It has taken less than a week for doubts to set in over the unrest in Ethiopia, a country of more than 100 million people and the source of the Blue Nile. What the Ethiopian opposition has done is to take the political discourse of the country to the wider fringes of the political scene in the Horn of Africa. It appears that the Ethiopian government is now turning against it.
The style of authoritarian governments in Africa has not been adopted in Ethiopia. The Horn of Africa nation has been a bastion of democratisation and rapid economic development, and the capital Addis Ababa is the headquarters of the African Union. However, the democratisation process has not been easy, and there has been evidence of human rights abuses, indicating that the government’s agenda may be turning against it.
The government claims that the Ethiopian opposition’s tactics have infused poison into this multi-ethnic and multi-religious nation. The ethnic Amhara, the country’s second-largest ethnic group, have traditionally been the ruling elite of the country, but they were marginalised during the rule of the late ethnic Tigrinya ruler Meles Zennawi. Other ethnic groups were given citizenship rights that had hitherto been denied them.
The country’s current Prime Minister Haile-Mariam Desalegn, was born in the Woliyta region of southern Ethiopia, the first to hail from the south of the country. When Zennawi passed away in August 2012, Desalegn succeeded him as prime minister, an unprecedented feat for a southerner in this strategic country for the United States in particular as it straddles a vast area between Africa and the Middle East.
The Ethiopian opposition, whether the ethnic Oromo, the country’s largest ethnic group, or the Amhara, are turning against the government and insist that Desalegn’s administration has seriously damaged democracy in Ethiopia. The government claims otherwise, but the opposition says that the government has made promises and failed to deliver on them. .
There are also other issues at stake. Oromia, an area which surrounds the capital Addis Ababa, has emerged as the centre of the current opposition rallies and is the largest geographically and the most populous region in Ethiopia. The demonstrations have led to the worst ethnic violence in the country for decades, and ethnic Oromos and Amharas are now up in arms against the government, having called a moratorium on their own traditional rivalry.
Activists living abroad and alleged Islamist terrorists have been blamed for the violence. The government is especially concerned about the possible involvement of militant Islamist groups, including Al-Shabab in neighbouring Somalia.
Ethiopia’s history is replete with episodes of religious strife. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has traditionally battled Muslim Somalis and Oromos in their mountain strongholds. The Oromos are divided between Christians in the west and Muslims in the east, and Christian Oromos comprise the largest Protestant minority in the country.
Ethiopian politics are animated by religion. The exact number of Muslims in Ethiopia is unknown. However, it is estimated that the country has the second largest number of Muslims living as a minority group in the world, with some 30 million Muslim citizens. Other nations with large Muslim minorities include China (25 million), Russia (20 million) and Tanzania (15 million). Ethiopia is also home to Harar, the fourth holiest site in Islam.
The most powerful Muslim rebel in Ethiopian history was referred to as Gragn Mohamed in Amharic, or “Mohamed the left-handed”. Ethiopia is unique in that early Muslims during the time of the Prophet Mohamed crossed the Red Sea to flee the oppression they faced at the hands of pagans in Mecca. But the Ethiopian aristocracy never embraced Islam, and though there were later powerful Muslim kingdoms in the country, these never wielded power over the entire territory.
The people of Abyssinia, including Amhara, Tigray and north-west Oromo as well as much of the southern part of the sprawling country, are staunchly Christian. But the country’s predominantly Muslim ethnic groups were traditionally courted by the Christian elite, and the country’s Muslims were always an integral part of the Ethiopian political system. They were never made peripheral, but were always a constituent component of the political status quo.
The current state of unrest in the country includes protest marches and demonstrations by the ethnic Amhara people. Their dissent is multifaceted, and it has increased since the late Meles Zennawi took power. The result has been a political system that has strayed very far from its traditional roots.
The Amharic heartland of Ethiopia is the province of Gojam, the name being given to the inhabitants due to their resistance to the Coptic Christian Church in Egypt. Amharic is also still the official language of Ethiopia. In spite of being a close ally of many Western nations, Ethiopia has dismissed a plea from the United Nations to permit international observers to investigate the alleged killings of protesters by the security forces during the current demonstrations.
Is this an “Arab Spring” type uprising in the making? UN high commissioner for human rights Zeid Raad Al-Hussein said allegations of the excessive use of force in Ethiopia should be investigated and that his office was currently engaged in negotiations with the Ethiopian government. There is wide disappointment at the current turn of events, as Ethiopia has been seen as among the most promising economies in Africa.
The unrest may offer lessons to neighbouring African and Arab countries. The first lesson is that the political establishment in Ethiopia is not easily intimidated. The second is that the Ethiopian opposition is not capable of toppling the status quo.