Will Ethiopia dissolve in ethnic conflict?

Mostafa Ahmady
Tuesday 10 Mar 2020

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed wants a new centralist system in Ethiopia, but this very drive is exposing deep fissures in the ethnic fabric of the nation, writes Mostafa Ahmady

Two weeks ago, Ethiopia’s former powerhouse Tigray celebrated the 45th anniversary of founding the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), one of the four major parties that formed the defunct Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). The event may usher in the disintegration of Ethiopia: “You have to declare Tigray an independent nation if hate speech against the region does not come to a halt!” Debratsion Gebramichael, the chairman of the TPLF, was telling huge crowds who gathered in Mekele, the capital city of the region, to mark the anniversary. Gebramichael was referring to “inconvenient” remarks made by incumbent Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed who nursed a grudge against Tigrayans, telling his fellow Oromos, “we, the Oromo people, have crippled Weyanas (a reference to Tigrayans)… now they are locked up in one place (Tigray)!” After Abiy rose to power, all Tigrayans were removed from federal positions. They are all now stacked in their home region. 

Tigrayan strongman Gebramichael, acting president of the region, said the TPLF would align itself with the parties standing for a federal Ethiopia versus those ineffective parties that have been coerced into joining the incumbent Ethiopian prime minister’s unionist Prosperity Party (PP). Tigray is now perceived, by ultra-Oromo nationalists in particular, as the signal of unprecedented divisions cracking the very foundation of Ethiopia nowadays because of the ethno-federal polity created under late Tigrayan PM Meles Zenawi. 

In decades, Ethiopia has not seen such a deep polarisation between two powerful camps: federalists supported by a wide majority, especially in Abiy’s ethnic Oromia, the largest in the nation, against unionists led by Prime Minister Abiy who is pushing the envelope though tension has been building up in the country since the inception of his “Medemer” philosophy. Though hailed by the West as a reformist leader who brought about some changes to a country that suffered too long from political stagnation, Abiy’s image even among his fellow Oromos has drastically shifted from a promising reformist leader into a dictator in the making, as some of his opponents have publicly decried.

Abiy’s “Medemer” (literally in Amharic “to be together”, or roughly “synergy”) philosophy is an exercise of a motto long time publicised by Ethiopia’s former PM Meles Zenawi: “Unity in Diversity” which was meant to “synergise” all Ethiopian nations and nationalities “together” via a lucrative medium — self-rule within a quasi-federal system. Prime Minister Abiy wants a departure from his predecessor Zenawi’s so-called “revolutionary democracy” into a “synergised” form of democracy that puts into effect the famed motto “Unus pro omnibus, omnes pro uno” — “One for all and all for one” — floated in an eye-catching democratic approach implying one-man rule that might be much harsher than that under the EPRDF itself. Proof can be seen in intimidating marginalised ethnicities into joining the new unionist party or risking federal competencies and benefits and ministerial portfolios as well. 

According to the Office of the Ethiopian Attorney General, ethnic violence, most notably in Oromia but also other regions, particularly Amhara, has claimed the lives of 1,200 people and left more than 1.2 million displaced in recent years. For the first time, female students from Amhara region were abducted from the Oromia-based Dembi Dollo University, some taken directly from the campus. Inter-religious strife is a new phenomenon in Ethiopia. Hate speech among Muslims and Christians has, unfortunately, led to the burning down of churches and mosques alike.

On the other hand, the federalist camp clings to the gains of a federal system in Ethiopia, particularly self-rule and the right to self-determination. Both advantages may be laid to rest, like the EPRDF itself, should Abiy’s camp get a mandate when Ethiopians go to the polls on 29 August this year — the date set for holding general elections. The constitution may be amended to introduce new articles on changing the pyramidal structure of the nation and erasing the controversial Article 39 on the right of ethnic nationalities to secession. 

Across the years, it has been instilled in the minds of average Ethiopians that federalism is the safeguard against the fall of the nation into fragmentised cantons, a recipe that was especially designed to accommodate marginalised nationalities in the West, like Gambela and Benishangul-Gumaz, and in the easternmost areas, like the Somali region. Now Ethiopians are called on to accept a new centralist system disguised in the name of “unionism”. 

One of the major obstacles facing Prime Minister Abiy is that he has not finished the job among his fellow Oromos. The largest ethnicity is the big catch, as it claims 178 federal seats out of the 547 seats of the Ethiopian House of Peoples’ Representatives. Winning Oromia gets the incumbent prime minister much closer to consolidating his grip on power with a popular mandate. Fellow Oromos are, however, unprecedentedly divided between a historically-rooted belief in a powerful Oromia with greater regional powers, advocated by prominent activist Jawar Mohamed and the like, and a feeble patriotic sense of union in a great Ethiopia. They cast their anger on the incumbent prime minister because he once praised Emperor Menelik II, the man widely believed in Oromia as nipping in the bud the idea of an independent Oromia by annexing the region to enlarge his empire, forming nowadays Ethiopia. 

Some see Abiy now as a man who would like to embark on Menelik-style conquests, politically “subjugating” minor ethnicities into his “Medemer” approach. Oromia is home to ultranationalists like Jawar Mohamed who aligned himself with the Oromo Federalist Congress and adamantly refused the new unionist approach of the prime minister. Other ultranationalists, particularly the Oromo Liberation Army, the armed wing of the Oromo Liberation Front (once branded a terrorist organisation but now a registered political party) are reported to be responsible for a bomb attack on a pro-Abiy rally in Ambo, Oromia, that left scored injured and showed a devastating rupture among old bedfellows. 

In effect, the current volatile situation in Ethiopia is a reminder of the regrettable 2005 elections events. At that time, the opposition, led by the current chairwoman of the National Election Board, Birtukan Mideksa, won 89 seats out of the then 527 seats of the Ethiopian parliament and secured most seats in the administrative district of the capital city Addis Ababa. The Meles government then responded to “Oromo” protests over claims of rigged votes with killings, crackdowns and arrests of more than 60,000 people all over the country. 

If this happens again, the second most populous African nation will slip into a “Balkan-like” scenario where ethnicity would speak louder than nationalism, particularly with the amassing of arms by local militias and average people alike to protect themselves in such restive regions as Amhara and the Southern Nations, where a powerful presence by the federal government is broadly absent. 

Regardless of which camp wins the next elections, a Pandora’s Box has been opened already.

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  12 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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