Ethiopia’s Competing Alliances – Can the Centre Hold?

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Source: Eritrea Hub

September 5, 2021

The recent formation of an alliance between the Tigray Defense Forces and opposition movements representing a number of Ethiopia’s ethnic groups is an important development in the Ethiopia-Tigray conflict.

This followed the government’s well-publicised alliance of almost all Regional State security forces, to counter the Tigrayan advance into neighboring regions. Two diametrically opposed coalitions have therefore emerged, each claiming to represent Ethiopia’s peoples, and each equally determined to attain victory at the cost of its ideological nemesis.

The table below provides a ‘best estimate’ of the rival alliances in early September 2021, although the troop numbers do not suggest that all soldiers are of equal ability or training. It must also be borne in mind that the Ethiopian and Eritrean forces have air forces and drones to draw upon.

Opposition alliance  Ethiopian, Eritrean and other forces
Tigray Defence Forces (TDF)300,000Ethiopian National Defence Forces (ENDF)50,000
Oromo Liberation Army20,000Eritrean Defence Forces (EDF)300,000
Agew Liberation Army5,000Amhara Special Forces50,000
Afar3,000Fano + Amhara Militia200,000
Gumuz Liberation Front10,000Oromo Special Forces30,000
Gambella Liberation Army5,000Afar Special Forces10,000
Qimant Liberation Movement5,000Somali Special Forces5,000
Sidama National Liberation Front5,000Republican Guard3,000
Air force Commando3,000

The emergence of these rival groupings raises the question: will the competing coalitions last? And, more importantly, how will this re-alignment affect the future course of the conflict and fate of Ethiopia?

Periphery and centre

Attempts to forge a coalition of peripheral forces to challenge the center is not new in Ethiopian contemporary politics. When it became increasingly apparent, in 2020, that the then newly formed Prosperity Party had different designs regarding the socio-political framework of Ethiopia – one which ran contrary to the ideals of its predecessor, EPRDF – the TPLF, which had by then been confined to Tigray, desperately tried to bring together an ‘alliance of federalist forces.’ This consisted of groups whose avowed aim was to safeguard the constitution upon which the multinational federation, founded on ‘ethnic federalist’ principles, had been formed.  The federalist alliance never went beyond issuing half-hearted statements and holding low key conferences.

Critics point out that after years in power the TPLF had largely been discredited as a true upholder of the federation – especially outside of Tigray. Even Tigrayan analysts, more sympathetic to the TPLF, concede that after arriving in Addis in 1991, the EPRDF, of which the TPLF is an influential member, had transformed itself into a centralizing force and ruled the country with an iron grip that was as monolithic as the pre-1974 monarchy. Moreover, by castigating the very forces which would otherwise have been its strategic allies, and working to diminish their influence for the past three decades, the TPLF had fostered mistrust, animosity and ill-will among these forces and the communities that nurtured them.

John Young believed TPLF led EPRDF’s sidelining of authentic ethno-nationalist movements was a major blunder. He said, “the major strategic failure of the TPLF going back to the first war against the Dergue and then the [transitional] government was that they didn’t align with the OLF.”

Uprooting liberation movements like OLF and working to supplant them with parties lacking organic support was counterproductive at many levels. Tsedale Lemma, editor in chief and founder of the Addis Standard’s stated, “one of the enduring and debilitating political miscalculations of TPLF’s EPRDF was believing its own lies that a certain OPDO was a political party enough to administer the whole of Oromia”.

Authentic ethno-nationalist parties, like OLF, which are deeply rooted in the nationalities they represent, had their sociopolitical fabrics dismantled. In their place political parties and figures who lacked public support were put into positions of power. With their careers largely depending on appeasing the TPLF dominated power structure, and forming back door illicit networks rather than the ballots of the people, they became open to accusation of political prostitution.

On the other hand, ethno-nationalist parties like OLF and ONLF were perceived to be threats to the TPLF dominated federal government. The authorities did all they could to undermine their influence. Such subversive efforts by EPRDF induced machinations that led to the TPLF’s allies being fragmented and vulnerable. By the time the Abiy Ahmed led reforms presented an opportunity for them to play a pronounced role, they were incapable of making much of an impact on Ethiopian politics.

Moreover, TPLF had been so thoroughly discredited among the rest of Ethiopians as the result of the real and perceived abuses of power they had carried out during three decades in power that no legitimate ‘federalist’ party, who might otherwise have been  natural partners for the TPLF, dared form an alliance with it.

Consequently, when the very fundamentals of the multinational federation were challenged the much hyped ‘coalition of federalists’ failed to materialize, or make much of an impact.

