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Ethiopia’s Tigray Crisis: a Failure of Ethnofederalism?

Hannah Gardner provides an analysis of the current ethnic conflict in Ethiopia, and whether the political system in place made it inevitable.

Ethnically diverse countries are hard to rule. People want to be governed by those who share their language, culture and customs and few countries know this better than Ethiopia. In the last 100 years, it has experienced imperial rule, a brief period under Italian invaders, a Marxist-Leninist military regime and then an authoritarian federal system split along ethnic lines. All these systems were overthrown by a nation which is presently still searching for a way to reconcile the more than 80 ethnic groups and languages which form its 108 million people. In the last two years, it has been trying to move towards democracy, while still retaining its ethnofederal structure. Ethnic federalism is a political system which is in place in countries like Pakistan and (to some extent) Belgium, meaning the boundaries for its constituent states are drawn based on its ethnic groups. The current Tigray crisis, which has so far killed thousands and displaced over 1 million people, has its roots in fierce ethno-nationalism; a consequence of Ethiopia setting off on the road to liberalisation. 

Until 2018, Ethiopia had spent almost 30 years under a coalition of ethnic-based parties. While Tigrayans make up only roughly 6% of the population, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) had dominated national politics during this time. In 2018, the TPLF saw their influence drastically decreased when a popular uprising swept Abiy Ahmed into the role of Prime Minister. From mixed Oromo and Amhara parentage (the two largest ethnic groups), Abiy represents the intermixed, urban Ethiopia. His rise was remarkable for its wide cross-ethnic support. A charismatic leader, he promised to bring the country greater freedoms, to clear away the old elites, and to hold elections, thus moving the country towards democracy. Notably, he also promised unity and stability. After ending the long-standing war with Eritrea in 2019, Abiy was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. That still-shiny medal now looks premature.

The Tigray crisis began when the TPLF refused to join Abiy in governing Ethiopia, instead retreating to Tigray, their home region in the North. Abiy accuses them of stirring up inter-community violence between other ethnic groups during this time. Citing the pandemic, Abiy then postponed the first democratic elections, scheduled for August 2020, a move condemned by the TPLF as an attempt to retain power. In response, the TPLF held their own regional elections, which the central government denounced as illegitimate. The tug-of-war for power between regions and the central government is a constant feature of Ethiopian politics. The situation escalated at the beginning of November when Abiy’s government claimed that the TPLF launched an attack on an Ethiopian military base, saying, “the last red line had been crossed”. 

The Tigray region has been a battleground for 8 weeks now. Capturing the state’s capital of Mekelle on the 30 November, the government claims to have defeated the TPLF, but the reality seems to be that fighting is very much ongoing, particularly in rural areas of Tigray. A protracted guerrilla-type conflict is on the cards. Political analysts have known Ethiopia is volatile for a while. Some have been prophesying a Yugoslavia-style implosion for two years now. Part of the issue lies in the way the country’s ethnic-based parties are much more than political entities. The TPLF, for example, started as a revolutionary force fighting against the centralisation of the state and an oppressive military regime. It now has as many as 250,000 fighters, and is highly experienced in intelligence-collecting, administration, and military management. 

The autonomy and self-administration of federal regions is enshrined in its 1995 constitution. Ethiopia is split into nine states, where the local majority ethnicity often rules over a mix of peoples. Ethiopia’s constitution is built around a commitment to an ethnofederal system of governance, where each of the country’s ethnic groups theoretically has the right to self-administration. Incredibly, they also have the explicit right to secession, a feature which is unique to Ethiopia. While designed to recognise the ethno-linguistic diversity of the country, the ethnofederal system has also created a culture of ‘insider’/’outsider’ within many regions. Under the pre-2018 coalition, repressive policies and grassroots surveillance systems kept inter-ethnic conflict muzzled. As Abiy’s government initially ushered in political reforms: freeing thousands of political prisoners and relaxing controls on the media, liberalisation also brought with it a different side – a chance for ethnic communities to express their long-standing grievances, and a large increase in inter-ethnic fighting. This reached a peak in March 2019, when nearly 3 million Ethiopians were reported as internally displaced due to fighting. This laid the foundations for an escalation of conflict, like that in Tigray.

