Ethiopia and Libya: Who is Really in Charge?


By Walter Koike-Sieira


In Libya and Ethiopia, democratic nation-states created after the withdrawal of colonial powers are proving to be fundamentally incapable of governing their people. These states are no longer able to fulfill the bare minimum requirement for governance — a monopoly on the use of violence. They exist only for appearances on the world stage and are revealed to be powerless when it is no longer convenient for the many local actors who actually call the shots. Yet developed nations continue to intervene, propping up failed states without addressing the root causes of conflict, or using the conflict as a pawn for their own geopolitical interests.


The recent events in Libya and Ethiopia are only the clearest examples of this trend. The democratic Libyan state is relatively young. Following the end of the Italian colonial period in 1943, Libya was ruled by a monarchy, and then a military regime under Muammar Gaddafi. Following the 2011 Arab Spring, a nationwide rebellion and significant NATO intervention removed Gaddafi from power. Libya fell into disorder, with power returning to local strongmen. The civil war there lasted for six years, until 2020, when a ceasefire was agreed. The international community treated the civil war as a conflict between two parties: the UN-backed Government of National Accord and the Tobruk government effectively controlled by the Libyan National Army (LNA). All UN efforts were based on this assumption, yet neither coalition looks capable of maintaining control over the nation. The ceasefire currently in place plans for elections at the end of December, but whoever wins the election will have no real power without support from the hundreds of different local military actors across Libya. Many militias are only loyal to their city or personally loyal to their commander, resulting in a weak central government. Of course, there will be some militias who will hold out, denying the new government a true monopoly on violence. Additionally, large swathes of the south are currently held by militant Islamic groups that no government has had the resources to take on.


The ceasefire currently in place plans for elections at the end of December, but whoever wins the election will have no real power without support from the hundreds of different local military actors across Libya.

Ethiopia is somewhat unique among postcolonial African states in that it was an independent empire long before Europeans colonized the continent. It also resisted colonization until Mussolini annexed it in 1935; it then returned to A monarchy after the Second World War. The last emperor of Ethiopia was deposed in 1974 by a communist junta which was in turn replaced by the modern Ethiopian state in 1995. Ethiopia experienced economic growth and a measure of prosperity under the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the revolutionary alliance that had overthrown the communist regime. In 2018, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed replaced it with his new Prosperity Party. Ethiopia was until recently considered a relatively stable and promising on the rise nation after Ahmed’s liberalization and promises of a freer era. Yet the ongoing conflict again shows the misplaced optimism of the post-colonial West. The civil war, and the government’s inability to contain it reveal another ‘state-in-name-only’. In order to successfully prosecute his war in the Tigray region, Prime Minister Ahmed relied heavily on Amhara ethnic forces and continues to do so. With thousands of regular government forces killed or captured by Tigrayan forces, he is unlikely to be able to hold the capital of Addis Ababa. His recent call for citizens to take up arms in defense of his government is another indictment of the Ethiopian state. The state is unable to project power within its borders, and non-state forces pose what Ahmed himself calls an “existential threat.”


These situations are created and exacerbated by constant foreign intervention. The presence of foreign nations and corporations interested in natural resources will escalate the conflict as they support one side or another. Countries seeking to expand their influence will also fight proxy wars against their geopolitical competitors. Turkey and Russia, for example, supplied illegal military aid in the Libyan conflict, increasing the intensity of the civil war, and trapping even more innocent civilians in the crossfire. The EU, and especially Italy, is also very interested in the future Libyan state since the collapse of the previous regime has fuelled the immigration crisis in Europe. The U.S. too is interested in Libya as a partner to combat Islamic extremism in northern Africa, adding to the dozens of international actors trying to control Libya.

In Ethiopia, Eritrean military intervention escalated the conflict, and tensions are unlikely to subside. Egypt, one of the most powerful actors in the region, is growing frustrated at the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile. While it has not yet escalated to military conflict, some in Egypt have threatened to send fighters to bomb the dam, and the Ethiopians have remained unwilling to negotiate. Water from the Blue Nile and a working GERD are vital to both countries' respective plans for economic growth. As populations increase and water becomes more scarce, conflict seems inevitable.


The negative consequences for the ordinary citizens of Libya and Ethiopia are overwhelming. When local or tribal groups hold power instead of the central government, it severely hampers development and growth. Libyan and Ethiopians are some of the poorest in the world, despite the significant natural resources and potential for growth in their economies. Ethiopia was growing economically until the outbreak of conflict which has ravaged the country and led to a catastrophic famine. Even when there is no war, uncertainty prevents foreign investment and trade, leading to more suffering. After the discovery of large oil reserves, foreign capital entered the country. While most of it went to the rich and powerful, the general population benefited. Control of the oil fields was a key goal for both sides during the recent war, and many hoped that peace would restart the flow of capital into Libya. However, oil production did not restart after the cessation of hostilities, partly because of the divisions within the country. Both the LNA and the GNA want to restart production, but both want control, and the absence of a central authority prevents a resolution to this disagreement.


Libyans and Ethiopians are some of the poorest in the world, despite the significant natural resources and potential for growth in their economies.

A weak government can also lead to massacres or sectarian violence as different groups exact revenge or battle over land and resources. This is especially worrisome in Africa, where populations are exploding and many ethnic or religious groups are forced to live side by side. In Ethiopia, the war has already resulted in numerous acts of ethnic violence and accusations of genocide, as generations of Tigrayans starve to death. It also leaves the country open to radical Islamic groups, especially in geographically vast and underdeveloped countries. In Libya, the southern half of the country was quickly taken by Islamic militias, since neither the GNA nor the LNA had the capability to keep control of the south. In addition to local forces battling each other, there is religious violence between Islamic and secular groups.


In Africa, these non-governmental forces often pose an existential threat to the state. Their existence prevents the economy from developing beyond a dependence on resource extraction, leading to mass poverty, civilian deaths in conflicts, and mass starvation. This phenomenon seems unique to Africa and will continue to harm the inhabitants of these nations as long as foreign powers continue to create untenable states and use African states as mere means to their foreign policy ends.