Ethiopia: Using ethnic unrest to deter reform and cause anarchy

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The latest failed coup attempt in the Amhara region of Ethiopia has raised serious security concerns in the country and equally posed undeniable challenges to the bold reforms of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. More than that, the ethnic unrest poses a serious existential threat to the country.

The aborted coup a few days ago, which claimed the lives of Ethiopia’s army chief Gen Seare Mekonnen and Mr Ambachew Mekonnen, the governor of the Amhara region was orchestrated by Brig-Gen Asaminew Tsige, who was shot dead on the outskirts of Bahir Dar, Amhara’s capital. So far, more than 255 alleged coup suspects have been apprehended. The authorities in Addis Ababa expect more arrests in the upcoming days.

 Sadly, some atrocious and nefarious individuals in Ethiopia have capitalised on the efforts of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to initiate political, democratic, social and economic reforms in the country, to a create a malicious ethnic dichotomy. The coup leader Brig-Gen Asaminew had recently, before his death, openly instigated the Amhara people to arm themselves. The call went viral on social media, creating ethnic consciousness amongst different more than 80 ethnic groups in Ethiopia. Rather than seeing one first as an Ethiopian, many Ethiopians are indeed polarized along ethnic lines. Despite clearly taking giant steps to bring positive changes in Ethiopian since elected last year, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is facing turbulent challenges and obstacle, amongst them, the persistent unrest in the Amhara region of the country. Other regions of Ethiopia are not free from ethnic unrest either. This hardly yields positive results to efforts of the central government to bring much-needed reforms.

Furthermore, Mr Ahmed’s attempt to introduce more freedom, democracy and the rule of law, as well as the fight against impunity and human rights abuses, especially amongst the military, have earned him the wrath of many powerful elements in Ethiopia, who once regarded themselves as the untouchables. Arguably, ethnic unrest is the greatest challenge facing the Ahmed government. As of December 2018, more than 2.9 million people had been displaced in the country as a result of ethnic violence, according to the UNO report. That figure is more than the number of people displaced from war-torn Yemen, Somalia and Afghanistan combined, the UNO reports indicate.

Definitely, the recent violence, which followed Prime Minister Ahmed’s attempt to introduce political reform and relax the undemocratic rule in the country, has led some individuals to question the rationale behind such a reform. Does the freedom offered by Ahmed come with dangerous consequences? Are some Ethiopians taking advantage of Mr Ahmed’s introduction of democratic reforms to cause political and ethnic mayhem? Are leaders from the Oromia region using the political ascension of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who is from the Oromia region to assert their political power, as some have alleged? Is Ethiopia’s attempt to move from a one-party state to a pluralist democracy to be blamed for the instability? Yet, others have insisted that the pace of the country’s political reform in Ethiopia goes too fast. Should Ethiopia have adopted the Chinese model democratic reform, which allows a one-party state with slow democratic reforms? Interestingly, the coup leader Brig-Gen Asaminew Tsige, was in fact, released from prison by Prime Minister Ahmed after serving nine years in jail. Rather than working towards harmony in the country, Brig-Gen Asaminew Tsige instead instigated his ethnic group to cause ethnic tensions, with hate speech being the order of the day.

From the eviction of more than 200,000 ethnic Oromos from the western Benishangul-Gumuz region since September 2018 to an alleged territorial dispute between the Benishangul and the Amhara ethnic groups, which has resulted in unnecessary killings, Ethiopia is systematically descending into anarchy. Both the  Oromia community bordering Somali region in the East of Ethiopia and Guji and Gedeo groups in southern Ethiopia are not spare of ethnic classes, as a result of alleged access to productive farmland.

While the Ethiopian government has taken steps to help the displaced people, including bringing them by bus back to their original homes, unfortunately, some of the displaced ones returned only to meet their homes burnt or destroyed. However, aid workers have accused the government of taking a cosmetic approach towards solving the problems. They insist the government cannot resolve the ethnic conflicts without first tackling the underlying causes of the conflict.

“You just don’t wake up one day and return half a million people. You need to plan,” one aid worker lamented.

Senior advocate Mark Yarnell of  Refugees International aid organization was blunter in his remarks:

 “The government’s actions are making an ongoing humanitarian crisis even worse. Pushing people to return to their home communities prematurely will only add to the ongoing suffering.”

The government of Prime Minister Ahmed has vowed to go ahead with its reforms despite the infectious ethnic unrests.

Even though the country is made of more than 80 ethnic groups, the truth is that Ethiopia had long been a product of a one-party state, with the central power virtually in the hands of a single ethnic group. That arrangement has effectively marginalised some ethnic groups. This political arrangement, which disfavours many other ethnic groups is what Prime Minister Ahmed has promised to change after taking over power. Generally, Mr Ahmed’s move is in the right direction; however, the main challenge facing the country is how such a political arrangement can be made and power, distributed.

Definitely, the ethnic unrest facing Ethiopia is more or less as a result of power distribution and control. Unless Ethiopians agree on the type of federation they want and how power can be shared within that political system, the ethnic violence in Ethiopia could effectively consume the country and destroy all the positive achievements the country has made. Every peace-loving Ethiopian – and the rest of the world – must unite and move the beautiful and unique country to take its rightful place amongst the league of world nations. Ethiopia, the kindle of human history and civilization deserves much better than unnecessary ethnic dichotomy and lawlessness, which could effectively destroy the great country.

Photo: Al Jazeera