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The Risk of Negotiating with A Fragile State: Tigray’s Dilemma

By Asayehgn Desta (Ph.D), Sarlo Distinguished Professor of Sustainable Development
Tigrai Online 7/21/2022

Summary and Policy Implications

Messner (February 12, 2018) persuasively argues that no country wishes to be categorized as a fragile state. Nonetheless, Robel (July 22, 2021) and the Fund for Peace (July 22) have characterized that Ethiopia is currently progressing toward fragility. Given this, the purpose of the study was to review the literature on fragility, develop a theoretical framework lens that depicts fragility, and then empirically test Ethiopia’s current condition.

As mentioned above, before 2018, the federal government of Ethiopia used Developmental State Capitalism to stimulate its economy. Thereby, Ethiopia achieved substantial economic growth and became the economic engine of sub-Saharan Africa (Desta, 2019). However, when Abiy reversed Ethiopia’s developmental state model and had it follow the neo-liberal model, its economy suffered. More specifically, during Abiy’s period, Ethiopia’s GDP skidded. Ethiopia has faced soaring sustained inflation and rampant unemployment, and its external debt has remained unserviceable.

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For example, Ethiopia’s real GDP declined from 9.0% in 2019 to 1.9% in 2020 due to a substantial increase in Broad Money (M2) and the impact of the COVID-19 health crisis (International Monetary Fund (IMF), 2021). The massive political turbulences and unrest in Ethiopia’s landscape have caused a substantial increase in cyclical unemployment from 19% in 2017 to 21% in 2021. In particular, youth unemployment increased to an official rate of 25% (BTI, 2022).

Despite Abiy’s intention “…to open a number of sectors to foreign investment through the partial privatization of state-owned enterprises to increase value added export” (BTI, 2022), the flow of net FDI inflows (% of GDP) to Ethiopia declined from 4.0% in 2018 to negative 2.2% in 2021. Similarly, Ethiopia’s exports fluctuated substantially.

Similarly, due to stagnant world coffee prices and the decreasing demand for agricultural and manufactured goods, starting in 2018, Ethiopia’s external debt as percentage of GDP increased from 30.8% to 32.7%. Thereby, Ethiopia’s foreign exchange currency reserves have sizably declined below the three months threshold of hard currency required for a country to import goods and services (IMF, 2021).

Prior to 2018, Ethiopia’s economic growth contributed to a substantial increase in social services. For example, access to universal primary education, health coverage, and potable water accelerated by 100, 98, and 65 percent respectively (See Desta, 2019). However, after the outbreak of COVID-19, Ethiopia’s record on the Human Development Index remained at a standstill. As a result, an estimated five to six million people in Ethiopia face food insecurity. Accordingly, Ethiopia ranks 173 out of 189 countries on the Human Development Index (BTI, 2022).

Ethiopia’s achievement of gender emancipation was loudly mentioned as one of the main goals of Prime Minister Abiy’s reform agenda. However, when measured using the Gender Inequality Index (BTI, 2022) in 2019 alone, Ethiopia scored a very low 0.517 points. The current civilian unrest has also triggered attacks against civilians and caused the destruction of the health and school facilities throughout Ethiopia. As a result, 1.7 million children will lose access to education because of their parents’ displacement (Habib, May 28, 2022).

When Ethiopia was ruled under the centrist feudal monarchy and the unitary military dictatorship, it was on the brink of a colossal failure. During the Ethiopian Peoples’ Republic Democratic Front (EPRDF) era, Ethiopia’s economy was on a growth trajectory. Furthermore, with the formation of ethnic-based federalism through the EPRDF, Ethiopia achieved political stability. In other words, by using a state-centered form of democratic federalism, each region in Ethiopia was made to share political power. Simply put, the formation of federalism during the EPRDF era was highly valued because it promised each region the opportunity to develop, promote, and preserve its languages and culture.

In short, from 1995 to 2016, Ethiopia enjoyed political reform. However, starting in 2018, EPRDF’s governance imprudently drove the country into political unrest. The unemployed and the frustrated youth caused turmoil throughout Ethiopia’s landscape. Consequently, Abiy Ahmed emerged as the chair of the EPRDF ruling coalition party and eventually he ended up being Ethiopia’s Prime Minister.

During his honeymoon period, Prime Minister Abiy released political prisoners, removed some opposition groups from the country’s list of terrorist groups, and implemented a gender-balanced (10 women and 10 men) cabinet. Consequently, Abiy was applauded as visionary leader and a man of peace. After signing a declaration with President Isaias on July 9, 2019, in Saudi Arabia to normalize the “no-war, no-peace” deadlock period between Ethiopia and Eritrea, Abiy was awarded the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize (Reuters September 16, 2018).

