THERE weren’t too many objections when Ethiopia’s relatively recent leader Abiy Ali Ahmed was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize two years ago. On the face of it, he seemed to represent a significant break from the nation’s divisive past. Political prisoners were freed, and conciliatory gestures made to political rivals. The Nobel citation specifically cited Addis Ababa’s peace agreement with Eritrea, until the early 1990s a part of Ethiopia and subsequently a belligerent adversary.
Africa’s second-largest country by population appeared to be entering a more hopeful phase. But the illusion of a new trajectory was shattered a year ago, when the relatively new government went to war against its Tigray province.
Tigrayan belligerence ostensibly served as a provocation, but it didn’t come out of the blue. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) was a key component of the coalition that ousted the ostensibly left-wing government of Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991. If Mengistu’s brutal military regime claimed allegiance to Marxist precepts — which unfortunately won it Soviet and Cuban support — so did the rebels in Tigray.
Even though the TPLF represents little more than six per cent of Ethiopia’s ethnic diversity, it was the dominant component of the coalition that succeeded Mengistu until Abiy emerged as a potent force whose initial measures earned global accolades. The sense of relief after decades of conflict initially appeared to have some justification, given the prospect of relative peace on the Horn of Africa.
Peace in the Horn of Africa has turned out to be an illusion.
It turned out to be a short-lived fantasy. And there’s irony in the fact that the settlement with Eritrea specifically mentioned in Abiy’s Nobel citation has turned out to be a key component of the renewed conflict, with Eritrean forces accused of some of the worst atrocities against Tigrayans and other ethnic minorities after they joined hands with the Ethiopian military.
Abiy imposed emergency rule last week after it was reported that the TPLF had formed a coalition with other ethnic militias to topple his administration, and that the opposition forces were barely 160 kilometres from Addis Ababa.
This has spurred fears that the end of Ethiopia as we know it may be nigh. In the circumstances, it’s hard to ascertain the extent to which that might be an exaggerated claim. It is certainly not out of the question, and tensions with neighbours alongside occasional border conflicts may play a role.
Ethiopia stands out in Africa as a country that managed to avoid being colonised during the 19th-century competition between a number of European states to grab a slice of the continent. Ethiopian forces staved off an Italian invasion — only to be occupied by Mussolini’s forces. But that subjugation lasted only five years, and after World War II the Allied forces acknowledged Ethiopian assistance with the gift of Eritrea, a colony wrested from Italy.
That sowed the seeds for drawn-out separatist endeavours that culminated in Eritrea’s independence in the 1990s. Decades earlier, Ethiopia was seen as a stalwart in Africa’s fight against European imperialism. The monarchy under Haile Selassie wasn’t out to antagonise the West, but nonetheless offered support to liberation movements — including a passport that allowed Nelson Mandela to travel before his incarceration.
It also served as a lodestar for pan-Africanism as a founding member of the Organisation for African Unity — which, since renamed as the African Union, is still headquartered in Addis Ababa (and has been accused of leaning towards the Abiy government).
Intriguingly, Haile Selassie was known as Ras Tafari before he was crowned emperor — and subsequently hailed as the incarnation of a prophecy about a black emperor that particularly charmed Caribbeans of African origin and spawned the Rastafarian tendency. Its best-known adherent, Bob Marley, based one of his most powerful songs, War, on a 1963 speech by Haile Selassie at the United Nations.
Ethiopia has come a long way in the decades since then, yet seems incapable of surmounting its ethnic divide. The advent of Abiy briefly looked like a game-changer, but that soon turned out to be an illusion. A Norwegian academic has gone to the extent of arguing that the Nobel committee should resign — given that the 2019 peace prize was not just undeserved, but actually encouraged Abiy to become less consultative and conciliatory.
It was probably awarded with the best of intentions but perhaps based on limited understanding and even less foresight — as in the case of Barack Obama a decade earlier. Human rights organisations as well as the UN have highlighted the war crimes — including horrific instances of sexual violence — that have been committed by both sides in Ethiopia during the past year.
There’s no telling how or when the current bout of violence will end. One can only hope that it does, and in circumstances that offer scope for a peace that current generations have rarely experienced.