Global statistics show that eight out of 10 of the world’s poorest countries are suffering, or have recently suffered, from large scale violent conflict. The burden of wars is however more cumbersome in developing countries since an upsurge in conflict tends to falls heavy on human, economic, and social costs leading to a major cause of poverty and underdevelopment.
In recent times, Ethiopia has had its fair share of struggles stemming from conflict. In order to best understand Ethiopia’s thorns, Capital’s Metasebia Teshome sat down with political scientist, Semir Yusuf (PhD) for insights on the dynamics of the country’s conflict genesis and recent violence upsurge.
Semir Yusuf holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of Toronto, Canada and is a Senior Researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Addis Ababa where he heads the Ethiopia Project. He has published widely on conflict and peace, transition politics, authoritarian politics and Ethiopian studies. The following are excerpts from the candid interview;


Capital: There has been an upsurge of conflict across Ethiopia in different times after PM Abiy Ahmed came to power. What do you think has attributed to increase of conflict and violence in Ethiopia?

Semir Yusuf: I would like to emphasize that each and every conflict event in Ethiopia has its own specificities, and its own particular peculiar characteristics. This can stem from its local dynamics, its own history and so forth. I will not delve deeply into the specifics to trace the conflicts in Ethiopia; rather I would like to offer a very broad, general generic explanation that equally cut across most conflicts that have risen in the country in the last four years.
The first on the list is identity related contentions. And this is about ethno nationalist mobilizations and nationalist, counter nationalist movements, ethno religious movements that are involved in several things such as counterclaims autonomy questions, scramble over control of regional states, and so on and so forth. They’re also influenced by economic issues, but they involve identity in one way or another.
The second is elite competition. Elites are quite important in mobilizing people for a nationalist cause. But elites are important for another reason as well. They have their own material interests, power interests, economic interest and so on. So competition among elites should be treated in its own terms, in addition to nationalist dynamics.
Thirdly, the institutional pattern is quite important as well. And here, party institutions, state institutions play a very important role in fueling tension across the country.
Last but not least, of course, the international aspect of conflicts is very important, ranging from smuggling of arms across borders to more direct involvement in internal affairs of different ways in diverse manners.

Capital: How do these factors correlate to propel the issue?

