Less than a year ago, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed accepted the Nobel Peace Prize. Today, his country is on the brink of civil war. Tensions between Abiy’s government and the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), once the dominant force in Ethiopia’s ruling party but now a disgruntled and well-armed regional government, have been gradually escalating for months. Last week, the situation took a sudden turn for the worse when the prime minister ordered a military offensive against Tigrayan forces he accused of insurrectionary and traitorous activity. Ethiopia suffered a prolonged and bloody civil war from 1974 to 1991. Now it looks poised to repeat that history.  

A rapid descent into instability seemed unlikely when Abiy rose to power in 2018. The new prime minister quickly won plaudits—and the Nobel Peace Prize—for promising reforms that included releasing political prisoners and holding free and fair elections. He appeared to end Ethiopia’s long-running dispute with neighboring Eritrea, and as the country’s first leader from the Oromo ethnic group, he was also well positioned to end an ongoing rebellion in the Oromia region.

But behind the optimistic headlines, conflict was brewing. Abiy had come to power as part of a coalition, known as the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), in which the TPLF had played a central role. But Abiy quickly moved to consolidate his authority by creating a new political vehicle—the Prosperity Party—that he could more easily control. Abiy’s government marginalized the TPLF, which refused to join the new ruling party, setting itself instead on a collision course with the prime minister. A series of disagreements and skirmishes followed, culminating in a TPLF raid on an Ethiopian army base. Abiy responded with airstrikes and by taking the dangerous and provocative step of dissolving the government of the Tigray region.

To understand why the spat between Abiy and the TPLF has escalated so quickly and raised such alarm, one need only to look to Ethiopian history. Over the last 60 years, successive governments have struggled to maintain control over the vast and diverse country. In one way or another, all of them resorted to repression in order to curb dissent—and all of them were eventually violently overthrown.

REPRESSION AND REBELLION

Ethiopia’s cycle of repression and rebellion dates back to the imperial government of Haile Selassie, which presided over endemic instability, poverty, inequality, and food shortages from the 1930s until 1974. Selassie was overthrown by a military junta that evolved into a Marxist-Leninist regime—known as the Derg—that promised to build a more stable and equal society. But under the leadership of Mengistu Haile Mariam, the new regime became increasingly radical and violent, unleashing a “Red Terror” in which 750,000 people are believed to have been killed.  

Repression was not enough to keep the Derg in power, just as it had not been enough to preserve Selassie’s imperial regime. In the 1980s, a coalition of Marxist and ethnic independence movements that would become the EPRDF took up arms against the government, eventually forcing Mengistu to flee the country in 1991.

Over the last 60 years, successive governments have struggled to maintain control over the vast and diverse country.

Initially, the EPRDF appeared to break the cycle of repression and rebellion. Under President and later Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, the coalition pursued a successful development strategy that boosted economic growth. At the same time, the EPRDF promoted a new solution to the problem of managing Ethiopia’s diverse ethnoregional communities. Rather than enforce one particular ethnic identity over all others, the EPRDF offered the country’s many distinct communities freedom and self-respect through a federal political system and constitution that granted “all peoples” the “right of self-determination.”

But the arrangement didn’t work out that way in practice. The ruling coalition co-opted opposition leaders, undermining the ability of regional governments to pursue alternative political visions or to represent disgruntled communities. Effectively, each region enjoyed self-government only to the extent that it was willing to be governed by the EPRDF—something that has not been true in regions such as Oromia for a decade at least.

Moreover, for all the rhetoric of ethnic balance, the TPLF, which represents a small minority of Ethiopians, dominated the government for nearly three decades—until Abiy came to power. As frustration with EPRDF rule grew, outright rejection of the government’s legitimacy—epitomized by the escalation of the Oromia uprising from 2016 onward—went hand in hand with growing ethnic tensions in many parts of the country.

COLLISION COURSE

For the first time, Ethiopia’s federal government now faces a direct challenge from a group that controls a regional government and has considerable military capacity. The TPLF has not only left the ruling coalition but directly challenged its authority. And having played a pivotal role in the guerrilla war against the Derg, TPLF leaders know how to overthrow a government.

In a bid to embarrass Abiy and advance its demands for greater autonomy for the Tigray region, the TPLF has made a number of deliberately provocative moves in recent months. After the prime minister postponed general elections because of the coronavirus pandemic, for instance, the TPLF defied his orders and held an election of its own, effectively setting up Tigray as a state within a state.

For his part, the prime minister has done little to calm tensions. Despite his carefully cultivated reformist image, Abiy remains a military leader who rose to the top of the country’s intelligence agency before assuming the premiership. His instinct is to respond to provocations with force, not compromise. He could have simply responded to the TPLF’s growing assertiveness with targeted airstrikes and then sued for peace on favorable terms. Instead, he punished the TPLF politically as well as militarily—disbanding the Tigray regional government and escalating the conflict. By effectively excluding TPLF leaders from the political system, Abiy has all but ensured that they will fight to overthrow it.

Despite his confident predictions of a swift victory, Abiy may struggle to score a decisive win against the TPLF. The Ethiopian state is stronger than it was in the past, but the government faces multiple challenges to its authority across its vast territory. And the longer the conflict drags on, the more likely other liberation and secessionist groups—including from Abiy’s own Oromo community—are to join the fray, multiplying the cycle of repression and rebellion.

A CONTINENTAL PROBLEM

If Ethiopia returns to civil war, the entire African continent will suffer. Prolonged military confrontation will not only lead to serious loss of life in Ethiopia but also set in motion a series of related emergencies. A new refugee crisis will engulf neighboring countries, such as Kenya and Sudan, both of which already host sizable refugee or displaced populations. Ethiopia itself has 1.8 million displaced people within its borders. The addition of millions more, coupled with disruptions to agricultural production and infrastructure, could lead to food shortages and undermine the fight against COVID-19.

More worrying still, a drawn-out conflict could pull in neighboring countries, such as Egypt and Eritrea, which may be tempted to support either the federal government or rebel armies in order to advance their interests. There are already fears that Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki will provide military support and assistance to Abiy. The close relationship between the two leaders and the fact that both hold historical grudges against the TPLF has already led Tigrayan leaders to accuse the two men of conspiring against them.

The fighting is already escalating, reportedly with heavy casualties. The international community has missed the opportunity to prevent conflict from breaking out, but by taking timely and concerted action, major Western donors, influential foreign partners such as China, and the African Union could still encourage moderation. Together, they could push Abiy and the TPLF to the negotiating table and emphasize the need for the government to return to its reform agenda—and hold credible elections—to rebuild public confidence.

Unified international pressure is a rarity in today’s multipolar world, but the specter of widespread conflict in the Horn of Africa should help regional and world powers get on the same page. Although they have very different interests in and visions for Ethiopia, China, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the African Union have all made significant investments in the country in recent years—from the construction of the African Union headquarters to military assistance and major development projects—none of which will survive a civil war. If there is not a concerted response in the coming days, and Ethiopia slides into a full-scale civil war, it will not only be the Ethiopians who ask why the international community did little to prevent a regional catastrophe.

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  • NIC CHEESEMAN is Professor of Democracy at the University of Birmingham.
  • YOHANNES WOLDEMARIAM teaches International Relations at the University of Colorado.
  • More By Nic Cheeseman