Fractures appear in Ethiopia’s ethno-political mosaic

Disputes over power, resources, identity and territory have resurfaced under Abiy Ahmed
Less than a month ago, Abiy Ahmed, prime minister of Ethiopia, won the Nobel Peace Prize. In Ethiopia, though, peace is in short supply. In what is merely the latest in a string of violent incidents, nearly 70 people were killed in the Oromia region last week after a prominent Oromo activist Jawar Mohammed all but accused the prime minister of trying to have him assassinated.

Oromia surrounds Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital. It is one of nine ethnically constituted regions and home to about 35m people. The Oromo make up more than a third of Ethiopia’s estimated 105m people. No one knows the exact number or proportion since counting people is a politically contentious affair, implying as it does the allocation of power and resources. The government cancelled the April census for a third time, citing instability.

The Oromo led the protests against the previous government of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, a four-party coalition that has ruled Ethiopia (in some senses, very successfully) since overthrowing a Marxist dictatorship in 1991.

But, after a quarter of a century in power, EPRDF rule became untenable. Street protests, beginning in around 2015 in Oromia and spreading to Amhara, the second most populous region, eventually toppled the old leadership. That cleared the path for Mr Abiy to become party head and prime minister, the country’s first Oromo leader in more than 2,000 years.

One reason for those protests was the dominance within the ruling EPRDF of the Tigrayans, who had led the guerrilla insurgency in the early 1990s. The Tigrayans make up only 6 per cent of Ethiopia’s population but dominated decision-making and power. Under Tigrayan leadership, Ethiopia instituted an economic development plan that transformed it into the nearest thing Africa has to a would-be Asian success story.

The EPRDF also came up with a power-sharing arrangement with the country’s 80 ethnic groups. A new constitution, enacted in 1995, divided the country into nine ethnically-based regions. It also provided for the secession of any region through referendum and the aspiration of any ethnic group to regional status. The Sidama, a southern group of 3.8m people (about 4 per cent of the population), is the latest to push for just that.

When Mr Abiy became leader of this mosaic-of-a-country, he released thousands of political prisoners, lifted bans on political parties (even the ones seeking the state’s violent overthrow) and loosened controls on the media. His push for liberal reform is one reason he won the Nobel. It has come at a cost. “As political space has opened and EPRDF control has weakened all sorts of latent disputes over power, resources, identity and territory have surfaced,” says William Davison of Crisis Group.  The disputes are too numerous to mention. Here are a few: the Amhara, with around 29m people, are at rhetorical war with the Tigrayans over territory. They also resent the Oromo narrative that Amaharans are oppressors who, under Emperor Menelik II in the 19th century, brutally conquered Oromo territory. Tigrayans blame Mr Abiy for purging them from power and are threatening to leave the EPRDF before the elections — which will supposedly be held in May.

In Oromia itself, there has been violence against the Gedeo, a group about 1m strong. The Oromo have clashed with ethnic Somali along the border between their two regions. Mr Jawar and his supporters argue that Mr Abiy, though he is Oromo himself, is seeking to centralise power and trample on the rights of the people whose protests brought him to office.  It is hard to overstate the strength of this “national” feeling. On a trip to Tigray this year, someone asked me if I had been to any other countries. When I naively started reeling off the names of a few, such as France and Kenya, he looked at me as though I were dim. He was referring to other “countries” in Ethiopia, he said.

The concern is that, in seeking to deal with this fierce sub-nationalism, Mr Abiy will ditch his liberal instincts and revert to authoritarianism. There are already signs that is happening, says Mr Davison, who says the government is resorting to internet shutdowns, mass arrests and the use of lethal force. Meanwhile, Mr Abiy is still preaching the philosophy of medemer, an Amharic word meaning strength through diversity. It is a noble sentiment. But last week, protesters in yet another part of the country were burning his book by the same name.

At some point, Ethiopia will need a new political settlement that balances the competing forces of ethnic and national identity. Ethiopia is Africa’s most optimistic story. It is also one of its most precarious.


  1. What the government should also investigate is the sources of revenue for these so-called media outfits be it those that advance ethnicity in its rawest and angering form or others with blurred line between news broadcasting and activism. They should be asked to provide the origins of their capital and on-going sources of revenue and that should be the requirement to obtain the required permit.

    We should not be standing up just to blink at the facts that those 60 or 70 citizens dead(now 78 by official count) now were alive and kicking just a few hours before someone went on the social media and told everyone what happened that night. That is the source or the instigating factor for those savage mobs to go out and commit such barbaric acts on innocent citizens. Who knows how many are now just hanging on their last breath? Who knows how many of the wounded will be disabled needing caretakers the rest of their lives? Who guarantees in absolute terms that such barbaric acts will not happen tomorrow or will not be instigated once again at any time in the future? I hate to say this. The federal and regional governments have failed their citizens. This is going to be a defining moment for both. They have to prove that they don’t condone it or even they were NOT part of it by dragging the behind of everyone who is responsible for this shameful act. Those victims didn’t just drop dead from natural causes. Those who clubbed, stoned and hacked the victims didn’t decide to do that just on a whim. They must have been incited by someone. That young man, the president of the Oromia region should never move his poison spitting jaws ever again. He should know better that holding such highest office comes with responsibilities, protecting the safety of residents of the region at all time being the utmost priority. Every word that comes out of his mouth should be guarded and thought twice. He should know that thanks to the irresponsible social media warriors the atmosphere there is so charged up all its needs is a small spark to turn it into a raging fire. And stop making excuses that the carnage was beyond your ability to contain. That was just bovine scatology.

    It also shows the very poor relationship the regional government has with community elders. Our fathers used to stop any fracas even before they erupted. And they did not have a ‘special force’ toting fully automatic rifles to make themselves heeded. They were not magicians either. They did not go to ivy colleges to learn how to stop mob actions. There could have been just 10 police officers armed with bolt action rifles for the entire large districts. They were the ones the local government counted on. It relied on them. That was true for Oromos, Issas ad Afars. And when they handed down their justice they did not discriminate. If the instigator was one of their own, he is gonna get it!!! They grabbed his rowdy behind and would hand him over to the government. I will wait and see if everyone over there in the regional government has the guts to do just that instead of defending someone who lit up this shameful barbaric act. Who knows? The real perpetrators of these killing may be able slip away to find refuge in the neighboring countries and show up somewhere in DC, Minnesota or some joints in Europe as political refugees still thumbing their noses at justice. That is because, according to the Facebook warriors of our days, the victims were the ones to blame for their own demise because they were the ones who instigated it or started the fight. It is just beyond disgusting.

  2. Ethiopia is speaking, has spoken. The challenge is for there to be an ear that can listen. The pressure within Ethiopia has been building for centuries. The country could have exploded. It didn’t. It hasn’t, as yet. It won’t. Thankfully so. And yet, there is no question that the country’s award winning Prime Minister did temper with one of the valves, releasing a tremendous amount of that pressure, the effects of which the country is now reeling through. The question is, can Ethiopia harness this power and turn it into productive energy?

  3. I know of no other country in Africa that has a potential for a brighter future, and yet one now so grim, as does Ethiopia. The challenge is for the leadership to rise to the occasion, create a culture that celebrates the country’s diversity and reject the rise of ethnocentrism.


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