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TM, ®, Copyright © 2021 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.

TM, ®, Copyright © 2021 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.

Nations in Crisis: Ethiopia

  • (august 2021) Nations in crisis: Ethiopia
    (Part of a series on "Nations in Crisis")

    Ethiopia, with 120 million people, is the second-largest country by population of sub-Saharan Africa after Nigeria, and for a while it was "the" economic miracle of Africa, posting growth rates that were more typical of east Asia than of Africa. Ethiopia was also a model of stability situated in the middle of a wildly unstable region: Sudan to the north, South Sudan to the west, Eritrea to the east, Somalia to the south, and Yemen a one-hour flight away. Ethiopia is 60% Christian (its church is the second-oldest official Christian church in the world after Armenia's) and 40% Muslim, while Sudan and Somalia are almost entirely Muslim, and Eritrea is now majority Muslim (it used to be majority Christian). Jews lived in Ethiopia for 2,000 years but the majority has moved to Israel after 1948 (one million in the 1990s alone). "Beta Israel", as they call themselves, are now reduced to a few thousand people around the city of Gondar. Ethiopia has historical ties to Yemen and western Saudi Arabia. Ethiopia was an empire, despite a brief Italian occupation, until the overthrow of emperor Haile Selassie in 1974. Ethiopia was the only corner of Africa that was never colonized by Europeans (other than the brief Italian occupation). Ethiopia is also a multi-ethnic country, comprising officially 80 ethnic groups, although just four groups account for about 75% of the population: the Oromo (35%), the Amhara (27%), the Tigray (6%), which are linguistically closer to the Amharas, and the Somali (6%), linguistically closer to the Oromo. Usually, multi-ethnic African countries are the result of silly European-imposed borders, but in the case of Ethiopia the multi-ethnic aspect is the result of centuries of warfare and expansion. Ethiopia's society is further complicated by the fact that it still has a feudal foundation divided in clans.

    Ethiopia lived under a brutal communist dictatorship between the overthrow (and murder) of the emperor Selassie and the 1991 revolution that deposed Mengistu Haile Mariam, responsible for genocide and a famine (in the mid-1980s) that killed even more people than his genocidal policies. The fall of Mengitsu came at the same time that his only supporter, the Soviet Union, was collapsing. At the time it seemed irrelevant that Mengitsu (of mixed Amhara and shankala origin but born in an Oromo region) led a regime that was dominated by ethnic Amharas (as had been Selassie's empire): analyses pivoted around his (Marxist-Leninist) ideology, not around clan loyalties. The Amharas enjoyed a privileged position under both Selassie and Mengitsu. The Oromos, who had been independent until future Ethiopian emperor Menelik II conquered their land in 1886, felt particularly discriminated. Haile Selassie had banned the Oromo language and mandated the Amharic language, and installed Amhara priests, judges and teachers in the Oromo region, causing the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), formed in 1973, to fight for the self-determination of the Oromos. Another secessionist movement was born under Mengitsu's watch: the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), formed in 1984 and fighting for the Somali ethnic group. The fall of Mengitsu brought to an end a century of Amharic dominance in Ethiopia. Two main guerrilla groups fought and defeated Mengitsu: the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF). In 1994 Eritrea split from Ethiopia and to this day it remains an isolated and backwards dictatorship ruled by the revolutionary who led the armed struggle of the EPLF, Isaias Afwerki. Eritrea has had military confrontations with both Sudan in the north (blamed for supporting an Eritrean insurgency) and Yemen (over the Hanish islands) and a full-fledged border war with Ethiopia (1998-2000) that ironically pitted the old allies TPLF and EPLF against each other. Ethiopia instead became a success story under the rule of the leader of the TPLF, Meles Zenawi, who ruled Ethiopia from 1991 until his death in 2012, the rare case of a guerrilla leader who became a competent and smart politician. Ethiopia, which had been one of the poorest countries in the world, now ranks in the top 10 of Africa for nominal GDP (although per capita it is still much poorer than neighboring Kenya and Sudan). Meles' successor was another Tigrayan, Hailemariam Desalegn, until 2018. Basically, Ethiopia was run for more than 25 years by the Tigrayan elite after having been run for a century by the Amharas. The historically dominant Amharas and the majority Oromos (55-60% of whom are Muslims) were largely excluded from positions of power after 1991. Ethiopia's prime minister is chosen by the majority coalition, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), consisting of four political parties: Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), Amhara Democratic Party (ADP), Oromo Democratic Party (ODP) and Southern Ethiopian People's Democratic Movement (SEPDM). But the TPLF has counted a lot more than its allies.

