Why is Abiy Ahmed cooling down with Ethiopia’s state of emergency?

  • Abiy declares a state of emergency and mobilises citizens against the TPLF.
  • International community and the US pressure Abiy for a ceasefire.
  • State of emergency as a final resort for Abiy’s dwindling power.
Abiy Ahmed
Source: BBC

Why is Abiy’s temperature cold?

Answer: Abiy’s announcement of the six month state of emergency and his galvanisation of the public can be understood as the Prime Minister’s final push towards ending conflict in the Tigray region.

On Wednesday, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the Council of Ministers announced that the country would go into a six month state of emergency effective immediately. The Prime Minister made the announcement in light of the ongoing conflict with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in the northern region of the country that has characterised his leadership since last year. At the same time as announcing the country’s state of emergency, Abiy sent out a Facebook post calling on citizens to take up arms and join the fight against the TPLF. 

The news comes only a few days after the announcement that the Tigrayan forces captured the towns of Dessie and Kombolcha only 380 km from Addis Ababa and is said to be making a potential offensive to the capital. Forming part of the Amhara region, it is the latest offensive by the TPLF aiming to put pressure on the government to get rid of the de facto blockade in place in Tigray. In response, Abiy has doubled up on troops sent toTigray, arguing that the guerilla group re-ignited violence.

The conflict is said to be sparked by a constitutional row in the region of Tigray over delayed elections due to COVID-19, but it also has deeper roots in ethnic divisions of the country along with the transition from the TPLF government to Abiy. Although a ceasefire was declared in late June, the current violence we see has not stopped since the onset of the conflict in November of 2020. This all comes at the disappointment of the international community who have called on Abiy to de-escalate the conflict since last year. Unfortunately, this is not Ahmed’s likely course of action. Previously enjoying the heat of rejecting mediation in the filling of the Renaissance Dam, Abiy is currently on the downward spiral. 

What is changing Abiy’s temperature?

Answer: While the state of emergency has granted Abiy excessive powers, the power of the TPLF and potential US sanctions is keeping the Prime Minister in check even if his popularity remains high in Ethiopia. 

The six month state of emergency allowed Prime Minister Abiy to usurp extraordinary powers. Firstly, it allows the government to arbitrarily arrest anyone suspected of collaborating with terrorist groups, keeping them under a court order for the duration of the emergency. The government is resorting to abuse of power by coordinating unsubstantiated arrests of nationals and foreigners over suspected ties with the TPLF. 

The state of emergency also allows the government to implement a military draft, allowing the government to order citizens of military age to undergo training. Since the announcement, 3000 citizens have been said to join Ethiopia’s National Defense Force (ENDF). Clearly the military conscription is not sufficient to quell the growing strength of the TPLF as they have garnered support from other armed groups, like the Oromo Liberation Army, across the country who are forming a grand alliance against Abiy’s government. Therefore, he has called on citizens to “take up arms” and fight against the TPLF in “any legal manner.” While conscripting the general public does not scream confidence, Abiy’s recent reelection in July of this year does. The results show that he claimed 410 out of the 436 parliamentary seats, proving that his lack of military success in Tigray has not fully transitioned into a lack of support for the Prosperity Party and his policies.

The biggest checks on Abiy’s power have been the strength of the TPLF and the pressure of the international community. The TPLF are not close to giving up arms. Tigrayan forces have proved to be manyfold stronger than the Ethiopian Army since the conflict changed to the guerilla group’s favor in April of this year. Some believe that the TPLF’s offense is only temporary as citizens are uniting to join the fight, but given the Ethiopian Army’s track record in the conflict, this assertion does not seem promising. The dwindling power of the Ethiopian forces and Abiy’s policy on defeating the TPLF has become clear. First challenging the Ethiopian Army through guerilla warfare, then defeating the government forces through combat; the TPLF is currently on its way to the country’s capital after recently overrunning two Ethiopian cities in the Amhara region. 

With no end in sight, the international community urged Abiy to de-escalate the conflict by calling for a ceasefire between the TPLF and the Ethiopian government brokered by the African Union. Within this, the United States has once again taken a leadership role by announcing that the country will not hesitate to sanction Ethiopia under Biden’s new executive order allowing for such actions to any party or country undermining humanitarian efforts. This comes after the US-condemned decision by Abiy to expel seven United Nations officials from the northern part of the country, arguing that it most likely sent thousands of people into starvation.

