As the Ethiopian civil war nears its second anniversary, peace remains elusive. African Union-led talks have gone nowhere. Olusegun Obasanjo, a former Nigerian military leader and president who today acts as the African Union’s high representative for the Horn of Africa, has brokered no confidence as an arbiter, especially given his willingness to bestow legitimacy on 2021 elections in Ethiopia seen as neither free nor fair by neutral observers. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken noted at the time, “the electoral process…was not free or fair for all Ethiopians.” While the African Union has also charged former Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta to co-lead peace talks, Obasanjo’s interference undermines the confidence in and ability of Kenyatta and renders the African Union irrelevant. A months-long U.S.-led peace process also failed. Fighting continues. While Western attention remains on Ukraine, the Ethiopian conflict is more brutal and the civilian toll far higher.
Peace in Ethiopia?
As Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed invites Eritrean forces into Ethiopia and pursues a campaign of ethnic reprisal and collective punishment against Ethiopia’s Tigray population, both in the Tigray region and in Ethiopia’s capital, he appears to harbor two delusions. The first is that with enough military assaults and Eritrean support, he will get lucky and achieve an absolute military victory obviating the need for diplomacy. The second is that when the fighting ends, Ethiopia can then return to the status quo ante in Tigray.
Both of these notions are foolish. Tigray will never surrender. Tigrayans are fighting for their lives and their culture; they believe surrender would simply facilitate Abiy’s desire to commit genocide. To believe Ethiopia can return to normal under Abiy is an even greater delusion. Abiy’s vendetta against senior Tigray People’s Liberation Front officials led him to target the only leaders in the region committed to remaining in Ethiopia. When Ethiopian forces executed former Ethiopian Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin they murdered any hope of a centralized Ethiopia. Mesfin came from a generation that participated in and understood the value of Ethiopia as a multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian state. A landlocked Tigray, after all, would be dependent on hostile neighbors and would lack both significant industry and access to ports. By killing him and his colleagues, Abiy leaves only a younger generation of Tigrayan activists who feel no commitment to the idea of Ethiopia.
Abiy and his supporters may have opposed Ethiopia’s current ethnic-based federalism. Frankly, many criticisms they voiced were valid. The proper way to have addressed these concerns, though, would be by achieving compromise, if not consensus, through the legislative process rather than seeking to impose by fiat and military might.
Today, the opportunity to downplay ethnicity in Ethiopia’s federalism or strengthen the central state is over. Rather, the future of Ethiopia, for better or worse, is through confederation. Abiy’s actions and arrogance reinforce to Tigrayans that they can never lay down arms nor cede control over their own region. Here, there is an analogy to Iraq’s Kurds, even if Kurds never dominated Iraq in the way that Tigrayans did in Ethiopia. Kurdish resistance to the central state dates back to the British mandate and the Sheykh Mahmud Barzanji revolts and continued sporadically over the following decades. After Abdul Karim Qasim overthrew the monarch in 1958, he offered Mulla Mustafa Barzani, the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, autonomy. When Qasim failed to honor his promises, Barzani renewed civil war. In 1970, however, the Iraqi government and Kurdistan Democratic Party reached an autonomy agreement. The failure to implement this by 1974 led to renewed rebellion. Baathist dictator Saddam Hussein sought to end the Kurdish problem once and for all with a campaign of ethnic cleansing that appears, in many ways, to be a model for Abiy’s actions today. As with Addis Ababa and Tigray today, each time the central state sought to impose its will militarily, the irreversibility of Kurdish autonomy grew stronger. While Kurdish populists might talk of independence, the reality is that neighbors and economic unviability make this nearly impossible.
The reality today is that Ethiopia’s future is one of confederation. To settle the Tigray conflict, Abiy will need to exceed to even greater Tigrayan autonomy. Abiy or his successor will eventually make this concession. The only question will be how many Tigrayans and Ethiopian (and Eritrean) troops will die before he recognizes reality. Once Tigray achieves real autonomy, it is inevitable that Oromia will demand the same, followed by the Somali region (as Ethiopia now calls Ogaden), Afar, Gambella, and Sidamo. Ethiopian unity will be a fig leaf, but Addis Ababa can maintain a ceremonial presidency and fly its flag over embassies shared by its confederal units and at the United Nations.
Peace will come but Ethiopia as we know it is over. The longer Abiy continues his crusade, the weaker Addis Ababa’s will be in any confederation. Ethiopian nationalists and Génocidaires may bluster at Tigrayans and falsely besmirch Tigrayan forces as terrorists but if they are angry at the disintegration of their nation, they will have no one but Abiy to thank.
By Michael Rubin
Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).