Ethiopia’s Ethnic Violence and the Threat to the New Prime Minister

 /  Nov. 4, 2018, 5:08 p.m.

Meskel Square

Over the weekend of September 15, Ethiopian authorities reported twenty-three deaths as a result of ethnic violence in the outskirts of the capital, Addis Ababa. The attacks were attributed to one of the largest ethnic groups in the country, the Oromo people, who have been organizing systematic mobs on Ethiopian minorities, including the Dorze, Gamo, and Wolaita groups.

The following Monday, September 17, thousands of people denouncing the attacks and demanding justice took to the streets, most notably Meskel Square, the quintessential site for public gathering and demonstrations in the country. Police apprehended around two hundred people following the unrest and five were killed while attempting to get hold of police officers’ weapons. The country was at a standstill and Addis’ economy was largely brought to a halt.

The unrest coincided with a major political development in the country: the inauguration of a new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed. Being Oromo himself, the newly-elected democratic prime minister is facing a challenge in condemning the attacks. Due to this violent unrest at the beginning of his time in office, Ahmed runs the risk of losing popular support for his agenda of cracking down on authoritarianism in Ethiopia.

A History of Ethnic Tensions in Ethiopia

Ethiopia has historically been plagued by ethnic tensions. The country is extremely diverse; its population of 100 million people identifies with more than eighty ethnic groups, including the Oromo, Amhara, Somali, and Tigrayans. Ethnic disputes and violence are currently at alarming levels, reaching an all-time high since the fall of the military regime in 1991.

In July 1991, four ethnic parties united to form the coalition called Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). The parties—the Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organization, Amhara National Democratic Movement, Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement, and the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front—formed the Transitional Government of Ethiopia (TGE). The coalition then created a system of governance organized territorially along ethnic lines in an effort to ameliorate the historic ethnic tensions between different groups. Each region was given the power to administer their own people, with “rights to self-determination in economic, cultural and political matters even to the extent of secession,” virtually transforming the country into a constitutional ethnonational federation.

From the outset, then, Ethiopia was created in such a way that made it prone to exacerbated ethnic rivalries. The country has since developed a weak sense of national unity and witnessed the creation of a number of smaller ethnic and national movements.

Ethnic groups have consistently laid claim to land that had been allocated to other tribes. The Amhara people have claimed ownership of the Wolqait and Raya territories in northwestern Ethiopia, which are currently under the administration of the Tigrayans. The Somali and Oromo peoples have also laid claim to their own ancestral lands which were governed by different tribes. Violence was not uncommon as a result of these tense relations and controversial actions. The Somali-Oromo clash in February and March of 2016 resulted in hundreds of deaths allegedly by a paramilitary force called the Liyu Police.

International Response

The fatal attacks of September 15 and the ensuing protests have garnered wide international coverage.

Amnesty International’s Director for East Africa, Joan Nyanuki, said, “No one should die because of their ethnicity and neither should anyone die because they took a stand against the shocking violence and killings that the authorities failed to prevent.” The human rights organization has called on the authorities to take measures and bring an end to the mass violence and tensions.

However, for the most part international bodies and governments have been silent on the issue. The United States embassy in Addis Ababa was closed on September 19 “in light of large scale demonstrations expected in Addis.” The embassy’s tweet also encouraged “all those participating in the demonstrations to express themselves peacefully.” This was the extent of any official stance given; no statement was issued by the State Department or governmental agencies in other countries.

Implications at Home: the New PM’s Fate at Stake?

The severity of the attacks and tensions is heightened by their timing: the attacks coincided with the inauguration of Ahmed.

The ambitious prime minister has lifted the “state of emergency, freed political prisoners and removed leaders of banned groups including the OLF from a blacklist,” since his inauguration in this past April. He has also stated that Ethiopia will become transparent and open to international observers and he enjoys support from the public. Ahmed’s wave of democratic reform is an unprecedented development in a historically autocratic Ethiopia and certainly is bound to open up new possibilities internationally.

However, there are signs that this highly democratic agenda is too idealistic. The question is whether Ahmed will be able to promote reform in light of the exploding ethnic tensions in the country. Will the optimistic period and increased democratic practices be threatened by the prevailing ethnic crisis? The answer is already yes.

Ahmed, being Oromo himself, has received criticism urging him to toughen up and crack down on ethnic violence following the September incidents.

Despite having denounced the violence, however, Ahmed faces a serious threat caused by Ethiopia’s ethnic tensions. The country is desperately in need of ethnic reform, in addition to the political and economic reform undertaken by Ahmed. The new prime minister’s reforms are doomed to fail with the current constitutional layout, which still supports what is called a “group-rights agenda,” advancing the often conflicting interests of groups and disfavoring national unity.

If Ahmed truly wants to solve this horrid “humanitarian catastrophe” and help his country in the long term, he should promote a wide-ranging ethnic and cultural reform. In doing so, Ahmed should be sure to promote structural and constitutional change in an effort to eradicate the rotten ethnically-organized federal system. To begin with, all Ethiopian citizens, regardless of their ethnic identity, should be given the right to freedom of movement and residence in any region of the country. Ahmed should also make sure to investigate and prosecute all previous cases of ethnic violence and offer protection and resources to victims.

Furthermore, it is Ahmed’s responsibility to make sure all four parties of the coalition agree on a new agenda. The unanimity on policies mitigating ethnic violence is imperative in a system with ethnically-organized political parties. Whether or not ethnic rapprochement is even possible depends on if the parties making up the EPRDF are able to come together through a structured and peaceful parliamentary process in light of such a dividing issue.

There is thus a significant pressure on Ahmed to pass reform in Ethiopia. If he can successfully institute cultural reform, perhaps he can bring unity to and promote democratic reform in such a divided country.

Ken Krmoyan is a Contributing Writer for The Gate. 

The image featured in this article is used under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. The original was taken by Daniel Girma Tsige and can be found here.

Ken Krmoyan


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