Conflict in Ethiopia: Ethnic-linguistic divisions – historical product of capitalist inequality

Tigray, Ethiopia (Image: Rod Waddington/Wikimedia Commons)

Despite Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed’s 29 November claim that federal forces had “completed and ceased military operations in the Tigray region” there can be no certainty that the fighting that started three-and-a-half weeks earlier is really over.

With disputed claims over who controls what, there is the possibility that the fighting will continue into a new stage. The threat of a prolonged conflict that could threaten Ethiopia’s future and have regional repercussions has not disappeared.

The fighting, which began on 4 November when central government forces launched an offensive against the Tigray Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF) after accusing them of raiding a federal military base, is rooted in Ethiopia’s history, both recent and decades-old.

The TPLF played a key role in the 1991 overthrow of the Stalinist-inclined regime established by the Derg (military junta) in 1974. It then went on to effectively rule Ethiopia until mass protests forced it from power in early 2018. Nevertheless, just before the recent fighting, Tigrayans, who make up just 6% of Ethiopia’s 112 million population, reportedly made up over half the federal military forces.

The TPLF-led Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) government oversaw economic growth in the country, partly following the Chinese model of the state playing an important economic role in developing its capitalist economy.

With Chinese assistance, the Ethiopian economy grew at an average 9.8% a year from 2008-09 to 2018-19, one of the world’s fastest. But the fruits of this growth largely benefitted a small elite, especially in the capital Addis Ababa and parts of Tigray, causing resentment in other regions. Despite this growth, 24% of Ethiopians still live below the official poverty line.

The domination of the TPLF and wealth disparity fuelled ethno-linguistic tensions and led, finally, to widespread opposition against what was seen as minority rule.

Ethiopia is a multi-ethnic state. Partly this reflects the expansion of Ethiopia in the late nineteenth century that saw the then ruling, largely Amharic, elite brutally conquer and incorporate neighbouring territories and populations.

This is the background to the current (1994) constitution which speaks of the “nations, nationalities and peoples of Ethiopia”. This document organised the country in nine ethnically based regional states, two self-governing cities (Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa), while formally granting equal rights to over 80 languages, including autonomy and the theoretical right to secede.

Capitalism causes deepening divisions

But rather than solving the national question in Ethiopia, this constitution and the realities of life in class society under capitalism, prepared the way for a deepening of divisions.

This policy, called ‘ethnic federalism’, commented the New York Times, “unleashed a struggle for supremacy among the Big Three: the Tigray, the Amhara and the Oromo. Although the ruling EPRDF is a coalition of four parties, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, representing the Tigray minority, has been in the driving seat since the 1991 revolution. The Amhara, dominant before 1991, and the Oromo, the largest ethnic group in the country, complained they were being treated as subordinate minorities” (3 January 2019).

The revolt which finally broke TPLF rule began in the Oromia region in 2015 and led to huge, sustained protests. These resulted in the TPLF handing over the prime ministership to Abiy Ahmed in April 2018, in the hope that he would stabilise the situation.

Abiy, the first Oromo to hold the position, previously worked in the security apparatus. However, his grouping soon began to sideline Tigrayan leaders and pursue a more centralising course, part of which was transforming the EPRDF coalition into one, self-proclaimed, pan-Ethiopian body, the Prosperity Party.

These steps soon ran into opposition with regional leaders, including from some within Oromia, who feared that this course would weaken their say and strengthen central rule.

The once all-powerful TPLF retreated to Tigray, which they ruled as a de-facto autonomous state. As relations worsened, the region held its own unilateral elections in September 2020 after the federal government postponed, indefinitely, at first, the general election scheduled for August on the grounds of the Covid pandemic. In response, the federal government started to withhold funds from Tigray.

Abiy has not consolidated his position and faces rival groupings. He lacks a base in Amhara, the transitional base of Ethiopian power. Abiy also faces opposition in his native Oromia, particularly after the arrest of Oromo oppositionist Jawar Mohammed on terrorism and other charges. This came after widespread protests and riots following the June assassination of popular Oromo musician, and sometimes Abiy critic, Hachalu Hundessa.

The increase in clashes and violence has been seen in other areas. Already, before the battles in Tigray, 1.8 million Ethiopians had been internally displaced as a result of local conflicts.

In November, outside the fighting in Tigray there were other local massacres. In Benishangul-Gumuz, gunmen killed at least 34 civilians in what opposition politicians’ claim is part of a targeted campaign by Gumuz militias against ethnic Amhara and Agew. In West Wellega Zone, Oromo nationalist militias reportedly killed 54 ethnic Amhara, and the Oromia government accused the TPLF of supporting the rebel militias.

In several other areas, and particularly along regional borders – such as along the Afar-Somali, Oromia-Somali, and Tigray-Amhara boundaries – there have been repeated clashes in recent years.

With the exact course of Tigray fighting unclear, comparisons are being made with the breakup of Yugoslavia in the late 1980s and early 1990s but with an added regional effect.

The last 50 years have seen different wars over Ethiopia’s borders. A legacy of this past is that currently the Ethiopian government is being supported by the Eritrean regime which, despite having once been allies of the TPLF, fought a vicious border war with the then TPLF-led Ethiopian regime between 1998 and 2000.

There are also possible future conflicts over the impact of the Grand Renaissance Dam on the Nile’s water levels in Sudan and Egypt, with Donald Trump suggesting Egypt may bomb the dam if an agreement is not reached!

Western imperialist interests fear that the situation could spiral into a wider conflict, and are urging caution. But these sorts of conflicts are rooted within capitalism and sharpened by the absence of any independent working-class force. This is a class force that can act to both defend democratic rights, including the right to self-determination while striving to unify working people and the poor in a common struggle.

Such a common struggle should be based both on winning immediate improvements in workers’ lives and building a movement that can replace capitalism and its attendant rule of elites.

Given the history of the Derg’s rule, the workers’ movement would need to make clear that it bases itself on nationalising the commanding heights of the economy and democratically planning the country’s resources. In today’s Africa, such a movement would get a wide echo from the masses looking to escape capitalist crises and the rule of competing elites.

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