(Source: The Awash post)
Ethiopia is in political turmoil. A convergence of internal and external factors is destabilizing the country to a degree rarely seen in its modern history. These challenges are not met with commensurate political wisdom or the will to guide the country through these tumultuous times. In fact, the destabilizing emotions have fueled an already charged political atmosphere by internal and external factors.
The internal challenges are historically embedded, irregularly recurring with acute symptoms. Among the internal factors is the vicious cycle of war and violence that the country is marred in. It suffices to mention but major conflicts in the last four decades. The Ogaden war of 1977 through 1978; the Eritrean independence struggle that hindered economic growth for generations and ended in 1991; the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) war that took over the central power in 1991 after toppling the all-powerful Derg; the lingering war against the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA); the repeated war of 1998-2000 with Eritrea after Eritrea gained its independence, and now the war with Tigray. These conflicts result from an anomalous but common political culture characterized by heavy-handed handling of dissent, jailing, torture, and killings of political opponents.
The sad story of war gives an impression of a state in a perpetual cycle of violence and one that knows no peace.
External factors pose the second significant challenge, but it is also impacted by the makings of the internal dynamics and by fate and natural circumstances. Sudan’s recent military incursion, overtaking hundreds of square kilometers of land inside Ethiopia, is fitting evidence of external factors destabilizing the country. The timing of Sudan’s offensive suggests that Khartoum is encouraged by Ethiopia’s internal turmoil and vulnerability. Sudan has been in peace with Ethiopia for a long time. The current armed conflict marks a new phase in the Ethio-Sudanese relationship. Sudan’s unexpected ‘hostility’ may or may not piggyback Egypt, a country interested in at least slowing down the construction and filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Sudan’s aggression could open the possibility of a proxy war with Egypt supporting Sudan from behind. Other external interferences, that of the Gulf states and President Donald Trump’s recent insinuation to bomb the GERD put additional strain on Ethiopia’s diplomacy.
The Horn of Africa is struggling to shed its image as the “most conflicted corner” in the continent. In addition to the Ethio-Sudanese conflict, affairs have gone sour between Somalia and Kenya. Relations between Sudan and South Sudan show signs of towing, but significant challenges remain. Somalia continues to struggle to stand on its feet, and relations with Jubaland, Puntland, and the quasi-autonomous Somaliland state remain precarious.
Ethiopia is the largest economy and the most populous of the Horn states. In addition to the internal and external factors discussed above, Ethiopia faces: a population boom amidst large youth unemployment, COVID-19 pandemic, locust infestations, and natural disasters triggered by climate change – floods and recurrent drought. These challenges are compounded by an underdeveloped economy, depressed entrepreneurship impeding investment, lack of infrastructures, and low educational system quality.
These prevailing realities may rise as a challenge that could create formidable troubles for Ethiopia, leading to state collapse or worse. The war with Tigray, the popular dissatisfaction in Qimant, Agew, Ogaden, Sidama, Wolaita, and Benishangul-Gumuz regions can paralyze even established political institutions. The military incursions and illegal “Command Post” in Oromia could lead to a legislative crisis as Ethiopia eyes elections in June. Amazingly, the country is weak but surviving. Below, I address the internal and external factors exacerbating the political turmoil in Ethiopia separately.
Internal factors compounding Ethiopia crisis
Historic: Unlike European colonizers who mostly left their occupied territories and attempted to mend their past through constructive diplomacy, Ethiopia’s forcefully united people, the occupiers and the occupied, continue living within the same country. While this is not necessarily unhealthy by default, the mingling left behind unmanaged cultural supremacy, especially after the collapse of the feudal system in the 1970s. The cultural residual could be likened to how English prevailed in Nigeria or French in Senegal.
