Global statistics show that eight out of 10 of the world’s poorest countries are suffering, or have recently suffered, from large scale violent conflict. The burden of wars is however more cumbersome in developing countries since an upsurge in conflict tends to falls heavy on human, economic, and social costs leading to a major cause of poverty and underdevelopment.
In recent times, Ethiopia has had its fair share of struggles stemming from conflict. In order to best understand Ethiopia’s thorns, Capital’s Metasebia Teshome sat down with political scientist, Semir Yusuf (PhD) for insights on the dynamics of the country’s conflict genesis and recent violence upsurge.
Semir Yusuf holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of Toronto, Canada and is a Senior Researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Addis Ababa where he heads the Ethiopia Project. He has published widely on conflict and peace, transition politics, authoritarian politics and Ethiopian studies. The following are excerpts from the candid interview;
Capital: There has been an upsurge of conflict across Ethiopia in different times after PM Abiy Ahmed came to power. What do you think has attributed to increase of conflict and violence in Ethiopia?
Semir Yusuf: I would like to emphasize that each and every conflict event in Ethiopia has its own specificities, and its own particular peculiar characteristics. This can stem from its local dynamics, its own history and so forth. I will not delve deeply into the specifics to trace the conflicts in Ethiopia; rather I would like to offer a very broad, generic explanations that equally cut across most conflicts that have risen in the country in the last four years.
The first on the list is identity-related contentions. And this is about nationalist and ethno nationalist mobilizations as well as ethno-religious movements that are informed by several demands such as territorial claims and counterclaims, autonomy questions, scramble over control of regional states, and others. They’re also influenced by economic issues, but they involve identity in one way or another.
The second is elite competition. Elites are quite important in mobilizing people for a nationalist cause. But elites are important for another reason as well. They have their own material interests, that is, power and economic interests. So competition among elites should be treated on its own terms, in addition to nationalist dynamics.
Thirdly, the institutional pattern is quite important. And here, party institutions and state institutions play a very important role in fueling tension across the country.
Last but not least, of course, the international aspect of conflicts is very important, ranging from smuggling of arms across borders to more direct involvement in internal affairs in different ways.
Capital: How do these factors correlate to propel the issue?
Semir Yusuf: Political institutions, combined with other factors, contribute to the making of contending nationalisms while contending nationalisms in turn accelerate institutional fragility and elite’s rivalry., The confluence of contending nationalisms, institutional fragility and elite rivalry leads to the eruption and development of violence in Ethiopia.
On the other hand, with the amplification of contending nationalisms come more enhanced institutional fragility and elite rivalry, while more intense elite rivalry and state weakness intersect with contentious nationalist mobilizations.
So this dynamic cycle is what I believe keeps on producing violence and conflict in Ethiopia. And policy recommendations should be anchored on breaking this dynamic in order to transcend the cycle of violence in Ethiopia.
Let’s start with the identity-related contentious and how political institutions contributed to their intensification. It is virtually impossible to understand nationalist contentious Ethiopia without going back into recent history. Both pre and post 1991 periods are central to understanding contentious nationalist mobilizations in Ethiopia.
Before 1991, during the Imperial regime and the military reign, we used to have an authoritarian unitary state but most importantly we used to have nation-building regimes aspiring to create a more homogenous collective identity for Ethiopians.
Now these internal institutional drives coincided with a very important international environment, informed by the Marxist movements of the 60s and the 70s, and the decolonization movements in Africa. The confluence of internal and international processes produced a politically consequential perception inside Ethiopia.
That perception went on becoming predominantly visible among southern elites in the country that felt the nation building policies of Ethiopian governments were actually nation-destroying schemes.
I’m borrowing here from Walker Connor, a famous political scientist, who argued notably that nation-building for one is nation-destroying for another. So the nation-building policies and arms of Ethiopian governments were seen by some elites in the southern part of Ethiopia as attempts at destroying their nations. And that led to counter-movements and anti-state struggles. Thus, you would see the establishment of political and insurgent organizations, leading to a heightened level of popular mobilizations challenging the state. The struggle with the state went on until 1991, when a coalition of ethno-nationalist forces captured state power.
Now, the immediate effect of that is the abandonment by the state of its nation building aspirations and its replacement by what the EPRDF called the multinational project, the most important manifestation of which was the multinational federation or the ethnic federation that was put in place after 1995.
