I’ve anguished a lot before writing these personal reflections about the conflict in Ethiopia. Emotions are raw. There’s increased polarization. I’ve hesitated because I didn’t want these personal reflections to be taken as a political statement of siding with one or more of the conflicting parties – once again, an ‘us’ and ‘them’ narrative.
In short, it isn’t my intention to be part of a host of bloggers, pundits, and analysts who have already written extensively on the conflict, telling readers where they should stand on the topic.
I’ve spent much of the past six years in countries of Eastern Europe and the Western Balkans. I’ve traveled extensively throughout the region, interacting with people from all walks of life. Even after the end of the conflicts, the impacts have remained. Many still suffer in silence while those in new conflicts, like in Armenia and Azerbaijan, find themselves in a vicious circle of death and devastation.
A quick recap before I dive into the subject: with political change in 2019, all signs in Ethiopia pointed to reforms, opportunities for healing the country, and ending the long stalemate with Eritrea. In 2021, the country's future is uncertain because of another round of internal conflict which will have impacts on the development gains of the country.
Memories and time
‘When’ is an indicator of time.
In Ethiopia, we’re used to measuring the passage of time not only just in terms of joyful events, but also through grim testimonies of protracted conflicts and disasters. These’re memories of displacement, death, loss of property…. For long, tears of shocked emptiness have blurred our vision.
Let me do a quick rundown through time:
The early 1980s: ‘When we helplessly saw starving rural communities migrating to urban areas in search of food….’
End of the 1980s: ‘When the government soldiers came to our house to conscript young sons for the civil war….’
The early 1990s: ‘When we were in Kenya as refugees fleeing the civil war in Ethiopia….’
End of the 1990s: ‘When the war with Eritrea erupted…’
End of 2020: ‘When we got news of the start of the conflict between the Federal Government and Tigray Regional Government forces….’
I was born and raised in the northern part of the country, a region in which war, famine, and poverty have been the major features of the country. I’m reminded of the sufferings of many whenever I hear the ‘We Are the World’ song produced to help the victims of the 1980s famine.
Ethiopia is once again hitting the headlines because of a new conflict and its destructive human and material costs. Conflict is development in reverse. Getting facts about the extent of the devastation is the hardest part. However, it seems that the current conflict, like the ones before it, has left immeasurable human suffering and large economic and social costs. It’s laid bare simmering ethnolinguistic tensions, unfolding into more polarization.
But why once again?
At the heart of the conflict in Ethiopia is the contested nature of state-building. The center has often relied on sheer force to project its authority over the regions or provinces. One cannot ignore the role of powerful regional groups, vested economic interests and widening inequalities, and the dynamics of parallel authorities competing for legitimacy.
Little suggests rebellion in the country can be defeated by military means alone. Even if there’s an end to the current conflict – again, like the ones before it – the notion of ‘victory’ is less meaningful. Added to the complexity of the conflict are its spillover effects and the involvement of neighboring countries.
Localized insurgencies have been part of Ethiopia’s modern history. It isn’t because of bad geographic luck, cultural patterns, or ignorant leaders and technocrats that are the causes of protracted conflicts. It’s difficult to overlook the issue of the capacity of institutions and their legitimacy in shaping state-society relationships.
The nature of ‘societal groups’ that led the challenge to the institutions of successive states has differed through time – from farmers to urban elites and ethnolinguistic groups. Now more than ever, the question of ethnolinguistic identity has become a defining form of political organization, and association with territory and community.
Consequently, institutions have struggled to claim the ‘monopoly of violence’ (security), ensure justice, enable conditions for economic livelihoods, as well as provide public services such as education and health care. Surprisingly, indigenous/traditional institutions, which have been at the center of guiding the social-political lives of the Ethiopian society, are underutilized by formal institutions.
Counting the costs
The conflict directly affects the wellbeing of communities and drains invaluable resources from development initiatives. One can go on a laundry list of areas affected by the conflict – in short as well as long term ways. Here’re a few examples.