In Ethiopia, however, until the 1970s, the supremacy of Amharic blocked the legal use and practice of other languages in courts and educational systems. In fact, changing the names of individuals and cities was common. Objections to the use of other languages as a federal language continue to this day. As a result, even the Oromo language, spoken by more people than the official Amharic language, is not a federal language. At the root of Ethiopia’s internal problems is the inability to mend this occupier-occupied legacy. It requires forfeiting the cultural supremacy of the Amharic speakers and fully recognizing ethnic identities. Unfortunately, some of the languages of Ethiopia’s tribes are near extinction.
To be clear, the legacy of Ethiopia’s occupier-occupied saga is far beyond just a cultural dominance; there are deep and old emotional resentments. For example, in the Arsi zone, in southeast Oromia, Ras Darge, Menelik’s general of the 1880s, summoned thousands of peaceful farmers to hear royal proclamations. Upon the arrival of the unsuspecting audience, the General ordered the mutilation of their body parts. A monument now stands in Anole for these victims. A decade later, Menelik repeated this with Eritreans who fought as Italian soldiers. He cut their left legs and right hands, but this time the Italians took pictures, and photograph records of victims are available. Author Tesfaye Gebreab narrates this tragedy in his book entitled the Nurenebi File (የኑረነቢ ማህደር).
The years that followed Emperor Menelik were extremely stressful for the occupied territories. Emperor Haile Selassie’s regime was known for its brutal repression against Oromos and other peoples of the south. The fate of the leaders of Macha Tulama, an Oromo civic organization, including the torture of Hailemariam Gamada, the hanging of Mamo Mazamir on February 28, 1969, and the imprisonment of Gen. Tadesse Biru, who the Derg later killed, can be mentioned as examples.
The torture and abuse that went on during the Derg regime from 1974 to 1991, who came after Haile Selassie, are widely recorded. Alleged methods of torture employed by the Derg include dipping the body in hot oil and splashing hot oil on the face raping of women, including young girls, inserting a bottle or heated iron bar into the vagina or anus, tying off a bottle of water to the testicles, pulling out of the nails of fingers and toes, severe beating on the soles of the feet, and tying in a contorted position.
The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) that ruled Ethiopia from 1992 to 2018 perfected these torture methods. Amnesty International’s May 2020 report, for example, notes that “39 people who had been extrajudicially executed in Goro Dola,” affirming that it has “credible evidence that EDF soldiers killed at least 16 people in circumstances that amount to an extrajudicial execution.” This is just the tip of the iceberg. These inter-generational abuses underscore Ethiopia’s entrenched and institutionalized culture of torture and maltreatment.
Each of these abundantly complex factors taken separately is a severe threat to a developing country with improper handling of its complex internal matters. The cumulative effect makes these factors so intense that Ethiopia has become vulnerable, threatening its peace and security. Lack of comprehensive understanding of the country’s internal political dynamics, oversimplification of consequences of conflicts, and massive incarcerations have defeated popular morale and created a void in the civic confidence of the society.
The detention of leaders of powerful political forces such as that of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), a political party arguably with the largest followers in Ethiopia, and Oromo Federalist Congress such as Jawar Mohammedand Bekele Gerba has created mistrust and lack of confidence within the Oromo population. Col. Gamachu Ayana, a notable OLF member, is reportedly confined in a solitary dark room with no family access. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed often exacerbates the situation by undertaking provocative projects and giving unwarranted comments. For example, Abiy’s decision to place Menelik’s effigy in the main palace in 2019 was taken as disrespect for victims of the emperor’s wars of conquest and the country’s unity. Similarly, on December 10, 2020, during a visit to Kenya, he made the following unjustifiable statement:
“Just like the infrastructure, we should work on peace and security of this area. Because peace is the foundation for everything, we are aspiring for. To transform the lives of our people, if we could eliminate Al-Shabab and OLF from this region, you can see how these people can transform into one family, one country, one people with great joy and cooperation.”
To understand the gravity of this speech, imagine a Head of Government going to a neighboring country and asking for help to eliminate a legally registered opposition party in his/her own country. Abiy’s press office later said the smear was mischaracterized, but Abiy himself never apologized for this reckless comment.
