Source: Ethiopia Insight

Ethiopia uncorked

Former U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia David Shinn is one analyst unsurprised by the trauma that has accompanied liberalization. “Ethiopia has only known authoritarianism throughout its existence. It has to overcome 2,000 years of history, so opening up is a huge challenge. The lid was on things and now it is off. The problem is keeping the pot from boiling over,” he said.

The unraveling of authoritarian control combined with political, economic, and environmental challenges are producing violent ruptures across a diverse, impoverished and growing nation

For six years until December, Chaltu from Ambo in Oromia was a nurse in Teltelle town of that region’s vast Borena Zone. But last month she ended up borderline destitute in Addis Ababa with her six-year-old daughter Sifanni.“My family is left with a single set of clothes only. We are looking for extra clothing and shoes here,” she said in the Menharia area of the capital.

The reason was that Chaltu became one of 2.4 million Ethiopians displaced by conflict. Indeed, the 1.4 million that fled in the first half of last year was the highest number of such victims of any country in the world. As with much recent unrest, the problem in Teltelle was communal, rather than a government crackdown.

Yet that isn’t strictly true for Cheltu, an Oromo, as the mob that looted her property was from the same ethnicity, or nation within a multinational federation. The reason seemed to be that her husband is from a minority, the Burji, who suffered in arbitrary retaliations for ethnic violence in Moyale town, around 300 kilometers away.

Now, the couple and Sifanni have returned to their bare home in Teltelle, the most westerly woreda in Borena, but they are fearful of further reprisals against the husband, who has lived in the town for almost a decade.

This type of instability runs counter to the dominant Ethiopia narrative, which is one of momentous progress. After more than three years of anti-government protests, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed from Oromia’s ruling party took office in April and removed key planks of an authoritarian state.

Political prisoner releases were ramped up, exiled opposition groups welcomed home, and the upper echelons of a repressive security apparatus dismantled. That included firing powerful national intelligence supremo, Getachew Assefa, a member of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front politburo.

The ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front of four regional parties Abiy chairs holds all seats in federal and state parliaments, as well as millions of local council positions. It has monopolized power since 1991, snuffing out much dissent, but is more divided than ever before. A clutch of activists and academics are helping revise repressive legislation. Postponed local elections are theoretically scheduled for May and Abiy has pledged a free and fair general election 12 months later to break the EPRDF’s stranglehold.

Yet, so far, the democratizing zeal has led to a different type of violence, not less, partly because of the party-state’s reduced cohesion and effectiveness, including its ability to enact violent suppression. Former U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia David Shinn is one analyst unsurprised by the trauma that has accompanied liberalization.

“Ethiopia has only known authoritarianism throughout its existence. It has to overcome 2,000 years of history, so opening up is a huge challenge. The lid was on things and now it is off. The problem is keeping the pot from boiling over,” he said.

That release of pressure combined with political, economic, and environmental challenges are producing violent ruptures across a diverse, impoverished, growing nation. And a microcosm of a complex and highly threatening situation can be found in the background to the violence that disrupted the life of Chaltu’s family.


Youths from the Borena Oromo clan attacked Burji, Somali Garre, and others in Teltelle in the fallout from fighting in Moyale between Garre and Borena. Moyale is a flashpoint between the two, as well as the Oromo Gabra, primarily as no agreement has been reached since 1991 on a division of administrative power. That has contributed to sporadic conflict with the latest killing at least 30 people, displacing 80,000, and involving a shootout at a military mediation meeting.

On Dec. 14, Teltelle residents demonstrated against the fighting. Violence began locally the next day when hundreds of Borena, most from nearby villages, looted a Garre house. Another peaceful protest followed on Dec. 16. “We construct houses, we don’t ruin them. Looting doesn’t represent Borena,” people chanted.

That angered other Borena, according to a senior police officer, and tensions rose. Groups encircled the town and attacked the next evening. The houses of 48 Burji, 11 Garre and other minorities were ransacked, according to a senior police officer. “We took our children to non-Burji houses to protect them. Police protected us that night with repeated air shots,” said a victim. There were no fatalities.

Taye Dendea, spokesman for Abiy’s Oromo Democratic Party, said over 100 suspects were detained in Teltelle and Yabello, which is around 80 kilometers to the east and suffered similar unrest. Oromo elders mediated and said displaced should resettle and be compensated. “Such an attack on other ethnicities is not our culture and does not represent Borena or Oromo,” Taye said last month.