Ethiopia has put in place one of the most innovative community health extension programs in Africa. The program gave access to primary health care in rural communities. The conflict diverts resources from such critical social programs. In the areas where the conflict is concentered, it also disrupts referrals, immunization programs, supplies, and monitoring and surveillance. All these can derail improvements in maternal and child health, communicable diseases, hygiene and sanitation, knowledge, and health care seeking.
The country has also come a long way in improving the level of hunger. There has been a substantial decline in the proportion of the undernourished population and under-five mortality rate. Sadly, the conflict, together with widening inequalities and high incidences of climate change, is threatening to wipe out the gains. The conflict is linked to the displacement of people that places strain on resources. The parties to the conflict will resort to exploiting natural resources, including the destruction of large areas of forest, to sustain the economy for a protracted conflict.
Beyond the death or displacement of teachers, staff, and students, conflicts decrease access to school, preventing the opening of schools. In the long-term, this will hurt educational attainment, increasing dropout and reducing educational survival rates.
The indirect effects of the conflict on the development of the country will be costly. These include the hidden scars of the conflict that we don’t normally see – traumatized communities, polarized political culture, weakened services, and so on. Far from enabling enduring peace, these are again factors that will fuel another round of conflict….
Sanctions by major donors because of the conflict could open up fiscal and external financing gaps in the country. I doubt if sanctions may achieve their objectives. Often elites manage to negotiate the adverse effects of sanctions. The consequences are borne by citizens with adverse impacts on human rights, poverty, healthcare, and basic living conditions. Flawed Western interventions tend to close the possibilities for political settlements. In the end, blame is placed on those who enact the sanctions.
So, is there a way out?
A critical factor for any success is the capacity and readiness of institutions to accommodate diversity within the territory of a democratic federal state.
This calls for the need for the political culture of the country to move away from the ‘house of tradition’ – relying on sheer force to claim political and economic power and to treat politics as war. This has for long taken on a life of its own in the Ethiopian governance system. It’s now threatening the state’s capacity to ensure political and economic security.
There has been a glimmer of hopes in which elites and other political players tried to leave the house of traditions and stepped their feet at the doorsteps of the ‘house of transition’ – reforming institutions, using dialogue to settle differences, and ensuring delivery of basic services. This’s stalled or even eroded, even though temporarily, by the current conflict.
Perhaps the next generation may see the light at the ‘house of transformation’ – in which structural changes in economy, culture, politics, and society will have taken place, thus leading to changing the nature of how the state is organized and how political power is used.
For now, the country may seem like a wrongly-buttoned shirt. Unbuttoning and making the shirt look good takes time. As Haruki Murakami wrote in his book ‘Dance Dance Dance’, it’s also okay if ‘every attempt to correct things led to yet another fine – not to say elegant – mess.’
Despite the role of outside players – directly or indirectly – in the mess that the country finds itself, Ethiopians fundamentally create their own problems. Hence, solutions should come from Ethiopians. Outside solutions often have unhappy records in the country.
An immediate and meaningful outside support mechanism should aim at keeping those affected by the conflict afloat through minimizing the economic damages (also including the impact of COVID-19). It’s crucial to start the road to stability and recovery which requires concerted or coordinated efforts. People need extended support far more than immediate, life-saving support. The challenge often, however, is the lack of attention to a crisis in a more systematic way with a medium to long-term perspective.
This round of conflict invokes comparisons to the anguishes in Somalia, Syria, and Yemen. Some even fear ex-Yugoslavia happening in the Horn of Africa. Sometimes these are exaggerated claims. I remain an optimist. First, history is current politics. If there’s one mirror in which current-day Ethiopia is vividly reflected, it’s the country’s past. Second, Ethiopia isn’t a failed state, but it’s critically weak. Despite the aggravated state of near-survival and against the odds, Ethiopians have been resilient.