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Is Ethiopia the Next Yugoslavia?

A country that once seemed to hold great promise for peaceful democratization has descended into conflict. Here’s what could happen next.

By Foreign Policy Editor

In December 2019, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was in Oslo receiving the Nobel Peace Prize; less than a year later, he was commanding Ethiopian troops in battle against the country’s former dominant party—the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

Shepherding an ethnically diverse country with a federalist system through a transition to democracy was always a daunting task. But as a spate of political assassinations and growing demands from ethnonationalist groups gave way to open conflict in the northern Tigray region in November, Ethiopia’s future is looking increasingly bleak, with some analysts warning that there is a risk of Yugoslav-style disintegration. Foreign Policy has followed the country closely in recent years, featuring the views of Ethiopian writers and regional experts from a range of perspectives.

Here are five of Foreign Policy’s key stories on Ethiopia from 2020.

1. The Ethiopian-Egyptian Water War Has Begun

by Ayenat Mersie, Sept. 22

The war in Tigray has received most of the attention this year—but there is another taking place in cyberspace, as Ayenat Mersie argued in September. As fraught negotiations over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile threatened to lead to conflict with downstream countries like Sudan and Egypt, the online war took off—posing concrete problems for traditional diplomacy. “[S]urging nationalist sentiment means that it’s harder for officials to agree to, and for the public to accept, compromise,” Mersie wrote. “[M]uch of the online rhetoric remains maximalist, even rejecting items that have already been unanimously decided … raising the possibility that the online tensions and attacks may not subside anytime soon.”

2. It’s Not Too Late to Stop the Ethiopian Civil War From Becoming a Broader Ethnic Conflict

by Florian Bieber and Wondemagegn Tadesse Goshu, Nov. 18

In January 2019, Florian Bieber and Wondemagegn Tadesse Goshu wrote presciently that Ethiopia could become the next Yugoslavia. In November, as war raged in Tigray, they revisited the issue, arguing that once “violence becomes a means to address disputes, it is hard to stop, and demands for autonomy quickly escalate toward claims for independence,” likening the current situation to the early days of fragmentation in Tito’s Yugoslavia and offering recommendations for a constitutional way out.

3. Tigray’s War Against Ethiopia Isn’t About Autonomy. It’s About Economic Power.

by Kassahun Melesse, Nov. 19

When conflict broke out in Tigray on the eve of the U.S. presidential election, many outside observers assumed it was a battle over autonomy between the country’s ousted old regime and Abiy’s new government. Kassahun Melesse argued that, in fact, the TPLF’s goals had much more to do with maintaining control of the economy. “[W]hat’s at the heart of the ongoing conflict are Abiy’s economic and political reforms and the unrelenting pace at which they were unveiled—moves that TPLF leaders perceive as unacceptably threatening to the economic and political dominance they have long enjoyed and the considerable influence they still wield across Ethiopia,” he wrote.

4. Ethiopia’s Government and the TPLF Leadership Are Not Morally Equivalent

by Hailemariam Desalegn, Nov. 24

In late November, Ethiopia’s most recent former prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, took to these pages to criticize some of his former colleagues in government from the once dominant TPLF—referring to the group’s leadership as “nothing more than a criminal enterprise” while taking the international community to task for “the assumption of moral equivalence” between the two sides. Equating the TPLF and the Ethiopian government would, he wrote, lead “foreign governments to adopt an attitude of false balance and bothsidesism. Facts and details regarding the true nature of conflicts and the forces igniting and driving them are frequently lost in international efforts to broker peace deals that often crumble as soon as they have been signed.”

5. The War in Tigray Is a Fight Over Ethiopia’s Past—and Future

by Teferi Mergo, Dec. 18

The war in Tigray is merely the latest battle in a long-running conflict over history and memory, Teferi Mergo argued this month. “By and large, the Tigray war is part of the same debate that has plagued Ethiopia since its foundation as an empire state: whether Ethiopia is an exceptional country that ought to be governed in a more centralized manner or one that needs to be ruled as a decentralized polity,” he wrote. And in order to resolve the conflict, Mergo insisted, the incoming U.S. administration must eschew short-term thinking and instead “use this historical opening to rebalance its foreign policy toward the country, with the view of serving as an impartial arbiter of the conflicts between the two sides.”

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