However, it is also true that there is a strong shared Ethiopian identity. A common memory of resisting Italian colonisers in 1895-1996 and then again in 1936-1943 is one factor which helps draw people together. However, in times of conflict, fear of ‘the other’ is an easy way for parties to energise the masses, and potentially distract from any of their regional governments’ incompetencies. It is when minorities feel sidelined that the ethnofederal system incubates ethnic ultra-nationalism. This is facilitated by the fact that building the political system around ethnic differences foregrounds ethnic status over other identities. Furthermore, parties like the TPLF have a lot of power in their home regions, so the threat of secession is a useful playing card they can draw against the central government. This threat is very much real; regional governments have the institutional means to bring about war or secession – they already have defined borders, experience of administration and established health and education structures. 

But discussing ethnofederalism as a system which inevitably leads to a crisis like that in Tigray is inaccurate. Among other things, it presupposes a range of alternative options. There may not be any. Post-1945 saw a plethora of ethnofederal states spring in and out of existence as countries experimented with ways of holding together ethnically diverse states. These include Czechoslovakia (1968-94), Malaysia (1936-65), Pakistan (1947-71). The main alternative to this system is a unitary one, where all peoples are forced together under a strong centralised government. Under this arrangement, ethnic differences are no longer at the fore, but neither will they disappear. There is no reason to think that making different peoples live under the same rules will create any more peace than allowing different peoples to come up with different rules. Harari state, for example, is the only Ethiopian region to permit polygamy. This is allowed on religious grounds, recognising the state’s Muslim population, which is much higher than elsewhere in Ethiopia. A fully unitary system would not be able to sustain this. The paradox is that both systems (ethnofederalist and unitary) seem to guide a country to more inter-community conflict. In Sudan/South Sudan’s history, denial or revocation of rights to the Southern region under a unitary government led to civil war on two separate occasions. During periods under ethnofederal systems though, the state also failed to contain North-South fighting. In some ethnically-polarised countries, perhaps no system of government is able to hold together diverging peoples. 

What is interesting is that in many of these cases it was the breakdown of a unitary system (in Ethiopia’s case, taking the form of a protracted guerrilla campaign) which led to the instigation of ethnofederalism in the first place. This often in an effort to prevent total state collapse. Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Nepal, Iraq all tried unitary structures before resorting to an ethnofederal one. Yugoslavia’s first attempt at statehood in 1918 saw Serbians, Croats and Slovenes bound together in a unitary marriage in which almost no party was happy. While still wracked with issues, the second Yugoslavia endured much longer. Tito presided over independent ethno-states, which he kept on a short leash. The eventual collapse of the country perhaps only reinforces the idea that ethnic based systems are often a last resort for keeping together polarised regions. So, while it is essential to understand the way Ethiopia’s ethnofederal structure has influenced the current crisis and will continue to do so, it’s perhaps not particularly useful to assign the system blame. It is the product of a long history of other tried and failed systems.

What is interesting now is whether Mr Abiy has any hope of unifying Ethiopians of all ethnicities behind a goal of progress, development and democratisation again. His authoritarian streaks have been shining through recently: re-curbing political liberties, implementing communications blackouts and zealously deploying the Ethiopian military. ‘Liberalisation will have to wait’, Abiy seems to have said. In time we’ll see if he will say the same to democracy.

With war-ravaged Somalia to Ethiopia’s south and east, and Sudan slowly building itself to the west, the current situation in Ethiopia is particularly dangerous because it risks destabilising a whole region. Over 50,000 Ethiopians have already crossed the border into Sudan in search of safety. There are also worrying claims that Eritrean troops have crossed into the Tigray region to fight alongside government forces. Abiy’s Nobel-winning peace with Eritrea is very fragile. The Tigray crisis could well plunge Ethiopia, and the wider Horn of Africa region, into political and humanitarian disaster. A media and phone blackout has only recently been lifted, and there are now reports of an ethnic massacre of 600 non-Tigrayans in one town, violence against ethnic Tigrayans elsewhere in the country, and wide-spread looting and food shortages in the Tigrayan capital. On-the-ground fighting seems to be cooling, although limited international access to Tigray makes this hard to verify. The full human impact is yet to be revealed.

Ethiopia’s sheer diversity will always make it a fickle place to govern. It’ll only be in time that we’ll see whether Ethiopia can still offer the enlightened way forward for other ethnically diverse countries that many (including the Nobel committee) had hoped it could. 

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