MEKELLE/ETHIOPIA, 14 February 2019


“Ethnic tensions are the biggest problem for Ethiopia right now,” Tewodrose Tirfe, chair of the Amhara Association of America, a US-based advocacy group that played a significant role in lobbying the US government to censor the former regime. “You’ve got millions of people displaced – it’s a humanitarian crisis, and it could get out of control.”

During the first half of 2018, Ethiopia’s rate of 1.4 million new internally displaced people exceeded Syria’s. By the end of last year, the IDP population had mushroomed to nearly 2.4 million.

Tigrayans comprise just six percent of Ethiopia’s population of 100 million people but are perceived as a powerful minority because of their ethnic affinity with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. The TPLF wielded almost unlimited power for more than two decades until reforms within the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front last year.

Since coming to power in April 2018, Prime Minister Abiy – from the Oromo ethnic group, Ethiopia’s largest – has brought major changes to the politics of the country, including an unprecedented redistribution of power within the EPRDF and away from the TPLF.

The politics of ethnic tensions

Despite the conflicting interests and disagreements between ethnic groups, the Ethiopian government has managed to keep the peace on a national scale. But that juggling act has shown signs of strain in recent years.

“You’ve got millions of people displaced – it’s a humanitarian crisis, and it could get out of control.”

In 2017, an escalation in ethnic clashes in the Oromia and the Somali regions led to a spike in IDPs. This continued into 2018, when clashes between the Oromo and Gedeo ethnic groups displaced approximately 970,000 people in the West Guji and Gedeo zones of neighbouring Oromia and the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Region.

“The pace and scale of the change happening in Ethiopia is quite unbelievable,” said Ahmed Soliman, a research fellow with the Africa Programme at the London-based think tank Chatham House.

“The impact of inter-communal tensions and ethnic violence presents a serious challenge for the new leadership – in Tigray and elsewhere. Abiy’s aggressive reform agenda has won praise, but shaking up Ethiopia’s government risks exacerbating several long-simmering ethnic rivalries.”

Although clashes are sometimes fuelled by other disagreements, such as land or resources, people affected often claim that politicians across the spectrum use ethnic tensions as a means of divide and rule, or to consolidate their position as a perceived bulwark against further trouble.

“Sadly [around Ethiopia] ethnic bias and violence is affecting many people at the local level,” said a foreign humanitarian worker with an international organisation helping Ethiopian IDPs, who wished to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the issue. This includes fuelling the displacement crisis and worsening the humanitarian situation.

“The main humanitarian concern is that new displacements are occurring by the day, that due to the wide geographic scope, coordination and response in all locations is practically impossible,” the aid worker said.

“I would like to see more transparency as to what actions the government is taking to hold regional and zonal governments responsible for addressing conflict, for supporting reconciliation, and supporting humanitarian response.”

Tigray fears

Although Tigrayans constitute a relatively small part of overall IDP numbers so far, some Tigrayans fear the power shift in Addis Ababa away from the TPLF leaves them more vulnerable and exposed.

Already simmering anti-Tigrayan sentiments have led to violence, people told IRIN, from barricading roads and forcibly stopping traffic to looting and attacks on Tigrayan homes and businesses in the Amhara and Oromia regions.

James Jeffrey/IRIN
Tigrayans on the streets of Mekelle, the Tigray capital.

In the Tigray region’s capital of Mekelle, more than 750 kilometers north of the political changes taking place in Addis Ababa, many Tigrayans feel increasingly isolated from fellow Ethiopians.

“The rest of the country hates us,” Weyanay Gebremedhn, 25, told IRIN. Despite the reforms, Tigrayans say what hasn’t changed is the narrative that they are responsible by association for the ills of the TPLF.

Although he now struggles to find work, 35-year-old Huey Berhe, who does mostly odd jobs to pay the bills, said he felt safer living among his own community in Mekelle.

Huey said he had been a student at Jimma University in western Ethiopia, until growing ethnic tensions sparked fights on campus and led to Tigrayans being targeted. “I left my studies at Jimma after the trouble there,” he said. “It was bad – it’s not something I like to discuss.”

‘A better evil’

“There is a lot of [lies] and propaganda, and the TPLF has been made the scapegoat for all vice,” said Gebre Weleslase, a Tigrayan law professor at Mekelle University. He criticised Abiy for not condemning ethnic attacks, which he said had contributed to tens of thousands of Tigrayans leaving Amhara for Tigray in recent years.

But Amhara Association of America’s Tewodrose said the feeling of “hate” that Ethiopians have toward the TPLF “doesn’t extend to Tigrayans”.

“There is resentment toward them when other Ethiopians hear of rallies in Tigray supporting the TPLF, because that seems like they aren’t supporting reform efforts,” he said. “But that doesn’t lead to them being targeted, otherwise there would have been more displacements.”

☰ Read more: The complex Tigray evolution

Tigrayans, however, aren’t as reassured. Despite the vast majority enduring years of poverty and struggle under the TPLF, which should give them as many reasons as most Ethiopians to feel betrayed, even those Tigrayans who dislike the TPLF now say that turning to its patronage may be their only means of seeking protection.

“The TPLF political machinery extended everywhere in the country – into the judiciary, the universities… it became like something out of George Orwell’s ‘1984’,” Huey said. “But the fact is now the TPLF may represent a better evil as we are being made to feel so unsafe – they seem our only ally as we are threatened by the rest of the country.”

Others note that Abiy has a delicate balance to strike, especially for the sake of Tigrayans.

“The prime minister needs to be careful not to allow his targeting of anti-reform elements within the TPLF, to become an attack on the people of Tigray,” said Soliman.

