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Abiy’s Misrule

Ethiopia’s multi-faceted crisis.

The 21 June general election was supposed to be a day of triumph for Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. The Nobel laureate’s first electoral test since coming to power three years ago, in the intervening period he had imprisoned or forced into exile nearly all credible opposition as well as potential challengers within his own party. He had also invaded two regional states, using federal troops to remove undesirable administrations, and unleashed a reign of repression on other unruly parts of the country. Such actions resemble those of the previous regime of the EPRDF, in which Abiy served as a Minister and surveillance chief. But the level of repression has been such that they are more reminiscent of the bloody regime of Mengistu Hailemariam. Indiscriminate aerial warfare against population centres and public executions of civilians are phenomena from which Ethiopia has been spared since his removal from power in 1991.

Abiy had taken all possible precautions to guarantee electoral success. In many constituencies – particularly in the sprawling and restive Oromia region – only his party, the Prosperity Party, was on the ballot. In other places, where his party’s hold is the weakest and where repression is consequently the greatest, elections were not held at all. This included the entirety of the northern region of Tigray. In areas where the vote went ahead, the full force of the state was mobilized to campaign for Abiy’s party, while what remains of the opposition largely boycotted the spectacle. The stage was set for a resounding victory, befitting of the ‘Seventh Emperor’ (as Abiy has described himself). Yet as Ethiopians were called to the polling stations, the Tigray Defence Forces – the armed resistance to the invading forces, commanded by Tigray’s regional government – launched its first major offensive since the war in Tigray begun in November 2020.

The campaign overshadowed the elections and shattered any illusions that the war was over as Abiy had proclaimed in late November. Tigrayan forces routed the Ethiopian army across the central, northern and eastern parts of the region, forcing their hasty withdrawal. Since then, Tigrayan forces have pushed into the neighbouring Amhara regional state, capturing swathes of territory including the city of Woldiya – home to nearly 200,000 people. The army responded to the defeat with atrocities against Tigrayans. On 24 June, the regime’s air force bombed the market town of Togoga, killing scores of civilians, and subsequently blocked ambulances from evacuating the wounded. (Tigrayan forces responded by downing an aircraft the same day.) All told, the offensive made what many observers have long held abundantly clear: that Abiy’s war on Tigray is unwinnable. 

Soon after the army’s retreat, the bodies of Tigrayans who had been tortured and executed were seen floating down the Tekeze river from Humera, the westernmost city in the region still held by Abiy’s forces. The withdrawal having been redefined as a ‘unilateral ceasefire’, it was immediately replaced by the encirclement and blockade of Tigray, denying its population access to basic goods such as food and medicine. Hundreds of thousands are now suffering under famine conditions, and malnourished children are wasting away in the region’s under-resourced hospitals. Tigrayan forces have sought unsuccessfully to evade the blockade by expanding their operation southwards. With Ethiopia’s rainy season at an end, fighting has once again intensified, with Abiy’s forces seeking to regain lost territory.

In addition to their misadventure in Tigray, Abiy and his government face crisis on multiple fronts. Two officially uninvited armies are operating on what Ethiopia considers its sovereign territory. Eritrea has engaged in systematic abuses of Ethiopian citizens and remains embedded in North-Eastern and Western Tigray despite Abiy’s insistence that its forces would soon depart. Whether he truly wants them to leave is a moot point: Abiy has no means to impose his will. Sudan’s army meanwhile occupies a triangle of land – al Fashaga – that Ethiopia has in the past recognized as Sudanese, but which it has nevertheless retained partial control over until the past few months. As the war in Tigray began, Abiy requested that Sudan fortify its borders. Consequently, the military presence on both sides increased, leading to clashes. Ethiopia at that point renounced its acknowledgement of Sudanese sovereignty over the triangle, which prompted Sudan’s armed forces to expel Ethiopian troops from the area. Sudan now poses a serious military threat to Abiy’s government and its Amhara militia allies, should they not renounce their newfound claim over al Fashaga.

In both cases, Abiy’s powerlessness is clear. In the Oromia region, meanwhile, the insurgency of the Oromo Liberation Army has gained strength over the past year, scoring a string of victories that have greatly expanded its areas of operation. It is now confident enough to stage public graduation ceremonies for its new recruits. Here too, atrocities have followed the frustration of the central government. In May, a teenager was publicly paraded to a central square in the city of Dembi Dollo, where he was executed on suspicion of links to the Oromia rebels.

