Ethnic Clashes and Political Fears: Abiy Ahmed’s Dilemma in Ethiopia

It has been eighteen months since Abiy Ahmed, 43, was inaugurated as Prime Minister of Ethiopia and now a subtle rebellion spearheaded by a 33-year-old naturalized American citizen activist is threatening to upend his government.

In just two days during October, 67 people were killed when Abiy’s supporters and those of Jawar Mohammed crashed after the latter claimed police had surrounded his home and tried to withdraw his government security detail. The violence underscored the dilemma facing Abiy, the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner, who must retain support in Ethiopia’s ethnically, based federal system but not be seen to favour one group.

“The majority of people believe the transition is off track and we are backsliding towards an authoritarian system,” the Reuters News agency reported Jawar saying this October in his heavily guarded home-office in the center of the capital, Addis Ababa.

“The ruling party and its ideology will be challenged seriously not only in the election but also prior to the elections,” he said.

Soon after the clashes, Abiy who is also facing challenges from within the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) – which has uninterruptedly held the helm since 1987- who feel disempowered from new, ethnically-based parties eager to flex their muscles in elections scheduled for May 2020, explicitly warned media owners against “fomenting unrest.”

“Those media owners who don’t have Ethiopian passports are playing both ways,” he said. “We tried to be patient. But if this is going to undermine the peace and existence of Ethiopia […] we will take measures. You can’t play both ways.”

Ethiopian watchers noted that before Jawar returned to his home country this August 5, 2018 after 10 years hiatus, he ran the Oromia Media Network (OMN) from a studio in Minnesota which is credited with organizing street protests. Last year these protests catapulted his once close political confidant to power in April of the same year, after forcing Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn’s resignation on 15 February, 2018.

Ironically, Abiy is the country’s first Oromo prime minister and Jawar, a kingmaker of sorts and an Oromo himself is flexing his muscles after warming his way into the country’s political ecosystem with a caustic form of etho-nationalism uniting around his Oromo ethnic group. Now it is weighing a possibility of throwing the gauntlet, seeking tenancy in the Menelik Palace in crucial elections scheduled for May 2020.

His supporters have stopped believing in Abiy’s promises of reform, he has said, accusing Abiy of centralizing power, silencing dissent, and jailing political prisoners – like his predecessors.

But Abby is determined to hold the elections despite the toxic climate in the country.

“Abiy’s reputation as a reformer will face a serious test in getting the country ready in time for the 2020 elections. The appointment of Birtukan Mideksa, a former opposition party leader, to head the country’s election board demonstrates Abiy’s recognition of the symbolic and political importance of the 2020 polls. The government has also appointed a new, professional electoral board, after consultations with opposition parties,” says Terrence Lyons, associate professor at the school for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University and the author of “The Puzzle of Ethiopian Politics.”

Ominously though, a census scheduled for this year, which was due before the elections, has been indefinably put on hold dampening the mood of elections happening any time soon.

Ethiopia has an estimated 110 million people or 1.43% of the total world population, according to the United Nations estimates and is the continent’s second-biggest populated nation after Nigeria.

According to Dr. Yohannes Gedamu, a lecturer of Political Science at Georgia Gwinnett College in Lawrenceville, GA, U.S., “Ethiopia has more than 80 ethnic groups. Despite recent improvements, it also has a weak economy and an overwhelmingly poor citizenry. If Abiy wants to make a genuine attempt at real democracy he must do away with tribal politics and make stronger strides towards national unity. “

What is telling is that the Oromo are the single largest ethno-national group in northeast Africa. In Ethiopia alone, they are estimated to be 50 million strong, representing 34.4% of the country’s entire population.

With the  EPRDF  which is cobbled up mostly with ethno-regional political parties being dominated by Tigray people, who make up 6% of the population but control the political economy of Ethiopia with the help of the West, particularly the US.

This relationship is strategic to the US who use the Tigrayan-led government’s army as their proxy to fight terrorism in the Horn of Africa and beyond.

Being the largest ethno-national group in the country, the Oromo have been made to feel marginalized, having been denied equal access to their country’s political, economic and cultural resources.

Also, with the loosening of political freedoms, many regional powerbrokers are demanding more influence and resources, fueling ethnically-tinged conflicts around the country.

In June, for example, a rogue state militia leader killed the state president of the Amhara region and other top-level officials in what the government described as a regional coup attempt.

According to David Williamson, a Senior Ethiopia Analyst at the International Crisis Group (ICG), a global think tank, Ethiopia has serious political problems.

He states: “They stem from unresolved questions about the structure and nature of the state and how to share power between Ethiopia’s various communities. There is now a clear objective to democratize, but it may be a tortuous journey to get there.”

Soon after Abiy’s accession Jawar brazenly claimed – to the dismay of many Ethiopians – that the country effectively now had two governments: one led by Abiy, the other by the Qeerroo, an Oromo term meaning “bachelor”.

Understandably the Qeerroo are supporters of this former political fugitive whose media organization, until recently was labelled a terrorist organization by the ERDF.

With 73,000 followers on Twitter and more than 1.4m on Facebook following him, it’s easy for him to mobilize demonstrators in this landlocked nation of 110 million, the most populous in Africa after Nigeria.

After the fatal clashes, this October the Ethiopian premier warned that increased instability in the country would escalate if the citizens failed to unite for a common purpose.

“We will unswervingly work to ensure the prevalence of the rule of law and to bring perpetrators to justice…There has been an attempt to turn the crisis into a religious and ethnic one. In the process our comrades have become victims in terrible circumstances,” he said in a statement issued by his office.

Furthermore, within Africa’s oldest nation-state was an attempted coup that took place this June, an incident where five government officials including the army chief of staff and the president of the northern Amhara region were assassinated.

Also, last year in June during a rally held in Addis Ababa, the capital, attended to by the prime minister, a grenade attack occurred, reportedly killing one person, wounding 253 others and critically injuring 10, according to Amir Aman the country’s Health Minister.

After the explosion, the prime minister said in a grim address to the nation that this was a “well-orchestrated attack.”

“The casualties are martyrs of love, unity and peace,” he said, urging Ethiopians not to be discouraged and to work toward reforming the country.

Should next year’s elections be free and fair  – as Abiy has promised they will be – they will prove whether the young prime minister can hold together his fractious nation or whether decades of state repression have numbed any sense of participatory democracy.