The crisis in Ethiopia holds lessons for Nigeria, writes Ademola oshodi
The current political situation in Ethiopia, which has degenerated to an armed conflict, is of immediate and significant national security concern to Nigeria. This is because of the close similarity in the elements threatening the political development of both countries such as the socio-cultural cum demographic features of both nations. Ethnic-based politics which has been the bane of many African countries is gaining new life across Nigeria. While Nigeria has found ways to manage this divisive tendency through the unwritten principles of zoning and rotation in political power configuration, especially since the return of democracy in 1999, the issue continues to chip away at the fabric of our society. This has led to many localized agitations gaining national and even international recognition in recent times. Many may argue that the adoption of zoning and power rotation is a better way to hold together the country as an indivisible whole and foreclose any future clamor for self-determination by ethnic champions. However, unlike Ethiopia, which has enshrined the ethnic-based regional system in her constitution, the zoning and power rotation arrangements in Nigeria are almost wholly dependent on good faith of the political parties and their leaders.
While both Nigeria and Ethiopia have adopted the federal structure of governance, the reality is that the spirit of ethnic dominance continues to conspire against liberal democracy in the two countries. During the last three decades, the Tigrayans of Ethiopia succeeded in cornering every sector of the largely state-controlled economy and the security apparatus at the expense of other ethnic groups. The resolve of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, an Oromo (who was once a trusted ally of the TPLF), to reform governance in Ethiopia is perceived as not being in the interest of the TPLF-led regional government who see their political and economic dominance in Ethiopia as being challenged by the Oromo upstart.
It is obvious that Ethiopia is still grappling with her transition into a truly federal state due to her long experience with a unitary system and ethnic domination. There is overconcentration of powers in the centre thereby defeating the real essence of federalism. For instance, the current crisis was triggered by the insistence of the regional government in Tigray to proceed with scheduled local elections in spite of the postponement of general elections by the country’s central election management body. The response of the Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed-led federal government was to forcefully remove the regional government in Tigray for going against the decision of Addis Ababa. Of course, as highlighted above, there are deeper undertones to this action and reaction.
Like many ethnically heterogeneous countries in Africa, Ethiopia has struggled for political balance between contending ethnic tendencies, which are perpetually struggling for the control of political power. This forms the major basis for her adoption of a decentralized governance structure with a federal government at the apex and regional governments at coordinating level.
The scenario above should be of pertinent lesson to Nigeria in view of increasingly loud agitation for a restructuring of the polity as a means of addressing real and perceived hegemonic tendencies by particular ethnic nationalities and the marginalization of others. As Nigeria looks ahead to another transitional election in 2023, it is important that these agitations are properly addressed to avoid the type of political disagreement that has preoccupied that current turmoil in Ethiopia. While it is improbable that armed political confrontation will take place here, we still must avoid any increase in political tension, particularly given the current security and economic challenges we now face. A peep into the political party movement in Ethiopia shows that most political parties metamorphosed by establishing militia groups which, in too many instances, became more important than parties that formed them. This explains the belligerent posture of political actors in that country. Nigeria cannot afford to go that route because of its many dire uncertain implications. Already, the increasing visibility of the Independent People of Biafra (IPOB) movement despite its proscription by the Nigerian government is a warning signal.
Recent developments in Ethiopia have raised fresh concerns about the tenuous political stability of the East African country and the implications for regional security in the Horn of Africa. With over 110 million ethnically diverse people, an outbreak of a civil war in Ethiopia will have far-reaching ramifications for regional peace and security. At a time, the whole world is battling a pandemic, the current conflict in Ethiopia exposes the people to double jeopardy. Coincidentally, the arrow-head of the war against Covid–19, Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization, is a Tigrayan-Ethiopian. An irony on the major crisis facing the East African country.
Perhaps, it is in recognition of the need to address the issue of ethnic domination in Ethiopia that the government in Addis Ababa is carrying out a quiet political revolution in the country. This has inadvertently pitted the hitherto powerful Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front –led regional government of Tigray against the federal government headed by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of the ruling Prosperity Party. Abiy Ahmed, himself a product of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), (a coalition of ethnic political parties) on assumption of office in 2018 embarked on a major onslaught against the predominance of the Tigrayan ethnic group in the Ethiopian bureaucracy and economy. It is worthy to note that early in the 1990s, Meles Zenawi’s Tigray dominated insurrection against the government of Mengistu Haile Mariam, seized power in Ethiopia and held on to it for 17 years, entrenching a Tigrayan biased system in government.
PM Abiy had recast the top echelons of the military and intelligence community as well as state-owned corporations by replacing many senior officials with his own appointees. This is in addition to prosecution of former state officials for corruption. Predictably, a vast majority of those affected in the purge and prosecution are Tigrayans. These measures have resulted in a push back by the Tigray regional government by undermining the central government’s authority.
Though, the decision of the Tigray regional government to proceed with parliamentary elections in defiance of the indefinite postponement of all elections by the federal authorities can be said to be the immediate cause of the current disquiet, political observers of the Ethiopian polity are aware of the fundamental undercurrents behind the present saga.
Today, almost all the countries in the Horn of Africa are affected one way or the other by the impasse in Ethiopia. Sudan suffers the weight of increasing number of refugees from the Tigray region. According to the United Nations Agency for Refugees (UNHCR), tens of thousands of refugees have crossed to Sudan within days of the conflict. Already hard pressed to care for its own, Sudan will find it difficult to help this influx.
Eritrea is uneasy because of her geographic proximity to the Tigray region and the mutual suspicion between the Tigrayan and Eriteans. Indeed, the regional Tigray government had fired missiles into Asmara, capital of Eritrea, at the outset of the current conflict, claiming that the country was aiding the Ethiopian government in attacking it. The United Nations is also concerned that an escalation of the conflict beyond Ethiopia will have grave implications for peace and security in the Horn of Africa region. According to the United Nations’ Secretary – General, António Guterres, “the stability of Ethiopia is important for the entire Horn of Africa region”.
Again, the repercussions of the Ethiopian civil tensions constitute a stark lesson to be learnt by Nigeria. The two countries are also the more prosperous countries in their respective regions despite having large segments of their populations living below the poverty line. Both are therefore critical to the economic development of Africa especially with the African Continental Free Trade Area billed to take off in January 2021. Militarily, Nigeria and Ethiopia are regional powers in West and East Africa, respectively. The two countries have historically intervened in their respective regions, their sphere of influence, in an attempt to provide stability. Ethiopia’s United Nations and African Union peacekeeping and enforcement roles in Somalia, Sudan, Rwanda, and Burundi, are comparable to Nigeria’s in Liberia and Sierra Leone through the Economic Community of West African States and its ECOMOG mandate, in West Africa. By extrapolation, it is clear that whatever happens in either country have dire security, economic, and political implications for their respective regions.
On the political front, Nigeria has to pay serious attention to nation-building. There must be deliberate strategies to ensure a welding together of the several ethno-religious tendencies in the land. Premium should be placed on mutual respect for, and by, the different ethnic nationalities in the country. For instance, more attention should be given to the principle of federal, and state, character in the composition of public institutions. Continuous dialogue must be encouraged and incentivized by the federal government even as agitations for restructuring grow louder by the day. At the political party level, fidelity to internal power rotation agreements is critical to building trust and internal cohesion.
Healing of past injustices should be prioritized. It is by doing all these and more that we can ensure social cohesion, political stability, and economic development in the country and consequentially, re-establish Nigeria as a rallying point for the development of the African continent and the pride of the black race.
Oshodi is African Affairs Analyst and Special Assistant to Asiwaju Bola Tinubu