Ethnic tensions could see Ethiopia descending into civil war
State of emergency restores calm but fissures remain in fragile federation
Ethiopia’s Feyisa Lilesa crossed his arms at the finish of the men’s marathon in the Rio 2016 Olympics as a protest against the Ethiopian government’s crackdown on political dissent. Photograph: Olivier Morin/AFP
The Oromo are proud of their cultural traditions and enjoy celebrating that heritage. The deadly stampede that precipitated a wave of violence in early October occurred at Irreecha, an important annual Oromo festival. Photograph: James Jeffrey
Oromo culture views advanced age with great respect: the “Gadaa system”, a form of Oromo traditional government, is based on an age grade system, with leadership being attained by passing through numerous age-related grades. Photograph: James Jeffrey
The Oromo share a common language, Afaan Oromoo, also known as Oromoiffa, which belongs to the Cushitic family, unlike Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia, which is Semitic. A different language is only one of many sources of tension the Oromo have within the Ethiopian federation. Photograph: James Jeffrey
A federal policeman stands guard between the Oromo regional flag (left) and Ethiopia’s national flag at the ceremony marking the opening of the Addis Ababa-Djibouti railway. Photograph: James Jeffrey
A young Oromo girl, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group who are spread across the country, in the city of Harar, far to Ethiopia’s east. Photograph: James Jeffrey
Children from the pastoralist Suri tribe in Ethiopia’s southern Omo Valley region. Human rights groups fear for the future of the tribes if they are forced to give up traditional ways as globalisation and development increases. Photograph: Carl De Souza/AFP
(Irish Times) — No longer are bands of young men marauding on the outskirts of the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, trying to set fire to foreign-owned factories. Nearly two months into Ethiopia’s six-month state of emergency, it appears to be having the desired effect: protests rocking its two most populous regions have subsided.
It remains to be seen, though, whether this is the beginning of a sustained period of calm or a temporary break in the most persistent and widespread protests this country has seen since the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) ruling party came to power following a revolution in 1991.
At that crucial juncture Ethiopia embarked hopefully on a struggle to emerge in the modern world on its own terms. It succeeded in doing so by employing a unique political model that is “an alloy of revolutionary theories, pragmatic neoliberalism and intrinsically Ethiopian customary practices”, says historian and long-term Horn of Africa expert Gérard Prunier.
While that political experiment has brought significant economic growth to the country, many claim it has failed the Ethiopian people, who are now voicing that fact.
“This government came into being with the support of the rural poor,” says Abebe Hailu, a human rights lawyer who was in college during the student movement that precipitated the 1974 downfall of emperor Haile Selassie, and who lived through the ensuing military dictatorship that eventually fell in 1991 to the rebel-founders of the EPRDF. “Now it is the rural poor that is against them– this is the irony,” he says.
When Ethiopian marathon runner Feyisa Lilesa crossed the finishing line in the Rio Olympics in August he crossed his forearms above his head in a widely adopted gesture to protest his government’s violent crackdown on ethnic protests seething since November 2015, leaving upwards of 600 dead, according to rights groups.
Those protests went against the grain of Ethiopia’s hermetic history, which has long seen numerous uprisings dealt with internally, away from prying eyes.
Ethiopia has long been a land of contradictions. On the one hand, the EPRDF has the most impressive economic and development-driven track record of any Ethiopian government in modern history.
But set against that, during the past two decades it has shunned diversity of political opinion, repeatedly cracking down on opposition parties, putting their politicians in jail or forcing them into exile. The 2015 election produced a parliament without a single opposition representative. Freedom of expression in Ethiopia is strictly curtailed, and as a result an independent civil society no longer exists.
At the same time, Ethiopia’s citizenry is increasingly angry at seemingly never-ending government corruption, while a mushrooming youthful population means the number of young unemployed men across the country irrevocably rises. Many sit idly on streets, their thoughts and frustrations turning toward the centre of power that is Addis Ababa.
“The immediate causes for the various groups protesting are different but they have the same demands: deliver the right kind of leadership,” says Yilikal Getenet, chairman of the opposition Blue Party.
Ethiopia’s smouldering majority
Initially months of protests remained largely within the Oromia region, home to Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, the Oromo, constituting about 35 percent of the country’s nearly 100 million population.
But then in August violence broke out among the Amhara –at 27 per cent, Ethiopia’s second largest ethnic group – in northern Ethiopia’s famed city of Gondar, a popular tourist attraction because of its ancient castles.
Violence even came to the usually serene lakeside Amhara town of Bahir Dar, another popular tourist destination and weekend getaway known for its palm-lined avenues and island monasteries. An initially peaceful anti-government demonstration there on August 7th escalated to violence after a security guard fire into a crowd, leaving at least 30 gunned down by security forces.
At the same time as the Amhara protests, co-ordinated demonstrations occurred in more than nine towns in Oromia, resulting in about 100 deaths, according to Human Rights Watch.
The most recent tragedy came a week before the state-of-emergency declaration on October 2nd, when more than 100 people drowned or were crushed to death during a stampede following clashes between police and protesters at a traditional annual Oromo festival at the volcanic lake town of Bishoftu, about 50km southeast of the capital.
Together the Oromo and Amhara represent more than 60 per cent of Ethiopia’s population, hence their resentment of an EPRDF perceived as having been usurped for 25 years by one of its key founding entities, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which is drawn from an ethnic group that makes up only 6 per cent of the population, and which in addition to government dominates business and the security services.
“The TPLF has manipulated the multi-ethnic federation to divide and rule forever,” says Birhanu Lenjiso, an Ethiopian research fellow at Radboud University in the Netherlands. “The people are now asking for genuine multi-ethnic federation in the country.”
Addis Ababa, the hub of political power and the engine of Ethiopia’s economy, which exists as an autonomous city state within the federation, is surrounded by Oromia. Overall, the city has remained relatively cocooned from the tumult. But that hasn’t stopped some talking of its iconic Meskal Square in the heart of the city waiting to serve as its Tiananmen Square.