July 11, 2021
The origins of the current instability in Ethiopia can be traced to the secession of Eritrea and the ethnic divisions that followed. Of course, one can argue the inequities during previous Ethiopian rules led to that division. That may be true. However, Ethiopia did not have to go to that extreme to cure those ills.
It is fair to say that, in the last 30 years, if there is one group who fought for Ethiopian unity and stability more than others it is the Amhara. Amhara intellectuals argued, rather unsuccessfully, the perils of institutionalizing ethnic divisions. Many protested and detested the creation of a state named ‘Amhara.’ In the years that followed, the Amhara not only remained less ethnic nationalistic than others, but also served as a moderating influence on the extreme impulses of others, including the TPLF.
Some of us took heart of that moderating influence. We believed the country would eventually ride out the turbulence, as it has always done before. And it seemed to have gone that way until a few years ago.
Sadly, the pendulum has swung hard to the other extreme lately. Now, it is all about borders and the Tigrayans. It is about winning the battle at any cost, even with the help of foreigners. All the while the country is going through horror stories after another. We have fought wars before too. But, this time, it seems different.
The question is how did the Amhara enter such a frenzy?
We know the Amhara did not start this border war with Tigray. We also know that the Amhara community by and large believed the Wolkait and Raya areas belong to the Amhara region. However, the military option is something only extreme elements espoused until recently. For the majority, it is a big leap from articulating those views to not only claiming the disputed areas but also supporting the invasion of Tigray and the atrocities that followed.
We may debate the extent of it and who did it, but atrocities were committed in Tigray. Unarmed people were gunned down in several places, sometimes in mass. Rapes were committed throughout Tigray. Private and public properties were looted or destroyed. The entire state was blocked from any communication, transportation, power, banking, and other services for several months. More than a million Tigrayans are starving as we write, and according to the UN, some at famine levels. And much of this is documented by third parties.
By all indications, the TPLF did not start this war either. It is true the TPLF seized control of the northern command before the war started. That was in response to an imminent attack by the Eritrean and Ethiopian armies combined, according to the TPLF. There are some known facts to support that version of events.
It is common knowledge that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was meeting with Isaias Afwerki almost every other week. Isaias Afwerki is a person who did not hide his wish to have the TPLF dead. Why would the head of a sovereign nation meet with a foreign head of state wishing death on part of his government? Invading another country is a huge undertaking, requiring months and even years of planning. How would Isaias Afwerki go into unplanned war within a few days? Further, by all indications, the TPLF had less than 20,000 troops, including militia scattered throughout Tigray. This is based on multiple sources, including foreign observers. Wouldn’t it be suicidal to start a war against the Ethiopian and Eritrean armies numbering in the hundreds of thousands for no reason, especially when fully encircled?
Abiy Ahmed and Isaias Afwerki: The architects of the Tigray war
We believe the instigators of the Tigray war are two people with different but overlapping interests. They are Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea and Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia. We do not know the exact nature of their agreement. However, we do know their interests and motives. (Aside from these motives which we will discuss below, there are also unconfirmed reports from Eritrean news outlets that suggest Isaias Afwerki was paid one billion dollars for this war. But we will not know for sure if this true for a while.)
What we do know is that Isaias Afwerki has economic and security interests in Ethiopia. He is not a saint coming to save Ethiopia, as some naively believe. Isaias Afwerki believes a united and strong Ethiopia is a threat to Eritrea. In his view, a strong Ethiopia will ultimately destabilize Eritrea to claim a sea outlet.
Further, he believes, in a weak Ethiopia, Eritrea can have a huge market to trade and manipulate. As you all know, the 2018-2000 Ethio-Eritrea war started not because of a small town called Badme, but because of trade and currency disputes. Since then, Isaias Afwerki has worked hard to destabilize Ethiopia. He has harbored and trained various anti-Ethiopian government forces in Eritrea. Many of these forces are now inside Ethiopia.
Despite what many in the Amhara community now believe, Isaias Afwerki is no friend of the Amhara. If there is one group he hated and feared, it is the Amhara. To him, Eritrea was ‘colonized’ by the Amhara, not by the Oromo or any other group. To know his true feelings about the Amhara, you need only ask the prisoners of war held in Asmara following the fall of Derg.
Therefore, to Isaias Afwerki, there is no better way of weakening Ethiopia than having two of the main pillars of the Ethiopian state go at one another. He seems to have achieved that goal regardless of what comes next.
Abiy Ahmed is a simpler man than he appears on the surface. Abiy Ahmed is about absolute power with Oromia at the center. (People seem to have forgotten his life-long dream of becoming Ethiopia’s 7th king, by his own admission.) To Abiy Ahmed, there is no friendship forever. Friendship with anyone lasts only until the next objective is met. Ask Lemma Megersa whom he tore down in just about a year. Ask the Tigrayans whom he once called ‘the engine of Ethiopia.’ The Amhara might as well be the next target if he stays long enough. Even Isaias Afwerki is a senile man to be outfoxed in the end.
Abiy Ahmed pursues his objectives with unusual cruelty and Machiavellian dishonesty. Since he came to power, millions of Ethiopians have suffered untold atrocities, including killings, forced displacements, pillages, rapes, and abductions. While professing love, forgiveness, and medemer, he showed no real remorse while all that was happening to his fellow citizens. To him, the optics was far more important than helping those in need. In the end, his objective is to retain unlimited power at any cost.
Abiy Ahmed seems to have run out of options at this moment. Internationally, he is a well-known man for what he did and did not do. No person of any common sense will likely take his word seriously anymore. At home, his simplistic objective of subduing and humiliating the entire Tigray region has backfired. He has already burned more than half of his fighting power in a few months. By some accounts, the Amhara forces are now a more formidable fighting force than the entire Ethiopian federal army.
Ethiopia going forward
It appears Abiy’s best option going forward is to be a warlord of a local militia somewhere in Oromia. He is unlikely to live in peace elsewhere given his genocidal deeds. If Ethiopia is fortunate to have a negotiated settlement, Abiy Ahmed will not retain his power given his record. There are just so many forces who will not accept him under any circumstances. Should war and turmoil continue, other groups will not bow to him as much as they did before, least of all the Amhara, who by then will be armed, better-organized, and battled-tested. His buddy to the north, Isaias Afwerki, will not be of much help either as the TDF is likely to go after him in the months and years to come.
We believe the biggest impediment to Ethiopian unity and stability right now is Abiy Ahmed. Abiy Ahmed would rather burn down Ethiopia than cede control. Tigray inside Ethiopia will be highly problematic for him. Therefore, he will likely do everything possible to have Tigray secede. In the meantime, he will not mind seeing the two northern neighbors (Tigray and Amhara) bleed to death.
At this point, the entire Ethiopian project will depend on what the peoples of Amhara and Tigray do. Should one or both choose war over peace, both will lose, as that war will have no victor. And if that happens, Ethiopia may not survive as a unified state as we know it. On the other hand, if both come to their senses and negotiate, there is a high chance Ethiopia will reconstitute itself in some form and continue as a unified nation. Combined, both these regions (Amhara and Tigray) have the capacity and the critical mass to guarantee Ethiopian unity and stability. However, this will require far greater foresight than any one of them is displaying currently.
May God Save Ethiopia!