In early November, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed began a military offensive against the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, an estranged regional government that once dominated Ethiopia’s ruling coalition. Abiy’s forces swiftly captured major cities in Tigray, inflicting heavy causalities on the TPLF and sparking fears of a wider conflict that could extend well beyond the country’s borders.

Now, Abiy insists that the war in Tigray is over. He claims that his forces won a decisive victory over the TPLF and that reports of a continuing insurgency are false. The prime minister has even resumed his normal calendar of official events, traveling to northern Kenya earlier this month to open a new border post with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta—and no doubt to reinforce the impression that Ethiopia has returned to business as usual.

The reality in Tigray is very different. Ethiopian forces now hold much of the region, but they do not enjoy total control, and many TPLF leaders and fighters remain at large. One of the reasons that Ethiopian forces were able to capture the regional capital of Mekelle so quickly was that the TPLF had already pulled many of its fighters back and dispersed them across the region’s rural areas and mountainous hinterlands. The TPLF came to power in 1991 by using guerilla tactics against the Derg regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam. Now, it has reverted to those practices and appears to have launched a series of small-scale attacks against Ethiopian forces, although it is impossible to know how frequent or effective these attacks have been because Addis Ababa has imposed a news blackout on the region.

Another sustained and bloody insurgency is impossible to rule out. A Tigrayan uprising could also prove contagious, invigorating or even fusing with rebellions in other parts of the country. And even if Ethiopian forces eventually succeed in eliminating the TPLF, deep popular resentment at the prime minister’s perceived aggression will continue to fester, giving rise to a new generation of anti-Abiy leaders who will do everything in their power to resist Addis Ababa.

Beyond Tigray, the war has accelerated what was already a creeping crisis of legitimacy for Abiy. Less than three years after embarking on democratic reforms and one year after accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, the Ethiopian prime minister finds himself on a war footing and governing more through coercion than through compromise. With no unifying narrative to legitimize his authority and with international support wavering, Abiy may find the fallout from the Tigrayan war much harder to manage than the war itself.

AN UPHILL BATTLE

Abiy was quick to claim that the people of Tigray celebrated their “liberation” by Ethiopian troops. In fact, the military offensive humiliated the TPLF and in doing so, stoked Tigrayan nationalism. For 28 years before Abiy came to power, the TPLF had dominated Ethiopia’s ruling coalition, known as the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), while fiercely defending Tigrayan autonomy. Abiy’s selection as prime minister in 2018 broke the TPLF’s hold on power and stripped away many of its privileges. As a result, Abiy’s attempts to subdue Tigray militarily and to bring its government under his control have engendered deep antipathy toward the central government.  

Abiy’s regime made matters worse with a campaign of systematic discrimination. While its forces were storming Tigray, Addis Ababa set about removing Tigrayan officials from embassies, from the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia, and even from the national airline. According to Human Rights Watch, Tigrayans living outside of Tigray are increasingly being harassed, including through arbitrary raids on their homes by the security forces. Even Ethiopia’s own Human Rights Commission has said that it is “gravely concerned” about the ethnic profiling of Tigrayans, “manifested in forced leave from work and in stopping people from traveling overseas including on work missions, for medical treatment or studies.”

Beyond Tigray, the war has accelerated what was already a creeping crisis of legitimacy for Abiy.

The perception that Addis Ababa is punishing Tigrayans around the country will no doubt fuel the insurgency. But the TPLF faces an uphill battle against the Ethiopian state. TPLF fighters became experts at guerilla warfare during the conflict that toppled the Derg, but Abiy’s government is a much stronger opponent—and the international environment is much less favorable to Tigray than it was in the 1980s. Back then, the TPLF had the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front as an ally. Now, Eritrea is an independent country that sees the TPLF as an enemy. Tigrayan leaders also find themselves sandwiched between Eritrea and Sudan, with no easy access to an international border through which to secure access to weapons and supplies.

These constraints do not mean the TPLF’s efforts are doomed, but they do mean that an insurrection is likely to be low grade and prolonged—and that its effectiveness will partly depend on the TPLF’s ability to form alliances with other insurgent groups in order to stretch thin the Ethiopian army. And Tigrayan resistance is likely to extend beyond the battlefield. Regardless of whether the TPLF can sustain a potent insurgency, Abiy’s military campaign and his regime’s discrimination against Tigrayans will solidify political resistance to federal government control in Tigray for at least a generation. In the absence of consent, Addis Ababa will have to rule through repression.

REPRESSION OR REFORM

The Ethiopian government’s discrimination against Tigrayans and its efforts to centralize power threaten Abiy’s legitimacy throughout the country. The EPRDF professed to respect the autonomy of each of Ethiopia’s major ethnic groups, going so far as to enshrine the groups’ rights to self-determination in the constitution. The EPRDF often failed to live up to that promise, as protests in Oromia and elsewhere demonstrated in recent years. But along with impressive state-led development, the principle of ethnic federalism gave the government a powerful narrative to sell both at home and abroad.

