In 2020, Ethiopia’s latent fragilities exploded in a complex array of conflicts along pre-existing fault lines across the country. The previous year had seen the lowest level of reported fatalities in five years1 and in October Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, capping the widespread praise – known as “Abiymania” – for his year and a half in power during which he released thousands of political prisoners, lifted media censorship, and negotiated a peace deal with Eritrea, among other reforms. In stark contrast, 2020 witnessed bloody conflict throughout much of the country involving a mix of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF), regional defense forces, local militias, and foreign militaries, most notably from Eritrea.

Of the multiple conflicts engulfing the country in 2020, the conflict in the Tigray Region, where there have been the greatest number of reported fatalities since 1999 at the height of the Eritrea-Ethiopia war, has generated the most international news. Relations between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which governed Tigray, and the central government, have been strained since Abiy’s ascension displaced the TPLF as the predominant force at the national level. The TPLF refused to be a part of the Prosperity Party which Abiy formed in December 2019 out of the old ruling coalition and held elections in Tigray in September 2020 in defiance of the central government which had ordered them postponed. Accusations and counter-accusations then sent tensions spiraling, and war broke out in early November. The ENDF, supported by Amhara regional forces and the Eritrean military, quickly defeated open resistance by the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF), with Abiy declaring an end to military operations by the end of the month, but the TPLF vowed to continue the fight. The conflict has been characterized by accusations of human rights violations and the deliberate targeting of unarmed civilians.

Tigray, however, is just one of Ethiopia’s current conflicts. The region of Benishangul-Gumuz, site of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), is seeing levels of violence unprecedented in at least the last 23 years,2 and has also seen reports of human rights violations and the deliberate targeting of civilians. Much of the violence is between those belonging to ethnic groups classified as “natives” according to the region’s 2002 constitution and those, especially the Amhara but also including Oromos, Tigrayans, and others, originally from outside the region, but has also involved the ENDF and reportedly Amhara regional defense forces, the TPLF, and the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA). The drivers of the violence are numerous and interlinked including but not limited to perceptions of economic marginalization of those classified as “natives”, political marginalization of those who are not, conflict over land and resources, and fears that Abiy’s new Prosperity Party represents the first step in curtailing or eliminating the existing federal structure of the country.

This brief summary barely scratches the surface of the complexities of the ongoing conflicts in Ethiopia, nor their extent. The Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples (SNNP) Region has also seen the highest number of reported fatalities since 1999 and violence has also increased in the Oromia, Somali, and newly established Sidama Regions. Though the Amhara Region escaped this trend in 2020, the first four months of 2021 have seen a larger number of reported fatalities there than in any calendar year since 2002.

Many of the narratives around Ethiopia’s conflict have revolved around competing visions for the country’s future political structure. One narrative is frequently called centralism or Pan-Ethiopianism while the other is often referred to as federalism or ethno-nationalism. Those in support of the former vision argue that the existing system turns “ordinary tasks of governance into sites of ethnic competition and conflict”3 and fosters “antagonistic, exclusionary relationships”.4 In its place, Abiy has coined the term medemer to describe his political vision, defining it as “using the best of our past to build a new society and a new civic culture that thrives on tolerance, understanding, and civility.”5 Most of those opposed to this narrative view the past to which Abiy references as characterized by “violence, forced assimilation and suppression of cultures” by the Amhara.6 The vision of those supporting a federal structure, and who subscribe to a more ethno-nationalist narrative, see the current system as “a guarantee against the oppression of marginalized communities”7 and also profess a desire to see “genuine horizontal and vertical power sharing between the center and the regions”.8

Ethiopia’s current administrative structure dates back to 1991 when the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) – the forerunner of the Prosperity Party – swept into power by ousting the Derg. The EPRDF, a coalition of the TPLF and three other parties, delegated some powers to the governments of the nine newly defined regions. Five of these regions – Amhara, Afar, Oromia, Somali, and Tigray – were dominated by a single ethnic group that makes up around 90 percent or more of the population. The other four – Benishangul-Gumuz, Gambella, Harari, and SNNPR – are very much multi-ethnic areas. The country also enjoyed almost two decades of rapid and broad-based economic growth – Ethiopia grew third-fastest between 2000 and 2018 and its poverty rate fell by 20 percentage points.9 Yet conflict erupted again in 2016, at first largely confined to mass protests in Oromia. Even as Abiy’s ascension appeared to have helped bring a measure of stability, an attempted coup in Amhara in June 2019 that resulted in the deaths of the chief of staff of the ENDF, the president of the Amhara region, and others, was one indication that the dream of national unity was unraveling.

Ethiopia is becoming increasingly characterized by multiple centers of de facto power, including but not limited to the OLA, the TPLF, Eritrea, and the Amhara regional government, as a monopoly on violence slips further out of the grasp of the central government. While a few of these may share some overlapping interests, the multiplicity of actors with often divergent goals coupled with the capacity and willingness to back them up with military force will make finding a durable solution much more difficult. The importance of such a solution, however, can hardly be overstated; Ethiopia is the second-most populous country in Africa and prolonged conflict is unlikely to remain confined within its borders.

1. According to the Armed Conflict Location Event Database (ACLED) https://acleddata.com/
2. I.e., as far back as ACLED data goes (1997)
3. https://africanarguments.org/2019/12/ethiopia-beyond-ethnic-federalism/
4. https://www.ethiopia-insight.com/2020/12/30/reforming-ethiopian-ethnofederalism/
5. https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/2019/abiy/109716-lecture-english/
6. https://www.theelephant.info/features/2020/11/27/pan-ethiopianists-vs-ethno-nationalists-the-narrative-elite-war-in-ethiopia/
7. https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2020/12/7/abiys-efforts-to-unify-ethiopia-could-lead-to-its-disintegration
8. https://wardheernews.com/post-tplf-politics-centralism-vs-multinational-federalism/
9. https://qz.com/africa/1785100/will-ethiopia-stay-one-of-fastest-growing-economies-in-the-world/

Image from UNICEF Ethiopia licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 2.0 Generic license.