How Close is Ethiopia to a Major Change?

How Close is Ethiopia to a Major Change?

Analysis. By Gregory R. Copley, Editor, GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs. 


 The tide of resistance in Ethiopia against the Government of Prime Minister Dr Abiy Ahmed Ali now appears to be entering a decisive phase, with the possibility that the empire of some 115-million people and some 80 ethnicities could see a change of government.

     The Abiy Government’s successful suppression of the two-year insurgency by the Tigray Popular Liberation Front (TPLF) by November 2022 was then followed by Dr Abiy’s decision, essentially on the insistence of his more extreme Oromo supporters, to attack Ethiopian nationalists in the Amhara and Afar regions, resulting in around one-million more killed in 2023, and possibly some 20+-million internally displaced persons. This led the Amhara and Afar people to create resistance forces against Dr Abiy’s Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF). These are known as Fano militias.

     By the end of 2023, Fano forces were created throughout much of Ethiopia, not just among the Amhara and Afar people, and by January 2024 there were some 400,000 Fano fighters, working under five separate, but communicating, commands. In the late-December 2023 and early-January 2024 timeframe, some 40,000 more ENDF troops had crossed the lines and joined the Fano. They brought with them their weapons and ammunition, supply dumps of ordnance and weapons, as well as vehicles.

     The capital, Addis Ababa, was, by mid-January 2024, becoming increasingly isolated, and Dr Abiy had alienated his former close supporters in the region, Eritrea and Djibouti, and then he alienated Somalia, which had not only been a supporter but which counted on Ethiopian security help to constrain the Somalian insurgency problem. In the face of rejection by Eritrean President Isayas Afewerke and Djibouti President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh, something brought about by Dr Abiy’s policies against the Amhara and Afar people, among other things, Dr Abiy, as a result, needed a reliable new trade outlet to and from the Red Sea which did not rely on Eritrea or Djibouti.

In late December 2023, Dr Abiy offered the neighboring Somaliland Government of President Musa Bihi Abdi a share in the Ethiopian state airline, Ethiopian Airways, in exchange for concessions and secure transit from Ethiopia through Somaliland to its port of Berbera on the Red Sea. This amounted, in some respects, to recognizing the sovereignty of Somaliland, which had separated from its brief union with Somalia (former Italian Somaliland). Significantly, the port of Berbera is run by the Dubai company, DP World. But the initiative alienated Somalia, which meant that Ethiopia now had alienated most of its neighbors: Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia, and (although now mending) Sudan.

     What this also indicated was that Addis Ababa, under Abiy, was straining its relationship with Türkiye, which had provided the Abiy Government with advanced unmanned aerial combat vehicles (UCAVs) which were of significant help in defeating the TPLF forces. Türkiye, however, was moving strategically to control the tenuous governance of Somalia, and had a major military position in the capital, Mogadishu. So Abiy’s ability to mount a successful defense of his government in the internal power struggle now underway is in question.

     However, Türkiye’s rivals in the region – Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – were actively supporting Dr Abiy. But both were also committed to working with Eritrea and Djibouti, which have important littoral territory on the African side of the Red Sea. In December 2023, the UAE Air Force deployed combat aircraft, reportedly, to the Ethiopian Air Force base at Debre Zeit, near Addis Ababa, for exercises.

     Even so, Dr Abiy is losing traction at home. The pace of ENDF defections to the Fano groups is accelerating. And the Fano groups are increasingly gaining a political focus with very specific objectives, including the restoration of a government which would honor the 1973 draft constitution which was being introduced by Emperor Haile Selassie I, when he was overthrown by the pro-Soviet Dergue in 1974. Indeed, it was widely suspected that the coup occurred because the Emperor’s new Constitution would have introduced a far more liberal state, with a structured parliamentary system akin to that of the United Kingdom.

     Fano groups have also been identified through their use of the traditional Ethiopian tricolor flags without the communist star in the middle. Many of the groups use the old Imperial flag, with the moa anbessa – Conquering Lion of Judah – insignia on the tricolor. Significantly, the manifesto of the Fano movement, now being finalized, is known to seek the restoration of the Ethiopian crown, in addition to restoring family links with Eritrea and Djibouti.

     The question now facing Dr Abiy is whether he can rebuild his ties with foreign powers in a manner which would give him support against the growing strength of the Fano movement, which is now a pan-Ethiopian phenomenon. But more than that, can Dr Abiy bolster the morale of his own troops? A telling indication has been in the fact that he has changed his personal security detail frequently, and has apparently been considering the use of Kenyan or Ugandan security officers out of fear that Ethiopian troops can no longer be relied upon.

     All this indicates, too, that Dr Abiy’s support of opponents of the national Ethiopian church, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, at the behest of his Oromo extremist colleagues, has backfired. Attempts to curtail the church have failed, and, just before Ethiopian Christmas, in December 2023, a high church official, the Archbishop, Abune Lukas, based in Melbourne, Australia, called on the Ethiopian military to remove Dr Abiy from office.

     The Patriarch and the senior officials of the Church in Addis Ababa did not comment on Abune Lukas’s statements from the pulpit.

     In addition to his calls for the military to remove Dr Abiy, on January 14, 2024, the Ethiopian news site, Borkena, reported: “In a sermon to a congregation, he openly highlighted how Abiy Ahmed’s administration killed infants as old as eight and 12 months old, how it attacked monasteries and religious scholars with the aim to kill continuity of knowledge sharing about the teachings of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

     The pace of events inside Ethiopia was moving rapidly by mid-January 2024, although the Government was moving strongly to restrict access to information sources inside the country.

Published with Permission from GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs Journal

Founded in 1972. Formerly Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily

Volume XLII, No. 2   Monday, January 15, 2024 

© 2024 Global Information System/ISSA

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