    In August 2016 street protests erupted across 200 cities in Oromia region (including its capital city Finfinne) against the TPLF's tight grip on economic and political power and at least 700 people were killed. An important element fomenting those protests was the Oromia Media Network (OMN), a satellite television station founded in 2013 in the USA by the young expatriate Jawar Mohammed, the son of a Muslim father and a Christian mother. In 2006, while studying at Stanford, he had founded the International Oromo Youth Association. Ethiopia withdrew troops from Somalia, where they were acting as peace-keepers, and declared a state of emergency. The anti-government protests were also supported by celebrities like the singer Hachalu Hundessa. To avoid further bloodshed, Hailemariam Desalegn resigned. After one month of negotiations, in March 2018 the EPRDF chose a compromise candidate, Abiy Ahmed, a relatively young politician who had supported the street protests against the government, a former intelligence officer and minister of science and technology, and, more importantly, an ethnic Oromo and a Christian (despite his Muslim name). He became the first Oromo leader of Ethiopia in 2,000 years. Abiy immediately lifted a ban on opposition parties and released tens of thousands of political prisoners: on paper Ethiopia became a multi-party democracy. Abiy also settled the dispute with Eritrea signing a historical peace treaty (in 2018) that gained him the Nobel Prize. In retrospect, that deal wasn't about peace but about war: Eritrea didn't fight a war with Ethiopia in 1998-2000, it fought a war with the TPLF, a rift that was never healed. When Abiy signed that treaty with Eritrea, he really signed a deal with the TPLF's arch-enemy, Eritrea's dictator Isaias Afwerki. Abiy then signed a peace agreement with the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), although a splinter factor, the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), refused to accept it. (Oromo activists suspected Abiy of being a stooge for the Amhara people, a Trojan horse to restore Amhara rule).

    Then Abiy turned against his old mentors. In November 2018 he launched an anti-corruption campaign that resulted in the arrest of high-ranking TPLF officials, including Kinfe Dagnew, the head of the military-run Metals and Engineering Corporation (METEC). Nonetheless, the Oromos kept feeling frustrated. Jawar returned to Ethiopia in August 2018 to a hero welcome. Jawar initially supported Abiy, but quickly became a critic and joined the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), which planned an alliance with the OLF and the Oromo National Party (ONP), creating a potentially powerful Oromo nationalist coalition. In October 2019 Jawar's media network fomented new protests, this time against Abiy's government, and 67 ethnic Oromos were killed. One month later Abiy severed all ties with the TPLF by forming a new Prosperity Party with three of the four old ruling parties of the EPRDF. This truly ended the domination of the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) which moved to the opposition. Abiy's rule became increasingly authoritarian: arrests and even summary executions became commonplace in Oromia in an attempt to annihilate Oromo separatists.

