Conflict tests Ethiopia’s Nobel laureate leader
1. How has Abiy’s fortune changed?
Abiy started with a bang when he became Ethiopia’s Prime Minister in 2018. He lifted bans on opposition and rebel groups, purged allegedly corrupt officials and ended two decades of acrimony with neighboring Eritrea, a move that won him the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize. He also laid the welcome carpet for foreign capital to keep the momentum going in one of the world’s fastest growing economies, and committed to quelling civil unrest. But he struggled to contain ethnic tensions and his attempts to sideline the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the country’s main power broker for decades, led to civil war. The dispute stalled the planned privatization of key telecommunications assets and other economic reforms, and prompted the US government to impose sanctions on Ethiopia and withdraw its duty-free market access.
2. What started the civil war?
Abiy set out to consolidate power under his newly formed Prosperity Party after taking office. That meant confronting the TPLF, which had dominated the country’s ruling coalition since the overthrow of a Marxist regime in 1991 and continued to rule Tigray. The TPLF refused to align. Its leaders ignored a government directive to postpone legislative elections in Tigray due to the pandemic, and the federal parliament retaliated by halting direct budget support to the region. Abiy ordered a military incursion into Tigray in November 2020 after accusing forces loyal to the TPLF of attacking a military base to steal weapons. The TPLF said its raid was a preemptive strike as federal troops prepared to attack its territory. The government eventually gained the upper hand and the rebels withdrew to within Tigray’s borders in December 2021. The government continued to mount airstrikes on Tigray and fighting continued in neighboring Amhara regions and Afar before the declaration of the truce. In September, the TPLF accused federal forces and allied troops from neighboring Eritrea of launching a new offensive in four areas of northern Tigray, raising fears of a resumption of all-out war.
3. What were the fallout from the war?
The government has not disclosed casualties and access to conflict areas has been restricted, but tens of thousands of people are feared to have died due to fighting, hunger and lack of medical care. In August, the United Nations estimated that war and drought in eastern Ethiopia had left around 20 million people in need. The situation was particularly serious in Tigray and Afar, where malnutrition and food insecurity were rife. The government has rejected claims by civil rights groups that it has obstructed aid distribution efforts or that its forces have participated in widespread human rights abuses. The United Nations Human Rights Council has begun collecting evidence on alleged crimes committed during the conflict.
4. What are the other voltages?
The government has accused members of the Oromo Liberation Army, which has aligned itself with the TPLF and campaigned for greater regional autonomy, of killing hundreds of civilians and deploying the army to avoid new violence. The group, which controls a number of towns and villages in the central Oromia region, in turn alleges that federal police are targeting and killing Oromos and Nuers. Abiy also fell out with Fano, an Amhara ethnic group who fought alongside federal forces against the Tigrayans and opposed the truce because they wanted outright victory and unchallenged rights to disputed territory. . Ethiopia and Sudan are meanwhile at odds over rights to a strip of fertile land along their common border, and there have been a series of clashes between their troops. Al-Shabaab, a Somalia-based Islamist group linked to al-Qaeda and seeking to expand its influence in the Horn of Africa, staged an attack on Ethiopian territory in July 2022.
5. Why all this instability?
Africa’s oldest nation-state, Ethiopia has long been plagued by discord among its more than 80 ethnic groups. The country was an absolute monarchy until the socialist revolution of 1974 which deposed Emperor Haile Selassie. It became a multi-ethnic federation in 1991, when a rebel alliance led by the TPLF overthrew the Marxist military regime that followed Selassie. The Tigrayans, although representing only 6% of the population, came to dominate national politics. After failing to quell three years of violent protests against the marginalization of other larger communities, including the Oromo and Amhara, Hailemariam Desalegn resigned as prime minister in 2018. The then-ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front named Abiy, an Oromo, as his successor. . Abiy’s party won a decisive majority in the mid-2021 elections.
6. What was the impact on the economy?
Ethiopia’s $105 billion economy grew by an average of more than 7% a year between 2018 – the year Abiy took power – and 2021, but the International Monetary Fund sees the growth rate slowing to less than 4% in 2022. With its finances under strain, the government announced in 2021 that it wanted to restructure its $28.4 billion external debt. But the United States has urged multilateral lenders to end their engagement with Abiy’s administration, and a funding freeze could derail the debt overhaul. The IMF has yet to launch a new program for Ethiopia – a key requirement for debt restructuring – after the previous one expired without any money being disbursed.
(Updates to add context on the military operation in Tigray in 2020 in the second section)
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