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The Curious Case of the Afar People, Unexpected Actors in the Conflict in Northern Ethiopia

Anonymous | 26 November 2021

A subtext about the root cause of the ongoing conflict in northern Ethiopia conjures up an image of contending visions of state-building on a collision course, with all the complexity of the issue cast aside. Some commentators within and outside Ethiopia have framed the conflict as one waged between those who uphold the vision of pan- Ethiopian identity and those who prioritize ethnic identities as the basis of Ethiopian politics. This framing lends itself to categorizing the conflict’s protagonists into ‘unitarist’ versus ‘federalist/confederalist.’ Often, forces gathered behind the Federal government in Addis Ababa are presented (and by some chastised) as the bearer of the former vision, while the political party TPLF epitomizes the latter.

But, there is a fascinating and untold side to the dynamics of the conflict—one that we are now beginning to see and which complicates the rather simplistic depiction the above narrative upholds. This story relates to the challenge that the Afar people, through their prominent role in the ongoing conflict, have brought to the stability of this narrative, and by implication, to the prospects of future state-building in Ethiopia.

As the war in northern Ethiopia entered its first year, the narratives about its objectives and protagonists have also shifted. Ever since the TPLF reorganized itself, pushed out the Federal and allied forces from the Tigray region, and expanded the war to the Amhara and Afar regions in June 2021, the TPLF not only justified its advancement as a means to end the Federal government’s blockade of Tigray. It is now stating that its aim also includes ensuring Tigrayans (and other communities) determine their future within the Ethiopian polity by the exercise of self-determination, up to and including secession.

Meanwhile, the Federal government now depicts the war as a fight for the survival of the Ethiopian state and has called on citizens to rise and protect the country from dismemberment. In this second phase of the war, the Afar region has become an increasingly important front. By mounting a robust armed resistance to TPLF’s advancement, the Afar people have also demonstrated that they firmly stand behind the government’s cause.

Straddling Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Djibouti borderlands, successive Ethiopian governments have long considered the Afar people to have a fluid identity that transcends state borders. Being pastoralists and one of the last frontier peoples to be incorporated in the Ethiopian state, they have been largely perceived as pursuing a ‘backward’ way of life and having a ‘less developed’ political consciousness to participate in any meaningful way in the state-building project. Historically relegated to the margins of Ethiopian politics, the Afars have also been subjected to state violence, including persistent state expropriation of their lands and resources, with significant implications for their livelihoods. Common sense dictates self-rule, and ethnopolitics intuitively resonate with a historically oppressed group. Yet, the Afar people chose to stand with the Ethiopian “unitary” camp.

The curious case of Afar has become an Achilles heel to TPLF’s narrative. Despite facing armed resistance on the ground, the TPLF leadership has gone the extra mile to remain scrupulously silent on the Afar people’s resistance in their official statements about the war. At best, their views addressed the Afars in a more generic (somewhat condescending) way—that marginalized ethnic groups like the Afar have failed to join the “liberation” struggle since they lack a vanguard party that mobilizes them for popular struggle. For TPLF, whose conception of social change is still largely influenced by Leninist and Maoist social theories, it seems inconceivable to imagine other conditions or possibilities.

Conversely, the rhetoric from the Federal and allied forces begs more questions than answers. It painted the Afar as the “noble other” who stood firm and fought gallantly when Ethiopia needed them most, reproducing the same long-held notion about borderland communities as outsiders to the politics in the center. Importantly, this narrative fails to answer why the Afar allied with federal forces. Similarly, we yearn for more explanations regarding why they find TPLF’s politics less appealing.

While it is beyond the scope of this piece to explain resistance in Afar, the story of the Afar people shows there is something that does not bode well with the preceding neatly constructed archetypical subtext about the ongoing conflict in northern Ethiopia. More importantly, it signposts the need to move away from the common assumption about borderland communities as marginal, divided, and lacking agency and reimagine them as people capable of negotiating their marginality and actively participating in the state-building process. Above all, any political solution to end this conflict needs to embrace the worldviews of these groups.



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