When Abiy Ahmed became prime minister of Ethiopia in 2018, he was hailed as a reformer and pioneer for democracy in one of Africa’s largest countries. Where there were ethnic tensions, Ahmed campaigned on unity; where there was poverty, Ahmed campaigned on economic reforms. Where there was political repression, Ahmed’s administration granted amnesty to political prisoners; thousands of people were released from prison by a stroke of the pen.
During the first six months of his tenure as prime minister, Abiy negotiated a historic peace agreement with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki to end a quarter-century of tensions between the states. For his efforts, Ahmed was awarded the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize.
On Monday, Ethiopia held elections, long hailed as the first real free elections in the country. Abiy and his Prosperity Party are widely expected to be declared the winners of a general parliamentary election, despite large swaths of the country being unable to vote. Voters in the embattled Tigray region did not have the opportunity to vote, many in the Oromiya region boycotted after 203 of 206 offices of the local political party were shut down, and other regions aren’t even scheduled to vote until September.
Maeza Gbgbremedhin, an international relations researcher and human right activist from Tigray told The Dispatch, “this is a coronation ceremony.”
Berhane Kidanemariam was the deputy chief of mission at the Ethiopian Embassy in Washington until March, when he resigned in protest of the government’s actions. “The international community has to reject the results of the election,” he told The Dispatch. “The process matters, and the process was not correct.”
To understand what comes next for Ethiopia, it’s worth looking at how things got this way, and how the ongoing conflict in Tigray has shaped recent events.
The current conflict is primarily between the Ethiopian federal government—led by Abiy’s Prosperity Party—and the Tigrayan Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF).
The TPLF emerged in 1975 in response to the communist powers taking over the country. In the capital Addis Ababa, the Derg—a Soviet-supported, Marxist regime—ruled, focusing on unity (or at least uniformity) above ethnic identities. Throughout the Cold War, the TPLF engaged—and defeated—Derg forces, working alongside other ethnically-defined revolutionary groups to form the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). In 1991, the EPRDF forces overthrew the Derg, ending Communist rule of Ethiopia. When the Dergfell, Eritrea—formerly part of Ethiopia—was granted independence.
The EPRDF coalition—heavily controlled by the TPLF—governed Ethiopia the next quarter-century. In 1998, Eritrea and Ethiopia went to war over border disputes. Two years, tens of thousands of deaths, and a feeble peace left Eritrea a fractured country ruled by a despot—Isaias Afewerki. Ethiopia, for its part, entered the 21st century with an increasing GDP and a semblance of faith in political institutions.
While internal politics are far from a glimmering beacon of democracy, when compared to other powers in the region—neighboring Somalia and Eritrea—Ethiopia has remained relatively stable. The stability came with a cost, however, particularly for independent media and political challengers to the ruling EPRDF. In 2015, Human Rights Watch reported Ethiopia had more journalists in exile than any country in the world, save Iran.
Between 2016 and 2018 protests erupted around the country for myriad economic and political reasons. A 10-month state of emergency in 2016 culminated in hundreds killed and thousands arrested. In 2018, a tumultuous wave of protests culminated in Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn resigning, and a sixth-month state of emergency declaration.
Abiy was a member of the EPRDF at the time, and when Hailemariam resigned, he was soon shuffled into leadership. Once established as prime minister, Abiy dissolved the EPRDF, creating the Prosperity Party in its place. Citing a move away from ethnic federalism, Abiy sought to establish a unified Ethiopian party.One of Abiy’s first moves was to release political prisoners—including journalists—most of whom were imprisoned by the TPLF-led EPRDF government.
Abiy’s move to create a more unitarian government was greeted by many in Ethiopia. In his resignation address, Berhane Kidanemariam explained that when Abiy gained power he “had big hopes for genuine reforms that could transform our political environment.” Gbgbremedhin recalled optimism, saying: “Everybody in Ethiopia, even those in Tigray, gave him resounding support.”
In the last year, however, Abiy has reverted to the mean, imprisoning opposition leaders and silencing dissent. When the EPRDF was dissolved, the TPLF didn’t disappear, but it did lose power and influence. In his efforts to unify the public around a shared Ethiopian identity, rather than individual ethnic identities, Abiy had isolated citizens who saw ethnic parties as their voice in the government. This shift catalyzed aggression directed at Tigrayans in Ethiopia.
“From the perspective of a lot of Ethiopians, the Tigrayan Peoples’ Liberation Front was responsible for a lot of the problems of the past couple decades,” Emily Estelle, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, explained to The Dispatch.
Now, Kidanemariam sees “destruction and disintegration.” There was a shift from the government simply being against the TPLF’s oppression of civilians, to systemic, calculated oppression of Tigrayans throughout the country.
In May 2021, Ethiopian lawmakers voted in the House of Peoples’ Representatives to designate the TPLF a terrorist organization.
When the central government postponed federal elections, originally scheduled for August 2020, the TPLF called it unconstitutional, and held its own elections in the region. Commenters predicted that it was a “question of when, not if , there [would] be a fight between these two parties,” explained Lyons. The conflict, as predicted, erupted shortly thereafter.
On November 4, 2020 the Ethiopian government accused the TPLF of attacking a military base in the Tigray region. Abiy declared a six-month state of emergency, and ordered the army into Tigray. Internet and telephone connections were cut as well.
