War might not fix Ethiopia’s ethnic puzzle

Armed victory by the national government over a belligerent minority will only put off the need for a new social contract.

A Tigrayan woman who fled the conflict in Ethiopia prays at a church in a refugee camp in Sudan, Nov. 29.

Just in the past decade, the number of international migrants has risen nearly sixfold, a global mixing of people unlike any time in recent history. All the more reason then to watch a new civil war in one of the world’s most diverse nations – Ethiopia. The future of democracies depends increasingly on how such countries hold together their multiethnic societies.

The monthlong conflict between Ethiopia’s government and a rebellious minority, the Tigrays, threatens its long-term attempts at political harmony among 10 ethnic regions. It also threatens stability across the Horn of Africa as tens of thousands of civilians have fled the fighting.

How the war ends will determine if Ethiopia can hold together as a country. Many foreign governments are pushing for a negotiated settlement. For now, the war is more about how it began and whether opportunities to keep the peace were missed.

On Nov. 4 the well-armed leaders of the predominantly Tigray ethnic state, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), allegedly attacked a national military base near the region’s capital, Mekelle. Just weeks before, they also held an election in defiance of central authorities. Faced with such belligerence, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed chose to deploy the military – rather than any peaceful alternative – to quell the rebellion.

Mr. Abiy came into office in 2018 vowing to form a more united democracy. An ethnic Oromo, his ascent marked a power shift away from the Tigrayans, who make up 6% of the population but held an outsize grip in the nation’s capital for nearly three decades. Tensions have been rising since Mr. Abiy systemically displaced Tigrayans from political positions and the military.

The prime minister treats the Tigrayan rebellion as an illegal attack on Ethiopian sovereignty. His predecessor, Hailemariam Desalegn, underscored the futility of dialogue with the TPLF in an essay in Foreign Policy last week. He argued that Tigrayan leaders – his erstwhile colleagues – provoked the conflict to manipulate international mediation in an effort to regain influence through peace talks.

In seeking a decisive military victory, Mr. Abiy has stoked already escalating ethnic tensions elsewhere. In recent months, an estimated 2.5 million Ethiopians have been displaced by violence. Three days before the Tigray rebellion, at least 54 people were killed in a schoolyard in Oromia, another ethnostate.

Mr. Abiy’s harsh response surprised many people. He won the Nobel Peace Prize a year ago for negotiating an end to a 20-year military stalemate with Eritrea. Ethiopian troops serve in U.N. peacekeeping missions. As the war nears a resolution, Ethiopia must look for fresh solutions in other African countries that have erupted in inter-ethnic warfare. South Africa, Rwanda, Burundi, Nigeria, and Mozambique have all faced similar challenges. Each in its own way grappled with building what Mr. Abiy himself calls a “social compact” that creates a “just, egalitarian, democratic, and humane society.”

If he sees the conflict in Tigray as a necessary step to protecting that vision, victory under arms requires a corresponding strength: the wisdom and courage to forge an identity beyond ethnic difference that embraces all Ethiopians in peace.

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