Ethnic Divisions in Ethiopia
By Ollie Geffen
In a music video with three million views, a young and enthusiastic Ethiopian popstar dances around mud huts and cows with his friends and family, singing his popular ballad “Maalan Jira”: What Existence is Mine. The artist is Haacaaluu Hundeessaa, an ethnic Oromo whose music serves as the soundtrack for a generation of Oromo desperately seeking the political recognition they deserve; this particular song details their displacement from Addis Ababa. It is far more than just a catchy, politically-themed tune: critics and fans alike believe Hundeessaa’s music played a role in the resignation of former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, who stepped down to pave the way for greater reform. Last week, tensions erupted after Hundeessa was shot dead on the streets of Addis Ababa.
Ethiopia is positioned on the strategically valuable horn of Africa. It is a country of vast geographical contrasts, with hugely fertile land in the West, rivers coursing like veins through its heart, the largest continuous mountain range in Africa, and the world’s hottest permanent settlement in the north. It is one of two countries on the continent to have never been under colonial rule, and this is a source of pride which is felt throughout the country. It is also thought to be the place of origin for human life.
Ethiopia is currently governed by the Oromo Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed. Abiy has proved somewhat effective so far, continuing a process of democratisation which has been celebrated by governments around the world, as well as ending a 20-year conflict with neighbouring Eritrea, a feat which earned him the Nobel Peace Prize. Despite being landlocked, Ethiopia now has access to both Eritrean and Djiboutian ports, and is one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Abiy has worked hard to liberalise the economy and open up state monopolies, such as Ethiopian Airlines, to the private sector. Recently, he has relaxed the country’s draconian anti-terrorism rules which existed primarily to stifle political opposition, and he has pardoned thousands of political prisoners arrested under previous regimes.
Minority ethnic groups are fearful that their interests will be discounted if a new national project is prioritised.
Undermining Abiy’s government, however, is a formalised ethnic division which has been the basis of Ethiopia’s organisation since 1995. The country is structured around nine ethnically specific semi-autonomous regional zones, each with its own security forces and revenue streams. The theoretical basis of this structure is to dissipate centralised power and provide a democratic voice to regional governments; the reality is a nation defined by border disputes and land grabs between ethnic elites. The independence of regional security forces gives rise to local militias, and consequently ethnic unrest has been a reality over the last two years. Since 2018, 1.8 million people have been forced from their homes due to ethnic based violence, and aid is allegedly being withheld from ethnic minorities by Abiy’s government.
The killing of Hundeessaa is representative of the Oromo’s exclusion from political power until the election of Abiy. 80 people so far have been killed in the resulting protests, and Abiy’s government has briefly had to shut down the internet, a worrying sign for human rights advocates currently observing Ethiopian politics. Protesters are concerned by Abiy’s sympathy for the Oromo people. Furthermore his move to reduce the numbers of ethnic Tigrayans in his parliament, a former political elite, will naturally be viewed with apprehension. Abiy’s political philosophy stems from the word that also happens to be the title of his book about political progress: “Medemer”, or “coming together”. It is a philosophy which prioritises pragmatism and compromise over dogmatism, and Abiy firmly believes that ethnic nationalism and civic nationalism can co-exist. Naturally, however, minority ethnic groups are fearful that their interests will be discounted if a new national project is prioritised.
Abiy currently lacks a coherent agenda to resolve ethnic divisions in Ethiopia. Whilst his embracing of medemer suggests a positive and collaborative outlook, it disregards the subtleties which must be considered in order to resolve historical ethnic divides. Regional border disputes will remain unresolved without sufficient effort in establishing a balanced media around the country, and the co-operation of ethnically diverse elites is a must. Only then will the second most populous country in Africa be able to fully utilise Abiy’s concept of medemer, and progress as a continental powerhouse.