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Ethnic nationalism on a collision course with Ethiopia more than ever

April 15, 2021

Shiferaw Abebe
April 15, 2021

People gather to celebrate the return of the formerly banned anti-government group the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) at Mesquel Square in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on September 15, 2018. РTens of thousands of people gathered in Addis Ababa to welcome the OLF, the latest once-banned rebel group to return following a string of Ethiopian political reforms. Last month, the OLF reached a deal on returning home following an accord with representatives of the government.  (Photo by Yonas TADESSE / AFP) (Photo credit should read YONAS TADESSE/AFP/Getty Images)

Ethiopia is at critical juncture. The country’s sovereignty is being tested by the west through economic and diplomatic coercion while Egypt and Sudan keep vowing and doing everything they can to stop the second filling of the GERD scheduled to take place in less than 3 months.

The external threat, both by design and by accident, could not have come at a worse time of domestic instability.

TPLF has been defeated organizationally, but its militia and liyu hayl keeps regrouping and recruiting Tigrean youth. As long as the armed insurgency is kept alive it will continue to cause anxiety and make political transition in Tigray uncertain, even difficult.

Meanwhile, the killings of hundreds of innocent, ordinary Ethiopians, mostly Amharas, in Benshangul-Gumuz and Oromia regions in recent months is straining relationships between Amharas and Oromos (the two largest ethnic groups) and between Amharas and Gumuz. Inevitably, this has created a tense, perhaps fractured relationship within the ruling party itself.

The territorial conflict between the Somali and Afar regions is an on-going issue.

The 6th national and regional elections are fast approaching but the country is ill-prepared to host them. There is a clear signal from the electorate that they are not looking forward to these election. Less than ten days outside of Election Day, the registration rate is dismal, including in the capital city. Thousands of registration stations throughout the country are not open due to security concerns.

Without overcoming internal conflicts and divisions, Ethiopia will remain vulnerable to external threat. And the main source of its internal divisions is ethnic nationalism. Other factors could have been exploited but haven’t in and of themselves caused the inter-ethnic conflicts and instabilities.

Most Ethiopians believed or at least hoped that once TPLF was removed from central power there would be a harmonious relationship and shared commitment between members of the various ethnic groups to rebuild their common country together, for the benefit of all. The political change itself was a triumph of unity because it was only when Ethiopians came together that they achieved what seemed impossible. That same feeling of unity and Ethiopiawinet was much in display during Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s first tour of the country and his visit among Diaspora Ethiopians. The country had seemed to have found itself at long last.

What went wrong?

Ups and downs are inevitable in any political transition, especially in a transition from tyranny to democracy. What is disheartening in Ethiopia’s case is, however, the transition started on a strong footing, with overwhelming popular support and only as time passed it got out of hand and became bloody. Today, the country feels less peaceful and the political transition less certain than three years ago.

We can put the lion’s share but not all of the blame on the political system and constitutional order inherited from TPLF/EPRDF.  Some of the blame should go to how the political transition has been managed to this date. First, it seems those who led the political change from within EPRDF didn’t work out or agree on a clear, long-term plan for the road ahead.  They likely thought fixing the obvious, immediate political and economic injustices would be sufficient to buy time to push the political transition forward incrementally, assessing and adjusting their approaches as necessary as challenges and opportunities occur.  Obviously, they underestimated the challenges they would face including from within their own rank and how insidious those challenges would be.

Second, because of a lack of a clear roadmap, they were reluctant to take timely corrective actions when ethno-nationalists stirred the political change in a different direction. A good example is how they dealt with the dangerous qeerro activity in Oromia region.  For far too long, both the Oromia administration and the federal government followed an appeasement policy while the qeerro leader, Jawar Mohammed, constantly agitated and emboldened the qeerro to make the region and even Addis Ababa ungovernable. Unchecked the qeerro harassed, robbed and killed ordinary citizens often on the basis of ethnic identity. The federal government arrested Jawar and a few of his buddies-in-crime only when they became a direct threat to political authority in Addis. Unfortunately that was after the loss of hundreds of innocent lives, the injury of countless and the destruction of property worth at least hundreds of millions of birr.

Similarly, one could argue there was no plan on how to deal with TPLF. The staggering collateral damage in Tigray would have been minimized had there been one ahead of time and the actions against it were taken earlier.  But it is also important to look at what happened in Tigray from a different angel. When Prime Minister Abiy took power, he received overwhelming support throughout the country including in Tigray. During his first visit to Tigray, he was received by Tigreans with as much warmth and affection as he did in other parts of the country. They didn’t treat him as someone who snatched power from “their own”; indeed, Tigreans, like the rest of Ethiopians, yearned for political freedom, democracy, justice and economic prosperity, none of which TPLF delivered in 27 years.

But two things happened in parallel after that encounter that changed the political dynamics in Tigray. On one hand, while the rest of Ethiopia started to enjoy the liberalized political environment, Tigray remained insulated under the clutches of TPLF. Perhaps more importantly, while the rest of the country embroiled in episodes of inter-ethnic strife, displacement, and killings, Tigray remained peaceful for which TPLF rightly took the credit. As time passed and the security situation failed to improve in many parts of Ethiopia, Tigreans must have appreciated the peace and stability they had under TPLF even if at the cost of political freedom. In other words, what happened in Tigray eventually was influenced by what didn’t happen in the rest of the country, namely, enforcement of peace and security.

