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Ethiopia – Divided by Ethnic Politics
Ethiopia – Divided by Ethnic Politics

By - Adedoyin Shittu

Posted - 24-06-2019

The attempted coup against the head of the Amhara region brought Ethiopia ethnic federalism to the limelight again and poke holes to the readiness of the country for a democratic election in May 2020. On Saturday, 22nd June ,2019, the president of Ethiopia’s Amhara region and his top advicer were killed in a meeting with top regional heads in an attempted coup.

Ambachew Mekonnen was Abiy Ahmed (Ethiopia Prime Minister) appointee and it was said that his killer (Amhara state security head General Asamnew Tsige)  was a political prisoner and was only released by Abiy a year ago.

Also killed later that day was the chief of staff of the national security forces, Seare Mekonnen and a retired general who had been visiting him.

Ethiopia Ethnic Federalism

Ethiopia have had its own fair share of ethnic violence, this spurred the need for an independence by major tribes in the country. To give the dominant tribes in the country its own independence, a  self ruling system was set in motion. It was this idea of self autonomy of each region that keeps Ethiopia in check as a nation but it came with its own consequences.

An hastily organised coalition known as the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) made up of four dominant ethnic parties (the Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organisation, Amhara National Democratic Movement, Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement, and the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front), seized power in the capital in 1991. The 1994 constitution introduced by the then prime minister, Meles Zenawi gave rise to a federation of nine regional ethnic states, though Ethiopia has more than 80 ethnic groups. This federal system of governance was introduced to try and address historic ethnic grievances by giving Ethiopia’s different regions the chance to administer themselves. This however unleashed a struggle for supremacy among the bigger ethnic groups namely: Oromo, Amhara and Tigrayan.

Unfortunately, Ethiopia’s leaders made up of ethnic Tigrayan at the federal level reneged on the promises of federalism, instead power remained centralized in their hands and there was strong state intervention in the economy and severe restrictions on civil and democratic rights of other ethnic groups. Even Ethiopians in the nine regional states have never had the privilege of electing their own governors, governors are appointed through informal channels by the EPRDF leadership in Addis Ababa. This gave way to resentment especially on the side of the Oromos. The Tigrayan makes up only 6% of the population but they control the government at the central level for most of the country’s history.  

The Oromos, the largest ethnic group makes up one third of the population followed by the Amhara which is one quarter of the population. The Tigrayan held all key government positions, including the national intelligence, the defence, foreign ministry and even the office of the prime minister since 1991 till 2012.

The Oromos despite being the largest ethnic group were marginalised and never had control of power at the state level, until Abiy Ahmed

Abiy Ahmed the reformer

Abiy Ahmed unexpectedly took the leadership of the EPRDF in 2018 to become the prime minister. Abiy is a very smart man and this traits could be seen in his reforms. Immediately he was made prime minister, he changed almost all the senior military commanders. He appointed a cabinet that was half-female and made woman the president and the head of the Supreme Court. He released thousands of political prisoners, freed the media, and made the leader of an opposition party head of the Electoral Board, and put her in charge of organising free elections in 2020.

A committee of independent experts was also established to revise laws that undermined human rights and democratization and also inviting exiled opposition groups that had been designated terrorist organisations to return to Ethiopia.  Mr Abiy also publicly announced plans to amend the constitution to institute term limits on the tenure of the prime minister and moved to lift the terrorist designation of three major opposition political parties. Mr Abiy also ended the 20 years border war with Eritrea.

All these he did within a space of a year.

Mr Abiy’s reforms have been applauded by many in and out of the continents but his reforms seem to be clashing with flawed constitution in the country. Substantial elements of the Tigrayan elite are believed to be unhappy with Abiy continuing to diminish their power. Mr Abiy who was selected as prime minister on the EPRDF platform from the marginalised tribe of Oromo is accused of purging out military and intelligence services from the Tigray region who for years have been almost untouchable.

With the election scheduled for May 2020, there have been Internal power struggles between factions both inside and outside the EPRDF, the EPRDF disagree over how much power should be devolved to federal regions, and regional leaders are demanding for more power and independence to rule their region without interference from the central. Abiy himself contends with growing nationalist sentiment among his own Oromo constituents, many of whom expect him to serve their interests above those of others. The Oromo party wants an autonomous Oromia, a fair share of federal power for Oromo, and an end to alleged economic exploitation. They also demanded that Afaan Oromo (the language) becomes a second working language of the federal government. This does not appear to be on Abiy’s agenda.

Coup attempts on Mr Abiy

Since his appointment as prime minister, Mr Abiy has survived two coup attempt, the first coup attempt was carried in June 2018, when he escaped unhurt in a grenade attack that killed one and wounded scores at a political rally. In October 2018, his office in the capital, Addis Ababa, was surrounded by angry soldiers who threatened to kill him over low pay. but he talked them out of it. A video of him doing press up with the soldiers was even released.

According to a government spokeswoman Billene Seyoum, a “hit squad” led by the General Asamnew burst into a meeting (the meeting was to discuss the attempts by the general to recruit ethnic militias), in the state offices in Bahir Dar. The general shot the regional government President, Ambachew Mekonnen and his adviser Ezez Wassie. Some hours later, the chief of staff of the national security forces, Seare Mekonnen was killed in his home by his bodyguard in Addis Ababa. Also shot dead was a retired general who had been visiting him. The bodyguard also turn the gun on himself.

Ambachew Mekonnen, the late regional governor of Amhare was appointed by Abiy Ahmed and he is a key ally of Amhara to the prime minister.

General Asamnew Tsige, the mastermind of saturday coup was shot on Monday, 24th June, near the state capital, Addis Ababa.

Ethiopia is no stranger to ethnic violence and ethnic federalism is and remain the only glue holding the country together. With the upcoming election in May 2020, it seems the center can no longer hold in this power racing game and the dominant tribes in the country are on a mission to hold onto power.