Potential Hot Spots: Another Ethiopian Civil War

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December 8, 2021: The current civil war in Ethiopia began in November 2020 when the TPLF (Tigray People's Liberation Front) attacked security forces (soldiers and police) because of disagreements with the ruling EPRDF (Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front) over how the nation should be ruled. Tigray has feuded with the central government for centuries. This time the complaint was that prime minister Abiy Ahmed had reorganized the ruling EPRDF as the Prosperity Party and the TPLF saw this as an effort to reduce Tigrayan power in the government. The TPLF refused to join the Prosperity Party and sought to take control of the government.

The fighting went on for so long because the EPRDF has a large (117 million people) country to administer. The armed forces and national police are spread thin. The armed forces have 162,000 personnel and a budget of half a billion dollars a year, which is less than one percent of GDP. The TPLF had a Tigray militia force that could call on up to 100,000 armed men but could not move them around because nearly all were armed to defend their villages or neighborhoods. The army was joined by an Amhara militia. Most of the fighting and casualties occurred in Tigray. The Tigray forces threatened to drive on the capital Addis Ababa. That sort of thing is not unknown in Africa where lots of pickup trucks and a few good roads leading to the capital, plus poorly organized security forces, make a threat to “drive on the capital” something that can happen. The TPLF was aided by another rebel group, the OLA (Oromo Liberation Army) in western Ethiopia that had been formed in 2018 when the larger OLF (Oromo Liberation Front) made peace with the central government. The OLA has only a few thousand members and not all of them are willing or able to take a weapon and join an effort to advance on Addis Ababa. But it doesn’t take much of an armed (with rifles, pistols, and machine-guns) force of gunmen in a few dozen motor vehicles to pose a threat, at least on the electronic media, to the national government. With OLA advancing from the west and TPLF from the north, the potential for scary and lucrative headlines was too much to resist. In the last week the situation suddenly changed, with the government forces advancing.

There were other factors at work here and one was that electronic media has been slow to appear in Ethiopia. Telegraph, telephones, wireless telegraph, radio, TV, cell phones and the Internet all eventually arrived but are not widely available to a lot of Ethiopians. A decade ago, there were about half a million Internet users and now that is nearly five million and perhaps more because many more people can afford to spend time at Internet Cafes. This is a common expansion method for the Internet but it was slower than usual in Ethiopia because the central government was quick to put controls on cell-phone use by making it mandatory to use a government approved SIM card. Individual satellite phones required government permission to enter the country. Another problem is literacy; only about half the adult population can read. Many cannot read that well because they only had a few years of schooling and left to work after attaining basic literacy in one of the three main languages used by the Amhara, Tigray and Oromo regions. That explains why the Amhara get most of the blame for the decades of communist Derg Party dictatorship. Now an Oromo prime minister, with the backing of many Amhara, is seeking to reduce the power of ethnic politics in Ethiopia. A noble goal, but many people in Tigray and Oromia see this as another oppressive scheme coming from “the center”. That is Addis Ababa and highland plateau that has always been the center of the kingdom/empire/republic that survives by introducing new ideas to keep Ethiopia completive with potential foreign threats. With more literacy and a smattering of electronic media the rebellions are being organized and defeated more quickly. Accusations of ethnic atrocities travel faster and with more impact by the subsequent clarifications that diminish or invalidate the initial claim.

Apparently Ethiopian forces avoided that threat by using UAVs and smaller quad-copters to monitor the roads and the armed opposition and their condition. The government also armed some of its non-combat air force aircraft to provide air support. In the last week, the government forces have been advancing down the key highways and chasing the rebels out of roadside towns they had occupied. The rebels reply that this is part of their plan and they will strike back soon and crush the government forces. That’s not how it works when the rebels are diehard splinter groups from larger ethnic rebel organizations that made peace with the central government and the current plan for government change to depend less on ethnic differences and animosities.

About 10,000 have died so far, at least half of them civilians. Many more civilians fled their homes temporarily to avoid violence or looters. The local damage and refugees were often the result of ethnic violence in communities nowhere near the armed rebels and government forces. This is the ethnic problem the proposed government program wants to overcome. Ancient practices often resist change, which is why they still exist. Reforms have been generally agreed on for generations but local politics and paranoia have always been a local obstacle that will flare into violence quickly and then dissipate. Electronic communications and media make it all happen more quickly than in the past, but not a lot more effectively.

Claims were made of much higher casualties but verifying such claims is difficult and time consuming in Ethiopia. Politicians and community leaders on both sides have kept talking, because the fighting is not going to be decisive unless there is agreement between the three major ethnic groups. The TPLF and OLA are not going to get to Addis Ababa and the security forces are not going to end the violence in Tigray or Oromia by force. A negotiated settlement is still underway, and the fighting has subsided but not ended, because the main TPLF demand is that prime minister Ahmed resign. The two rebel groups got to within a few hundred kilometers of the capital and admitted they were supplied by what they could steal along the way. Foraging is an ancient logistics method but has limitations, especially when the other side (government forces) have a more modern resupply system. The government has easy access to foreign suppliers, who can use air freight services to get what they need quickly. The travel disruptions have hurt many Ethiopians who want nothing to do with this fight. Vial supplies of food and other essentials have been reduced by the fighting along the few paved roads that can handle the heavy truck traffic. More remote communities that depend on the food are going hungry for reasons they don’t fully comprehend.

