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Can PM Abiy Ahmed bridge Ethiopia's ethnic divide?

Maria Gerth-Niculescu
January 3, 2020

Ethnicity has shaped Ethiopians' political choices for the past decades. In the face of upcoming elections, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is trying to find a more unifying alternative, spurring hope but also skepticism.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed
Image: Ethiopian Prime Minister Office

In less than five months, Ethiopia is set to hold a national election that will likely change the country's outlook. With Abiy Ahmed recently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, many eyes will be on Africa's second most populous nation as its citizens cast their ballots. And the prime minister has ambitious plans. He recently created the pan-Ethiopian Prosperity Party (PP), which is poised to replace the current ruling coalition, the Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). Abiy did this not only to shift away from a much-criticized legacy, but also to break with a political landscape of strongly ethnicized politics.

Politics shaped by ethnicity

For the last three decades, Ethiopia's political culture has been one focused on ethnicity. Parties, most of them formed along ethnic lines, pushed the agenda of their group, with little focus on cross-cutting topics such as social or economic issues. This, some say, favored populist agendas and is one of the reasons for interethnic conflict and internal displacement.  "[The parties] try to justify their existence by claiming that others are going to attack you as an ethnic group. They don't have any other reason to exist," says Girmachew Alemu, a law professor at Addis Ababa University. "Ethnicity makes it difficult for people to come together and fight for their rights, they think they are more different than similar," he adds.

For almost 30 years, some ethnic groups were kept out of the decision-making process, while authoritarian practices left many without a voice. After Abiy came to power in 2018, increased freedom of expression made it easier to manifest grievances, further fomenting revengeful discourses within the country's nine self-administrated regions. In many parts of the country these dynamics, coupled with a fast-growing population, contributed to conflicts and divisions linked to land ownership, border issues and political representation. In the past year, the country has experienced a regional push for self-determination, as seen in the Sidama referendum and unrests in Oromia. 

Read more: Does Ethiopian Nobel laureate Abiy Ahmed have new enemies?

People queue to cast their vote
In November 2019, residents to queued to cast their vote in a referendum to create an autonomous Sidama state. Members of the Sidama ethnic group had previously felt underrepresented on the country's political scene. Image: DW/S. Wegayehu

Trying to reconcile ethnic and national identity

To counter this climate of division, Abiy created 'Medemer.' Translated as synergy or addition, the word has become a slogan for the prime minister. Its ideology is said to promote togetherness in diversity. Consequently, the new party merges regional parties to create a multiethnic platform, where members from all groups are allowed to join. But the element of ethnicity will not disappear. Political representation in the decision-making body will be largely based on group's population size.

"The member parties [of EPRDF] used to have equal representation in the central committee, although they represent different sizes of population," explains Befeqadu Hailu, an Ethiopian blogger, writer and activist. "For example, the Oromo group used to represent more than 30 million people while the Tigrayans represent less than 10 million people. So it gives one group disproportionate powers."

In addition to three former EPRDF parties, five other regional parties who were already affiliated to the ruling coalition joined the PP. This includes the Somali Democratic Party, representing Ethiopia's third most populous region. "[These] political parties were serving EPRDF interests, but they have now become part of the new national party, and they will not be subject to any patronism or clientelism," argues Yohannes Gedamu, a lecturer of political science at Georgia Ginnett College. "[They] will now have direct participation in party affairs and in national politics."

By safeguarding ethnic representation while creating a more inclusive party, the PP hopes to find a middle ground between Ethiopia's strong ethnic identities and national unity. According to Yohannes Gedamu, this is a major breakthrough: "The Prosperity Party seems to be ready to equally protect both group and individual rights, so that would be a very good first step to move away from ethnicized politics."

In this vein, ethnicity would be only one of many issues included in the parties' agendas. With the PP appointing regional leaders, it would be able to discipline overly populist discourses. "People want to have their language, culture and other issues linked to ethnicity respected, but we can make it one issue among others," says Girmachew Alemu.

Read more: Ethiopia's Sidama vote overwhelmingly for autonomy

A bus stop in Addis Ababa
Over 80 different ethnic groups make up Ethiopia's social fabricImage: DW/ M. Gerth-Niculescu

Opposing voices

Not all influential personalities and groups have however welcomed the party merger. Dissident voices point out, for instance, that the party has so far failed to publish a comprehensive manifesto. They also see 'Medemer' as a marketing tool, lacking concrete solutions for pressing issues, as religious and ethnic violence continues.

In addition, the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), who dominated Ethiopia's political scene since the early 1990s, refused to join the new party, stressing that it disregards the country's political reality. "[Its] program and bylaws are hardly known to members [of the EPRDF]. This is absolutely unacceptable," argues Getachew Reda, a TPLF senior official. "People really care about their identity. They still attach extreme importance to it. To assume away diversity and to expect everything to go smoothly simply because the prime minister decides to bring these parties together, that's not going to work," he insists.

But other factors could also explain why the TPLF is wary of the change. "TPLF lost considerable power last year and that's really playing into its opposition to the new party”, explains William Davison, an analyst at the international non-profit International Crisis Group. "In addition, TPLF also opposes Abiy's sharp pivot to economic liberalism, as it views it as an undoing of its state-led development model."

Opposition to the PP also stems from other sides, including Abiy Ahmed's Oromo group. Lemma Mergesa, an influential Oromo politician and ally of the Prime Minister, has expressed his concerns, and it is still unclear whether he will join the party. Other voices in Oromia have adopted the same tone. "That could be for principled reasons to do with the Oromo rights, or it could be due to more pragmatic concerns that they think the Prosperity Party is a vote loser in Oromia," explains Davison.

Read more: Deadly unrest reflects Ethiopia's discontent

Strengthening ethno-nationalist parties?

It is thus worth noting that the outcome of the election is far from certain in some regions. The resources PP inherits as a successor of the EPRDF as well as its glow of newness might ensure it a majority in the national parliament. But in the regional bodies, ethno-nationalist parties might profit from the end of EPRDF, collecting votes from those who feel the PP doesn't do justice to their groups' aspirations. "There is a strong possibility that the governing party or coalition at the center will face opposition from political parties that are controlling regional governments," says Davison.

This would create a new political landscape for Ethiopia, likely to foster new dynamics. Nonetheless, it could also be subject to critical backlashes if not handled carefully, including ahead of elections. A delay of the vote, according to analysts, is therefore still possible.

Hailemariam Desalegn on Conflict Zone