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Ethiopia Opens a Pandora’s Box of Ethnic Tensions

At the heart of the protests is the fundamental question of how to build a modern nation-state on the back of ethnic fault lines that have been exploited over centuries.
by Aleksandra W. Gadzala | The National Interest

The EPRDF’s governing ideology, “revolutionary democracy”—a curious concoction of Marxist, Maoist, and ethno-regionalist thought—demands Soviet-style submission to the Tigray-dominated state. It calls for communal collective participation and democratic centralism. Through gim gima, nationally publicized government evaluation sessions, the regime weeds out dissidents and indoctrinates citizens. Following the regime’s violent clampdown during the disputed 2005 elections, the EPRDF published a booklet entitled Democracy and Democratic Unity that it used nationwide gim gima to explain away its brutal response. The booklet gave Ethiopians a “clear choice between dependency and anti-democracy forces” (i.e. opposition parties) and “revolutionary democracy (peace and developmentalism).” Rather than participants in a liberal order, then, Ethiopian citizens are mobilizing apparatchiks for the vanguard party. And since 1991 they have been subject to the diktats of one ethnic (minority) group. Resistance has been met with imprisonment, or worse. If, as William Davidson writes, today’s protests “seem to be taking on a worrying ethnic tinge,” that is because they have been ethnic from the start. Politics in Ethiopia is inherently ethnic.

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Of the EPRDF’s most beloved methods of centralizing control is through the centralization of land—land grabbing—which has become a rallying point in the current turmoil. While it is foreign firms in Ethiopia who are generally accused of expropriating land, the blame in fact lies with the EPRDF. A 2009 government regulation gives the EPRDF full control over all aspects of land investments over five thousand hectares (approximately 12,350 acres), including the right to expropriate land from the country’s regions and transfer it to investors. Under Ethiopian law all revenues, taxes, and associated infrastructure resulting from the investments now accrue to the EPRDF. Previously, real estate transactions had been handled by each of the country’s nine regional governments. As Chatham House, a London-based think tank, notes, “it is the state that stands to reap the most significant gains.” But the factors underpinning the government’s land grabs extend beyond simple economics: they are also a means for the TPLF-dominated EPRDF to realize some version of an independent Tigray. The seizure of large tracts of land is a process of re-concentration and of the marginalization and disempowerment of Ethiopia’s (non-Tigray) ethnic groups. Theoretically at least, it is intended to forge greater dependence on the central state and to render it increasingly difficult for rebel groups to emerge and operate in lowland areas. Most projects are concentrated in Benishangul-Gumuz, Gambella, SNNPR, and northern Amhara—remote regions of the country where government processes of assimilation and integration are ongoing. By commandeering the land, the EPRDF hopes to speed them up.
Violent attacks carried out by Ethiopian protesters on Dutch, Israeli, Indian and Belgian-owned farms in Amhara in early September therefore did not target foreign interests in the country per se, but EPRDF efforts to strip Ethiopians of land and identity. Foreign firms were the unfortunate middlemen.
For the better part of the last quarter century the EPRDF has attempted to whitewash its ethnic ambitions with its economic development agenda. Ethiopia is at the heart of the “Africa rising” narrative and has succeeded in lifting millions out of extreme poverty, cutting child mortality rates, and overseeing an impressive decline in HIV/AIDS-related deaths by 50 percent. Some argue that rather than ethnic tensions, the protests reflect mounting frustrations with an uneven distribution of the economic pie. This is undoubtedly part of the story. Yet as unrest engulfs places like the Amhara capital, Bahir Dar, and Adama, Oromia’s most vibrant city, which have benefitted from economic growth, it is clear that economic grievances are secondary. When in 2010 Eskinder told me, regrettably, that Ethiopia has become “the world’s star backslider,” he did not mean this economically. He meant in terms of governance and in terms of statehood. “Meles’ rule,” he said, “is not only that of the party but of the ethnicity. Meles’ relatives, friends, et cetera are putting pressure on him not to give up control because he would be giving up the control of the entire Tigray people.” This rings true of the TPLF today.
This is what makes the Ethiopian unrest so significant—and potentially dangerous. At the heart of the protests is the fundamental question of how to build a modern nation state on the back of ethnic fault lines that have been exploited over centuries. Through its formula of ethnic federalism and revolutionary democracy the EPRDF has merely succeeded in repeating the errors of its predecessors through different means. In many respects the state-building question has gone unresolved; Ethiopia’s crisis is largely an existential one. In the coming weeks Hailemariam Desalegn will likely attempt peace by announcing a redistribution of government investments. Most—if not all—political and economic power will remain vested in the TPLF. While this may quell the protests for a time, without genuine attention to the country’s conflicting institutional and ideological challenges—central to which is the dominance of the TPLF and the Tigray—the situation is likely to get worse before it gets better. All that is at stake, is everything.
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Aleksandra W. Gadzala is an independent political-risk consultant based out of Boca Raton, FL and an Africa contributor with Oxford Analytica. She holds a PhD in Politics from the University of Oxford.