On the other hand, the United States has the ability to pressure Abiy economically in order to coerce action. The US is currently conditioning duty free access to their markets on the compliance of the Ethiopian government to the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). This is a conditional piece of legislation aiming to improve economic relations between the US and Sub-Saharan African countries. According to Biden, this is currently threatened by widespread reports of human rights violations in Ethiopia. 

Economically squeezing Ethiopia would almost certainly suffocate the country’s manufacturing sector. In this way, Abiy’s political power at home is actively being challenged internationally. He needs to tread carefully into the state of the emergency, as any miscalculated actions would most likely result in the international community making good on any harsher action. 

What is driving Abiy?

Answer: Abiy is using the state of emergency to provide his government with the legitimacy and power to end the conflict with the TPLF as he finds himself on the losing side.

One day after announcing the state of emergency, Abiy made a chilling speech calling the TPLF the enemy which will be buried “with our blood and bones.” Abiy intends to mobilise as many resources as he can to put an end to the conflict and restore legitimacy to his government following its deterioration in the ongoing conflict. However, given the TPLF’s strength and the Ethiopian Army’s failures, he does not have that many resources available; thus he turned to the public as a final resort. Abiy argues that the TPLF, having called it a terrorist organisation in May, has led to the country’s destruction and is looking to reinstall the glory of Ethiopia. By mobilising the public, Abiy aims “to prevent, reverse and bury the terrorist TPLF.”

Abiy rose to power in 2018, changing the political scene from being dominated by a Tigrayan government, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), for 25 years. He ascended to power under the promise of introducing reforms to end corruption and repression under the previous regime. Abiy was chosen by the EPRDF as an ethnic Omoro to softly transition the group towards a more palatable government. Upon taking office in 2018, however, the country saw widespread violence across ethnic lines, concentrated in the Tigray, Amhara and Oromo regions to which Abiy responded with a heavy hand, which, in 2020, burst into the conflict we know today.

While some believe Abiy has managed to rid the country of corruption, others, especially the Tigrayan forces, believe that he is focused on recreating the country’s traditional power structure, which organised the country on identity politics and eroded national unity. However, by destroying the current federal organisation, Abiy is favouring certain ethnicities like the Amhara and Omoro ethnic groups, while isolating the rest.

What does this mean for you?

Answer: We are going to see continued widespread human rights violations and the destabilisation of the region as Abiy struggles to maintain his power.

There is no denying the magnitude of the humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia right now. After a year of conflict, the United Nations has identified that thousands of Ethiopians have died in combat, 400 000 face famine, two million have become internally displaced and five million rely on some sort of food or humanitarian aid. In a recent UN report, it has been made clear that both parties have carried out actions equivalent to war crimes by violating international human rights, humanitarian and refugee law. Not only has the government banned humanitarian aid to enter the region of Tigray, but Abiy does not allow any journalists to enter the northern city, meaning coverage is limited. 

Since violence erupted in November 2020 and Abiy’s lack of success in managing the Tirayan conflict, there have been stipulations over what is called the ‘balkanization’ of Ethiopia. With over 80 ethnicities, the country’s diversity creates potential lines of conflict not only seen in the Tigray conflict, but in previous eruptions of violence across the country. Tigrayans only make up 6% of the country’s population and yet the conflict is threatening the very stability of the country, questioning whether Abiy will manage to continue governing a country so diverse in such a volatile region. 

Ethiopia was previously security oasis on the continent, playing an integral role in establishing stability and fighting terror, however its internal conflict revoked this status. The events in Ethiopia do not only have gross impacts in the country itself but given its geostrategic position in the Horn of Africa, it will have long lasting impacts for the region now that Sudan, Turkey, Iran, the UAE, Russia and China have become involved with special emphasis on Ethiopia. The conflict has also eaten away at the historically very sound US-Ethiopia relations that not even US Special Envoy Jeffrey Feltman may be able to salvage and has given way for Putin to enter the scene by means of strengthening military cooperation with the country and supporting Abiy throughout his conflict with Tigray. While we will have to sit tight and see the power politics at play, Abiy’s status as Nobel Peace Prize Winner will keep deteriorating as he is on his last straw to contain the conflict in his own country.

Arielle Combrinck

Research & Analysis Member