The Ethiopian economy is also suffering from serious problems, exacerbated by deteriorating foreign relations. Most of Abiy’s former patrons in the West – whose support was crucial to the consolidation of his rule – have abandoned him. As a result of the human rights abuses in Tigray, the US and the EU have frozen aid payments, and the US has imposed economic sanctions which are likely to restrict Ethiopia’s access to funds from the World Bank and IMF. Credits and loans from these institutions, which Abiy once likened to ‘borrowing from one’s mother’, have been essential to staving off a full-scale debt crisis.

One must not expect Washington to promote a genuine democratic solution to Ethiopia’s problems. The US is motivated by its own interests – limited to keeping Ethiopia in a stable enough shape that it can continue to support the status quo in the region, which has been imperilled by Abiy’s mismanagement. Since coming to power, Abiy has craved closer relations with Western countries and financial institutions, presenting himself as a free-market reformer opening up the economy to foreign investors. His government’s ‘homegrown economic reform’ agenda is a carbon copy of the recommendations pushed by Washington in recent decades, and he has cultivated alliances with fellow evangelicals in Washington, including the hard-right Republican Senator Jim Inhofe. Initially, Abiy’s government sought – and partially succeeded in attaining – an international realignment that would bring Ethiopia further into the orbit of Western states. Washington’s first response to the war on Tigray was therefore to support it. This only changed when Abiy proved ineffective on the battlefield.

The rift between Ethiopia and the US has compromised the former’s regional standing further, against the backdrop of already souring relations with Egypt, Kenya and Sudan. Responding to this conjuncture, Abiy suddenly announced that he would close over half the country’s diplomatic missions, citing financial pressures. For a state with a strong diplomatic tradition – a founding member of the League of Nations, the UN and the OAU, and the host of the headquarters of the African Union – which has consistently fashioned itself as a lynchpin of pan-Africanism, this certainly signals a lowering of ambition. Missions earmarked for closure include embassies in Nairobi, Cairo, Dar es Salaam, Abidjan, Accra, Kigali, Dakar, Kinshasa, Harare and Algiers.

The fervour that the regime whipped up in the early stages of the war remains strong in several areas across the federation, with continued statements from political and religious leaders that can only be described as genocidal. But in Addis Ababa, a public mood of widespread despair and despondency is also palpable. This is partly due to the war’s economic toll: inflation is sky-high, unemployment soaring. Whatever optimism existed a few years ago about Ethiopia’s unbalanced yet growing economy is now all but gone. Lately, cautious dissent from Abiy’s vain pursual of a military victory at whatever costs has begun to be voiced from within the regime’s heartland. That 24 Ethiopian NGOs – some of which had previously expressed support for the government’s war aims – recently petitioned for negotiations and ceasefire is an indication of the changing mood in the country’s capital. The mayoral candidate of the hitherto strongly pro-war party Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice, likewise, has urged the government to negotiate an end to the conflict. Such calls must be understood in the context of the different positions of the two sides: whereas Tigray’s regional government has repeatedly expressed its willingness to negotiate, Abiy’s government has refused to consider it.

Despite being cash-strapped, struggling in the battlefield and facing increasing scepticism from former foreign allies and the Ethiopian public, the regime has dug in. Senior officials have redoubled their belligerent rhetoric, while the regime’s mobilization of ethnic militias has gone into overdrive. Abiy has gone shopping for drones and armaments to restore the advantage UAE’s air force offered him in the early stages of the war. His government has treated foreign envoys and UN officials seeking dialogue on the humanitarian situation with open hostility. On 30 September it announced the expulsion of seven senior UN officials involved in the hampered relief efforts. The UN Secretary General, hitherto seen as close to Abiy, expressed shock at the move. He ought not to have been surprised, however: starving Tigray into submission has been an aim of Abiy’s government since the early months of the war. This project has now developed into a severe and multifaceted crisis that is gripping all corners of the country. More convulsions are to be expected, as the regime tries to get out of this hole by digging further.

Read on: Emilio Sarzi Amade, ‘Ethiopia’s Troubled Road’, NLR I/107.