Getting to a Sustainable Endgame in Ethiopia Will Be an Uphill Climb

As rebel forces of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and the Oromo Liberation Army close in on Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, domestic factions and international mediators are quickly revising their calculations regarding how the war may end and the kind of political order that could emerge in its aftermath.  

Earlier this month, almost a year since the conflict began, the TPLF and the OLA announced they were forming an alliance with seven other opposition groups, with the goal of ousting Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed—whether by force or through a negotiated settlement—and installing a transitional government. In light of their recent successes on the battlefield, members of this new coalition may have little inclination to negotiate with the current government. 

At the same time, Abiy has declared a national state of emergency under which anyone suspected of links with rebel forces may be detained without a court warrant and any citizen who has reached the age of military service may be drafted to fight. It did not take long for troubling reports to emerge of Ethiopian forces going door-to-door in Addis Ababa to round up ethnic Tigrayans

Olusegun Obasanjo, the African Union’s special envoy to Ethiopia, and Jeffrey Feltman, the U.S. envoy to the Horn of Africa, have engaged with leaders on both sides of the conflict in an attempt to chart a course toward negotiations, but they face an uphill climb. Opposition leaders have called for the current government to be “completely removed and cleared,” while Abiy is exhorting his forces to “sacrifice our blood and bone to bury this enemy.” 

Despite its current favorable military position, there is no certainty that the new rebel alliance, which calls itself the United Front of Ethiopian Federalist and Confederalist Forces, can actually depose the government. A prolonged military stalemate and a negotiated settlement both remain possible outcomes, although the latter appears less likely at this point. 

Whether or not the alliance succeeds in toppling Abiy, however, it has gained enough leverage on the battlefield to ensure it plays a significant role in Ethiopia’s political future. However, many of the challenges it will face are already clear. Domestic and international actors engaged in Ethiopia would do well to anticipate them.

The TPLF is not just some scrappy insurgency. It led a rebel coalition to victory during Ethiopia’s last civil war in 1991, ousting the dictatorial Derg regime, led by Mengistu Haile Mariam. That conflict was followed by a largely successful recovery period. Unlike many countries that have emerged from civil war, particularly in the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia did not experience repeated cycles of violence and instability. The victorious coalition, known as the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, or EPRDF, stayed in power for three decades, during which time it effectively addressed the country’s severe food insecurity and substantially reduced poverty

Due in part to the robustness of the coalition and the TPLF’s dominant role in it, the EPRDF was able to enact successful economic reforms and poverty-fighting social programs without intermediaries siphoning off too much of the funds. The regime also rejected political pluralism and embraced what it called “revolutionary democracy,” a system in which political participation had to be mediated through a single vanguard party. In practice, this meant that no opposition parties could effectively challenge the EPRDF through democratic means, and the regime engaged in systematic and often brutal repression of its political opponents.

This authoritarian system remained stable for over two decades, but by the mid-2010s, its limits had become evident. The regime failed to find a sustainable response to the massive protests that followed the 2015 elections, in which the EPRDF and its allies claimed to have won 100 percent of the vote. The ruling coalition chose Abiy to become the next prime minister largely as a compromise to address this crisis. 

During his initial months in power, Abiy launched a series of widely lauded reforms, generating high hopes that he would launch a genuine transition toward a more open political system. In 2019, he dissolved the EPRDF and replaced it with a new pan-Ethiopian grouping called the Prosperity Party, effectively sidelining the once-dominant TPLF. 

Given the current balance of power on the battlefield, it is difficult to imagine a transition that doesn’t involve the rebel coalition. However, many of the political challenges the rebels will face are already clear.

As challenges to his government mounted, however, Abiy began resorting to the same authoritarian tactics as previous governments, but the Prosperity Party was unable to achieve the kind of political hegemony that previous governments had maintained. As a result, Ethiopia’s once-resilient political order unraveled, and escalating tensions with the TPLF culminated in Abiy ordering an invasion of Tigray, sparking the current conflict.

In light of a possible victory for the new rebel coalition, it is tempting to draw parallels between Ethiopia’s previous civil war and the current one. However, the situation today bears only superficial resemblance to the country’s transition 30 years ago. Indeed, the features of the new rebel coalition are quite different from those of the EPRDF, as are the political conditions it would face. 

