A confederation of states must choose whether to follow the bloody path of the former Yugoslavia or the prosperous model of the European Union.

By Teferi MergoKebene KejelaNOVEMBER 27, 2021, 5:00 AM

Ethiopia—a multinational state of considerable contradictions—is once again in the news for tragic events. The outside world, which tends to hold a romantic view of the country, is only beginning to understand these divisions. The country is plagued by identity-based civil wars, currently between the central government, which is widely perceived to champion a unitary state, and many groups that are vying for different degrees of autonomy.

The Tigray Defense Forces (TDF) and the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) are the most prominent representatives of those fighting against the central government for the right to self-determination for their respective nations (Tigray and Oromia), with Amhara political groups rallying behind the government to defend Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s vision of a centralized state.

The 1994 Ethiopian Constitution was the first serious attempt to resolve the country’s many contradictions, by offering different groups some degree of cultural, linguistic, and economic autonomy. However, that experiment fell significantly short of its promises, primarily because the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) maintained a tight grip on the country economically and politically between 1991 and 2018, denying other groups substantive space to exercise their constitutionally guaranteed rights to run their affairs.

It is therefore ironic that today the TPLF—which was displaced from the halls of power in Addis Ababa in 2018, mainly due to a grassroots movement led by Oromo youth activists—is now leading an effective insurgency against Abiy’s government to reassert the political, economic, and cultural rights of the Tigrayan people. Similarly, the OLA is waging a growing insurgency to allow the Oromo people to decide their political destiny through a referendum.

With the OLA and TDF now rapidly closing in on the capital, Ethiopia’s central government faces several unenviable choices: It can decide to continue to fight the insurgents and face the consequences, which could end with victory for the OLA and TDF, possibly inducing the diminished Amhara and unitarist political forces to pursue some combination of civil and armed resistance to protect their political interests. In the unlikely event that the depleted Ethiopian federal army manages to hold off the insurgents in the short run, the likely outcome is a bloody and chaotic disintegration of the country along the lines of the former Yugoslavia.

The Abiy government can also negotiate with both formidable forces, satisfying most of their demands, and thus wind down the current conflicts—possibly averting a violent disintegration of the country. Alternatively, the central government may decide to negotiate with just one of the insurgent groups that have recently joined forces and formed an alliance aimed at toppling Abiy from power. This divide-and-rule scenario is the least likely option, since both the OLA and TDF have more to gain by staying the course together than negotiating with Abiy separately.

If the government manages to strike a deal with one of the insurgent groups, it is likely that this would intensify conflicts in the country—not lessen them—as the excluded group will simply redouble its war effort to extract concessions from the central government, as predicted by the reputational cost theory of civil conflicts, which holds that acceding to the political demands of an insurgent group in a multinational state like Ethiopia will cause other groups to demand and fight for the same rights.

Therefore, to the extent the government can pursue a separate peace with one of the active nationalist insurgencies—while continuing to fight the other—its reputational cost is only going to increase, complicating all future efforts to resolve the conflicts peacefully.

Scholars have argued that the key issue that explains the persistence of conflicts—both within and between states—is the commitment problem. According to the political scientist Robert Powell, conflicts result from “shifts in the distribution of power between [combatants] that cannot commit to distributions of the domestic pie.”

The disbanding of the OLA in 1992 and 1993—which was followed by a harsh crackdown—is widely considered a source of national indignity among the Oromo.

At the root of inefficient civil conflicts—such as the one in Ethiopia that has so far destroyed many lives and devastated the country’s economy and national army—is a failure to commit to agreements that could be brokered through negotiations. These wars are characterized by asymmetric and changing power distributions, and weaker sides do not trust stronger sides that hold power.

Ethiopia’s recent political history suggests that the commitment problem is going to complicate efforts aimed at achieving sustainable peace in the country. Eritreans chose the path of armed struggle in 1961, after the imperial regime of Haile Selassie reneged on the terms of Eritrea’s federation with Ethiopia and disbanded Eritrea’s parliament to bring the region and its people under centralized rule from Addis Ababa, culminating in the country’s declaration of independence in 1993.

Similarly, the unilateral disarmament and encampment of the OLA in the early 1990s offers further evidence for why the commitment problem continues to frustrate peacemaking in Ethiopia. Although they worked together to draw a transitional charter that led to the establishment of the Transitional Government of Ethiopia upon the defeat of the Marxist regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF)—which was mainly made up of the TPLF and its satellite organizations—and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) had fighters under separate commands.

Source: Foreign Policy

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