Ethnic violence is rising through Ethiopia, staining its ‘new era’ in blood

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The impact of Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed’s short time in office has been celebrated as a new era for the politically troubled nation. He took office at a time when tensions between the country’s largest ethnic groups and the government were at their peak, bringing Ethiopia’s entire political future into question.

Abiy’s success in building a new-found sense of optimism that his ruling EPRDF coalition can drive the country forward is nothing short of remarkable – certainly in the brief time he has spent in office at this point.

Unfortunately, his regime has also seen a surge in ethnic violence, rising from the south of the country and his ethnic home, the Oromiya region. Ethiopia now has the largest number of internally displaced people in the world (1.4 million) – more than Syria (1.2m) – and the weekend’s clashes in Addis Ababa suggest a new kind of conflict is rising through the country.

Abiy Ahmed’s first challenge was to defuse the tension between his government and its people. Now, he is faced with the task of calming anger among the people themselves and this could be the factor that defines his legacy and Ethiopia’s “new era”.

Ethnic violence rises through Ethiopia

Ethiopia’s ethnic makeup is diverse and complex, with a deep of history of bloodshed and bitter conflict. The country’s ruling EPRDF coalition moved to put this history behind it when it came to power in 1991 by adopting ethnic federalism – an ideology that shares power between ethnic groups while allowing them to preserve and celebrate their own identities.

Today’s Ethiopia was born out of ethnic and political conflict but the EPRDF was largely successful in putting an end to the politicisation of ethnic divides, namely to protect itself from being ousted from power as the regimes that preceded it.

This federalist ideology wasn’t without its shortcomings, though. The EPRDF’s iron-fist approach to quashing political expression only fuelled public dissent. While key ethnic groups in the country felt they were underrepresented by the government and discriminated against – namely the Oromo, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group from which Abiy Ahmed himself was born.

Ethnic violence has displaced almost 1 million people in Ethiopia over the past four months, largely due to a surge of attacks in the south of the country. For all the good work Abiy has done since coming into power in April, his liberal transformation of Ethiopia risks being undermined by the huge increase in ethnic violence emanating from his homeland, the Oromiya region.

A symptom of Abiy Ahmed’s success

There are no simple answers to Ethiopia’s current ethnic crisis. Abiy is largely revered in the country as a saviour of sorts but some observers are suggesting youth groups from his Oromo ethnic group have been emboldened by his rise to power.

Indeed, most of the recent ethnic clashes in the south have either involved Oromo youth groups or been blamed on them by other parties. Fighting between the Oromo and Gedeo people along the border areas of Gedeo and West Guji in the Oromiya region.

Violence broke out within a matter of weeks after Abiy was sworn in as prime minister and it doesn’t require a great deal of imagination to suspect sections of the Oromo ethnic group feel stronger in the age of Abiy.

This doesn’t tell the whole story, though. Abiy’s early success in reforming Ethiopia has also resulted in something of a vacuum in power – at least, according to Ahmed Soliman, a research fellow on the Horn of Africa with the Africa Program at the London-based think tank Chatham House. As he explained to DW earlier this month, the pace and extent of change taking place in Ethiopia right now is unprecedented and the government loosening its grip on political freedom naturally gives more space for people to express it.

As Ethiopia steps back from strict ethnic federalism, the natural side-effect is for ethnicity to become politicised once again. There are already claims that those who have enjoyed regional power in Ethiopia’s previous regime could be stirring up ethnic tensions in various areas in a bid to hold onto power.

For Abiy Ahmed, the ethnic crisis is very real. Thousands protested in the capital over the weekend, demanding government intervention in the recent spate of clashes. Authorities have arrested more than 800 people accused of provoking violence and ethnically-charged crimes, including murder, illegal land invasion and setting fire to property.

However, some are demanding more and this leaves Abiy in a difficult position. He came into office facing public calls for greater political freedom and an end to the heavy-handed intervention of security forces. Now, he’s facing calls for stronger intervention, this time into the violence that has surfaced from the ethnic group most involved in those earlier demands for political reform.

Featured image: By Jonathan Alpeyrie – by user:jalpeyrie (via email), CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4171558

About Aaron Brooks

Aaron Brooks is a UK journalist who wants to cut out the international agendas in news. Spending his early years in both England and Northern Ireland he saw the difference between reality and media coverage at an early age. After graduating from the University of Chester with a BA in journalism, his travels revealed just how large the gap between news and the real world can be. As Editor-in-Chief at East Africa Monitor, it’s his job to provide a balanced view of what’s going on in the region for English-speaking audiences.