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Ethiopia at risk of Balkanization

Ludger Schadomsky
November 4, 2021

Two years after Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, his country is engulfed in a war with the potential to destabilize the whole region for decades to come, says DW's Ludger Schadomsky.

Ethiopian soldiers on the back of a truck
The Ethiopian conflict threatens to destabilize the entire regionImage: Ben Curtis/AP Photo/picture alliance

Jeffrey Feltman's visit to Ethiopia is the West's last, desperate attempt to rescue the tottering country. The US special envoy to the Horn of Africa will try to persuade Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to agree to a cease-fire and peace talks. The hope is to bring an end to the war between the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) before it descends on the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.

The war, which has been going on for a year now, has long spilled out of Tigray and has devastated half of the country. Neighboring countries Sudan and Eritrea are involved, as well as other nations such as Iran, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Russia and China.

Author Ludger Schadomsky
Ludger Schadomsky is head of DW's Amharic Service

The Horn of Africa is of particular geostrategic importance, and the conflict has the potential to destabilize the region for years, and possibly decades, to come. It is already driving a wedge through the international community and, once again, Beijing and Moscow are playing power games with their vetoes in the UN Security Council.

The fact that the prime minister, who was initially celebrated for his reforms, is now giving the cold shoulder to the US and the EU and looking eastwards is a bitter lesson for the terrifyingly naive decision-makers of the Old World who are writing up foreign and security policy.

Tragic end to 'Ethiopian Spring'

The bloody end to the "Ethiopian Spring" is tragic in many ways: Firstly, for the 110 million people who had hoped for a better future after the 2018 peace deal; and secondly because the economy, already battered by rampant inflation and the pandemic, will suffer from the burden of war for years. The vicious cycle of poverty and hunger will continue.

It's also tragic because it shows that even before the Afghanistan debacle has subsided, the country's partners in the West have failed miserably yet again. It was also grotesquely ill-advised of them to support the nomination of the supposed reformer for the Nobel Peace Prize. To recap — Abiy was nominated because of his peace agreement with Eritrea. The same Eritrea whose soldiers would go on to carry out terrible human rights violations two years later on invitation from the laureate himself.

The governments of the West were blinded by their eagerness to support reform. It was simply too tempting to support a young, charismatic prime minister who promised to bring peace and stability to Africa's second-most populous country and to stabilize the region.

But they woefully underestimated the dynamics of a country that boasts over 80 ethnic groups. A cursory glance at history would have sufficed to understand that the deep rivalry between the Oromo, the Amhara and the Tigrayans could not be plastered over with gestures and symbolic politics. The fact that the African Union, whose headquarters is in Addis Ababa, has once again failed to live up to its promise of offering "African solutions to African problems" goes without saying.

National dialogue is crucial

Of course, it would be too easy to blame the international community for the latest failed reforms. Ethiopia has a culture of deep-seated mistrust, and an incompetent and ethnocentric political caste stifles even the most modest attempts at democratization. Anyone who has heard Ethiopian intellectuals express astonishment at German coalition talks knows it will take generations before a culture of political compromise can establish itself here. Civil society is still very weak in this post-authoritarian country, which is essentially a powder keg that can be easily ignited by saboteurs. Ethnic hatred, for instance, is rampant on social media.

As an alliance of convenience between Tigrayans and Oromo marches on the capital, it would be presumptuous to predict any future power constellations. However, what can be said is that if there is not a serious national dialogue involving all relevant powers — important religious leaders and traditional authorities, jailed opposition politicians and actors of civil society — it will be difficult to halt the Balkanization of Ethiopia.

The choice to award the Nobel Peace Prize to Abiy Ahmed, a man who started out as a dynamic reformer and charming mediator but is today indulging in threats of war and conscripting civilians for the last stand, will go down in history as one of the Nobel Committee's worst decisions — and it has made many notoriously bad decisions over the years.

And the former ruling TPLF clique, which controlled politics, the economy and the military in Ethiopia for over a quarter of a century, could soon be back in the fold. This will particularly please nostalgic, Western-based experts who like to praise the discipline and morals of the former guerrilla movement. The majority of the Ethiopian population, on the other hand, will surely have very mixed feelings.

The Ethiopian Tourism Commission promotes the country as one with "13 months of sunshine." Abiy Ahmed's own sunshine policy has failed miserably. When will the next political spring arrive? Nobody can make any serious predictions. For now, it is a question of avoiding more bloodshed and a storm on Addis Ababa.

This article has been translated from German