Ethiopia’s tense ethnic federalism is being tested again

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WRITTEN BY Tom Gardner
September 15, 2017 Quartz Africa
Addis Ababa


The federal republic of Ethiopia is one of Africa’s most daring constitutional experiments. The radical idea—that by institutionalizing ethnic divisions the country might peacefully overcome them—was a gamble from the outset. The doubters have largely been proven wrong: Ethiopia’s distinct model of ethnically-based federalism has, since it was introduced in 1995, just about worked. But a particularly nasty spate of violence along a long-contested regional boundary has alarm bells ringing once again.

Reports emerged this week of deadly clashes between ethnic Oromos and ethnic Somalis in the country’s dry and mainly pastoralist south-east. More than 30 people are estimated to have been killed in the town of Awaday on Sept.11. Protest followed, during which at least two people died. At least 600 were displaced following clashes (some say far more), and are now sheltering around the city of Harar. Local militia and police, including the controversial Somali special forces known as the Liyu and accused by Human Rights Watch of human rights abuses, are thought to have been involved in the violence. The government in Addis Ababa, the capital, confirmed the national army had been sent into restore order.

This is not new: the two regions have been competing for territory since the birth of the federal republic. And sporadic violence all along the border between Ethiopia’s two largest states has been reported for several months. A tax strike in several Oromia towns in August also included an end to “the Somali invasion of Oromia” among its demands. Earlier in the year several hundred were reported dead following weeks of unrest, prompting the federal government to broker a short-lived peace agreement between the two regional presidents in April.

Nonetheless the latest incidents contain signs of some worrying trends. The two regional governments have exchanged increasingly inflammatory rhetoric, with spokesmen on either side accusing the other of conspiring with terrorist groups and foreign mercenaries. On Sept.13 an Oromo spokesman claimed its police had in custody a member of the armed forces of neighbouring Somalia; this prompted a swirl of conspiracies on social media, including a part-related theory that Islamists from central Somalia had been recruited by the Ethiopian government to wage war on the Oromos. A Somali spokesman, meanwhile, accused his counterpart of being a sympathiser of the banned Oromo Liberation Front (considered a terrorist group by the Ethiopian government).

The large number of displaced civilians is an especially bad sign. “This is the worst story we’ve ever heard,” says a local academic, who asked not to be named. “These are townspeople far from the border areas being chased out of their neighbourhoods. It sounds like ethnic cleansing.”

There is a widespread belief, especially among Oromos, that the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), is behind the violence. Anger and distrust reaches back years—exacerbated by the brutal suppression of anti-government protests last year—and many believe that the EPRDF, dominated by a small group of ethnic Tigrayans, has an interest in keeping Oromia, home to more than a third of the population, weak and unstable.

Most experts are doubtful of this, though some note that the EPRDF’s role in arming and training the liyu police has aggravated the situation. This is a murky and poorly understood conflict. Where the government is certainly at fault, says the academic, is that for too long it has failed to keep the peace in this tense part of the country. “Each time the question is the same: where is the federal government?”

4 Comments

  1. ANTI ETHIOPIAN ARTICLE

    This article is pure propaganda written by anti Ethiopian to creat division between the people and their goverment.

