Ethiopia Celebrates Unity as Divisions Deepen

On 16th October 2017, Ethiopia celebrated its 10th annual National Flag Day. The celebration was created by the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) with the purpose of promoting unity between Ethiopia’s different ethnic groups and the corresponding parties that make up the ruling coalition. This year’s celebration committee supervisor described National Flag Day as “an occasion to strengthen Ethiopian people’s diversity through unity”; a principle strongly associated with Ethiopia’s ‘Ethnic Federalism’. However, it seems that this model of government is under increasing strain and, with growing discontent in the country’s largest region, the EPRDF will have to do much more than celebrate National Flag Day to ensure unity.

In August 2017, the government lifted a 10-month state of emergency, which was heavily criticised by human rights groups for encouraging mass detentions and politically-motivated criminal charges. The government announced the state of emergency in response to a year of protests, which, although spread to various regions, originated in the Oromia region – home to the country’s largest ethnic group (Oromo). Although the Oromia region is represented in the EPRDF coalition by the Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation (OPDO), many Oromo people felt that they had been omitted from the political process and Ethiopia’s economic development. There is a widely held perception that Tigrayan people, whose party – the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) – holds a dominant position in the ruling coalition, have disproportionate political influence and have therefore benefitted more from the country’s development. While the state of emergency quelled the protests in Oromia, it appears that tensions are once again rising in the region and the EPRDF has done very little to live up to its promise of reform.

September saw a rise in clashes between Oromo and Somali people along the disputed border between the two regions. A significant number of both Oromo and Somali people were killed during the clashes and thousands more were displaced. The UN has estimated that 43,000 people have fled their homes in the region; however, regional government officials have claimed that the number is higher. The Prime Minister – Hailemariam Desalegn – responded by ordering the withdrawal of regional security forces, some of which were blamed for perpetuating the violence, and sent the National Army to restore order. Although clashes between the two ethnic groups are not new, the response of the regional governments was unfamiliar. The Somali People’s Democratic Party (SPDP), which also comes under the EPRDF umbrella, accused the OPDO of inciting ethnic violence and supporting a terrorist organisation, and the OPDO responded in kind. Moreover, many Oromo political activists alleged that the TPLF was behind the violence to keep Oromia weak and unstable. Although this seems highly unlikely, the perception, whether real or imagined, will cause ethnic tensions to rise and increase pressure on the EPRDF’s ethnic federalist model.

Additionally, October saw the re-emergence of anti-government protests in the Oromia region, with many protestors focusing on the alleged “Somali invasion of Oromia”. Large numbers have been reported at the demonstrations, such as on 12th October, where more than 15,000 people reportedly protested in Woliso. Although the majority of protests have been peaceful, it was reported that 6 people were killed in clashes with the security forces on 11th October. Many Oromo political activists have claimed that this violence was instigated by the TPLF, which further demonstrates the growing ethnic tension in Ethiopia. Significantly, following this new wave of protests, the Speaker of the House of People’s Representatives and one of the founders of the OPDO – Abadula Gemeda – resigned from his position. He reportedly stated that he resigned because “my people and party were disrespected”. He is one of the highest-ranking government officials to have resigned since the EPRDF assumed power in 1991 and his decision signals a significant breakdown in the relationship between the OPDO and its EPRDF partners, especially the TPLF.

The government appears to be unsure on how to react to the growing tensions in the Oromia region. It seems that it is reluctant to revert to a heavy-handed approach but also unwilling to adopt reforms which could subdue the protests. As ethnic tensions continue to rise and Oromia becomes a larger problem, the longevity of the EPRDF’s ‘Ethnic Federalism’ will be challenged. For the EPRDF, it is essential that Ethiopia maintains its economic growth and that it ensures that all of its regions, and particularly Oromia, feel the benefits of development.

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