Tigrayans had a reputation as determined and skilled fighters, but they were part of Ethiopia because they were outnumbered in a country that has long been the only Christian majority state in North Africa, and the only African state or region that escaped colonization by Europeans. The Italians tried, and failed in the 1930s to turn Ethiopia into a colony. This war against the only Christian kingdom in Africa was widely criticized at the time.

Ethiopia is an ancient Christian kingdom that survived for so long because at its core there is some of the best farmland in the Sahel, a semi-desert region south of the Sahara Desert that extends across Africa from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. The Ethiopian plateau gets plenty of rain and contains one of the main sources of the Nile River. Surrounding this lush plateau are deserts and semi-desert grasslands.

Most Ethiopians converted from ancient faiths to Christianity in the 4th century. Four hundred years later the new and expanding Islamic caliphate attacked and eventually seized the coastal Eritrea region but could not get much further for a long time. In the 1400s the Ottomans made some more damaging attacks on Abyssinia, more than five centuries after that the ancient Christian kingdom became something of a legend in Europe because ancient Abyssinia no longer had access to the sea and getting messages, like letters from European kings and emperors to the Abyssinian emperor failed. For a long time, it was unclear if the legendary Christian State still existed.

After 1492 European ships, with and their new technology began showing up off the East African coast. One of these expeditions from Portugal reestablished links to the Abyssinian emperor and even provided crucial assistance when another Moslem army threatened them. Centuries of Moslem armies attacking had made a mark and left Abyssinia/Ethiopia with a large (currently 30 percent) Moslem minority. The threat of Moslem armies from the east led Abyssinian emperors to seek allies to the west and thus the lowland Oromo people became part of the empire and most were converted to Christianity. The Oromo were culturally similar to the Amhara and speak a related but different language. The Amhara and Oromo are the Christian majority, although only about half of Oromos are Christian, and the Oromo are the largest minority. The Tigray people are north of the plateau and all that is left of the larger Christian population along the Red Sea coast that were lost to Islam.

What the Europeans contacted in the early 1500s was a new and more powerful Ethiopian empire founded in the 1200s by the largest group in the highlands, the Amhara. Both Tigray and Amhara people share the plateau but the Tigray were always more advanced economically and culturally because they were closest to the ancient Nile kingdoms. What Tigray learned was passed on to the more numerous Amhara who became culturally and politically dominant in the 1200s. The Tigray are about six percent of the population and nearly all are Christian and have the highest education rate and personal incomes in Ethiopia. The more recently acquired Somalis in Ogaden province bordering Somalia also have about six percent of the national population. The Oromo are 34 percent and the Amhara 27 percent. The Amhara have long led a coalition founded in unity with the Oromo and Tigray.

Prime minister Ahmed is Oromo and a Protestant Christian. His father was an Oromo Moslem while his mother was an Oromo raised in the ancient Orthodox Christian religion. Ahmed believed the country needed more Ethiopians and fewer people who saw themselves as Tigray, Amhara, Oromo or Somali first.

The traditional source of national political leadership has long been the Amhara. That custom was eroded because it was Amhara who formed the communist Derg government that replaced the monarchy in the 1970s.

Ethnic politics has crippled Ethiopia since the monarchy was overthrown in 1974 and replaced by the Derg, an even more repressive and dictatorial communist group that also exploited ethnic rivalries and survived with massive support from Russia. That support was all gone by 1991 and the democratic EPRDF took power. The EPRDF consisted of many former Derg factions, like the TPLF. The many ethnic parties and their militias had a difficult time agreeing on a new constitution and how democratic Ethiopia would be governed. The first national elections were held in 1995. One faction, Eretria, controlled the tiny coastline Ethiopia had access to and gained independence in 1993 via a national referendum. While Eritrea was now independent there were still disagreements about where the border should be, and in 1998 this led to a ruinous (for both countries) two-year war. Eritrea has still not recovered but the EPRDF gained national support for the way it handled the war, and negotiated an end to it.

The EPRDF kept winning elections and some ethnic groups claimed the elections were not honest. Foreign observers could find no massive fraud and backed EPRDF claims that the dissatisfaction with the voting was more a matter of some ethnic groups not gaining as much national support as they believed they should. The TPLF was the most powerful and persistent critic of the new Prosperity Party as even more unfair to Tigrayans. Tigray is considered the source of the ideas and cultural practices that led to the formation of the Abyssinian kingdom, then empire and the larger Abyssinia that finally became known as Ethiopia in the 20th century. The older entities known as Abyssinia were much smaller than 20th century Ethiopia.

The EPRDF, even after it reorganized as the Prosperity Party, was still a multi-ethnic coalition dominated by Amhara, Oromo, and Tigrayan people who had long dominated national politics. The Prosperity Party was meant to be more effective at negotiating ethnic disputes without risking civil wars. Despite the religious differences, it is the ethnic groups that drive the conflicts.

Ethiopia is 67 percent Christian, 31 percent Moslem, and the rest smaller and often older religions. The largest religion is the ancient Ethiopian Orthodox with 43 percent of the population while other Christian sects comprise 24 percent. That means less to most Ethiopians than the fact the Ethiopian population is dominated by the Oromo (34 percent of the population), Amhara (24 percent) and Tigray (six percent) minorities. The unity of these three groups keeps Ethiopia united and when these three cannot agree on something, there is trouble. When the three groups agree on something there is peace and that agreement is still being sought to end the 2020 to 2021 (so far) civil war.

 

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