In October, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered an offensive against the Tigrayan rebel forces that control much of the country’s northern Tigray region and part of the neighboring Amhara and Afar regions. His aim was to force the insurgents into a final stand on their home turf, ultimately concluding a yearlong war that has claimed thousands of lives and uprooted more than 1.7 million people. Instead, the gambit appears to have backfired. Not only have Ethiopian troops failed to advance but they have suffered a series of defeats that have left the capital, Addis Ababa, open to attack—forcing Abiy to declare a state of emergency this week and to call on residents to take up arms to defend the city.

Even if Abiy’s military offensive had succeeded, he would have faced a major challenge in reintegrating Tigray and restoring a sense of national identity. Now that he appears on the brink of failure, however, the prime minister has called into question his own capacity to govern and, potentially, the very existence of the Ethiopian state in its current form.

The political geographer Richard Hartshorne famously argued that the viability of any state depends on whether its centripetal (unifying) forces outweigh its centrifugal (dividing) ones. The former includes government efforts to build infrastructure, provide services, and strengthen borders, as well as efforts to persuade citizens to buy into the idea of the state—whether by promoting a shared national culture, language, economy, or other unifying visions. The latter includes large or unwieldy territory, weak infrastructure, lack of resources, and entrenched ethnic or social divisions.

Abiy’s fundamental challenge is that the centrifugal forces in Ethiopia have grown stronger than the centripetal ones. In addition to Tigray, a number of other long-running insurgencies and cycles of interethnic violence have persisted and, in some cases, intensified. Ethnic and regional tensions have been further inflamed by the deployment of propaganda by all sides and by social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter that have facilitated the spread of hate speech and helped fuel atrocities.

Ethiopia has become a source of instability rather than a bulwark against it.

Of Ethiopia’s festering conflicts, the one in Tigray has been the most destabilizing because it has torn apart the governing alliance that has ruled Ethiopia since 1991. The war pits Abiy’s government against the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which once dominated Ethiopia’s government but has raised a formidable rebel army and now seeks to conduct a referendum to determine the future of Tigray and to secure greater autonomy. Both sides have at times framed the conflict in ethnic terms, raising the risk of widespread ethnic violence, and each regards the other’s vision for how to govern Ethiopia as fundamentally incompatible with its own. The conflict has also sucked in a range of foreign powers—including China, Egypt, Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States—which in turn has prompted each side to accuse the other of selling out Ethiopia’s sovereignty and has raised the risk that Ethiopia will fall victim to proxy wars between rival regional and world powers.

As East Africa’s largest nation and arguably its most powerful one, Ethiopia has long been held up by its allies as a force for stability in an otherwise volatile region. It has been a close counterterrorism partner of the United States, and its military has played a leading role in the fight against al Shabab extremists in neighboring Somalia. Yet even before the recent crisis, critics pointed out that Ethiopian intervention in Somalia often did more harm than good. And as the conflict in Tigray has intensified, it has become increasingly clear that the country has become a source of instability rather than a bulwark against it.

Even if the fighting can be halted, fierce disagreements about who should govern Ethiopia and how will persist. Without a compelling and widely shared vision for the Ethiopian state, neither Abiy nor any potential successor will be able to prevent the centrifugal forces from overwhelming the centripetal ones. “The state must have a reason for existing,” Hartshorne wrote. If Ethiopia is to survive in its current form, it will need to come up with one.

UPHILL BATTLE

The war in Tigray erupted in November 2020, after months of simmering tensions between Abiy’s government and the TPLF, which refused to join his new Prosperity Party. Initially, Abiy portrayed the conflict as a quick “policing operation” necessary to root out what he claimed were corrupt and recalcitrant members of the TPLF elite. Ethiopian government forces, backed by troops from neighboring Eritrea, rapidly took control of key Tigrayan towns and the city of Mekelle. But Abiy underestimated how hard it would be to hold this territory. Having fought a successful guerrilla war against the Marxist-Leninist Derg regime from 1974 to 1991, the TPLF fell back, fanned out, and launched an insurgency to retake control. The conflict soon became a thorn in Abiy’s side, with military setbacks going hand in hand with evidence of widespread human rights abuses that tarnished his carefully cultivated image as a reformer.

