Ethiopia is a tribal nation, made up of 80 or so different groups, some large, some small, some powerful, some not. Large numbers of people, the majority perhaps, identify themselves with their tribe more powerfully than their country, or their region. Tribal affiliation runs deep among all age groups, loyalty is strong, resentment of tribal others can be fierce.
Social divisions along tribal lines, fear and animosity, particularly between the three largest groups – the Oromo, Amhara and Tigrinian – are acute. People within all three are heavily armed; carrying weapons in rural Ethiopia is commonplace, expected even. Isolated conflicts have occurred in various parts of the country in recent months leading to deaths and displacement of people.
Ethiopia now boasts the largest number of internally displaced persons in the world. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (iDMC) states that, “about 2.9 million new displacements associated with conflict were recorded in 2018.” The total number displaced in the country is estimated to be close to four million.
The new government has not responded effectively to this humanitarian crisis or the incidents of tribal-based violence; it appears weak and indecisive, and when it has reacted it has done so in a heavy-handed, clumsy manner. Many Ethiopians, both inside and outside the country, are concerned that matters could spiral out of control; one spark, carelessly thrown, could ignite fury, civil war even. This is not a new fear, but it is becoming more widespread, and with every eruption of ethnic violence unease deepens, tensions grow.
The government, under the leadership of PM Abiy Ahmed Ali, appears unclear how to respond to the frustration that many in the country feel. Maintaining law and order by the police is essential, the military should not be involved, but, they have been deployed to deal with unrest, and the government has on occasion retreated into the Old Ethiopian Way of Control; arresting troublesome journalists and restricting Internet access – the regime still owns the sole telecommunications company. The Committee to Protect Journalists report that “on June 22, Ethiopia was plunged into an internet blackout following what the government described as a failed attempted coup in the Amhara region.”
In the aftermath at least two journalists were detained under the country’s repressive anti-terror law. The draconian Anti-Terrorist Proclamation, introduced in 2009, was described by Human Rights Watch (HRW) at the time as “a potent instrument to crack down on political dissent, including peaceful political demonstrations…. It would permit long-term imprisonment and even the death penalty for ‘crimes’ that bear no resemblance, under any credible definition, to terrorism.” The government has been discussing reforms to the proclamation, but what is required is not endless debate, but for the law to be scrapped immediately and new legislation brought forward.
From dictatorship to democracy
Until PM Abiy took office, the ruling EPRDF coalition was dominated by a group of men from Tigray under the banner of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). For 23 years they imposed their ideology of ‘Revolutionary Democracy’ – a highly centralized authoritarian political and economic system, which the regime was never able to clearly define. Human rights were ignored, corruption was rife, the judiciary politicized, state terrorism commonplace in various parts of the country, and “ethnic federalism”, a system of regional administration based on ethnicity, introduced. Good on paper, it promised to respect cultural diversity and give autonomy to ethnic groups should they wish it. In practice ethnic federalism was a way for the TPLF to control the people, to “Divide and Rule”. Competition among groups for land, government funding, aid and natural resources increased, historic tribal flags hoisted, differences aggravated and national unity impaired, all by design.
The EPRDF is still in office under PM Abiy, but the cabinet is new (50% women), and the approach has radically changed; democracy is, many hope, a real possibility in the country.
Abdi is Oromo and holds the office of chairman of the Oromo Democratic Party (ODP). Although they constitute the largest group (with around 35% of the population), there has never before been an Oromo Prime Minister. As large numbers of Oromo see it, they have been dominated for generations by people from the Amhara and Tigray regions, who have suppressed and abused them. With an Oromo PM and a large number of Oromo ministers in place many Oromo people believe their time has come; their time for what precisely though, is unclear. Revenge perhaps – dangerous, to redress historic injustices, to gain independence or autonomy – something that is geographically impossible; Oromia sits on land in the center of the country and includes the capital, Addis Ababa.
Since the new government took office in April 2018 political prisoners have been released, prisons – in which torture was routine – closed down, peace established with Eritrea, troops withdrawn from the Ogaden region in the south. Ethiopians living abroad, many of who were critical of the previous regime, were welcomed back, and the media unshackled. A new beginning then, and much to be welcomed. But as the old repressive measures are rejected, deep-seated anger has surfaced; some see the disquiet as an opportunity to advance their narrow political agenda, they exploit the situation, agitating, stirring up anger.
The evolution into democracy, something Ethiopia has never before known, needs to be carefully nurtured if the transition away from fear and suppression is to be peacefully realized. The government is new and needs time, they also need support; Ethiopia’s major beneficiaries, Europe, USA and Britain, need to become engaged. As with the world as a whole, the key for Ethiopia is unity: unity enriched by the diverse tribal cultures and traditions that exist in this beautiful country.
There is a great deal to be done in Ethiopia: it remains one of the poorest countries in the world, and finds itself languishing at 173rd on the UN Human Development Index, out of 189 countries. Health care is poor as is the standard of education. Civil society is weak, it lacks a comprehensive legal infrastructure, the judiciary is not trusted; the cost of living is high and inequality extreme. It will take time, cooperation, tolerance and goodwill to address these fundamental societal issues. Every effort needs to be made to unite the disparate groups; no matter the tribe, all are Ethiopian and all have a contribution to make in the New Ethiopia.