Africa: Strains Down South - Ethiopia's National Reforms Rouse Local Tensions

Photo: Pixabay
(File photo).
19 June 2018

Ethiopia's transition has raised expectations across the country. The effects of this can be seen in rising unrest in the south.

Over the past few months, shifts in the direction of government under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed at the national level have been drawing most of the headlines in and about Ethiopia. However, the country's transition has also shaken the political order at the regional and local levels in significant and potentially destablising ways.

In southern Ethiopia, for instance, tensions have escalated sharply in the last few days. The highly diverse Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Region (SNNPR), one of the nine regional states in Ethiopia's federal system, has witnessed protests, riots and violence, leaving several people dead.

In the regional capital Hawassa, the Sidama people's New Year festival this past week became a vehicle for the violent expression of Sidama nationalism. Non-Sidama, particularly ethnic Wolaita, were reportedly attacked with reports of up to 40 injured and one dead. Local government offices, shops and homes were damaged or destroyed, while some protesters demanded the establishment of a new Sidama Region and the resignation of SNNPR leaders. They also demanded the prosecution of officials involved in the violent repression in 2001 of Sidama nationalists calling for a special zone for Hawassa.

On 15 June, violence then erupted in Sodo. Wolaita activists wished to demonstrate against the violence in Hawassa and what they saw as the authorities' inadequate response. When they were denied official permission, they attacked local administrators' vehicles and set fire to Oromia Bank, private business, and the local Justice Office building. Some youth reportedly attempted to raid the central prison to free detainees. Diaspora media reported five deaths.

On that same day, activists in Arba Minch also requested permission for a demonstration, which was delayed to 23 June. The demonstrators additionally demanded the resignation of Zonal officials, the release of political prisoners, and an end to alleged land appropriation by state officials.

These escalations over the last few days are worrying. But they also come amid a wider context of violence along the SNNPR's border with the Oromia region. Since April, clashes around the Gedeo zone in SNNPR and West Guji zone of Oromia have left about 275,000 people displaced. Since last year, unrest between Guji and ethnic Kore over the boundary between their districts has led to several deaths and casualties. And in the last week, violence broke out in Wolqite between ethnic Qebena and Guraghe, resulting in the destruction of property and vehicles.

This violence in SNNPR may still be relatively small-scale in a country of around 100 million. But it should be seen in the context of more intense conflicts elsewhere, most notably along the borders of Oromia and the Ethiopian Somali National Region, where hundreds have died and more than 1 million have been displaced, mostly during the last year.

Raising the stakes for political parties

The tensions that have reignited recently are the result of long-standing and unresolved issues. But they are also related to changes at the national level.

Since late-2015, when demonstrations broke out around Ethiopia, mainly in Oromia and the south, pressures have grown on the EPRDF, the ruling coalition, from within and without. Abiy's emergence as prime minister this April was one outcome of this turmoil, but it has not been the only one. His and his party's positioning as reformers have raised expectations of change not just in Oromia, from which Abiy hails, but across the country. The EPRDF is made up of four political parties, each of which is the governing party at the regional level, and to some extent each faces pressures to become more downwardly accountable after years of centralised authority.

Abiy's rise also reflects a rebalancing of influence within the EPRDF. All the coalition's constituent parties are essentially competing with each other today, while also having to deal with new demands in their respective regions. The Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), previously led by the late PM Meles Zenawi, faces the prospect of diminished - though still strong - influence. The Oromo People's Democratic Organisation (OPDO), led by Abiy, is wielding new political and social clout within the coalition, derived in part from its reformist positioning and Abiy's early actions as PM. The Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM) has attempted to capitalise on the protests of the last few years to redefine its relationship with its constituents in Amhara. And in Tirgray, greater expectations of political space can be seen in the demonstrations held recently in protest at Abiy's announced intention to normalise relations with Eritrea.

Amidst this change, the SNNPR's Southern Ethiopian People's Democratic Movement (SEPDM) - which held the PM's role from 2012 until earlier this year - is struggling to redefine itself. This is reflected in SNNPR where the stakes have been raised. The region is home to 56 recognised identities (with others applying for recognition). It contains numerous alternative centres of social, cultural and political power. And the people have seen how large-scale demonstrations elsewhere in Ethiopia drove the evolution of the OPDO and ANDM (and politics within the EPRDF).

The Sidama call for their own region is not new. It has roots going back to the early-1990s, when the federal system was designed and introduced. The Sidama are also not the only group with nationalist aspirations. However, the recent political developments at the national level have emboldened activists to reopen these questions.

Addressing "major contradictions"

How the SNNPR government handles the escalation in violence and how the federal government responds will be key in reducing tensions. Speaking to parliament on 18 June, Abiy noted that "Ethiopia's federalism was meant to address major contradictions" but that "it falls short of addressing the proliferation of minor, localised conflicts". He has proposed a commission to identify issues that have emerged since the establishment of Ethiopia's regions and to find solutions that would work across the country. He is also set to meet with residents in SNNPR in the coming week.

These steps look like a promising start. It is also notable that the government has also refrained from deploying federal police or the military to restore order in the area. This is an important contrast to the government's reaction to unrest in Bishoftu, in Oromia, in October 2016. That clampdown led tensions to spiral and shortly preceded the imposition of a national state of emergency.

If these hostilities are to be resolved peacefully, the government must remain focused on inclusive approaches that draw on local, cultural and historical models from the Ethiopian context. Ethiopia's partners can support such approaches, but should resist the urge to push for quick fixes, based on external models.

Abiy's statements suggest that there is an opportunity to avoid escalation to the level of the Oromo-Somali conflict. However, significant pressures have been unleashed at the local level, and in a federal system, local, regional and national leadership is needed to avoid further deterioration.

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