Durham Academics Q&A Three

Dr Jacob Wiebel

Assistant Professor of Modern African History (with a particular focus on East Africa & the Horn)


History in Politics: In the early days of his administration, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, pursued political liberalisation and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for resolving a longstanding border dispute with neighbouring Eritrea. More recently, however, he has imprisoned thousands of Ethiopians, postponed national elections, and is conducting military operations in the Tigray region. Has Abiy Ahmed turned away from his liberalising aims?

Jacob: This is a hotly debated question in Ethiopia at the moment. The case for the view that he has turned away from his early liberalising reforms rests largely on the arrest of opposition politicians and on the heavy-handed military response to the significant political and military challenge posed by the TPLF (Tigray People’s Liberation Front), the party that has de facto governed Ethiopia for more than two and half decades and held power in Tigray’s capital until last week. The postponement of the much-awaited election due to the Coronavirus pandemic was a decision of the National Electoral Board, and while opponents have been quick to see this as yet another form of backsliding on early promises, this seems a harsh judgment on a decision that was in line with responses to the crisis elsewhere in the region and the world.

How those elections will unfold, how free and fair they will be, and what actions Abiy will take until they are held will give us a clearer sense of the fate of the reformist wave of enthusiasm that accompanied Abiy’s first months in power. One perspective would be that the TPLF leadership and their interests actually posed the most significant challenge to the implementation of Abiy’s reformist promises. If his military campaign against them is successful – and if human rights abuses against ethnic Tigrayans can be contained – then this may in fact facilitate the process of political liberalisation. It is a big “if”, a big gamble, but I do believe that PM Abiy’s liberalising aims, if not the promising early steps towards implementation, are still there.

History in Politics: How has the nation’s history of ethnic federalism contributed to the current conflict and why is Abiy Ahmed’s unitary style of national politics so contentious?

Jacob: This is a great question. To answer it, we need to look back a little further into Ethiopian history. When the military government known as the Derg overthrew the imperial regime of Emperor Haile Selassie I in 1974, it largely continued the centralising policies of its imperial predecessor. In the late 1960s, Wallelign Mekonnen, an Ethiopian student, had argued in a much publicised poem that “to be an Ethiopian is to wear an Amhara mask”; that Ethiopian identity, and by extension the Ethiopian state, was so closely tied to Orthodox Christianity, to the Amharic language, to a certain historical narrative centred in the north – in a nutshell, to the culture of the Ethiopian highlands, Amhara and to a lesser extent Tigrayan in character –  that it suffocated the culture and voice of all minorities. There was very little tolerance for organised regional autonomy, illustrated most strikingly in the forceful incorporation of Eritrea: the former Italian colony had become part of Ethiopia in 1952, on condition of receiving significant devolved powers. Haile Selassie saw this as an affront to the power of the Ethiopian state, and systematically dismantled the federation over the following decade, leaving Eritrea as no more than a province of the Empire. This triggered the beginning of the Eritrean struggle for independence. By the 1970s, a number of regionalist and ethno-nationalist insurgents, among them the TPLF in Tigray and the EPLF (Eritrean People’s Liberation Front) in Eritrea, fought against the Ethiopian government over its centralised, unitary style of national politics. In 1991, they won the civil war, overthrowing the Derg and paving the way for Eritrean independence and for ethnic federalism in Ethiopia.

Ethnic federalism was designed as a solution to this history of a domineering centralised state that marginalised minorities (and, in the case of the Oromo, also the numerical majority) in Ethiopian politics. It provided a way of devolving power away from the political centre, and to assure rights to the country’s many “nations and nationalities”, as the constitution designates ethnic groups, using the Marxist language in which all the insurgents had been steeped. The TPLF was the main architect, the guarantor, and arguably the main beneficiary of ethnic federalism since the early 1990s. Even after losing power at the political centre, it retains a strong stake in the system, both as a matter of principle and to secure its regional power in Tigray vis-à-vis the federal state.

An unfortunate, though widely foreseen, effect of ethnic federalism has been the accentuation of ethnic identities, mobilisation patterns, and conflict lines in Ethiopian politics. Abiy is now seeking to avoid this trap and to dial down the ethnic logical of political claim-making, but inevitably he is doing that against the background of this history of centralisation and of a unitary style of national politics that meant marginalisation for many, and favouritism for Amhara elites and culture. That his approach seems to appeal most to Amhara and to cosmopolitan urbanites reflects this history to some extent, but it may not aid his cause.

History in Politics: It seems that one of the major ideological divides between the TPLF and Abiy Ahmed’s government is their respective understanding of Ethiopia’s history. How has the politicisation of the past contributed to the current conflict and rising ethnic tensions?

Jacob: Exactly, the current conflicts in Ethiopia are rooted in fundamentally different ways of telling, politicising and mobilising narratives of the Ethiopian past. They are conflicts over history as much as over political power. For Abiy and his newly formed Prosperity Party, Ethiopian history is a synthesis of the many cultures that have been absorbed into and together come to constitute modern Ethiopia. He sees this as a glorious inheritance, but also as one that needs to be completed and redeemed in light of the many missteps that have characterised this history. This is also the story that “Unity Park” tells, the glitzy new museum of Ethiopian history and cultures that Abiy opened at Menelik II’s old palace in Addis Ababa last year. The descent into ethnic factionalism that threatens the very fabric of Ethiopia is, on this reading, just one of these missteps that need to be overcome and redeemed, along others such as the long history of centralising authoritarianism.

For the TPLF, what is at stake in the conflict is the memory and achievement of “the martyrs”, as the fallen freedom fighters who confronted the Derg are remembered. And of course the constitutional accomplishments, as they see it, of ethnic federalism, which finally offered an inclusive and ambitious solution to the longstanding problem of unity and diversity in Ethiopian politics.

History in Politics: What impact do you think the current crisis in Tigray will have on regional politics given Eritrea’s alleged involvement and the growing hostility in Ethiopia to Eritrean refugees?

Jacob: There has been a lot of commentary on this in recent weeks, but in truth a lot depends on the outcome of the military confrontation in Tigray and on the levels of community violence that are currently taking place. Things are developing quickly and verifiable local information remains hard to come by, so it is hard to evaluate this at the moment.

There are many reports of terrible human rights abuses having taken place since early November, and if Tigrayans don’t feel protected by the federal government a regional insurgency might be able to entrench itself and to destabilise the country. This would have significant ramifications for the region. The main issues to watch here would be repercussions in Somalia, from where Ethiopia has already withdrawn many troops from the struggle against al Shabaab to fight in Tigray; the ongoing simmering tension with Egypt over the ‘Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam’ on the Nile; the developing humanitarian crisis, in Tigray itself but beyond that also in neighbouring Sudan, where tens of thousands of Tigrayans have already fled; and the fate of the many refugees from neighbouring states, Eritrea but also Somalia, who are currently in Ethiopia.

But if Abiy prevails he may find himself in a greatly strengthened position; to return to your first question, if he successfully apprehends the leadership of the TPLF and eliminate the threat they have posed to him since his ascent to power, he may find himself with more cards to play, more political capital to spend, in pursuit of a liberalising political agenda.