In the twenty-first century, war-making and state-making have become enduring global phenomena. The case of Ethiopia exemplifies this trend. Viewed through the lens of Charles Tilly’s work on the connection between war and state-making, this essay explores Ethiopia’s political dynamics, including the activities of unionists and secessionists who have deployed various forms of  crimes against humanity to make war, to make states, and to sustain those states.1

Since 1974, the history of Ethiopia has been marked by violence, war, and state-making. The Ethiopian governments, which have controlled political power in Ethiopia since 1974, have acted as the guardian, the maker, and the sustainer of the state apparatus of the country, waging war on rebel groups and struggling to maintain control of national resources. In turn, rebel groups, at war with Ethiopian governments, have been focusing on the struggle for self-determination. Thus, rebel groups organized along ethnic identity lines have been contributing to the political crisis in the country.2 In this regard, local stakeholders and members of the international community need to understand the political dynamics of Ethiopia, and be part of the solution to the political crisis.

In the middle of 1974, the centralized feudal government was supplanted by the Derg regime (a Marxist-Leninist military-led government that ruled the country between 1974 and 1991), following a violent revolution that was initiated by students, peasants, and elites, all driven largely by the quest for self-determination of their ethnic groups. However, the Derg ruled for 17 years without resolving the issues of self-determination and secession, considering it a threat to Ethiopian unity.3 During their rule, the Derg regime tried to control the state apparatus of Ethiopia and centralize political power by waging war against rebel groups and sometimes neighboring countries by nationalizing the resources of the country and manipulating violence.4

The 17 years of the Derg rule were marked by political turmoil. Derg was in conflict and at war with rebel groups like the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), and the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), but it could not restore peace and security within the country.5 In spite of this situation, the elites in control of the Derg argued that the Derg’s political condition was ideal for building a strong state with centralized authority and institutions.6

After 17 years of struggle with the Derg regime, in 1991, a former rebel group, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) (1991–2018), captured power over Ethiopia. It introduced ethnic federalism as a way of recreating the Ethiopian state, and inherited the legacy of war-making. It waged war against Eritrea (1998–2000), and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) to sustain the state of Ethiopia.7

After a couple of years, following an internal political crisis, the TPLF was replaced by the Prosperity Party as the ruling party in 2018. Under the rule of the Prosperity Party, the Ethiopian government has been at war with rebel groups such as the TPLF and OLF, legitimizing its role in holding Ethiopians together by using the political ideology of synergy.8

The government and rebel groups in Ethiopia have resorted to exploitation, coercion, and acts of violence, including ethnic cleansing9 and genocide,10 to fight each other in what can also be described as processes for war-making, state-making, and the struggles for financial and political gains.

Drawing on my lived experience in Ethiopia, I am relying on Tilly’s view on the political dynamics of war and state to evaluate the extent to which it is applicable in the twenty-first century in the ethnic federalist state of Ethiopia.11

In Ethiopia, the governments, as either unilateral or federal unionists who typically control central power over the entire country, have waged war on rebels, like TPLF (1975–present) and the OLF (1975–present), by employing coercion and resource manipulation to sustain the state in power.12

At the same time, governments have been at war with neighboring countries13 to obtain people’s support and protect their resources in the name of preserving the state.14 On the other hand, in order to establish a separate state, rebel groups such as the TPLF and OLF have been at war with governments (acting as unionists) by using resource manipulation (like the collection of taxes from the local communities against the law of the  governments), organizing people’s along ethnic lines, and committing acts of violence.15

Throughout that time, both unionists and secessionists have perpetrated war-crimes, including killing innocents en-masse based on their ethnic identities16 and committing widespread human rights violations against civilians.17

While the Derg nationalized resources and attempted to administer the country along the lines of a Marxist-Leninist ideology, it also introduced a dictatorial state apparatus, trying to bring the unity of the state by waging war against the quest for self-determination from 1974–1991. Under this condition, millions of innocents were the target of massacres.18

TPLF, which had been a part of the unionist arrangement up until 2018, created a weak decentralized ethnic-based political system that did not give representation and rights for local ethnic communities.19 Instead, it appeared to strengthen a Tigrayan elitist central political structure to extract resources, finances, and so on to make war with its rivals it what some argued was an attempt to establish a sovereign state of Tigray after weakening the state apparatus of Ethiopia.20 Even though it has not been able to achieve its political goal, OLF is  still engaged in war and committing horrific violence21 in its quest  for a sovereign state of Oromia in East Africa.22

