Nationally, Ethiopia is a country with severe security issues which often lead to outrageous numbers of internally displaced persons within the regions that suffer the highest levels of inter-communal violence. The country ranks consistently high in regards to the number of conflict-oriented internally displaced persons as a result of ethnic violence, which persistently takes a toll on Ethiopia’s political unity. To fight the problem, Abiy Ahmed committed to tackling the environmental and conflict-related issues that cause Ethiopians to be displaced.
Internationally, Ethiopia is in dispute with Egypt over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Aspiring to fill the dam at a high rate, Ethiopia would sooner reap the benefits of the increased electricity production and capacity. But due to the position of the dam, the fill would limit Egypt’s water supply from the Blue Nile stream, causing detrimental effects on the nation’s agriculture and main water sources. This has forced the region to focus on coming to a deal between the Egyptians, Ethiopians, and Sudanese- whose water supply is also affected by the filling of the Ethiopian dam. The ordeal has become a security concern as rising tensions between Addis Ababa and Cairo seem unrelenting, and the hesitancy of all parties to fully compromise may lead to an international dilemma.
Internally Displaced Persons: A Ridding Problem
As Abiy knows best, Ethiopia is a country with a history of ethnic and inter-communal violence. Although many displacements are the result of mass violence, others also arise from extremely poor environmental conditions. As Abiy was first elected as PM, Ethiopia saw a record-high number of more than 3 million internally displaced persons at the beginning of 2019. In 2018, the country saw its peak of solely conflict-related IDPs at 2.895 million. During this time, Ethiopia ranked third in 2018 for conflict-related cases behind China and the Philippines, and ranked third for overall IDPs at the end of 2019. These are surprising figures considering that the highest count of conflict-related IDPs in the country prior to 2017 tallied at 450,000. Environmental disasters and internal conflicts have acted as a catalyst to the rising trend in overall IDPs in the country since then. As of late 2020, the count of IDPs has undoubtedly gone up due to the recent conflict in the Tigray region. As violence between the federal government and the TPLF worsened, more than 100,00 people were displaced and an estimated 56,000 have fled to neighboring Sudan.
Given the preoccupying surge, Abiy Ahmed was forced to address this problem once taking office in 2018. In his first year, the Ministry of Peace was re-established to promote peace and security while combating the volatile issue of ethnic conflicts and the resulting IDP figures. Abiy and the parliament also ratified the African Union’s Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons, also known as the Kampala Convention- a legal framework aiming to prevent the threats and systemic issues (ex. Ethnic conflict) that are attributed to the IDP crisis. Though seemingly promising, Abiy was seen by many to have mishandled the government’s IDP response, as he was criticized for the forceful returns of many IDPs to their community of origin.
Ethnic violence, which has remained disastrous for Ethiopian security, continues to be an issue that Abiy and his administration face. Abiy and his cabinet understand that addressing the situation without having a systemic perspective would likely only allow for a short-term relief on the IDP dilemma. Given his experience, Abiy notes the importance of solving the problem from its roots, such as reducing youth unemployment and softening the tone of ethnic nationalism in the country. He has also committed his administration to combat climate change to prevent environmental disasters that further worsen the IDPs issue. Abiy hopes that success in both environmental and conflict resolution will significantly slow down the issue of displacements and make it an issue of the past. Looking through a lens of Pan-Ethiopianism, Abiy looks to complete two goals at once; unifying the country and reducing the number of IDPs. Economically, continued displacements will also hurt Abiy’s plans of foreign investments, given that high levels of IDPs can be seen by investors as a direct indicator of vulnerability and lack of societal cohesion.
The GERD as an International Dilemma
When in international conflict, Abiy Ahmed has proven himself to be a leader that must be reckoned with. In the heated battle for the filling of Africa’s largest dam, The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, Egypt and Ethiopia have been head to head in protecting their national assets. As Ethiopia has noted, it prefers to fill the dam with a quick fill rate, while Egypt is against the idea due to the likely detrimental environmental and economic effects it would cause for them. Understandably, Egypt and Ethiopia are incentivized to come to a solution in order to prevent any sort of physical confrontation that could spill-over serious violence throughout the continent. Currently, Egypt is looking towards the United States to come out with a solution to the dam’s fill rate, which makes Abiy’s cabinet extremely unhappy with the international “biased” arbitration.
Abiy, who understands the significance of the dam, is also motivated by its patriotic symbolism, given that it was publicly funded and that it has become a top-tier wish for the rural populations. Knowing this, he has made it a priority to act quickly -almost aggressively- to fill the dam even if the negotiations with Egypt haven’t succeeded. The international pressures that Abiy has had from the global community (such as the UN, China, and the USA) to start talks and peacefully negotiate with Egypt and Sudan don’t seem to bother him nor his cabinet. Gedu Andargachew, Abiy’s ex-foreign minister, recognized that a deal may not be brokered, and rather commented “We will go ahead with the filling of the dam next month even if there’s no agreement reached”, which was confirmed by satellite photography in July 2020.
