Ethiopia’s unique statehood in trouble again

The resignation of Hailemariam Desalegn and the appointment of Lt Col Abiye Ahmed as the new Ethiopian Prime Minister seems like a big change but it may be a change instigated to ensure everything remains the same. The 47 year old Abiye Ahmed has a remarkable C.V. He has a degree in computer engineering and a Masters in Business Administration. He served in the army and became Minister for Science and headed the Urban Development and Housing Bureau.

All very dull and bureaucratic you might think. But Abiye is a former former military intelligence officer who became deputy head of the Information Network Security Agency INSA, the internal spy service which watches over noisy students and all foreigners who come to Ethiopia. He also has the exceedingly difficult task of managing the expansion of the capital, Addis Ababa, from 3.4 million in 2007 to more than 4 million today – and that may be an underestimation. He is Oromo and the main part of the old city is in Amhara territory but now it is expanding exponentially and developers are encroaching on “Oromo land”. There have been an increasing number of clashes.

So who appointed Abiye Ahmed? Power in Ethiopia still lies with the Tigrayan generals who fought and won the war against the regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991 after more than 20 years of civil war. Ethiopia was allied to the Soviet Union in the Cold War but the twist was that the Tigrayan Peoples Liberation Front led by Meles Zenawi was also heavily Marxist Leninist. However the Tigrayans represented only 6.1% of Ethiopia’s 93 million people. In most other countries the victors would parade and demonstrate their power but Meles chose to form a coalition that represented most of Ethiopia’s “nationalities”.

Meles appointed Nagaso Gidada Solon as president. Have you heard of Nagaso? I once asked an official what his name was. He could not remember. The presidency was a figurehead. In Africa only in Ethiopia would you find the man in charge is not the one sitting on the throne. But in every government office, alongside the picture of the President, was a picture of Meles Zenawi, then prime minister. Everyone recognised him. It remained on official’s desks long after he died in 2012.

There was no obvious successor to Meles so the Tigrayan generals appointed a southerner, Desalegn, an “African” as Prime Minister. Puzzled by this description? Yes, so was I. Then I learned that many Ethiopians do not consider themselves Africans – they are Ethiopians. In Ethiopia African means the nilotic black Africans who live in the southern lowlands and were enslaved by Ethiopia in times past. Desalegn proved a great administrator, the perfect civil servant, hard working and clearly not part of the perennial power struggle between the Amharas and the Oromos, the largest groups. There was no power struggle when he stepped down.

It is not clear how much political space the generals will give Abiye Ahmed to create reforms and, crucially, settle the dispute over the expansion of the capital.

Ethiopia has always worked in mysterious ways. A place difficult to get to both physically and mentally. Its mountains are vast and its people mistrustful of foreigners. It became the rumoured kingdom of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon’s Mines. It claims to hold the Ark of the Covenant, the tablets of stone given to Moses by God and brought there by the Queen of Sheba. They are kept in a church in Aksum guarded by a priest who never leaves the building. When he dies his successor will stay there until he dies.

In the late 19th century the Italians took over Eritrea and tried to grab Ethiopia but were comprehensively beaten by the Ethiopian army at the battle of Adowa in 1896. In the carve up of Africa at the end of the 19th Century Ethiopia was left untouched and awarded the Ogaden, the eastern lowland part which had traditionally been Somali. This was a bribe to the Emperor for keeping quiet when the European powers sliced up the continent. The British took a young Amhara prince, Haile Selassie, trained him up and put him on the throne but with a resident British “adviser”. The British could see that Ethiopia, despite its long running internal local wars, was capable of ruling itself with a civil service. The Italians attacked again in 1935 and took Ethiopia but were driven out by an Ethiopian British force just six years later.

That lasted until 1974 when Selassie was overthrown and killed in a coup and replaced by Mengistu who tried, with the support from the Soviet Union, to turn Ethiopia into a communist state run on Marxist principles. In fact it was almost entirely an Oromo run state and the Oromo were the majority of powerful office holders. But the northern provinces, Tigray and Eritrea, were poor and neglected. The Eritrea Peoples Liberation Front wanted complete independence while the Tigrayans wanted self government within a federated state. Meles left Addis Ababa University in 1975 and headed north to his home state Tigray to join the newly formed Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front.

