Ordinarily, four years is a flash in a country’s life because few historically defining episodes take place in such a short period of time. However, the past four years have been nothing but extraordinary for Ethiopia. In this short period, Ethiopia tackled multiple existential threats that most countries would have confronted in centuries. To wit, PM Abiy and his team dislodged the entrenched ethno-fascist TPLF-led regime from national power and defeated twice its militaristic attempts to regain national power. They had to deal with mass displacements, persistent drought, once in a lifetime pandemic, economic and social upheavals, and intense and coordinated international pressure, etc. Any of these crises would individually be daunting to any nation. But for the poor and fractured Ethiopia to face them all almost at the same time and somehow survive is nothing short of a miracle!
Faced with similar challenges, many would have disintegrated and descended into the abyss with perhaps irreversible outcomes. Ethiopia achieved mini victories and survived because the government effectively leveraged the country’s repulsion for the TPLF and its age-old resilience and grit. But make no mistake Ethiopia is not yet out of the woods. Team Abiy has up to now failed to strategically parlay the victories attained into tangible dividends to strengthen the country’s integrity, unity, and vitality. It is not an exaggeration to state that how the government manages the current period will define the country’s short and long-term fate. Hence, it is critical that Ethiopia manages the current post-war era carefully and strategically.
The government’s successive military operations, despite their own shortcomings, have reduced the TPLF to a ghost of its former self with no credible pathway to national power. The people of Tigray are unfortunately paying a prohibitive price for the TPLF’s power gamble in blood, freedom, material well being, and an uncertain future. In relative terms, there is no debate that the TPLF has for decades benefited Tigary with largesse looted from the national treasury. But now thanks to the arrogance and serious miscalculations of team Debretsion, they have taken the region back by decades. It is very clear that Tigraians find themselves worse than where they were four years ago. Lets’ face it, Tigray’s economic interest lies in the hinterland. Given its lack of viable coastal access, agricultural, industrial, or service industry basis, known natural resources of significance, and relatively minuscule market size, Tigray under the grip of isolationist TPLF faces a bleak economic outlook.
The political picture is more or less similar. TPLF is no longer a viable national political force. Its own long-term survival is in doubt. Most of the TPLF’s key leaders are either killed, arrested, monitored, in exile or on the run. It has admitted losing more than 350 thousand combatants in the two wars it instigated. The remaining TPLF leaders are dependent on handouts from the federal government and international donors to run the region on bare minimum. Imagine the impact of these astounding losses and the extant situation in the region on the morale of a largely conscripted force that the TPLF might once again irresponsibly march into the battlefield to face a highly trained victorious regular army backed by over a 100 million people.
Sober examination shows that Tigraians are better off voting with their feet and aligning their fate with their kin across the country than remaining under TPLF rule. Given this dire situation, the leaders are likely standing on borrowed time. Sooner or later, they are most likely to devolve into regional warlords that cannot bring either peace, freedom, or development to the people of Tigray. Encouragingly, some Tigraians are breaking the TPLF-imposed isolation and trekking into other parts of their country, especially into the Amhara region. Those in Addis and other parts, continue to live their lives like most other compatriots.
Gripped with crisis, the rest of the country is not that much better off. Extremism is flourishing unabated in the country feeding off of the country’s structurally and legally sanctioned ethnic division. In addition to this, the Abiy government’s initial and ongoing governance missteps and refusal to take corrective actions are creating profound new problems or compounding existing ones. The most worrying of these is the rise of violent extremism in the country, especially in Oromia and in some parts of the south. In this observer’s view, the government committed two grave mistakes: It made terrible judgement when it allowed unreformed armed radical groups into the country at the onset of the change. Some were even allowed to join its ranks. It also stalled in allowing some of these unreformed extremists to openly radicalise the youth. For example, known extremists were permitted to radicalise tens of thousands in open rallies in various towns and parts of the country. This radicalization has also seeped into local and regional administrations and police and security forces, especially in Oromia. It is an open fact that non-Oromos are openly harassed and subjected to abuses by Oromia cadres and police and security forces transitioning or visiting the region. The systemic radicalization of the region has in a short few years grown into violent extremism, particularly against ethnic Amharas.