Today’s alliances

There have been signs that the strategic alliance of the national liberation movements that is currently in the making may deliver much more than its predecessors ever could. To begin with it seems that the TPLF (and its associated military force, the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF)), seems committed to never to repeating their past mistakes. In an interview conducted in 2016, Lieutenant General Tsadkan Gebretensae, former chief of staff of ENDF and current member of central command of TDF, lamented the TPLF’s role in the fall out with OLF during the initial stages of the transitional government: “OLF had raised questions regarding the structure of the overall political system; we did not dare to accommodate them. The decisive positions of the transitional government were made to be at the hands of only EPRDF… if they were [to be] partners, instead of only their military capability, we should have considered the people [they represented] and created a way to accommodate them [OLF]. They were asking for it. We may be unhappy then; but I believe it would have helped the overall democratic process”.

Conversely, recent public statements by various members of the Oromo opposition, the other highly influential player in the center-periphery power struggle, seem to indicate that they too have outgrown the grudges they held with the TPLF and are slowly warming up to the possibility of striking a lasting coalition with their former foes. Since the outbreak of the Tigray war, popular Oromo figures such as Awol Allo, Ezekil Gebissa and Tsegaye Ararsa, have consistently stood alongside Tigrayan community in condemning the atrocities and destruction carried out at the hands of Ethio-Eritrean forces.

Shared experiences of oppression and persecution at the hands of the central government also appears to have fostered mutual sympathy between the two communities, especially among those of the diaspora. While this may have played a part in the recent tactical alliance between the armed wings of the two liberation movements, it could develop into a strategic partnership, alongside similar ethno-nationalist forces, provided the trust issue is resolved. Such a strategic alliance, provided that it is done properly, could serve to finally realize true federalism in Ethiopia.

Divisions and discontents

However, the heterogeneity of the Oromo population and its subsequent divisions over several fault lines stands as a formidable challenge that needs to be overcome before Oromo nationalism can stake a claim to be a major player in the future destiny of Ethiopia. It seems the sense of consensus that was developing among the different strands of Oromo ethno-nationalisms has fallen back into a quagmire with the imprisonment of the man who played a major role in bringing them together – Jawar Mohammed.

Furthermore, majoritarian inclinations among some Oromo elites need to be resolved if they are to be true partners with other, smaller, ethnic groups. Tigrayan, and other ethnic minorities, demand equal representation in the alliance. Can this be accommodated to allow the federal alliance to make a lasting impact, beyond teaming up to topple the central power.

Any designs to form a political coalition to establish a federation/confederation is also bound to face stern resistance from the Tigray public. Massacres, persecutions, targeted harassment and ethnic profiling of Tigrayans over the past 8 months has provoked overwhelming support for secessionism among Tigrayans. This has reached the stage when any leniency towards remaining within the Ethiopian federation is attacked as blasphemy. The TPLF, which has yet to clarify its position regarding the issue, is thus under immense pressure to publicly endorse Tigray’s independence. Mehari Yohannes’ recent provocative interview and the ensuing social media uproar, indicates that pacifying Tigrayan sentiments for secession, if it ever occurs, isn’t going to be easy.

Government dilemmas

The Ethiopianist camp, which is currently enjoying great influence in Arat kilo (Addis Ababa), also seems to have made significant strides in consolidating its power. Perceived or real threats from foreign actors have been intentionally magnified to foster pan-national sentiments. Disregarding the fact that Tigray conflict was essentially a civil war, pro-government media outlets have gone to extremes to promote a narrative of patriotic resistance against foreign intrusion. Against this backdrop, and in response to recent advances by Tigrayan forces deep into Amhara and Afar regions, the federal government has mobilized the special forces of almost all regional states against Tigray. The fact that this event was intentionally publicized and accompanied by ‘sending away’ ceremonies involving influential members of respective communities, suggests that the Ethiopianist camp is attempting to squeeze more juice out of it than simple battlefield successes.

Prosperity Party led political machinations have succeeded in swaying a significant proportions of ethno-nationalists of all communities to endorse cautious Unitarianism. Although such a feat may in itself be perceived as a success by its advocates, it remains to be seen whether such a coalition will be strong enough to impose a sustained influence beyond a shared hatred for their current foe – the TPLF.

Conclusion

All in all, the respective impact of the two opposing coalitions depends on the outcome of the ongoing war. John Young believes a Yugoslavia style fragmentation cannot be discounted and envisions a loose confederation, much like the EU, as the likely outcome. Indeed, violent attempts by Prosperity Party led initiatives to create coercive homogeneity and the robust reaction by centrifugal forces to such encroachments to their self-determination rights has led to deepening of divisions that has permeated deep into the Ethiopian population that the country’s disintegration has become a real and present threat. If the TDF and allies gain the upper hand in the ongoing war, culminating in a decisive victory of the periphery over the centre, then Young’s prediction appears inevitable. If this indeed happens, the respective liberation movements, in conjunction with the urban based sociopolitical elites that support them, may pave the way for the formation of highly autonomous states linked by a federal council with diminished authority. However, the relative inexperience and fragility of the other members of the ‘federalist’ coalition, may pose a challenge. Do they have the ability to morph into a stabilizing force over their respective states?

