No sooner had Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed celebrated his Nobel Peace Prize than his country was mired in religious and ethnic conflict that killed dozens of Ethiopians.
Sixty-seven people from the Oromia region were killed during two-day anti-Ahmed protests, which soon escalated into ethnic battles, according to police sources on Friday.
Of the 67 dead, five were policemen, said Kefyalew Tefera, the head of the Oromia Police Commission. Fifty-five protesters were killed in the fighting, and seven were killed by the security forces, he added, explaining that 13 demonstrators had been killed by gunshots and the rest pelted with stones until they died.
The Ethiopian Ministry of Defence said the army had deployed troops in seven cities that had seen demonstrations over the past week. Mohamed Tessema, head of the army’s public-relations unit, said at a press conference in the capital Addis Ababa that the troops had been deployed to “spread calm in cooperation with the region’s sheikhs and security forces”.
The protests erupted from Addis Ababa on 23 October before spreading into the Oromia region around the capital. They flared up after media mogul and opposition activist Jawar Mohamed accused the security forces of coordinating an attack on him. Police officials denied the accusation.
Mohamed said the police had surrounded his home and tried to withdraw his government security detail. He played a key role in mobilising the protests that swept the country and toppled Ahmed’s predecessor Hailemariam Desalegn.
Both Ahmed and Mohamed hail from the largest ethnic community in Ethiopia, the Oromo, comprising 34 per cent of the population.
Including the latest protests, the number of deaths over the past few years in such conflicts has reached approximately 2,000, in addition to a million displaced people who have fled their homes to escape ethnic and religious conflicts across the country.
The international rights group Amnesty International reported that since Ahmed took the helm in Ethiopia, there have been mass arrests of people from Oromia whom the authorities suspect are opponents of the government. Those apprehended have not been charged or tried, said Fisseha Tekle, an Amnesty researcher on Ethiopia.
The mass arrests contradict the reasons the Nobel Prize was awarded to the young prime minister. He had earlier signed a peace deal with Ethiopia’s long-standing enemy Eritrea, ending one of the longest conflicts on the African continent.
Ahmed released thousands of political prisoners and allowed the return of Ethiopians from exile. For the first time in two decades, Ethiopia’s prisons were free of journalists arrested for exercising the freedom of expression, according to governmental sources.
However, Ahmed’s reformist moves, including a promise to hold free-and-fair elections in 2020, have earned him political opponents. The general elections of 2015 were internationally criticised because the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front gained all the parliamentary seats, driving protests to spread across the country that were quelled by the authorities.
Ahmed’s political opponents are primarily from Tigray, comprising a little over six per cent of the population, and Amhara, making up 27 per cent, said Khaled Mahmoud, a researcher on African affairs.
The Amhara group ruled Ethiopia in the past, with former emperor Haile Selassie being overthrown by Mengistu Haile Mariam in the 1970s.
Since the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front came to power in 1991, the Tigray group has led the country and controlled the army and security apparatus. “It looks like the Tigray, in the army and police, and the Amhara, in the government administration, will not allow Ahmed to succeed,” said Mahmoud, adding that “Ethiopia is made up of 80 ethnicities divided into nine regions. Each has its own secessionist demands.”
The Ethiopian constitution grants each ethnicity the right to be independent, something which threatens the unity of the second-most populous country in Africa after Nigeria.
“The crisis we are experiencing could get worse if the Ethiopians do not unite,” said Ahmed. “There has been an attempt to turn the current crisis into an ethnic and religious one. We will work tirelessly to ensure that justice prevails and bring the guilty to justice.”
Fears are rising of civil war in Ethiopia, which could reflect negatively on its neighbours Djibouti, Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan. Ethiopia went to war against Somalia in the 1970s and Eritrea in the 1990s. Instability in Ethiopia could also affect navigation in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, Mahmoud said.
Mohamed said he “does not rule out” competing against Ahmed in the coming elections, though he “may change my mind if Ahmed corrects his course.” The protests mobilised by Mohamed followed a statement in which Ahmed warned against unidentified media owners “fomenting unrest”.
“Those media owners who don’t have Ethiopian passports are playing both ways. When there is peace, they are here, and when we are in trouble, they are not here,” Ahmed said.
“We have tried to be patient. But if this is going to undermine the peace of Ethiopia, whether you speak Amharic or another language we will take measures. You can’t play both ways,” he says
Ahmed’s statements were widely perceived to point at Mohamed, who holds a US passport and returned from exile last year.
Many observers believe the Oromo protests are eating away at Ahmed’s popularity, particularly because they are inter-ethnic in character. When added to the demands of other Ethiopian ethnicities, Ahmed’s opponents have increased in number.
The main four ethnic groups in Ethiopia are suffering deep cracks. The Tigray have rejected Ahmed’s reformist moves in the army and intelligence. The Amhara fear the loss of what remains of their cultural hegemony, derived from the control imposed by their mother tongue and the strength of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
The Somali region, comprising six per cent of the population, is demanding more participation in Ethiopian affairs, especially since the region was a war zone during Ethiopia’s war with Somalia in the 1970s. The Oromo fear the unity of the Tigray and the Amhara against their aspirations.
On the other side stands Ahmed against an extremist Oromo current demanding to gain rights quickly and opportunists who want to see him gone in order to take over the rule of the country.
There have been two failed attempts on Ahmed’s life. A regional coup was also earlier planned to seize control of the central government.
The award of the Nobel Prize will not save its winner from the barrage of challenges he is facing. He may be thrown a lifeline, however, if free-and-fair elections are held next year.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 31 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.