Ethiopia: A regressive vision spells the end of the republic

Ethiopia's Abiy Ahmed

As centralising elites double down on war efforts to subjugate Tigray and reconfigure the federation, an all-inclusive dialogue appears to be the only way out

At the root of the Tigray war is a contest over the very nature of the state. This centuries-old struggle has most recently been played out through Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s consolidation and centralisation of power and the Tigray elite’s – and allies, such as pro multinational federalism forces – consequent rejection of this.

One of the most salient facts about Ethiopia’s current predicament is that behind the veil of promoting nationalism, from the likes of Prime Minister Abiy, parties like Ezema, and media outlets like ESAT, lies a regressive vision and a nostalgic glorification of a violently unceremonious past.

This group of elites fulminate about and use the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) as a scapegoat. That outrage is used to mask the fact that they are undertaking another brutal war of subjugation on Tigray that would not have looked out of place during the imperial marches of the late 19th Century.

The government and people of Tigray have, however, refused to “bend to Shewa” – as unitarist commentators like Tamerat Negerea Feyissa so dearly wish them to do – but are instead resisting the threat on the multinational order and are pushed to pursue full independence.

National myth

The overthrow of the imperial regime in 1974 and then the defeat of the Derg’s dictatorship in 1991, which heralded the birth of a federal, democratic constitutional political order in 1995, should have closed the door forever to the assimilationist nation-building project.

While it is true that the protection and promotion of human and democratic rights were not as progressive as the transformative economic development registered under the EPRDF coalition, the defining feature of post-1991 Ethiopia has in fact been the recognition of diversity of culture, language, religion, and other values.

This was a major progressive departure from the ‘one culture, one language, and one religion’ monochromatic nation-building project of the past. But, the appointment of Abiy Ahmed as Prime Minister in 2018 opened up the space for unitarist elites to once again resume the nation-building project.

Former empires like Ethiopia, obsessed with national pride, revel in past glory but cannot envisage what lies ahead. This attachment to the imperial heyday and the violent nation-building project sowed the seeds of the ongoing war in the service of trying to maintain the national mythos.

By doing so, rather than building a diverse future, Ethiopianist elites are reinforcing the state’s formative defects, and will ultimately scupper the almost three-decade-old effort to transition from an empire into a republic.

Preventing pluralism

Following four years of street protests, the former ruling coalition elected Abiy as its chair, and lawmakers subsequently nominated him as Prime Minister on 2 April 2018. After admitting the EPRDF’s shortcomings, Abiy pledged reform, preached unity, and pursued rapprochement with Eritrea.

This was portrayed by some as a sign of a new beginning for the multinational country. On the contrary, the last three years have resulted in a proliferation of violence. The economy has languished and the already constrained institutions have been further weakened to pave the way for de facto one-man rule, ushering the beginning of the end of the federation.

The EPRDF coalition that brought Abiy to power was the first victim of his power ambitions. Fittingly, the fundamental act of convening elections as per the constitution became the bone of contention in the Tigray-federal government dispute.