If however, the war is protracted and a decisive victor doesn’t emerge (a scenario that’s becoming increasingly probable given recent involvement of foreign actors like Turkey) the Ethiopianist alliance may come to play a more important role. It has become evident that, contrary to the expectations of many, a marked tolerance of and leniency towards a more assertive central government has been observed among ethnic minorities.

Ethno-nationalists like Beyene Petros, veteran opposition leader and former chairman of the Medrek opposition coalition, known for their strong criticism of the previous EPRDF led government, has backed the Abiy led government, despite the erosion of the powers of regional states. This may suggest that the assumption that ethnic minorities in Ethiopia are antagonistic to the idea of an imposing central government is overhyped. The inherent insecurity felt by ethnic minorities of the south, such as the Gurage, is an example. They believe that in the absence of a strong central government they would fall prey to the encroachment of any of the dominant ethno-nationalist forces in their neighborhoods.

It can safely be argued that regardless of its major blunders in Tigray and Oromia, the Prosperity Party led federal government seems to have been relatively successful in winning over a sizable proportion of ethno-nationalist elites. Regrettably, this was carried out at the cost of spreading blatant ethno-phobia and horrific human rights violations bordering on genocide. However, such a vision of pan-Ethiopianism, based on archaic chauvinism, no matter how absurd its manifestations and how devastating its counterproductive implications, may just have provided a lifeline for Ethiopia in the absence of Tigray.

If there is no military solution to the war and stalemate ensues, the main obstacle to the possibility of resolving the conflict through negotiations appears to be the defiant Amhara territorial ambitions in Raya and western Tigray. As long as the federal government remains dependent on Amhara nationalism, sober dialogue with Tigray will remain elusive. In that respect, TDF advances into the Amhara region, and the seemingly inevitable collapse of militant Amhara ethno-nationalism, is not entirely a disaster for Abiy’s government. Hard as they try, if the ENDF and allied forces fail to prevent Amhara region from falling under the domain of Tigray forces, the federal government would certainly find it easier to make the concessions necessary to end the conflict if the Amhara nationalists are removed. Hence the TDF advances may prove to be a blessing in disguise.

As the most potent representation of Amhara ethno-nationalism, the National Movement of Amhara (NAMA), remains a conundrum. Although ideologically indistinguishable from other ethno-nationalist parties, it remains in bed with the Ethiopianist camp and should peripheral forces take the upper hand in this civil war, it’s involvement in negotiations as representative of Amhara interests is uncertain. However, any settlement that doesn’t involve genuine representation of Amhara ethno-nationalism will not provide a lasting solution. This calls for, on one hand, the emergence of sober Amhara ethno-nationalism that has abandoned archaic notions of entitlement, and on the other, a sincere willingness, on the part of other militant peripheral forces, to include Amhara interests when mapping out Ethiopia’s future. Deals excluding the interests of the vanquished risk a repeat of the 1991 ill-fated power bargain, which will inevitably pave the way for the recurrence of another round of civil war.

In general, following the progressive military defeats of the central government, liberation movements are springing up in almost all corners of the country. Several of these, such as the Oromo Liberation Army, Agaw Liberation Army, Afar Liberation Front, Somali National Liberation Front, Gambella Liberation Front, Sidama Liberation Front, have publicly announced a tactical partnership with Tigray Defense Forces.  If these movements indeed succeed in toppling the central government, Ethiopia may face the recurrence of the 1991 scenario where its fate yet again falls at the hands of peripheral forces.

However, unorthodox yet aggressive measures to reassert domination by the center and the resulting atrocities inflicted on marginalized populations has embittered and emboldened the liberation movements. This is likely to prompt them to seek even more decentralized framework than the arrangement of three decades ago. But apart from Tigray, whose population appears too antagonized and overwhelmingly in favor of independence, the rest of the liberation movements don’t seem to wield sufficient support in their respective regions to realize secession.

On the contrary, centralizing forces seem to have consolidated significant support in most areas of the country. This may just be enough to sustain Ethiopia, even if it loses Tigray. Apart from the TPLF, inexperience and the absence of strong leadership may prevent other liberation movements from a complete takeover of power. If the central government plays its cards right, and is ready to make genuine concessions, these centrifugal forces could contribute towards striking the right balance between the center and periphery – a solution that has yet to be tried.

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