Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Spectacular Mistake

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, November 9, 2021 --  

A failed invasion of Tigray may soon bring Ethiopia's government and its flagging democracy to a dramatic end.

As rebel forces march down the highway to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia risks becoming yet another democracy toppled by a violent insurgency.  

Rebels from the Tigrayan people's Liberation Front are still two hundred miles from the capital, but getting closer 1 Meanwhile, their allies on the Oromo Liberation Army are expanding their presence just north and west of the capital city.  These alarming developments, following not long after rapid fall of Afghanistan's Western-backed government, have led America to order the evacuation of all non-essential personnel from Ethiopia.2

In Washington, a center of both international power and the Ethiopian diaspora,  several anti-government Ethiopian groups held a press conference last week to announce a broader coalition of forces united against the government.3  Ethiopia's government dismissed the event as a publicity stunt, but the new groups joining the coalition looked a lot like rats leaving a sinking ship.

Meanwhile, the Ethiopian government is staging publicity stunts of its own.  Anti-American rallies in Addis Ababa denounce the United States for sanctions over human rights abuses while calling for all armed men to join the fight.  The government is bombing the capital of Tigray region and blocking the delivery of food aid.  It has declared a state of emergency, expanded conscription, and has begun seizing residents belonging to the Tigrayan ethnic group which forms the core of the insurgency.4/sup>

The situation is a stunning reversal for Ethiopia which just 18 months ago was riding high.  Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power in a reasonably fair election and earned genuine popularity by releasing political prisoners, negotiating peace with the neighboring country of Eritrea, and leading an economic boom from Chinese-financed property development and infrastructure spending as well as the creation of a textile export industry.

Ahmed has long been allied with the powerful.  As a teenager, he joined the fight against the communist regime just as it started to collapse, allying himself with the dominant Tigrayan People's Liberation front.  As a member of the Oromo, the country's largest ethnic group, Abiy was useful to the Tigrayan leaders whose small ethnic minority dominated the country and  set up a puppet Oromo People's Democratic Organization to counter their bitter rivals in the Oromo Liberation Army.  Abiy rose in the ruling coalition until he became the first ethnic Oromo to lead the country.

But then things went spectacularly wrong.  Abiy alienated his ethnic Oromo brethren by repeatedly siding with the powerful establishment over their regional interests.  He then alienated the still powerful Tigrayans by making peace with their arch enemies in Eritrea.  Perhaps blinded by hubris from winning the Nobel Peace Prize, he escalated his fight with the powerful and defiant Tigrayan regional government.  This culminated in his disastrous decision to join the dictatorial regime of neighboring Eritrea in an invasion of  Tigray region to try and destroy the powerful Tigrayan People's Liberation Front once and for all.

This move has failed miserably and resulted in an expanding civil war and almost certain destruction of Ethiopia's fledgiling democracy.  Initial government victories came at a high cost to human rights and saw Ethiopian territory occupied by neighboring Eritrean forces who engaged in even worse abuses than the government.  A year after the invasion, Tigrayan rebels regrouped to oust government forces first from the Tigrayan capital, then from their entire region.  The rebels have since marched south toward Addis Ababa, capturing a huge swathe Ethiopia's Amhara region, including the cultural center of Lalibela and much of the road to the capital.

In August, the Oromo Liberation Army saw an opportunity. They shook hands with their long time enemies in the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front to fight together against Abiy's government.6  The OLA sees Abby as having betrayed his Oromo people and is rallying members of the country's largest ethnic group that dominates the land surrounding Addis Ababa.  Their regional strength enables the OLA to take positions surrounding the capital, especially in the north and west, as the Tigrayans continue their march southward. While the Oromo circle the capital, the Tigrayans currently control an arc of territory heading south from Tigray toward Addis Ababa like a menacing fist.5

The next few weeks will see a diplomatic scramble to get the warring parties to come to a settlement that spares the capital city from urban warfare.  The Tigrayans and Oromo will certainly demand Abiy's ouster, and it is unclear if he can be convinced to comply.  There seems little hope of salvaging Ethiopia's flagging democratic experiment.    

Despite their long marginalization, the Oromo may hold the key to Ethiopia's future.  As the country's largest ethnic group (just over 30 percent), they have the absolute numbers to balance their newfound Tigrayan allies' small minority (just over six percent).   An Oromo-Tigrayan power sharing agreement may allow creation of a veneer of democracy, but it is hard to imagine the Tigrayans agreeing to give up control over the security forces as an authentic democracy would require. The last time they gave up this power it ended with last year's invasion of their Tigrayan homeland. The powerful Tigrayans will do whatever they can to prevent that from ever happening again.

Related Web Columns:

Bitter to the End, December 29, 2020

The Unfinished City, January 19, 2020


1. NPR, Rebels are Closing in on Ethiopia's Capital. Its Collapse Could Bring Regional Chaos, November 9. 2021

2. Ibid.

3. CNN, Ethiopia Crisis Deepens as Nine Groups Form Anti-Government Alliance, November 5, 2021

4. Ibid.

5. Wikipedia, Ethiopia Wars and Insurgencies Detailed Map, as posted November 9, 2021

6. Bloomberg News,New Armed Alliance Challenges Ethiopia Premier as Crisis Worsens, August 11, 2021