Questions Of Ethnic Conflict, Press Freedom And Big Business In Ethiopia


Philippa Payne

A recent study from the Global Report on Internal Displacement (G.R.I.D.) has shown Ethiopia to be the world leader in internally displaced persons, with nearly three million people displaced as a result of violent conflict. This is evident of rising ethnic tensions in the East African country, with ethnic minorities driven from their homes, villages and even districts.

Whilst the ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (E.P.R.D.F.), has attempted to reform the country along more democratic lines, it has failed to recognise the full scope of this ethnic division. And instead of heeding the advice of humanitarian organisations in Ethiopia, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has pressured those displaced by ethnic conflict to return home immediately.

The attempts made by the E.P.R.D.F. to ‘rehabilitate’ internally displaced persons have the potential to aggravate ethnic conflict. The government fails to recognise what has made many people to flee their homes, and therefore, fails to deal with its root cause: the groups of armed men who have burned their homes and committed atrocious crimes such as rape and murder. Instead of comprehending the reality of these experiences, the government has made provision of buses to transport displaced populations back to their homes. In addition, the administration has cut off food supplies and humanitarian aid to those who refuse to return and has threatened to destroy temporary shelters. These brutal measures fail to account for the fact that many no longer have a home to return to.

Aid workers, who gave reports under anonymity, have questioned the extent to which these returns can be considered voluntary and whether such actions comply with the United Nations regulations that Ethiopia has pledged to follow. A senior official working in the West Guji-Gedeo region remarked: “when they say it is voluntary, it just means they are not forcing people [to leave] with Kalashnikovs.” Consequently,  the measures taken to rehabilitate internally displaced persons are considered to be premature and are contrary to the advice that humanitarian organisations have given to the Prime Minister and the E.P.R.D.F. It is becoming increasingly evident that the government views the growing displaced population as a blemish to its administrative record and wants to take swift, and potentially rash actions to salvage its reputation.

Similarly, the government’s fixation on an international business vision for Ethiopia continues to disadvantage ordinary people. Alongside this, there are renewed concerns over freedom of movement at Ethiopia’s borders, after Eritrea closed its newly-opened border points, as well as renewed fears over freedom of the press, after a draft law suggested that legal action would be taken against hate speech and ‘fake news’. Whilst this has been welcomed by some individuals who have observed how newly-found freedom of expression has manifested itself in increasingly malign ways, others remain suspicious over the vague nature of the draft legislation.

Under the reformist leadership of Prime Minister Ahmed, the government has moved to encourage press freedoms. It has released journalists from prison and exile, unblocked online news outlets speaking in opposition to the government and allowed for the publication of new content. But there are widespread concerns amongst journalists that these reforms will soon be infringed upon in much the same way that the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation did  in 2009.

In response to the new law, Amnesty International Researcher for Ethiopia and Eritrea, Fisseha Tekle, remarked that the ‘falsity of news is too subjective and ambiguous, and therefore this proposed law could be misused to criminalize the right to freedom of expression and press freedom.’ These concerns are further heightened when one considers that the Ethiopian press is strongly divided along ethnic lines. And although anti-hate speech legislation would alleviate some of the tensions between ethnic groups currently perpetuated by national news media, it is highly indicative that the accusations of ‘fake news’ could worsen this divide.

Ignoring the humanitarian crisis, the government has turned its attention towards a grand economic plan. But whilst the E.P.R.D.F. has developed a strong business vision for the future of Ethiopia, it has not accounted for a unifying vision of the Ethiopian people.  The current administration has prioritised the development of Ethiopia’s hydraulic energy infrastructure, particularly with the construction of the Gibe III Hydroelectric Dam. And whilst the Ethiopian government hopes that the dam will contribute to the establishment of a strong energy export market, it continues to overlook the domestic significance that such a project could have. For example, recent water shortages at the dam have led to a reduction in power generation and a failure to meet export targets. This has led to the rationing of domestic energy usage and frequent ‘blackouts’ which have remained largely unexplained by the government. This suggests that the success of Ethiopia’s business vision was in large part reliant on the weakness of domestic demand. Hence, the development of Ethiopia’s energy sector should be reassessed to prioritize the needs of ordinary Ethiopians over the business elites who have the most to gain.

In conclusion, there are no simple solutions to these problems, but it is clear that the ingrained ethnic divides of the Ethiopian establishment are primarily responsible for increased tensions. For Prime Minister Ahmed to tackle the growing ethno-nationalism in the country,  he must first address the systemic divisions in terms of the press, the government and the judiciary.There is a real danger of increased intolerance as a result of increased political freedoms which must be accepted but also controlled, with those inciting violence being held accountable.

Finally, a greater effort must be made to unify the diverse ethnic groups of Ethiopia, something which can be bolstered by prioritising the actions which benefit ordinary people the most, rather than big businesses. The Ethiopian government must work with humanitarian organisations and take heed of their expert advice, rather than impede their efforts to help internally displaced persons. But it is of paramount importance that the threat of ethnic conflict is fully recognised so that a unifying vision for the Ethiopian people becomes a key objective of  the Ethiopian government. Such objectives must be realised to ensure that Ethiopia’s very existence is not jeopardised by yet another civil war.