Nobel Peace Laureate Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed succeeded in making peace with neighbouring Eritrea, but he now deals with increasing intra-religious violence in his multi-ethnic country.
Ethiopia has been hit with mass protests by members of the Muslim community after four mosques were subject to arson attacks in the Christian majority Amhara region.
Muslim-owned businesses were also targeted in the violence, which follows similar riots in the Muslim-majority Oromis region in October, where rival gangs attacked mosques and churches, leaving more than 80 people dead.
Despite receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in October for his efforts in securing peace between Ethiopia and neighbouring Eritrea, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, faces significant pressures at home.
Critics say these emanate from his move to dismantle the country’s old order based on ethno-confederalism in favor of a new system, which aims to create a national unity government based on extensive political reforms.
Ahmed described the attacks as “attempts by extremists to break down our rich history of religious tolerance and coexistence”.
Leaders from both the Muslim and Christian communities condemned the violence.
Ahmed is the son of a Muslim father and a Christian mother in a country where Christians make up 40 percent of the 110 million-strong population. Muslims comprise one-third of the country’s citizens, according to the latest census.
Due to his background, Ahmed believes he can join the country under his leadership.
Why Ahmed’s plan angered regional leaders
Ahmed’s plans to change the structure of the government, which is currently a coalition of different regional parties called the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front’s (EPRDF), into a more centralised system that can draw support from every region, has drawn anger.
In the last 18 months, his political plans have led to inter-ethnic clashes, which have killed hundreds and displaced millions across the country, escalating tensions among regional leaders, who see Ahmed as trying to diminish their powers.
“The prime minister has made laudable efforts to tread a middle ground and unite the country but faces acute dilemmas,” said a December report of the International Crisis Group (ICG).
With elections scheduled in May, the report recommended that they should be delayed if violence increased significantly.
While Ahmed’s plan enjoys wide support across the country, regional leaders see it as a threat to their own power, and warn that it will put the interests of different ethnic groups at risk.
The ICG report says defenders of the current ethnicity-based system believes it protects every social group “in a diverse country formed through conquest and assimilation.”
Critics of the existing system see it as divisive and a threat to the country’s future.
“Detractors – a significant, cross-ethnic constituency – argue that because the system structures the state along ethnic lines it undercuts national unity, fuels ethnic conflict and leaves minorities in regions dominated by major ethnic groups vulnerable,” the ICG report said.
“It is past time, they say, to turn the page on the ethnic politics that for too long have defined and divided the nation,” the report added.
“Ethiopia’s transition may not yet hang from a precipice; indeed, it is still a source of hope for many in Ethiopia and abroad.
“But signs are troubling enough to worry top and former officials. Among the most alarmist suggestions made by some observers is that the multinational federation could break apart as Yugoslavia did in the 1990s.
“This worry may be overstated, but Abiy nonetheless should err on the side of caution as he walks a tightrope of pushing through reforms while keeping powerful constituencies on board.”