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Ethiopia: Government-Fuelled Conflict & the Need for Unity

In an attempt to distract attention from unprecedented protests and widespread discontent, the Ethiopian Government has engineered a series of violent ethnic conflicts in the country. The regime blames regional parliaments and historic territorial grievances for the unrest, but Ethiopians at home and abroad lay the responsibility firmly at the door of the ruling party who, it’s claimed, are manipulating events.

Ancient ethnic disputes and long-forgotten wounds are being inflamed: since August hundreds of innocent people have been killed, thousands are displaced, and are now homeless and afraid. The perpetrators of the violence as well as the victims are puppets in the Theatre of Division being orchestrated by the politicians in Addis Ababa and the military men.

The ruling party first tried to inflame relations between Christians and Muslims; now they have intensified their long-term plan to divide the country’s ethnic groups. In addition to turning attention away from activists’ and opposition parties demands, their aim appears to be drive a wedge of suspicion and anger between communities and present the demonstrations as local disputes rooted in ancient ethnic feuds.

Since late 2015 unprecedented numbers of people have taken to the streets in towns and cities across the two most populated regions – Oromia and Amhara. The government reacted with intolerance and violence to this democratic outrage; hundreds were killed by security forces, thousands arrested without charge.

Unable to stop the protests and unwilling to enter into discussions with opposition groups, in October 2016, the ruling party imposed a six-month State of Emergency. The directive, which contravened a range of International laws and human rights conventions was eventually lifted in August 2017. Protests resumed virtually immediately, and, not surprisingly have been met with the same unbridled violence as before. The paranoid politicians in Addis Ababa fail to realize that with every protestor they kill, beat and arrest, anger towards their brutal rule intensifies resolve hardens.

The democratic genie is well and truly out of the bottle of suppression in Ethiopia. The people sense that this is the time for change and they will no longer be silenced.

Regime Duplicity

Ethiopia is divided into 11 regions including the capital, Addis Ababa. The government, as well as senior members of the military and judiciary, is dominated by men from Tigray, a small area in the North-East of the country. In 1995, four years after taking power, the EPRDF initiated a policy of Ethnic Federalism. Compulsory ID cards were introduced in which family ethnicity is registered. By forcing individuals (many of whom have mixed heritage) to choose an ethnic group, the scheme strengthened ethnicity and with it social division; many believe this was the intention.

Although people from different ethnic groups commonly populate regions, Ethnic Federalist policy allows for minorities to rule their own regions, fuelling resentment amongst majority groups. Segregated schools based on ethnicity have developed, regional languages are encouraged, flags flown, separate court systems and police forces allowed to evolve.

It doesn’t’t take much to irritate historic ethnic wounds, and the ruling party is adept at it. They have employed the media to stir up trouble, reminding people of past ethnic conflicts, rubbing salt into old wounds. Members of the security forces have been utilized to carry out attacks masquerading as civilians, resulting in eruptions between various ethnic groups; principally ethnic Somalis living in the Ogaden region and people in Oromia, as well as between Oromos and Amharas.

The border between Oromia and the Ogaden region is the longest in the country. It has been the subject of tensions for years, tensions that have proved ripe for orchestrating conflict between the two groups. Soldiers from the Liyu Police, a quasi-paramilitary group that has carried out terrible atrocities (such as indiscriminate killings, gang rapes, arbitrary arrests and torture) within the Ogaden region for years, have been sent into neighboring Oromia towns (dressed as civilians) to murder Oromo people. Retaliation by armed Oromos on ethnic Somalis followed.

As well as dozens of deaths, The Guardian reports that, “Residents on the Oromo side [of the border with the Ogaden] also reported widespread rapes and said they had found ID cards belonging to members of the controversial Somali special police, known as the “Liyu”, among the remains of the dead.” The Liyu Police take their orders from the Ethiopian military in the Ogaden region, and the Regional president Abdi Mohamoud Omar controls the military. In another highly provocative act in August he announced that all Oromo people should leave the Ogaden; Liyu police rooted out Oromos and drove them from the area.

The violent incidents along the Oromia-Ogaden border as well as elsewhere in the country have resulted in thousands being displaced. In the area around Harar in Oromia the Economist relates that nearly 70,000 have sought shelter just “east of the city. Several thousand more are huddling in a makeshift camp in the West. Most are Oromos.”

The Prime-Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn has blamed the regional administrations for the conflicts, declaring The Guardian records, that, “The problems have no relation to ethnic conflicts. It is our lower political leadership that commands these actions,” and these bodies, he asks us to believe, are acting totally independently of their federal masters. This is something few local people accept; most, if not all believe that the EPRDF initiated the violence “to weaken Oromo resistance to the central government.” Resistance to the EPRDF is not limited to the Oromos: the majority of the population is desperate for change. People want the regime to step down, for ‘open and fair’ democratic elections to be held in which all parties can take part, for political prisoners to be freed, for human rights to be observed and for the constitution (a liberally worded dusty document the EPRDF drafted) to be adhered to.

The need for unity

Despite the governments claims to the contrary, Ethiopia is essentially a one-party state in which power is monopolized by the EPRDF, which despite claiming to be a democratic coalition, is in fact a dictatorship ruled by men from Tigray under the TPLF banner. It is an illegitimate government supported by the West, – America, Britain and the European Union (EU) being the largest benefactors – politically and economically. With the exception of the EU, these powers not only remain silent in the face of State Terrorism, but also spread Ethiopian propaganda through the mainstream media and act in collusion with the EPRDF in relation for example, to the arrest of opposition party leaders.

Instead of supporting the ruling party, donors should be applying pressure on it to respect human rights and adhere to the democratic principles laid out in the country’s constitution. Their silence and dishonesty makes them complicit in the crimes of the government, which are heinous and widespread.

The EPRDF regime is a life-sapping cancer at the heart of the Ethiopia; it has exercised a vicious grip on the country for the last 25 years, but now there are signs that their hold on power is weakening. In addition to huge demonstrations (that would have been unheard of just a few years ago), opposition parties based outside the country have been forming alliances and a number of high-level regime resignations have taken place.

While there are a few voices among opposition groups calling for an armed uprising, the majority recognizes that the most powerful weapon against the government is unity and collective action. When the people unite, there is nothing they cannot achieve; the ruling party knows and fears this, which is why they have enforced policies that cultivate division. In the face of recent ethnic conflicts the need for unity is greater than ever, and all efforts must be made to bring people together in the pursuit of freedom and democratic change.

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Graham Peebles is a British freelance writer and charity worker. He set up The Create Trust in 2005 and has run education projects in Sri Lanka, Ethiopia and India. 

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