Semir Yusuf: Political institutions contribute to the fragmentation of contending nationalisms while contending nationalisms contribute to institutional fragility and elite’s rivalry, and the confluence of contending nationalisms, institutional fragility, thrives on leading to the eruption and development of violence in Ethiopia.
And these are also interrelated with one another in that contending nationalisms contribute to the enhancement of institutional fragility and elite rivalry. And when there is more intense competition and social fragility, you will see a more heightened contending nationalism spread across the country.
So this dynamic cycle is what I believe keeps on producing violence and conflict in Ethiopia. And policy recommendations, I believe should be anchored on this dynamic in order to transcend the cycle of violence in Ethiopia.
It is virtually impossible to understand nationalist contentious Ethiopia without going back into recent history. Both pre and post 1991 period is central to understand contentious nationalist mobilizations in Ethiopia.
Before 1991, during the Imperial regime and during the military reign, we used to have a unitary state, Ethiopia, autocratic leadership and also most importantly a nation building states regime aspiring to build a more homogenous collective identity for Ethiopians.
Now that internal drive coincided with a very important international environment, the Marxist movements of the 60s and the 70s, and the decolonization movements in Africa. That pathway between those internal and international processes produced a very interesting perception inside Ethiopia.
That perception was quite predominantly visible among southern elites in the country that feel the nation building policies of Ethiopian governments is actually a nation destroying.
I’m borrowing here from Walker Conner, a famous political scientist, who argued notably that nation building for one is a nation destroying for another. So the nation building policies of Ethiopian governments were seen by Southern Ethiopia as attempts to destroy their nations. And that led to a counter movements and anti-state struggle. So you will see the establishment of political institutions insurgent organizations and then heightened level of movements challenging the state, it’s not as successful so forth, that that went on and on until 1991, when a coalition of ethno-nationalist forces captured state power.
And now, the immediate effect of that is the capture of power by a coalition of ethno- nationalist forces who took the Ethiopian State for the first time abandoning its nation building aspirations. And in the beginning of what EPRDF called at the time, the multinational projects and a very important manifestation of that multi nationalism or multinational project was that the multinational federation or the ethnic Federation that was put in place after 1991.
Now, the multinational Federation Ethiopia, however, was beset with several contradictions. On one hand, we had the construction of regional states which came up with their own local politics and their own constitutions and national anthem and so forth. But on the other hand, we also had hierarchically organized centralized party structure that contradicted the very ideal of a federal structure. So that structural contradiction, then contributed to a psychological contradiction as well. And the psychological contradiction was that some marginalized groups in Ethiopia felt empowered as a result of the multinational federal project, because they had been marginalized in Ethiopian state.
But on the other hand, many other ethnic groups such as the so called settlers in different regions have been suddenly harassed and subjected to violence and therefore disempowerment arose. So the federal project, Ethiopia both empowered and disempowered ethnic groups in the country that was the ironic implication effect of the practice of federalism in the political aspect.
So, this multinational project went on producing the simmering nationalist frontlines and it is very, very important to understand today’s political dynamics in line with the three conflict types which emerged during the EPRDF.
One is this perennial struggle between ethno nationalists and Ethiopian nationalists to anti regime struggles, opposition struggle, legal movements, parties against the state, to insurgent movements against the state, and free protest movements against the state as well.
The second type is the anti-regime movements while the third is the conflict of different types between and among ethno nationalists themselves along land claims and counter claims and grazing lands, scramble over control of territories regional states, so the conflict was also visible among ethno -nationalists themselves.
In the midst of all these conflicts, however, there was a facade of stability in the country because of the hierarchically organized state system, and the deployment of coercion by the state. This started to change after 2011. And more so after 2015, when protest movements, engulfed Ethiopia in Addis Ababa in Amhara and in Oromia regions.
And those protest movements started to push the EPRDF of the ruling party and contributed to; an internal struggle, rebellion of the ruling party itself and led to the emergence of a coalition that marginalized the TPLF, the core element within the EPRDF. And this emerging coalition ushered in a series of political reform processes in the country.
The problem, however, was that with the onset of political liberalization, you will also see the bursting forth of all oppressed, such as suppressed simmering nationalist contentious in the country. So in order to understand today’s political violence and conflict, we have to really understand all the simmering tensions, suppressed contentions, nationalist and internationalist struggles that were, you know, controlled by autocratic leadership. This leadership liberalized all those simmering tensions and busted out into active confrontations, nationalist mobilizations, counter nationalism mobilizations which then spurred violence and conflict.
So you will see the consolidation in post 2018 of several variants of nationalisms; Amhara nationalism, Oromo nationalism, Tigray nationalism, Kimant, Somali, Gumuz nationalism all those mobilising people, and sometimes in contentious ways. Some of them are, in contention with one another as well, through contentious nationalists dynamics, with very important historical roots which have contributed to the rise and surge of violence in Ethiopia after 2018.

Capital: How would you best define the elite competition in the country?