Abiy should have anticipated how hard it would be to surgically eliminate the leadership of the TPLF. After all, he was an intelligence chief in the previous government, known as the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which ruled Ethiopia for almost three decades before he became prime minister in 2018. The TPLF dominated this government, and its leaders enjoyed plum military postings and controlled much of the economy. They were never going to simply step aside. Yet Abiy failed to appreciate how ferociously the TPLF would resist any attempt to invade Tigray or to hold its territory by force. He sought to establish an interim administration, even handpicking new officials who were ethnic Tigrayans. But these administrators were either incapable of winning back hearts and minds or actively working with the TPLF.

Abiy campaigning in Jimma, Ethiopia, November 2021
Abiy campaigning in Jimma, Ethiopia, November 2021
Tiksa Negeri / Reuters

Despite the government’s repeated claims that it was winning the war, the Tigrayan forces fought an effective rear-guard action and were ultimately able to wrestle back control of most of the region in June, forcing Ethiopian troops to make an embarrassing withdrawal from Tigray. Worse still for Abiy, the Tigrayan forces went further, invading parts of the neighboring Amhara and Afar regions in an attempt to force the regional government there to relinquish control of a disputed area now commonly referred to as Western Tigray.

Abiy’s latest offensive was designed to push the Tigrayan forces out of the Amhara and Afar regions and cut off their supply lines so that they could no longer provide for the Tigrayan people. Instead, Ethiopian troops not only failed to win back territory but lost control of the cities of Dessie and Kombolcha in Amhara, likely giving the rebels access to an airport and thwarting Abiy’s efforts to block access to the region. Even more troubling for Abiy’s government, Tigrayan forces have begun coordinating with the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), which has intensified a long-running insurgency and is closing in on the capital from the southwest. Recent press reports suggest that both rebel movements may join together with other opposition groups to forge an anti-Abiy alliance under the banner of the United Front of Ethiopian Federalist Forces.

At this point, it is possible to envision four outcomes to the conflict, all of which could ultimately threaten the survival of the Ethiopian state. The first is a joint Tigrayan and Oromo rebel victory over the Ethiopian army, which is rumored to be collapsing. Such an outcome would resolve the conflict with Abiy’s government but require the TPLF and the OLA to find a way to jointly govern the country, large parts of which are hostile to them. Having to share power would also likely bring long-standing tensions between the two groups to the fore, increasing the risk of further political instability.

The second possible outcome would involve some kind of negotiated settlement. Recognizing that a military victory could land them in the same impossible position as Abiy—trying to hold a large territory against an inevitable insurgency—the TPLF could decide not to march on Addis Ababa but instead to sue for peace on favorable terms. Among other things, Tigrayan leaders could demand a referendum on greater autonomy and protections for Tigray. But such an arrangement would likely heighten tensions with the OLA, which claims the capital as the heart of Oromia. It would also leave the underlying drivers of the conflict unresolved, raising questions about the durability of such a solution.  

Abiy could join the growing list of recently deposed African leaders.

A third possible scenario would see Abiy removed from his position, likely by his own military officers. Once feted as a peacemaker and a reformer, the prime minister increasingly looks like a liability, and it is not impossible to imagine that he will join the growing list of recently deposed African leaders that includes Guinea’s Alpha Condé and Mali’s Bah Ndaw. But a coup would not necessarily bring the conflict any closer to resolution, since Ethiopia’s military appears internally divided and unable to defeat the TPLF and the OLA through force alone.

A final possible outcome would be a prolonged stalemate. Ethiopian troops could hold on to the capital and to the train line that connects Addis Ababa to Djibouti but fail to win back any of the territory now controlled by Tigrayan and Oromo forces. Should this happen, Abiy would come under even greater pressure to pursue a negotiated settlement. But although there have been backroom discussions between representatives of both sides in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, there has been little progress, in part because both teams include hard-liners who see compromise as betrayal. In other words, whichever way the current conflict plays out, the stability and, ultimately, the survival of the Ethiopian state will require the country’s leaders to devise a new vision for the country—one they currently seem incapable of delivering.

