Will divisions break Ethiopia?
Haitham Nouri, , Thursday 16 Jul 2020
The death of Ethiopian singer Hachalu Hundessa has opened ethnic wounds the government may not be able to heal

Despite his relentless efforts to effect democraticchange in Ethiopia (which was one of two reasons he won a Nobel PeacePrizelast year), Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is facing divisions in the country thatare more complex than his ability to settlethem.

This couldn’t be more apparent than following themurder of prominent Oromo singer Hachalu Hundessa in late June. Riotsflared inEthiopia, resulting in the death of 239 people, according to an Ethiopianofficial police report published by the BBC 8July.

Less than two days later, Ethiopian Attorney-GeneralAdanech Abebe announced in a televised statement the arrest of themainsuspect, Tilahun Yami, and one of two of his accomplices, Abdi Alemayehou. Thethird suspect, Kepdi Gemtshu,remains at large.

Abebe added that the defendants admitted that theopposition Oromo Liberation Front ordered them to kill Hundessa,providing nofurther details. Until now, the reason the Oromo singer was killed remainsunknown.

The Oromo Liberation Front is an armed movement thatfocuses its activities against the government. It is centred in thewesternareas of the Oromo region.

The Oromo people have been suffering cultural,economic and political marginalisation for over a century, or sincemodernEthiopia was established in the late 19thcentury, as emperor HaileSelassie forbade the Oromo from practising theirlanguage and religious andcultural rituals and traditions.The Oromo group is the country’s largest, comprising34 per cent of the population, whereas successive rulers ofEthiopia camefrom the Amhara, who make up no more than 27 per cent of the population, whichexplains the discriminationthe Oromos experienced through long decades, inaddition to the fact that the Ethiopian capital falls within Oromo lands.

Ahmed is the first Oromo to reach the helm inEthiopia. However, the first Ethiopian to win a Nobel Prize was met byopposition from his own people.

A number of Oromo leaders were apprehended, primeamong whom is Jawar Mohamed, a controversial figurehead who isregarded byAhmed’s supporters as a populist while the country’s opponents believe Mohamedis a national hero whodoesn’t accept compromise.

Mohamed may be a threat to the throne of Ahmed,according to a BBC report published last week. Many observers believeMohamedis no more than a secessionist, having said “I am an Oromo, first and foremost…Ethiopia was imposed upon us.”

This sentence was repeated during chants by Oromoprotesters in Paris who regarded Ethiopia as a threat to the Oromo.

As fierce as Mohamed’s opposition was, so was Ahmed’sresponse. The prime minister told parliament in reference toMohamed, “Thosemedia owners who don’t have Ethiopian passports are playing both ways. Whenthere is peace you areplaying here, and when we are in trouble you are not here. Wetried to be patient. But if this is going to undermine the peaceand existenceof Ethiopia... We will take measures. You can’t play both ways.”

Hundessa was an opponent of Ahmed. The majority of thesongs he wrote or sang was in the Oromo language, despite thefact that theAmhara language is the most widespread and the official language of Ethiopia.

Nonetheless, Hundessa’s political songs that call forfreedom attracted fans from different ethnicities.

In a celebration held by the Ethiopian Ministry ofCulture in honour of Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, who was on his firstvisit to Ethiopia since the two countries buried their border war,Hundessa sang about the necessity of bringingjustice to those who lost theirlives in the east of the country during clashes between the Oromo and Somaligroups.

Ethiopian officials criticised Hundessa at the timebecause his songs were “not appropriate”. It seems such songs were thereasonhe received death threats until a short time before his murder. Hundessa neverrevealed the source of the deaththreats.

What is worrying, however, is that the prime minister,on the day of Hundessa’s murder, said “external and domesticforces” werebehind the singer’s death. He added his government foiled a plan to fuel civilwar in the country.

“This is an act committed and inspired by domestic andforeign enemies in order to destabilise our peace and to stop usfrom achievingthings that we started,” Africa News reported Ahmed as saying.

As with every incident of the sort, the Ethiopianauthorities arrested a large number of protesters and cut off the Internet.This was the third time the government shut down the Internet nationwide sinceAhmed became prime minister in April2018. The two previous incidents were themilitary coup in Amhara region in 2019 and the deadly fights between theOromosand Somalis in August 2018.

It looks like the ethnic breakdown Ethiopia isundergoing is a difficult wound for Ahmed to heal in two years, or even adecade.

This is what pushed Ahmed to put off from electionspreviously slated to held next month.

The succession of events in Ethiopia revealed that anygeneral elections to be held in the country will fail, while ethnicconflicts (in a country with more than 80 ethnicities) threaten to break the back of theentire country.

Ethiopia is suffering a million displaced peopleas a result of national and ethnic fractures. In addition, locust swarms arelooming.

Besides ethnic divisions, the Oromos are seeingmajor cracks in their walls, rendering Ahmed without a supportingmajority andweakening his popularity even further.

However, without holding elections the authorities canmaintain the unity of the country and thus the stability of the Horn ofAfrica.

Bloomberg reported that the Eritrean minister ofinformation said Saturday that peace with Ethiopia didn’t rise toAsmara’s expectations. The minister was reported as saying that two years aftersigning the peace agreement, Ethiopian forces were still on Eritrea’ssovereign lands.

He added that trade and economic relations were notresumed to a satisfactory extent.

The peace deal between Ethiopia and Eritrea ended astalemate following a border war that lasted from 1998 to 2000, inwhich100,000 people were killed.

Following the peace deal, the UN lifted sanctionsimposed on Eritrea for decades.

Ahmed’s mission in Ethiopia is very difficult, but itis not impossible. As much as there are demands that exceed thecapacity of theEthiopian government, there are forces that fear the disintegration of thecountry that could bring Ethiopiaback to the dire conditions witnessed under Selassie.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 July, 2020 edition ofAl-Ahram Weekly