A shaky ground
One vital area that exposes weaknesses of Ethiopia’s rule of law is the “Command Post,” a de facto state of emergency with authority to introduce curfews, prohibit gatherings, authorize searches, and order detentions without due process. The decree was imposed in October 2018, just one month after OLF returned from exile, to govern many parts of Oromia without the parliament’s approval- as required by the constitution. The official abuses in regions outside those under “Command Post” are no less severe. These abuses have been well-documented by local and international human rights organizations.
The Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO), the ruling party in Oromia for the last 28 years, was created in the 1980s from war-prisoners captured by the TPLF. As a party of prisoners, over which the TPLF had full control, it was subjected to a heavy psychological burden. For this reason, the social appeal of the OPDO among the Oromo was negative. Furthermore, most OPDO leaders, including Abiy, oversaw the abuses against the Oromo and were implicated with severe human rights violations.
The burden of carrying a traitor label remained even after the defeat of the TPLF, i.e., after the OPDO attained a semblance of independence post-2018. Cosmetic rebranding could not lift the full burden. Hoping to cleanse the party of its negative identity, officials adopted a new name (Oromo Democratic Party) after Abiy came to power. The idea of lifting the psychological burden by some means was taken so seriously that the renaming happened twice within a year. The old party with a new name invested heavily to separate itself from its blurred legacy with little success.
Furthermore, these rebranding exercises did not wipe TPLF’s grandfathered claim to authority, especially since few personnel changes took place within OPDO. It is still operated by men and women that the TPLF mentored and brought to power. The TPLF felt ‘betrayed’ and was furious. The fury was reciprocated by officials of the Prosperity Party (PP), resulting in Tigray’s disastrous war, which led to the loss of thousands of lives and the destruction of resources. Thus, the war in Tigray is an extension of the power struggle between the TPLF and the OPDO, a clash between Frankenstein and his inventor.
The PP was renamed or formed in December 2019 by merging three former EPRDF member parties from Oromia, Amhara, and the Southern region. The party also included Afar, Beni Shangul-Gumuz, Somali, Gambela, and Harari representatives. As delegates of the mother party, the regional associates have lost some political autonomy since they are no more distinct political parties. However, informally, they still exist as political blocks antagonistic to each other.
Abiy is propagating his intention to move away from multinational federalism in the backdrop of efforts to mutate old Ethiopian political discourse under a “modernized” plan for development by creating parks, remodeling the palace, etc.
The “modernizing” aspect is a necessary facelift to the prior schemes of feudalism while maintaining some positive elements of federalism as a derivative of EPRDF – mainly to deceive popular sentiment and suppress general uprisal by those who are vehemently opposed to dismantling the federal structure. The new party faces significant divides within its constituents. The core components of the EPRDF sustained their political power as the creations of the TPLF, with negligible independent authority, legal or otherwise. But they gained some moral authority since departing from the TPLF. The current divisions within PP are less ideological and more about dominance. Notwithstanding these minor differences, PP should still be considered a morphed vintage of the EPRDF with irreverently modified goals and visions.
Improved moral confidence and independent thinking within the PP relative to the EPRDF years will likely feed and empower more federalist dialogue despite PP’s anti-ethnic rhetoric. This will reinforce the EPRDF’s concept of autonomy, but without any single dominant ethnic group holding a prominent leadership role to enforce order, as the TPLF did. In a recent war of words, the Amhara head of PP gave a sturdy warning to PP leaders in the Beni Shangul-Gumuz, threatening a militia attack unless the latter treats Amharas in its territory with “respect.”
Similar words of threat have been exchanged between the Oromo branch and the Amhara branches, particularly over Raya in Wollo, where both branches lay claim. It can be safely argued that despite the downplaying of identity politics and claims by the leaders of crossing inter-ethnic boundaries, PP itself is as divided as the ethnically organized non-PP political parties. Strikingly, the same political views and beliefs exist today within the PP membership that existed before, rendering disintegration of PP along its ethnic divide, Oromo, Amhara, etc., inevitable.
