Observations of an expat: Ethiopia

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Ethiopian Nobel peace prize winner Abiy Ahmed is planning—hoping with fingers and toes crossed—for a speedy and decisive end to his dispute with the rebel province of Tigray.

If his hopes are unrealised than it will have severe and widespread repercussions in the second most populous county in Africa, the strategic Horn of Africa and beyond.

Prime Minister Abiy and the leadership of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) have been at loggerheads since he took over the premiership two years ago.  Up until then the TPLF had held the reins of power in Addis Ababa. Corruption, human rights abuses and a long war with Eritrea pushed them into an unwelcome political wilderness.

The problem is complicated by Ethiopia’s complex ethnic mix of 80 different groups speaking 86 languages. In an attempt to hold these competing factions together the 1995 constitution established a loose federation of nine ethnically-based states; each with the right of self-determination up to the right of secession. The constitution was a TPLF creation.

The TPLF-constructed constitution does not, however, fit in with Abiy’s vision of a unitary modern democratic state. He booted the TPLF out of the ruling coalition and formed a national political party, the People’s Prosperity. Then, to add insult to injury, Abiy used the excuse of the coronavirus pandemic to postpone elections due last August.

This was the final straw for the TPLF. They organised their own regional elections in September. The results were quickly dismissed by Abiy. He declared the newly-elected legislature illegal, imposed a six month state of emergency and shut down the telephone and internet network. On 4 November federal troops started marching towards The Tigrayan capital Mek’ele and people started dying and fleeing for their lives.

Uganda, Kenya and the African Union have offered their services as mediators. Abiy has refused them all. He maintains that his dispute with the TPLF is an internal matter of law enforcement and that other countries should stay out of it.

This is all well and good, but if Abiy fails to quickly and decisively conclude the conflict it will spill over into the rest of the Horn of Africa. In only a few days, 30,000 refugees have fled across the border from Tigray into neighbouring Sudan. They are the start of a new stream of displaced persons who have joined the flood from Syria, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Libya and the West African Sahel who are threatening to overwhelm the international community’s ability to cope with displaced persons. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the number of refugees successfully resettled in 2020 hit a record low of 15,435 compared to 126,0000 in 2016.

Then there are the Oromos, who inhabit the east and south eastern section of Ethiopia which borders troubled Somalia. They are also displeased with Abiy’s political realignments and his decision to postpone the election. The result? Reports of the beginning civil unrest in Oromia.

Ethiopia is one of the biggest contributors to the AU peacekeeping force in Somalia (4,400 troops) which play a vital part in containing the Al Qaeeda off shoot Al Shabaab.  Abiy has withdrawn 600 federal troops from Somali border patrols, but so far Ethiopia’s contribution to AMISOM remains untouched. But for how long if Tigrayan problems drag on?

Eritrea is another unknown. Abiy won his Nobel Peace Prize for ending the long-running Eritrean-Ethiopian war. Now there are reports that he is talking to the Eritreans about soliciting the help of the Eritreans—who sit on Tigray’s northern border—if federal troops become bogged down in Tigray and possibly Oromia as well.

Such an alliance would be a pact with the devil for Abiy. Eritrea rivals North Korea as a repressive totalitarian state devoid of basic human rights. Out of a population of 6 million, roughly a million Eritreans have fled the tranny of Eritrea’s ruling People’s Front for Justice and Democracy. Half a million of them are in Ethiopia and the Sudan and an estimated 400,000 are in Europe.

The TPLF’s democratic and human rights credentials are also poor. They are a Marxist organisation tempered by a dose of practical politics. As a basically Marxist party, the TPLF, espouses the principles of democratic centralism which concentrates power in the hands of a tiny political elite. Abiy hopes that by eliminating the elite he will solve the problem.



* American expat journalist Tom Arms is a regular contributor and author of the forthcoming book “America: Made in Britain.”

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Thank you, Mr Arms, for a succinct, incisive report on this conflict.
    I have been trying for several days to get to the root of what has been happening in this troubled region and why.

    I “think” I understand it a bit better now.

    Thank you.

  • My apologies. The word should read “insightful”. Sorry. On auto-pilot.

  • @ Chris. Incisive is good too. Thank you

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