Mounting violence in Ethiopia exposes deepening fault lines and leadership crisis

Tigray

(Source: AwashPost.com, 02 January 2021) –

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and his party cannot maintain law and order through military Command Posts in every regional state. Violence breeds more violence. It is time for a political solution and a serious rethink.

Abiy Ahmed and Ashadli Hasen

Another month. Another bloody massacre in Ethiopia. The unexplained and unexplainable killing of civilians has become so common. On 27 December, scores were killed in a long-simmering conflict between Somali and Afar states. Days earlier, on 23 December, unidentified assailants killed more than 200 people in the Benishangul-Gumuz region. The violence in the Metekel zone occurred a day after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed visited the state.

In November, in the Konso zone, more than 60 people were killed in a simmering communal conflict. In early November, gunmen murdered more than 50 people in grisly attacks against civilians in West Wallaga. Thousands have been killed in the civil war in Tigray that commenced on 04 November 2020. More than a million Ethiopians are displaced internally in the relentless violence. In most of these cases, the federal government blamed the now-fugitive former leaders of the Tigray state or their regional affiliates.

The Abiy administration’s response to these crises are predictable: Set up a military Command Post, arrest opponents and those who pose an electoral threat to members of the ruling party, and kill anyone who resists. This policy has been in effect in several Oromia zones since 2018; similarly, there are militarized pockets across the South, including in the Wolaita zone. It is currently being implemented in Tigray. Federal and regional authorities are vowing to end the mayhem in Benishangul-Gumuz, and several senior regional leaders are arrested in connection with the latest bout of violence.

Abiy has effectively “de-federated” both Tigray (administered by a provisional government he set up) and Benishangul-Gumuz (currently led by a task force that reports to the prime minister). The mounting violence across the country is exposing deeper fault lines within the ruling Prosperity Party (PP). The bloody massacre in the Benishangul-Gumuz follows weeks of threats and counter-accusations between leaders of Benishangul Gumuz and Amhara states. The war-of-words in the media have also drawn in some in the Oromia wing of PP. Amhara activists, scholars, and Amhara PP cadres are calling for the “dismantling” of the Gumuz region and the “vanishing” of its people. The three-way trading of barbs on social media underscores that all is not well with the party.

The power struggle carries significant risks for Ethiopia and the wider region. For one, PP dominates all decision-making in Ethiopia. If Prime Minister Abiy cannot manage a party he created in his image already at a high cost to the country, it is apparent that he cannot hold the country together. As with Oromia, Tigray, and other regions, political differences over the contentious merger to PP among the regional leadership of the Benishangul-Gumuz state did not get settled through discussions. That rift is there.

The crackdown on those who were skeptical of the formation of PP is reminiscent of the purge of Abiy’s one-time allies in Oromia. Second, Ethiopia is staring at multiple complex crises, including a possible border war with Sudan, a protracted civil war in Tigray and Oromia, a surging COVID-19 pandemic, an economy in a downturn, and deadlocked talks on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).

To boot, the Abiy administration is pushing ahead with the most consequential elections in the country’s history, currently slated to be held in five months (in early June 2021). The myriad crises in the country, the political trial of Abiy’s key challengers in Oromia, and his failure to engage the opposition in good-faith negotiations have heightened risks for pre-and-post election violence. Addressing these challenges demand wisdom, foresight, and the political will to see beyond the consolidation of power. Over the past two and a half years, obsessed with maintaining power, PP leaders have shown total disregard for the country’s future and its citizens’ welfare.

Fighting over the spoils of war

It’s been more than a month since Abiy declared victory over the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Fighting is reported in different parts of Tigray, but little has been heard from the TPLF. The early warmongering and anti-TPLF fervor have given way to a power struggle inside PP. As the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) pushed back the Tigrayan forces, the Amhara Special Force and militia followed in its footsteps to occupy various locales and border districts in western Tigray.

Amhara activists celebrated the “capture” of the “liberated” areas, hoisted their flags, and posited that the Amhara are the disputed areas’ rightful owners. The Amhara PP office also made it clear that the occupied territories were acquired “through blood,” and hence they were unwilling to evacuate. They insist that no legal procedure is necessary to restore their lost territories.

Their argument goes: The Tigrayans took the disputed lands by force 30 years ago, and the Amhara youth fought and died to defeat the TPLF and regained their lost territories. Amhara forces now control Welkait, Tegede, Humera, Raya-Alamata, and other areas. These are places that Amhara irredentists sought to retake from the Tigray state over the last couple of decades. The illegal occupation and overzealous territorial claims have created concerns and unease among ordinary peoples and have instigated the war of words among senior PP officials.

The irredentism has created a division of opinions among PP members and supporters, including in the diaspora. Amhara activists, PP cadres, and members of the National Movement of Amhara (NAMA) all support the illegal occupation. The narrative and news of recapture are amplified on social media and the regional mass media. NAMA has issued a press release reaffirming the Amhara ownership claims. Given their shared agenda, the Amhara PP and NAMA are organizing demonstrations in Raya and other occupied areas, calling on the federal government to recognize the disputed territories as Amhara land.