THE FORCES OF DIVISION

The crisis in Tigray has underscored the severity of the risk of national fragmentation, but the seeds of Ethiopian instability were not sown in 2020 or even 2012, when longtime EPRDF leader Meles Zenawi passed away. Rather, they have been lying just beneath the surface all along. At no point in history have Ethiopians agreed on who their legitimate leaders are or how they should share power between different ethnic groups. Take the founder of modern Ethiopia, Emperor Menelik II. The Amhara generally revere him as a national hero, but many Oromo, Somalis, and Tigrayans see him as an imperialist slave owner and land grabber.

The same is true of Haile Selassie, emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974, who spent much of his tenure attempting to put down insurgencies. In fact, Abiy, who recently ordered controversial airstrikes on Mekelle, is not the first Ethiopian leader to attempt to bomb Tigray into submission. Haile Selassie did the same after returning from exile during World War II, calling in the British Royal Air Force to try to snuff out a Tigrayan campaign for autonomy.

Indeed, Ethiopia has rarely known internal peace. The era of the Derg, which lasted from 1974 to 1991, was also characterized by intense war, instability, and famine. After ousting Haile Selassie in a military coup, Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam sought to impose his vision of socialism on the country. But disagreements about how to govern Ethiopia and to accommodate its different ethnic communities persisted. Between 1977 and 1979, Mengistu attempted to strengthen his hold on power through a series of purges known as the Red Terror that killed thousands of people. In 1977, Somalia invaded the Ogaden region of Ethiopia, causing internal conflicts to blend with external ones. So great was the political fragmentation during this period that it set in motion Eritrea’s independence from Ethiopia and the ascendance of TPLF and EPRDF insurgencies, which went on to take power by force in 1991. 

By comparison, the period of EPRDF rule was relatively stable. But many of the tensions and disagreements that had animated the Haile Selassie and Mengistu eras were papered over rather than resolved. Meanwhile, the EPRDF’s mode of governance gave rise to fresh quarrels. Many Tigrayans regard this as a golden era, marked by rapid development, poverty reduction, and strong international support. Yet many more non-Tigrayans remember the rampant repression of these years and the rigged elections that maintained EPRDF dominance over the country and Tigrayan dominance of the EPRDF. This viewpoint has hardened since Abiy came to power, and especially since the war began in Tigray, with the prime minister’s supporters using it to deflect criticism of the government’s human rights record. Foreigners have no right to criticize Abiy, they argue, because they were silent when the EPRDF intimidated, tortured, and imprisoned its rivals.

At no point in history have Ethiopians agreed on who their legitimate leaders are or how different ethnic groups should share power.

It is easy to see these divisions as an inevitable outgrowth of the country’s immense size and diversity: Ethiopia is the 27th-largest country in the world by landmass and home to more than 80 different ethnic groups. But neither geography nor demography is destiny. Successive Ethiopian leaders have fueled ethnic and regional tensions, each one ruling in a way that has given at least one community a reason to feel aggrieved.

The current Tigray crisis is a case in point. Abiy’s government has been careful to claim that it is fighting a battle against the TPLF, not the people of Tigray. But its actions, including removing many Tigrayans from government positions, have undermined this contention. Ethiopian and Eritrean forces have committed atrocities, including against civilians, and Abiy’s government has blocked humanitarian aid, creating near famine conditions in Tigray. Deacon Daniel Kibret, a close ally of Abiy’s, has called for the total elimination of the TPLF, and the prime minister himself previously celebrated the idea that the “the weed is being removed from our country.” Coupled with reports of ordinary Tigrayans being detained and beaten in non-Tigrayan regions, this kind of rhetoric has fanned fears of genocide and strengthened the bond between the TPLF and the people of Tigray, who feel that their community is under attack and that they would not be safe or well treated under a regional government loyal to Abiy. At the same time, the Tigrayan forces have been accused of committing human rights abuses of their own, including during the recent fighting in Amhara. These reports, in turn, have stoked fears among other communities about what a Tigrayan and Oromo rebel invasion of Addis Ababa could bring.