The recent gruesome massacres in Oromia and in Gambella are likely committed by budding warlords abetted by extremists within the government. Despite the horrifying nature of these terrorist acts, the government has not issued unequivocal denunciation of the terrorist acts and has eschewed public expression of sympathy to the victims and the public. The government’s lack of sympathy and inaction are forcing people to second guess the intentions of Abiy and his administration, putting a significant dent in their credibility. That said, the issue goes beyond Abiy and his administration. Why are the leaders of the other ethnic groups, particularly the Amharas, not challenging Abiy’s dumbfounded silence? This raises an uncomfortable question — what is preventing Abiy and his government from doing these basic duties? Could it be because such public acknowledgement would force them to conduct thorough investigations, which would necessitate forceful action against the culprits? They have to come clean on this damning challenge. Regardless, unless cut in the bud urgently and forcefully, atrocities aren’t going to stop with the Amharas. Like the TPLF leaders, Jaal Marroo and other budding ethnic warlords would continue to exploit the contorted constitution and the enabling environment to commit further atrocities. Unfortunately and sadly, we might even witness worse atrocities as long as the TPLF-engineered ethnic governance infrastructure is allowed to be the political lingua franca of the country.
Winning the War, Losing the Peace
It is now a historical fact that the Government of Abiy decisively won the TPLF-instigated November 2020 war in a short but intense three weeks period. But in a classic “winning the war, losing the peace” outcome stemming from poor management of the immediate post-war period, the fruits of victory were not fully harvested. In fact, that critical failure gave the TPLF room to regroup and wage a second war and inflict serious damage on the country. The government failed to harvest political gain from its victories by not taking a clear departure from ethnic politics that is giving oxygen to the TPLF and its ilk. This failure is allowing the TPLF to continue to mobilise in Tigray and wage war vicariously by fanning ethnic divisions and violent extremism in other parts through disgruntled groups with no clear political goals. Ethiopia’s external enemies are also exploiting the division enabled by the constitution to lock the country into unending conflict, instability, and underdevelopment. Mind you, there is no shortage of internal lackeys through which foreign powers can and do destabilise the country. And no lackey is suited better for this than the treasonous TPLF.
None of Ethiopia’s competing ethnic groups benefit from this, except the elites that are exploiting the defect inherent in the constitution to satisfy their own short-term selfish goals. On the economic front, the current system fosters suspicion and distrust and hinders the free flow of capital, talent, and goods and services. It stifles the development of a merit-based, ethical, and non- discriminatory public and private sector that can pull the country out of poverty and underdevelopment. It encourages and breeds incompetence, insidious corruption, and lawlessness. Clearly for the country to build a viable political economy that can compete in this hyper competitive world and improve the livelihood of its 115 million people, it needs a constitution that brings people together,not divides them!
Absent a clear course correction, Abiy’s administration is positioning the country for more turmoil and perhaps a more virulent form of extremism. Unless they heed, Abiy and his team will very likely face the fate of the TPLF. The TPLF failed to reform in time while holding the reins of power and is now seriously crippled and gasping for survival. Abiy’s enlightened ideas of political and economic development cannot take root, flourish, and bear fruit in a divisive constitutional order designed to keep the country in perpetual enmity, discord, and conflict. With the right visionary leadership and appropriate reforms, Ethiopia can capitalise on its size, resources, strategic location, and the industriousness of its people to transform itself into a stable regional powerhouse that can provide hope and prosperity for all its people.
All in all, to make the defeat of the TPLF and its ilk complete and usher in a new era, Abiy needs to repeat his battlefield victories in the political front as well.
Abiy and his team showed flashes of leadership brilliance in tactfully dislodging the TPLF from national power, defeating the TPLF twice at the battle field, conceiving and/or implementing several impressive national projects, conducting relatively free and fair national elections, conducting national dialogue, and pursuing an impressive list of other reforms in a short four years period. But they have also made strategic blunders. With an overwhelming parliamentary majority and lingering public support, they are at a unique historical position to heal, unify, and invigorate the country through a new and modern constitution fit for a diverse nation. They need to learn from their mistakes, size the moment and make tough decisions, and bring the reform train back on its tracks.
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