Ethiopia’s multinational federation, however, was beset with several contradictions. On one hand, we had the construction of regional states which came up with their own local politics and their own constitutions, national anthem and so forth. But on the other hand, we also had a hierarchically organized centralized party structure that contradicted the very idea of a federal structure. So that structural contradiction then contributed to a psychological contradiction as well. And the psychological contradiction was that some marginalized groups in Ethiopia felt empowered as a result of the multinational federal project, because they had been marginalized by the Ethiopian state.
But on the other hand, some other ethnic groups such as the so-called settlers in different regions were constantly harassed and subjected to violence and therefore got disempowered. Hence, the praxis of the federal project both empowered and disempowered ethnic groups in the country.
These and other manifestations of the multinational project went on producing simmering nationalist faultlines, producing three conflict types during the EPRDF’s period, which are very important to understand today’s politico-security dynamics. One was this perennial struggle between ethno-nationalists and Ethiopian nationalists. The second was the anti-regime struggles, including legal party opposition, insurgent movements and protest movements.
The third was the conflict of different types between and among ethno nationalists themselves along several lines, including land claims and counter claims and grazing lands, scramble over control of regional states and other reasons. In the midst of all these conflicts, however, there was a facade of stability in the country because of the hierarchically organized state system, and the deployment of coercion by the state. This started to change after 2011. And more so after 2015, when protest movements, engulfed Ethiopia in Addis Ababa in Amhara and in Oromia regions.
And those protest movements triggered an internal struggle within the EPRDF, leading to the emergence of a coalition that marginalized the TPLF, the core element within the EPRDF. And this emerging coalition ushered in a series of political reform processes in the country.
The problem, however, was that with the onset of political liberalization, you would also see the bursting forth of all oppressed, suppressed simmering nationalist contentions in the country. So in order to understand today’s political violence and conflict, we have to really understand all the simmering tensions, suppressed contentions, nationalist and inter-nationalist struggles that were, you know, controlled by autocratic leadership. With the liberalization of the autocratic lid, all those simmering tensions busted out and escalated into active confrontations which then spurred violence.
So you would see the consolidation in post-2018 of several variants of nationalisms; Amhara nationalism, Oromo nationalism, Tigray nationalism, Kimant, Somali, Gumuz etc nationalisms, informing popular mobilizations and sometimes in contentious ways. These contentious nationalists dynamics, with very important historical roots in recent history, have contributed to the rise and surge of violence in Ethiopia after 2018.
Capital: How would you best define the elite competition in the country?
Semir Yusuf: Just like nationalist contention, elite competition has a long history in Ethiopia and it takes a particular pattern. It goes like this: we have a political opening, like the one we had in 1974, in 1991, or in 2018, producing public euphoria. People are very happy about the political rupture. And then that’s immediately led by the striking of alliance among key political elites in the country which consolidates the ongoing euphoria.
But that alliance is short-lived. It gets disrupted, triggering a power struggle between several political actors in the country. And then you would see the consolidation of power in the hands of very few elites or one particular person that turns out to be the new power holder in the country. The process of competition, struggle and consolidation paves the way for the production of conflicts in the country. This pattern is very important to understand violence and conflict in post-2018 Ethiopia as well. I’ll give you one example here, how inter-elite rivalry unfolded in Oromia. Going back to 2018, in Oromia, Prime Minister Abiy promised both democracy and peace, of course in the entire country but specifically in Oromia. He travelled to the US and met several Oromo elites, and then we see the striking of a very important alliance among the Prime Minister, Jawar Mohamed, the noted political activist at the time and Lemma Megersa, a central figure in official Oromo politics and once the president of Oromia Regional State.
That alliance gave hope to the many in the country and specifically for those in Oromia, that things are going quite well in this country, and the transition process is holding. And there is also a very short-lived alliance between the EPRDF under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Oromia Liberation front /OLF/ as well, although the nature of that agreement still is shrouded in mystery.
But then you would immediately see the disruption of these and other alliances in the country. It all started with a disruption of the alliance between OLF and the federal government towards the end of 2018, punctuated by a number of disagreements that started to surface gradually. That was followed by a split within the OLF itself between the Oromo Liberation Army /OLA/, and some elements in OLF.
And then, quite consequentially, came the disruption of alliance between the Prime Minister and key Kero leaders including Jawar.
And then there was also a split within the ODP/Prosperity Party itself, between Prime Minister Abiy and Lemma Megersa., There was an attempt to resurrect the alliance system but it didn’t pan out.
By 2020 we see a united front against the PP. However, after 2020, disruption or weakening of the alliance within the opposition movements in Oromia unfolded. This was followed by power consolidation efforts in the hands of Prosperity Party leadership, and that went through two phases, that is, the informal and formal phases. The informal phase included the creation of the Prosperity Party, repression against opponents, expulsion from state organs of recalcitrant elites as well as cooption of key Kero leaders into the party/state structure. In the formal phase, the power consolidation efforts were legitimized through the 2021 elections.
