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Fractures appear in Ethiopia’s ethno-political mosaic

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Fractures appear in Ethiopia’s ethno-political mosaic

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Ethiopia

Fractures appear in Ethiopia’s ethno-political mosaic

Disputes over power, resources, identity and territory have resurfaced under Abiy Ahmed

Deadly clashes in the capital Addis Ababa threaten the region's precarious peace © Tiksa Negeri/Reuters

Less than a month ago, Abiy Ahmed, prime minister of Ethiopia, won the Nobel Peace Prize. In Ethiopia, though, peace is in short supply. In what is merely the latest in a string of violent incidents, nearly 70 people were killed in the Oromia region last week after a prominent Oromo activist Jawar Mohammed all but accused the prime minister of trying to have him assassinated.

Oromia surrounds Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital. It is one of nine ethnically constituted regions and home to about 35m people. The Oromo make up more than a third of Ethiopia’s estimated 105m people. No one knows the exact number or proportion since counting people is a politically contentious affair, implying as it does the allocation of power and resources. The government cancelled the April census for a third time, citing instability. 

The Oromo led the protests against the previous government of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, a four-party coalition that has ruled Ethiopia (in some senses, very successfully) since overthrowing a Marxist dictatorship in 1991.

But, after a quarter of a century in power, EPRDF rule became untenable. Street protests, beginning in around 2015 in Oromia and spreading to Amhara, the second most populous region, eventually toppled the old leadership. That cleared the path for Mr Abiy to become party head and prime minister, the country’s first Oromo leader in more than 2,000 years. 

One reason for those protests was the dominance within the ruling EPRDF of the Tigrayans, who had led the guerrilla insurgency in the early 1990s. The Tigrayans make up only 6 per cent of Ethiopia’s population but dominated decision-making and power. Under Tigrayan leadership, Ethiopia instituted an economic development plan that transformed it into the nearest thing Africa has to a would-be Asian success story. 

The EPRDF also came up with a power-sharing arrangement with the country’s 80 ethnic groups. A new constitution, enacted in 1995, divided the country into nine ethnically-based regions. It also provided for the secession of any region through referendum and the aspiration of any ethnic group to regional status. The Sidama, a southern group of 3.8m people (about 4 per cent of the population), is the latest to push for just that. 

When Mr Abiy became leader of this mosaic-of-a-country, he released thousands of political prisoners, lifted bans on political parties (even the ones seeking the state’s violent overthrow) and loosened controls on the media. His push for liberal reform is one reason he won the Nobel. It has come at a cost. “As political space has opened and EPRDF control has weakened all sorts of latent disputes over power, resources, identity and territory have surfaced,” says William Davison of Crisis Group. 

The disputes are too numerous to mention. Here are a few: the Amhara, with around 29m people, are at rhetorical war with the Tigrayans over territory. They also resent the Oromo narrative that Amaharans are oppressors who, under Emperor Menelik II in the 19th century, brutally conquered Oromo territory. Tigrayans blame Mr Abiy for purging them from power and are threatening to leave the EPRDF before the elections — which will supposedly be held in May. 

In Oromia itself, there has been violence against the Gedeo, a group about 1m strong. The Oromo have clashed with ethnic Somali along the border between their two regions. Mr Jawar and his supporters argue that Mr Abiy, though he is Oromo himself, is seeking to centralise power and trample on the rights of the people whose protests brought him to office. 

It is hard to overstate the strength of this “national” feeling. On a trip to Tigray this year, someone asked me if I had been to any other countries. When I naively started reeling off the names of a few, such as France and Kenya, he looked at me as though I were dim. He was referring to other “countries” in Ethiopia, he said. 

The concern is that, in seeking to deal with this fierce sub-nationalism, Mr Abiy will ditch his liberal instincts and revert to authoritarianism. There are already signs that is happening, says Mr Davison, who says the government is resorting to internet shutdowns, mass arrests and the use of lethal force.

Meanwhile, Mr Abiy is still preaching the philosophy of medemer, an Amharic word meaning strength through diversity. It is a noble sentiment. But last week, protesters in yet another part of the country were burning his book by the same name.

At some point, Ethiopia will need a new political settlement that balances the competing forces of ethnic and national identity. Ethiopia is Africa's most optimistic story. It is also one of its most precarious.

david.pilling@ft.com

This article has been amended to correct the number of ethic Amhara estimated to be living in Ethiopia.

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