How Abiy Ahmed can bring back peace to Ethiopia

Prime Minister needs to handle domestic political equations and the conflict in Tigray


Abiy Ahmed became the Prime Minister of Ethiopia in April 2018. After only 18 months in office, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 2019. He was given this honour for achieving peace and resolving the border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea.

Prime Minister Abiy’s effort to bring a swift end to more than two decades of bitter bilateral conflict was then appreciated by the world. However, the way the internal security dynamic in Ethiopia has evolved since then and the civil war is raging in its northern province Tigray, doubts have started arising about a peaceful Ethiopia.

After coming to power in 2018, Prime Minister Abiy pursued a reform agenda, freed political prisoners, allowed political exiles to return home. He also took some praiseworthy steps to promote democracy in the country and started to promise to build legal and institutional frameworks for the protection of human rights.

The Nobel Prize

Besides his landmark deal with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, all these promises of reforms convinced the Noble Committee to give him the Nobel Prize.

I was in Ethiopia in December 2019 when Abiy received his prize in Oslo. People were everywhere listening to his acceptance speech and there were mass celebrations. Ethiopia is a multi-ethnic nation, and the major ethnic groups are the Oromo, the Amhara, and the Tigrayans. Amhara elites had been traditionally dominating Ethiopia, though the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) dominated Ethiopian politics from 1991 to 2018, through the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front.

Abiy came to power in 2018 with the support of the largest ethnic group, Oromo, and the traditionally powerful ethnic group, Amhara. However, in the summer of this year, the killing of famous Oromo singer Hachalu Hundessa and the violent riots afterward brought a question mark over the largest ethnic group’s support for the Abiy.

The rise of Abiy due to an alliance of Oromo and Amhara political pushed the TPLF to its home state Tigray under the leadership of Debretsion Gebremichael to remobilize itself. Abiy has pursued a policy of centralisation of power to strengthen his Prosperity Party.

There is a conflict going on in the Ethiopian northern region which has forced thousands of poor people from Tigray to take refuge in neighbouring Sudan. The UN estimates that if the fighting continues for some more time, the refugee number might go up to 200,000. Abiy has the support of Eritrean President Isaias but to tame the battle-hardened TPLF, he needs Sudan on his side.

Sudan, going through a transition period, is in very bad shape economically. A large number of refugee influx from Tigray has already become its concern.

GERD negotiations

Sudan has already strengthened its position in the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) negotiation as it has told on 19 November that it will not participate in the future deliberations unless its demand for a mediation body with the greater role of the African Union is accepted.

For the first time, Sudan has taken this strong stance in this negotiation. In this long-drawn negotiation process over the filling and operation of the dam, the negotiation was mostly between Egypt and Ethiopia, but Sudan now demands its pound of flesh. TPLF’s censure has already limited Abiy’s hands in GERD negotiation with Egypt, and now he has to deal with an assertive Sudan.

Prime Minister Abiy has given a deadline for TPLF to surrender. He, however, needs to end the military conflict in Tigray as it has resulted in a serious humanitarian crisis. But, Ethiopia is yet to accept the mediation offer of the African Union, and a UN report believes it is going to be a long war.

Abiy has to go back to the promise and hope he had shown in the initial months of his administration, and engage in negotiation with political adversaries, to commit to power-sharing under a federal system. Ethiopia in particular and the region in general badly needs peace and development, not war.


Ashok Swain is a Professor of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University, Sweden. Source: Gulf News