How the Ethiopian leader and the peace award winner suddenly found himself fighting the Tigrayan rebels as a frontline soldier.
“We sail within a vast sphere, ever drifting in uncertainty, driven from end to end,” said the famous French philosopher Blaise Pascal nearly four hundred years ago.
Pascal’s centuries-old observation rings true if we examine the circumstances of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who finds himself embroiled in a war, leading his forces from the front. Compared to Abiy Ahmed of the past, who was awarded the world’s most prestigious Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, Abiy Ahmed of today is a starkly different person.
"Starting tomorrow, I will mobilise to the front to lead the defence forces. Those who want to be among the Ethiopian children who will be hailed by history, rise up for your country today. Let's meet at the front," Ahmed tweeted yesterday.
Like every other politician, Ahmed has reasons to explain his current contradiction, reaching a point of defending war from his former state of being a peacemaker. But beyond politics, Ahmed also knows how to fight as a soldier. He has served the Ethiopian army for nearly two decades between 1991 and 2010.
Others might say that the Ethiopian leader’s transition from being an advocate of peace to being a frontline warrior has nothing to do with his nature but is a byproduct of the constantly changing balance of power in domestic, regional and international politics. Neighbouring countries like Egypt and Sudan dislike Ahmed for his politics, especially because of his position on the issue of a massive dam project on the Nile River.
But one thing is clear that Ahmed has recently become the subject of international condemnation for his policy toward the Tigray region located in the country’s north, which is a far cry from a man, who used to be the former lover of the global community.
Tigrayan rebel forces and their allies currently continue to march toward the capital, prompting Ahmed to wear his military outfits to prepare for the approaching war.
How things come to this point
Ahmed, the son of a Muslim father and a Christian mother, appeared to have the perfect formula to lead Ethiopia, a country with a mixed population of Christians and Muslims. Ahmed professes her mother’s religion despite having a Muslim name.
Ahmed, a formerly leading figure in the country’s intelligence apparatus prior to being a politician, was keen to address the country’s long conflict with neighbouring Eritrea, a country which had been part of the federated Ethiopia since WWII, winning its independence in 1993 after a bloody war with Addis Ababa.
In 2018, Ahmed successfully addressed the Eritrea issue by signing "Joint Declaration of Peace and Friendship", which ended long tensions between the two countries, leading the international community to award him with the Nobel Peace Prize.
The same year, Ahmed, who was seen as a reformist by many analysts and opposition groups at the time, also abolished the country’s anti-terrorism law and its state of emergency, angering hardliners including leading Tigrayan groups. His government also released thousands of political prisoners.
But in 2020, the political situation had drastically changed after Ahmed decided to implement his nationalisation project in a country led by a federative system, which relatively allows different ethnicities and regions to enjoy autonomous governance.
Using his background to his advantage, Ahmed has embarked on a nationalisation project to promote unity, which attempts to prioritise the Ethiopian identity over regional sub-ethnic identities. The plan will allow the federal government to have a tighter control over autonomous regions.
Ahmed’s centralisation project particularly irked the country’s regional elites, primarily, the leaders of Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which was instrumental in ousting a Marxist regime in 1991, being the dominant force in the Ethiopian political life for decades until Abiy’s rise to power.
In late 2020, the wealthier Tigray region held regional elections despite the Ahmed government’s protests, which called them illegal polls. Following the “illegal polls”, some suspicious attacks happened in the Oromia region, targeting the Amhara people, Ethiopia's second-biggest ethnic group.
Ahmed is an Oromi and some believe that his ancestry is also related to the Amhara people. The Oromia regional government accused the TPLF, being the perpetrators of the deadly attacks alongside the Oromo Liberation Front (OLA), a terror group according to Addis Ababa. Both groups are now allied with each other to fight Ahmed’s government.
In early November 2020, another significant development happened after deadly clashes in Oromia. Ahmed sent federal troops to the Tigray region in a daring military operation in response to the TPLF’s attack on the federal troops in the region.
While the Tigray region makes up only 5 percent of Ethiopia’s more than 110 million people, the TPLF's presence in the Ethiopian army was quite significant in the past. They had experienced generals and officers at their disposal but still they appeared to be on the losing side as the war began. Abiy’s federal forces were quick to seize the Tigray capital Mekelle.
But when it’s taken into consideration of the current march of the TPLF toward the capital, dismantling federal troops on their way, the past defeat of Tigrayan forces last year seemed to be a withdrawing tactic rather than a true military defeat.
In June, the Tigray rebels, which had been launching a guerrilla warfare against federal troops since late 2020, stormed back to the regional capital, pushing federal troops out of the region and imprisoning thousands of them. Since then, allied with other opposing groups, which are sternly against Ahmed’s centralisation project, defending a loosely federative system, Tigrayan forces move toward the capital.
The war has resulted in tens of thousands of deaths on both sides, leading to massive migration. According to international groups, both sides are also guilty of grave human rights violations against civilians during the war.
Now, Ahmed, a former lieutenant colonel in the army, says he will return to his old profession of warmaking. “We will sacrifice our blood and bone to bury this enemy and uphold Ethiopia’s dignity and flag,” he said.
But even personally leading a federal army composed of different ethnicities including Tigrayans against an allied rebel force, which allegedly aims to restore the country’s old federalism will definitely be a real challenge for him.