With TPLF’s future uncertain, Amhara ultranationalists say it is now or never to reclaim these areas. They see an opportunity in the great uncertainty facing the country, the prime minister’s perceived “weakness” and increasing reliance on urban Amhara base, and an incoherent federal government weighed down by multiple internal and external crises.

Oromia PP triggered?

Some Oromo members and supporters of PP appear especially triggered by their Amhara partners’ fervent territoriality. To be clear, they do not outright oppose the Amhara taking the contested territories, but Oromia PP cadres oppose the illegal and forceful ways of acquiring them. That means Amhara’s can retake those territories legally (i.e., through a future referendum), but they should at least pretend to play by the rules. Amhara nationalists do not want to pursue long and uncertain legal and procedural processes. They lost forcibly and regained by the same means.

The tactical differences are likely to ignite another suppressed issue. Amhara nationalists have been calling for the resignation of Shimelis Abdisa, President of Oromia Regional State, over a recently leaked audio of his speech. Shimelis survived the initial onslaught, but they continued to campaign for his removal. The war in Tigray eclipsed and overshadowed their effort to unseat him. In response to frequent critical posts by Taye Danda’a, spokesperson for the Oromia PP office, Amhara nationalists and irredentists seem to have resumed the campaign against Shimelis and his faction of the party. But given the intra-Oromo power dynamics within the region, Shimelis is too important for Abiy to let go.

The tensions, deepening rifts, and disagreements are reminiscent of the TPLF-era power struggle, but it is unlikely to provoke an all-out purge, cause a split, or the party’s dissolution. But it all depends on how Abiy, the president and sole decision-maker in the party, handles the infighting. He may well be deliberately playing both factions to weed out rabble-rousers and those he considers obstacles to his next move. Abiy and his predecessors have routinely employed such tactics to reassert control. For instance, unless it is with Abiy’s approval or at his direction, would Taye Danda’a and other Oromia PP cadres such as Hailu Adugna feel so empowered to respond to their Amhara counterparts aggressively? Similarly, why did Abiy and “his generals” look away as Amhara’s took over and set up interim arrangements in areas legally under the Tigray state?

Salivating for Metekel

For now, the power struggle seems to be playing out in the Benishangul-Gumuz state. The latest violence and tug-of-war in Metekel is part of the Amhara expansionist agenda. The Metekel zone has extensive irrigable and fertile agricultural lands. This is especially true for the Dibate-Wonbera districts that border the Gojjam zone. A Gumuz elder told Abiy at the 23 December meeting that former Amhara Police Commissioner, General Asaminew Tsige, infiltrated the region with trained militias. The elder added:

Another problem is… last year, and the year before, the conflict pitting one against the other, they [the Amhara leadership] also created it. It is something they entirely devised; really, it didn’t descend from the sky! There is a new wereda called Jawi, just here. People living there used to sell wood; they don’t have many other jobs. More than 50 Gumuz have been slaughtered. [You] probably heard about it. They were just killed! Children, youngsters, elders, all! General Asaminew made this conspiracy! Now, I see General Asaminew as a junta himself! He’s a junta! When I realized this…why is it necessary to slaughter all these poor people? 

The Gumuz further accuse Amhara leaders of encouraging and financing the illegal settlements of Amharas in the Metekel zone, which they say instigated Gumuz-Amhara communal clashes. In May 2019, Amhara security forces killed more than 200 Gumuz and Shinasha community members in a bloody and “retaliatory” incursion.

The Amhara elite desire to “dismantle” the Benishangul-Gumuz region and “civilize” the Gumuz people is not just ideological or territorial. It is also part of a broader strategic goal of controlling GERD. GERD is located in the Guba district of the Metekel zone. In other words, the Amhara nationalists are driven not only by irredentist territorial claims but also for control of the Dam, a crucial resource of strategic importance.

The federal government’s decision to set up a megacity in the Metekel zone, near GERD, to promote tourism and development in the region further enticed Amhara irredentists. The territorial claims and conflicts in Metekel intensified after the Ministry of Urban Development and Construction announced the plan a year ago.

Amhara and Benishangul-Gumuz leaders have traded accusatory press releases several times. Benishangul-Gumuz accuses the Amhara region of fueling the conflict in Metekel. The Amhara Mass Media Agency and Amhara Police Commission have openly called for military measures similar to the one against Tigray to subdue the Benishangul-Gumuz region. An Amhara Police Commissioner officially warned the federal government to take steps in Metekel or allow the Amhara police to handle the matter. But it should be clear that the Gumuz people are one of the most marginalized and voiceless people in the country that were traditionally considered ‘slaves’ by the Amharas and Agaw from the highlands.