Abiy’s military sought to oust the TPLF from their regional position of power. The instability also offered Eritrea the opportunity to insert itself into its neighbor’s war, Emily Estelle explained, “Eritrea being able to move troops into the neighboring regions is a win [for Isaias].” She continued: “The longstanding adversarial relationship between the TPLF and Isaias, president of Eritrea, has not changed.”
Since November, the conflict has devolved from a focused police action to a humanitarian crisis. In March, Michelle Bachelet, U.N. high commissioner for Human Rights wrote: “Deeply distressing reports of sexual and gender-based violence, extrajudicial killings, widespread destruction and looting of public and private property by all parties continue to be shared with us, as well as reports of continued fighting in central Tigray in particular.” She continued, “Credible information also continues to emerge about serious violations of international human rights law and humanitarian law by all parties to the conflict in Tigray in November last year.”
Bachelet’s statement also alleged “that serious violations of international law, possibly amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity, may have been committed by multiple actors in the conflict, including: the Ethiopian National Defence Forces, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, Eritrean armed forces, and Amhara Regional Forces and affiliated militia.”
For their part, both Gbgbremedhin and Kidanemariam (and other leaders) allege the crimes against Tigrayans amount to genocide. Kidanemariam explains “after the war broke out the banks, the telecoms, the internet, the roads—everything—was closed. After that people were killed everywhere in Tigray… and then no aid, no food could be transported from one place to another.”
The U.N. World Food Program announced: “The brutal reality for our staff in Tigray is that for every family we reach with life-saving food, there are countless more especially in rural areas whom we cannot reach. We have appealed for humanitarian access but are still being blocked by armed groups.”
The African Comission for Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPRR) cites “allegations of gross violations in the ongoing conflict in the Tigray region including secual violence against women and girls, gang rapes used as weapons of war, killings of civilians by belligerents and extrajudicial killings,” in their decision to create a fact-finding mission in Ethiopia. Ethiopia has been a signatory on the ACHPR since 2002.
Last week, Pekka Haavisto—Finland’s foreign minister—told reporters that Ethiopian officials “really used this kind of language, that they are doing to destroy the Tigrayans, they are going to wipe out the Tigrayans for 100 years and so forth,” during a closed door meeting earlier this year. Haavisto serves as the EU’s special envoy on Ethiopia.
Ethiopia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement alleging Mr. Haavisto lacks a “nuanced understanding of the country and its people…it also smacks of a colonial mindset that still lurks in the minds of self-righteous individuals like him.”
International aid organizations assert the Ethiopian central government is using starvation as a method of war against the people of Tigray, to the chagrin of the central government themselves. According to local media, the Ethiopian government asserts a “hands-off” approach to food assistance; “91 percent of the food distribution is covered by 5 nongovernmental partners; how can we imagine that we are using starvation as a method of war,” Mitiku Kassa, commissioner for the National Disaster Risk Management Commission told state run media. Kassa also denied any indication of a famine, predicted by numerous international organizations.
Estimates suggest that without the immediate cessation of conflict—and unhindered access for humanitarian workers—2 million people facing food insecurity could face starvation. An estimated 2.5 million more people face acute need. Using starvation as a method of war is considered a war crime by the United Nations. Soldiers have destroyed crops, water facilities, and damaged hospitals, schools, and businesses around Tigray, exacerbating the already severe need.
Rape and sexual violence are also cited as weapons of war used by Eritrean and Ethiopian forces in Tigray. Mark Lowcock, the emergecy relief coordinaor for the U.N. told reporters in April “there is no doubt that sexual violence is being used in this conflict as a weapon of war, as a means to humiliate, terrorize, and traumatize an entire population today and into the next generation.” International media is largely barred from the region, leading observers to believe that the reported crimes are only a small fraction of the reality.
Since the conflict emerged, neither the federal government nor the TPLF have provided official death tolls. The Ethiopia State of Emergency Fact Check (a government-run entity) called reports of civilian losses “unsubstantiated and suffer from unfortunate political motives.” The Ethiopian government maintains this conflict is a “law enforcement operation.” Estimates of casualties run higher than 50,000 people by some reports.
Reports of mass graves—with video evidence—have reached the international audience.
Considering the immense hope lauded on Abiy when he took office in 2018, the ongoing humanitarian crisis is troubling for international observers and Ethiopian citizens who hoped for a brighter future for Ethiopian democracy.
In May, the European Union canceled plans to send election monitors to observe the Ethiopian elections. The EU explained that Ethiopia failed to fulfill “standard requirements” needed for observers to be sent to Ethiopia.
The National Election Board of Ethiopia shared photos Monday of voters participating in the election. But Lyons told The Dispatch: “The Ethiopian people don’t have a meaningful choice [in this election].”
Not all Ethiopians feel this way, however. The Ethiopian Satellite Television service, known as ESAT—which is based in D.C., founded by journalists exiled by the former EPRDF government—posted an interview earlier this week with Dr. Brook Hailu Beshah, a former Ethiopian diplomat, now political science professor in the United States. Beshah argues that this election is a pivotal moment for Ethiopian politics, a bulwark for democracy in a difficult time.
In his report for the United States Institute of Peace, Terrence Lyons concluded “a single election was never going to resolve Ethiopia’s core challenges with violence, marginalization and lack of political space. What matters going forward is the nature of the next phase of political reform and whether more inclusive processes can be institutionalized.” Lyons explained “the process still seems to be a long way from satisfying the democratic aspirations of many Ethiopians.”