Whatever the case, with either centralized strong state power or weak decentralized state power, the Derg and TPLF consolidated the Ethiopian state by waging war with rebel groups and secessionists until 2018. After 018, TPLF changed sides and became secessionists, waging war23 to deconstruct the central Ethiopian state,24 since it considered the federal government of Ethiopia a threat to its power and to the self-determination aspirations of the Tigrayan ethnic group. Beyond this, the TPLF had an agenda of pulling the Tigray National Regional State out of Ethiopia through secession.25

After decades of holding sway over the Ethiopian government, the TPLF was accused by political opposition groups of monopolizing economic and political institutions amidst growing poverty, extrajudicial killings, and ethnic marginalization.26

By the end of 2017, crises and violence deepened across the country. As a response, in 2018, the Ethiopian government underwent internal but unclear reform in the political group of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). After internal reform, the EPRDF, which was a TPLF-dominated regime, was replaced by a new political group: the Prosperity Party. This political group adopted a new state-making thinking and approach. Following this shift, many had expected peace to return to the country.27

However, the Prosperity Party, having taken power, was acting as a unionist government. It was at war with various rebel groups, including the TPLF and OLF, justifying this by emphasizing its role in stabilizing and sustaining Ethiopia.28

The Prosperity Party was also involved in intense fighting against the TPLF. The Ethiopian government, under the Prosperity Party’s control, regarded TPLF’s holding of regional elections in Tigray National Regional State, including its reported intention of announcing the independence of the regional state as a sovereign entity,29 as illegal and subversive.

On November 4, 2020, the federal government of Ethiopia stated that, in reaction to the TPLF’s armed attack on an Ethiopian army base under the North’s command, it was launching a military offensive against regional forces in Tigray. This sparked the commencement of a violent conflict, causing devastating destruction, horrific massacres, ethnic cleansing, and genocide in the conflict-affected areas.30

The Prosperity Party has also been at war with OLF, which it regards as an insurgent group that has been trying to control the political apparatus of Oromia National Regional State, as well as a rebel group that has been attacking innocents.31

During this war, the ruling Prosperity Party has been employing all the country’s resources for military and state building.32 In addition, it has been committing crimes against humanity,33 including violent attacks on Tigray34 and Amhara peoples.35

In Ethiopia, war-making and state-making have contributed towards humanitarian crises, political anxiety and uncertainty, while threatening Ethiopia’s political stability, which could lead to broader instability throughout East Africa. The international community needs to engage all the conflict actors in Ethiopia to work towards a transitional political arrangement that can open up space for direct talks and mediation, which would help to resolve their political differences in a democratic way.