Semir Yusuf: Just like nationalist contention, elite competition has a long history in Ethiopia. So we have usually a political opening, like the one we had in 1974, in 1991, or in 2018. And that political opening, paves the way for public euphoria. People are very happy about that political change. And then that’s immediately led by the striking alliance among key political elites in the country. And that gives hope for the people that we are doing quite well.
But that alliance is short lived and is followed by the disruption of those Alliance systems. And that triggers power struggle between key political actors in the country. And then you will see the consolidation of power in the hands of very few elites or one particular person that turns out to be the new power holder in the country. That pattern is very important to understand the elite dimension and elite rivalry elite competition in Ethiopia producing virus.
I’ll give you two examples here, how the elite’s rivalry unfolded in Ethiopia, specifically in Oromia, and in Amhara regions. Going back to 2018, in Oromia, Prime Minister Abiy promised both democracy and peace, especially of course in the entire country but specifically in Oromia. He travelled to the US and met several Oromo elites, and then we see the striking of a very important alliance among the Prime Minister including Jawar Mohamed, the noted political activist at the time and Lemma Megersa who has been one of the very important figures in Oromia and once, of course the regional president of the Oromia region states as well.
So that alliance really gives hope to the entire country and specifically for those in Oromia, that things are going quite well in this country, and the transition process is holding. And there is also a very short lived Alliance, between the EPRDF under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Oromia Liberation front /OLF/ as well, that although division of agreement still is shrouded in mystery in secrecy, there did exist a bit of short lived alliance.
But then you would immediately see the disruption of these and other Alliance systems in the country. It all started with a disruption of alliances between OLF and the federal government towards the end of 2018, a number of disagreements started to come to play. That was followed by a split within the OLF itself between the Oromo Liberation Army /OLA/, and some elements in OLF.
And then, quite importantly, and consequential was also the disarmament and destruction of alliances between the Oromo Democratic Party /ODP/, at the time regional ruling Party in Oromia, and the Kero leaders including Jawar.
And then there was also a split within the prosperity party itself, between Prime Minister Abiy and Lemma Megersa as well, there was an attempt to resurrect the alliance system but it didn’t pan out.
And by 2020 we see a united front against the prosperity partnership leadership, but then after 2020, we see the disruption of that alliance as well, within the opposition movements in Oromia. And then that led to power consolidation efforts, hands of prosperity party leadership, and that went through two phases, that is, the formal phase, and the informal phase, with the formal phase going through several steps. The creation of the prospective party that was challenges the States responded to through repression. There was also expulsion of several key elites within the state system in Oromia.
The movement of several Kero leaders, youth movement leaders, we also embedded in the body of politics in the party and state structure as well. And then finally, during the election in 2021, power conservation efforts was legitimized under a very controversial election but it served the purpose of legitimizing the power of the prosperity party leadership that had been underway, even before that. You will see the same thing happening in Amhara region.
The point I wanted to make is that in the process of power competition, among elites power rivalry, political struggle of political consolidation often results in rampant violence and conflicts in different parts of the country, especially in Amhara and Oromia region as well as in the relationship between Amhara and in Oromia elites.
Elite competition in Ethiopia is complex. It is complex because we cannot easily know the changing interests. Some times their interest could be nationalism and sometimes it may be personal interest and thus it is really difficult to forecast their interest.

Capital: How is violence spurred institutionally?

Semir Yusuf: The third very important propagator of violence is the institutions. So if nationalist contentions are important to understand violence, if the elite dimensions are important, then why hasn’t the state been able to prevent conflicts effectively and immediately? Of course the state has made some successful efforts to prevent conflict but it has failed in many others as well.
So what explains the failure of the state in its apparatus to immediately and effectively arrest, prevent, and manage conflicts in different parts of the country? There are three very important elements within the party in state structure to properly answer this.
One is division within the ruling party that has been ongoing; of course, it was quite amplified towards the beginning of the political transition. There was active division within the ruling parties along with visionary lies, pragmatic lies, problematic lies, and that contributed to conflicts in two ways. One, it was really difficult for the party to chart the collective vision for managing transforming conflicts in the country. And two, the party institutions were actually used as an instrument to reproduce societal divisions into the state structures.
The party instead of serving as an instrument to transcend conflict actually served as a mechanism whereby societal divisions are reproduced into the state system. And two, the state practice have also been accused of inaction in the face of impending violence, mainly because of the weakening of the quasi apparatus maybe because of other reasons but that was one very important viability.
And finally, one of the glaring ironies of post 2018 Ethiopia was the coexistence of state in action and state over-action at the same time.
We have very inactive states sometimes in some places, and an overactive state accused of deploying force disproportionately giving rise to fueling grievances or later in the use of the same to fuel grievances and maintain the cycle of violence in the country.
Now, I’ve mentioned three factors, and in order for me to best paint the picture of these factors let me use some simple illustrations.
For instance in the Jawar incident in 2018, the notable political activist announced on his Facebook page that his security had been removed, and that lead to violence between security forces and protesters clashes in Harerge.
The Hachalu incident in 2020 also saw clashes between police and protesters. Furthermore, the OLA insurgency has been active since 2019. If you go to Amhara region, the Kimant movement has been active since 2019. And the conflict in Oromia especially zones in the Amhara regional state once again were exposed in conflict since 2019 as well.

