1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Ethiopia still grapples with ethnic clashes

Ineke Mules
September 24, 2018

Prime Minister Abiy's talk of reconciliation has not been enough to subdue ethnic tensions around the country. As the public grapples with the legacy of the former hardline government, does Abiy need to change tack?

Ethiopian soldiers attempt to control protestors in the captial, Addis Ababa
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/M. Ayene

A little under six months since reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office promising a new era of peace and inclusiveness, Ethiopia remains beset by ongoing ethnic clashes.

Although most major incidents in recent months took place in the country's Somali region and the West Guiji zone of Oromia, at least 58 people were killed during an upsurge of ethnically-motivated violence last weekend on the outskirts of the capital Addis Ababa, according to Amnesty International.

Fighting initially broke out in the western suburb of Burayu and continued until Monday. Local residents claim mobs of Oromo youth targeted the businesses and homes of ethnic minorities. The majority of the deaths occurred in the suburbs, although at least seven people were also killed in the city center by police.

Ethiopian journalist, Sisay Woubeshet, told DW that at least initially, the conflict was not started on ethnic grounds.

"The Oromos, who were preparing to welcome the Oromo Liberation Front, were decorating Addis Ababa and painting street walls," she says. "That's when the Addis Ababa youth started to interrupt the activity, who believed the Oromo youth was about to destroy the statue of Emperor Menelik II. So I cannot say that the violence was initially based on ethnic tensions, although it may have changed its color now."

Following the violence, thousands of Ethiopians took to the streets to demand justice, accusing authorities of not doing enough to clamp down on ethnic violence.

Thousands of people gather at a square in Addis Ababa to demonstrate against the latest wave of ethnic violence
Thousands of people gathered at Meskel Square to protest the attacks in Addis Ababa Image: picture-alliance/AA/M.W. Hailu

The challenges of ethnic politics

The Oromia region, where the latest clashes took place, is no stranger to ethnic violence. The Oromo — Ethiopia's largest ethnic group, making up about a third of the population — have long complained of marginalization and have most recently been angered by what they consider to be an illegal encroachment on their land by ethnic minorities. Their frequent protests eventually led to the resignation of Hailemariam Desalegn as Prime Minister in February, ushering in a new government and promises of rapid change for the better.

Since taking over, Abiy — himself an ethnic Oromo — has aggressively pursued a reconciliation strategy in an attempt to ease ethnic tensions. In doing so, he was widely hailed in Ethiopia — and by observers around the world — as the kind of leader the country had been waiting for after years of authoritarian rule by politicians from other smaller ethnic groups.  But as repeated clashes around the country show, this is easier said than done.

"I think [Abiy's] reform agenda is still intact, but it is very clear that people are concerned and are losing patience and it's been raising a lot of questions over whether he's really up to the task," Yohannes Gedamu, an Ethiopia-focused political scientist from Georgia Gwinnett College told DW.

In a country still very much divided by ethnic politics, Abiy's attempt to keep all sides happy may well put a serious strain on his leadership.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed signs a peace agreement with Eritrea in Saudi Arabia
Although Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has been praised for pursuing a peace deal with Eritrea, he has been criticized for his approach towards ethnic conflict at homeImage: picture-alliance/dpa/SPA

"The Prime Minister and his administration are confused over what to do when it comes to satisfying their [Oromia] constituency against the huge competition of different ethno-nationalist political parties," says Gedamu. "That has put them in a very difficult situation. But [Abiy's] commitment to democracy could still be there."

It is true that in some ways, Abiy has managed to deliver on his early promises — most notably overturning a ban on the rebel group, the Oromo Liberation Front, freeing jailed dissidents and pursuing a landmark peace deal with long-time enemy, Eritrea.

However, stemming ethnic tensions is likely to be a long-term challenge for the new government, made only more difficult by the looming shadow of the previous hardline administration. 

Read more: Opinion: Too much, too soon — Ethiopia's reformer has to slow down

Overcoming a legacy of mistrust

The government claims the most recent clashes in Addis Ababa were stoked by disgruntled officials in the Oromia Region. But there have been persistent rumors that other forces were sent in to fuel the violence — namely so-called "agents of the state."

Gedamu thinks this ongoing mistrust among the public reflects Ethiopia's authoritarian past, when the intelligence and security services were tightly controlled by the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF).

"Because of the extremely dominant nature of the TPLF over the intelligence services, some still believe it will take years for them to reform," he says. "So, they say that the TPLF officials who were ousted from political power are probably still interfering."

Former Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn
The hardline legacy of former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn still hangs heavy in Ethiopia Image: Reuters/File Photo/T. Negeri

Although the current government still has much to answer for in its actions — including its knee-jerk reaction to the violence in Addis Ababa by shutting down the internet for three days — Gedamu believes it is time for the country to let go of its past if it wants to move forward.

"I think the era of blaming everything on the previous regime should be over," he says. "Democracy is not a simple thing that is built in a day. It takes time, it takes ups and downs, and there will be some hiccups along the way. But without clarity, it will be very very difficult to get there."

Read more: Ethiopia's uncertain political future

All talk, no action

With age-old ethnic tensions showing little sign of fading away amid Ethiopia's planned transition to a multi-party democracy, the government faces the tricky task of balancing its inclusive rhetoric with action in response to violent episodes.

A number of Ethiopians are accusing authorities of not doing enough to clamp down on ethnically-motivated killings and claim Abiy himself is turning a blind eye to the conflict in an attempt to avoid the hardline security tactics frequently deployed by the previous government.

Gedamu believes it is time for the government to be clear about what they want to achieve and assert themselves — without employing unnecessarily repressive measures to achieve their goals.

"This is a very unsettling time for the public who were looking forward to so many reforms," says Gedamu. "Abiy has been very quiet when it comes to making sure that peace and security reigns. He just talks about the need for reconciliation without actually making sure he uses some practical method of stopping the violence."