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Displacement and Ethnic Conflict in New Ethiopia

Fundamental political reforms are underway in Ethiopia, but as the new Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed and his government work to bring about change in the country, historic ethnic divisions have erupted. Dozens of people have been killed, many more injured and over a million people displaced since April 2018 due to rising ethnic violence. The total number of internally displaced persons, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW) exceeds two million, this is a major test for the government, and to date little has been done for people driven from their homes.

While other groups have been involved in the clashes, much of the violence has been attributed to men from Oromia. Young men who, Al Jazeera report, have also been accused of looting and destroying property, as well as taking new homes in the capital which had been allocated to other citizens by dint of a ballot

Ethnic identity

With around 80 tribal groups and a population of 105 million people (growing at an alarming rate of 2.5% per annum), 70% of who are under 30, the demographic make up of Ethiopia is diverse and complex.

The Oromo, who are mainly Muslim, constitute the largest ethnic group with 35% of the population spread over a large region of the country; followed by the Amhara (Orthodox Christian) with 27%, and against who the Oromo have fought numerous wars. Many Ethiopians identify themselves more strongly with their tribal group than their nationality; ethnic clans have their own dialect and traditions, and are deeply attached to specific areas of the country. Tribal identities die hard and, together with stories of past conflicts and injustices, are passed down the centuries from parent to child.

In the early 19th Century Oromo monarchies ruled over large parts of central and southern Ethiopia, however for generations since the Oromo have complained of economic, cultural and political marginalization at the hands of governments led by politicians from other ethnic groups; most recently a brutal gang from the Tigray region who formed The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which dominated the ruling EPRDF coalition that ruled from 1991 until April 2018.

Under the TPLF regime the Oromo people, like other ethnic groups, including the Amhara and ethnic Somali, were persecuted, falsely arrested, tortured and murdered, women raped. Amnesty International published a report in 2014 entitled, ‘Because I Am Oromo: Sweeping Repression in the Oromia Region of Ethiopia’, in which they stated “that thousands of Oromo people were “being ruthlessly targeted by the state based solely on their perceived opposition to the government…dozens of actual or suspected dissenters have been killed.”  There is no question that the Oromo were persecuted by the TPLF, but with the exception of people from Tigray, they suppressed the whole country. The danger now is that some Oromo may have revenge in their minds and feel protected by an Oromo Prime minister.

Long held Anger

One of the first actions undertaken by PM Ahmed was to dismiss all TPLF ministers, and, as Foreign Policy states, to arrest “a number of top military and intelligence officials – many from the ethnic Tigrayan community on charges of corruption and human rights abuses.” A new (gender equal) cabinet was agreed, predominantly populated by men and women from the same ethnic group as the new PM – Oromia.

Oromo people, particularly young Oromo men played a key part in the protest movement that swept across the country from 2015, culminating in the collapse of the previous regime. Now, for the first time, they have an Oromo government. The election of PM Ahmed was met with cries of ‘we won’ from Oromo people; the reaction revealed their feeling that the movement to bring about a change of government was an ethnically centered political uprising, something the rest of the population, many of who were involved in the protest actions would not agree with.

The change of government – the Oromo ‘victory’, seems to have allowed years of anger and resentment to come to the surface, and as Felix Horne of Human Rights Watch makes clear, since the new PM took office, “the ethno-nationalist narrative is much more dominant than it used to be … a lot of the young Oromo’s are not willing to take ‘second place.”

This sense of entitlement is extremely dangerous, it is part of an ‘Oromo First’ approach being promoted by certain influential Oromo’s and is a key factor in the recent ethnic clashes. Expectations of what the new government should do for the Oromo community is high: A group of young Oromo men told Reuters what they want: That the rights (including land rights as they see them) of Oromo’s are respected, support for poor Oromo families, an end to corruption and unfair land deals, dignity, and more generally, “freedom and justice, economic opportunity, jobs, democracy and free and fair elections.” In addition the Oromo stake a claim to the capital, Addis Ababa, which occupies an administrative island of autonomy within Oromia land. People from various ethnic groups populate the city, with the largest number, around half being Amhara. It is the capital for the whole country, and should not be associated with any one particular ethnic group.

Social unity

Under the previous regime a policy of Ethnic Federalism was introduced, the 1994 Constitution divided the country into nine ethnic regions together with two federally administered states: rights to land, employment and higher education was determined by ethnic identity; schools taught in ethnic dialects, tribal loyalties were strengthened, divisions aggravated and national unity, which was already fragile, weakened. Economic disparities between the regions caused ethnic competition and resentment, calls for succession were made by groups in the Ogaden/Somali region and Oromia and hardline ethnic political parties strengthened.

The new government and leaders of the main opposition parties – all of which are ethnically rooted, are spouting the rhetoric of unity and reconciliation, this is encouraging but by itself is not enough. The PM needs to take a lead in bringing about a shift in thinking, one that acknowledges differences, celebrates tribal culture and heritage, but also inculcates a sense of national identity, community tolerance and broad social responsibility.

Strong support networks exist within extended families in Ethiopia, but there is a lack of wider social engagement and civic responsibility. The cultivation of and investment in a vibrant civil society to support those in need, whatever their ethnicity, would help to break down ethnic divisions and foster an environment of compassion and tolerance; a collective atmosphere in which neighbors, workmates, students etc. are no longer seen through a prism of ethnicity, but simply as fellow human beings, Ethiopians all.

Tribal nationalism is on the rise throughout the world; an ethnically rooted country like Ethiopia is fertile ground for such extremism and all efforts must be made to build unity. Ethnic tensions and the huge number of internally displaced people is the first real test of PM Ahmed’s government; those that have been forced from their homes need to be supported and re-settled as a matter of urgency and measures taken to ensure that ethnic violence is dealt with as a criminal act, whilst introducing methods that encourage social cohesion. Building a united, tolerant country is essential if the new government is to succeed in introducing democracy to Ethiopia and creating peaceful integrated communities.

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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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