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The light at the end of the Ethiopian tunnel

Impartial concern for victims, elite dialogue, and deep societal self-reflection can rescue Ethiopia.

The Ethiopian New Year, typically a moment for optimism, was overcast last month by a dark cloud of foreboding. Many Ethiopians fear what the future holds for their country, and recent events have demonstrated again that this anxiety is justified.

This forces us to ask: is there any reason for hope? I believe there is. But, first, we must find a way to talk across our divides.

On 29 June, Hachalu Hundessa, one of Ethiopia’s stars, known for his captivating Oromo songs, was shot dead. Millions of Ethiopians felt profound sorrow, but what followed was even more tragic. A few hours later, protests erupted in Oromia and the capital Addis Ababa. They quickly turned violent, and, in the span of days, claimed more than 150 lives.

While much remains unknown about the incident, some aspects are clear. First, although official figures said more than two-thirds fatalities were Oromo, the violence often targeted ethnic Amhara and their perceived allies, such as non-Amhara Orthodox Christians. Second, although Hachalu’s death sparked the unrest, the deep-rooted resentment that some Oromo have towards some Amhara living in Oromia contributed to the mayhem. Hachalu’s death converted this resentment into deadly violence.

Looking back, the government’s careless engagement with Jawar Mohammed was the fertile ground that turned the simmering resentment into the October 2019 violence. We can trace this trend back to the early 1990s, when the security vacuum left during the transition from the Derg to Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) regime enabled targeted attacks against Amhara living in parts of Oromia such as Bedeno and Arba Guugu.

Sadly, given the raging discontent about recent political events among Oromo protesters, Hachalu’s death is unlikely to be the last time such violence is triggered. Accordingly, ethnic minorities in Oromia will continue to live precariously.

Although coverage may depict Oromia as the epicenter of inter-ethnic violence, and the Oromo as disproportionately engaged in it, violence has unfortunately been far more widespread than that. Indeed, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s rise to power and the liberalization of the political space gave way to unbridled levels of ethnic nationalism, which, combined with a relative security vacuum, has led to bouts of ethnic violence across the country over the past two years.

Notably, January to October 2019 was marked by inter-communal violence in Amhara against the minority Qimant (and by Qimant militia, according to Amhara activists), where hundreds were killed and thousands displaced. In Benishangul-Gumuz, a cycle of violence mostly targeting minority Amhara and Oromo populations has been ongoing. In the most recent flare-up, a weeks-long attack claimed the lives of dozens in Metekel Zone (over 160 Amhara died, according to the National Movement of Amhara). The mass killings of ethnic Gumuz people living in Amhara is also among the recent instances of heinous ethnic violence.

Ugly narratives

What is possibly more saddening than the lives that we are losing and the trauma we are going through is the way different political camps and their media outriders present the situation. This is arguably more worrying, as it suggests that the divides are only set to grow wider, and so the violence is likely to intensify.

For instance, Oromo nationalists and their media platforms, such as Oromia Media Network (OMN), made virtually no attempt to condemn Oromo youths engaged in the ethnic violence that followed Hachalu’s death. Similarly, they were pretty much silent when Oromo mobs murdered non-Oromo in October 2019.

Another case in point is the Burayu massacre of September 2018 that claimed the lives of dozens at the time of the Oromo Liberation Front and Ginbot 7 return rallies. Instead of condemning the attacks and admonishing the Oromo youth, influential Oromo nationalists deflected and lied. For instance, Jawar Mohammed claimed, with no evidence, that the violence was a conspiracy to “dismantle the federal system.” Furthermore, on OMN, he claimed that, in contrary to the biased reporting from state media, it was Oromo who were the victims as 43 Oromo were killed in the capital. No evidence was provided, and this appeared to be a lie.

The Ethiopianist camp and their media platforms are far from immune to the problem. Take, for instance, the way they presented the October 2019 massacre. To many who belong to this camp, it was Jawar who was responsible for the 86 fatalities. However, it was the Prime Minister who said, in parliament, that media owners with a foreign passport are inciting conflict and that the government will take measure against them—an apparent reference to Jawar. One day later, police officers surrounded the then-media activist’s home in the night and demanded his security guards depart.

On Facebook, Jawar shared this suspicious and provocative incident with his followers. Yes, deadly violence ensued, but saying that he should not have made the posts is tantamount to saying he has no right to self-defense or freedom of expression. It must also be noted that Jawar made a plea for calm by calling on his supporters to eschew violence. Furthermore, Shimelis Abdissa, the acting president of Oromia, said that the police visit to Jawar’s home was a mistake, that the incident would be investigated, and that the government would ensure the safety of Jawar.

Regardless, many in the Ethiopianist camp preferred to solely blame Jawar in order to advance their agenda.  Had it been a genuine concern for the plight of the attacked and a commitment to justice they had in mind, rather than political point-scoring, they would have demanded government accountability and transparency.

