The purpose of Isaias’s remarks was to align Eritrea as an ally of the Ethiopian protesters, who had in his view quite rightly pressured the TPLF regime to place Abiy in power. His speech was widely praised — including by the U.S. State Department, which applauded his “courageous leadership” in a breathtaking about-face, seemingly forgetting that it had long considered Isaias a pariah. Eritrea clearly welcomes the prospect of a new ally in the very old war against the TPLF, which has yet to be won.
Abiy has even more reason than Isaias to fear the holdouts in the TPLF. They are the key impediments to political reform in Ethiopia, and since taking office, he has frantically sought to undo their hold on power. He diminished the military’s authority by lifting a repressive state of emergency, repealed laws that allowed the security forces to label dissidents as terrorists and arrest them, and fired a slew of senior security and intelligence officers, most of whom were Tigrayans.
His much-lauded decision to lift the government monopolies on several of Ethiopia’s key industries, including telecommunications and energy, was lauded as a free market advance — but it was also an important swipe at the TPLF’s bank accounts. TPLF leaders have profited from self-dealing by directing these monopolies to award lucrative government contracts to firms that they own or are run by their military cronies.
Abiy is working hard and fast to gain ground against the TPLF before its bickering leaders can organize a coherent response: For the past couple of years, the party has suffered from a leadership vacuum as powerful hard-liners, including Getachew Assefa, Debretsion Gebremichael, Samora Yunis, and Sebhat Nega, have vied for supremacy. These hard-liners have always used the military to crush demands for reform, imprisoning tens of thousands of protesters. But they have recently been kept in check by a rising tide of fear within the Tigrayan population, who feel vulnerable to retaliation at the hands of Ethiopia’s majority clans.
The bad news for Abiy is that his maneuvers will probably have minimal effects. After 27 years of autocratic rule, the TPLF has patronage networks that run deep and are rooted in ethnic demographics. Although Tigrayans represent only 6 percent of Ethiopia’s population, an analysis of the Ethiopian military several years ago found that 57 of 61 generals in mission-critical positions were ethnically Tigrayan. It is estimated that two-thirds of the broader officer class is, too. The entire ethos of the Ethiopian army is based on the mythology of the Tigrayan liberation fighters who defeated the Derg in 1991 — the same people who still personally hold most key security and intelligence posts.
Abiy has started to thin their ranks, forcing the resignation of notorious generals and officials, including Samora and Getachew, a shadowy, J. Edgar Hoover-like figure who has run Ethiopia’s intelligence services for about 30 years. But yanking the titles away from men like this doesn’t make them disappear. Even if it did, Abiy can’t possibly afford to fire 95 percent of Ethiopia’s generals. To consolidate his power, he needs to fire the worst but co-opt the rest, and that process could take years.
Abiy has already completed the easy part of this task. He has fired many old standard-bearers of the TPLF, including Abay Tsehaye, Tedros Hagos, Getachew Ambaye, Tazer Gebregziabhier, and Girma Birru. But they may continue to foment trouble. After being forced to resign from his powerful post as director of the notorious Information Network Security Agency (INSA), for example, Maj. Gen. Tekleberhan Woldearegay went on the radio and — describing himself in Tigrinya as a representative of the military — appeared to call for a coup
Maj. Gen. Tekleberhan Woldearegay went on the radio and — describing himself in Tigrinya as a representative of the military — appeared to call for a coup, calling the new government “an enemy force,” “a threat to the federalist system,” and “not of the people.”