Ethnic Divisions Impact Ethiopia’s Attempted Political Transition

Centuries of authoritarian rule, from an incompetent monarchy which failed to implement effective political and economic reforms to a highly oppressive military dictatorship, have scarred Ethiopia. Since 1991, however, Ethiopia’s ruling parties have attempted to implement democratic reforms and unify the country. Unfortunately, deeply-rooted and complex ethnic divisions have hampered those efforts.

To put Ethiopia’s politics into context, we must note the previous regime’s devastating impact on the country. The Provisional Military Administration Council were Ethiopia’s last authoritarian rulers, led by Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam. The regime consolidated power in 1974 through a military coup which overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie. Almost immediately after consolidating power, the military dictator executed 60 former officials including two Premiers and a military chief, according to a 1974 New York Times article. The violence escalated two years later, when it began what is known as the “Red Terror” – a campaign of oppression and mass killings. Although the number of casualties is largely contested, an Oxford Research Encyclopedia article estimates that there were 50,000 deaths. The resulting struggle against this movement resulted in the formation of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which overthrew Colonel Mariam in 1991.

Initially, the EPRDF was focused on democratization and recognizing the country’s ethnic heterogeneity. The front implemented constitutional reforms which established a federation and divided the country into ethnicity-based regions, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. However, violent anti-government protests from 2016 to 2018 led to the former Prime Minister’s resignation, and the election of current Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.

Prime Minister Ahmed’s effort has been remarkable, from an external perspective. Ahmed has freed tens of thousands of political prisoners and promised free and fair elections this year (which have been postponed due to coronavirus). He also made peace with neighbouring Eritrea, at war with Ethiopia since 1999. Ahmed won a Nobel Peace Prize in the process. Foremost in his efforts, Ahmed established the Prosperity Party in an attempt to unify the country and bridge ethnic divisions.

Nevertheless, Ethiopia’s complex ethnic divide has proven difficult to overcome, and tension between ethnic groups continues to hamper Ahmed’s attempts at unification. In 2007, a national census determined that over 80 ethnic groups exist in the country, some of the most prominent of which are the Oromo, Tigrayan, and Amhara peoples. Opposition parties have emerged from some of these ethnic groups in disagreement with Ethiopia’s transformation into a single sovereign nation. In a recent Al Jazeera interview, Awolu Abdi – the Prosperity Party’s Public Relation and International Relation Head – suggested, “Most of the parties focus on the local agenda, not the national agenda… the Ethiopian agenda is forgotten.” Thus, Ahmed’s focus on national unification has fueled debate over his validity as Prime Minister.

Among the most threatening opposition parties to Ahmed’s efforts is the Qeerroo. According to Al Jazeera, the Qeerroo party is an Oromo movement currently led by Jawar Mohammed – a controversial politician – who seeks self-rule for the Oromo people. The movement directly conflicts with Ahmed’s vision of a single, unified sovereign nation. To make matters worse, in 2019, Mohammed posted on Facebook that Ahmed’s party was threatening his life. In an exclusive Al Jazeera interview, Jawar claimed that “the ruling party has resorted to the old days of suppressing the opposition.” Whether or not these allegations are true, they highlight Ethiopia’s political instability.

Other Oromo opposition has displayed similar fears, according to Al Jazeera, claiming that Ahmed has failed to prevent human rights abuses by state security forces against armed insurgents. These allegations refer in particular to the decade-long conflict between the Ethiopian army and Oromo separatists in the south and west regions of Oromia. Oromia comprises a large portion of the Ethiopian population and wields a significant amount of influence. The region’s support is crucial for Ahmed’s transformation efforts, but it is unlikely that the Prime Minister will gain support from Oromia’s public if this issue remains unresolved.

Furthermore, tension between the Prosperity Party and Tigrayan leaders has recently escalated. According to Al Jazeera, Tigray held regional elections – which Ahmed’s government has deemed “illegal.” The landslide victor of the elections was the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, which led the EPRDF before Ahmed became Prime Minister and has a long history in Ethiopian politics. Following the recent “illegal” elections, the House of Federation aired a statement on the state-run Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation declaring that federal officials should sever ties with the Tigray regional state assembly and the region’s highest executive body. In response, Tigrayan leaders have rejected all future decisions made by Prime Minister Ahmed’s government. This conflict has only added to Ahmed’s struggle to unify the country.

However, the Amhara people’s support for Ahmed is a significant counterweight. In an Al Jazeera interview with the Amhara public, individuals criticized the opposition’s “hidden” agendas and stressed that Ahmed’s vision of a unified Ethiopia was certainly possible. Ethnic groups, the speakers said, have been able to “exist in peace in the past.”

While the Amhara public are relatively supportive of Ahmed’s government, it does not appear confident in the government’s security apparatus. A security void has produced local vigilante youth groups, and fears of an increasingly radicalized Ethiopian youth are ever present. Members of Fano, an Amhara vigilante youth group, told Al Jazeera that “the capacity of the government to maintain law and order is not strong at this time… people are resorting to self-protection.” This is particularly the case in Amhara due to “anti-Amhara sentiments and propaganda,” another Fano member added. Indeed, 20 Amhara students kidnapped in Oromia in 2019 are yet to be found, according to Al Jazeera. Amhara’s insecurity presents barriers to Ethiopia’s overall stability.

What can Prime Minister Ahmed and the Prosperity Party do to mitigate Ethiopia’s ethnic divide?

In the short term, Ahmed should aim to increase transparency, communication, and interaction between all ethnic groups. The objective should be to negotiate an agreement on the re-structuring of the current constitution, which is contested among ethnic groups. Among the opposition, ethnic groups such as the Oromo and Tigrayans clearly disapprove of a complete unification because they believe that their autonomy will be dissolved in the process. However, this does not appear to be Ahmed’s objective. Increasing political communication, transparency, and interaction between ethnic groups may resolve, or at least diminish, disagreements and tensions between the groups. Giving these ethnic groups a seat at the table will also re-establish their sense of autonomy. All ethnic groups must be equally represented in the negotiations to successfully execute this strategy.

Additionally, a third-party mediator may be required if negotiations reach a stalemate or fuel further conflict. This mediator should be an external actor which all groups accept, and must be unbiased towards Ethiopian politics. Switzerland, which has a remarkable reputation as a mediator in peace negotiations, could be a potential candidate. The country has over 30 peace processes in more than 20 countries, according to the Switzerland Federal Department of Foreign Affairs.

The Prosperity Party also needs to re-establish a strong and well-trained security apparatus in the short term. In regions like Amhara, a perceived security void is inspiring vigilante groups, and in regions like Oromia, security forces are accused of violating human rights. Both issues must be immediately addressed if the current government hopes to retain public support and maintain domestic stability.

In the long term, the Prosperity Party should improve infrastructure in less-developed areas to increase foreign direct investment (FDI) opportunities. Making improvements to reliable roads, internet, electricity, water, and educational centers will be crucial to this effort. Although the government must initiate this through domestic funding, regional institutions such as the African Development Bank may assist the process. Ultimately, FDI will boost these regions’ development, increasing employment, and productivity. Most importantly, however, this unified effort will improve Ethiopians’ quality of life.

Charles Alcasar Guedouard


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