“The region has a history of resolute peoples and will have to be included with all other regions, in order for Abiy to accomplish his goals of reconciliation, socio-political integration and regional development, as well as long-term peace with Eritrea.”

Although the government has a big role to play, some Ethiopians told IRIN it is essential for the general population to also face up to the inherent prejudices and problems that lie at the core of their society.

“It’s about the people being willing and taking individual responsibility – the government can’t do everything,” Weyanay said. “People need to read more and challenge their assumptions and get new perspectives.”

Freelance journalist specialising in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa

Disagreements over land and resources between the 80 different ethnic groups in Ethiopia have often led to violence and mass displacement, but a fast and unprecedented shift of power led by reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is causing new strains, experts say.


  1. War Free Ethiopia
    Open Letter to:
    February 18, 2019

    My humble appeal to the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, the Parlama of Ethiopia, all Ethiopian activists, all media outlets, all regional governments, and all citizens:

    I am writing this appeal to all Ethiopian people, to do my part to defuse the underline peril of civil war facing the people of Ethiopia. For this writing, I have chosen to be as neutral as possible in addressing the concerns that I have, and I pray for your understanding and support in every step of the way until Ethiopia is at peace with itself.

    On one hand, it is a matter of fact that all Ethiopians have different ideas on which direction Ethiopian politics should go. Our differences vary from what kind of flag, to the kind of constitution we should have…, how the election should be handled…, who should go to jail and who should stay free…, what statues to erect, who was the great king or who was the best leader, which region owns what territory, and so on….

    On the other hand, I understand there are things that tie us all together as people. Some of them are history, the love for our country, the hunger for peace, the will to eliminate poverty, the passion for freedom, our love for our country, the love for God, and more……

    It is what ties us as one that should make us strive to solve our differences in a respectable way! It is the only way. It is urgent to calm the rhetoric of hate and promote tolerance amongst all regions and ethnic groups. We must respect the law of the land and allow due process to take its course before we prosecute people on Social Media and other outlets. We also must refrain from spreading hate in any form. Politicians must use politically correct language in order to avoid offending people. Social Media activists must STOP insulting tribes or groups such as Amara, Tigre, Oromo, Somalia, Islam, Christian and so on.

    If we care, we really must stop promoting hate and destabilize Ethiopia! News outlets should refrain from broadcasting inflammatory news and should stay focused on just the facts without being biased.

    The Government of Ethiopia must create a law to fight this dangerous behavior of hate based politics.
    I am sorry to say, but a country that has existed over thousands of years should NOT be standing to survive the ills of our behavior, instead we should work in concert to pull Ethiopia out of the madness of hate and mistrust…we must, all of us, do our part.

    In doing our part, we must compromise and we must not allow our pride to stand in the way of Ethiopia’s journey to “swim out of the troubled waters.” We must see the bigger picture. We MUST stop …”Hate Preaching!”

    I decided to write because as Martin Luther King once said, “The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict.” I can’t remain silent when I know Ethiopia must change for the good of the people and advance its peoples plight for peace and prosperity.

    On the spirit of tolerance, we should all help to create a condition for all Ethiopians the following:

    We need to voice our concerns until all Ethiopian citizens from all tribe and religious backgrounds are free to move, at will, within all Ethiopian territories without fear.
    -All Ethiopians should express their views any way they wish without fear of prosecution whatsoever.
    -Ethiopian business owners should be able to travel to any part of Ethiopian territory to conduct legal business with confidence, safe and without fear of harassment from anyone or any group.
    -Not even a single Ethiopian should be evicted from his/her home and made to be homeless for any reason.
    -All Ethiopian citizens should be able to own, sell and trade property(s), own a business (or more than one business), and have full rights in all Ethiopian territories without discrimination.
    -The Government should protect all people from all criminal activities such as vigilantes….no one should take the law into their own hands.
    -All citizens should be careful not to encourage crime and criminal behavior of any sort.

    We all must be responsible citizens by cooperating and abiding by the rules. We must mind our behaviors and not take the law into our own hands.

    I am calling on all Ethiopians to cool down, compose themselves, and tolerate each other’s faults and ask what is needed to bring us together as people. Finger pointing does no good.

    Another quote from Martin Luther King…. “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”

    No one will win through violence. We must NOT promote “lawlessness.” We should know better!! War has gotten us to nowhere. And, again as Dr. Martin Luther King said, “I was not afraid of the words of the violent, but the silence of the honest.”

    So I ask the influential people to step up to the plate and do the right thing. Do not choose silence!!!

    Where are the principled Ethiopians? You must speak on behalf of the peace loving majority. The very few haters must be stopped from overtaking the peoples dream and immerse us in a messy civil war.

    We must do our VERY best to bring Ethiopia to the top of the list of countries doing well, both free and prosperous.

    God bless Ethiopia and its entire people.

    I challenge you all to do your part!!

    I pledge:
    For the sake of Ethiopia I promise to do my part to STOP HATE…And Promote Peace…as follows:

    Because Ethiopia cannot afford to ignore the Hate being promoted, I promise to promote peace and unity without compromising on freedom of speech!!

    May God protect Ethiopia and its People!

    Note: Although I am not against freedom of speech, I ask that you refrain from promoting culturally unacceptable messages that are offensive, and I am strongly against religion, tribe, and ethnic based Hate messages. It is also immoral and in some cases illegal. It could cost you your freedom. Beware!!
    Join us at our Facebook address! By typing: War Free Ethiopia Berhane Alemayoh.

    Sent from my iPhone


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