One long-standing challenge for Africa has been a pattern of military conflict and misrule. Now two of its most consequential countries, Ethiopia and Sudan, are seeking to break that pattern with new models for stability – one after a war, the other after a coup. Both are implementing fragile agreements to restore peace.
Ethiopia is trying to forge a future of national unity that might break from a past of ethnic fragmentation. Sudan seeks to end a cycle of military rule. Their different approaches underscore lessons for how conflict-torn societies foster civic values that can bind people to shared identities.
For nearly 50 years, Ethiopia was overshadowed by the rise and dictatorial rule of a small ethnic minority known as the Tigrayans. That era came to an end in 2018 when Abiy Ahmed became prime minister. He personified the new national identity he hoped to promote. His father was Muslim, his mother Christian. They hailed from different ethnic groups. “Before we can harvest peace dividends,” Mr. Abiy said when he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, “we must plant seeds of love, forgiveness, and reconciliation in the hearts and minds of our citizens.”
A year later, his country was at war. The new prime minister pushed out the Tigrayan old guard. Accounts vary over what happened next. Mr. Abiy says Tigrayan rebels attacked a military outpost in the north. A new book written by two BBC reporters published last week suggests he had been preparing for war well before that incident.
The fighting lasted two years, killing more than 600,000 and displacing 5 million others. A United Nations report last September alleged that Ethiopian and Tigrayan troops had committed gross human rights violations, including ethnic cleansing, rape, and deliberate mass starvation.
The other victim of the war may be Mr. Abiy’s doctrine of reconciliation. A peace accord signed last November is the first to incorporate the African Union’s new framework for transitional justice. That document calls for national healing through post-conflict reconstruction and “accountability of State and non-State actors for serious violations of human rights activities.”
Yet Mr. Abiy consistently blocked humanitarian intervention during the war. And now he is trying to rally support to suspend an ongoing U.N. investigation into atrocities committed during the war. Meanwhile, observers are watching to see what forms of accountability he might endorse.
In Sudan, a different process is unfolding. Since 1956, the country has seen 16 military coup attempts. Six were successful. The most recent, in October 2021, has sparked a sustained and coordinated grassroots campaign to restore democracy. Nearly 120 people have been killed by security force crackdowns during peaceful protests. But the military’s heavy hand hasn’t worked. Eight months after taking power, the generals apologized and promised to give up power. In December, they signed a transition road map with pro-democracy groups. A dialogue for restoring civilian rule is gradually gaining ground.
Sudan’s long pursuit of lasting democracy, noted Jawhratelkmal Kanu and Jonathan Pinckney in a recent U.S. Institute of Peace report, forged an incubator of civic activism based on nonviolence, solidarity, and empathy. “A country with high levels of civic mobilization is much more likely to democratize, and to build qualitatively better democracy,” they wrote, “as a newly engaged public holds transitional leaders to account and pushes for more inclusive politics.”
No two peace processes are the same. But Sudan and Ethiopia may prove that their success depends on fidelity to ideals on which they are founded.