Similarly, the Ethiopianists tend to continually reproduce the narrative that the current wave of ethnic conflict in Ethiopia shows the multinational federal arrangement is not sustainable. Whenever there is an ethnic-based crime, they use the incident to make this argument.

While there is no doubt that aspects of multinational federalism are contributing, it does not really capture what is taking place. First, even though multinational federalism was in place during the heyday of the EPRDF, where authoritarian practices defined the party-state, large-scale, deadly ethnic conflicts were relatively rare.

Second, deadly ethnic conflicts occur frequently in African nations that do not have a federal arrangement based on ethnicity. In the relatively more democratic Kenya, for instance, thousands died and were displaced due to such violence in the past decade, and the threat of more such conflict is real.

Thus, the Ethiopianist camp must tell us how removing multinational federalism will eradicate ethnic conflict.

Similarly, the narrative pushed by the same ideological constituency that multinational federalism gave birth to ethnic nationalism is false. At the very least, it has been at the center of Ethiopian politics since the late days of Emperor Haile Selassie I and Wallelign Mekonnen’s (in)famous 1969 tract.

In fact, perhaps to the credit of multinational federalism, sub-state nationalism has diminished in Ethiopia compared to Derg and Haile Selassie eras. In recent decades, we have not had serious ethnic liberation fronts seeking secession. During the final years of the Derg, there were numerous groups with strong backing that fought for independence, such as the Oromo Liberation Front, Afar Liberation Front, Western Somali Liberation Front, and Tigray People’s Liberation Front.

Arguably, the reason these groups toned down their secessionism had to do with the protection of self-determination and the right to secede enshrined in Article 39 of the constitution. Popular support for secession also seems to have decreased. I suspect that the reason is that this federal system has made it possible—at least on paper—for groups to gain autonomy, respect, recognition, and so on, without seceding from the State.

Accordingly, what our Ethiopianist friends should try to understand is that attempts to fundamentally alter the federal structure by dismantling the ethnic basis to regions, reducing the focus the constitution gives to groups rights while pushing for individual rights, and embracing territorial federalism, might well be a recipe for civil war. And even if the Ethiopian State manages to avoid that fate, dismantling the federal structure could mean the resurgence of the ethnic guerrilla warfare that brought down the Derg.

Furthermore, since they claim to be committed to democracy, our Ethiopianist friends ought to show this by avoiding any attempt to alter the federal structure without making sure there is a majority support for it. A fundamental feature of inclusive democracy is that it is not just vocal, privileged urban-elites who get to have a say about such matters, and it therefore requires Ethiopianists to persuade the wider public. However, looking at the Sidama referendum result, the increasing demands for statehood in the south, the situation in Tigray, and a recent poll on the support multinational federalism enjoys, it seems that the Ethiopianist position may not be shared by as many people as they hope.

If those in the Ethiopianist camp are genuinely concerned about the plight of Ethiopians suffering from ethnic conflict, and I think many of them are, they should first demand that the government fulfills its primary task of protecting citizens. Instead of presenting multinational federalism as the sole culprit, they should also grapple with the question of why the security apparatus is so ineffective, and why Abiy’s government keeps failing to guarantee public safety. Is it the supposed march towards multiparty democracy? Is it the age-old philosophical problem of finding the right balance between liberty and order? Is it the sheer incompetence of this government?

These, I think, are questions that the Ethiopianists must ask and delve into, even as they make their arguments and set out their plans for evolving Ethiopia away from the federal system they so despise.

Furthermore, in fighting for the safety of Ethiopians and the respect for human rights, they should avoid partiality. The same way Oromo nationalists tend to overlook the plight of minorities being attacked by Oromo, some Ethiopianists overlook victims that they apparently deem unworthy.

To them, victims in Oromia are worthy of attention because they help push the anti-multinational federalism agenda and, for the pro-Abiy faction of the camp, because it might increase support for the premier.

On the other hand, some victims of the Ethiopian State are unworthy in their eyes because they do not advance their agenda. For instance, government-owned media outlets and prominent Ethiopianist media, such as ESAT, were largely silent about the torture, extrajudicial killings, and arbitrary arrests of innocent Oromo in the name of a counter-insurgency against the Oromo Liberation Army, even after an extensive report by Amnesty International. This pattern was repeated in August after authorities used excessive force on protestors in Wolayta.

In a rather ironic way, the same camp that heavily relied on the reports of international organizations such as Amnesty, and strongly backed Western governments’ condemnations of human-rights abuses by the TPLF-led government, has now made an embarrassing 180-degree pivot and begun asserting that we have to be skeptical about reports and statements coming from these entities. Some, sadly, went as far as claiming that they have a hidden agenda to damage Ethiopia.

