Article by Jacopo Resti

Understanding the Ethiopian crisis: Implications for Sudan and international partners

Late 2020 ushered in a new wave of turmoil in the Horn of Africa. On the 4th of November, in the wake of rising tensions, the Ethiopian federal government launched a military campaign against the leadership of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), in response to an attack on the Northern Command post of the Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF). After weeks of deadly clashes in the Tigray region and international apprehension, on 28th November the federal government announced that it was fully in control of the regional capital, Mekelle, and that the ENDF operation was successfully concluded. The Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed might have won over the TPLF, yet recent developments show that Ethiopia is weakened and that the future of the whole region is at stake.

Among its neighbours, Sudan is perhaps the most affected by the crisis, worried that political instability on its doorstep could undermine the hard-won political transition to civilian rule. Although the spectre of a regional conflagration looms from far behind, uncertainty on whether Ethiopia political unity will hold in the long run remains. Whatever of the following political scenarios unfolds, Sudan will have to come to terms with Ethiopia’s internal strife.


As remote as it seems, there is a risk of progressive political fragmentation of Ethiopia into different and uncooperative regions along ethnic borders. Political and military confrontation between federal and regional authorities, as is the topical case of Tigray, enduring territorial disputes in the north between Amhara and Tigray (Walkait area), as well as competition for control of illegal cross-border trade in the south (Oromo-Somali border), are fuelling a new wave of ethnic disruption. A confined breakdown could easily spread to other underdeveloped and poorly-governed regions where resentment for marginalisation from national politics is still high (Gambela, Afar, Benishangul-Gumuz). Targeted violence and guerrilla warfare from the TPLF's leadership, whose dominance and grip on power is waning, could further ignite the fire.

Just as the founding of the transethnic Prosperity Party by PM Abiy and the dissolution of the multi-ethnic coalition of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) lay the foundation to promote what Abiy named medemer, (i.e. synergy, convergence, and teamwork for a common destiny), in the short term it stirs up federalist forces’ resentment and ethnic hatred, exposing the system to the threat of communal disruption.

The balkanisation of Ethiopia is a major external threat to Sudan’s fragile political transition, most of all to its national peace dialogue between the transitional government and the rebel armed movements. The collapse of the federal state in Ethiopia would endanger Sudan’s quest to reinstate its sovereign federal system, based on the devolution of power to regional states through a new political agreement offsetting the former asymmetries in Sudan’s centre-periphery relations. Ethiopia's political desegregation would have dramatic consequences well beyond Sudan, threatening the fragile security and stability complex in the Horn of Africa.

Government resilience

Although political instability and severe strains between the federal government and regional authorities persist, nothing is likely to challenge Abiy’s consensus and leadership in the short-term.

Despite thorny Tigray, the federal government has proved to have enough power and resources to weather the storm, handle its internal rifts and tame its atavic centrifugal forces. Drawing on the unwavering support of the Amhara elite and on his solid international reputation as reformer and peacemaker, PM Abiy Ahmed is likely to strengthen his position and agenda despite emerging criticism of his uncompromising politics. Not least, partners of the federal government and international donors will renew their support, confident that the Nobel laureate’s peacebuilding skills shown in the historic deal with Eritrea will settle Ethiopia’s crisis and preserve national unity, that the economy will resume its robust growth, and that the country will keep playing its precious role in regional dynamics.

Government resilience in Ethiopia, even at the expense of its regional autonomy, does not pose an existential threat to Sudan and could represent a desired scenario for the transitional government, given the guarantees of political stability and close relations between Abiy Ahmed and his Sudanese counterpart Abdalla Hamdok.

Nevertheless, Ethiopia’s crackdown on Tigray comes with collateral damage to Sudan’s security and humanitarian situation. Some 60,000 refugees have crossed the border from Tigray into Sudan and hundreds are still on the move, while the UN noted that as much as 150 million dollars were needed to face the possible arrival of 200,000 refugees from Ethiopia over a six-month period. Hyperinflation and fuel shortages add to the refugees influx, compounding humanitarian needs in remote border areas. Furthermore, cognizant of the conflict’s potential spill-overs, Sudan security forces have mobilised since the outbreak of the crisis along the eastern border with Ethiopia to prevent any security threat

Tensions have surged in January over the long-disputed fertile borderland of Al-Fashqa, fuelling concerns that the Sudanese military could provide the TPLF with a strategic backyard to plan further military action.