When Meles and his comrades tried to explain what they were fighting for they spoke of copying the Albanian model. At that time Albania was regarded as beyond the fringe of the looney left. For Meles it was simply a state that was Marxist Leninist but did not follow the Soviet Union’s lead. Meles learned fast but would frequently quote Marxist ideology and analysis. He wanted to recreate Ethiopia as a federal state and called on Ethiopians to start local wars against the central government in their own regions and fight for self determination – even independence from Ethiopia if they wished. There are more than ten ethnic groups in Ethiopia and Meles wanted to end the historical domination of a centralised state. He urged the nations of Ethiopia – as he called them –  to form regional movements to fight the central government and create a federal system. Only Eritrea – the north of Ethiopia which had been under Italian rule – responded. It had already been fighting since 1958 but not for regionalism. They wanted full independence from Ethiopia. After the Second World War the Americans and British did not want to offend the Emperor so Eritrea was declared part of Ethiopia. Meles struck a deal with Isayas Afewerke, the Eritrean leader. They agreed to fight alongside each other and when the war was won Eritrea could be independent. Meles was smart enough to say that any other part of Ethiopia could secede if it wished to.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989 the regime lost its arms supplier and supporter. Two years later in May 1991 the armies of Eritrean and Tigrayan guerrillas redoubled their efforts and reached the gates of Addis Ababa. President Mengistu fled. Within a week the Tigrayan Eritrean armies had taken over Ethiopia.

The Eritreans left immediately. Job done. They began the process of establishing Eritrea as a separate state. In Addis Meles Zenawi and the TPLF started to remodel Ethiopia and establish a federal state in which the country’s ethnic groups should be self governing. It even declared that any ethnic “state” within Ethiopia could leave if it held a referendum. Except for Eritrea, none did. Eritrea held an independence referendum. I spent several days trying to find an Eritrean who wanted the country to remain part of Ethiopia. I never found one. In Ethiopia the umbrella structure that includes all the parties is the Ethiopia People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front but power still lies in the hands of Tigrayan generals.

To solve the problem of Ethiopia’s “nations” Meles proposed an extraordinary solution, the opposite of what happened in the rest of Africa. There, multi ethnic states tried to suppress tribalism and ethnic self determination.  Ethiopian peoples were told to form regional political parties with elected leaders to run their own affairs as long as they act within the nation’s constitution. Today there are four main parties one each for the Amharas, the Oromo, Tigrayans and the “Southern Ethiopian Democratic Movement”. They could determine their own policies and could even secede if they wanted to. That was to justify the Eritrean secession which was deeply resented by the rest of the country. No other group left.

In the rest of the continent validating ethnicity is the opposite of what the rest of Africa was trying to do with the problem. In no other African constitution – as far as I know – recognises ethnicity in its constitution, only a single nation. Africa governments have vigorously suppressed ethnic resurgence and stressed loyalty and obedience to the state. Some African rulers have tried to suppress any mention of ethnic loyalty but none succeeded in erasing it completely. Most conflicts in Africa have an implicit of explicit ethnic factor. Thirty five of Africa’s 54 states suffered civil war at some stage and almost all of them were, or became, struggles between ethnic groups. Only Botswana, Swaziland and Lesotho have only one ethnic group. None of them have suffered war. Meles encouraged Ethiopia’s “nations” to establish their own parliaments and civil services. Although the centre had control of the budget, it appeared to be dolled out reasonably fairly. In Addis the mood changed. At first the Amhara and Oromo middle classes were fearful of the Tigrayans, the woyane – bandits, as they were once called. But they turned out to be very disciplined, well trained and organised.

Meles introduced controlled capitalism (a necessary stage on the road to socialism, he explained to me) and began a huge decentralised development programme. So desperate was he for investment that he once drove his own car to the airport because a German investment delegation had decided to leave early. He persuaded them to turn back and invest in agribusiness. When he died of cancer in 2014 Meles was genuinely mourned throughout Ethiopia. His victory had brought unexpected peace and that gave the system some stability and success. But today those with power are faceless, pulling the strings behind the scenes with technocrats taking the flak. The 2015 elections were won easily by the umbrella ruling party. There is not a single opposition MP in Parliament. For a while there was an independent MP but he has gone.

So it would seem the the government is in complete control. But the reaction to a plan to extend Addis Ababa into Oromo territory was violently opposed. Meanwhile a drought – Ethiopia’s worst perennial scourge – caused an 8% drop in GDP. Relief was slow to arrive. Last month a state of emergency was declared. Anti government protests have rocked the capital and the government declared a state of emergency. At the same time more and more young Ethiopians with no work are flocking to the capital and finding no work there have become disruptive. Hundreds have been killed and the leading agitators imprisoned. Can Abiye Ahmed succeed where Desalagne failed?

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3 replies »

  1. So is Lt Col Abiye Shamed the right leader for Ethiopia? I foresee Ethiopia disintegrating like Yugoslavia. Not much is bonding big tribes like Amhara, Oromo, and Tigrayans apart from guns that Tigrayans boost of. But how long with the guns last?

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