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Ethiopia: The ethnic tinderbox

Ethiopia: The ethnic tinderbox
  • PublishedAugust 18, 2020

In Ethiopia, as in many African countries, prejudice and oppression have ethnic rather than racial connotations but the effect is the same. James Jeffrey discusses how this view shapes the treatment of African lives in the country.

Placards and slogans protesting in defence of Ethiopia’s Oromo ethnic group bobbed in the air among the crowd of about 100 people who gathered around a bust of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie in a leafy Wimbledon park in London.

Soon all that remained of the so-called Negusa Nagast, King of Kings, whose lineage reportedly went back to Emperor Menelik I, the offspring of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, was a shattered plinth surrounded by rubble.

This instance of iconoclasm on 30 June had little if anything to do with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, though the latter’s recent toppling of statues may have empowered those who took action in Wimbledon. Selassie’s demise had more to do with Oromo Lives Matter and the general protest efforts by Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group to draw attention to their marginalisation and repression.

In wrestling with how the Black Lives Matter movement translates – or doesn’t – to the issue of how African lives are perceived, Ethiopia presents a strikingly unique case (something Ethiopia is always good at). For the country has long viewed itself as separate – and, with that, superior – to the rest of Africa that was colonised by Europeans.

Yet Ethiopia’s symbolism as a stand-out beacon of liberation and independence flounders against the fact that slavery thrived in Ethiopia well into the 20th century. It wasn’t until 1923 on the eve of the League of Nations conference considering Ethiopia’s potential membership that Selassie issued an edict ending slavery in Ethiopia.

Furthermore, to this day skin tone in Ethiopia carries significance, underscored by a prejudice – one that extends throughout Ethiopian society – that the blacker one is the less Ethiopian you are, with detrimental implications for those living around the country’s borders with the likes of South Sudan.

“The Ethiopian centre has always related to its periphery in a predatory way,” wrote Dereje Feyissa, a senior advisor at the Addis Ababa-based International Law and Policy Institute. “This is not only because of the geographic distance, but also the historical, social and cultural differences which the discourse on skin colour signifies.”

The day before Selassie’s bust was toppled, Ethiopia was rocked by the shooting in Addis Ababa of Hachalu Hundessa, a hugely popular and influential Oromo singer. Many of his songs addressed the marginalisation of the Oromo and associated historical grievances.

Hachalu has been described as providing the soundtrack to the anti-government protests that propelled PM Abiy Ahmed –  the country’s first Oromo leader – into power at the start of 2018.

Many of the historical grievances held by the Oromo are directed at the Amhara, Ethiopia’s second- largest ethnic group, who up until the 1991 revolution, had maintained a tight grip on power since 1855, when Emperor Tewodros II united a feuding Ethiopia and promoted Amhara culture. Selassie was Amhara himself, and the Oromo blame him for suppressing the likes of their language and religion during his reign.

“It sounds like it was a distinctly Oromo event, very much a response to what is going on in Ethiopia right now,” Michela Wrong, a journalist and Horn of Africa specialist, says of the toppling of Selassie’s bust. “It was a quiet and very determined political gesture aimed at an Ethiopian audience by Oromos living in London.”

During recent protests in the Piazza district of Addis Ababa following Hachalu’s death, a crowd advanced on the statue of Emperor Menelik II, who, while revered as the creator of modern Ethiopia and famed for defeating the Italians at the Battle of Adwa in 1896, thereby ensuring Ethiopia was the only African country not colonised, is also seen by the Oromo as embodying the Amhara system of marginalisation.

The crowd was prevented from taking further action by security forces, with city police officers stationed at the statue since. It offers a striking parallel with what had to happen to the statue of the UK’s wartime leader Winston Churchill in Parliament Square.

Long-simmering ethnic rivalries

Such surface similarities can mask how the Black Lives Matter movement can be leveraged to capitalise on Ethiopia’s increasingly fraught political space or used as a smoke-screen or excuse to further inflame ethnic tensions.

“Ethiopian political history is a history of the oppressing class and the oppressed mass, however, no parallels can be drawn [between] the event that precipitated the BLM movement and the Oromo Lives Matter movement,” says Gennet Negussie.

She has lived in the US since 1988 and is with the Ethiopian Advocacy Network, a grassroots collection of organisations promoting democracy, human rights and justice in Ethiopia. “The Oromo Lives Matter movement is trying to leverage BLM to gather support for their cause.”

It’s estimated that more than 160 people have been killed in violence following Hachalu’s unsolved shooting. The past few years in Ethiopia have been marked by numerous breakouts of ethnic-related violence, with hundreds, if not thousands, killed and millions forced from their homes.

