BY ANNE-ELÉONORE DELEERSNYDER and FRANCESCA BATAULT
Since the 1990s, conflict prevention has gained increasing prominence in academic research and practice, with the goal of decreasing the human toll and economic costs of violent conflicts. The foundational text of the European Union (EU) – the Maastricht Treaty (1992) – identifies conflict prevention as one of the EU’s foreign policy objectives. Similarly, the African Union (AU) has developed and refined conflict prevention mechanisms since the 1993 Cairo Declaration. Despite the rhetorical commitment to conflict prevention and the development of institutional mechanisms to translate it into practice, the international conflict prevention record remains meagre. The recent outbreak of a conflict between the Ethiopian federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) is a poignant example. In 2019, several early warning alerts pointed to a rapid deterioration of security in the region and identified the 2020 summer elections as potential triggers of violence. One of these alerts was issued by the European Union Institute for Security Studies, the EU’s own agency tasked with providing assistance to implement the Common Foreign and Security Policy. Yet as these predictions seemed to turn into reality – with tensions between Addis Ababa and Mekelle escalating in September and October 2020 – neither the EU nor the AU were able to prevent the escalation violence. Revealingly, in a February 2021 Report, the AU recognised that the Tigray conflict exposed the need to further invest in conflict prevention, with the timeframes and modalities of its Silencing the Guns in Africa campaign needing to be reformulated.
This article explores the role of indexes in informing early warning analysis and recommendations. Taking Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict as a case study, it looks back on two indexes and reviews whether they could have been used to inform early warning analysis and action. This article argues that certain characteristics of indexes, such as their annual and compound nature, make them difficult tools to use for early warning, as structural vulnerabilities and downward trends can be overshadowed by improvements in other aspects of a country’s situation.
The Fragile State Index (FSI)
Ethiopia’s overall FSI scores in the past decade paint a picture of high fragility, with a transition that promised great improvements but was ultimately mismanaged. In 2006, its score of 91.9 placed it 26th in the overall ranking. Hovering between roughly 95 and 98 for a decade, in 2017 it reached a score of 101.1 – ranking 15th overall – and became that year’s most worsened country (tied with Mexico). These worsening scores reflect the increasingly repressive rule of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) – a coalition of four regional ruling parties dominated by the TPLF – that curtailed free speech and stifled political dissent including through the arrest, torture and killing of protesters. Although some economic indicators such as poverty and uneven development improved during those years, others related to public service provision declined, highlighting continued challenges related to corruption and inefficient resource allocation. As such, the protests that erupted in the country between 2015 and 2017 – years marked by major increases in FSI scores related to state legitimacy and human rights – were mostly related to a fight for increased political freedoms, representations of major ethnic groups in the ruling coalition, and economic and land rights.
As protests drove the EPRDF out of power, Abiy Ahmed – a member of the Oromo ethnic group – became Prime Minister and advanced the vision of a unified and centralised Ethiopia. Major improvements in Ethiopia’s FSI scores can be seen under the first two years of his premiership, with the country going from a score of 101.1 in 2017 to 94.2 in 2019, dropping from 15th to 23rd in the total rankings. These shifts were mostly driven by a great reduction in scores relating to human rights, the use of force by the security apparatus, and the factionalization of elites. This reduction can be linked in part to Abiy’s political reform agenda, which included releasing political prisoners, decriminalising opposition parties, lifting restrictions placed on freedom of speech, and shifting power dynamics between regional parties. Successful peace talks with Eritrea, which led him to win the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, also contributed to an improvement in scores related to refugees and internally displaced people. Uneven economic development and public service delivery scores also improved – two issues which had contributed to spurring popular protests. The 2020 FSI scores indicate a slight deterioration, with the overall score increasing from 94.2 to 94.6. The year was marked by continued improvements in scores related to the security apparatus, human rights, and economic inequality, but also deteriorations in elite factionalization, group grievances and state legitimacy. Ethiopia’s 2019 and 2020 FSI scores remained overall the best they had been in over a decade.
It is perhaps easy to see how these improvements contributed to over-optimism with regards to the country’s trajectory, leading many to overlook Ethiopia’s continued vulnerabilities in terms of state legitimacy, poverty and economic inequality, and human rights. According to an Ethiopia analyst, the international community was slow to pick up on the poor management of the transition, and instead remained fixated on the idea that the new Prime Minister could implement his aspirational liberal discourse. As such, increasing turbulence in Oromia, the so-called ‘regional coup’ in the Amhara region, and spiralling tensions between Addis Ababa and Mekelle were downplayed. Looking solely at FSI scores, improvements in key indicators painted an overall relatively positive picture, on the basis of which it would have been difficult to produce early warning analysis of the November 2020 conflict. Reflecting the complex developments unfolding in 2020, Ethiopia became the third most worsened country in the 2021 FSI, its overall score jumping to 99.0 (ranking 11th) with great deteriorations in the use of force by the security apparatus, group grievance, and human rights.
The Global Peace Index (GPI)
Produced by the Institute for Economics and Peace, the Global Peace Index (GPI) is the world’s leading measure of global peacefulness, covering 163 independent states and territories and 99.7% of the world’s population. Constructed across three broad domain with 23 indicators, the level of Societal Safety and Security; the extent of Ongoing Domestic and International Conflict; and the degree of Militarisation, the GPI provides the most comprehensive data-driven assessment to-date on trends on peace, its economic value and how to develop peaceful societies.
