Ethiopia: Why the Third Layer of Ethiopia's Conflict May Be the Most Worrying

Ethiopian refugees fleeing clashes in the Tigray region cross the border into Sudan.
26 November 2020
analysis

Amid widespread hateful rhetoric, intercommunal mistrust and violence could spiral out of control.

The conflict between Ethiopia's federal government and the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) is another tragic event for a nation reeling from ethnic-based violence and political assassinations. There have likely been thousands of casualties since the military campaign began on 4 November, and many more have had to flee their homes.

This conflict has multiple layers.

The first is political. Three years ago, the winds of change blew - albeit uneasily - through Ethiopia. Amid huge and sustained demonstrations, particularly in the Oromia region, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn resigned on 2 April 2018. He was replaced by the charismatic then 41-year-old Abiy Ahmed who became the country's first Oromo prime minister.

This change of leadership was perhaps necessary to assuage protesters, but it provided a dilemma for the TPLF, which had been the senior party in the coalition government since 1991. Abiy had cut his teeth under the leadership of the Tigrayan old guard, who maintained significant power across politics and business, but he soon broke with their guidance. The new PM sidelined Tigrayan leader and pursued his own vision for Ethiopia. He espoused notions of pan-Ethiopianism - changing direction from his predecessors' faith in ethnic federalism - and transformed the ruling four-party coalition into the singular Prosperity Party (PP). His opponents, including ethno-nationalists from his Oromia, accused him on paving the way for one-man authoritarian leadership.

The once all-powerful TPLF retreated to Tigray, which they ruled as a de facto autonomous state. This September, the region even held its own unilateral elections in defiance of the federal government's order to postpone the polls amid the COVID-19 pandemic. This ratcheted up political and ideological tensions with the federal government even further.

The second layer is personal. Ego plays a huge role in Ethiopian politics, which is dominated by a culture of honour and shame and in which ill-conceived notions of heroism are a common rhetorical trope. In this political environment, it is difficult for leaders to accept defeat or even engage in dialogue that will inevitably involve making concessions. Both the TPLF and Abiy are guilty of this.

When "elders" - including religious leaders and other influential people such as athlete Haile Gebresilassie - travelled to Tigray's capital Mekelle in a bid to mediate this June, for instance, their efforts were rebuffed by TPLF leaders. More recently, the federal government has similarly rejected offers of mediation, arguing that the TPLF's alleged attack on the Northern Command Post crossed a red line from which there is no coming back.

The third layer

The third layer is communal. This dimension is often under-emphasised but is arguably the most concerning and hardest to resolve. Most ordinary citizens in Ethiopia crave peace but breathe the air of mutual mistrust generated by leaders pursuing their own political agendas. The volume and ferocity of toxic narratives is such that areas that were once considered positive examples of peaceful cohabitation of religiously and ethnically diverse groups - such as Harar, Wollo, Hawassa and Addis Ababa - have become epicentres of political, and at times, violent contention.

In this month alone, there have been several worrying incidents of ethnic-based killings. In Benishangul-Gumuz, gunmen killed at least 34 civilians in what opposition politicians claim is part of a targeted campaign by Gumuz militias against ethnic Amhara and Agew. In West Wellega Zone, Oromo nationalist militias reportedly killed 54 ethnic Amhara. In several other areas and particularly along regional borders - such as along the Afar-Somali, Oromia-Somali and Tigray-Amhara boundaries - there have been repeated clashes in recent years.

More and more in Ethiopia, people have become numb to news of intercommunal violence, which has lost its shock factor, and become used to hearing ethnically charged rhetoric. This is deeply worrying. We know from examples like Rwanda in 1994 how dangerous hate speech can be in convincing ordinary people that another group presents an existential threat to them and in mobilising them to commit unspeakable atrocities. Moreover, the environment in Rwanda was fostered by a few radio stations; today social media can make campaigns of propaganda even more relentless and ferocious.

Since the conflict began, Abiy has insisted that the safety of the Tigrayan people must protected and differentiated between the TPLF and ordinary people. However, aside from whether the federal government's military strategy reflects this, there are reports of people taking matters into their own hands and discriminating against Tigrayans.

Pitting community against community

Resolving the conflict in Ethiopia will require tackling all three of its layers. To avoid continued bloodshed and misery, politicians will need to see beyond their egos. Some form of political negotiation, or surrendering to the legal course, will eventually need to happen.

However, even if these aspects of the conflict were to be reconciled - which looks far from possible at this moment - the legacy of the communal layer would take a lot more healing. It would long threaten to spiral out of control. Once suspicion and mistrust have been fostered, it is difficult to reverse course.

It is therefore crucial that we do not lose sight of this dimension to Ethiopia's crisis that has pitted not just the federal government against the TPLF and other ethno-nationalist groupings but community against community. It is politicians that must see sense to end the conflict, but it is incumbent on all Ethiopians - in particular those with influence such as social media commentators and media house owners - to tone down their rhetoric and take responsibility for their words.

Mohammed Girma is a Visiting Lecturer at Roehampton University and Research Associate at the University of Pretoria. He is the author of Understanding Religion and Society in Ethiopia (2012) and the editor of The Healing of Memories (2018). Follow him on twitter at @girma_mohammed.

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