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Ethiopian People

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New War in Ethiopia

9 November 2020

Americans should congratulate themselves. Their election system is definitely better than Ethiopia’s. In fact, it works so well that there’s unlikely to be another American civil war.

The United States, a federal country with a complex and decrepit voting system, has nevertheless just held a national election despite about a quarter-million Covid-19 deaths. President Donald Trump is finding it hard to process his defeat, but the system itself worked fine despite the pandemic.

Ethiopia, another federal country with one-third of America’s population but less than one-hundredth of the US Covid death rate, should have held its scheduled election this autumn too, but Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed postponed it “because of Covid”. That was a very serious mistake.

The government of the Tigray region of Ethiopia accused Abiy of needless delay, and when he refused to change his mind they went ahead and held the election in Tigray anyway.

Abiy said the newly elected government of Tigray (same as the old government) was illegal because he had postponed the elections, Tigray said the federal government was illegal because it had unilaterally extended its mandate instead of holding the elections, and they went to war. In only a week they’ve worked their way up from local clashes to air strikes.

This is so stupid and reckless that it makes American politics look positively demure by comparison. To be fair, though, Ethiopia has only recently emerged from 45 years of revolution, white and red terror, renewed tyranny, more revolution, and practically non-stop civil and international war. Ethiopia is a really hard place to govern.

When Abiy Ahmed was appointed prime minister two years ago by the ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), he was the first Oromo ever to govern the country, even though the Oromo are the largest of Ethiopia’s many ethnic groups (a third of the population). They have been unhappy for a long time, so that was a plus.

So was the fact that he was the son of a Christian-Muslim marriage, useful in a country that is two-thirds Christian, one-third Muslim. And Abiy’s intentions were good: he immediately set about to dismantle the stranglehold on power of the various ethnic militias that had fought and won the long war against the Derg, the previous Communist dictatorship.

The most powerful of those militias is the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. Tigray, the country’s northernmost province, has only 6 million people, a mere 5% of Ethiopia’s population, but Tigrayan soldiers and politicians have dominated the EPRDF coalition and government for most of the last thirty years because of their historic role in the war against the Derg.

The Tigrayan political elite’s privilege was widely resented, and it was time for it to end. Last year Abiy tried to do that by merging all the ethnic militia-based parties into a single Prosperity Party, but the TPLF leadership wouldn’t play. They had always lived in the castle, and nobody was going to make them go and live with the commoners.

It is, alas, as simple as that, and perhaps a more accomplished civilian politician could have finessed it: cabinet posts, ambassadorships and/or fat lifetime pensions for the more flexible Tigrayan leaders, discreet but massive bribes for the greedier ones, and a couple of fatal ‘accidents’ for the hardest nuts.

Abiy Ahmed, despite a background in intelligence work that should have given him good political skills, is inflexible and confrontational. The cascade of threats, counter-threats and ultimatums between him and the TPLF leadership is now culminating in what amounts to a Tigrayan war of secession.

It could be a long war, because Tigrayans are over-represented in the armed forces and much of the army’s heavy weapons and equipment, which were based in Tigray because of the border war with Eritrea, has fallen into the TPLF’s hands. The TPLF has no air force, but it can match the federal army in everything up to and including mechanised divisions.

Ethiopia is Africa’s second-biggest country, very poor but with a fast-growing economy. The very last thing it needs is yet another civil war, which in current circumstances could also lead to other regions trying to secede. Even if the TPLF was trying to provoke a war (which looks quite likely), Abiy Ahmed’s first duty was to avoid it at all costs.

They gave Abiy the Nobel Peace Prize last year for bringing Ethiopia’s 22-year border war with Eritrea to a formal end, but that award has been going downhill ever since Henry Kissinger got one. They even gave one to Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who now goes around condoning genocide.

Maybe we also need a Nobel Booby Prize.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 1 and 11. (“Americans…war”; and “It is…nuts”)

Ethiopia: Abiy the Lucky

Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is a very lucky man. He has survived three attempts to kill or overthrow him in the past year.

