The new war in Ethiopia. The first step towards peace is understanding the conflict.

For many LDV readers, Ethiopia is associated with arid land, drought and terrible famine; made famous in the 1980s by Bob Geldorf and ‘Live Aid’.

The recent resurgence of civil conflict, mass fatalities and the exodus of 200,000 refugees into Sudan, seems inexplicable for the casual British observer. Is there a well-founded explanation?

Some perceptions have to be undone. More than 90% of the 100m population live in the green, fertile west of the country. Most of Ethiopia’s cities are modern and the capital, Addis, has a hi-tech urban rail system and glitzy shopping centres. Ethiopia has recently experienced high economic growth, and is a favoured investment location for Chinese and Western investors. The new Prime Minister won the Nobel peace prize for his rapprochement with breakaway Eritrea. So what’s the problem ?

Modern Ethiopia was largely created as an ‘empire’ by conquest in the late 19th Century under Emperor Menelik II, from what is now Addis Ababa, up to World War 1, with the support of Italy.

Italy brutally occupied Ethiopia 1936-1941 and full independence was re-established in 1947. Emperor Haile Selassie, revered amongst Rastafarians, ruled his post-independence feudal kingdom by divide-and-rule, precipitating frequent wars and insurgencies.

These conflicts led to terrible famines. The areas between the arid and tropical regions required careful agricultural management and stable administration., since irrigation and food distribution require civil peace and neighbourly ethic relations.

The emperor was overthrown in 1974 by Soviet-backed communists, led by the Mengistu Haile Mariam; who further centralised power, abolished the feudal system, and imposed a nationwide Stalin-eque programme to resettle villages, amidst the ‘Red Terror’. Economic decline and infrastructural neglect removed resilience to the famine created by the disruption. International aid did not prevent 1.2m deaths.

The collapse of the Soviet Union cut financial support to Mariam, and the regime finally ended. Eritrea broke away, formally independent by 1993. A US-backed socialist grouping (the EPRDF), took power in 1991 based on the idea of regional, ethnic based autonomy. It was a coalition of parties from four ethnic regional groups, Oromo, Tigrayan, Amharan, and a ‘southern peoples’.

Critics of this new governance system said that it excluded other ethnic groups and was dominated by Tigrayans, establishing a state where politicians represented one of four ethnicities rather than the country as a whole. The population began to complain that one kleptocratic and inept bureaucracy had been replaced by four similar one-party statelets.

However, relative stability led to rapid economic growth, but ‘elite capture’ led to waves of protests and increasing calls for reform and democracy. A new Prime minister Abiy Ahmed Ali was swept to power in 2018 promising reforms, ‘opening up’ and an end to the cartelisation of largesse between the four ethnic elites. These well-dug-in elites, facing a loss of power, were able to stir up their ethnic groups, especially after Abiy Ahmed merged three of the ethnic parties into one, excluding the formerly dominant Tigrayans.

In 2019 there was mass conflict in Oromo region, and in 2020 fighting broke out between Central Government forces and the Tigrayan administration, with ariel bombing and reports of massacres. The new Prime Minister’s much-lauded modernisation project, with its attempts to de-emphasise governance-by-ethnicity, and improve democracy, now looks ill-prepared. Civil war again beckons.

This is a chance for the UN, China, the EU & UK, and the US, to cooperate in mediating a peaceful settlement and prevent civil war and more strife in the Horn of Africa. China after all has a military agreement with Ethiopia, and vast oil exploration and pipeline projects underway.

What will the UK do ?

* Paul Reynolds works with multilateral organisations as an independent adviser on international relations, economics, and senior governance. He is a member of the Lib Dem Federal International Relations Committee and an Executive member of Liberal International (British Group).

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One Comment

  • Richard Underhill 26th Nov '20 - 9:10am

    Paul Reynolds | Mon 23rd November 2020 – 3:41 pm
    200,000 people have crossed an international frontier into Sudan, but whether they are refugees depends on whether Sudan accepts refugees. If not they are dependent on the United Nations who can recognise their status and ask other countries to accept them.
    Working for the UK i received one who had entered Thailand, been given refugee status by the the UN agency, not been accepted by any country, and somehow managed to arrive at Heathrow, claimed asylum at the UK port and come to me for decision.
    At that time we were making decisions on the decision of one officer, and subsequentially sampled by one more senior officer.
    I recommended a grant of asylum and was supported by one senior officer, but I greatly doubt whether my decision would have been supported now. More likely there would have been a refusal, with reasons for refusal and a right of appeal to be argued by an overloaded Home Officer Presenting Officer before an Immigration Judge. Somewhat chancy, depending on the bias of those two people.

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