Over the past two years, Ethiopia’s divisions have been hardened by the spread of hate speech on social media. The Ethiopian government has built a powerful propaganda machine that disseminates pro-Abiy material on satellite networks and on Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp, while censoring dissent. At the same time, rebel groups and their supporters are pushing their own narratives on social media and through outlets such as the Tigray Media House—often with the help of incendiary falsehoods. Last March, the Ethiopian parliament introduced a measure requiring social media companies to remove hate speech within 24 hours but failed to explain exactly how this should happen or what consequences would befall companies that failed to comply. Similar ambiguities undercut other laws governing hate speech on social media.

Even if Ethiopia had a clear regulatory framework, it would be difficult to stop the spread of dangerous misinformation online. Identifying and removing such content requires understanding both the language and the context. During the COVID-19 pandemic, however, Facebook sent many of its human content moderators home, relying instead on algorithms that are not as good at detecting hate speech that involves local idioms or is written in languages not spoken globally. In Ethiopia, Facebook has not even made its community standards available in Amharic, one of the country’s most widely spoken languages. The result has been a proliferation of hate speech, some of which has turned deadly. As the Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen told U.S. senators in a hearing in October, “Dangerous online talk has led to actual violence that harms and even kills people.” She cited the case of Ethiopia specifically, acknowledging that the social media giant has contributed to the fragmentation of the state.

Airstrikes in the capital of Tigray, Ethiopia, October 2021
Airstrikes in the capital of Tigray, Ethiopia, October 2021
Reuters

Ethnic and regional grievances, supercharged by social media, have been further aggravated by deep inequalities. As the development economist Frances Stewart has argued, when economic inequalities break down along ethnic or religious lines and thereby reinforce subnational identities, the risks of intercommunal conflict increase significantly. Overall income inequality is relatively low in Ethiopia, but unemployment stands at 27 percent and the benefits of economic growth have mainly been enjoyed by the urban elite. Inequalities, or perceived inequalities, between regions and ethnicities have added to the problem. During the years it was in power, the TPLF was accused of funneling a disproportionate share of government resources to Tigray. Now, Abiy, who hails from the region of Oromia, is seen by some as favoring his own group and by others as not doing enough to aid the impoverished Oromo youth who enabled his political rise. Competition between these groups, often over land or resources, tears at the fabric of the Ethiopian state and claims hundreds of lives each year in Afar, Amhara, Oromia, the Somali region, and elsewhere.

Economic inequalities can sometimes be managed during times of prosperity, when most citizens feel optimistic and that their lot is improving. But Ethiopia is in the midst of a painful economic downturn. Disruptions caused by the war in Tigray have pushed up food prices dramatically, and the government has been forced to devalue the Ethiopian currency, the birr. At the same time, large government deficits and weak fiscal and monetary policies have accelerated the downward economic spiral. Graft within state enterprises, the expansion of the black market, and considerable spending on the 2021 general elections have all aggravated the situation. Against this backdrop, the name Abiy selected for his new political vehicle, the Prosperity Party, is a constant reminder of his failure to meet the expectations of the Ethiopian people.

At least 13 different ethnic groups are currently demanding either greater autonomy or regional status. Resolving these tensions has proved to be particularly challenging not only because the central government has in practice refused to allow communities to exercise their right to secession, which the constitution gives them in theory, but also because some of their claims are contradictory. For example, regions such as Tigray and Amhara claim parts of each other’s territory and have been locked in long-running border disputes. Other disputes are even more complicated: the Sidama and Wolayita ethnic groups wish to break away from the country’s Southern region, which lumps together 56 different ethnic groups, some of which oppose letting the Sidama and Wolayita go—in part because the region’s capital, Hawassa, is also the capital of the Sidama region and therefore has economic and symbolic importance. Partly as a result, this area has become a hotbed of protests and clashes that often occur along ethnic lines. Such examples underscore the immense difficulty of managing Ethiopia’s complex ethnic mosaic and the urgent need for a unifying vision if the country is to remain intact.

