremichael, Tigray’s regional president and the chair of the TPLF, announced that his region’s well-trained and experienced military forces were preparing for war.
The federal parliament then labeled the TPLF a terrorist group, essentially ending any prospects for a negotiated settlement. The die was cast on Nov. 4, when Abiy declared that “the last red line has been crossed,” accusing the TPLF of attacking a government military base. The military offensive on Tigray followed, with the predictable impact on civilians and unpredictable consequences for the larger region.
Refugee flows started almost immediately. The United Nations refugee agency reported a “full-scale humanitarian crisis,” as tens of thousands of Ethiopian civilians fled for their lives into neighboring Sudan.
Concerns that the conflict might spread beyond Ethiopia’s borders also quickly materialized. Tigrayan leaders accused Eritrea’s government of siding with Addis Ababa and attacking them, a charge Eritrea denied. Tigrayan forces even fired rockets over the border at Eritrea’s main airport.
There are two principal competing narratives in this conflict: Abiy maintains he is trying to save Ethiopia by preventing a rebellious region from defying the central government and going its own way. Tigrayan leaders say they are defending their region’s rights from a repressive leader.
Ethiopia’s neighbors are alarmed, fearing that war in Ethiopia poses a threat to the region. The Horn of Africa has a history of civil wars, which have triggered epic famines and utter devastation. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta has called for de-escalation, noting that Ethiopia and Kenya have “served as anchor states for regional peace and stability.” Other leaders in Africa and around the world have urged the two sides to negotiate a peaceful solution.
For now, Abiy is ignoring those entreaties. Instead, earlier this week, he announced “the final critical act of law enforcement,” as government troops march on Tigray’s capital after the region’s forces refused to observe a deadline to surrender. The Ethiopian leader, the youngest in Africa, wants to inflict a crushing defeat on the rebellious forces. But he doesn’t have much time. Popular support, one of Abiy’s main sources of power and legitimacy, will wane if victory does not come quickly, and pressure from the same international community that celebrated his mandate and his reforms will grow more difficult to endure the longer this conflict lasts.
At the same time, other restive provinces in Ethiopia, home to other ethnic groups with grievances of their own, are paying close attention. Abiy has rolled the dice with this high-stakes move against Tigray. If government forces can secure a quick victory, and Abiy can follow it with an effort at national reconciliation and regional negotiation, he may be able to brandish it all as a sign of a new Ethiopia, moving forward together. Tigray’s forces, however, are strong and determined. Last year’s Nobel Peace Prize laureate stands at the brink of either an important victory, or a widening war.
*Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is a regular contributor to CNN and The Washington Post. Her WPR column appears every Thursday. Follow her on Twitter at @fridaghitis.