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Democracy dies in darkness. Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's civil war.

Updated: Feb 2, 2021

Abiy Ahmed, the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner for his ongoing peace talks with Eritrea, has shocked the world by ordering airstrikes against the restive Tigray region of Ethiopia. To comprehend how things have spiraled out of control in Ethiopia we first must understand the political landscape in Ethiopia. Ethiopia as a nation is formalized as a confederacy, with ten regional autonomous states, who send parliamentary delegates to the capital, Addis Ababa, that form a coalition to elect a Prime Minister and President to govern the federation. Abiy Ahmed was elected Prime Minister in April of 2018 and has been governing Ethiopia since then.

He entered the premiership with sweeping economic and political reforms. He released political prisoners and began negotiating a peace agreement with Eritrea, Ethiopia’s breakaway region that gained independence in 1991, for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize. He played a crucial role in the peace process between Sudan and South Sudan's civil war and was viewed as the darling of Africa. As with all visionary leaders who carry transformative mandates, he viewed himself as the savior of democracy in Ethiopia and the golden child of Africa.

His ambitions a year later would clash head on with the reality on the ground, things would slowly but surely began to unravel in Ethiopia due to deep rooted ethnic divisions. Like so many other leaders of Africa before him, autocratic rule (emergency decree) became his new mandate and opposition leaders became the new guest of federal jails throughout Ethiopia for terrorism charges. Since taking office, he has instituted emergency decrees several times, and most recently he cancelled nation elections in the summer due to “COVID-19.” The cancellation of federal elections, his greatest overreach to date, is probably the singular reason bringing the nation to the brink of civil war with the Tigray region.

The Tigray region of Ethiopia and its ruling party the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) since 1991 had ruled the political landscape in Ethiopia. In 1991, when the TPLF and other coalitions marched into Addis Ababa with their rebel groups and overthrew the military junta that was ruling the country, set the nation on a roadmap to democracy. The TPLF along with other ruling parties formed the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), created a constitution, held national elections, and elected Meles Zenawi of the TPLF as Prime Minister of the country and Chairman of the EPRDF. Meles Zenawi was Prime Minister until his death in 2012 when he was replaced by Hailemariam Desalegn, who would resign three years later because of political unrest, paving the way for Abiy Ahmed to be elected Prime Minister and Chairman of the EPRDF.

When Abiy Ahmed became Prime Minister, he dissolved the EPRDF and formed the Prosperity Party and effectively sidelined the TPLF and ousted TPLF members from government posts. The leadership of the TPLF would retreat to the Tigray Region fearing arrest and consolidate power in the Tigray region. Meanwhile political unrest in the other regions of Ethiopia, in particular the Oromo Region of which Abiy Ahmed is from, that brought down the premiership of his predecessor and jolted him to power, would begin to escalate again. With political unrest comes political prisoners and one by one opposition leaders from the TPLF and his own Prosperity Party would be arrested. When journalist reported on the unrest in the different regions and the arrest of his political opponents they too would be arrested for "enticing riots" and many other ridiculous charges. To date thousands of politicians, opposition activists, journalist, anti-government protestors, and ethnic Tigrayins have been arrested. The poster child of Africa has reversed course on his reform agenda in the most dramatic way possible.

With his mandate slipping away and national elections set for this year, Abiy Ahmed by emergency decree delayed national elections until 2021 and placed the blame on Covid-19, setting off a constitutional crisis. The decision by Abiy Ahmed to cancel national elections because of Covid-19 stands in parallel to other nations who have much higher infection rates, in particular the United States which has over 10 million infections and over 230,000 deaths, but regardless of Covid-19 just held a national election with a turn-out of close to 150 million voters, electing a new President.

The TPLF seeking to delegitimize Abiy Ahmed and the Prosperity Party announced that they would hold elections as scheduled in the Tigray Region. The TPLF argued that the constitution does not allow a delay in elections regardless of emergency decree and after that regions September elections they would not recognize the federal government, as it would be an illegitimate federal government without an electoral mandate. Addis Ababa did not take the news well and threatened military action if the Tigray Region held elections. Elections were held peacefully in the Tigray Region, the TPLF won the majority of the vote, war did not happen but after the elections Abiy Ahmed placed the Tigray Region in emergency lock down, cut off federal funding, electricity, the internet, and telecom in the region.

The TPLF which had ruled the country for 30 years and is no stranger to war, the Tigray Region is the most war-hardened area in the country, began war preparations against Abiy Ahmed and the Federal government were they to get attacked. The Tigray region makes up just six percent of the nation’s 100 million population but constitutes half of the Federal Army, has a parliamentary force of 150,000 soldiers, and controls almost 80% of the countries war machinery in the Army’s Northern Command Center due to the on-going war with Eritrea and the border conflict with Sudan. In late October Abiy Ahmed would send a general from Addis Ababa to take control of the Northern Command Center but the general was met at the airport and would be asked to return to Addis Ababa by the TPLF. The TPLF fearing an imminent attack would take control of the Federal army’s weapons depot in the Tigray Region which lead to airstrikes from Abiy Ahmed several days later.

Since the airstrikes began five days ago there has been very limited information on the current situation in the Tigray Region due to the telecommunication ban by the federal government, any information that is available is coming from the Prime Minister’s office which cannot be verified. This week the Prosperity Party also disbanded the TPLF party and voted in a caretaker government for the Tigray Region. Since the fighting began Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has also sacked the army chief, the intelligence chief, and the federal police commissioner, presumably for not stopping the Tigray Regions military take over by the TPLF, and replaced them with his allies. In the capital city of Addis Ababa, Tigray nationals are being arrested and accused of terrorism charges, the same type of terrorism charges that Abiy Ahmed’s opposition leaders are facing.

Growing concerns amongst the international community has urged the Prime Minister and the Tigray Region to deescalate tensions to avoid a civil war. The United Nations is warning of a pending humanitarian crises and food shortages that will affect the local citizens and refugees from other countries in the Tigray Region. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed instead is mobilizing army troops from other parts of the country and sending them to the Tigray Region. On Sunday in a video statement the Prime Minister argued that it was his governments right to “defend and protect the constitutional order and uphold the law” and without evidence accused the TPLF of organizing antigovernmental forces across the country.

The war has now dragged in Ethiopia's neighbor to the north Eritrea into the chaos. The TPLF has been warning that they will strike out against all involved in the battle against their region and now have sent missiles to Eritrea's capital Asmara. Foreign diplomats are reporting that missiles have hit the capital city of Asmara and because Eritrea is a reclusive country there is no way to verify the missile strike. The TPLF has accused Eritrea of assisting the Ethiopian Federal Army in their attack against the Tigray Region but there is no way to verify the accusation because of the media blackout. The fear that this would turn into a regional war has come true and further fears that the crisis might drag Somalia and Sudan into the conflict are increasing.

Abiy Ahmed is optimistic that the federal governments offensive will end quickly with victory after victory, but as history has shown us in Africa, rebel groups often do not succumb so easily. Of particular concern for Abiy Ahmed and the federal government is that the TPLF is not like any other rebel group, they are a highly organized well trained army that has defended the country for 30 year on the northern border, Abiy Ahmed has miscalculated his mandate to the detriment of an entire nation.

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