Ethiopia’s waves of discontent

Haitham Nouri , Tuesday 17 Nov 2020

Ethiopia’s prime minister is cornered between Tigray conflicts and his failure to appease other ethnic groups, sparking concerns about national disintegration, reports Haitham Nouri

Ethiopia’s waves of discontent
Ethiopian refugees who fled fighting in Tigray province lay in a hut at the Um Rakuba camp in Sudan’s eastern Gedaref province. The camp once housed refugees who fled Ethiopia’s 1983-85 famine that killed over a million people (photo: AFP)

Fears are mounting that armed conflicts in the northern Ethiopian region of Tigray could spread to the rest of the country and from there to the entire Horn of Africa. The bloody conflicts threaten the existence of Ethiopia as a state and the wider region, which is of strategic importance to international trade routes.

The stability of Ethiopia is significant to the Horn of Africa, said António Guterres, secretary-general of the UN, one day after fights flared earlier this month.

Peace and stability have been very fragile in Ethiopia for many years, which resulted in the overthrow of Tigrayans from the helm after controlling Ethiopia for three decades, since the fall of the communist rule of Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991, until Abiy Ahmed became prime minister in 2018.

Since then the Tigrayans, comprising six per cent of the Ethiopian population, have been complaining about their “marginalisation” after a number of their figureheads were toppled from high positions in the army and security apparatuses, while many of their politicians from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) were tried for corruption.

Tensions intensified when Ahmed disbanded the previously ruling party, made up of multiple ethnic and national communities, and established instead a unified bloc under the name of the Prosperity Party.

The TPLF refused to join the Prosperity Party the membership of which is given on an individual basis and not to ethnic and national groups.

In continuation of opposition to Ahmed’s policies, Tigray leaders refused Ahmed’s decision to postpone the general elections, slated for September 2020, and held a referendum which the central government in Addis Ababa branded as “illegal”.

The government claimed it put off the general elections as a precautionary measure against the spread of coronavirus. However, there were local and regional fears that holding the elections on schedule would lead to the disintegration of Ethiopia due to rising demands by different ethnicities for more independence from the central government.

All of Ethiopia’s ethnicities either demand secession or resist the government with arms. However, all of them were too weak to go to war with the army until the latest confrontations between the Tigrayans and Ahmed’s federal government.

The Tigrayans also refuse “the immoral reconciliation” with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki which ended the conflict ongoing between Asmara and Addis Ababa since 1997.

On Saturday, the TPLF announced its responsibility for shelling the airport in Asmara which the front said was being used by Ahmed’s government against Tigray forces.

The front said 10 November that Eritrean soldiers crossed the border to fight alongside the government against the Tigrayans.

The border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, which claimed the lives of 200,000 people from both countries, was due to hostility between Tigray and the ruling People’s Front for Democracy and Justice in Asmara.

Following the airport incident, regional and international fears increased of the spread of the conflict to neighbouring countries. The Ethiopian government rejected the mediation of other parties, claiming “it is purely an Ethiopian affair”, and is no more than “a short-term conflict” against “the military council” in Tigray.

Eritrea is not the only neighbour that could be harmed from the Ethiopian conflict. Sudan announced opening camps to refugees fleeing the fighting in Tigray, a replay of what happened during the conflicts of the 1980s.

The UN said refugees to Sudan have crossed the 25,000 mark, which overburdens Sudan that is already ailing from its fragile economy and puts more burdens on international aid dispersed between Yemen, South Sudan and Ethiopia.

Sudan and Ethiopia have long had border conflicts. This year forces from the two sides engaged in battles twice. The leaderships of both countries contained the conflict, however.

Making the matter worse is the fragility of food security in the Horn of Africa which suffered from drought for many years. Locust attacks last year deepened the crisis, eating away crops. Similar attacks are expected sometime this year.

The spread of the coronavirus may also make it more difficult to deliver aid to those in need.

Domestically, other crises burden Ethiopia more than the events of Tigray. The country comprises 80 ethnic groups, all of which demand either more self-rule or secession.

Even the Oromos, comprising 34 per cent of the population and from whom Ahmed hails, are divided over the rule of the prime minister. This fracture appeared after the murder of famous Oromo singer Hachalu Hundessa in July. Protests erupted as tens of Oromia figures who opposed Ahmed’s rule were arrested.

Oromia is engaged in bloody conflicts with its neighbouring region Somali, home to six per cent of the Ethiopian population, in which tens, if not hundreds, of people from both sides died.

On many occasions the Ethiopian regime doubted the people of the Somali region sympathised with their bloodline from the neighbouring country of Somalia.

Indeed, the Ogaden desert, south of the country, witnessed war between Ethiopia and Somalia in the 1970s. Ethiopian forces stormed into Somalian lands to halt the spread of the terrorist Somali Youth Movement organisation.

Ethiopian forces are currently part of African Union (AU) forces fighting against the terrorist organisation. The movement will gain more power if the conflict lasts and if Addis Ababa has at some point to withdraw its soldiers from the AU force.

The Amhara region, comprising 28 per cent of the Ethiopian population, which has been at the helm of the country’s rule for many centuries, saw several coup attempts which claimed the lives of the army leader, the region’s governor, and one of his aides.

The Amhara people have been suffering from marginalisation since the time of emperor Haile Selassie in the early 1970s.

Despite the changes Ahmed made in the government’s top positions to appease the Amhara and Oromo peoples, his moves will not necessarily lead the two ethnic groups to take his side.

The Oromos are divided over the prime minister and the Amharas didn’t find a distinguished place for themselves in the regime or the Prosperity Party. At the same time, Ahmed is facing relatively less opposition in Benishangul-Gumuz, the region where the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD)  — the cause of dispute between Ethiopia and Egypt and Sudan — is being built.

The Ethiopian government refuses to negotiate with Tigray, claiming that ignoring the conflict will be the beginning of the disintegration of the state and that the federal government wants to teach Ethiopians a lesson about the value of unity.

Because international media can’t check reports coming from the areas of conflict, observers can’t draw a clear picture of the course of events. Their fears, however, are mounting despite news of mediation efforts conducted by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni between the federal government and Tigray.

Radwan Hussein, the spokesman of the recently founded Governmental Emergency Forces for Fighting in Tigray, said on behalf of the government it refuses to negotiate with “Tigray’s military council”.

A number of human rights organisations reported a massacre took place against tens of labourers who don’t reside in the region. They weren’t able to verify the perpetrators, however.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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