Droves of Ethiopian refugees continued to cross the border into Sudan this week, fleeing clashes between troops of the federal government and a defiant Tigray Peoples Liberation Front in the north of the country. Sudan estimates that it will be host to more than 200,000 Ethiopian refugees in the coming weeks.
The refugees are probably the more visible aspect of a particularly dangerous episode in Ethiopia’s social transition. What lurks in the shadows could be more alarming. A meltdown in the country could easily lead to the unravelling of the tenuous strands of peace that were beginning to spread over the greater Horn of Africa. A stable Ethiopia has been the unofficial guarantor for stability in Somalia, South Sudan and even Sudan.
The protagonists in this conflict are all powerful and capable of waging a prolonged, extremely destructive and costly if unnecessary war. Internally, there can be no winners as the conflict will only consume away from much needed economic and social programmes.
Both the federal government and the TPLF must be keenly aware of this but they need a way out. That is where the African Union, which happens to be headquartered should stand up to be counted. African leaders should step in and offer the parties the limbs to lean on as they climb down from their dangerous pinnacles.
Framed in ethnic expression, the crisis in Ethiopia is really a clash between republicanism and hijacked federalism. It is also the consequence of centuries of a deeply entrenched culture of repression that leaves little room for dialogue.
Though federal in nature, Ethiopia’s devolved power is hostage to tribal chiefs whose interests may be self-serving.
Impatient with what he sees as a dysfunctional polity that has been holding back the country, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has probably been way too aggressive in his push for reform. In this, he has relied on the old tools available to him, resulting in renewed repression, tensions and political prisoners.
What Ethiopia needs now is a conversation about power relations. But dialogue cannot take place in a vacuum. That is what the AU and Africa’s eminent elders should resolve by reaching out to the sides to provide a platform for that dialogue.
Ethiopians need to take a hard look at the current arrangement and agree on what needs to change. Prime Minister Abiy is probably on the money in his view that the current system is not going to lead to the kind of economic transformation that millions of ordinary Ethiopians yearn for.
Yet he cannot move on without a mustering a broad consensus around his ideas. Abiy and the federal government will only succeed if they get the masses on to their side.
In this, they need to create the conditions under which ordinary citizens can speak and have their voice heard.
Abiy’s peculiar position in which he is unpopular within his own Oromo ethnic group and the multiplicity of other ethnicities across the country should be instructive. Without a wider public dialogue, his reformist agenda is viewed with suspicion from all around him. Freedom tends to scare power, but it is much more benign.