The Ethiopian leader’s push to forge a national identity faces tough resistance from the regions
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali’s reformist zeal appears to be stoking instability in Africa’s second most populated country and the continent’s economic powerhouse, just over two years since he took office. Mr. Abiy’s rapid push to forge an all-encompassing Ethiopian identity is being viewed with deep suspicion by the dominant ethnic communities in the nation.
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Hundreds of civilians are feared to have been killed in the intense fighting in the northern Tigray region since Africa’s youngest leader dispatched federal troops on November 4 and more recently, mounted air strikes, accusing the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) of attacking a military camp. The UN and Amnesty International say the volatile situation was fast deteriorating into a civil war, and warn that the attack could amount to war crimes.
The irony of the ongoing unrest could not be starker for the former intelligence officer, who was conferred the 2019 Nobel Prize for Peace for ending the decades-long conflict with the neighbouring Eritrea. The peace accord Mr. Abiy signed in September 2018 to restore relations between the two peoples generated tremendous euphoria globally.
Roots of the conflict
The roots of the current conflict go back to April 2018, when Mr. Abiy, an Oromo, one of the country’s large but politically marginal ethnic communities, was catapulted to the premiership. The move followed the decision by the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a multi-party coalition, to extend political representation to hitherto excluded groups. The elevation of the trained software engineer held out the promise of healing historic wounds.
However, the new-found assertiveness among the opposition figures and activists following Mr. Abiy’s moves to free thousands of political prisoners and recognise previously banned political parties has triggered a backlash among the traditionally dominant Tigrayans. A case in point is the series of arrests in November 2018 of the top brass from the country’s intelligence and security establishment, prison services and the state-owned Metals and Engineering Corporation. The investigations that led to these detentions were part of Mr. Abiy’s attempts to root out graft and human rights abuses and infuse transparency in his bid to shift away from an entrenched state-centred model of economic development.
The TPLF, a major constituent of the now disbanded EPRDF coalition, has viewed Mr. Abiy’s anti-corruption crusade and other attempts to redress the ethnic imbalance as nothing but a ruse to undercut its political and economic clout. The Tigrayan move to proceed with local elections in September, in defiance of the Addis Ababa government’s decision to postpone the national polls in view of the COVID-19 pandemic marked overstepping a red line for Mr. Abiy.
The numerically large Oromo and Amhara communities, meanwhile, allege that their interests have not been adequately secured under the current transition. The arrest in September of his one-time ally, Jawar Mohammed, another Oromo, on charges of terrorism caused a nationwide stir. The bloody fallout from the murder in July of the star musician Hachalu Hundessa, a vocal Oromo champion, drew accusations of unfair targeting by Mr. Abiy’s government.
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A controversial law passed to curb hate speech is an instance of the government’s severe crackdown on dissenting voices. But the Prime Minister has apparently determined, as seen from his remarks at the UN General Assembly, that the road to democratisation in the country would not be without perils.
The most contentious among Mr. Abiy’s reform proposals is to alter the current model of governance that recognises several distinctive ethnic regions. To this end, Mr. Abiy has launched the Progress Party, with an overt aim of fostering a pan-Ethiopian identity. The TPLF and other members of the EPRDF have refused to join the new party. The unrest of recent months is perhaps symptomatic of the intense hostility to the dilution of their distinctive identities enshrined in the Constitution’s federal system of ethnically-based provinces. The general elections, now rescheduled for 2021, will be the big test of popular sentiment on Mr. Abiy’s reforms. More crucially, the conduct of elections itself may be subject to the support he can garner for his politically radical proposal.