Teltelle police officers and victims partly blame local ODP leadership, police, and officials, who they say did nothing to stop the attack. The senior police officer said four colleagues were involved in looting and two have been arrested. Mohamed Sali, a Somali victim, believes culpable woreda and zonal officials were not detained, but local bureaucrats were arrested to give the impression of accountability. “My house was flattened, two full stores and a shop completely looted, and about 370 cattle stolen,” he said.

Hard landing

Although unrest in Teltelle woreda was not new, this was severe. That also applies to the national situation, although the Borena-Garre conflict has previously displaced tens of thousands people, therefore offering an example of one of multiple simmering disputes that the EPRDF system failed to resolve, and may well have exacerbated

Researcher Tigist Kebede Feyissa found there had always been a degree of resource-based fighting between the groups, including when they shared a Borena-dominated district under the Derg regime. The extent of interaction between the predominantly herding communities is shown by the fact that Garre speak Afaan Oromo and some anthropologists claim they share Oromo and Somali identity.

But in 1991, dynamics altered, as Oromia and Somali regions were created, which led to a rise in disputes over the border, particularly in Moyale, Tigist wrote in her 2014 University of Tromso master’s thesis. While ethnic boundaries existed already, “the new system put in place rather politicized the existing difference and added a dimension of ‘us’ from ‘them’, which surpassed the elements of similarities and magnified the differences,” she concluded.

If the Teltelle violence was partly collateral damage from Moyale, it may also be linked to varied understandings of territory. Land in Ethiopia is state-owned, but customary tenure arrangements, and the impact of the multinational constitutional order, create a multi-layered reality, according to Tom Lavers, a Lecturer in Politics and Development at the University of Manchester’s Global Development Institute.

This means that while regional policies stipulate no ethnic discrimination in land allocation that has not always the case in practice. Especially in pastoralist areas, groups like the Borena have their own conceptions of land ownership. In some instances the post-1991 creation of administrative units by mapping ethnic territories boosted concepts of a homeland, which can be at the expense of minority rights, he argued in a 2018 paper that looked at communal conflict in Turufe Kechema district in Arsi, Oromia, around 100 kilometers north of Teltelle.

Heading south?

The situation in Teltelle is just the tip of communal violence in the region. In April to June, fighting in nearby Gedeo zone in Southern Nations and West Guji Zone of Oromia left about 800,000 people displaced. The Gedeo occupy a chunk of land that protrudes into Oromia between Borena and West Guji zones, and, according to UNOCHA, suffered “massive, targeted violence”.

An OLF commander in Guji reportedly disarmed last month while OLF is also active around Moyale. Like the Gedeo, the Burji and the Amaro, another Southern Nations community, have been the victims of sustained attacks by militants from the territory of the Guji, an Oromo clan.

That has occurred for years, but recently intensified, with 560 households evicted from 20 of 35 Amaro kebeles in the last two years, as government buildings were destroyed and farms burned, according to local sources. They reported that 13 Burji were killed by Guji-based militants in Surro Berguda Woreda in December, with attacks continuing last month. The uptick in violence and increased sophistication of attacks leads locals to believe the OLF is involved and that the aim is territorial annexation, although the group has denied responsibility.

“The old EPRDF imposed a particular order on a range of longstanding and complex disputes and, in many cases, no doubt favoring allied factions. The fragmentation and loss of control of the center and renegotiations with various groups now means that everything is up for grabs,” said Lavers.

A major cause of instability for decades in Southern Nations has been demands for greater administrative autonomy, which gives more control of government spending and appointments. Those dynamics have now entered a new phase with the Sidama leading constitutional processes to have their own state. But at the sub-regional level, in recent years there was violence after Konso objected to being grouped with the Burji, Amaro and others in Segen Area Peoples’ Zone.

Segen has been unstable for years, but there was serious violence on Jan. 27 and 28 in one of its woredas, Derashe. Factions of the minority Kusume people disagreed on whether to push for their own woreda and Derashe supported those in favor of the status quo. The fighting destroyed many houses in Gatto Kebele and killed at least 25 people with thousands displaced, according to Koyola Kilano, a Kusume victim.

In the west of Southern Nations, Tepi town has also been a flashpoint since 2017, as Keffa people objected to perceived dominance of Sheka officials in its administration. The Keffa demand for their own woreda caused conflict in June that led to the disruption of public services including the closure of Tepi university. That erupted again for three days after a demonstration on Jan. 28, leading to at least five deaths and looting, according to residents.

“Alongside other drivers such as population growth, land and water shortages and so on, some of the conflicts are to a significant degree the creation of federalism, which provided the incentives for growing ethno-nationalism and the politicization of ethnicity and territory,” Lavers said.