When the TPLF established the EPRDF in the 1980s, it did so not by partnering with other established groups, but by manufacturing its own allies. It conceived of these new allied ethno-regional groups as satellite parties. They had little autonomy from the TPLF, and regional leaders did not have independent constituencies that would follow them if they defected. 

In contrast with that model, several of the opposition groups that have joined the new alliance with the TPLF exist as autonomous entities and have their own support base. This means that its members could break away if they are dissatisfied with the behavior of their current allies or the relative distribution of power within the coalition, either during or after the conflict. In general, this new coalition rests on alliances that are likely to be more difficult and costly to maintain than the ones underpinning the EPRDF, restricting the resources available for post-conflict reconstruction. 

Furthermore, this alliance is at greater risk of splintering, because its members do not necessarily share the same vision for the Ethiopian state. This is largely due to the legacy of the EPRDF, which set up an ethno-federalist system of governance that was challenged on two fronts: Unitarists rejected ethno-federalism as a legitimate principle for organizing the Ethiopian state, while ethno-regional groups that were sidelined by the TPLF denounced the lack of actual autonomy of their regions—a dynamic that has accelerated the politicization of ethnicity in Ethiopia. Once in power, Abiy aligned himself more closely with unitarist groups. To defeat his government, the TPLF has allied itself with ethno-regional groups that only a few years ago fiercely opposed its rule. Whether they can durably agree on a model for the Ethiopian state remains to be seen. 

In addition to its internal fragility, today’s rebel alliance will likely face more determined and virulent forms of opposition than the EPRDF did when it first came to power. When it came to power in 1991, the TPLF was an unknown quantity for most Ethiopians. The defeated Derg regime had stoked fears of the rebels by referring to them as shiftas or “outlaws.” (Notably, the current government has used the same language, in addition to designating the TPLF and OLA as “terrorist” organizations.)

Ultimately, during their early years in power, the TPLF fighters’ discipline and their ability to restore order in the country helped alleviate these fears. Today, however, Ethiopians know precisely what it is like to live under TPLF rule, having experienced it for almost three decades. Many of them are unlikely to tolerate a return to the old authoritarian system of governance.

While it is still possible that Abiy’s government and the new rebel coalition will successfully negotiate a de-escalation of the conflict, it appears to be an unlikely prospect for now. On each side of the war, commanders and grassroots supporters alike are dug in, unwilling to compromise. This became clear recently when the national government outlined terms for potential cease-fire talks, including the withdrawal of Tigrayan forces from the Amhara and Afar regions, which the TPLF dismissed as “an absolute non-starter.”

Given the current balance of power on the battlefield, it is difficult to imagine a transition that would not involve the rebel coalition. And the stark differences between this new coalition and the EPRDF have important implications for the transition process. First, future efforts to demobilize fighters and reform the security sector should be geared toward limiting the risk of internecine fighting between members of whatever ruling coalition emerges. Due to lingering mistrust and their desire to protect their own bargaining power, each faction is likely to be reluctant to disarm. 

This makes it all the more important to prioritize processes that can contain future confrontations, including between rebel groups that are currently allies in the war. In addition to the careful management of the demobilization process and the reorganization of security forces, this could also mean structuring aid flows so that they incentivize sustained cooperation between organizations included in the transition government, as well as including provisions imposing long-term costs on violent defectors in any negotiated settlement. These processes must be introduced early in the negotiations over postwar institutional arrangements, before cracks in the alliance can form or expand. 

In the longer term, the likely absence of a hegemonic victor suggests that Ethiopia will not achieve stability by returning to an authoritarian system. To have a chance at restoring peace, a transitional government will need to facilitate political negotiations between historical adversaries with different visions for the Ethiopian state. Various constituencies in Ethiopia have long maintained that due to the country’s internal divisions, it would not survive as a state if its citizens were to enjoy genuine political freedoms. On the contrary, however, the way forward requires a strong commitment to protecting Ethiopians’ political rights. Efforts to seek military solutions to political problems will not only be devastating, but also ineffective.

Marine Gassier is a political scientist researching civil conflicts and rebel organizations, with a particular focus on the Horn of Africa. She received her doctorate from Sciences Po in Paris and her master’s degree from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

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