Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is seen at a campaign rally in Jimma, Ethiopia, on June 16, 2021 [File: Tiksa Negeri/Reuters]
Abiy’s government will have to tackle multiple challenges in the coming months, but the situation is not in any way hopeless.
On June 21, Ethiopia held its first multiparty election since 2005. Despite the ongoing conflict in the Tigray region, unrest in Western Oromia zones and myriad logistical issues, the election was largely a success. While the election could not take place in several areas of the country due to ongoing violence, in most areas, including the capital, Addis Ababa, voting went smoothly and peacefully. Ethiopians showed up at the polls in large numbers, and at times waited in line past midnight to cast their vote, demonstrating their trust in and respect for the democratic process.
According to partial election results that were released on July 10, the governing Prosperity Party (PP) won the overwhelming majority of the seats in parliament, assuring Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed a new five-year term in office. While a small number of opposition figures also secured seats in last month’s election, the PP’s landslide victory gave Abiy a clear mandate to continue leading the country during these turbulent times.
So what will Abiy and his government’s priorities be in the next five years?
Abiy has not yet published a detailed road map for his next term in power, but many suspect he will continue with his economic liberalisation schemes and Green Legacy initiative. He is also expected to continue working towards increasing regional economic integration and tackling Ethiopia’s many economic struggles. Overcoming the challenges surrounding the filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam will also be a priority for the Abiy administration.
Beyond all this, resolving the raging conflict in Tigray and helping suffering civilians on the war front in Tigray, Afar and Amhara regions, ending the unrest in western Oromia and Benishangul Gumuz regions, resettling displaced Amhara Ethiopians and addressing their mounting grievances, as well as strengthening the federal system to avoid future conflict will undoubtedly be at the top of the prime minister’s agenda. Abiy will also need to improve interpersonal relations between Ethiopia’s many ethnic groups, especially the relations between Tigrayans and the rest of Ethiopians, in order to deliver the peaceful, prosperous and united future millions who voted for his party are clearly yearning for.
The Tigray problem
If Abiy does not take swift action, the situation in Tigray will continue to be the Achilles heel of the Ethiopian state and hinder his administration’s ability to realise its plans for the country’s future.
A lot has changed since Ethiopian forces embarked on a counterattack against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in November last year, and declared victory after recapturing Tigray’s regional capital, Mekelle, some three weeks later. The TPLF continued its rebellion against the Ethiopian military with the support of the local population and made it impossible for the interim regional government, which is also made out of ethnic Tigrayans, to bring stability to the region.
The Ethiopian government’s recent declaration of a unilateral ceasefire and the swift withdrawal of federal forces from Tigray made the situation in the region even more complicated. After the Ethiopian military’s exit from Tigray, the TPLF quickly recaptured the territories it lost without facing any significant resistance. The war has expanded into the Afar region that borders Tigray to the east. As the TPLF continued capturing territories, photos have been published by international media showing children young enough to be elementary or middle school students carrying weapons.
It is still not clear what military and political considerations were behind the government’s decision to stop defending these territories against the TPLF’s offensives. But the Abiy government’s move led to fears that what started as a conflict between the TPLF and the federal government may soon transform into an all-out civil war between the Amharas and the Tigrayans – the two ethnic groups that played a leading role in the making of modern Ethiopia.
Ethnic Amharas, who overwhelmingly supported Abiy and his reform agenda since the very beginning, felt betrayed by his government’s declaration of a unilateral ceasefire. They feared that, with federal forces out of the picture, they may be targeted by the TPLF forces and become the new victims of this violent conflict. There are already reports of Amhara civilians in Tigray being subjected to violence and abuse at the hands of TPLF soldiers.