The Amharic media
Another major contributing factor to the internal chaos has been the growing drumbeat in the Amharic media about impending genocide in Ethiopia. While the political tensions and the accumulated frustrations are sufficient to make genocide a high risk, the false claims and preemptive accusations render the riskless serious. For example, during the widespread unrest in the Oromia region in the immediate aftermath of Artist Haacaaluu Hundeessa’s murder, the Oromia police were forced to give the ethnic breakdown of the victims in response to claims of Amhara genocide in the Amharic media.
More than half of the victims turned out to be Oromos, but this did not stop the cunning Amharic media from crying genocide against Amharas. Even some international media repeated the outcry, albeit often in quotations. For example, the Economist claimed that “a musician’s death unleashed violence and death,” adding, “more lurid allegations, including that of an attempted ‘genocide’ against Amharas.”
A major Amhara media recently asked: “What exactly constitutes genocide, and why is it that hard for the Ethiopian government to admit that the atrocity crimes are, in fact, genocide?” An ultra-nationalist Amhara organization wrote a report about the Amhara genocide, which was “ignored by the World,” listing Bahir Dar (the capital city of Amhara region) and Gondar among places where genocide was committed. The negative propaganda and the preemptive outcries by diaspora activists on social media and few satellite TVs are disturbing.
External factors complicating the crisis in Ethiopia
Regional power balance: Ethiopia’s political chaos and the ensuing vulnerability have already created regional instability and political realignment. The Arab world appears united in supporting Egypt on GERD. This places the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Sudan in the same camp. However, the support cracks when it comes to the war against Tigray, a matter that should have been an internal matter of Ethiopia. The TPLF claims that the UAE gave full support to the Ethiopian government, including combat drones, while Egypt and Sudan seemed to favor the TPLF.
Eritrea’s role in the civil war in Tigray adds another controversial layer to the mix. The U.S. State Department, citing credible reports about its presence, has called on Eritrea to withdraw its forces from Tigray immediately. The invitation of a foreign army to squash internal opposition is not lost on the Ethiopian Diaspora, who condemned Eritrean intervention.
The TPLF has also accused the UAE of partnering with Ethiopia’s federal government to use weaponized drones stationed in Assab, Eritrea. Tigrayans claim the UAE drones effectively disarmed the TPLF. Independent analysts have acknowledged the presence of drones in Assab, but, so far, there is no evidence they are being used in Tigray.
The long-term lease of Assab port to UAE may bring much-needed foreign currency to the Eritrean regime. But the leases of African ports to foreign powers have turned the countries into competing and fighting grounds for rival big powers, thereby destabilizing the region. The Chinese base at Port of Doraleh and other bases, including Camp Lemonnier (United States Navy), Base Aerienne 188 (French Air Force), and the Japan Self-Defense Force base all around the small city of Djibouti must be viewed in this context.
In conclusion, there is currently a visible mismatch between capacity and objectives, or problems and solutions in Ethiopia. The country faces severe natural and anthropogenic challenges, which require great ability, peace, and goodwill to overcome. All of these are lacking at this moment. Its historic legacy often interferes with creating a platform for genuine, honest, and transparent discourse. Negative propaganda in Amharic media, assault on multinational federalism, foreign interventions, the politics on the GERD project, the shifting of regional power balance, and weak central power add complexity even when there may be goodwill.
The macho-posturing does not befit the devastating poverty, and any admission of this truth often unsettles ultra-nationalist jingo. The meaning and purpose of Ethiopian unity have been hijacked to promote cultural dominance as an authoritarian political agenda. Only a transitional government built by broad consensus may salvage the situation. Otherwise, the international community must be prepared for another round of human rights disasters.