  2. For those who never had to live within a region where inter ethnic deadly conflicts had happened, this may be a little difficult to understand. Those of us who happened to be born and live at least our formative years like me know and understand very well about such violence just because we had seen and experienced through it all. It was happening since there were Oromos, Afars and Issas living in close encounters. It was happening during the Emperor’s times and he did not create it. It happened during the demonic Mengistu’s time and he rather ignored it altogether. I had heard that one of the members of the Derg was successful in organizing a meeting for truce between the warring Afar and Issa tribes at the town of Chiro in the mid 1970’s. That Derg member was later eaten up by that cannibal Mengistu. So the problem has been there for ages. But the shift in geopolitical landscape that took place during the last 150 years seemed to have perpetuated it. I will leave the details to those countrymen experts in the science of history but I will talk from experience. Those who grew up around the old railway lines between Dire Dawa and Awash remember who used to be in their majority at every railway station in the 1950’s and early 1960’s. I had my early elementary education up to the 3rd grade at a makeshift school at one of those stations. That school was later shut down due to lack of sizable number of students. But I remember going to a one elementary school at the next railway station for reasons I still don’t know. May be it was their style of a jamboree we know here. I still remember vividly the student ethnic background from the railway station of Afdem(Aware). They were members of the Afar tribe in their majority. I have heard that some of those Afar students from that town are now very successful business men and statesmen in the neighboring Djibouti. We competed in various athletic games including soccer. I remember how our tiny school was having trouble finding enough students to compete in the soccer game. And when did participate, it was a ‘massacre’. Just picture the 1986 Chicago Bears or Brett Favre’s Cheese Heads or Tom Brady’s Patriots playing an elementary school football team. Just like that. Now I am told that Afdem is in the Somali jurisdiction. Every Afar resident has been driven out by force after the 1960’s. Now I know and understand that demographics are made to change over time but to see one in my lifetime was a jaw dropping event for me. Drought is just another fuel but not the real reason behind it all. For many cattle rustlers it is an extremely lucrative business. That has been the case since the establishment of outposts by the British at Berbera and the French at Djibouti. That has been an on-going factor for the unabated deadly rustling. One of my friends who is a member of a Mamasan Issa clan once told me that a cow or a bull that was rustled away from the vicinity of Asabot today can be found on the butcher’s chopping block in Djibouti in just a week. Or even in Aden, Sanaa and Hodeidah in less than a month. And that friend knows what he is talking about very, very well. This includes sheep and goats. One other fueling factor is the population explosion in all these ethnic groups. They have been multiplying irresponsibly for decades now with no means of making a living for their children. So children will continue to march on the same tracks established by their hatchers. They are not rustling with spears any more. They are not rustling with bolt action rifles in their hands any more. They are armed to the teeth with AK-47’s and from what I am reading now they even have RPG’s in their arsenal. These rustlers have grown with a culture that sees settled way of farmer’s lives in contempt. That is why I don’t believe disarming the offenders is the only solution but just a part of it. Unless the out of control population is dealt with a kibosh and that may not be possible without societal transformation, this violence is going to grow by leaps and bounds. We know hear victims in their ten’s but sooner if not later we should prepare ourselves to hear the number of victims reaching in their ten’s and hundreds of thousands. The area where the violence takes place could spread like a wild fire covering areas which we may think now it will be impossible or will never get there. Sooner or later external demons like the Wahhabis may come in with their deep pockets to establish an outpost that they have been dreaming for centuries. Others from a well known next door may also intensify their fanning of such divisive violence. Again this violence is not something that has just been created. Even the current ethnic regional administrative arrangement is not the one that made it up. Such conflicts used to be confined out at remote locations far away from major populated towns but now it is slowly engulfing them. Today it may be Mulu, Butuji, Arbaa, Awaday or Chinakson. Tomorrow it will be Chiro, Hirna, Doba, Wachoo, Beddesaa, Boke Tiko. Awash, Adama, Dire Dawa, Harar and even Addis(Finfine) may be in the cross hairs of similar mayhem soon or later. You mark my word for it. My daily prayer is for me not live to see that day on this good earth. I never felt hopeless and helpless in my entire life such as now on hearing this senseless violence. Thanks to the corrupt system that has been ravaging the society since the 1970’s, the power and pragmatism of traditional elders seems to have been successfully washed away. They had been called reactionaries and butchered by the demonic Mengistu and they have been forced to wither away by the strong hand policies of the current regime also. Some of you who read this comment may find me to be hopeless or a doomsday monger. But I am not totally hapless. I am still finding a refuge in the capabilities of The Almighty Our Creator. His Has His Own Mysterious Way To Bring Peace Among Warring Factions!!! That is why I am praying. I am praying for the level heads to somehow prevail. Those of you who are steadfast believers in the power of prayers with clean heart, please join me every day in my prayers. Let’s join hands and pray to The Almighty!!! That country is sitting on a 100 million powder keg. As I have been all along that all it needs is for someone to make the wrong move. Cattle rustling and bloodletting that comes with it can be a perfect flint to spark a raging inferno. And that is and will not be funny. Not funny at all!!!!

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