The key point here is that in the process of power competition and power consolidation among and by elites, conflicts erupted widely across Oromia.
Capital: How is violence spurred institutionally?
Semir Yusuf: The third very important propagator of violence is the institutions. The question here is this: if nationalist and inter-elite contentions are important to understand violence, then why hasn’t the state been able to prevent conflicts effectively and immediately in many instances? Of course the state has made some successful efforts to prevent conflict but it has failed in many others as well.
What explains this failure? There are three very important elements within the party and state structure to properly answer this.
One is division within the ruling party that has been ongoing; of course, it was quite amplified towards the beginning of the political transition. The division contributed to conflicts in two ways. One, it was really difficult for the party to chart a collective vision for managing and transforming conflicts in the country. And two, the party institutions were actually used as an instrument to reproduce societal divisions into the state structures.
The party instead of serving as an instrument to transcend conflict actually served as a mechanism whereby societal divisions are reproduced into the state system. And two, state forces have also been accused of inaction in the face of impending violence, mainly because of the weakening of the coercive apparatus.
And finally, one of the glaring ironies of post 2018 Ethiopia was the coexistence of state inaction and state over-action at the same time.
We sometimes have an inactive state in some places, and an overactive one in others, accused of deploying force disproportionately, and that fueling grievances at a later stage, and thereby maintaining the cycle of violence in the country.
Capital: What have you observed from the Tigray war?
Semir Yusuf: The Tigray war, I believe could be properly analyzed using the same framework that I have outlined so far. For instance, the nationalist scene is quite important, i.e., a heightened level of mobilization among Ethiopian nationalists versus Tigrayian nationalists, one counterpoised against the other.
Similarly for the case of elite competition, Tigray War was not just about nationalist reasons. It was a lot as well about elite rivalry between rising elites and losing elites. And this was about power struggle, as much as it was about disagreements over how to interpret the 27 year rule of EPRDF and how best to understand the origins of the political reform. Clashing economic interests also pervade the elite dimension.
Similarly, institutional dynamics is also quite important. State weakness is very important in this regard. The very eruption of the Tigray War typifies the emergence of two social orders in Ethiopia, two social orders with their own legal, economic, military and political systems typifies state weakness. In addition, state fragility has also contributed to the emergence of the Tigray war in the sense that the lack of a proper projection of power by the state/the federal government across its territories triggered the mushrooming of several challengers to its legitimacy. Similarly, state repression in different parts of Ethiopia, for example, in Tigray contributed to the consolidation of the Tigrayian nationalism which then really turned the civil war into a very tense and enduring conflict.
Of course, we can’t talk about the Tigray war without mentioning the international dimension. This is not just about the role of Eritrea but also the fact that Ethiopia was thrown into the global power play and how that power play also came into Ethiopia and contributed to the intensification and durability of the civil war in the country.
Some of the conflicts have subsided as we speak such as the Tigray war, and efforts are underway to tackle some others but I would like to emphasize the root causes of violence in Ethiopia have not yet been addressed very well.
The structural and agency related roots of conflict in this country have yet to be addressed and tackled effectively. Those four dynamics are quite important; the nationalist, the elite, the institutional and international dimensions are central to our understanding of violence and conflict in the country.
Capital: Currently the government has planned certain mechanisms to combat conflicts, including creating the National Dialogue platform. What’s your view on this?
Semir Yusuf: On the one hand there are several post conflict mechanisms to consolidate any peace we have gained so far and on the other we still need to dwell in conflict resolution processes where we have active conflicts. So, we have to consider both mechanisms. In post conflict times to sustain peace and tackle upcoming conflicts, lots of work is needed and one of these is national dialogue which is integral to transforming conflicts in a country. National dialogue does not mean that we will reach full agreement in all aspects. Of course, arguments, debates and controversies will continue but the aim is to prevent them from descending into violence and manage them through legal and peaceful processes.
Transitional justice is another possibility. Transitional justice is informed by a society’s desire to heal deeply-held grievances, rebuild social trust, reestablish what is right from what is wrong, and repair a fractured justice system in post-war countries. So we need to apply it in a well-thought out and well-organized manner to get sustainable peace.
The other issue is political reform, which we need to rejuvenate to overcome authoritarian tendencies which complicate our security dynamics.
Where conflicts are still rife, additional set of mechanisms beginning from peace negotiations should be applied.