- Safiya Umrani
A Divided Ethiopia and the Questionable Leadership of Abiy Ahmed
Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous country, has always fought to maintain stability and assert itself as a powerful nation. It overcame Italian invasion in the late 19th century, a violent political campaign in the 1970s called the Red Terror, and a devastating famine in the 1980s. They are no stranger to conflict. The current turbulence in Ethiopia is making headlines around the world and it seems as if they are all connected to the questionable choices being made by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who was elected in 2018. Ahmed won the Nobel Peace Prize for signing a peace treaty in 2008 that ended Ethiopia’s 16 years long border conflict with Eritrea. He is praised for his peace-making efforts throughout the Horn of Africa. However, his opponents say he has yet to resolve the deep ethnic disputes that threaten to divide the country or address the government’s use of police force. From the outside, Ahmed’s vision to bring hydroelectricity to Ethiopia has brought anything but peace between nations. These are among the several political issues that are threatening Ethiopia’s stability and PM Ahmed’s ability to lead.
The most notable example of Ahmed’s questionable leadership came out of the assassination of famed Oromo singer and activist Haacaaluu Hundeessaa. The 34-year-old was shot on June 29 in the capital city of Addis Ababa where he was declared dead later that day. Two suspects were arrested in connection to his killing, but there is still uncertainty surrounding their identities and true motives. Many described Hundeessaa as a powerful voice in the fight against the persecution of Oromos, which make up about a third of the population as Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group. Despite their large numbers, Oromos have been historically oppressed, disenfranchised, and discriminated against by the central government. This is due to disagreements over the geographic origins of the Oromos. Although genetic evidence supports the claim that they do in fact come from Abyssinia, or ancient Ethiopia, court historians and rulers say they are newcomers who don't belong there. For many years, any expression of Oromo culture or language was suppressed. Hundeessaa used his music to unify Oromos and bring awareness about their suffering. Violent protests and riots broke out throughout the country following his death which resulted in the killing of at least 239 people. It has become a rally cry for the Ethiopian diaspora to demand change from the prime minister.
Thousands have criticized Prime Minister Ahmed, as the nation’s first Oromo president, for not doing enough to stop the mistreatment of his people. Citizens from various ethnic groups believe that Ahmed is more concerned with keeping up the appearance of the peace between clans than addressing the root of their problems. Instead it’s as if everyone is at war with each other. There are ethnic Gedeo-Guji disputes over farmland in the south, Benishanguls accusing Amharas of murder over territory in the west, and Oromo-Somali border clashes in the east. The increasingly deadly fighting between ethnic groups undermines PM Ahmed’s campaign.
One of the Prime Minister’s most vocal critics is Jawar Mohammed. He argues that in spite of Ahmed’s peaceful rhetoric, he uses oppressive methods like politically motivated arrests and shutting down opposing political organizations. Mohammad is an Ethiopian-American political analyst, activist, and an ethnic Oromo like PM Ahmed. However, he made it clear in an interview with Al Jazeera that “I am Oromo first.” Since then, the phrase became a political campaign against the current ruling party and Ahmed himself. Mohammad intends to run for parliament against Ahmed in the next election. When his criticisms of Ahmed and the central government emboldened after Hundeessaa’s death, he was arrested in connection to the murder of a police officer during the riots. The arrest only further fueled the anti-government protests. Sending a political opponent and fellow Oromo to jail certainly doesn’t play well for Ahmed’s message of reunification and nonviolence.
Issues regarding the upcoming election have also reflected Ahmed’s questionable leadership, bringing a high level of concern to federal officials. As a Federal Democratic Republic, Ethiopia is divided up into nine ethnolinguistic regional states, each with its own autonomous regional council. The people elect members to the regional council, who then elect representatives to the House of the Federation, one of two houses under the bicameral parliamentary system. PM Ahmed decided to postpone Ethiopia’s election season this fall supposedly due to coronavirus concerns, but the regional state of Tigray defied his orders and continued with their elections as usual. This act was taken as a challenge to Ahmed's authority as he sent police to Tigray in order to stop the illegal elections from happening. The favored party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), lost their national influence after PM Ahmed came into power, but are still leading in Tigray. PM Ahmed claims that the TPLF is a threat to Ethiopia’s national unity, being the only region where the ruling party of the federal government holds no political power. The TPLF are defending themselves, accusing the prime minister of trying to impose a dictatorship and that he has no real interest in democratic elections. They believe he is only trying to postpone the election so that he can remain prime minister for an extended period of time. On Wednesday, September 9th, the TPLF was declared the winner of what PM Ahmed called a “shanty election.” Their refusal to obey Ahmed, much like the Oromo people, is reflective of the growing polarization between Ethiopia’s ethnic regional states and lack of faith in national leadership.
The opposition to Ahmed’s decision-making doesn’t stop at Ethiopia’s borders. Egypt, Ethiopia, and now the United States are arguing against Ahmed’s decision to begin filling the Grand Ethiopian National Dam (GERD). The dam spans the length of the Blue Nile along Ethiopia’s northwestern border. After completion, it could potentially bring electricity to millions of households but would severely impact the amount of water flowing into other North African countries. There were discussions mediated by the US and the World Bank back in November, but they couldn’t reach a solution. PM Ahmed gave the orders anyways to have the dam filled this fall. The Blue Nile is the Nile Basin’s largest tributary, beginning at Lake Tana in Ethiopia and meeting the mainstream in Sudan. The GERD, according to Sudan Egypt, would threaten their most important natural resource upon which millions of its inhabitants depend. Ethiopia has plenty of access bodies of freshwater, while more than 50% of Sudan and 96% of Egypt is desert. Both nations have been suffering from the effects of drought for years and have requested an intervention from the UN Security Council over threats to international peace and security. On September 9th, the US State Department said they were cutting off millions of dollars in aid to Ethiopia until the conflict is resolved. Though the Nobel peace prize winner insists that he is dedicated to international cooperation, Ahmed seems to be turning a blind eye to the demands of not only Egypt and Sudan but the United Nations as well.
Prime Minister Ahmed has shown that he is struggling to bring internal and external peace to Ethiopia. If national elections continue as scheduled, many are uncertain whether or not he will still be in office. Winning the Nobel Peace Prize, installing a democracy, and being elected as the first Oromo prime minister hasn’t been enough to foster support among Ethiopians. Interethnic conflict is still on the rise and Ahmed’s major efforts to improve the standard of living has only posed a threat to other African nations. Ethiopians have long mistrusted national authority for its past negligence and broken promises to protect the people. Thus, it seems that bringing Ethiopians together as a united front will prove a more difficult task than Ahmed previously thought. The situation is extremely fragile, and if the country continues down this road, it may end up tearing itself apart.