(Photo by Bair175 via Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED)

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Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared a 6-month state of emergency on August 4, 2023, following a new military uprising in the Amhara region of central Ethiopia. Coming only nine months after the signing of the peace agreement that ended the civil war between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and the Ethiopian federal government, the current conflict has further undermined the position of Ethiopia’s only Nobel laureate, Abiy Ahmed, in his attempts to democratize and modernize his nation. At its centre, the Amhara civil unrest illustrates that many underlying causes of the 2020 civil war remain unresolved, issues which will ultimately determine the future of Ethiopia. 

Timeline of Events

Since the 2020 Ethiopian Civil War is historically and politically complex, this short timeline highlights the most influential and significant events. 

  • 28/08/1975Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown after nationwide protests by a Marxist-Leninist revolutionary force called the Derg.
  • 28/05/1991 – After 17 years, the Derg Military Junta was overthrown by the Rebel Coalition of the EPRDF (Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front) led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
  • 25/04/2014 – The EPRDF, led and controlled by the TPLF, remains in power; however, Ethiopia’s master plan to expand the capital into the Oromo region, the largest region and ethnolinguistics group of Ethiopia, sparked mass protests that continued for the next two years. 
  • 08/08/2016 – After two years, the protests against the Addis Ababa Master Plan continue. Ethiopian Security forces killed more than 90 protestors during one of these protests.
  • 15/02/2018Hailemariam Desalegn, chair of the TPLF and EPRDF, resigns as PM for how he managed the 2016 protests. 
  • 02/04/2018 – After being elected as the chair of the OPDO party and the chair of the ruling coalition, the EPRDF, Abiy Ahmed takes over as Ethiopia’s PM.
  • 08/2019 – Abiy Ahmed is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the first ever Ethiopian recipient, for his work towards resolving the border disputes with Eritrea and attempts to increase political freedoms. 
  • 24/03/2020 – Abiy Ahmed’s government postpones regional elections due to Covid-19. 
  • 09/09/2020 – The TPLF, renamed the Prosperity Party, and the Tigray region held independent elections in which the TPLF won 98.5%  of the vote and 187/190 regional seats. Abiy Ahmed’s federal government considers this election illegal and illegitimate, and the TPLF intended to cause conflict and legitimize further confrontation with the federal government.
  • 03/10/2020 – Responding to a lack of government recognition, forces loyal to the TPLF attack federal military installations. In response, on 04/10/2020, Abiy Ahmed announced federal attacks on TPLF forces in the Tigray region.
  • 02/10/2022 – After an estimated 600,000 deaths and more than 2 million internal displacements, a peace agreement brokered by the African Union and backed by the United States was agreed to, formally ending hostilities, disarming the TPLF, and returning Tigray to federal jurisdiction.  

State of Emergency

On August 4, 2023, Abiy Ahmed announced a state of emergency in the Amhara region following reports of violence. Whilst complex, the context surrounding the Amhara state of emergency can be split into two main points of contention: The 2022 peace agreement between the TPLF and the federal government, and the federal government’s recent plans to dismantle regional military forces. Both situations have contributed to widespread skepticism and distrust in Abiy Ahmed’s government across the Amhara region. 

During the Ethiopian Civil War, the Amhara Fano and other militias played a substantial role in the government’s efforts to repel Tigray forces. They were, however, excluded from the peace-making process in 2022, creating widespread doubt in the authenticity of Ahmed’s intentions to end the conflict. Their exclusion also supported the notion of a ‘war pact’ between Tigray and Federal forces against Amhara forming. The historical backdrop of Tigray and Amhara regularly competing for power and land allowed this notion to develop. Amhara’s exclusion from the peace-making process, therefore, made fears of the “federal pact with Tigray” seem too realistic.

On April 6, 2023, Abiy Ahmed also announced plans to dismantle regional military forces and incorporate them into the Ethiopian federal army and police force. Heavily influenced by lessons learnt from the 2020 civil war, the federal government felt that these militias and paramilitary groups, which often operate outside federal power structures, posed too significant a threat to remain in place. The government tried disbanding regional militaries to create a more ethnically representative and diverse military force. However, many regional and nationalist groups across Ethiopia saw this as a threat and challenge to their security and relative autonomy. 

Resistance towards the government’s plans happened not only in the Amhara region. The exclusion of Amhara representatives from the peace-making process in 2022, combined with fears of a “war pact,” allowed distrust in the federal government to grow and develop into more than just protests. While some militias within Amhara agreed to the government’s plans, others have begun raids on federal military installations from mountain and remote village hideouts. This reignition of conflict and escalating fears of another civil war ultimately resulted in Ethiopia’s current state of emergency.

Conflict Causes

While the trigger point of the Amhara conflict was the announcement of regional military integration, current political issues, including the 2020 civil war, can be traced back to Ethiopia’s intricate ethnically based political system. Since Ethiopia’s 90 ethnic groups speak 80 different languages, a federal political system was created along ethnolinguistic lines, resulting in 11 political regions.

Each region holds two elections to choose a regional council and vote for the next federal government. Furthermore, the federal government contains two chambers.  The Ethiopian public elects the first chamber, and all regional councils select representatives for the second chamber. Although bordering on undemocratic, this representation evolved to ensure regional and ethnic equality. The leader of the largest party within the directly elected chamber becomes the Prime Minister.

