One of most accurate indicators of the gravity of the ongoing armed conflict between Ethiopian military forces and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) is probably the fact that thousands of people have fled to Sudan – a country that was riddled by conflict for years itself. However, since heavy fighting erupted in Ethiopia’s Northern Tigray region, all channels of information have been cut off. There is very little information coming out of the region and neither does the government provide much information on the current status of the conflict. Right now, the Tigray is a black box and uncertainty prevails. The conflict was initiated by TPFL forces who attacked a military position by the government, but the hostilities date back several decades. Starting as an armed left-wing liberation movement that sought to overthrow the communist dictatorship of the late 80s, it quickly became clear that the TPFL merely gave the dictatorship a facelift by officially assuming power in 1991 under a coalition, called the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). As a rule of thumb: whenever the name of a country, party or coalition includes the words democratic or people, they are most of the time neither democratic, nor for the people. This rule held also true in this case, because what followed were almost three decades of authoritarian rule, until the young and progressive leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Abiy Ahmed, became Ethiopia’s prime minister in 2018. Since then, then the TPFL retreated back to the Tigray region, holding a tight grip on the region ever since and also strongly opposing the political course of the prime minister. With the latest attack on the military, the Ethiopian government saw no other solution than to resort to an armed intervention.
In order to understand the depth of the conflict, it is important to take a look at the demographics of Ethiopia. There are many different ethnic groups in Ethiopia. The Oromo people constitute the majority, representing a little more than 1/3 of the population. Second, with a roughly 1/4 of the population, come the Amhara people. Tigrayans, on the other hand, only account for around 6% of the Ethiopian population. Adding the religious diversity to the equation, we get a complex demographic environment. Of course, high ethnic and religious heterogeneity does not automatically lead to conflict, but it certainly increases the odds, as there are more potential points for political disagreement. However, conflict is almost predetermined when a minority group of 6% autocratically rules a country for almost 30 years. Further, the Tigrayans are mostly Orthodox Christians, but over a third of Ethiopia’s population is Muslim and another approximately 20% are Protestants. Under the strict rule of the EPRDF, which was mainly led by the TPFL, political opponents were persecuted and many parts of the population were underrepresented. Although all democracies have to find a way to properly integrate all major parts of the population into the policy process, it is seldom the case that a very small ethnic minority of merely 6% is holding dictatorial power for so long. Naturally, every ethnic and religious group has certain ideals that it would want to translate into action by means of politics – in the end, that is what democratic political systems were invented for. However, this conflict, as well as many other ethnic conflicts, raise questions about the relationship between democracies, identities and borders.
The core of the democratic idea is the search for a compromise within a society by finding commonalities in the aggregate of voiced opinions. But let us think about the historic context in which the modern democratic principle re-occurred. Here, we go back to the French Revolution, where the ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau on the general will of a people found much approval among the French population. However, the ideas originated in a highly homogeneous context; there were only negligibly small minorities in France at that time, there was only one main language and there was a clear idea about Frenchness and French mentality. The same holds true for other European nations as well. Further, democracies were seen as a tool for strengthening the political system through popular support and promotion of patriotism. Identification with the national flag, anthem, mentality and myths proved to be a decisive developmental factor for many homogeneous societies – and the larger the territory to which these aspects could be applied, the greater was usually also the political power.
The success of the nation state drew considerable attention and became a popular concept to base a political system on. Similarly, the success of Western democratic nations also made the adoption of democratic systems attractive. What worked in large homogeneous societies well, unfortunately, did not work as well in heterogeneous societies, such as Ethiopia for example. The reason for this is that the symbols of national identification are mostly a compromise of all involved parties, rather than an organic products that arose from a common past. Another difficulty arises from the divergence of the different groups within a heterogeneous society. Mostly, religious differences are causes for tensions, since they prescribe certain ways of life and people are seldom ready for compromises in that regard – ultimately, they believe in a predetermined set of rules. But also ethnic differences can cause friction within a society. In the Ethiopian case, there are many different ethnic groups with mixed religious affiliations in a country with relatively autonomous regions. Naturally, it is not an easy task to unite the country, properly represent all groups and provide efficient policy-making – there will be constantly debates about which course to take.
There are many examples of countries that comprise many different groups that have highly dissimilar ways of living. Imposing unity on such a society means compromise for all groups without anyone being really satisfied with the result. There are two realistic scenarios that could help to tackle this problem: regionalism and supranationalism. While the former aims for fragmentation of national political power into smaller parts of high homogeneity, the latter depicts a concept that aims for pooled cooperation of nation states that outsource technical parts of policy-making to a supranational body, while more debatable areas of policy-making remain under national control. Both have their advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, regionalism is highly effective internally, because this system can tailor policies according to the needs of the respective region more efficiently, due to the higher consensus caused by the high social coherence. The downside is that these regions are relatively small in most cases, which increases external security risks and also the dependency on foreign trade. Further, trade becomes more difficult, due to the multitude of customs and tariffs. To reduce these, political negotiating power is required, which is naturally limited by the size of the region. Logically, supranationalism displays the exact opposite characteristics of regionalism. Its policy-making process is often lengthy and inefficient, due to the competing national interests, although the nations are relatively similar to each other. Nevertheless, there is much negotiation and every policy is a compromise. However, the advantage is that the political power increases considerably, due to the powers being pooled. Moreover, economic cooperation is enhanced and uplifts all nations within the supranational structure. The ongoing Ethiopian conflict is just one example that illustrates the difficulties heterogeneous states face building an effective political system around the idea of the democratic nation state. In an attempt to reduce tensions and foster societal progress, it should be about time to overthink how ethnic and religious identities relate to the political system, whether they are reflected by the current boundaries and how a potential solution, that promises long-term success, could look like. While there are certainly cases where the traditional nation-state is a highly effective solution, it is important to bear in mind that political systems can, and should, be as unique as the societal needs of people.