    The country was already in tumult and then something truly unexpected happened: the mysterious assassination of a popular singer started a veritable civil war. In June 2020 Hachalu Hundessa, who had played a significant role in the 2016 protests, was killed. Riots erupted in the Oromia region and dozens of people were killed in the next few weeks. Hundessa was an Oromo and a Christian like Abiy, but his death stirred up anti-Abiy sentiment. The assassination remains a mystery. Authorities arrested a Tilahun Yami who confessed, but in January 2021 a leaked video showed Tilahun Yami claiming that he was tortured. Some suspect that Hachalu was killed by a fanatic of imperial Ethiopia because he had insulted a statue of Menelik II. Hachalu was disliked by both the TPLF (he contributed to their downfall) and the radical OLF. Jawar's network resisted for a while to play in its entirety Hanchalu's last interview. When the full 71-minute tape surfaced, people could hear Hachalu talk of death threats received from the OLF. It is possible that Hachalu was the victim of an intra-Oromo feud. But his assassination was exploited by the leaders of the Oromo opposition, namely Jawar Mohammed and Bekele Gerba. The Oromia Media Network accused the Amharas of the assassination and incited violence against them. Abiy responded by having them arrested and shutting down OMN. This further escalated tensions and led to new communal riots, many targeting Amharas: more than 200 people were killed. Note that the TPLF was able to rule Ethiopia for so long thanks to a "divide-and-conquer" strategy that pitted Amhara and Oromo against each other: de facto the assassination of Hachalu and Oromia Media Network's anti-Amhara propaganda did precisely that.

    Meanwhile, more trouble was brewing caused by the covid pandemic. Abiy decided to postpone by one year the elections scheduled for August 2020. In September 2020 the TPLF held elections in the Tigray region around Mekelle where it is still in power, and the incumbent, Debretsion Gebremichael, easily won. The regional elections were not authorized by Abiy's government and his party did not contest them. On the other hand, the TPLF claims that Abiy's mandate ended in August 2020. Several government officials openly blamed the TPLF for the assassination of Hachalu as a move to destabilize the country. The TPLF responded by accusing the government of incompetence and of failing to maintain order (indirectly implying "when we were in power, Ethiopia was a peaceful and growing country"). Tensions escalated rapidly and Nobel Prize winner Abiy ordered the army to regain control of the Tigray region with help from, of all people, Eritrea, whose dictator is a sworn enemy of the TPLF. In November 2020 Ethiopian and Eritrean troops coordinated an attack on the TPLF. It was a bad idea. The TPLF outsmarted them, quickly recaptured the Tigray capital Mekele, and pushed east into the neighbouring Afar region and south into Amhara. In August 2021 the TPLF entered Lalibela, home to 12th-century rock-hewn churches that are among the wonders of the world.

    As if all this unrest was not enough, Abiy has to face several other problems. In November 2020 the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) attacked three villages in the West Welega Zone killing more than 50 ethnic Amhara people and in August 2021 the OLA allied with the Tigrayan forces. The Sidama and Wolayta people in the south each demand a regional state of their own. Right now they are grouped with the Keffa, Gurage, Gamo and Gofa ethnic groups in one state: the Southern Nations Nationalities and Peoplesí Regional State (SNNPRS). Sudan and Egypt oppose a hydroelectric dam that Ethiopia is building on the Blue Nile: when completed it will be the largest in Africa but it will also control the flow of water into Sudan and Egypt, something that Sudan and Egypt don't seem willing to accept. There is a potential for a regional war.

    Amid all this destabilization in June 2021 Ethiopia held the long-delayed parliamentary elections. Abiy's Prosperity Party won 410 out of 436 seats, but one fifth of the country couldn't vote for logistical reasons, the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) boycotted the elections, and Berhanu Nega's opposition party EZEMA (Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice) filed hundreds of complains about irregularities. The latter, formed in May 2019, is the most interesting of Ethiopia's new parties for a simple reason: it stands against ethnic nationalism, which right now is the cancer eroding Ethiopia. Think of it and Ethiopia is not in a much different situation than Iraq, Syria and Libya. It could end the same way.


    A peace deal between the government and the Tigray forces was finally signed in November 2022, basically a victory for the government because the TPLF will have to disarm. It is estimated that 600,000 people were killed in two years of fighting. Unfortunately, Eritrea and Ethiopian region of Amhara (that has its own army) did not sign it: both gained territory inside Tigray. At the same time Ethiopia and Sudan have agreed to settle peacefully their border disputes. Fighting continues between the Ethiopian army and the Oromo Liberation Army in the Oromia region. Meanwhile, Ethiopia established the National Anti-Corruption Committee (NACC) that began arresting officials on corruption charges, starting with the director general of the Ethiopian Financial Security Services, Tewodros Bekele.

    TM, ®, Copyright © 2021 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.
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