Professor Henry Srebrnik

Professor Henry Srebrnik

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Ethiopia's Blow Against Democracy

By Henry Srebrnik, [Fredericton, NB] Daily Gleaner

It’s not supposed to happen like this. But in Ethiopia, as in many other African countries, it’s often two steps forward, and not one, but two steps back.

On June 22, Seare Mekonnen, Ethiopia’s army chief, was killed amid a coup attempt when General Asamnew Tsige, the autonomous Amhara state’s head of security, tried to topple the central government in Addis Ababa.

Amhara’s regional president and another top adviser also died, as did some high-ranking military officials. Asamnew was later killed. 

Ethiopian Prime Minister Ahmed Abiy has been leading the country in the direction of multi-ethnic democracy, but this may be bumping into resistance.

With more than 90 ethnicities, the country’s 105 million people have always been dominated by religious and tribal allegiances.

Many observers have concluded that the main culprit behind the surge in violence is Ethiopia's ethno-national federal arrangement, which grants bigger ethnic groups self-governance rights within their respective states.

The 1994 constitution recast the country from a centrally unified republic to a federation of nine regional ethnic states and two federally administered city-states.

It bases key rights — to land, government jobs, security forces, representation in local and federal bodies — not on Ethiopian citizenship but on being considered ethnically indigenous in constituent ethnic states.

Since political identities take ethnic form, large ethnic groups are demanding more territory and resources, while smaller groups are pushing back.

Lland disputes have displaced at least 2.9 million people, as militias formed by ethnic groups proliferate.

The failed coup in Amhara is the culmination of many months of ethnic and political strife there.

Violence between the Amhara, the country’s second largest ethnic group, and the Gumuz, left some 200 people dead in May in Amhara and its neighbouring region, Benishangul Gumuz.

Asaminew had openly advised the Amhara people this month to arm themselves. Hundreds have been arrested, including Christian Tadele of the National Movement of Amhara.

Among other aggrieved groups are the Oromo, the largest in the country, who have clashed with neigbouring Gedeos. The Tigreans are resented because of their association with previous, and repressive, ruling parties.

The recent postponement of a national census, which will determine the relative demographic strength of the contending groups vying for economic and political control, has called into question the government’s ability to hold elections in May 2020. 

Abiy, who was born to a Muslim Oromo father and an Orthodox Amhara mother and is a Pentecostal Christian, became the country’s leader in April 2018, following three years of protests that forced former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn to resign.

He has since implemented large-scale economic and political reforms and prosecuted officials accused of human rights abuses.

Abiy lifted the state of emergency, released thousands of political prisoners, allowed dissidents to return home and unblocked hundreds of websites and television channels.

But the loosening of state controls by Abiy’s ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has reignited long-simmering ethnic conflicts. The most vulnerable moment for any authoritarian state is when it starts to reform.

Abiy has urged Ethiopians to unite in the face of “evil” forces set on dividing the country. Easier said than done.

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