22.09.2023 Author: Ivan Kopytsev

Ethiopia: a new narrative on the balance of power

Ethiopia: a new narrative on the balance of power

Today, the vast majority of nations in the historical West are intensely focused on their own problems or wars that are unfolding “on the outskirts” of the Old World: in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Nevertheless, as some analysts correctly point out, Africa experienced the largest and deadliest upheavals in recent years, not Europe. For instance, northern Ethiopia was subject to the greatest number of victims of armed conflict in 2022, despite the fact that these events only received, at best, marginal attention from much of the world’s population. Meanwhile, the fighting in Ethiopia’s Tigray and Amhara regions, which has lasted nearly three years, reflects a significant underlying transformation that will directly affect the fate of one of Sub-Saharan Africa’s largest economies, with significant demographic and geopolitical potential.

Ethiopia’s political landscape has remained unchanged for nearly 30 years: after the fall of the socialist Derg regime, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a coalition of ethnic parties consisting of four political parties, came to power in 1991, the core of which was the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Leaders of the TPLF and, concurrently, the EPRDF have attempted to bring together “small” ethnic groups (according to official figures, there are 85 ethnic groups in Ethiopia) that have never participated in politics. This tactic was used to make sure that Amhara elites, who were representatives of one of the largest populations deemed “titular” during the imperial period, were successfully “contained.” At the expense of loyal politicians from other ethnic groups, the Tigrayan nationalists led by Meles Zenawi have created a de facto monopoly on state institutions by directly and indirectly controlling the party structure and the executive power. The only obstacle in this regard was the small number of Tigrayans (just over 5% of the country’s population), which forced the TPLF to actively seek the assistance of representatives of other ethnicities in order to maintain formal representation and avoid undermining unity within the ruling EPRDF coalition. Following Meles Zenawi’s death and against the backdrop of escalating inter-ethnic issues such as the struggle for possession of disputed territories (the issue of the expansion of Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Abeba, Amhara territorial claims to the Tigray Region), and the demand for political freedoms, the TPLF’s ability to secure the loyalty of non-Tigrayan elites in the EPRDF significantly declined. The resulting Oromia-Somali Clashes of 2016–2018 appeared to have elevated a “third” force to the political foreground, the Oromo ethnic minority, which up until that point had only minimal representation in politics. Abiy Ahmed Ali, a young Oromo politician, had an advantage over the TPLF’s candidate and won the 2018 EPRDF intra-party election, which was forced as a reaction to months of protests in the Oromo and Amhara Regions. This victory was made possible by the alignment of the two largest forces, the Amhara and Oromo factions, in the EPRDF.

Within a few months after being chosen as the nation’s leader, Abiy Ahmed carried out two significant actions that provided a glimpse into his future goals: 1) by consistently removing Tigrayans from important government positions he effectively forced the TPLF to establish itself in Tigray State in the north of the country and 2) signed a peace agreement with Eritrea, which removed an external threat while also gaining an ally for potential conflict with the TPLF. Thus, the prime minister intended to concentrate his efforts on resolving internal political issues and, principally, altering the current interethnic balance of power. It is important to keep in mind that Oromo politicians rarely use the conventional local strategy of mainly relying on “tribesmen’s” support. The Oromo are unable to function as a cohesive political force due to their lack of a shared identity and the existence of strong factions, such as the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA). Therefore, as a politician who is unable to rely on such an important tool as ethnic mobilization because of the fragile Oromo consolidation, Abiy Ahmed’s capacity to hold the prime minister’s office and continue an autonomous political course depends directly on the destabilization of the established centers of power. Historically, such centers were the Tigrayan and Amhara elites, who were once the “founders of the empire,” with strong cohesion and substantial economic resources.

Naturally, a plan to divide power resources that was so ambitious and, in many respects, radical met with opposition from the TPLF, which, until recently, controlled Addis Abeba. A number of opportunities for Abiy Ahmed’s team emerged from the conflict with the Tigray clan as a result of the TPLF’s unambiguous challenge to the federal center. These opportunities ranged from Amhara nationalists vying for control of the southern and eastern regions of Tigray Region to the Eritrean government. Additionally, the Tigray side’s decision to launch a preemptive strike against the positions of the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) on the night of November 3–4, 2020, has at last pushed the leaders of the smaller ethnic groups, who represent the less developed parts of the nation and are not engaged in the fight for political hegemony, into the pro-government camp.

Without going into the two years of intense fighting between the federal government and its allies and the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF), it should be noted that for the majority of the conflict, the expert community was left with a fascinating but less obvious question: how did Abiy Ahmed’s team intend to further maintain the political unity of the anti-Tigray coalition, given the growing nationalist sentiments of the Amhara elites? Consequently, the Amhara issue has taken center stage on Ethiopia’s political agenda since the Pretoria Agreement was signed on November 2, 2022, under which the TPLF basically surrendered to Addis Ababa’s mercy.

As a result, the agreements made in Pretoria (the Ethiopia-Tigray peace agreement) and the other arrangements between the parties apart from the TDF’s disarmament and restoring federal control over the region’s territory had two features worth noting: 1) All armed forces, with the exception of the ENDF, shall be withdrawn from Tigray Region’s territory; 2) The agreements did not address the status of the disputed territories, implying that the resolution of the Amhara-Tigray conflict was essentially designated to the federal government. It seems clear that the conditions achieved were detrimental to Amhara elites who were playing the “ethnic card,” that is, leveraging ethnic feelings to reinforce their positions and, potentially, battle for control of the federal capital. In reality, after defeating the once-powerful TPLF, Abiy Ahmed focused on combating the reinforced nationalist wing of Amhara elites. The post-imperial aspirations of the Amhara people have been and continue to be an ideal setting for the growth of opposition sentiments, notwithstanding the existence of a number of Amhara lawmakers loyal to the Prime Minister in the ruling Prosperity Party. The Ethiopian government formally outlawed all armed organizations that were not under the control of the ENDF in the early months following the Pretoria Agreement. As a result, Amhara nationalists lost two significant trump cards: the various units of the Special Forces, a form of tribal militia at the disposal of region’s officials, and Fano, a paramilitary organization that advocates Amhara imperial greatness. Amharas, on the other hand, refused to bend to Addis Abeba’s will and, following a protracted period of occasional confrontations, have been in open conflict with the ENDF since early August 2023. Notably, representatives of the interim administration of the Tigray Region actively support the actions of the federal government in the Amhara Region. The Ethiopian Defense Minister responded by saying that the referendum to decide who owns the disputed territories between Amhara and Tigray regions will only take place after the restoration of the status quo or the return of refugees, primarily Tigrayans.

There is considerable ambiguity in this brief and extensive examination of Ethiopia’s political developments in recent years, but most importantly, it enables us to gauge the overall dynamics of the changes that are occurring. A significant shift in the political landscape has started in 2018 with the coming to power of Abiy Ahmed, a youthful and dynamic leader lacking the traditional Ethiopian tools used to mobilize supporters. The course and results of the conflict in Tigray, as well as the fierce struggle of the Prosperity Party leadership against the nationalist wing of the Amhara elites, demonstrate the prime minister’s desire not only to strike at the two historically established centers of power but also to try to gain a new type of support: the loyalty of the majority of ethnic groups and certain elite factions being personally not affiliated with one or another ethnic group.


Ivan Kopytsev, political scientist, research assistant at the Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.

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