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Ethiopia's ethnic violence shows Abiy's vulnerability

Maria Gerth-Niculescu
July 1, 2019

Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed looks increasingly vulnerable as he faces deep divisions in the ruling coalition, simmering ethnic conflicts and millions of internally displaced people.

West Guji zone administrative office
Image: DW/S.Wegayehu

When Isso recently returned to his village in the Gedeo zone of southern Ethiopia, he found everything destroyed. 

Isso, along with hundreds of thousands of people of the Gedeo ethnic minority, had run from violent clashes between Gedeos and neighboring Oromos, Ethiopia's largest ethnic group.

The looting and killing was triggered by long-simmering conflict over land. The verdant rolling hills of this region – where some of the world's best coffee is grown – has long been facing a critical shortage of arable land. A growing population and rising unemployment further fuel the tension. According to the Organization for Migration, approximately 820,000 people were uprooted in Gedeo district and 150,000 in the bordering West Guji zone of Oromia when the violence flared a year ago. 

Isso has now come back because the government insists that it's safe to return. But he's too terrified to visit his fields which lie a few kilometers outside of his village.

"Our lives were good before. We had animals, and our house was furnished. We drank milk and ate chicken and mutton," Isso said. 

Isso hails from a tiny village on the border of two regions: the ethnically diverse Southern Nations, Nationalities and People's region; and the Oromia region, mainly inhabited by Oromo people. 

Map showing the locations of West and East Guji in the Oromia Region and Gedeo in the Southern Nations, Nationalities and People's Region

Liberalization ignites old conflicts

Ethiopia – which has more than 80 ethno-linguistic groups – is divided under the constitution into nine ethnic federal states. Since Abiy Ahmed was inaugurated as Prime Minister in April 2018, the borders between these ethnic regions have experienced multiple deadly clashes. 

By December 2018, some 2.9 million had fled their homes to escape violence within the nation – giving Ethiopia the unenviable distinction of having the highest number of internally displaced people worldwide.

This inter-ethnic violence is the biggest stain on the record of Abiy, who has positioned himself as an open and reform-oriented leader and is feted internationally as a source of hope. 

In the weeks after he took office, he freed hundreds of political prisoners and activists, lifted bans on political parties countrywide and ended a 20-year border war with Eritrea.

However, this liberal stance is now allowing the eruption of historical hostilities that had been suppressed by the authoritarian security apparatus of previous leaders. Questions of borders between regions are suddenly under debate again – and the topic of political representation is beset with tension ahead of national elections slated for May 2020. 

Ethiopia has been a de facto one-party state having been ruled by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front since 1991. 

The old guard – mainly ethnic Tigrayans – view Abiy and his moves to make Ethiopia a democracy as a threat. 

Since he was elected, dozens of former Tigrayan officials have been prosecuted for corruption and human rights abuses. But such actions have provoked resistance to Abiy's reform process.

Read more: Ethiopia: Gedeo-Oromo ethnic clashes continue amid political reforms 

Crucial moment for Ethiopia

The precariousness of Ethiopia's political landscape was evident on June 23, 2019, when attacks that authorities described as an attempted coup in the northern Amhara Region claimed several lives. 

These included Amhara governor Ambachew Mekonnen, his top adviser and the state’s attorney general, who were shot at a meeting in the state capital of Bahir Dar. 

A few hours later in the capital Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's army chief, General Seare Mekonnen, was shot dead by his body guard in a killing that the government says was linked to the Amhara assassinations. 

Weeping solders
Ethiopian soldiers weeped during at the army chief's funeral on 25 June 2019Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/M. Ayene

Authorities subsequently arrested hundreds of people suspected of supporting those responsible for the attacks. 

It also cut off the internet for six days. 

"It's a very critical juncture," said Felix Home, an Ethiopia expert at Human Rights Watch, referring to the the breakdown in law and order and the insecurity in Ethiopia. 

The government's response to the ethnic violence and millions of internally displaced people has been "one of almost indifference," he told DW. 

However, Abiy's government can't afford to underestimate the destabilizing effects of regional ethnic militants, Home warned. 

"One of the manifestations of this rise in insecurity and breakdown of law and order is the rise of local armed groups. … At the same time there's a proliferation of weapons in many parts of the country," he said. 

In addition, many Ethiopians are disgruntled about the present and nervous about the future. 

The government isn't paying enough attention to this "toxic combination", Home said.

Ethiopia’s displacement crisis

Authorities declare refugee crisis over

In the past months, the government has begun pressuring Gedeo refugees like Isso to go back to their homes in the Gedeo and Guji zones  – they have limited the distribution of food aid and other humanitarian assistance and threatened to raze temporary shelters giving many little choice but to return. 

Authorities insist the tension between the Oromos and Gedeos has calmed down. 

"There is not much of a security problem in our zone,"Aberra Buno, the chief of administration in West Guji. "When displaced people return to their homes, we bring them together with the Oromos so that they can talk," he told DW.  

Aberra Buno seated in his office
West Guji administrator Aberra Buno downplays the fears Gedeo returnees have of more violenceImage: DW/M. Gerth-Niculescu

However, humanitarian organizations have criticized forcing returns. They say the government's plans, lack of transparency and details and forcing people home will only add to the hunger and suffering. 

As for the Gedeos, many are still fearful. 

Together with her four children, Dingete returned to West Guji a few weeks ago. 

"We are happy to be here but I am worried," she told DW. She has heard that the armed groups responsible for the attack on her home are still at large. 

"My land is far from here and that's why I am afraid of going there," she said.

Many other returnees also also too scared to work their fields, leaving them unable to cultivate their food and lacking a source of income. Authorities have promised deliveries of seeds but it's not clear when this will happened. 

As Abiy's reforms continue to dazzle the international community, the growing displacement crisis in Ethiopia remains largely hidden from view. And his failure to contain hostilities are a sign of his vulnerability. 

Shewangizaw Wegayehu contributed to this article.

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