Democratic reform in a multi-ethnic political system

PM Abiy Ahmed has initiated a genuine reform process since he took office in April 2018. Among his greatest achievements, the release of thousands of political prisoners, the unprecedented inclusion of women in his cabinet, the appointment of Sahle-Work Zewde as Ethiopia’s first female president and the nomination of former jailed female opposition leader Birtukan Mideksaas as head of the electoral authority. Despite these endeavours, his coalition-building efforts with Ethiopia’s ethnic and regional elites have not been a sheer success. Contrary to most observers’ expectations, the advent of an Oromo leadership has not been enough to disperse political instability. Federalist advocates and the constitutional arrangement agreed in 1995 have been challenged in the name of national unity by the establishment of a non-ethnic party and by an increasingly centralised leadership. Abiy’s well-intentioned yet risky political game has triggered significant resistance by relevant political actors, ranging from the northern Tigrayan elite to southern minorities such as the Sidama and to the emergence of an Oromo opposition camp.

Albeit Abiy Ahmed’s leadership seems rock-hard, firm political opposition to the government’s alleged assimilationist strategy and the reiterated federalist appeals for a fair power sharing and for the right to self-determination of ethnic and regional peoples, suggest that the narrative of national unity is yet to build strong political and popular legitimacy.

In the meantime, Abiy could promote further reform in line with Ethiopia’s multi-ethnic political system. This scenario would probably reassure Sudan on the political hold of its greatest neighbour and build confidence in its domestic transition. A renewed focus on power-sharing between ethnic constituencies in Ethiopia would set a virtuous example that Sudan can emulate by establishing a political settlement which takes into careful consideration the country’s highly fragmented polity and society.

Ethiopia and Sudan have similar political cultures inasmuch as they tend to associate rights to groups and communities more often than to individuals. In this context, political settlements based on power sharing and consultation among ethnic, linguistic, national or regional elites, as in consociational models, are particularly effective and are key to “illiberal state-building”. Ultimately, along both tributaries of the Nile political developments will highly depend on the incentives for the elites to engage in national and broad-based government coalitions, notably on the guarantee that none of them would inherit the dominant legacy of their decades-old former regimes.


What role for international partners?

Many observers and foreign officials mention that the current crisis could be overcome by advocating more democratic reform and social inclusion, yet these notions are too vague to be operational. A more effective policy by international partners, such as the European Union (EU) and its member states, promoting peace and stability across Ethiopia, Sudan and the wider region could follow a threefold line of principled pragmatism, engagement with local authorities and society, and strategic support to economic recovery.

First, in sovereignty-seeking countries of the Horn of Africa such as Ethiopia and Sudan, democratic lecturing does not work. Anything associated to foreign mediation or aid conditionality is seen as domestic interference and is likely to close channels of diplomacy and cooperation. Existing formal and informal channels are essential to gain leverage in political developments and to enable a new settlement for power sharing in a strategic and restive region. In this line of reasoning, policy and action based on principled pragmatism, reconciling material and value-centric agendas, could be particularly suitable to address common regional challenges.

Second, liaising with regional elites and empowering local authorities may be one of the keys to regional peacebuilding and good governance. Citizen engagement processes aimed at strengthening transparency and accountability of local governments are highly valuable in this respect and deserve international recognition and support. International assistance should target conflict prevention, management and resolution at community levels, forging a stronger network for representation and coordination vis-à-vis regional and sub-regional authorities.

Third, in light of the long-term impact of the Covid-19 pandemic for African countries, strategic and tailored support to economic recovery is required. The latter should target job creation and provide incentives to small and medium enterprises and the private sector. With an increasing youth bulge straining the local labour market, lack of economic opportunities, marginalization, food insecurity and climate change are the main drivers undermining socio-economic stability and security, acting as push factors of forced displacement in the whole Horn of Africa region. It is of paramount importance to ensure that development ambitions in Ethiopia and Sudan are not frustrated and receive adequate financial and technical support to boost economic recovery, inclusive growth and foreign investments. External assistance should address the main shortcomings of the business environment to improve its attractiveness, broaden the space for the private sector and sustain economic reform with large-scale safety net programmes and basic service delivery.