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Ethiopia’s Narrowing Window For Peace

Meskel Square, despite its lack of even one traffic light, is the busiest intersection in Ethiopia. It is a fitting representation of Addis Ababa, the bustling capital city of 3.6 million people which it resides in. However, on October 9th of this year, Meskel Square was ordered completely shut down. On the same day, an additional hundred thousand Ethiopians flooded into the city from all corners of the nation and the world. Adorned in traditional white, flowing regalia garments, these migrants paraded through Meskel Square and the city, singing, dancing and casting blessed grass into bodies of water to usher in prosperity.

The massive event is known as Irrechaa, a Thanksgiving celebration that marks the end of the rainy season. The magnitude of the celebration properly reflects the heavy presence of religion within the city and the nation as a whole. Addis Ababa holds dozens of churches, some of them among the oldest on the planet. Ethiopia itself has a disputed but probable claim to being the oldest Christian state on Earth. It might be a surprise, then, to discover that this year marks the first time in 150 years Addis Ababa had officially hosted the holiday event. That is, without knowing that Irrecha is what many Ethiopians would consider a pagan celebration.

Some might assume this attitude is due to a religious divide within Ethiopia. In reality, it is more a result of ethnic division. Irrechaa is a holiday originating from the Oromo people, who, despite being the ethnic majority, have rarely been the social or political leaders. Recently, however, this has begun to change.

This year’s celebration of Irrechaa was encouraged by Abiy Ahmed, the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, who is Oromo himself. Despite growing up in a mixed Orthodox Christian and Muslim home, Ahmed encouraged all Ethiopians to participate in Irrechaa, re-envisioning it as a symbol of “peace and unity.” This message is not new; much of Ahmed’s platform prior to being elected as Prime Minister encompassed ushering in ethnic inclusivity and unity between Ethiopia’s cultural groups and regional neighbors.

So far the Prime Minister’s policies have stayed true to his message. In fact, only a few weeks ago, Ahmed won the 100th Nobel Peace Prize for facilitating a peace treaty between Ethiopia and Eritrea. At first glance, the combination of Ahmed’s positive agenda and this year’s successful Irrechaa celebration indicates that the nation is heading into a new age of “pan-Ethiopian unity,” especially in comparison to the previous Irricecha event in 2016, which resulted in a stampede, the use of tear gas and rubber bullets and numerous deaths. Unfortunately, further investigation into the current ethnic situation in the country tells a more complicated and violent story.

Issues on the basis of ethnic lines are not exactly new for Ethiopia; with around 80 different tribes, diverse languages and multiple Abrahamic and traditional religions, tension and inequality has unfortunately been an inevitable and enduring part of the country’s lengthy history. Most notably, the creation of the coalition of 1991 — which formed after the fall of Ethiopia’s 13-year socialist dictatorship — formed the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front and subsequently divided the government by tribal lines. As a consequence, the coalition substantially weakened the national Ethiopian identity. This political shift is the primary root of the issues that the nation is facing today.

Since the coalition’s inception, violence has played an unfortunate role in ethnic tension, but never before in Ethiopia’s modern history has it escalated to the recent levels. Most of the conflict stems from territorial disputes between Oromos and Amharas — Ethiopia’s second-largest ethnic group and historic social majority — but other minorities such as ethnic Somalis and Gedeos have also faced persecution. In the past few years, there have been countless reported instances of regional tribal minorities being attacked by mobs of Oromos. Houses have been destroyed and scores of people have been murdered. As a result, nearly three million Ethiopians have been displaced while fleeing from violence. Most of these attacks have occurred in the rural south, but the violence has slowly been spreading to cities. In September of 2018, scores of ethnic minorities fell victim to unidentified hostiles in and around Addis Ababa.

But what is causing the uptick in violence? The general consensus is both disheartening and ironic. Although President Ahmed has attempted to become the champion of Ethiopian unity, many of these ethnic minority groups claim that his rise to power has actually incentivized the recent violence. This assumption is unfortunately justifiable. Ahmed’s Oromo status has indeed galvanized smaller ethnic-national leaders to adopt more radical stances on ethnic issues. For instance, Lemme Megersa — the previous president of the official Oromia district — was caught on film devising a plan to shift Addis Ababa’s population from majority-Amhara to Oromo in order to generate more political power for the Oromo Democratic Party. This July, Shimeles Abdisa, the current president of the ODP, gave a controversial speech in which he stated that the Oromo people had “claimed victory” over the “Neftegna.” This word generally, literally meaning “gun-holder,” denotes an oppressive group that steals others’ land, but is usually used to refer broadly to Amharas.

