BySamuel Gebre and Fasika Tadesse
Monday August 8, 2022
Abiy Ahmed Photographer: Mohammed Dhaysane/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed battled rebels for more
than 16 months before declaring a truce in March 2022, staving off a challenge
to his authority. But the conflict has pushed millions of people into hunger in
the northern Tigray region and soured his once-illustrious reputation. The
nation’s misery has been compounded by the worst drought in four decades and
soaring prices of grain and fuel. Abiy is also having to contend with fresh
political violence in the center of the country, a territorial dispute with
Sudan and attacks by al-Qaeda-linked militants.
1. How did Abiy’s
Abiy started with a bang when he became Ethiopia’s prime
minister in 2018. He scrapped bans on opposition and rebel groups, purged
allegedly corrupt officials and ended two decades of acrimony with neighboring
Eritrea, an initiative that won him the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize. He also put out
the welcome mat for foreign capital to maintain momentum in one of the world’s
fastest-expanding economies, and vowed to quell civil unrest. But he struggled
to contain ethnic tensions and his attempts to sideline the Tigray People’s
Liberation Front, the nation’s pre-eminent power broker for decades, led to
civil war. The conflict stalled the planned privatization of key
telecommunications assets and other economic reforms, and prompted the US
government to impose sanctions on Ethiopia and withdraw its duty-free market
2. What sparked the
Abiy set about consolidating power under his newly formed
Prosperity Party after taking office. The TPLF, which had dominated the
country’s ruling coalition since a Marxist regime was overthrown in 1991 and
continued to govern Tigray, refused to be amalgamated. Its leaders ignored a
government directive to postpone elections in Tigray because of the pandemic,
and the federal parliament retaliated by halting direct budget support to the
region. Abiy ordered a military incursion into Tigray in November 2020 after
accusing forces loyal to the TPLF of attacking a military base to steal
weapons. The TPLF said its raid was a preemptive strike because federal troops
were preparing to attack its territory. After several setbacks, the government
eventually gained the upper hand in the war and the rebels withdrew to within
Tigray’s borders in December 2021. The government continued to stage air
strikes on Tigray and fighting continued in the neighboring Amhara and Afar
regions before the truce was declared. Tensions between the two sides remain
elevated and, while they publicly agreed to talks, it’s unclear whether there
will be lasting peace.
3. What’s been the
fallout of the war?
The government hasn’t disclosed casualties and access to the
conflict zones was restricted, but there are fears that tens of thousands of
people have died due to fighting, hunger and a lack of medical care. In June, the
United Nations estimated that the war, and a drought in eastern Ethiopia, had
left more than 29 million people in need of aid. The situation was particularly
dire in Tigray and the neighboring Afar region, where malnutrition and food
insecurity were rife. The government has rejected allegations from civil rights
groups that it obstructed efforts to dispense aid or that its forces were party
to widespread human rights violations. The UN Human Rights Council has begun
collecting evidence about alleged crimes committed during the conflict.
4. What are the
latest tensions about?
The government has accused members of the Oromo Liberation
Army, which has aligned itself to the TPLF and has been campaigning for greater
regional autonomy, of killing hundreds of civilians and deployed the army to
avert further violence. The group, which controls a number of towns and
villages in the central Oromia region, in turn alleges that the federal police
have been targeting and killing ethnic Oromos and Nuers. Abiy has also fallen
out with Fano, an ethnic Amhara group that fought alongside federal forces
against the Tigrayans and opposed the truce because it wanted an outright
victory and uncontested rights to disputed territory. Ethiopia and Sudan are
meanwhile at loggerheads over the rights to a swathe of fertile land along
their common border, and there have been a series of clashes between their
troops. Al-Shabaab, a Somalia-based Islamist group that’s linked to al-Qaeda
and is seeking to expand its influence in the Horn of Africa, staged an attack
in Ethiopian territory in July 2022.
5. Why all the
Africa’s oldest nation state, Ethiopia has long been plagued
by discord among its more than 80 ethnic groups. The country was an absolute
monarchy until the 1974 socialist revolution that deposed Emperor Haile
Selassie. It became a multi-ethnic federation in 1991, when a TPLF-led alliance
of rebels overthrew the Marxist military regime that followed Selassie. The
Tigrayans, though comprising just 6% of the population, came to dominate
national politics. After failing to quell three years of violent protests over
the marginalization of other bigger communities, including the Oromo and
Amhara, Hailemariam Desalegn quit as prime minister in 2018. The then-ruling
Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front named Abiy, an Oromo, as his
successor. Abiy’s party won a decisive majority in mid-2021 elections.
6. What’s been the
impact on the economy?
Ethiopia’s $105 billion economy expanded by an average of
more than 7% annually between 2018 -- the year Abiy took power -- and 2021, but
the International Monetary Fund sees the growth rate slowing to less than 4% in
2022. With its finances under strain, the government announced in 2021 that it
wants to restructure its $28.4 billion of external debt. But the US has urged
multilateral lenders to halt their engagement with Abiy’s administration, and a
block on their funding could derail the debt overhaul. The IMF is also yet to
initiate a new program for Ethiopia -- a key requirement for debt restructuring
-- after the previous one lapsed without any money being disbursed.
The Reference Shelf
- A QuickTake on why Abiy won international acclaim and
another on why Ethiopia’s filling of a giant dam stoked tensions.
- A Bloomberg News story on the border conflict with Sudan and
another on the drought in the Horn of Africa.
- The International Monetary Fund’s home page on Ethiopia.