Abiy disbanded the EPRDF in favor of a new political vehicle, the Prosperity Party, whose first act was to suppress a region demanding greater autonomy. The prime minister sought to bolster support for that offensive by holding mass rallies that played on popular anger at the TPLF’s years of ascendancy in the EPRDF. At times, the TPLF has inadvertently aided Abiy’s campaign of vilification, most notably when it fired rockets into the nearby Amhara region. But Abiy’s government also worked assiduously to stoke anti-Tigrayan sentiment in order to justify its military incursion into the northern region. 

Ethiopians fleeing the war in Tigray on the Sudan-Ethiopia border, December 2020
Ethiopians fleeing the war in Tigray on the Sudan-Ethiopia border, December 2020
Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah / Reuters

Those tactics will complicate any effort the prime minister makes to resurrect the legitimizing principle of ethnic self-determination. Abiy could still attempt to revive his reform agenda and hold democratic elections that have been much delayed due to the pandemic—and perhaps due to Abiy’s concern that they might return unfavorable results. Western donors and some of Ethiopia’s ethnic groups would welcome such a move. But Abiy will have a hard time credibly reclaiming a narrative of democratic reform given that his military assault on the TPLF came just months after his security forces were accused of committing widespread human rights abuses during security operations in the Amhara and Oromia regions. Moreover, continued reform—and the reduction in central government control that would entail—would leave Abiy vulnerable to additional challenges from rebel groups and opposition parties.

Abiy could therefore choose instead to reassert the dominance of the central state and expand the security forces to stamp out resistance. He would be able to draw on his anti-TPLF narrative to legitimize such an approach—this time arguing that no group should ever be allowed to act as if it is more important than the collective and labeling those that do so terrorists. Many of Abiy’s critics believe that deep down, he wishes to centralize power but knows that doing so would explode the bargain that has held the country together for the last three decades, triggering new insurrections and exacerbating existing conflicts.

Even outside Tigray, it is already clear that Abiy has failed to establish effective control over Ethiopia’s vast territory. Despite hailing from the Oromia region, the prime minister has failed to quell the unrest there or in the regions of Western Wolega and Benishangul-Gumuz. Along with the continued fighting in Tigray, long-running rebellions and regular clashes between rival ethnic groups in these regions offer an important reminder of the difficulty of maintaining political stability in Ethiopia—and of the fact that every government that has sought to maintain power through force alone has eventually been overthrown.

ROCK AND A HARD PLACE

Whatever Abiy chooses to do, he will come under additional pressure from beyond Ethiopia’s borders. Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki provided military support for Abiy’s offensive in Tigray and expects to be rewarded. Afwerki harbors deep personal hostility toward TPLF leaders and will likely seek to dissuade Abiy from pursuing a negotiated settlement with them.  

But if Abiy decides to keep Afwerki happy by continuing to keep his foot on the throat of the Tigray region, hounding the TPLF militarily and preventing aid from reaching those in need, the exodus of refugees into neighboring Sudan will exacerbate tensions with that country. Already, Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok has attempted to mediate a cease-fire between the TPLF and the Ethiopian government. And in what appears to be a bid to gain additional leverage, Sudanese troops have reportedly moved into the Al Fashaga Triangle, a disputed territory between Sudan and Ethiopia.

Whatever Abiy chooses to do, he will come under additional pressure from beyond Ethiopia’s borders.

Continued Ethiopian military action in Tigray (and tolerance for Eritrean interference there) would also complicate relations with Western donors who have invested around $5 billion in Ethiopia since 2018. Although the United States and European countries have historically overlooked Ethiopia’s human rights violations because of its developmental success and its support for U.S. counterterrorism efforts in the region, the high-profile nature of the Tigray conflict has given some donors pause. The European Union recently decided to delay releasing budgetary aid to Addis Ababa—in part because of mounting frustration over Abiy’s refusal to allow aid agencies to respond effectively to the growing humanitarian crisis in Tigray. The current U.S. administration remains staunchly behind Abiy, but the next one may be more circumspect, since President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to place greater emphasis on human rights and could be more concerned with Eritrea’s role in the conflict. 

Ethiopia is too strategically important for Western nations to consider completely cutting off aid. But even a modest reduction in international assistance would be a significant blow in the context of the pandemic and the attendant economic downturn. For all the country’s vaunted progress over the last two decades, Ethiopia remains heavily dependent on aid, with overseas development assistance covering more than half the central government’s expenditures.

To date, the government news blackout has prevented a full picture of the events in Tigray from reaching the outside world. Those reports that have trickled out, from journalists who have interviewed refugees and corroborated their stories, indicate that both sides have committed widespread human rights violations. When the dust begins to settle, the trickle of bad news is likely to become a flood, increasing pressure on the international community to rethink its support for Abiy and to open an independent investigation into whether his forces have committed crimes against humanity. Should such an investigation lead to significant reductions in foreign aid, private investors could begin to scale back their involvement in Ethiopia as well. That loss, in turn, would deepen Abiy’s crisis of legitimacy, potentially threatening his grip on power regardless of whether he responds with repression or reform.

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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