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Multi-Ethnic Alliances: Ethiopia’s Changing Military Balances

The Tigray Defense Forces (TDFs) have been working since June 2021 to build a strong multi-ethnic alliance to stop the Amhara’s control over the Ethiopian state and bring back ethnic federalism. 

Alliances among several ethnicities were formed in the wake of the Ethiopian government’s alliance with Eritrea and Somalia aimed at neutralizing any attempt that would give rise to ethnic federalism and thwarting ambitions of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), reducing the dangers it poses and paralyzing its movement. Both the Ethiopian government and the TPLF claim to represent the Ethiopian people and equally insist on further fighting to score a victory against each other.

Balances of Power between the Blocs of Abiy Ahmed and the TDF

Since the onset of the crisis in November 2020, the bloody clashes between the two sides of the conflict claimed the lives of thousands and left behind millions of displaced persons. Nevertheless, the Ethiopian government opted for escalation instead of seeking de-escalation or a political settlement that would limit the negative effects of war, given the growing enmities and hatred between the Amhara and the Tigray. This belligerent attitude resulted in the expansion of the conflict and intervention of regional actors in the crisis bringing about instability to the Horn of Africa. 

Victories notched up by the TPLF and its allies, their incursion into more than one region, and taking control over some cities, caused the demise of a large part of the Ethiopian military and the notorious Fano militia. These victories revealed the military superiority of the TPLF in the area of training despite the fact that the number of troops of the Ethiopian army and its allies are significantly larger than those of the TPLF. However, the mere number doesn’t suggest that all soldiers are equal in capacity or training received.

The Oromo-Tigray Alliance

While there are indications that the TDFs’ current strategic alliance has achieved much more than it ever could, the TDFs –the military wing of the TPLF– seems committed not to repeat mistakes of the past which urged them to ally with the Oromo.

In 2016, General Tsadkan Gebre Tensai, former Ethiopian Army Chief of Staff and the current leader of Central Command of the TDFs lamented the TPLF’s disagreement with the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) during the early stages of the transitional government in 1991 noting that this disagreement pertained to the structure of the general political system. Tensai stated, “We failed and we were unable to contain them in the early period. Then, the transitional government’s crucial positions were made and it was decided that the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front assumes authority as partners. We ought to have dealt with the OLF representatives and found a way to contain them instead of provoking hostility with them. This should have been helpful overall.” Obviously, the Tigrayans seem to have learned the lesson and seek to form a powerful alliance with the Oromo.

The Oromo, on the other hand, seem inclined towards the same attitude. This has been evidenced by the recent public pronouncements by numerous OLF members on the outcomes of the current political situation, following the arrest of most of the Oromo figures who are extremely influential in the power struggle between the center and the periphery. Oromo leaders underscore that they may rise above past resentments and the grudge they bear against the TPLF to form a strong permanent alliance with their former opponents. Notably, since the outbreak of the Tigray War in November 2020, popular Oromo figures such as Awol Allo, Ezekiel Gebissa, and Tsegaye Ararssa have sided with the Tigray people, condemning the atrocities and destruction committed by the Ethiopian and Eritrean forces.

Arguably, the shared experiences of oppression and persecution at the hands of the former Amhara emperors, developed a feeling of mutual empathy between the Tigray and the Oromo, a situation that played a critical role in the tactical alliance between their military wings. This evolution could give rise to a future strategic partnership with other ethnicities that suffer non-involvement in power and the inequitable distribution of resources, provided that partnership be created properly and trust be established, towards serving the interests of both of them and promoting ethnic federalism in Ethiopia.

The Tigray-Oromo alliance seeks to reach future political arrangements to act as a strong opposition front, not only against the current government but also against any political player that may try to obstruct the ethnic federalism project. Such alliance would pose a dire threat not just to Abiy Ahmed’s government but to the Amhara ethnicity as a whole and will double the pressure on the central government in Addis Ababa, particularly it will not be limited to the Tigrayans and the Oromos only, but will extend to include other ethnicities already engaged in talks to join it.

Response of the Federal Government-Amhara Alliance

On the other side, the Ethiopian government seems to have made considerable strides in consolidating its power, by overestimating the perceived threats and claiming that there are conspiracies being woven by foreign actors against Ethiopia to arouse nationalistic sentiment irrespective of the fact that the conflict in Tigray was basically a civil war, an ethnic cleansing, or rather a competition for power. 

Pro-government media in Ethiopia went to extremes to promote the narrative of national resistance against foreign interference, particularly the official Ethiopian narrative of attempts of the TDFs and its allies to target GRED. Indeed, this behavior is typical of the Amharas who are used to inventing similar narratives whenever in trouble and this is how they are responding to the internal crisis following the recent progress made by the TDFs and their allies well inside Amhara and Afar regions.

Furthermore, the federal government mobilized the Special Forces from almost all regional states in its war against Tigray. This was publicly announced and celebrated as has been evidenced by festivities and rallies of support by the Amharas, with the participation of influential figures of the Amhara and some other ethnicities. Despite the successive failures and defeats in battlefields, proponents of this camp insist on posing failure instead of putting forward solutions.

In sum, the internal situation in Ethiopia has become increasingly complex, particularly given the new alliances between the TDFs and some ethnicities after calls of the United Nations for a cease-fire went unheeded. The conflict that spilled over into Amhara and Afar is now extending to Oromia, the most populous region in the country. The success of the TDFs in forming a broader alliance with other ethnic groups is a great asset, at a time the Ethiopian government is mobilizing forces for a military solution as a temporary tactic, a situation that would urge other ethnicities to take up arms.  

This has been demonstrated in the alliance between some people of Amharic and Afari origins and the TDFs. The Amharas’ insistence on the military resolution is intended to “sacrifice” Abiy Ahmed, particularly the Eritrean and Somali military support provided since the outbreak of the crisis remained inconclusive. The conflict portends resource depletion and collapse of the Ethiopian economy, slipping Ethiopia into a civil war.

Salah Khalil
A researcher at Al-Ahram Center for Social and Historical Studies

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