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Paradoxically, as soon as Abiy became a peace laureate, he started manifesting the other side of his personality. Among other things, he collaborated with Isaias, the known Eritrean autocratic and the known enemy of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, to launch a genocidal war on the people of Tigray. In defiance of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Front, Abiy unilaterally reversed the country’s growth-generating developmental state model. Outrightly, he changed Ethiopia’s economy to a neo-liberalism economic model (free market, privatization, no government intervention, deregulation, free trade, etc.)

To accomplish his plan, Abiy gave unflinching orders to his cabinet officers to make sure that the lucrative state-owned mega companies (such as Ethio-Telecom, the electric company, and the booming Ethiopian Airlines) start liquidating minority stakes to private investors (Desta,2019).

Undermining the country’s 1995 constitution that gave each state’s constituencies the right to elect their own governor, except for the administrative region of Tigray, Abiy started appointing the governors for the eight administrative regions in Ethiopia. Also undermining the 1995 constitution, Abiy single-handedly dissolved the EPRDF and outrightly announced the formation of his political party, the Prosperity Party. Finally, using the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse, he manipulated members of the parliament to endorse his desire to postpone the 2020 general election.

As Abiy changed from being a reformer to an outright dictator, he lost his legitimacy as a leader worth trusting. Blending this with his inability and unwillingness to speak truthfully to the Ethiopian people, he was widely considered a preacher of distorted events. For example, Abiy deceitfully blamed the members of the Ethiopian parliament for not allocating an adequate budget to the administrative region Tigray when he in fact was the one who collaborated with Isaias’ Eritrean forces to impose a “de facto humanitarian blockade” on Tigray to systematically obstruct food and life-saving medicine from reaching Tigray (de Waal, A. 4 November 2021). In addition, the genocidal wars and the wars of atrocities that Abiy has engineered throughout Ethiopia have precipitated a huge human cost, with thousands killed, over 70,000 refugees having fled the country, and more than 5 million Ethiopians displaced and exposed to communicable diseases.

To sum up, by reversing the years of economic progress made by the EPRDF, Abiy has forced the poorest and vulnerable Ethiopians to suffer in an economically decaying environment. An estimated five to six million people in Ethiopia are facing food insecurity and are in need of humanitarian and food aid. For example, more than 1.7 million children have lost access to education due to the displacement of their parents (Habib, May 28, 2022). Despite Abiy’s phony gender emancipation reform goal, Ethiopia scored a very low 0.517 points on the world’s Gender Inequality Index (BTI, 2022).

Rather than continuing to be an “honorable leader” as he started, Abiy has currently turned from a laureate to a driver of genocidal war. To devastate the people of Tigray, he went to the extent of undermining Ethiopia’s sovereignty. Willingly, he invited Eritrean and Somalia forces to invade Tigray and dismantle its historical antiquities. In addition, to control the movement of Tigrayans to Sudan, he allowed Sudanese forces to control a large part of Ethiopia’s territory.

Disenchanted with the atrocities that Abiy is creating in Ethiopia, many concerned Ethiopians, living in Ethiopia and abroad, have been restlessly demonstrating and chanting for the resignation of Abiy. In addition, activist Ethiopians have already filed cases against Abiy with the International Court of justice for deliberately committing outrageous genocide war against the people of Ethiopia.

Therefore, when observed through the lens of fragility using a longitudinal analysis–economic, social, and political indicators–we whole heartedly agree with Robel (July 22, 2021) and the Fund for Peace (2022), that, currently, Abiy’s Ethiopia has passed beyond fragility and is heading towards balkanization. Being a deceitful leader, Abiy has lost the legitimacy that he won earlier. Strikingly enough, Abiy’s current governance has failed to provide state function to his people. He caused the incursion of Ethiopia’s sovereignty by inviting Eritrea’s, Somalia’s, and Sudanese external forces to invade Ethiopian Tigrayans.

Currently, Ethiopia is faced with a boundless economic disaster. It is entrenched with skyrocketing unemployment. The scourge of inflation has made the cost of basic services intolerable. Highly atrocious and genocidal wars in Ethiopia have precipitated Ethiopia’s external debt to be unbearable.

By encouraging armed conflict and widespread insurgencies, Abiy has inspired social tension and deep humanitarian crises in Ethiopia. Paradoxically, while Abiy has announced that he has established a committee to negotiate with the Tigrayan forces, he is seen accumulating additional armaments from abroad to leverage his political power and extend his stay in power.

Given that Ethiopia’s socio-economic and political landscape glares fragility, it is too risky for the Tigrayan forces to negotiate with Abiy’s government and fall into a trap. Instead, as initiated before (See, Mackintosh, November 5, 2021, and Felbab-Brown, 2022), the Tigrayan government and other disgruntled groups need to systematically form a transitional arrangement of a united front of Ethiopian con-federalist forces designed to withstand existing shocks and reengineer Ethiopia’s capacity to re-emerge from fragility to resilience.

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The Risk of Negotiating with A Fragile State: Tigray’s Dilemma



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