Capital: What is the similarity between these conflicts?

Semir Yusuf: Three things are common about these conflicts. The phenomenon or bases is one, where there is a lot of nationalist mobilization, and identity related issue. Identity dimensions also play a crucial part in this.
Secondly, there are elite competitions over resources. Of course, the elite power struggle is quite central to understanding some of these conflicts, and thirdly, institutional dimension is also quite important. It is important to note that the state’s inaction or inability to protect civilian’s state over action has lead to more intense violence and division within the party as well.

Capital: What have you observed from the Tigray war?

Semir Yusuf: The Tigray war, I believe is within the same framework that I have outlined so far. For instance, the nationalist scene is quite important, heightened level of mobilization among Ethiopian nationals versus the Tigrayian nationalism and one counterpoint against the other.
Similarly for the case of elite competition, Tigray War was not just about nationalistic reasons, right. It was a lot about as well elite rivalry and competition between rising elites and losing elites. And this is about power struggle, disagreements over how to interpret the 27 year rule of EPRDF and how best to understand the origins of the political reform, economic interests and also for the elite dimension.
Power Struggle in disagreements is quite central, in addition to contentious nationalism in Ethiopia, to understanding the Tigray war. Similarly, institutional dynamics is also quite important and state weakness and central pressure is very important in this regard. The very eruption of the Tigray War typifies the emergence of two social orders in Ethiopia.
Two social owners with their own legal, economic and political systems really typify state weakness. In addition, state fragility has also contributed to the emergence of the Tigray war because of the lack of projection of power by the state and by the federal government causing its territories to succumb to several challenges to come.
State fragility somehow contributed to the emergence of the civil war. Similarly, state repression in different parts of Ethiopia, for example, in Tigray contributed to the consolidation of the Tigrayian nationalism which then really turned civil war into a very tense and enduring conflict.
Of course, we can’t talk about the Tigray war without mentioning the international dimension. This is not just about the role of Eritrea but also Ethiopia; into the global power play and how that power play also came into Ethiopia and contributed to the intensification and durability of the civil war in the country.
Some of the conflicts have subsided as we speak such as the Tigray war, and efforts are underway to tackle some others and I would like to emphasize the root causes of violence in Ethiopia have not yet been addressed very well.
The structural roots and agency related roots of conflict in this country have yet to be addressed and tackled effectively. Those four dynamics are quite important; the nationalist, the elite, the institutional and international influence are central to our understanding of violence and conflict in the country.

Capital: Currently the government has planned certain mechanisms to combat conflicts, including creating the National Dialogue platform. What’s your view on this?

Semir Yusuf: On one hand there are several post conflict activities and on the other we may stay in conflicts so we have to consider both periods. In post conflict times to sustain peace and tackle upcoming conflicts, lots of work is needed and one of these is national dialogue which is integral to national unity. National dialogue does not mean that we will reach full agreement in all aspects. Of course, arguments, debates and controversies will continue but the aim is to prevent them from changing into violence through peaceful means, and legal manners.
Transitional justice is another possibility. Transitional justice is informed by a society’s desire to rebuild social trust, reestablish what is right from what is wrong, and repair a fractured justice system in post-war countries. So we need to apply it in a well-organized manner to get sustainable peace.
The other issue is political reform, we need to start straightening and continuation of applying political reform to reduce conflict resulting issues, for instance in dictatorship and so on.
And also in places where conflicts still occur, we need to apply certain options and efforts to stop conflicts to get full results.

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