Friday,22 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1363, (5 - 11 October 2017)
Friday,22 February, 2019
Issue 1363, (5 - 11 October 2017)

Ahram Weekly

New test for Ethiopia

Oromia-Somali clashes in Ethiopia raise the spectre of sustained civil conflict in a country with a history of ethnic confrontation, writes Haitham Nouri


New test for Ethiopia
New test for Ethiopia

اقرأ باللغة العربية

Since adopting a federal constitution in 1995, Ethiopia has maintained political unity and economic growth among the highest in the world, surprising Western investors who prefer not to invest in Africa.

There have been droughts resulting in famines that impacted millions of people, and political protests against the government. However, ethnic clashes between the Oromia and Somali — which have left dozens dead and displaced thousands — constitute a new and more challenging test for Ethiopia’s federacy that is based on ethnolinguistic pluralism.

On Friday, 29 September, the Ethiopian government announced it deployed army and police forces, as well as investigators, in the regions of Oromia and Somali in the south and southwest following clashes over land between the two ethnic groups. Only two days earlier, government spokesman and Minister of Communications Negeri Lencho said fighting erupted in the town of Awaday in the Oromia region between the two sides with dozens killed.

The two regional governments hurled accusations at each other. The local government of Somali claimed that 50 Somalis were killed in Awaday in an attack, and the Oromia government countered in statements by Addisu Arega, Oromia region spokesman, that 55,000 Oromo fled the Somali region after recent clashes and now live in a refugee camp that was hastily constructed in the stadium of Harar city in the East. Arega added that this year alone, some 416,807 Oromo fled the Somali region out of fear of attacks by Somali special police forces.

Reports indicate that 50 people were killed in weeklong clashes. Despite frequent reconciliation, it is common for tensions to flare up between the Oromo – the majority ethnic group in Ethiopia – and the Somali over land disputes over grazing or farming rights. It seems to be a normal occurrence in an African country where the population lived through several civil wars and armed revolutions, most recently a 1980s rebellion led by the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front against the regime of Marxist President Mengistu Haile Mariam, who overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974.

Since the victory of the Revolutionary Front led by late prime minister Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia took several bold decisions, including agreeing to grant Eritrea independence in 1991 only months after Mengistu was removed. It also adopted a new constitution in 1995 which divides the diverse country into nine regions based on ethno-linguistics. At the time, many doubted this plan since it is the shortest path to partitioning the country, but the opposite happened. Zenawi, Ethiopia’s strongman, maintained the country’s unity and added economic growth that is exceptional in Africa.

Since the beginning of the millennium, Ethiopia’s economy grew at a steady rate of more than 10 per cent after relying on coffee and cattle exports for more than a century. According to Western economic reports, growth will reach more than 11 per cent in the coming decade, which will multiply the size of the economy.

Tens of billions of dollars in foreign investment poured into the second most populated country in Africa, with a population of around 110 million, second to Nigeria, from China, France, India, the UK, Germany and others. The government constructed several industrial and free trade zones especially for textiles and tanneries, creating hundreds of thousands of jobs. However, Ethiopia still needs to create one million jobs every year for the growing number of youth joining the workforce.

So far, the country seems to be doing well, and certainly economically. However, recent Oromo-Somali clashes are a delicate warning sign for the regime. First, the Oromo is the largest ethnicity in the country (National Geographic’s annual report estimates they are one third of the population, while Somali are 6.2 per cent). Their region is the largest and is more valuable because it surrounds the capital Addis Ababa.

The location of the capital in the centre of the Oromo region is a delicate issue for the regime. An announcement in July about plans to expand Addis Ababa led to extensive protests by the Oromo because it would encroach on their agricultural land. The issue is even more sensitive because the Oromo are not proportionally represented in government, which is dominated by the Tigray group (about six per cent of the population), and lead many opposition circles.

The Oromo and the Amhara (the traditional rulers of the country who gave it the official Amharic language and account for 27 per cent of the population) clashed with the central government in summer, and several times previously. The Oromo includes almost equal numbers of Muslims and Christians, which undercuts accusations they are a religious power. Tom Gardner, a British journalist living in Addis Ababa, says the Oromo have a strong sense of their ethnic presence.

Omar Abdel-Fattah, professor of political science at Cairo University, believes that is natural because of their numbers, the location of the capital on their land, and their religious diversity makes them feel they deserve a larger share in power.

On the other hand, Somali is a sensitive region in the country that has demanded control of the Ogaden region for decades. War broke out over this in the 1980s with the US supporting the Somali and the Soviet Union supporting Ethiopia, and concluded in a peace treaty in 1987. Decision makers are concerned that the Somali region is linked to Somalia and its political and tribal system. They monitor the region closely to prevent ethnic ties of Ethiopian Somalis from overlapping with the goals of terrorist groups, such as Somalia’s Shebab Al-Mujahideen.

Even without adopting the terrorist ways of Al-Mujahideen, the Somali recruit tribal youth in Somalia, and use them in their conflicts with Ethiopia, or so their Oromo neighbours claim. This accusation is broadly believed by the Amhara and Tigray who have fought long battles with Somalia in Ogaden, and when Addis Ababa sent forces into Somalia about 10 years ago to confront the terrorism of the Islamic Courts Union (which later became Shebab Al-Mujahideen).

Meanwhile, there is the problem of refugees who are not residents of poor border villages, but city dwellers. This is a key warning sign of domestic conflict because it means fighting and clashes are not limited to rural areas as in the past, but have reached urban areas too. These urban dwellers are a source of political and social pressure on the central government because they are from the middle and lower-middle classes.

Many are concerned the conflict will lead the Oromo to feel they are quarrelling with everyone in the country: minority ethnic groups who are intimidated by the Oromo’s large numbers, and the central government that is facing protests in several regions.

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