Historically, the expansion of the Amhara and the Agaw pushed the Gumuz to the bush-savannah lowlands and were exposed to perpetual slave raids by the highlanders.  Tragically, in this long-simmering conflict underpinned by decades of ill-treatment and systematic dispossession, only the Amhara narratives of the events and the violence in the zone are reported. The Amhara are the second-largest ethnic group with considerable political, economic, and social capital in the country. The voices and perspectives of the Amhara elite dominate both traditional and social media narratives about these events. The Gumuz, on the other hand, is a small minority that suffered from structural powerlessness and the dehumanizing treatments of central highlanders. Their views are rarely, if at all, heard.

PP meeting: Amhara v. the rest 

The Amhara seem to pose the most significant threat to Abiy’s power. The reshuffle in November of the national security team, in which Amharas gained a few key posts, clearly did not placate Amhara ultranationalists. He seems to have the support of the military’s top brass, for now, but there are risks since the military’s rank-and-file is dominated by Amhara. It is within this context that the PP Central Committee (CC) held a two-day meeting from December 17-18, 2020. The meeting had two main agendas: discussions on the June 2021 election manifesto; and a review of the national, subregional, and international security and political situations.

On the election plan, the CC agreed to work hard and vowed to win the forthcoming election. The party’s president reportedly underlined that holding the election is “a means of survival for PP.” All regional branch offices assured him that they had prepared potential candidates to run for federal and provincial councils. The party office reported securing the necessary election funds by mobilizing renowned personalities, community leaders, business owners, and government-affiliated associations for this “life and death” battle in June 2021.

Assessment of the state of the opposition forces was presented and marked as “very good.” On this particular issue, the Amhara PP office was accused of “not struggling against Amhara oppositions” similar to Oromia, Somali, and other regions. CC members advised the Amhara leadership to work on weakening NAMA and other potential competitors in the state. The CC agreed on the outlined plan for the election and vowed to implement it at all costs.

On the second item, unsurprisingly, there was a heated debate. The issue of inter-regional border disputes, specifically between Amhara-Tigray and Amhara v. Benishangul-Gumuz, dominated the discussions. The CC was reportedly divided into two: Amhara versus the rest. Particularly, Oromo members of the party and CC members from the five regions forcefully confronted the Amhara representatives.

Members took turns to accuse the Amhara leaders of advancing imperialistic views, which undermines the survival of minorities. Unusually, members of the Amhara PP branch reportedly hurled harsher words toward Abiy’s rule. Hardliners such as Yohannes Buayalew, Jantirar Abay (Deputy Mayor of Addis Ababa), Tsega Arega (Commissioner of Federal Anti-Corruption Commission) led the charge accusing Prime Minister Abiy of failing to protect the Amhara people and safeguard Ethiopia’s integrity.

Our informant recounts that at one point, Tsega told Abiy: “Amhara people were humiliated and persecuted during his leadership more than at any other time in recent history.” Other members of the Amhara PP branch criticized the document prepared by the PP office for “smelling like EPRDF,” not their new party. The Amhara nationalists in PP noted that both the paper and discussion did not meet their minimum expectations.

Finally, the two documents were approved by a majority vote, with four against and two abstentions (the six votes were reportedly from Amhara PP). Six holdouts may not be numerically significant, but in the EPRDF tradition, it is uncommon to vote against a party document after a fierce debate. It may be a sign that the era for democratic centralism is over, but it also signals deeper undercurrents in an incongruous party lacking a clear social base and ideological clarity.

To conclude, the conflict in the Metekal zone of Benishangul-Gumuz has multiple roots and dimensions. A year ago, political differences over the merger into PP were settled forcibly, not through discussions. Half of the region’s ruling elites complained about the union, expressing serious concerns over the PP political program, which they said did not recognize the indigenous peoples of the area. PP officially proclaimed that all Ethiopian citizens could be a member and leader of the party without language or regional affiliation.

The Gumuz leaders feared that non-indigenous peoples could swallow up minorities in the region if the so-called “citizenship-politics-in-Amharic” prevailed. Those who firmly opposed the merger were either demoted through promotion to federal or offered diplomatic posts abroad. This factor has created discontent and fractures within the regional leadership. On top of this, the Amhara nationalists’ irredentism, their desire to control fertile lands and strategic resources of mineral-rich areas in Metekel, access the GERD economic potential, and megacity projects have complicated the conflict with enormous consequences for the region’s people.

Ultimately, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and his party cannot sustainably maintain law and order through military Command Posts in every regional state. Violence breeds more violence. It is time to accept that fundamentally the roots of the multitude of crises facing the country are political.

The next logical step is going back to the drawing board and initiating an all-inclusive national dialogue. That entails halting the military campaigns in Oromia, Tigray, and other areas to settle political differences. All those jailed for opposing PP’s political agenda — in Tigray, Benishangul, Oromia, and beyond — must be freed without further delay. Then and only then can good-faith negotiations begin on the roadmap for the future, including on the conduct of the upcoming election.

Such broad-based national consultation can help create a new social contract and an elite bargain to save the country from further chaos and loss of innocent lives. Pushing forth with election plans without these necessary steps is a recipe for more violence, bloodshed, and possible disintegration. There is still time to avert such a scenario. But the longer this crisis goes on, the clearer it becomes that Abiy is gambling with the country’s future and its people.

 

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