BY JOHN MADDEN
When Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was elected in 2018, he moved to ease political tensions in Ethiopia by releasing political prisoners, privatizing state enterprises, and loosening restrictions on media. He also removed prominent opposition groups from the official list of terrorist organizations to create a more enabling environment for inclusion and social cohesion. In 2019 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for bringing an end to the 20-year conflict with Eritrea. In his acceptance speech, Abiy spoke of how a sustained commitment to peace can lead to “prosperity, security, and opportunity,” as well as, “synergy, convergence, and teamwork for a common destiny.” In a word, he spoke of Resilience. But if the Amharic philosophy of Medemer, described in his speech as a profound commitment to peace, was truly his doctrine for leadership, those ideals were quickly overtaken by events triggered by the shock of COVID-19.
According to field research conducted by the Fund for Peace to contextualize the findings of FFP’s new State Resilience Index, (SRI), underlying tensions between the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the government of Ethiopia had been building for years. Then in 2020, the pandemic struck, and the government ordered general elections to be postponed for reasons of public safety, extending current office holders’ terms beyond their constitutional mandates. When Tigray defied that order, and held a regional election, the government cut funding to the region, which led to a cycle of violence that sent the country into a tailspin for the last two years.
Since the beginning of FFP’s Fragile Sates Index (FSI) in 2006, Ethiopia has shown worsening trends in fragility in indicators like Group Grievance, Refugees and IDPs, and State Legitimacy. These are not topical challenges that can be solved with the right formula of foreign direct investment, clever development programing, and economic diversification. For Ethiopia’s long-term outlook to improve, the peace process following this conflict must go beyond well-meaning gestures of good faith, such as the release of political prisoners, to a focus on fundamental institutional reforms that foster social cohesion and manage grievances among a diversity of ethnic groups sharing a tight political space.
Institutions both shape and mirror societal divisions and connections. Ethiopia’s constitution, ratified during the TPLF’s rule in 1994 declared ethnic federalism as Ethiopia’s system of governance, which endowed ethnically defined states with the rights to self-determination and secession. Ethnic federalism roots political representation and land rights in ethnicity, entrenching differences between groups and across territories. Linking land rights and political representation to ethnicity may help manage conflict in the short term, but eventually as demography changes with population growth and migration, these formulas need to be revisited if they are to avoid creating more harm than good. In 2018, the protests that brought about Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn’s fall from power erupted because of compounding grievances over marginalization, threats of displacement, and political underrepresentation for specific ethnic groups. During this time, Ethiopia had 2.9 million internally displaced peoples (IDPs) due to conflict. Under Abiy, the same grievances of ethnicity-based marginalization and displacement have worsened. In 2021, Ethiopia had 5.1 million IDPs due to the war between the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) and TPLF. Abiy’s promises of change and appeals to create a more inclusive Ethiopia have proven to be nothing more than bromides, as Ethiopia is facing ever worsening group grievance, violence, and displacement.
In 2019, Abiy created the Prosperity Party (PP), uniting leaders from different ethnic parties under the banner of pan-Ethiopian nationalism but excluded members of the TPLF, presenting his reform agenda as a direct alternative to the TPLF’s ethnic-nationalism. Differences over governance between the Abiy administration and the TPLF also have an ethnic coloration, making this conflict not only a fight over State Legitimacy, a metric on the FSI for which Ethiopia has consistently worsened since 2014, but a fight for control over the national identity.
Given this context, if Abiy’s goal is to unify the country, as he articulated in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, then his administration is going about it in the wrong way. Since the beginning of the war, the ENDF besieged Tigray, used airstrikes on civilian infrastructure, and instituted a humanitarian aid blockade. According to the UN international commission of investigators on human rights, the Ethiopian federal government denied 6 million Tigrayans access to electricity, telecommunications, and internet, and took steps like killing livestock and destroying food sources, leaving 90% of the Tigray population in dire need of assistance. In November the warring parties agreed to a cessation of hostilities. But it is one thing to stop fighting and entirely another to build resilience. In the aftermath of this conflict, if transitional justice measures and reforms do not take place, then Ethiopia will be predisposed to bouts of destruction and displacement in the future.
FFP’s State Resilience Index (SRI) shows Ethiopia underperforming the global average for almost every indicator except Social Cohesion. Although counterintuitive, Ethiopia scores just above the global average in Social Cohesion because of strong performance in its Social Capital sub-pillar. Within the Ethiopian context, strong Social Capital should be read as strong interpersonal trust within ethnic groups when measured against individualism. Despite high levels of inter-group polarization, this intra-group social capital presents an opportunity to build upon for greater resilience in the future. In Ethiopia, where individualism is low, high social capital endowments could be leveraged for conflict resolution and promoting the public good. Instead, such endowments have been cultivated by political actors into various forms of Ethiopian nationalism, which facilitate division and marginalization. Moving forward, Ethiopia’s challenge is to build institutions that convert social cohesion within groups to social cohesion across groups. Focusing the already strong social capital within groups on their shared interest in the common good with other groups could improve cohesion overall.
These points were reiterated in field interviews conducted by FFP. FFP interviewed 20 experts in government, civil society, community, and religious leadership (58% female), who shared their perspectives on the ways in which society can prevent, manage, and recover from crisis. Experts expressed the complexity and depth of these conflict dynamics. They largely agreed that divisions have been worsening over the last decade and that the conflict itself is multifaceted, rooted in disagreements and divisions over political ideology, ethnicity, and territoriality. One interviewee argued that a lack of public confidence in democratic governance, combined with high ethnic consciousness, and disparities between ethnic groups have created a perfect storm, which has worsened Ethiopia’s situation of fragility over the last decade. But while that may contribute to a situation of fragility, interviewees also stressed that Ethiopia is a socio-centric society, one where the youth are raised by the village, not just their parents. They identified strong communities, religious devotion, and a respect for elders as factors of resilience. However seemingly intractable, conflict in Ethiopia is not a lost cause. If local stakeholders can identify factors of resilience like strong communities, and the SRI identifies social capital as a factor of resilience amid a massively destructive civil war, surely there is cause for hope in Ethiopia’s capacity to recover from this crisis and to thrive.
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 Key Informant Interviews were conducted by the Fund for Peace with experts in government, civil society, community, and religious leadership (at least 40% female) on the ways in which their society is able to prevent, manage, and recover from crisis.