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1 Comment

  1. Ethiopia is resilient state that cannot be undone by Jawar or anybody else.

    Harold G. Marcus in his book “A history of Ethiopia” says the following:

    “As I watched the intellectual mayhem and continued an analytical truth validating my decision to consider Ethiopia’s wider geographic limits as my canvas fro time to time, the nation had disintegrated into component parts, but it never disappeared as an idea and always reappeared in fact.”

    Wherever it comes from, from a tiny states like Eritrea or bigger force like Egypt or any state across the Red Sea, Ethiopia will never disintegrate and disappear. Whatever is happening right now will give way to renewed national unity provided it is handled with a vision free from selfish motives.

    Pesrsonally, I do not agree with some of the points suggested in the article above. Instead, I suggest that we UPHOLD THE CONSTITUTION. The constitution, no matter how it was drafted and approved, it is a document on which all parties claiming to have stake in the future of the country can agree on to use as a working document for the future. Amending it to deal with emerging problems of the country can be delayed for now.

    Most people who reject the constitution have not read it or only know about specific provisions they do not approve. My suggestion is to READ it and re-READ it looking for all its positive elements such as respect of democratic and human rights. If an agreement can be reached to use it by all who claim to be stake holders (including the opposition and the government) as a working document, there will be no need for a transitional government which will be filled by ethnic groups or even a transition.

    If ther constitution is upheld by all parties, a new government can successfully take office from the exisitng government via election. The exisiting government should continue until the next election which is three years from now while talking to different stake holders and giving assurance both to the international community and the opposition that the next election will be truly free and fair. If that is done, the good works that were done by the exisitng government can be continued on and people will not lose their livelihood to irrisponsible acts of protesters. Governments – both federal and regional – will have to stay in office until the next election and enforce law and order including the state of emergencey. Without keeping the existing governments, there will be no law and order and the future usurped by armed gangs.

    If movements like the OLF that declared an all out war on regional and federal governments in general and the non-Oromo people in particular with intent to separate Oromia from Ethiopia persists, then the governments – both regioanl and federal – are justified to protect the territorial integrity of the country. Self-determination is a right guaranteed by the constitution which can only be pursued by constitutional means.

    Eliminating movements working to dismember an exisitng state under the guise of self-determination is legal under international law including UN and AU charters. The right to self-determination is still secondary to ensuring territorial integrity of a state which international law considers sacrosanct. Long pracitices of the international community show that a state that fails to keep their constitutent parts (district, province, region, state, etc.) are not upto expectations of the community. It is something the community disapproves of – though without openly stating it.

    Here is an example. The recent defeat of Tamil Tigers who fought for decades to separate Tamil from Sri Lanka was not condemned by the international community. The only concern raised by some states relates to violation of Geneva conventions relating the conduct of war and lack of respect of fundamental rights during the war. Simply said, use of force to stamp out separatisits war is a regular state duty supported by the international community which no one should be afraid to talk about. The message is to OLF (Jawar and co. too) who lately talks about going it alone by marshalling their own army and introducing charter. What’s surprising is the talk about Oromia being a colony hoping that rules pertaining to keeping territorial integrity does not apply to Oromia. OLF (Jawar too) cannot convince anyone on this issue.

    If, by some miracle OLF (with Jawar and co.) separate Oromia from Ethiopia, it does not mean Oromia will be a state in the real sense of the term. It simply means one chapter is closed and another opened. Once Oromia is separate Ethiopia will be cut into its regions to the west, north, north-east, east-east on one side and its regions to the South on the other. After the separation, the west, north, north-east and east-east regions will be successors of the present Ethiopian state that includes Oromia. These regions are Binshagul- Gumuz, Tigray, Amara, Harar, Afar and Somali regions. Gambella and the South will be cut by Oromia to the south to form part of the new Ethiopian successor state to the north. With this fact on the ground, a new struggle begins.

    Without the recogntion of thenew successor Ethiopian state Oromia will not stand as an indepenedent state among the family of nations. Ethiopia and Sudan recognized Eritrea and South Sudan respectively to let them emerge as new states without which the latter would have remained as Puntland in Somalia. Despite de facto independence for over twenty years, the international community has denied de jure existence of puntland simply because recognition has to come from a state in Somalia. In fact, even if weak, lack of recognition of Puntland as an independent state by the exisiting governemnt in Somalia has effectively stopped Somalia’s disintegration.

    Like the government in Somalia, the new government in the Ethiopian state that succeeds after the separation of Oromia will stop Oromia from emerging as a state. This is for OLF (and Jawar) who claim to lead the Oromo to indepnendence. The future is rough than you might think.

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