Last June he escaped unhurt in a grenade attack that killed one and wounded scores at a political rally. In October his office in the capital, Addis Ababa, was surrounded by angry soldiers who threatened to kill him over low pay, but he talked them down. And last Saturday he emerged unscathed from an attempted military coup.

It was a very serious attempt. In the capital, General Se’are Mekonnen was shot dead by his own bodyguard, as was another general who was visiting his home. Abiy had made Se’are the chief of staff of the Ethiopian army, a controversial appointment, only a year ago.

At the same time another of Abiy’s appointees, Ambachew Mekonnen, the governor of the key Amhara region, was murdered together with his top adviser in the region’s capital, Bahir Dar. It was clearly a quite broad plot, but its coordination must have been off. Police are still rounding up suspected plotters, and Abiy Ahmed was still prime minister on Monday.

That is a very good thing, because Abiy Ahmed is Ethiopia’s best chance of breaking the cycle of tyrannies that has blighted its modern history. It is Africa’s second-biggest country (102 million people) and one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, but its politics has been cursed.

In the past century it has gone from a medieval monarchy to rule by foreign fascists (it was conquered by Mussolini’s Italy in the 1930s), and then back to an only slightly less medieval tyranny for another thirty years – until a Marxist-led military coup in 1974.

The ‘Derg’ junta murdered the emperor and half a million other Ethiopians – mostly the better educated ones – in a ‘Red Terror’ that fell short of the Khmer Rouge’s ‘killing fields’, but not by much. Then, after almost two decades, the Soviet Union collapsed, the foreign aid to the Communists stopped, and the Reds were overthrown in their turn in 1991.

The victor that time was a coalition of ethnic rebel groups, militarised and brutalised by a long guerilla war against the Derg, who slid quickly into the seats of power and remained there comfortably until last year. The political killings declined, but the tyranny they protected did not – until suddenly, last year, they handed the whole mess over to Abiy Ahmed.

They did so because the mess was getting out of hand. Ethiopia is a very complicated country: four major ethnic groups, all of which have fought each other in the course of the country’s long history, and a litter of smaller ethnic groups as well. The country is also divided between a Christian majority and a big Muslim minority.

To make matters worse, one of the larger ethnic groups, the Tigrayans, dominated themilitary and intelligence services, and therefore the regime as a whole – and there was no shred of democracy anywhere in the system. There were pro forma elections, but in the last ones, in 2015, not a single opposition candidate won a seat in parliament.

The longer the Tigrayans dominated at the centre, the more unpopular the federal government became, and meanwhile the country’s relentless population growth intensified the land disputes between rival ethnic groups. Since 2015 some 3 million Ethiopians have become internal refugees, mainly due to struggles over land.

So in April 2018, in desperation, the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front handed the prime ministership over to Abiy Ahmed.

Abiy is certainly a ‘child of the Party’, which he joined at 15, but he is a reformer who can be all things to all people. His father was Muslim, his mother was Christian. As an Oromo, he comes from the lowest rungs of the Ethiopian ethnic pecking order. (No Oromo has ever held such high office before.) He is fluent in Afaan Oromo, Amharic, Tigrinya and English. And he is a very modern man.

He knew he had to move fast, so he immediately ended the state of emergency and changed almost all the senior military commanders. He appointed a cabinet that was half-female, plus women as president and as head of the Supreme Court.

He released thousands of political prisoners. He freed the media, made the leader of an opposition party head of the Electoral Board, and put her in charge of organising free elections in 2020.