“A REASON FOR EXISTING”

In Ethiopia as elsewhere, civil war has destroyed much-needed infrastructure, such as roads, factories, and telecommunications equipment, and has also eroded the fabric of national identity. To prevent the disintegration of the state, Ethiopia’s leaders must find a way to put the country back together again, both physically and symbolically. Doing so will require three things, none of which will be easy: securing a lasting peace, reconstructing Tigray and the other parts of the country affected by the war, and forging a consensus on the idea of Ethiopia.

None of these issues can be resolved by military conquest alone. When Abiy’s forces have captured territory, they have struggled to hold it. The same would be true for Tigrayan and Oromo fighters, should they succeed in toppling Abiy’s government. And if the winning side commits more atrocities or human rights abuses on its road to victory, it will only intensify the distrust and animosity on the other side of the conflict.

The problems presented by outright military conquest will be even worse if that victory is enabled by foreign powers. According to Tigrayan leaders and some Western officials, Ethiopian troops have used armed drones supplied by China, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates to conduct controversial airstrikes on Tigrayan towns. It is also clear that despite Abiy’s denials, Eritrean forces fought alongside Ethiopian troops in the early days of the conflict. Eritrean troops are reportedly now stationed near the border with Sudan, likely in an effort to prevent Tigrayan forces from accessing a sanctuary in Sudan. This collaboration with Ethiopia’s erstwhile enemy has opened Abiy up to accusations of selling out his country and doing the bidding of Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki. As long as this apparent alliance endures, Abiy will be handing the TPLF a propaganda victory and complicating the task of restoring national unity. Yet Ethiopia’s military is unlikely to be able to hold out without foreign military support.

The only solution is to pursue a negotiated settlement that secures at least some buy-in from the leaders of the TPLF and the OLA. It is unclear exactly what terms the TPLF would accept, especially now that it has gained the upper hand. At a minimum, its leaders would hope to press their current military advantage and demand reinstatement as the regional government, greater autonomy for the region, funds to rebuild after the war, and a guaranteed safe route in and out of the region. If the TPLF ends up joining forces with the OLF and other rebel and opposition groups, their demands are also likely to include the removal of Abiy himself and the formation of a transitional government. At present, however, Abiy appears unwilling to make even the more modest of these concessions, even though doing so may be the only way to preserve the integrity of the country.

Ethiopia’s leaders must find a way to put the country back together again, both physically and symbolically.

Once the parties reach a settlement, the process of national reconstruction must begin. Whether Abiy or some other leader is in power, the most effective way to approach this would be to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure and its national identity at the same time. Research on countries with politicized ethnic cleavages such as Kenya and Sri Lanka has shown that investment in public goods that benefit all citizens equally makes it easier to build an inclusive national identity. Similarly, investment in a common language and national symbols can create a stronger and more resilient sense of national identity. Former Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere’s decision to promote Swahili as a lingua franca and to emphasize national unity in civic education has often been credited with fostering that country’s political stability.  

Doing something similar in Ethiopia will not be easy, however. Historically, the country’s deep linguistic fragmentation has prevented the emergence of a single national language. And far from building unity, efforts to promote Amharic by successive rulers since Menelik II, who reigned from 1889 to 1913, have been seen as ethnic favoritism, in part because they have gone hand in hand with the neglect and in some cases suppression of other languages. In theory, the powerful Orthodox Church should be a unifying force, given its deep roots in Amhara and Tigray, but in practice, it is riven by deep divisions. Achieving national unity may therefore require new symbols to be found and promoted—ones that all communities will be able to buy into.

But that will be possible only if agreement can be reached on the most difficult task of all: forging a shared vision for the Ethiopian state. The country has tried two very different formulations, but both have been discredited. Under the EPRDF, the main legitimizing principle of the state was ethnic federalism, which promised each community the right to self-determination in theory, if not always in practice. The failure of this arrangement to treat all groups equally spurred protests by groups such as the Oromo and the Amhara—and ultimately led the EPRDF to choose Abiy, a self-proclaimed reformer born to an ethnic Oromo father and Amhara mother, as the country’s new prime minister following Hailemariam Desalegn’s resignation in 2018. Yet Abiy’s attempt to replace ethnic federalism with a more centralized model has also failed. His decision to supplant the EPRDF with his own party strained relations with the TPLF and contributed to the outbreak of the fighting in Tigray, while doing little to ease tensions among other ethnic groups.

