Ethiopia's Abiy Ahmed goes from flying start to a quicksand of troubles

Prime minister faces civil war, ethnic divisions and simmering disputes with neighbours

This frame grab from a video obtained from the Ethiopian Public Broadcaster (EBC) on November 4, 2020, shows Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed saying that he is ordering a military response to a deadly attack by the ruling party of Tigray, a region locked in a long-running dispute with Addis Ababa, on a camp housing federal troops. RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO /Ethiopian Public Broadcaster (EBC) " - NO MARKETING - NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
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For Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the promise and optimism he projected when he took the reins in the Horn of Africa nation three years ago must have become a fading memory.

Those expectations have been replaced by a civil war, widening ethnic schisms and a growing crisis with neighbouring Sudan and fellow Nile basin nation Egypt.

Since winning the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize after forging peace with arch-enemy Eritrea in his first year in office, the prime minister has gone from being his country’s beacon of hope for unity and economic prosperity to a leader who shows little tolerance for dissent.

Significantly, Ethiopia’s woes and Mr Abiy’s own political predicament cast a dark shadow on the Horn of Africa and beyond.

“The high expectations of 2018 have proved to be misplaced,” said William Davison, the leading Ethiopia expert at the International Crisis Group, a conflict-prevention organisation headquartered in Brussels.

“Everything that’s happening now demonstrates that hopes for a smooth transition to peaceful multi-party democracy were naive.”

Unrest in Ethiopia - at about 110 million people the second most populous African nation - could force millions to flee their homes and take refuge in neighbouring nations.

Addis Ababa also hosts the headquarters of the African Union and the country is among Africa's largest contributors of peacekeepers. Some of its population share the same ethnic background with cousins in countries like South Sudan and Somalia.

With a burgeoning economy and the potential to export cheap electricity from its nearly completed Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Nile, Ethiopia has been viewed as a future engine for growth in the Horn of Africa and beyond.

Of all its troubles, the war between federal forces and separatist rebels in the northern Tigray region is by far the most worrisome.

Besides the financial and human cost of a full-fledged military operation raging there since November, the reported involvement of government-sanctioned militias from the powerful Amhara group threatens to deepen ethnic schisms and extend the conflict beyond Ethiopia's borders.

The militias are believed to have wrested control of areas of Tigray they claim to historically belong to the Amhara.

There are also indications that forces from neighbouring Eritrea, a longtime enemy of Tigrayans, are fighting on the side of the government, something that could only perpetuate the conflict in Tigray, according to analysts.

There are credible reports of systematic atrocities and looting of heritage sites in the Tigray conflict committed by all parties, analysts said.

“Abiy has been undone by the Tigray conflict and he has administered brutal suppression of Tigrayans and brought the Amhara there to be their overlords,” said Gihad Auda, a political science professor at Cairo’s Helwan university.

The conflict in Tigray and the participation of the Amhara in the fighting have also inflamed a border crisis between Ethiopia and Sudan, which moved in December to regain control of some of its territory which had been settled by Amhara farmers for decades.

The Sudanese military’s operations in the area triggered deadly clashes with Ethiopian forces and allied militias, including mortar shelling and cross-border raids. The latest of these clashes took place on Thursday when one Sudanese soldier was killed and eight others were wounded, according to the Sudanese military.

The areas of Tigray seized by Amhara militias border Sudan, raising the likelihood of further clashes. Moreover, Ethiopia insisted that it will not negotiate on resolving the border crisis before Sudan pulls its troops from the areas retaken from Amhara farmers, a position rejected by Sudan.

Tensions between the neighbours have already been raised by the long-simmering dispute over Ethiopia's new dam, located less than 20 kilometres from the Sudanese border.

Sudan wants Ethiopia to enter into a legally binding deal to share information and data on the operation of the dam to prevent flooding and the disruption of its own power-generating dams on the Blue Nile. Ethiopia will agree only to non-binding recommendations.

The dispute over the dam also involves downstream Egypt, which is alarmed by the possibility that the giant structure would significantly reduce its vital share of the Nile waters.

On the other hand, the dam has become a rare rallying point for Ethiopians, making it impossible for Mr Abiy to offer compromises on its operation to the Egyptians and Sudanese, according to the analysts.

“Ethiopia’s problems are converging in a negative way with its neighbours,” said Michael Hanna of the Century Foundation in New York.

“Facts on the ground are facts on the ground and neither Egypt nor Sudan can do anything about it. Time is on Ethiopia’s side since 2011 [when construction of the dam began] but its internal issues are complicating efforts to resolve the dispute over the dam and other issues.”

In all likelihood, according to Mr Davison, Mr Abiy's party will retain power following elections scheduled for June, but that is unlikely to narrow Ethiopia's domestic fault lines.

“For that, the country needs to embark on a comprehensive and inclusive national dialogue to try and come to terms with the past and chart a more harmonious way forward.”