In addition to the number of the supporters of the Waliyas, the nickname given to the Ethiopian national football team, at the Addis Ababa Stadium in their tough game against Cote d’Ivoire on 19 November, the scenes of the crowd’s jubilant celebrations after Ethiopia’s 2-1 win had something else worthy of scrutiny.
The emblem that used to define Ethiopia’s national flag, in other words the yellow star with its radiant rays standing for unity in diversity raised by late prime minister Meles Zenawi, had suddenly disappeared, sparing only the three traditional colours of the flag of red, yellow and green.
It seems the fans wanted to show a departure from the Ethiopia of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). Now, they are embracing a brand new Ethiopia, after three of the four major parties of the coalition that used to run the country since 1991 have officially buried the front, with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front’s (TPLF) total rejection of the newly formed Ethiopian Prosperity Party.
Posing as federalists, the TPLF branded the merger a sham and one that had ruined the very fabric on which Ethiopia’s polity had been based some 30 years ago. As the cards are stacked against them, prominent TPLF member Getachew Reda, once a government spokesperson, said in a defiant tone moments after the burial of the EPRDF that “we will cross that bridge when we come to it.” Earlier, he said that Tigrayans would again carry arms if there was a need to do so.
Fears are mounting in this small region that the Ethiopian federal government may use force to subjugate what was once the powerhouse of the country.
A defiant Tigray is not, however, the sole pain in the neck for Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed because objections to his unionist approach have come from his own fellow Oromos. Against all the odds, Lemma Megerssa, Ahmed’s hand-picked defence minister, also explicitly said that the merger of the EPRDF into the Prosperity Party was wrong and that even if it was right it was not the appropriate time to do it. He even uttered his objections to the Medamer philosophy that the Ethiopian prime minister has embraced and detailed in a book he has released.
But nationalist Megerssa did not utter his objections out of a federalist inclination, but rather an ethnicity based one. He said that the questions raised by the Oromo people, who had entrusted their leaders with finding appropriate responses to them, should have received appropriate responses first before thinking of the merger. The Ethiopian minister of defence opposes the dissolution of the Oromo Democratic Party (OPD) and holds the view that this is the party that the Oromo people have entrusted their woes and demands to and not any other.
But what are those demands? Are the Oromos not satisfied with one of their own assuming the highest executive position in the nation for the first time in modern history? In practice, the Oromos are now having golden moments unparalleled in the history of the country. In the past, they decried the Tigrayans’ hegemony over the political structure and the security apparatus, while now, to the dissatisfaction of other ethnicities, the Oromos are accused of replicating the Tigrayans’ experience when they were in power.
Concurrently, another no to the merger has come from the man whose actions while in exile helped Ahmed to assume office. Political activist Jawar Mohamed, who was the victim of a recent smear campaign branding him an extremist Muslim who wants Sharia-based rule in Ethiopia, spoke of a new entity that would gather all the country’s pro-federalism parties together.
Some speculate that he and the outspoken critic Megerssa may form a new coalition that would be a killer blow to the overambitious Ahmed’s political career. Ahmed’s Prosperity Party is widely seen as a back-door policy to tighten his grip on power, just as godfather of modern Ethiopia Meles Zenawi did with the EPRDF. But unlike quick-witted Zenawi, who managed to surf gracefully in dangerous waters, the present Ethiopian prime minister is flying blind, given the rising opposition from within his own entourage.
In tandem with the political earthquake rocking the country, Ethiopians last week welcomed the State of Sidama, Ethiopia’s officially tenth region – except that less than two per cent of the 2.4 million people who form the region’s population unanimously voted for statehood. Seemingly, Sidama statehood may have a domino effect on other nationalities in southern Ethiopia. Eleven of the 12 southern nationalities have already submitted official requests for holding local referenda for statehood.
They are Wolaytta (from which Ethiopia’s former prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn hails), with its 2.4 million people; Gurage (1.8 million people); Gamo and Kembata Tembaro (one million people each); Bench-Maji and Hadiya (900,000 and 800,000 people, respectively); Dawro Zone (700,000 people) Gofa (1.3 million people that submitted a request in May this year); and South Omo (800,000 people that also submitted their request in April this year).
Out of all these southern nationalities, the Wolaytta’s quest for statehood remains the next challenge. Historically speaking, Wolaytta was an influential independent kingdom until its annexation by the Ethiopian emperor Menelik II in the 1890s in his successful expedition to enlarge the Empire. That annexation is branded as “one of the bloodiest campaigns of the whole process of expansion,” as Ethiopian historian Bahru Zewde has put it. It was so because the once-powerful kingdom ferociously resisted its subjugation and inflicted huge damage upon Menelik’s invading armies.
Though Wolaytta was one of the nine regions of Ethiopia in 1991, the same year the now-defunct EPRDF took over, the then transitional government decided to merge the ethnicity into the larger Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ Region. Just a few months after Abiy Ahmed took over as prime minister, ethnic-based conflicts took the lives of scores of people drawn from the Wolaytta in Hawassa, the capital of the newly formed State of Sidama. The atrocities and the burning alive of people have given rise to a now-prominent youth grouping called the Yalaga, a group of Wolaytta youths who want to restore the glory of their ancestors.
Since assuming office 19 months ago, Abiy Ahmed has taken long strides towards reforming Ethiopia, drafting his own model of Perestroika E Glasnost (Restructuring and Openness), a policy once adopted by the last leader of the former Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev. Ahmed’s policies are internationally celebrated because the West as usual fails to understand the core of the problems and the intertwined nature of Ethiopian society. Ahmed has been regionally welcomed with much cautiousness, but he is locally looking vulnerable.
This is due to the mounting cracks within the ruling elite and the uncertainty overwhelming the 112 million people of Ethiopia who have failed to get a clear-cut answer to the question of where Ethiopia is heading.
The writer is a former press and information officer in Ethiopia and an expert on African affairs.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.