Ethiopia’s escalating regional political crisis has roots in its federal system

Et tu? Ethiopia’s prime minister Abiy Ahmed and, now former, defense minister Lemma Megersa back in April 2018.

The political crisis in Ethiopia is not showing signs of abating. Ongoing riots in Oromia and Wolayta; state fragmentation in the Amhara region, and the standoff between the federal government and the Tigray region have put the survival of the government in question.

To address this crisis, the African Union has been called upon to mediate between prime minister Abiy Ahmed’s government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. Similar in tone, a US-based Ethiopian working group has urged Washington to play a more vocal role in the deepening crisis.

Most recently, some members of the US Congress wrote a petition calling on the US secretary of state to encourage the Ethiopian government to engage in an open dialog with the opposition for a peaceful transition.

These are all encouraging signs. But there needs to be greater clarity on the nature of the crisis for an informed and meaningful intervention.

It is my view that the crisis in Ethiopia today is not a conflict between the federal government in Addis Ababa and the regional government in Tigray. It is a crisis of the federal government manifest in Tigray and other regions. The governance of the federal government has become more of an exercise in seamanship (staying in power) and less of navigation (reaching a destination) falling short of coherent and democratic approaches to address the crisis.

REUTERS/TIKSA NEGERI
People hold Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) flags at a gathering in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Aug. 5, 2018.

Therefore, defining the problem as a disagreement between the federal government and Tigray is, to say the least, simplistic. There are concurrent crises in Oromia and the southern regions that also need urgent attention. And to call for dialog without taking some confidence building measures, such as the unconditional release of political prisoners, is a non-starter.

The ongoing unrest in Oromia

The killing of a popular Oromo singer Hachalu Hundiessa in June sparked massive communal riots. Most parts of western and southern Oromia were engulfed in fighting between armed forces Oromo Liberation Front fighters and government forces. The opposition parties in Oromia—protesting the decision of the government to continue in power beyond its mandate at the end of September 2020—began preparing for resistance. The killing of the artist occurred in the middle of this political crisis.

The protests engulfed much of the Oromia region where many businesses and shops were torched or looted. The government response to the riots left 178 people dead and a further 9,000 detained without due process of law. Curfews were imposed and a complete closure of the internet enforced.

The public mistrust of government grew amid inconsistent statements and its knee-jerk decision to arrest opposition political leaders. Its failure to set up an independent inquiry into the artiste’s killing further fuelled suspicion.

In reaction to the resistance of the Oromo elites, Abiy has gone about purging over 1,700 local administrators and civil servants. The dismissed officials included Lemma Megersa, the defense minister, a politician considered pivotal in prime minister’s rise to power.

But resistance in the Oromia region continues in different forms. With over 9,000 people in prison, including key Oromo political leaders, the crisis has immense potential for escalation.

The Wolayta crisis

The Wolayta people in the country’s south have long agitated for a regional state of their own. The claims have become louder since December 2018 when the neighboring Sidama people secured a referendum to form their own regional state—breaking away from the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples Regional state.

The constitution recognizes the right of any nation or nationality clustered in any of the regional states to form its own state. Following the steps required, the council of representatives of the Wolayta zone unanimously voted for a regional state, and presented its decision on Dec. 19, 2018. But this has yet to be considered at regional or federal levels or referred to the Electoral Board.

In protest at the silence, the Wolayta organized a massive rally and the 38 representatives to the regional council declined to attend the council meeting. The federal government responded to these developments by detaining dozens of zonal officials, elected members of the Wolayta statehood council, political party leaders, and civil society actors.

The regime also acted violently against peaceful demonstrators demanding the release of those detained. The government also suspended a community radio station and shut down offices of civil society organizations.

A national crisis

Events in Oromia and Wolayta illustrate the point that the current Ethiopian problem is not limited to a dispute between the federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). It is a national one.

The decision of the federal government to postpone the scheduled elections using the excuse of the Covid-19 pandemic was rejected by most substantive opposition political groups calling for a dialog to avert the consequences of the constitutional crisis.

The best-organized of these groups, the TPLF, has the capacity to hold its regional elections on schedule. This has brought the crisis to a head. But the dispute with Tigray cannot be resolved with a simple compromise: there is much more at stake, and the TPLF leaders are unlikely to make a short-term bargain when they see the problem as more fundamental.

Tens of thousands of Ethiopians, including leaders of the opposition, are in prison for political reasons. All media outlets, except those fully controlled by or affiliated to the Prosperity Party, are closed.

For a meaningful dialog to start, the federal government should take some unilateral confidence building measures. All political prisoners should be released without condition and all media outlets closed by the government opened immediately. It should also end the unlimited and unlawful state of emergency.

This can then set the stage for a national dialog with two main objectives. First is to agree an early date for elections and determine how the country transitions to an elected government. Second is a discussion on some of the fundamental questions on the political future of Ethiopia. This is currently obscured by a focus on the crisis of the moment.

Mulugeta G Berhe (PhD), Senior Fellow, World Peace Foundation, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts, Tufts University

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