Politics: Solving Ethiopia’s fractured ethnic puzzle

By William Davison

Posted on Monday, 22 October 2018 13:12, updated on Friday, 8 March 2019 20:47
Thousands of protestors from the capital and those displaced by ethnic-based violence demonstrate to demand justice from the government. (AP Photo/Mulugeta Ayene)

Security and navigating the complex web of ethnic politics will dominate Abiy's first years in office as he tries to bring unity to the diverse country.

By inviting back exiled oppositionists, releasing prisoners and opening the political space for media and civil society, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has upended two decades of repressive rule. Celebrations break out during his whistle-stop tours both at home and visiting the diaspora. “This is the most promising opportunity to install a democratic order in Ethiopia, and we should all work together to make it a success”, Oromo opposition leader Leenco Lata tells The Africa Report.

But detectable beneath the euphoria is a steady rumble. Much of this comes from the far north, as the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) has seen its dominance of the EPRDF evaporate. The TPLF has even been sidelined as the new prime minister made historic steps towards peace with its fellow Tigrinya speakers across the border in Eritrea.

Abiy’s ascendancy was the first ­major shock to the TPLF system, but more was to come. He accelerated political ­amnesties and said that torture had been systemic. Many took this as an official indictment of TPLF rule. The upshot of Abiy’s approach was an undermining of the coalition that he chairs and that has ruled since 1991.

The EPRDF was engineered by the TPLF, which also formed a new military from the fighters who unseated the Derg military regime. The party was influential in erecting a system of federalism based on ethno-linguistic communities and propagating the quasi-Marxist approach of ‘revolutionary democracy’. All of that is now under threat – and Abiy has said he wants elections by 2020, further ratcheting up the tension.

The immediate challenge for Abiy is establishing a consensus within the EPRDF. Given his popular support, he has considerable power, which makes a leadership challenge improbable. Instead, the coalition may well fragment further as each party turns to its region.

This is certainly the case for the TPLF, which has refocused at home under the leadership of Debretsion Gebremichael. Paramount for the TPLF is the case of Eritrea, with many members aghast at the rehabilitation of President Isaias. But both the party and the Tigrayan people are torn, as renewed trade and an end to border militarisation are welcome.

Surge in violence

Across the country, there has been a surge in communal and mob violence, including killings of Tigrayans, as well as likely assassinations. This follows a widespread belief that remnants of the TPLF-led regime are trying to derail Abiy’s reforms. Although there is no hard evidence, there is a likelihood that networks previously controlled by the likes of spy chief Getachew Assefa are causing problems. “There are organised groups who are ‘conflict entrepreneurs’. We have no doubt about that,” said Abiy at his first press conference.

Whether this destabilisation is by design or a function of the dismantlement of the security apparatus is unclear. Abiy has placed his own men at chief of army staff and intelligence; they now need to bring the military to heel. In some instances, it seems a relative security vacuum is being exploited, as with recent mobilising by an OLF faction in western Oromia and growing vigilantism. The Sidama people’s renewed push to secede from the Southern Region again suggests that some actors are using the opening to advance their own claims.

Another flashpoint has been Somali Region, whose tyrannical chief administrator, Abdi Mohamed Omar, was backed by TPLF elements and who was a major protagonist in serious ongoing conflict in the Oromia-Somali borderlands (see TAR101, June 2018). Abiy ordered the military to remove Abdi, in a move many classed as unconstitutional. Somali Region’s new leader is an activist, Mustafa Muhamud Omer, which is an indicator of Abiy’s bold and breezy strategy for edging out of this transitional crisis.

Abiy’s olive branch

While Abiy has tackled domestic malcontents, he has also extended an olive branch to most former enemies of the EPRDF and announced his intentions for all groups to participate peacefully in elections in 2020. This has been successful so far, with the return of organisations like Patriotic Ginbot 7 and OLF splinter groups including Lata’s Oromo Democratic Front, the positive response of the Ogaden National Liberation Front, a Somali insurgency, and the homecomings of high-profile activists like Jawar Mohammed and Tamagn Beyene.

The ambitious Prime Minister seems sincere in his intention to oversee rapid and full democratisation, but the route to get there is tortuous. His most substantive step so far is an ongoing effort to reform a repressive anti-terrorism law and restrictive civil society legislation, along with hazier efforts to improve judicial independence and media freedom. This should allow more of the advocacy and activism needed to create the environment for competitive elections.

A diverse set of parties seem content with the political opening and united in their pleasure at the TPLF’s diminishment. But the enmity between , ; some opposition groups is as strong as their objections to the TPLF/EPRDF system. Most acute is the argument over identity politics and multinational federalism, which provides autonomy for ethnic communities and erects administrative boundaries between them.

Compromise needed

While ethnic parties like the OLF see it as a vital system for ensuring Oromo autonomy, others such as Berhanu Nega’s Ginbot 7 view it as a segregating tool of the TPLF that was used by that minority’s leaders to divide and rule.

For oppositionist Leenco Lata, there is something of the Cold War’s logic of mutually assured destruction in all the competing views. “If political actors really feel responsible, they have no choice but to negotiate a compromise”, he says, “or else the alternative is a total breakdown of order, which we should try and avoid at all costs.”

Given Abiy’s intention for the EPRDF’s one-party rule to end, these are also relevant questions for the Front’s member parties. To succeed in a competitive environment, Abiy’s Oromo OPDO will have to find a balance between exercising federal power and bringing the country together, all the while outflanking the OLF. Until Abiy and Lemma Megersa’s double act, for example, the party was derided as a pawn of the TPLF.

The challenge is possibly greater for the Amhara National Democratic Movement, which is as discredited as the OPDO was before its revival. Its younger leaders are tacking towards a more ethno-nationalist position, ­a stance that disturbs other Ethiopians. Before the TPLF took charge in the early 1990s, Amharic-speaking elites were viewed as oppressors of the Oromo and other ethnicities.

There is little doubt that the TPLF’s losses mean gains for others and a generally more vibrant, hopeful phase for Ethiopian politics. But the demise of the most powerful party and its authoritarian ways by no means resolves all of the outstanding disputes in a complex, diverse and troubled federation.

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