He made peace and re-opened the border with Eritrea after 20 years of hot and cold war. He has done pretty well everything he could think of, and he did it in little over a year. And yet he is still in a very precarious position
It could not be otherwise. He is trying to free a big, complex, traumatised country from a century of dreadful history, and the odds, of course, are against him. But he’s not down yet.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10, 11 and 12. (“To make…Ahmed”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Ethiopia’s New Saviour

Nobody outside the ruling party really knows much about Abiy Ahmed beyond his official Party biography, but Ethiopia’s new prime minister looks a lot like Magic Man at the moment. Three years of mounting protests have suddenly stopped, the state of emergency has been lifted, and with a single dramatic announcement he has ended twenty years of hot and cold war with neighbouring Eritrea.

He did that on Tuesday by declaring (as only the leader of a tough authoritarian regime can) that Ethiopia now accepts the 2002 ruling of an international border commission and will pull its troops out of Badme, the market town at the centre of the quarrel with Eritrea.

At least eighty thousand soldiers and civilians were killed in the hot war with Eritrea (1998-2000), and several million soldiers wasted years of their lives on the border during the long cold war that followed (which briefly went hot again as recently as 2016). But Abiy Ahmed has ended all that with a wave of his hand.

That should have been done long ago, but Ethiopia found it hard to accept the border commission’s ruling for two reasons. One was that Eritrea started the war by seizing Badme. That was incredibly stupid, since Ethiopia has twenty times as many people, but stupid things happen. The Georgians faced even longer odds in 2008, but they attacked Russia anyway. (Both the Eritreans and the Georgians lost.)

The other reason for the long cold war was that the territory around Badme used to be in Ethiopia’s Tigre state, the home of the Tigrinya-speaking ethnic group who then dominated the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). They only make up 5% of Ethiopia’s population, but they simply refused to hand Badme over – for sixteen years.

So something has clearly changed in Ethiopia, and Abiy Ahmed himself is a new phenomenon. He belongs to the Oromo ethnic group, the biggest in the country, but he is the first Oromo in all of Ethiopia’s history to lead the government.

The growing protests of the past three years were strongest in Oromia, because the people there felt marginalised politically, culturally and economically. Hundreds of people have been killed in the demonstrations and the situation was getting out of hand, so the ruling party’s solution was to put an Oromo in charge – but one has spent his whole adult life serving the EPRDF.

Abiy is such a man. He joined the army straight out of school, worked his way up to colonel’s rank, then shifted to a senior position in the intelligence and security apparatus of what is, after all, a police state, and finally moved into politics.

He has been given power to deal with some of the biggest grievances of the population precisely because he is trusted not to let power slip away from the EPRDF. Maybe his appointment as prime minister` will calm things down, but don’t mistake it for the start of a ‘democratic transition’.

Ethiopia is the only one of sub-Saharan Africa’s three economic giants that is not democratic. Unlike South Africa and Nigeria, it has a single ruling party that dominates everything.
The EPRDF is a permanent coalition of four parties representing the four biggest ethnic groups (Oromo, Amhara, Tigrinya and Somali), but all are part of a highly disciplined whole that has an almost Soviet ruling style. It is not encumbered by specifically Communist or even socialist ideological obsessions, but elections are no more meaningful than the old Soviet ones were.

Over the past decade, this hard-line approach has delivered an annual average of 10% economic growth in Ethiopia, far higher than in South Africa or Nigeria. And while there is clearly serious friction between the various Ethiopian ethnic groups that make up the EPRDF, it is not significantly worse than the ethnic rivalries that plague the politics of the two big democracies.

It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that some people have been wondering aloud whether Ethiopia’s model is better for African countries. People do end up in jail or in exile for opposing the regime, or simply disappear, but not all that many, and the system is delivering the goods economically. Maybe it’s worth a try.

Maybe, but don’t count on it. In the short run, authoritarian politics often produces better results than democracy. Orders are given and obeyed, and things get done. But over the long run the opposition builds up, and there is no democratic safety valve to let off the steam.
When the dam finally bursts, you can lose a lot.

Consider the quarter-century of lost growth in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The EPRDF will not last forever, because no system of that sort ever does, and when it goes it could be with an almighty crash. That may not happen for quite a long time, but Abiy Ahmed is probably not Magic Man.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“That…years”)