By the time the new party was announced, in November 2019, the damage was done. The T.P.L.F., angered by the whittling away of its power and concerned that the country’s federal system was under threat, had not joined. They weren’t alone in their disquiet. In Mr. Abiy’s own region, Oromia, many were skeptical of the new order, while southern Ethiopia splintered into disorder, as multiple administrative zones demanded self-rule. After coming to power on the promise of unity, Mr. Abiy had alienated and frustrated key components of his coalition. Suddenly, he looked vulnerable.
The coronavirus changed the calculus. The all-important national election, scheduled for August, was postponed; the focus became how to mitigate the damage wrought by the pandemic. But the political problems didn’t go away.
In the summer, the killing of a popular Oromo musician — whose perpetrators the government claims were acting under the orders of an armed opposition group, the Oromo Liberation Army, and the T.P.L.F. — set off widespread violence against minorities in Oromia and police killings of protesters, in which at least 166 people died. It also led to a major crackdown against opposition political leaders, including Mr. Abiy’s former ally and now fierce critic, Jawar Mohammed.
Then in September, the Tigray region went ahead with its elections, in defiance of the government’s orders. Since that act of subversion, tensions between the government and the leaders in Tigray, simmering for two years, have been high. Last week, they spilled out into open conflict.
Whether or not it escalates into a civil war, it will leave an indelible mark on Ethiopian politics. What was already a deeply polarized country will become more divided still. But most importantly, it could crush the hopes of a democratic transition. Free speech, civil liberties and due process may fall afoul of the turn to militarism and repression.
In Tigray, the possibility of civilian casualties, indiscriminate attacks and protracted conflict could further deepen grievances; in a region with a long history of resistance to the central state, that might lead to an insurgency. The consequences for the wider region, if the conflict were to spill out to Eritrea, Sudan and Djibouti, could be severe.
Judging by Mr. Abiy’s moves over the past week, not least the replacement of the foreign minister and the leaders of the entire security sector with trusted loyalists, he is not inclined to de-escalate. The leader who once committed “to toil for peace every single day and in all seasons” has been acting more like a commander in chief than a prime minister.
Mr. Abiy has come a long way. War, he memorably said as he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, was “the epitome of hell.” Now he looks ready to meet it.
Tsedale Lemma (@TsedaleLemma) is the editor in chief of the Addis Standard.
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