Ethiopia Will Explode if It Doesn’t Move Beyond Ethnic-Based Politics

Oromo nationalism helped bring Abiy Ahmed to power, but it could also be his undoing. To hold the country together, the Nobel-winning prime minister needs to convince various ethnic groups that he and his new party represent all Ethiopians.

Jawar Mohammed (C), a member of the Oromo ethnic group who has been a public critic of Abiy, addresses supporters that had gathered outside his home in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa after he accused security forces of trying to orchestrate an attack against him October 24, 2019. – A day after supporters of the high-profile opposition activist took to the streets, burning tyres and blocking roads following rumours of Jawar’s mistreatment by state forces where at least four people were killed and dozens injured in protests in Ethiopia against Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, hospital and police sources said Thursday. (Photo by STRINGER / AFP) (Photo by STRINGER/AFP via Getty Images)

On Oct. 11, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed received the Nobel Peace Prize for ending the long stalemate with neighboring Eritrea. Paradoxically, Abiy enjoys only fragmented and diminishing popular support in his own country. Even in his home region of Oromia, his leadership is seriously contested by the ethnonationalist forces represented by the social media activist Jawar Mohammed.

This became painfully evident on Oct. 23, when the Oromia region was shaken by a deadly wave of violence following a series of Facebook posts from Jawar. The activist, who also heads a TV channel called Oromia Media Network, announced that the police were about to detain him, an allegation that was later denied by the government. Around 70 civilians were killed when his angry supporters took to the streets, setting off an intercommunal conflict that took on an ethnic and religious dimension.

This tragic incident is emblematic of the volatile nature of ethnic politics in Ethiopia, which has started to crack the foundations of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition. The EPRDF, which has ruled the country since 1991, is a coalition of four parties that represented the country’s major ethnic groups (Amhara, Oromo, Tigrayan, and southern groups) of which the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front was the most dominant party until recently.

Decades of authoritarian rule, forced displacement, and the perceived dominance of Tigrayans within the coalition led to widespread discontent that sparked a series of protests

in 2015.

Decades of authoritarian rule, forced displacement, and the perceived dominance of Tigrayans within the coalition led to widespread discontent that sparked a series of protests in 2015.

 The protests started in Oromia and subsequently spread to the Amhara region, and they were led by grassroots-based ethnic youth groups, most particularly by the Qeerroo movement in Oromia.

In April 2018, the EPRDF buckled under the pressure of the protests, and its chairman, Hailemariam Desalegn, resigned. A fractious internal reshuffle brought Abiy to the chairmanship, the first Oromo ever to hold the position. Abiy represented a younger generation of reformists within the EPRDF, and he immediately commenced with conciliatory gestures and a promise to widen the political space. His swift measures of making peace with Eritrea, releasing thousands of political prisoners, and welcoming banished political parties gained him significant popular support.

This didn’t last very long, however. Abiy’s measured tone and search for compromises in a country where politics is severely polarized immediately disappointed a large share of his supporters. The Oct. 23 violence in Oromia has further divided his support base and impaired his plans to unify the EPRDF coalition. As the country prepares for a national election in May 2020 with a weakened ruling party and fragmented electorate, the risk of radical ethnonational forces inciting violence is worse than ever.

Ironically, Abiy found it much easier to make peace with Eritrea than to unify his own country and party. In fact, his peacemaking sojourns in Sudan and Eritrea are best seen as efforts to bolster his profile before embarking on the much harder task of making peace at home.

Abiy must find a way to avoid repeating the perilous history of previous experiments in ethnic federalism in countries such as Yugoslavia.

Abiy must find a way to avoid repeating the perilous history of previous experiments in ethnic federalism in countries such as Yugoslavia.

 That will require bringing in more order and transparency to the process of political transition. At this point, the transition process is nebulous without any consensus on desired outcomes or a clear timeline.

This could be intentional on Abiy’s part. The root causes of the current political crisis come from a system that awkwardly weds ethnicity to electoral politics. Devised to ensure greater ethnic representation and equality within the confines of democratic centralism under the EPRDF, ethnic politics in an era of social media is inflaming ethnic extremism and undermining the very foundations of the federal system upon which it rests.

A lasting solution will necessitate a constitutional reform that establishes new checks and balances that mitigate the risk of ethnic politics exploding into downright violence. This, however, will require an extensive process of consensus-building around a bargain that reconciles the interests of federalists with those advocating for a more unitary state.

Unfortunately, creating a mechanism that can support this kind of reform is all but impossible in the current political atmosphere, which is highly polarized, fragmented, and unstable. Having gone through decades of repression and then an abrupt opening, Ethiopia’s political sphere is awash with the irreconcilable demands of various ethnic parties and other interest groups.


  1. We should all realize the fact how rewarding and lucrative has this ethnic pandering has been for these individuals. Many of them were not known just a decade ago. Now they are millionaires and media moguls. In addition, due to the administration’s lack of assertiveness hate mongers like this one have become the most feared individuals in that glorious history rich country. The country and the ethnic groups that had produced genius and unrepentant patriots such as Jagama Kello, Garasu, Abebe, Dinagde, Balcha and others like them is now being spit upon by punk rockers and reincarnated Sayeed Abiyo’s. These hate mongers are having the life of their time while sending the gullible youth into murderous spree and waiting fires. When an innocent youth changes himself into a bloodthirsty savage on a dime, these connivers are watching them from their comfy homes gabbling up butcher’s select fillet mignon every day. You can see the effect of that just by looking at them. They are getting fatter by the day having their pants bursting at their seams. It has been very rewarding for these connivers. That by itself has been very intoxicating. Then there are the Wahhabis with their deep pockets just on the outside looking in. They must have picked their man already. It is just a matter of time. Why? Because it is natural for such connivers. For them is like ‘With your billions, count me in’. So, where are you heading dear my old country, you gem of the colored?

  2. The first question should have been what do all Ethiopian communities share in common
    as basis for establishing a post-imperial state. This should have occurred before committing
    to elections.

    John Harbeson


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