Before April 2018, few people outside Ethiopia had heard about Abiy Ahmed. Then he became the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, removed most of the political restrictions that had weighed down Ethiopians for years, brought a lingering war with Eritrea to a peaceful end, won a Nobel Peace Prize, and led his countrymen in planting a record 350 million tree seedlings in one day.

All in little more than a year.

But then things started going downhill.

When 2020 ended, his government was bombing sites in Tigray, a northern-western region of the country predominantly occupied by ethnic Tigrayans. Refugees were streaming into neighbouring Sudan. There was even talk of a civil war and ethnic cleansing.

At first glance, the similarities between this situation and that of Myanmar before the recent coup are hard to dismiss. Another Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, unapologetically abetted the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingyas, a minority Muslim ethnic group. She couldn’t even bring herself to call it what it was.

But is it a fair comparison? Is Abiy Ahmed justified in waging war on his own countrymen? What happened to his promise to bring freedom back to Ethiopia? Did grand visions of greatness through conquest possess him? Did the stress of the pandemic get the better of him? Or has Abiy Ahmed been a fraud all along?

I am loath to give definitive answers. Partly because I have a dog in this fight; Ethiopia shares a border with my own homeland. And partly because the situation is as complicated as they come, and unfolds against the backdrop of a long and tumultuous history. I will content myself with a critical outline of the situation.

The immediate cause of the crisis is quite recent. In hindsight, it’s obvious that the crisis became possible when Abiy became prime minister and became inevitable when he dissolved the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the party that had ruled Ethiopia since 1991. Too much changed too fast.

Abiy’s ascendancy was the culmination of almost three years of intense youth-led protests agitating for greater political freedom. The EPRDF had, over the years since its rise to power, come to capture the state, entwining itself indistinguishably with all the arms of government. This gave it the perfect cover for colossal corruption among its members and brutal repression of dissent.

Even worse was that, for most of its history, the EPRDF was dominated by only one of its four constituent parties. The Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), representing the now seven million ethnic Tigrayans, was the real driver of the EPRDF.

This should not be surprising. The EPRDF was a creation of the TPLF (then a guerrilla outfit), which constituted it to present a nationally united front in the fight against the Communist Derg regime of Mengitsu in the 1980s.

Perhaps more important, though, is that it stayed dominant for so long. In a country of 110 million people with a delicate ethnic federalist system of government, central power being monopolised by a party representing only seven million people isn’t tenable in the long term.

It is even less likely to be successful if that party is repressive and corrupt and favours its own minority. Hence the protests in 2015 and 2018 protests, which were sparked by an innocuous capital city masterplan, and driven by youth from the Oromo and Amhara, the country’s largest ethnic groups.

This explains why Abiy Ahmed, an Oromo, wasn’t exactly a darling of the TPLF. He was installed by a cornered party only under duress.

Perhaps the hope was that his appointment would pacify the protestors and then he could be nudged out in two years at the 2020 elections. But whoever harboured this hope miscalculated.

Not only had the other partner parties in the EPRDF been setting the stage for the ouster of the TPLF for years, but it turns out that Abiy was honest when, at his confirmation, he declared that “it is important that we make use of [this opportunity to chart a new political beginning] appropriately, with the spirit of utmost responsibility.”

Within months, he had released thousands of political prisoners, lightened up the government’s hand in dealing with dissent, begun prosecuting repressive officials from the previous government (predominantly Tigrayan, unsurprisingly), and initiated talks to bring the war with Eritrea to an end. He dissolved the EPRDF coalition at the end of 2019, replacing it with a new national outfit called the Prosperity Party.

The leaders of the TPLF, finding themselves repudiated and no longer in control, started retreating to the hilly region that houses most of Ethiopia’s Tigrayans, in the far north-east.

From there, they could continue holding sway, albeit over a smaller region, and have a platform from which to challenge the federal government, feeling themselves justified by the fact that Ethiopia’s constitution grants the federal ethnic regions a lot of autonomy and a right to secede.

And challenge the federal government they did. Among many other things, they undermined efforts to settle a border dispute between Tigray and Amhara, stoked talk of secession, and, in 2020, started arming the youth and security forces as if preparing for an invasion. Finally, when the federal government postponed the 2020 elections because of the COVID-19 pandemic, they vowed to go ahead with regional elections, which they held in September.

They were poking the bear, daring Abiy to do something. In November, a federal military installation in Tigray was allegedly attacked by an armed Tigrayan militia. The federal government responded with a military offensive. Thus the crisis turned violent, communication was cut off, talk of civil war became real, and displaced persons fled into Sudan.

If the foregoing reads like a lopsided castigation of the leaders of Tigray, without taking into account Abiy’s role in the whole affair, it is probably because I mean it to be so. I honestly think the bigger blame for the current situation lies squarely at the feet of the TPLF’s leaders. They turned their bitterness in the face of democratic change into a rallying cry for a nationalistic war.

This, however, does not mean that Abiy Ahmed and his government are entirely sinless. He could have been a lot more pragmatic from the beginning. As they say, a cornered rat will bite the cat. He moved too fast and too brusquely to alienate people who had, until then, been firmly in control of vast resources. Something like a truth and reconciliation commission would have been a lot more useful.

It wasn’t necessary to postpone the elections. He should have known there was no way that could have gone unchallenged by the Tigrayan leaders. By June, it was clear that COVID-19 didn’t pose as deadly a threat in Africa as it seemed to earlier.

Even worse, till now, Abiy Ahmed shuns dialogue, which seems like the only way the conflict can be brought to a sustainable resolution, on the pretext that talking with opponents might legitimise their claims, and would set the wrong precedent for other regions. As things stand now, someone will have to blink first.

A Nobel Peace Prize winner shouldn’t be ashamed to be the one that does that. He did it with Eritrea. He can surely do it again.

Mathew Otieno

Mathew Otieno writes from Kisumu, Kenya.