Heightening the challenge for Abiy’s administration, these violent outbreaks in southern Ethiopia are by no means the only ones occurring across the nation, as local elites exploit opponents’ weaknesses, regional rivalries intensify, and EPRDF parties in Oromia and Amhara face hardline challengers.

The December Somali-Oromo clashes in Moyale were just the latest between those nationalities. Renewed fighting that displaced over one million people since 2017 was nominally caused by resource conflict in a drought-hit area and a disputed border, which authorities largely failed to resolve with a 2004 referendum. But it was also tied-up with the intra-EPRDF struggle.

Somali region Special Police commanded by deposed former president Abdi Iley committed atrocities, and Abdi was allied with military commanders that were part of a TPLF-led security state. The Oromia-Somali struggle broke out as Oromo protesters challenged the federal government, and there were also atrocities against Somalis when Oromia hit back. A root cause of the violence was allegedly control of contraband routes, including a lucrative khat trade.

Allegations of ODP complicity in Teltelle recall Harari region where Oromos are the majority but the regional constitution hands significant control to the minority Harari. That has contributed to ongoing violence as Harari are intimidated by Oromo, which the ODP either facilitates or fails to prevent.

There is also dangerous tension in the north as the ruling Amhara Democratic Party claims areas of Tigray that used to be part of provinces that are now otherwise in Amhara, and the ascendant National Movement of Amhara opposition pushes broader territorial demands. The regional security head says the TPLF is retaliating by stoking the identity claims of the Qemant people in Amhara.

“Lots of individuals and groups, inside and outside the EPRDF, are positioning themselves for the new era and some are stirring up resentment and grievances in order to do so,” argued Lavers.

To the west, Benishangul-Gumuz experienced extreme violence between Oromo and Gumuz in October, which displaced almost a quarter of a million people, mostly Oromo. A focal point, Kamashi Zone, used to be part of Wollega, a pre-1991 Oromo province, and juts into Oromia.

The Wollega-Kamashi borderlands are now under military control and suspected instigators have been arrested after Gumuz militia received training. Some commentators believe anti-reform elements linked to Getachew Assefa’s networks, and allied with Tigrayan agriculture investors, instigated attacks, although this has not been evidenced.

The Kamashi turmoil merged into unrest in three neighboring zones of Oromia. The area is a historic stronghold of the OLF and its main faction’s leader, Daud Ibsa, who returned from Eritrea in August. Political battles between OLF supporters and ODP escalated recently to military intervention, and the arrest of Daud’s allies and supporters.

Tall order

The chaos is occurring amid a fiscal crisis that led the government to seek an emergency $1 billion in assistance from the United Arab Emirates in June, while the World Bank is committed to $1.2 billion in budget support in return for a raft of liberalization measures.

Local elections were postponed in 2018 and may be again, meaning a lack of authority for village and district officials. A politically sensitive census delayed since 2017 begins in April. With demographics highly disputed, the 10-year count is relevant to the federal system and territorial disputes. On top of that, there is the likely Sidama statehood referendum and the potential fragmentation of Southern Nations region. Abiy’s office also just announced members of a new executive border commission to assess disagreements, although Tigray has rejected the process.

The rift between regional states and EPRDF parties is probably Abiy’s primary challenge, and there is also no agreement on whether or how to modify a federal system that some political groups reject entirely. And while an integral aspect of democratization, disruption to the existing brittle and intertwined party, government and security structures has increased destabilization. That upheaval included major institutional restructuring, as Getachew Assefa’s former domain and other TPLF-heavy security agencies were gathered under the Ministry of Peace.

Last week, the new super ministry claimed that more than one million displaced Ethiopians had returned to their homes, but the ambassador of a donor country doubted that. Many Somalis do not want to return to Oromia and in Gedeo “homes and farms have been taken by those who pushed them out and the returnees are in temporary unrecognized sites with few facilities and services,” they said.

Those views align with a November report by Refugees International that found the government was prematurely returning Gedeo who were unable to fully resettle. The move created a dilemma for aid agencies about whether to support what the report called “secondary displacements.”

Western and other partners annually deliver as much as $4 billion in aid for around 12 million vulnerable individuals and development programs, but they hold little sway over domestic politics. Instead donors, along with millions of Ethiopians, hope that the political renewal, as well as economic liberalization, will soon lead to reduced conflict and renewed growth.

“Most of what Abiy is doing is what the international community, including the United States, has been urging for several decades. Success is dependent, however, on the willingness of most Ethiopians to accept change and compromise and put national interests ahead of regional and ethnic interests. In view of Ethiopia’s history, this is a tall order,” said former ambassador Shinn.


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