Prime Minister Ahmed himself has denounced these radical comments, although he has also commented on how he has no way of controlling the smaller leaders of his party who are hindering his reform agenda. In response to the violence in Addis Ababa last year, Ahmed ordered that thousands of Ethiopians suspected of participating in ethnic terrorism be taken into custody. Unfortunately, ethnic minorities of Ethiopia still feel unsafe, and this sentiment is palpable in the decline of public trust in the government. This bodes the question of whether Ahmed’s unity platform is actually bona fide or simply a cover to promote Oromo power in the political field.

“That’s what everyone is saying…everyone is fed up,” said Kedist Tesgaye, an Ethiopian-American who recently revisited the country. “Whatever his platform is, he needs to do something. But I think he’s afraid to have the situation escalate.”

As a predominantly-Amhara Ethiopian, Tesgaye offered an interesting perspective on the history of Oromo-Amhara relations — specifically about how the Oromos were often considered uneducated, second-class citizens.

“There was always tension,” she said carefully, “but never in this way. I went to the North [an Amhara region]. One day there was a riot because…they [Oromos] burned down a church. The tour guide called the police…for protection.”

When asked if this rise in ethnic violence was inevitable due to past discrimination against the Oromo people, Tesgaye strongly disagreed. In fact, she gave a completely alternative reason. “A lot of people are speculating that Egypt is the cause,” she said, “they’re upset about the dam.” 

This dam that Tesgaye referred to is the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam which stretches over the Nile and has been under construction for nearly eight years. Since plans for the dam were announced, Egypt has had concerns over how it would impact its already-scarce water supply. Tesgaye is among a growing number of Ethiopians who believe that Egypt may have planted an Oromo politician within Ethiopia to destabilize the nation and subsequently slow down construction on the dam. Many suspect Egypt’s political puppet to be Jawar Mohammed. 

Mohammad, an Oromo youth activist and founder of the independent Oromo Media Network, is a controversial figure in the Ethiopian political field. Much of his most recent rhetoric has been linked to the recent violence plaguing Ethiopia. For example, after claiming on Facebook that the government was attempting to, “remove security from [his] house” and “unleash civilian attackers” on him, nearly 400 armed Ethiopians surrounded Mohammad’s residency in Addis. Most recently, Mohammad’s criticism towards the current Ethiopian government spurred a violent protest against Prime Minister Ahmed’s Nobel Peace Prize. 86 people were reported to have died in this protest, according to Addis Ababa’s police.

Mohammad’s rhetoric has successfully won him the support of many radical Oromos, but other Ethiopians question his right to even serve as an Ethiopian politician.

“He shouldn’t be allowed to hold office,” Tesgaye said. “I was born there and I don’t even have yellow papers.” Yellow papers refer to the Origin I.D. card that can only be obtained if you have Ethiopian citizenship. Because Ethiopia doesn’t have a dual-citizenship policy, Tesgaye is only recognized as an American. Jawar Mohammed, who is also a U.S. citizen, should, by law, be in the same boat. Instead, he’s been subtly entertaining the idea of running for office against Prime Minister Ahmed in the future — which is illegal.

In light of these events, the Ethiopian Prime Minister’s intended course of action has become increasingly unclear; nearly two weeks elapsed before Ahmed made a public comment on the deaths in Addis. “We have to stop those forces who are trying pull us two steps back while we are going one step forward,” was the statement he finally gave in a conference on the 4th of November. But a concrete plan to combat Ethiopia’s rising ethnic violence — or the radical leaders who are fueling it — was never addressed. What is for sure is that Ahmed’s empty words have only added to the growing despair shared by Ethiopians. The Prime Minister’s message of unity was initially a promising indication of progress that resonated with Ethiopians around the world, but in a year’s time, it has already begun to crumble.

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