By David Steinman
The stability of Ethiopia, America’s most important ally in East Africa, is important to Western counterterror and humanitarian interests in the region. But Abiy Ahmed, its new, reformist prime minister, has inherited a legacy of instability and ethnic violence that has killed and displaced millions since the unelected ruling coalition he represents, the EPRDF, took power in 1991.
The crimes against humanity perpetrated by the EPRDF, its allies and proxies have ranged from shootings, stabbings and throwing people off cliffs to more subtle methods such as the denial of food aid, medicine, and medical treatment. Genocide researchers charge the number of victims is in the millions.
One technique, the instigation of tribal conflict, has been increasingly used in the last few years. This development parallels the decline of the once-dominant, Tigrayan-based, TPLF element within the EPRDF, suggesting the TPLF, which has a long history of promoting ethnic tensions in a divide-and-conquer strategy, manufactures the unrest to demonstrate the country is ungovernable without the iron fist only they can provide.
It is therefore unsurprising that ethnic violence continues to plague Ethiopia in the Abiy era. In its southern and eastern regions, hundreds have been killed, thousands of homes burned and hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced since his inauguration.
With his release of political prisoners, repeal of oppressive laws, plans for privatization of state-owned assets and encouraging rhetoric, Dr. Abiy has unmistakably brought about a momentous change since he took power last April. But it’s too soon to celebrate, or even for those promoting a democratic revolution to relent.
The TPLF retains its command of the senior officer corps and private industry. It views Dr. Abiy’s reforms as a tactical retreat to placate the public while the TPLF maintains its control over these lucrative sources of power and corruption. Its ability to perpetrate atrocities from behind the scenes remains potent.
The TPLF’s ongoing theft of billions from the poor—three billion a year–is unsustainable and intolerable. Its grip on the military and economy must be broken if starving Ethiopia is to succeed. As its successors try to wrest these away, there is a likelihood of even greater communal violence breaking out around the country.
Because of the flammable relationship between several of Ethiopia’s tribes, a few matches from the TPLF could plunge the fragile country into a disastrous race war. This danger must be averted.
Dr. Abiy has published a research article on de-escalation strategies and has worked with religious institutions to bring about reconciliation. He presumably knows how to create processes that promote peacebuilding.
Yet he’s been silent so far on some important steps that could help prevent the bloodbath the TPLF seeks.
For all Dr. Abiy’s good efforts and intentions, the greatest favor he can do his country is to acknowledge explicitly the EPRDF’s illegitimacy. He should break up the ruling EPRDF coalition altogether. It has too much blood and corruption on its hands to be reformed. It must be dismantled.
The opposition must unite to form an alternative able to take over the reins of power until honest elections can be held. Dr. Abiy’s OPDO party and the other former EPRDF partners, except the TPLF, can join this new power bloc if they want. So long as he bears no personal responsibility for the EPRDF’s atrocities, Dr. Abiy could even run for elected office if he wanted.
A genuinely neutral National Election Board of which the opposition approves must immediately be appointed. This will raise public confidence in the election scheduled for 2020 and is critical for Ethiopia’s general stability. Faith in the availability of democracy to resolve tribal disputes will help defuse ethnic tensions.
Ethiopia’s government must urgently sign the Rome Statute. That will make it a member state of the International Criminal Court. The ICC has the jurisdiction to prosecute individuals for genocide and crimes against humanity committed after their country becomes a member state.
Whether the ethnic provocations are, as is likely, the work of the TPLF and its proxies or some other hidden actor, they are committed by individuals enjoying a sense of impunity. Ethiopia’s membership in the ICC will make them think twice.
With the replacement of the powerful intelligence chief and the National Defense Force’s chief of staff, Dr. Abiy appears to have embarked on a gradual process of easing out the TPLF senior officer corps that still dominate the military. This may appear a safer course than retirement en masse. But it also preserves for too long the TPLF’s destructive capability. The Tigrayan generals and colonels see the handwriting on the wall. Most will accept amnesty and retirement. A more radical alternative would be for the new government to secure loyalty pledges directly from the lower ranks.
Dr. Abiy might be compared to the Soviet Union’s Mikhael Gorbachev who tried to reform the Communist Party from which he’d emerged. Despite his efforts to save it, the party broke up under the weight of its historical baggage and internal contradictions. Gorbachev, who had courageously begun the restructuring process but stopped short of outright revolution, was replaced by the democrat Yeltsin.
What Abiy has done is laudable. But he can only go so far within the context of an EPRDF-ruled Ethiopia. If he wants to be known as more than a protector of the TPLF’s tactical retreat, he must take these further steps to secure his country’s peace and freedom and for Ethiopia to be a reliable partner to the West.
The writer is an adviser to foreign democracy movements. His novel about Ethiopia’s struggle for freedom, Money, Blood, and Conscience will be available on Amazon in July.