On November 3rd, 2022 the Tigray war in Ethiopia came to a cease fire. Both sides, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Ethiopian federal government, agreed to permanently stop the violence and make a commitment to peace after exactly two years of conflict. To understand the spiral that led to a devastating civil war in Ethiopia it is necessary to examine Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s role. The Nobel Peace Prize winning Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, managed to enable a humanitarian crisis and a civil war within 2 years of being elected. When he was elected he claimed to prioritize distributing control of the Ethiopian federal government; He dismantled the ruling party and to weaken the influence of ethnic divisions present in the party at the time. Abiy Ahmed then proceeded to create a new party, without ethnic organizational constituents, that was dubiously elected to control almost every seat in parliament. This spiked global suspicion and attention towards Abiy Ahmed and his true priorities while in power. Abiy Ahmed may have begun his incumbency as a peace-maker, but the civil war and humanitarian crisis in Tigray are tangible evidence of the deterioration of Ethiopia’s federal parliamentary republic because of Abiy Ahmed’s autocratic governance and authoritarian actions throughout 2019 to 2021.
When Abiy Ahmed was elected prime minister in 2018, he was leading the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) which had dominated Ethiopian politics and government for the previous 30 years. Within the EPRDF the TPLF was a dominant, influential force. When Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed dissolved the EPRDF, the TPLF’s influence and power disappeared with it. This upset the government officials of Tigray, and is where the tension between the TPLF and the federal government began. Abiy Ahemd created the Prosperity Party in 2019 where all of the main ethnic organization constituents of the EPRDF joined the Prosperity Party except the TPLF. In the month of September 2020 the tension between Abiy Ahmed and Tigray escalated rapidly. In September it was confirmed that Abiy Ahmed’s Ethiopian government had shut down internet access and arrested journalists. The arrested journalists were unlawfully detained through maneuvered bail orders and extended pretrial detentions. Along with media suppression, Abiy Ahmed ordered that the September local parliament elections would be postponed across Ethiopia because of the circumstances surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic. Tigray proceeded to hold their regional parliament elections in an act of defiance against Abiy Ahmed. These events under Abiy Ahmed’s leadership align with Nancy Bermeo’s analysis of modern autocratic governance. In his position as prime minister he has taken advantage of his influence to maximize his power and his party’s power through the autocratic actions of media suppression and manipulation of election procedures.
Violence erupted come November 2020 because of Tigray’s distrust towards the government and the disenfranchisement. The TPLF attacked Ethiopian federal forces. Attacks continued to be launched from both sides, but the civilians stuck in the middle suffered the greatest from the violence. The federal government proceeded to impose a blockade on Tigray where less than 10% of the required relief aid had been able to reach the region. There was a declared “man-made” famine plaguing Tigray civilians because of this blockade. In addition to the Ethiopian blockade, allies of the Ethiopian government have been driving Tigrayans out of their homes. These circumstances of the civil war captured the attention of the U.N. and the U.S. who both declared the situation a humanitarian crisis. The United Nations launched an investigation regarding the human rights violations committed, and was able to confirm the occurrence of massacres, ethnic cleansing, and sexual violence. The evidence and records of the human rights violations committed by the Ethiopian government during the war will most likely be used in court in the future. This humanitarian crisis may not be evidence of Abiy Ahmed’s autocratic tendencies, but it is an example of his nature and the extent of his ability to promote the infliction of suffering on his own people. The United States also proceeded to cut trade ties and threatened sanctions against Ethiopia because of the violence. Losing the U.S. as a confident ally is a specific indicator of democratic instability and erosion.
As the war progressed into 2021, the Oromo Liberation Army allied with the TPLF. The Oromo people had been dissatisfied with Ethiopia’s political and economic marginalization throughout Abiy Ahmed’s incumbency, and the Oromo people also strongly disagreed with the government’s postponing of general elections. Oromia has the largest ethnic group and is the largest region in Ethiopia, also meaning that Oromia also has the largest regional constituency in the Ethiopian parliament. As the war in Tigray continued, the National Elections in 2021 occurred. The Ethiopian government did not hold voting in Tigray because of the war. The senior leaders of the Oromo Federalist Congress and Oromo Liberation Front were detained during the elections, so the Oromo people did not have anyone to vote for besides the Prosperity Party into their 178 parliamentary seats. Abiy Ahmed and the Ethiopian government avoided all negotiations with the key opposing figures of the Tigray and Oromo resistance fronts. The Ethiopian government labeled the TPLF leader’s terrorists, imprisoned the leaders of Oromia, and avoided discourse with opposition. These tactics are strong indicators of autocratic leadership. The Prosperity Party proceeded to win almost every seat in Ethiopia’s parliament after these national elections, but the global audience and the citizens of Ethiopia were aware of the foul play involved in the election process.
Under Abiy Ahmed’s leadership the Ethiopian government has undergone an autocratic transition. This has been evident since 2019 starting with the disabling of internet access, media suppression, and the disenfranchisement of Tigray and all the other Ethiopian states in regional elections. The human rights violations, disappearance of U.S. support, and the suppression of opposition occurring throughout the war provides further evidence of Abiy Ahmed’s autocratic leadership. As of today, the Ethiopian government and the TPLF have promised to promote permanent peace. The continuation of that peace is entirely reliant on the future action taken by Abiy Ahmed and the Ethiopian government in repairing the division between Tigray and Ethiopia.