Abiy Ahmed is chilly amid conflict and humanitarian crisis

  • + Abiy Ahmed is chilly due to escalation of tensions in Ethiopia. 
  • + His preference for centralised power is opposed by the TPLF.
  • + Tensions are escalating into a war of attrition and humanitarian crisis.

Why is Abiy Ahmed’s heat level cold?

Answer: He declared victory in Tigray but the situation remains unstable in the region.

The ongoing crisis in Tigray, the northern region of Ethiopia bordering Eritrea, is rooted in historical political events. In 1991, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a coalition group led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), overthrew the military junta ruling the country for the past seventeen years. 

In 1995, the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia was proclaimed and the EPRDF took over the power. The TPLF leader at that time, Meles Zenawi, became prime minister and Tigrayans dominated the government. Under this new government, ethnic federalism was put in place, with the dominating ethnic groups now governing their own region. In 2015, the EPRDF became increasingly divided and started to lose power following street protests. Three years later, Abiy Ahmed became prime minister and was praised for implementing reforms that opened the Ethiopian economic and political systems. 

As Abiy Ahmed is Oromo a different ethnic group, Tigrayan officials no longer enjoy the same privilege as they did under TPLF rule. In fact, Tigrayans complain about being persecuted during investigations over corruption. The divide deepened when Abiy Ahmed received the Nobel peace prize in 2019 for peace-making efforts with Eritrea, which the TPLF still sees as an enemy. Later that year, the ruling coalition headed by Abiy Ahmed merged to form a single party which the TPLF refused to join, calling it undemocratic.

In August 2020, Abiy Ahmed postponed regional elections due to the Covid-19 crisis. A month later, Tigray held regional elections which the government considered illegal. Both governments, federal and regional, do not recognise one another.

Tensions escalated into violence when the prime minister decided to launch a military response in Tigray, following a TPLF attack on federal troops and looting of military assets. Despite the prime minister’s claim of using proportional force to restore order and his declaration of victory, the situation remains unstable and threatens the entire region. 

Who is changing Abiy Ahmed’s temperature?

What factors have switched Abiy Ahmed’s position ?

Answer: National, regional and international actors who are involved in the crisis.

At the national level, Abiy Ahmed’s opposition is the TPLF and its President, Debretsion Gebremichael. The government issued arrest warrants for sixty senior leaders. The TPLF is the only party that did not join the Prime Minister’s coalition to create a single party. In addition, the TPLF remains dominant in the Tigray regional government and does not recognise Abiy Ahmed’s position. 

The Tigrayan party has been very vocal with its criticism of the national government and refused to comply with its decision to postpone the regional elections because of the ongoing pandemic. As a result, the TPLF is now engaging in a war of attrition against the federal troops. At the heart of the conflict, lies the idea of ethnic federalism, with the TPLF representing the ethnic majority of the region (despite Tigrayan being 6% of the national population). The party wishes to hold on to its regional power which opposes Abiy Ahmed’s vision and embodiment of a more centralised power.

At the regional level, it is Ethiopia’s neighbouring country, Eritrea, that is also involved in this crisis, especially the President, Isaias Afwerki. After years of tensions and a peace-making agreement leading to Abiy Ahmed’s Nobel peace prize, the two men are now allies against the TPLF. The Ethiopian prime minister disclosed that Eritrea has provided support to their retreating troops after the TPLF attacked their camp. 

In addition, members of the TPLF, civilians fleeing Ethiopia as well as Eritreans have stated that Eritrean troops are fighting in Tigray. Both the Ethiopian and Eritrean government denied these claims. However, Eritrea is accused of using force to take back refugees who were previously living in UN-run camps. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has not been able to access said camps since November.

At the international level, the crisis caught the intention of the United Nations, United States as well as the European Union. These international actors have expressed their concern about this humanitarian crisis and the ongoing tensions threatening the region. According to the EU foreign affairs chief, the EU receives “consistent reports of ethnic-targeted violence, killings, massive looting, rapes, forceful returns of refugees and possible war crimes”. The EU is withholding 88 million euros to provide support once humanitarian access to Tigray is allowed again.

Despite facing opposition at the national level, Ahmed Abiy remains in power as prime minister and head of the one party governing all states except Tigray. Thus, Debretsion Gebremichael and the TPLF do not appear to have a power strong enough to dramatically challenge Abiy’s government. In addition, despite receiving dreadful reports, the EU does not have the possibility to act on it yet. Indeed, the Ethiopian government still blocks access to Tigray which prevents external investigation and verification of reports as well as humanitarian intervention. 

What is driving Abiy Ahmed?

Answer: He aims at preserving his reputation and asserting his power.

Abiy Ahmed is known for being the popular prime minister who ousted the TPLF, implemented important reforms to end repression and corruption in Ethiopia. He was also recognised by the international community for his peace-making agreement with Eritrea for which he earned a Nobel peace prize. However, the crisis is tarnishing his reputation and Abiy Ahmed is putting many mechanisms in place to protect it. 

First, he assured the UN that the use of force by the military is proportional to enforce law and order in Tigray. Secondly, the government restricted access to the region which prevents external verification of the reports received by the EU as well as the investigation of the allegations made by all sides. Third, Abiy Ahmed is reshuffling his government and high ranking officials in order to bring forward those who support the most of his decisions concerning Tigray.

According to the prime minister’s opponents, his goal has been to oust the TPLF since he came to power. In addition, the prime minister has been accused of delaying elections in an attempt to hold on to power because neither him or his new party has faced the electorate before. Despite criticisms, this seems to be embedded in a wider attempt to abandon ethnic federalism and centralize power. Abiy Ahmed decided to create a new party, the Prosperity Party (PP), a coalition of all parties, except for the TPLF which refused to join. Thus, he now controls the entire country except Tigray. The prime minister appears to aim towards a unitary system rather than the current federal system.

What does this mean for you?

Answer: The humanitarian crisis undermines the influence of international actors. 

Because of the violence in the Tigray region, more than two million people have been displaced and are in dire need of help but the government has restricted access to Tigray. Refugees who lived in UN-camps have been forced back to Eritrea. This situation also threatens neighbouring states such as Somalia and Sudan. 

Ethiopia withdrew the troops deployed in Sudan to support the UN effort to fight Islamist groups. In Sudan, tensions rise after an estimate or 55 000 Ethiopians crossed the border. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Tigray, 600,000 people depend on food relief assistance and 1 million receive safety net assistance. However, air and road access to the region remain restricted and regional communication suffers from black-outs. International organisations such as the Red Cross are slowly providing aid and the EU provides an additional 18.8 million euros to humanitarian partners Ethiopia and two millions to Sudan in order to cope with the refugee influx.  The future of Tigray remains uncertain.