Abiy has characterized his approach to government as medemer, or synergy, even writing a book with that title and promoting it across the country. Medemer can be understood in two ways: first, as synthesizing all previous attempts to build the Ethiopian nation; and second, as better integrating the country’s ethnic groups into a common identity. The practical implications of this philosophy are unclear, but some have interpreted it as meaning that Abiy wished to transform a “mosaic into a melting pot,” pursuing a strategy similar to Nyerere’s attempt to build a coherent core identity out of the country’s fragmented regional governments.

Ethiopian refugees queuing for food, Al-Qadarif, Sudan, November 2020
Ethiopian refugees queuing for food, Al-Qadarif, Sudan, November 2020
Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah / Reuters

This view of medemer is no longer credible given events in Tigray. And even if a future government were to follow Abiy’s strategy for forging a collective national identity, there are reasons to think it would fail, at least in the short term. The first and most obvious is that the prime minister has not unified Ethiopia but further polarized it. Although the war in Tigray empowered Abiy to unite many Ethiopians against the TPLF, it has exacerbated a dangerous ethnopolitical cleavage and made the disintegration of the country more likely. And although Ethiopian state media spun Abiy’s landslide election victory in June as evidence that he has the backing of the vast majority of Ethiopians, critics pointed out that by “winning” 410 out of the 436 available seats in the federal parliament in elections that were neither free nor fair, Abiy was simply using the same strategy—and repeating the same mistakes—as the EPRDF.

The second problem is that while the model of ethnic federalism promoted by the EPRDF has been discredited, few communities are willing to give up the group-based representation and self-determination that it promised. As a result, anyone seeking to build a more coherent state and national identity will be starting from a very different place than Nyerere did: whereas the Tanzanian leader governed a society made up of a large number of small ethnic groups recently united by the struggle against colonial rule, Ethiopian leaders preside over a smaller number of large ethnoregional groups whose identity has long been enshrined in the country’s political system. Persuading these groups to give up their aspirations and trust the federal government may prove just as challenging in the rest of the country as it has been in Tigray.

Finally, the kinds of policies the government would need to implement in order to craft a successful melting-pot strategy would also make it harder to achieve a lasting peace in Tigray. Before they agree to lay down their guns, the TPLF will almost certainly want more regional autonomy, not less. And the same is likely to be true for the OLA. The problem Abiy faces, therefore, is that his favored approach to nation building seems destined to exacerbate the country’s most pressing political crisis.

THE BEGINNING OF THE END?

In the absence of a unifying vision for how to rebuild the country, Ethiopia’s future is perilously uncertain. Both ethnic federalism and political centralization have been tried and found wanting. This has fueled speculation that Ethiopia’s only path to survival runs opposite to the one Abiy has charted: toward a loose confederation of largely self-governing regions. The name of the mooted alliance of opposition and rebel forces, the United Front of Ethiopian Federalist Forces, certainly points in this direction.

Such a path might help end the conflict with the TPLF, but there are good reasons to think that it would further entrench ethnoregional identities and so exacerbate the centrifugal forces pulling the country apart. If a rebel coalition is formed, any autonomy offered to Tigray would have to be extended to the country’s other larger communities. In the absence of any agreement on ideology or how to share resources, such a confederation would risk simply creating stronger regions that would be better placed to defy the central government if they feel they are not receiving their due. A move toward a looser federation may be inevitable, then, but it could also invite more attempts at secession and thereby the end of the country as Ethiopians know it.

Abiy would almost certainly reject such a plan, which would be a personal humiliation and see him go down in history as the man who broke Ethiopia. This may explain why he seems increasingly determined to find a military solution to a political problem. As the resilience of the Tigrayan insurgency has shown, however, force alone will not subdue a country so large and diverse, with so many armed groups that know how to sustain insurgencies. For this reason, it would be foolish to think that a military victory for either side will lead to greater political stability. Abiy is not the first leader to have tried and failed to resolve Ethiopia’s internal contradictions. Every government for the last hundred years has sought to build a viable state and a unifying national identity. So far, none have found a formula that has worked for more than a couple of decades.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now