In the case of Ethiopia, the GPI has highlighted a deteriorating state of peace beginning in 2016, the year of the Oromo Protests. With its highest ranking of 119th in 2016, Ethiopia’s largest downwards trend in peace occurred in 2018 where it fell six places – from 133 to 139. The deteriorations, predominantly across the indicators of violent demonstrations and political terror, were a result of Amhara protesters targeting Tigrayan businesses during the state of emergency imposed by the Tigray-dominated government between October 2016 and August 2017. These protests would later culminate in the surprise resignation of Prime Minister Hailemarian Desalegn in February 2018 and the eventual ousting of the TPLF government in April 2018. Revealingly, the 2020 GPI highlighted a growing trend of mass mobilisation in Ethiopia, with the number of riots and demonstrations rising 500% between 2015-2018. These demonstrations, concentrated in the Oromia state surrounding Addis Ababa, were indicative of growing discontent with Ethiopia’s federal government. While mass mobilisation is often pointed to as a key factor leading to civil war, it must nevertheless be combined with structural or political grievances to manifest into civil war. These structural grievances, most often reflected in either political or economic tensions between competing factions, are typically more difficult to quantify and aggregate, thereby explaining why they are often excluded from indexes. Combining a more qualitative analysis of grievances with Ethiopia’s GPI index scores may very well have painted a starkly different picture than the one portrayed, one that would likely have raised alarm bells.
With a turbulent year in 2020, Ethiopia recorded the third largest deterioration in peacefulness in Sub-Saharan Africa according to the 2021 GPI, falling 6 places with deteriorations across all three domains. The largest deteriorations were for the indicators of violent demonstrations and neighbouring countries relations. Ethiopia’s relationship with its neighbours were fraught on two fronts; firstly, Eritrean forces entered the conflict in Tigray, albeit in support of the government, while tensions with Egypt and Sudan mounted over disagreements over filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. On the other hand, major civil unrest occurred both as a response to COVID-19 lockdowns and the killing of Oromo singer Hachaly Hundessa, which resulted in over 291 deaths and 5,000 arrests. All these events were cited by the GPI as significant contributors to Ethiopia’s deteriorating peacefulness; yet, they did not all play a role in catalysing the Tigray conflict. Indeed, the compound and annual nature of indexes such as the Global Peace Index make them distinctly more challenging as tools for early warning. The multiple composite indicators that comprise each individual domain result in an overall country picture that does not reflect which structural vulnerabilities are more salient in a country’s deterioration.
Can indexes play a role in early warning?
Interpreting data for the purposes of early warning and conflict prevention remains a fraught process. Some conflict early warning mechanisms have reached high levels of accuracy in identifying conflict-prone countries based on the presence of structural factors and indicators typically associated with violent conflict outbreak, with some mechanisms claiming a predictive capacity as high as 80-90 percent. In both their qualitative and quantitative forms, conflict early warning systems nevertheless experience several shortcomings, notably an emphasis on linear causation instead of systems perspective, a bias towards short-term indicators instead of structural variables and long-term prevention, and an ineffectiveness in distinguishing small ‘threshold’ events which can trigger the outbreak of violence in some cases but not in others.
Looking back on Ethiopia’s scores on the two indexes, a key lesson becomes clear: whilst indexes can provide useful pointers as to a country’s trajectory, their annual timeframe and compound nature can skew risk assessments and lead to certain dynamics and structural vulnerabilities being overshadowed.
Indexes are highly digestible formats for analysts and decision-makers to evaluate a country’s situation. Their value comes from providing a macro assessment of a multitude of dimensions and converging areas of policy interest within a single comparable measure. Utilising a single comparable frame of reference allows for informed decision making and can provide a helpful snapshot of the broad socio-economic and political trends in a country. However, their yearly and aggregate nature means they are too blunt of a tool for early warning and conflict prevention.
It also has to be noted that timely and accurate analysis and identification of high-risk situations have yet to be translated into effective early action. This major limitation of early warning mechanisms has often been referred to as the “early warning-early response gap”. Disagreements over the political appropriateness of early action, the cultural gap between early warning and political decision-making institutions, and issues of political will and sovereignty all continue to constrain the willingness and ability of decision-makers to take preventive action. In relation to Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict, for example, political considerations associated with early action – including the risk of straining relations and being perceived as alarmist – might have tempered the support for early action within the EU, despite the presence of early warnings. Ethiopia’s geostrategic role in curbing both violent extremism and migration flows, and the Abiy administration’s popularity amongst donor circles due to encouraging poverty reduction and economic reforms, most probably limited the willingness to act on early warnings. Moreover, early warning reports did not result in a Peace and Security Council meeting at the Africa Union, most probably as a result of Addis Ababa’s influence on the institution’s agenda-setting and its insistence on branding its military engagement as part of a domestic ‘rule of law’ operation, with the principle of sovereignty protected under international law and enshrined in Article 4(g) of the AU’s Constitutive Act. Improving early warning mechanisms thus does not solely mean enhancing early warning analysis through the efficient and accurate collection and analysis of data, but must also tackle the issue of political barriers to early action. Only then can the conflict prevention discourse put forward by so many states and institutions start matching international practice.
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