In recent days, however, Prime Minister Abiy backtracked from his earlier position in a series of social media posts, and announced that he has allowed the Ethiopian military, as well as Amhara, Oromia, Somali and Sidama special forces to march north and help push TPLF forces back into Tigray. The war has now expanded across multiple fronts, and Abiy is insisting that he is doing everything he possibly can to safeguard the nation from the TPLF’s aggression. But it remains to be seen whether this U-turn will result in Abiy winning back the trust of ethnic Amharas and many other ethnic groups of Ethiopia that expected continuous and consistent protection and support from the prime minister during this conflict.
Thus, during his next term in power, Abiy will have to not only find a way to neutralise the TPLF threat and bring Tigray back into the Ethiopian fold, but also win back the trust of the majority of Ethiopia’s ethnic groups and convince them that under his leadership, they can feel safe and secure in their homeland.
The July 2018 peace deal between Eritrea and Ethiopia, which brought an end to the decades-long cold war between the two neighbouring nations, was undoubtedly one of Abiy’s greatest achievements as prime minister. Since then, the two nations took several important steps to build a mutually beneficial relationship. They opened embassies in each other’s capitals and formed strong diplomatic links. Roads that link Eritrea to Ethiopia have also been repaired, creating new economic opportunities for both nations. Moreover, Eritrea supported the Abiy government’s operation against the TPLF in Tigray, demonstrating that it is now not only a friendly neighbour, but a trustworthy ally.
But several promises that have been made as part of the 2018 rapprochement have not been realised yet. It is still not clear when the free movement of people, goods and services will commence between the two countries. As both Asmara and Addis Ababa focused all of their attention on the ongoing conflict in Tigray, the ministerial task forces and dialogues there were supposed to determine the path of future relations between the two countries have been put on the back burner. There are also some questions about whether the two nations were in agreement regarding the Ethiopian military’s withdrawal from Tigray.
Both Eritrea and Ethiopia have much to gain from further strengthening their relations. Thus, it is likely that in his next term in power, Abiy will work even harder to consolidate his country’s economic and diplomatic ties with its neighbour. Beyond its undeniable economic benefits, further collaboration between the two countries could also help bring stability to Tigray and the region at large. Once the violence ends, Eritrea can contribute to the reconstruction of the region. Moreover, the beneficial partnership between the two erstwhile enemies could entice Tigrayans to reconcile their differences with Abiy’s administration.
Ethiopia’s foreign relations
As well as clinching a historic peace agreement with Eritrea – an achievement that won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 – during his first term in power, Abiy also managed to improve Ethiopia’s relations with most of its neighbours and gain the support of leading regional and global powers on the issue of GERD. Furthermore, he mediated between Eritrea and Djibouti, Eritrea and Somalia, Somalia and Kenya, and pushed the various factions in South Sudan to give peace a chance, and as a result, made himself a name as a respected and capable peacemaker on the international arena. Under his leadership, Ethiopia reached many of its long-term foreign policy goals and emerged as a leading regional power.
Ethiopians gave Abiy another mandate so that he can continue on this successful path, but he will be facing many new challenges in the foreign policy arena during his second term. He will have to work on Ethiopia’s ties with Sudan and take steps to resolve the tensions on the border between the two countries. He will also be forced to reconsider the Ethiopian military’s involvement in Somalia and work on his country’s ties with the restive nation. But, perhaps most importantly, during his second term in power, Abiy will have to repair the damage the conflict in Tigray inflicted on Ethiopia’s reputation.
Indeed, Ethiopia’s diplomatic institutions have failed to explain to the international community the Abiy administration’s motivations for responding to the TPLF’s attacks and provocations with full force. Now, with a renewed mandate from the Ethiopian people, Abiy will have to work to convince the international community that it is not his administration but the TPLF that is responsible for the devastation in Tigray.
In sum, Abiy and his government will have to tackle multiple challenges in the coming months and years. Nevertheless, the situation is not in any way hopeless. If the new administration continues with its reform efforts, rebuilds the economy, ends the TPLF’s reign of terror in Tigray and all the while pursues a principled foreign policy, Ethiopia may still come out of this current mess strong and united.