Endnotes

  1. Tilly, C.,1985. War Making and State Making as Organized Crime. In Evans, P., Rueschemeyer, D., and Skocpol, T (Ed.), Bringing the State Back In (pp.169-186). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (Ed.), Bringing the State Back In (pp.169-186). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  2. Gebeyehu Temesgen Duressa, Tesema Ta’a & Deressa Debu, 2024.  ‘The Marxist concept of national question and the analysis of Ethiopian reality during the Derg regime (1974 to 1991)’.  Cogent Arts & Humanities, 11:1, 2347056. DOI: 10.1080/23311983.2024.2347056
  3. Levine, D., 2008. Ethnics Federalism: The Ethiopian Experience in Comparative                  Perspective. David Turton (Ed.).  Oxford.
  4. Tronvoll, K. , 2009. War and the Politics of Identity in Ethiopia: The Making of Enemies and Allies in the Horn of Africa (p. 239). New York: Boydell and Brewer.
  5. Kidane, M. Critical Causes in the Horn of Africa’s Raging Conflict.
  6. Gebru, T., 2009. The Ethiopian Revolution: War in the Horn of Africa. New Haven: Yale University
  7. Yienebeb, N, 2018.  ‘Ethiopian Politics Post-1991: Continuous Challenges to the Peace and Stability of the Horn of Africa Region’. UNU Institute on Comparative Regional Integration Studies, 30.
  8. International Crisis Group.  ‘Ethiopia’s Slide into Civil War’.  6 November 2020.  https://www.crisisgroup.org/africa/horn-africa/horn-ethiopias-slide-toward-civil-war-
  9. Girma Berhanu, ‘Thoughts on Amhara Existential Struggle against TPLF and OLF/PP Tribal Extremists: Can Ethiopia Survive Scourge of Two Extreme Centrifugats? Op-ed’.  Eurasia Review: News and Analysis. 30 December 2022. https://www.eurasaireview.com/30122022-thoughts-on-amhara-existential-struggle-against-tplf-
  10. New Lines Institute, ‘Genocide in Tigray: Serious breaches of international law in the Tigray conflict, Ethiopia, and paths to accountability’. 3 June 2024. Genocide in Tigray: Serious breaches of international law in the Tigray conflict, Ethiopia, and paths to accountability – New Lines Institute
  11. Kshipra.V., 2021.  ‘Ethnic Federalism in Ethiopia: Reflecting on Diversity and Ethnic Identity’.  East African Journal of Arts and Social Sciences3(1). https://doi.org/10.37284/2707-4285
  12. Asnake Kefale, 2015.  ‘Fighting for an Identity: A Comparative Analysis of the Oromo and Ogaden National Liberation Fronts’. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism38(11), 970-989.
  13. For instance, the Derg Regime was at war with Somalia between 1977 and 1978. The EPRDF, the dominant political group of the TPLF, was at war with Eritrea between 1998 and 2000.
  14. Mulugeta Gebrehiwot, 2017. ‘The Ethiopian post- transition Security Sector Reform Experience: Building a Nation Army from a Revolutionary Democratic Army’.  African Security Review, 26(2). https://doi.org/10.1080/10246029.2017.1297581
  15. European Center for Law and Justice, ‘The Silent Suffering of the Amhara People in Ethiopia’. 26 April 2024.
  16. Collins, S. (2020, July 15). Ethnic Attacks in Ethiopia. Spark Global criticism. Retrieved from https://www.washingtoninformer.com/ethnic-attacks-in-ethiopia-spark-global-criticism/
  17. human rights violations
  18. Gebru, T. The Ethiopian Revolution: War in the Horn of Africa.
  19. Bamlak Yideg & Peteti Premanandum, 2019. ‘The 1976 TPLF Manifesto and Political Instability in Amhara Region, Ethiopia’. Research Review International Journal of Multidisciplinary 4(1).
  20. Tronvoll, K,  War and the Politics of Identity in Ethiopia: The Making of Enemies and Allies in the Horn of Africa.
  21. Human Rights Watch,  ‘Ethiopia Civilians in Western Oromia Left Unprotected’. 31 August  2018.  https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/08/31/ethiopia-civilians-western-oromia-left-unprotected
  22. Peebles, Graham, 2023. ‘Ethiopia: Amhara Genocide And The Threat Of Civil War – Op-ed’. Eurasia Review, 2 September. Ethiopia: Amhara Genocide And The Threat Of Civil War – Op-ed – Eurasia Review
  23. Peebles, Graham. ‘Ethiopia: Amhara Genocide And The Threat Of Civil War’.
  24. Nation, Ethiopia conflict: Tigray Forces Claim March to Addis Ababa Now Possible’. 24 July 2021. Ethiopia conflict: Tigray forces claim march to Addis Ababa ‘now possible’ | Nation
  25. Tefera Negash, 2019. ‘Ideology and power in TPLF’s Ethiopia: A historic reversal in the making?’  African Affairs 118 (472), 463-487. https://doi.org/10.1093/afraf/adz005
  26. Dinberu, Tefera, 2018. ‘Ethnic Nationalism must be replaced by Ethiopian Nationalism’. ZeHabesha.com, 10 October.
  27. Collins, S. (2020, July 15). Ethnic Attacks in Ethiopia. Spark Global criticism. Retrieved from https://www.washingtoninformer.com/ethnic-attacks-in-ethiopia-spark-global-criticism/
  28. Amnesty International, ‘Ethiopia: Rape, Extrajudicial Executions, Homes Set Alight in Security Operations in Amhara and Oromia’.  29 May 2020. Retrieved from https://www.amnesty.org/em/latest/news/2020/05/ethiopia-rape-extrajudicial
  29. International Crisis Group.  ‘Ethiopia’s Slide into Civil War’.
  30. New Lines Institute, ‘Genocide in Tigray: Serious breaches of international law in the Tigray conflict, Ethiopia, and paths to accountability’.
  31. Derse Simachew, 2020.  ‘The Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing of the Amhara Ethnic Group from 1991-2020’. International Journal of Academic Multidisciplinary Research, 4(8), 141-146.
  32. Warographics, ‘Is Abiy Ahmed the Most Dangerous Man in Africa?’ 14 December 2023. [Video]. You Tube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CjW2AmirkxI&list=PPSV
  33. Coalition for Genocide Response, ‘New Report: The Three Horsemen of the War in Tigray – Mass Killings, Sexual Violence and Starvation’. 29 September 2023. New Report: The Three Horsemen of the War in Tigray – Mass Killings, Sexual Violence and Starvation – Genocide Response
  34. The Globe and Mail, ‘Ethiopia committed genocidal acts against Tigrayans during two-year war, study says’. 3 June 2024. Ethiopia committed genocidal acts against Tigrayans during two-year war, study says – The Globe and Mail
  35. Tewodros, A, ‘The Ethiopian Genocide Commands Attention’. Washington Post. July 2022. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2022/07/18/ethiopian-genocide-commands-attention/
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