Ultimately, this complex governmental structure intends to ensure the representation of as many ethnicities and languages as possible. The truth is, however, that the government has, in at least its recent history, been dominated by individual parties — notably the TPLF, which controlled the federal government for over 20 years. The TPLF led the EPRDF coalition comprising several different regional ethnic parties; however, the regional party that holds the chair of the largest party or coalition in the elected chamber dominates. This political structure has created an imbalance between governmental structures, leaving the Prime Minister and the federal government unchecked. Given that one party, partnership, or person is in charge of the federal government, the system enforced single-party domination even while acting within a coalition despite attempts for inclusion. 

Ethiopia’s political fragmentation along ethnolinguistic lines has also fostered regional nationalism and competition. In many other international, federal systems, relative competition between regions is nothing to comment upon; however, because Ethiopia’s political system draws upon ethnolinguistic lines, the repercussions of this competition and the perspective of favouritism from the federal government to any particular region runs the risk of pitting ethnic groups against each other and fuelling conflict. This can be shown by events within the Wolyata and Sidama regions in Southern Ethiopia, where there has been a growing movement for cessation due to issues of federal favouritism and unequal political representation. 

Influence of the African Union

The African Union is an organization of 55 African nations that seeks to promote international cooperation, unity and solidarity between states, end all forms of colonization, and protect the integrity of its member states. Historically, these aims have been met to varying degrees of success; however, two years after Ethiopia’s Civil War began, the Union brought together Ethiopia’s National Security Advisor Redwan Hussain and Getachew Reda of the TPLF leadership to discuss and eventually accept a framework to end the violence based upon the collective disarmament of the Tigray military forces, the return of Tigray to federal jurisdiction, and the fair political representation of Tigray.

 While far from concreting the Union’s role as a leading force within African politics, this resolution showed signs that the Union was starting to develop into an increasingly unified, effective, and relevant actor. Leveraging their position, they brought together both sides during a period of stalemate. Both sides were more willing to accept terms for peace when the African Union stepped in and offered them because of this.

Humanitarian Aid

While humanitarian crises have gripped Ethiopia and the Horn region for decades,  they have started increasing consistently across the region, with the UN going as far as to label the area as ‘the epicentre of the world’s climate emergencies’ in 2023. A drastic combination of the longest drought on record, soaring global food prices, mass displacement, and prevalent locust plagues have contributed to an estimated 60 million people needing emergency aid. In May 2023, a UN aid effort to raise $7 billion for the region fell $4.8 billion short. Without this increase, the regional humanitarian crisis will likely worsen rapidly, with the October-May dry season almost upon farmers.

Common justifications for the international community’s lack of aid include concerns over effectiveness, domestic considerations including increasing global isolationism and reluctance to increase foreign spending, and dependency culture. However, dependency culture, particularly regarding food aid, is the most legitimate concern for Ethiopia. It has been a reasonably consistent phenomenon since the famine of 1984, and despite receiving aid, there was more financial, food, and medical aid Ethiopian residents consistently needed. This legacy is a big concern for many international donors, as they want to prevent the Ethiopian government from becoming reliant on food aid to feed its residents. 

A future where Ethiopia and other Horn nations can feed their populations through domestic agricultural production is the aim; yet, it will take time to make the required adjustments to advance farming technologies and practices, specifically with drought-resistant crops. Given the current rate of climate change, its effects on water supplies across the region, and its exhaustion of Ethiopian water reserves, these crops may never be achieved.

The 2020 civil war has worsened the humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia, but it also highlighted many concerns surrounding aid effectiveness to onlookers worldwide. With the war raging on, aid efforts to Tigray, one of the most aid-dependent regions within Ethiopia, continued. These efforts were, however, routinely prevented from reaching their destinations. The Ethiopian government was criticized heavily by the United States and USAID for using aid as a political and military tool. Furthermore, at the height of the conflict, the Ethiopian government halted aid supply by several organizations over visa-related issues. 

Abiy Ahmed must separate military and strategic ambitions from any correspondence with aid to meet international expectations for its supply. In other words, it must be clear that the aid given to Ethiopia is protected as a humanitarian necessity and will not be used as a tool for political gains. 

Reflections on Ethiopia’s Position and Abiy Ahmed’s Leadership

The current Amhara conflict has stemmed from issues similar to the ones that caused the Tigray civil war in 2020. In an attempt to address Ethiopia’s complex ethnic situation and to prevent further conflict and marginalization, Abiy Ahmed’s government has adopted policies which forcefully promote ethnic inclusion. These policies, while serving other political needs and often promoting the sovereignty of the federal government, have at the same time also spread further distrust in said government. 

These policies are, to a degree, needed within Ethiopia, given the extent of ethnic and regional fragmentation. However, given how Ethiopia’s history has illustrated the domination its political system can allow, the public’s concern is not unfounded when its Prime Minister adopts an authoritarian stance. Abiy Ahmed must be careful not to adopt this stance to achieve political changes like his predecessors did.

Edited by Chelsea Bean

Thomas Atkinson

Thomas is currently a fourth year student in pursuit of a MA in International Relations at the University of St Andrews. Since beginning his degree, he has developed an interest in African relations and...