Ethiopia Opens a Pandora's Box of Ethnic Tensions

Destroyed Soviet military equipment in Asmara, Eritrea. Wikimedia Commons/David Stanley

At the heart of the protests is the fundamental question of how to build a modern nation-state on the back of ethnic fault lines that have been exploited over centuries.

Since November 2015, Ethiopia has been beset by an unprecedented wave of protests. They began as a rebuke to a government plan to expand the municipal boundaries of the capital, Addis Ababa, into Oromia Region. They have since expanded to the neighboring Amhara Region, underscoring decades of grievances against ethnic marginalization and authoritarian rule by the governing Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). The regime has responded aggressively. Human Rights Watch reports upwards of five hundred people have been so far killed in what the United States has decried as an “excessive use of force.” Tens of thousands more have been detained. An unexplained fire on September 3 in Kilinto prison in which hundreds of political prisoners are housed killed at least twenty-three. Rather than backing down, however, the protesters are gathering steam. The unrest has opened a pandora’s box of institutional and ideological contradictions that strike at the heart of contemporary Ethiopian statehood. Understanding these issues is essential for an understanding of the unrest now gripping the country.

“You cannot remove the ethnic issue from Ethiopian politics,” Eskinder Nega, a now-imprisoned Ethiopian journalist and democracy activist, told me in 2010. At the time I was an overeager doctoral student living in Addis Ababa and researching Chinese investments in the country. I had been introduced to Eskinder by a university professor, and he was kind enough to indulge (and endure) the inquisitive pepperings of a graduate student. Ethiopia is made up of nine dominant ethnic groups and approximately eighty others. Historically, the Amhara people—of which Eskinder is a member—were the country’s governing force. Emperor Haile Selassie, Emperor Menilek (1889–1913) before him, and Mengistu Haile Mariam’s Derg regime (1974–89) after him were all Amhara. Each sought to establish a unified Ethiopia with Amharic as the official language and the Amhara culture as the foundation of Ethiopian identity. All other identities were to be eliminated—either by way of assimilation, or by force. In this the Derg was especially merciless. It perceived ethnic diversity as a threat to state unity; through its Red Terror campaign, it brutally slaughtered over five hundred thousand people—all, in its eyes, enemies of the Amhara state. The policies of the Derg were especially damaging to the population of Tigray, a tiny region in the northernmost part of Ethiopia along the border with Eritrea. Today, the Tigray make up a mere six percent of the population. Government brutality, lack of economic opportunity, and prohibitions on labor migration left the Tigray ethnically and economically isolated.

Years of repression ultimately gave way to resentment of the Amhara and, by extension, the state. It also gave rise to what Ethiopian historian Gebru Tareke calls “dissent nationalism,” and the emergence of ethno-nationalist groups like the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). For the TPLF, the state was an oppressive and colonizing force from which the country’s ethnicities had to be liberated. In 1975 the group waged what amounted to a secessionist struggle: its 1976 manifesto established “the first task of the national struggle will be the establishment of an independent democratic republic of Tigray.” When in 1989 the TPLF, then already under the direction of Meles Zenawi, successfully overthrew the Derg and in 1991 merged with three other political factions to form the EPRDF, Ethiopia was subdivided into nine mostly ethnic regions, each with the right to independent lawmaking, executive, and judicial powers. Enshrined in Article 39.3 of the constitution is the right of all ethnicities to “self-government.” Ethnic communities ostensibly inherited Ethiopia. The catch, of course, is that the EPRDF believes the only mechanism capable of ensuring sovereignty for each of the country’s ethnicities is the EPRDF itself. Relations between the central government and the regions have over the years become so centralized, and local authority so emasculated, that the de jure premise of the modern Ethiopian state—ethnic federalism—is meaningless. Contemporary Ethiopia is a shining example of the ancient dictum, repeated throughout the ages, dīvide et īmpera—divide and rule. Further complicating the narrative is the fact that the EPRDF—in which the TPLF remains the dominant force—has never fully surrendered its vision of an independent Tigray. The 1976 manifesto has never been revised.

In this way, decades of Amhara control have given way to decades of Tigray control. The presidential office, the parliament, central government ministries and agencies—including public enterprises—and financial institutions have since 1991 all been controlled by the TPLF. So too the military. 99 percent of Ethiopian National Defense Force officers are from Tigray; 97 percent are from the same village. Only the prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, is not Tigray: he is Wolayta, an ethnic group that forms the majority of the population in the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s Region (SNNPR). His historically close ties to Meles, first while President of SNNPR, then Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, have, however, effectively rendered him Tigray by association.