During high-intensity situations, such as the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, Abiy has proven to not respect the non-forceful constraints put onto him. Since Abiy knows there is a risk of war between Cairo and Addis Ababa, the decision to commence the filling of the dam despite not reaching a legitimate agreement with Egypt displays the importance this issue has for his administration. This has become a power move by Abiy, since he knows that if he can successfully fill the dam and soon enough reap the benefits of the increased source of electricity, his party and legacy will be regarded as key instruments in Ethiopia’s new chapter. This same aggressive dynamic can be seen in Abiy’s reaction to domestic situations, such as the Tigray offensive or the arrest of Jawar Mohammed, or against any actors that tend to threaten his power.
The Tigray Rebellion: an Unseen Side of Abiy
Ethiopia has seen two Tigrayan Prime Ministers under the EPRDF, Meles Zenawi and Hailemariam Desalegn. Consequently, Tigrayan political influence has always been considered to be uneven given that the Tigray only makes up roughly 6% of the national population. Moreover, the Tigray people are represented by the Tigray’s People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a group known to have tensions with the national government. However, the relationship between the Tigray’s and the EPRDF political establishment truly soured when Abiy came into power looking to form a new political coalition under the premise of Pan-Ethiopianism and a rejection of ethnic-based politics. After Abiy created the Prosperity Party, the Tigray rejected the negotiations to join Abiy’s coalition, which to them aimed to distribute political control away from their side of the table. Steadily losing their heavy influence in the country, the TPLF has become a political outcast in the current political climate, as it was unable to form a federal coalition in the national assembly to counter Abiy and the Prosperity Party. Riding alone, the TPLF became a loud voice opposing the Abiy administration and his Prosperity Party.
In 2020 Abiy Ahmed postponed the August general elections until June of 2021 due to concerns of the COVID-19 pandemic. The move was met with much controversy and blowback from the TPLF and a big political opponent, Jawar Mohammed, who stated that the move was “more political rather than constitutional”. Not acknowledging the legitimacy of the mandate put forward by the national government, the TPLF held their regional elections which were branded to be ‘illegal’ and ultimately unrecognized by the federal government. As a response, the national government substantially decreased the federal funds being sent to the region, which Tigrayan officials described as “tantamount to a declaration of war“. This stirred the pot in Ethiopia and the country eventually fell into what some would label a ‘civil war.’
In 2020, the WVS Database stated that 95% of the Ethiopian population was worried that a civil war would break out. This, unfortunately, became reality when Abiy Ahmed sent federal troops to the Tigray region after the TPLF was accused of stealing artillery from the federal barracks stationed there. The combat between the two sides escalated after Abiy gave the region a 72-hour ultimatum on November 23; the Trigray’s had to either drop their weapons or expect an attack from the Ethiopian national military. Five days later, Abiy and the national government announced the military mission in the Tigray region was over as the military had taken control of the regional capital, Mekelle. The mission involved both ground forces and airstrikes by the Ethiopian defense forces, resulting in a catastrophe for the Tigray region that even left around 40,000 refugees spilling into the border of Sudan. The fighting between the Tigray forces and the Ethiopian federal military also caused much distress in the region as humanitarian efforts could not reach Tigrayan refugees, due to the ruined infrastructure and the absence of proper communication tools. Ultimately, mobilizing the federal military against the TPLF and the Tigray Government has not been well received by the international community, given that the US called for the withdrawal of troops; and the EU delayed 90 million in aid assistance as a response.
The conflict between the Tigrayan forces and the federal military is a clear example of how Abiy goes about the heightened domestic issues that challenge his administration. These moves by the federal government to cut out the telecom services and internet within the Tigray region were blaring sirens to the international community due to their authoritarian nature. This aggressive strategy is similar to that used against widespread anti-government protests, as seen during the Oromo protests following the death of Hacalu Hundeessaa.
Abiy is ultimately motivated by the possibility of securing the wide tent of the Prosperity Party’s broad coalition, even if it means ousting the TPLF or other political challengers. This provides a further suggestion that in pressured situations, Abiy isn’t likely to allow threatening actors off the hook. Having been in the military before, particularly in missions within the Tigray region, Abiy is likely seen by those who support the Prosperity Party and those who have an unfavorable view of Tigray politics as an effective leader to spur the Tigray rebellion. Abiy must also tackle the continuing problem of IDPs resulting from this conflict, which prevents his aspiring Ethiopian nationalist unity. The longer the issue persists, the more displacements are likely to occur. Economically, the Tigray issue will further hurt the country’s growth, as foreign investors will likely hold off unless Abiy is able to demonstrate peaceful governance.