By Addisu Lashitew
(Foreign Policy) — Oromo nationalism helped bring Abiy Ahmed to power, but it could also be his undoing. To hold the country together, the Nobel-winning prime minister needs to convince various ethnic groups that he and his new party represent all Ethiopians.
n Oct. 11, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed received the Nobel Peace Prize for ending the long stalemate with neighboring Eritrea. Paradoxically, Abiy enjoys only fragmented and diminishing popular support in his own country. Even in his home region of Oromia, his leadership is seriously contested by the ethnonationalist forces represented by the social media activist Jawar Mohammed.
This became painfully evident on Oct. 23, when the Oromia region was shaken by a deadly wave of violence following a series of Facebook posts from Jawar. The activist, who also heads a TV channel called Oromia Media Network, announced that the police were about to detain him, an allegation that was later denied by the government. Around 70 civilians were killed when his angry supporters took to the streets, setting off an intercommunal conflict that took on an ethnic and religious dimension.
This tragic incident is emblematic of the volatile nature of ethnic politics in Ethiopia, which has started to crack the foundations of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition. The EPRDF, which has ruled the country since 1991, is a coalition of four parties that represented the country’s major ethnic groups (Amhara, Oromo, Tigrayan, and southern groups) of which the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front was the most dominant party until recently.
Decades of authoritarian rule, forced displacement, and the perceived dominance of Tigrayans within the coalition led to widespread discontent that sparked a series of protests in 2015. The protests started in Oromia and subsequently spread to the Amhara region, and they were led by grassroots-based ethnic youth groups, most particularly by the Qeerroo movement in Oromia.
In April 2018, the EPRDF buckled under the pressure of the protests, and its chairman, Hailemariam Desalegn, resigned. A fractious internal reshuffle brought Abiy to the chairmanship, the first Oromo ever to hold the position. Abiy represented a younger generation of reformists within the EPRDF, and he immediately commenced with conciliatory gestures and a promise to widen the political space. His swift measures of making peace with Eritrea, releasing thousands of political prisoners, and welcoming banished political parties gained him significant popular support.
This didn’t last very long, however. Abiy’s measured tone and search for compromises in a country where politics is severely polarized immediately disappointed a large share of his supporters. The Oct. 23 violence in Oromia has further divided his support base and impaired his plans to unify the EPRDF coalition. As the country prepares for a national election in May 2020 with a weakened ruling party and fragmented electorate, the risk of radical ethnonational forces inciting violence is worse than ever.
Ironically, Abiy found it much easier to make peace with Eritrea than to unify his own country and party. In fact, his peacemaking sojourns in Sudan and Eritrea are best seen as efforts to bolster his profile before embarking on the much harder task of making peace at home.
Abiy must find a way to avoid repeating the perilous history of previous experiments in ethnic federalism in countries such as Yugoslavia. That will require bringing in more order and transparency to the process of political transition. At this point, the transition process is nebulous without any consensus on desired outcomes or a clear timeline.
This could be intentional on Abiy’s part. The root causes of the current political crisis come from a system that awkwardly weds ethnicity to electoral politics. Devised to ensure greater ethnic representation and equality within the confines of democratic centralism under the EPRDF, ethnic politics in an era of social media is inflaming ethnic extremism and undermining the very foundations of the federal system upon which it rests.
A lasting solution will necessitate a constitutional reform that establishes new checks and balances that mitigate the risk of ethnic politics exploding into downright violence. This, however, will require an extensive process of consensus-building around a bargain that reconciles the interests of federalists with those advocating for a more unitary state.
Unfortunately, creating a mechanism that can support this kind of reform is all but impossible in the current political atmosphere, which is highly polarized, fragmented, and unstable. Having gone through decades of repression and then an abrupt opening, Ethiopia’s political sphere is awash with the irreconcilable demands of various ethnic parties and other interest groups.