 Light at the end of the tunnel?

With highly polarized elites engaged in pushing their agenda at every opportunity, a central government that failed at protecting citizens and now enacting violence, and inter-communal killings normalized, is there anything to look forward to?

My answer is, yes, there is a lot to look forward to! There is light at the end of the tunnel. This, however, will get brighter and larger only if all of us do our share.

First, as pointed out earlier, we must demand that the government carries out its primary duty of protecting the lives of citizens. A state incapable of doing that is a failed state. In doing so, however, we have to do our best not to get into the ugly trap of classifying victims as, borrowing Noam Chomsky’s phrase, “worthy and unworthy victims.”

Second, we must understand that there is a significant distinction between a State engaged in violence and one upholding the rule of law. Accordingly, citizens must demand that the government does not engage in violence in the name of protecting lives. In this, we must stand together. Whether it is violence against Oromo in Wellega, or Wolayta in Sodo, we have to stand against it.

We must also understand that pushing the government to uphold the rule of law is meaningless without pushing for impartiality from the criminal justice system. As a result of the recent arrest of almost 10,000 people, including prominent politicians, the system is being tested. Judicial impartiality is crucial and our pressure must also be even-handed: If we demand courts to be impartial on Eskinder’s case and turn a blind eye when the government meddles with Jawar’s, or vice versa, then we are not pushing for justice, but engaging in political expediency.

Worryingly, there are indications that the government could once again abuse the courts for its own ends.

For instance, at the initial stage of the investigations, authorities were claiming, without evidence, that TPLF and OLF-Shane collaborated in Hachalu’s murder. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed endorsed this view by saying “a political group that wishes to regain power through bloodshed orchestrated the killing,” presumably a reference to TPLF. He also claimed that Egypt might have been involved. Intensifying this worry, federal prosecutors are now prosecuting Jawar with training a terrorist group in Egypt.

As René Lefort, the keen observer of Ethiopian politics, correctly pointed out, this is a wild accusation that makes the charges against Jawar hard to believe. Similarly, the allegations against Eskinder Nega, which included that he organized a terrorist group in the Amhara region with the aim of assassinating, among others, Takele Uma, the former acting deputy mayor of Addis Ababa, are so ludicrous that it should make us worry about the justice system. The way Lidetu Ayalew, another prominent politician being prosecuted for firearms offenses in Oromia, is being treated by the government is also worrying. We must try and ensure that we are impartial in our fight against these continuing tendencies to abuse the justice system.

It is also time for a long-overdue National Dialogue. In particular, the two main ideological camps in Ethiopia—Ethiopianists and multinational federalists—must engage in a series of discussions. For this to happen, however, both must first mend internal fractures, and Abiy’s government must be fully committed. Ideally, Abiy should not take a side but play the role of a broker-statesman. This, however, is tricky, as some in the Ethiopianist camp consider him a powerful ally.

In any case, without reaching an elementary level of consensus through such a process, a push for a majoritarian democracy is dangerous. Indeed, the urgency of a National Dialogue has become so apparent that Abune Mathias, the Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, made a plea, during the Meskel celebrations, for such all-inclusive, comprehensive discussion.

Additionally, this is a time to reflect. A time to listen to the other side. A time to question our deeply held beliefs. As a 20-year-old Addis Ababan and an ethnic Amhara, it is easy for me to turn my back on the anger and frustration of those who don’t share my view on Ethiopian identity or our glorious history. But, the moment I confront myself and question my assumptions, I realize that at least some of their anger is justified.

I realize it is they who speak my language while I don’t know a word of theirs; I realize that neither I nor those who are close to me will ever give our children an Oromo or a Sidama name, while many of them are called by a name that I recognize; I realize they know a lot about the history of my heroes while I know none about theirs; I realize that the movie, music, and fashion industry is dominated by faces, names, themes, and narratives that I am familiar with; I realize that the image that appears in my mind when I think of an Ethiopian person doesn’t look like a Somali or Anuak. Endless realizations.

Those who are angry and frustrated must also realize that the problem here is not one that will be solved by institutional measures such as ethnic federalism or education policies. It is one that requires active engagement with those who they believe are blind to their frustration. It is one that requires mutual trust, a sense of fraternity, winning hearts, and deep reflection. For this to be fruitful, however, they must also partake in the pain of those whose hearts they want to win. They must be willing to condemn the wrongdoings of those who belong to ‘their side’.

If we do this, there is no reason why we should not hope for a better future. Failing to do this, however, would be failing Ethiopia. Thus, as the government and the split political elites engage in a National Dialogue, we should have our own dialogues. Dialogue in small circles; dialogue within the family; dialogue on social media; a dialogue with oneself—dialogues that make us uncomfortable.

Together, we are the light at the end of the tunnel!


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