Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Picture: REUTERS/TIKSA NEGERI
Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Picture: REUTERS/TIKSA NEGERI

When Abiy Ahmed walked to the stage in Oslo to accept the Nobel Peace Prize almost a year ago, the Ethiopian prime minister recalled how, as a young soldier in the 1998-2000 border war with Eritrea, he witnessed thousands being killed in trenches and minefields

“War is the epitome of hell — I know because I have been there and back,” he told the Nobel committee in December 2019.

Few would have disputed that Abiy deserved the prize. In a matter of weeks he swept away decades of hostility between his country and Eritrea, a former province of Ethiopia that waged a 30-year war for independence and seceded in 1993. But five years later they were in a border dispute which resulted in a deadly confrontation in which a young Abiy was among those who survived.

Though the full-blown fighting ended in 2000, their troops had faced off across their disputed border until almost two decades later when Abiy extended an olive branch.

Other than ending what seemed to be an intractable military standoff, Abiy has worked to promote democracy, freeing imprisoned opposition leaders, journalists and rebels, and lifting bans on some political parties.

His far-reaching economic reforms that include privatising state-owned companies has attracted interest from multinational companies that include mobile phone group MTN hoping to profit from a market of more than 100-million people, and one of the fastest-growing economies in Africa in recent years. 

But now Abiy, who joined the Ethiopian army in his teens and rose through the ruling coalition over the past two decades, is dangerously close to plunging the east African country into a civil war that could pit the federal government with his former partners in the war against Eritrea, and later in government.

On November 4 Abiy ordered military action in the northern Tigray region in retaliation to what he described as an attack on an army base by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which rules the state of more than 5-million people, and one which recently pulled out of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, a coalition of ethnically based political parties that has ruled the country since 1991.

Before the attack on the military base, tensions had been simmering for months between the federal government and the TPLF after Abiy outlined a vision to upend the decentralised political system in which each province is constitutionally granted autonomy as well as the right to secede. 

What pushed the two sides close to the edge was Abiy’s decision earlier in 2020 to delay the election scheduled for August until 2021, citing the Covid-19 pandemic and drawing swift rebuke from the TPLF, which rejected the extensions as unconstitutional and held its own regional ballot in September in defiance of the federal government’s order.

When the two sides faced off in November, they regarded each other as illegitimate leaders of the Ethiopia people with TPLF saying Abiy’s term would have ended had the elections been held in August while the federal government deemed the newly elected government of Tigray as unlawful.

TPLF had hoped the outcome of the elections would have given Abiy a strong message that his plan to make constitutional amendments to turn the ruling party into a more centralised political force would knock off an important pillar in the management of diversity in the country where there are nine ethnic-based, autonomous regional states.

The conflict not only exposes deep ethnic fault lines but also threatens to destabilise the entire Horn of Africa region after it spilt over borders after this weekend’s missile attack on the Eritrean leaders by Tigray leaders. 

AU leaders, as well as other international actors, need to be more persuasive in getting Abiy, who has held fast to his position that the “cruelty” of the TPLF “cannot be addressed or redressed by sitting at a table for a negotiation”,  and the TPLF to see that a national dialogue is better than sending Ethiopia and possibly the region to the “epitome of hell”.

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