Emboldened by its firm grip in Tigray and the shaky political and security situation in the rest of the country, TPLF tried to upstage the federal government by publicly courting partners in the rest of the country under a “federalists” banner while covertly sponsoring instability in Oromia and Benshangul-Gumuz in particular. Both strategies seemed to have worked fantastically, giving the confidence to TPLF to commit the ultimate sin of attacking the Ethiopian Defense Forces on November 3rd, 2020.

Had the Prime Minister and his government ensured peace and security in the rest of the country, it is plausible that November 3rd might not have happened. Had the rest of the country been peaceful, while enjoying democracy and freedom, Tigreans would have demanded the same from TPLF, which in turn could possibly have forced TPLF to reform or else alienate itself. In either case, we could have a much better outcome than what we have now.  Today, most Tigreans probably think of the Prime Minister or the federal government as less of a liberator and more of an invader. That TPLF was in the final analysis the cause of the war or that the actions of the federal government were legally, politically legitimate don’t register in their mind while the humanitarian disaster is still rife.

The Prime Minister and his government have apparently underestimated the peace and security challenges the country faced. On several occasions, the Prime Minister characterized the instability challenges as a mere by-product of the newly gained political freedom and promised that once people vented their pent-up frustrations and grievances freely, they would revert to democratic and peaceful processes. That was a serious misdiagnosis. Those who were creating havoc throughout the country were not mere frustrated individuals who didn’t know how to use democratic processes to voice legitimate grievances. They were masterminded by ethno-nationalists with specific political agendas intended to achieve long standing goals.

Where do we go from here?

Ethnic nationalism is bad anywhere, anytime. That is why no country on Earth, other than poor Ethiopia, has an ethnic political system. By the same token, whatever their reasons to come to existence, all ethnonational parties without exception are bad for the country; far from being part of the solution, they compound existing problems in their zeal to be “relevant” and continue to exist.

However, today, Oromo nationalism is the source of the most threat to the unity and stability of the country because of history, geography, population size and ethnic mix in Oromia region. Ethiopia cannot be at peace unless Oromia is peaceful. But to think that a military action against OLF-Shene, as necessary as it is, would bring lasting peace in Oromia is also delusional.

Victims of OLF-Shene attacks are on record asserting that Woreda and Kebele level Oromia officials worked in tandem with this group in the recent gruesome killings and displacement of Amharas in Wollega. As for the charges against Oromia security forces of deliberately withdrawing protection for Amharas, these are long established facts.  What remains to be investigated is how high in the Oromo Prosperity Party and administration hierarchy the collusion with OLF-Shene goes.

The Oromo Prosperity Party hasn’t evolved from its OPDO days; in fact, one could argue it has regressed into a party that is more in tune with the long standing OLF agenda than the Prime Minister’s vision for Ethiopia. One only needs to observe the behavior of Oromia’s current president and his lieutenants – what they say and do regularly to undermine the message of unity and peace.

So dealing with the threats of Oromo nationalism to national unity and stability must include cleaning up the Oromo Prosperity Party itself. This is a fight for the Prime Minister to take without a delay. This is his party; these are his officials, his appointees.

I am aware of the ludicrous accusations thrown by some at the Prime Minister, as giving tacit approval for the behaviors of Oromia officials. Some even accuse him of deliberately ignoring the killings and evictions of Amharas in Oromia and Benshangul-Gumuz. Nothing factual or logical reasoning can support these charges. None of his actions, countless speeches and published books before and after he became Prime Minister provide any hint to remotely support these kinds of charges.

I think Abiy Ahmed, more than anyone else, still has a better chance of getting the country out of the big mess it is in. Not because he has the best ideas in every respect or has the strongest leadership qualities. I like his vision and commitment for the country, but I also believe that there are others who have a better plan to achieve that vision. My support for him is based on the unparalleled position he occupies today, at this historical juncture. He is a leader of a party which has the logistical, institutional and security infrastructure to keep the country together. Like it or not, at this point in time, he is the balancing act in the transition from the trench of ethnic politics to the plateau of citizenship politics.

But he has very little wiggle room and he needs to act fast. He should not push his luck and the luck of the country too far by delaying decisive actions domestically to be ready for any external threat.

In his recent remarks in Parliament, the Prime Minister said he would rather get beheaded than allow his country disintegrate. As heroic as such a pledge may be, Ethiopians don’t want to get to that point in the first place for they also know one person’s last minute sacrifice will not save the country.  What they need is a clear plan and decisive leadership to prevent the country from getting to that point in the first place.

I would suggest the Prime Minister does the following very soon:

  1. Address the nation directly on television on the current peace and security situation in the country in detail including the situation in Tigray; the second filling of the Abay Dam and the potential threat from Egypt and Sudan; the upcoming election, realistic promises and challenges. Articulate his specific strategies/plans to deal with agents of destruction and instability and bring universal peace in the country and prepare for any external threat. The address should be scripted and to the point.
  2. Send a clear signal of his intention to clean up the Oromo Prosperity Party and the Oromo regional administration. This should include the firing of officials starting from the top for acting in bad faith or contributing to inter-ethnic tension by what they say and do.
  3. Give notice to all politicians and regular media owners and editors that any incitement or fanning of hostility won’t be tolerated. Use available legal tools to go after those who violate this directive.
  4. Engage registered political parties and the Election Board on the upcoming elections to establish responsibilities and reasonable expectations about these elections. Ideally, these elections should be postponed by a year. There are simply too many loose ends to tie in the remaining few days. No opposition party will likely oppose a motion to delay them either. In addition to allowing the country to focus on immediate domestic and external challenges, a one-year delay would give enough time for Tigray to participate in the election fully. It will also give a second chance to those parties that withdrew from the election to reconsider to take part.

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