“The pace and scale of the change happening in Ethiopia is quite unbelievable,” says Ahmed Soliman, a research fellow with the Africa Programme at the London-based policy institute and think-tank, Chatham House. “The impact of inter-communal tensions and ethnic violence presents a serious challenge. Abiy’s aggressive reform agenda has won praise, but shaking up Ethiopia’s government risks exacerbating several long-simmering ethnic rivalries.”

By the end of 2019, Ethiopia had more than a million people displaced internally through conflict, according to the International Organisation for Migration.

Many of the displaced and those assisting them make accusations of ethnic unrest being leveraged for political ends. Suspected perpetrators range from the more obvious powerbrokers at the regional and federal government levels, all the way to the likes of Ethiopian cab drivers coming off shifts in Washington, D.C., in the US to Tweet ethnic-laced vitriol on their smartphones.

Successive waves of emigration during decades of tumult in Ethiopia have formed a worldwide Ethiopian diaspora of around two million people. The largest communities are in the US, with estimates varying from 250,000 people to about one million.

The 2011 UK Census shows that there were 15,494 people who were born in Ethiopia and are now living in the UK, with 10,517 living in London. Other estimates of the number of Ethiopians living in the UK exceed 58,000.

The Tigrayan factor

Selassie’s bust fell foul to Oromo animus toward the Amhara, but Ethiopia’s Tigrayan population also come in for significant opprobrium from many of Ethiopia’s ethnic groups.

Tigrayans comprise just 6% of Ethiopia’s 100m people but are perceived as a powerful minority because of their ethnic affinity with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which wielded almost unlimited power since the 1991 revolution until Abiy’s reforms within the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).

In 2019, simmering anti-Tigrayan sentiments led to outbreaks of violence, ranging from barricading roads and forcibly stopping traffic to looting and attacks on Tigrayan homes and businesses in the Amhara and Oromia regions.

Despite Abiy’s reforms and the TPLF’s subsequent loss of power, Tigrayans say what hasn’t changed is the narrative that they are responsible by association for the ills of the TPLF. Ethiopian memories are long and travel outside the country – as seen in Wimbledon.

“I hope the women who puked #EPRDF members out of their bodies have their wombs filled with cement and are buried like dogs with rabbis [rabies],” were the words of one Twitter user when the TPLF were still in control. Such hate speech has appeared among Twitter responses to Hachalu’s death, encouraging violence against the Amhara, according to the Amhara Association of America.

A chequered history

Compared to ethnic killings and millions displaced, the destruction of an old statue is of little importance. But in venting their frustrations, the Oromo protesters in London have not only destroyed a quirky facet of Wimbledon’s architectural fabric but also a monument testifying to the history of the relationship between the UK and Ethiopia that, containing both good and ill, should be remembered, for the sakes of both countries.

The East Africa campaign – also known as the Abyssinian campaign – during World War II to liberate Ethiopia is barely remembered or mentioned even though it included the longest opposed advance in military history: 1,700 miles from Kenya, through Italian Somaliland into the heart of Italian-occupied Ethiopia. It proved a stunning success. The Italian African empire rapidly collapsed, and Addis Ababa fell to allied forces on 6 April 1941.

But Britain’s behaviour in Ethiopia following Selassie’s restoration proved less stellar, mirroring the approach of British officials who oversaw the initial post-war administration of Eritrea.

“Sadly they did go in for the same kind of looting in Ethiopia as they got up to in Eritrea,” Wrong says. “British officials thought the Italians had ludicrously over-invested in Ethiopia, the end of WWII meant there was a lot of nice kit lying around in Addis and elsewhere, Italy was the vanquished enemy, so the Brits just carted all that stuff off to their own colonies.”

When it comes to tackling issues such as the marginalisation of African countries – too often viewed as of little worth except as a source of resources – and the dynamic of how African-on-African violence can perpetuate the prejudices of outsiders and their associated lack of respect for African lives and livelihoods, Ethiopia’s situation is both nonconventional and illustrative.

It offers evidence of how groups on either side of that colour line identified in 1903 by the American sociologist and Black rights activist W. E. B. Du Bois as “the central issue of the twentieth century,” have much to learn, recognise and wrestle with.

Gennet cautions that it is “important not to lump Ethiopian ethnic grievances with those of the USA” that are steeped in constitutionally approved slavery, or with those in South Africa stemming from the Apartheid system. The complexities in Ethiopia go beyond skin tone, she says, noting that most Ethiopian families contain a family member with darker skin.

“In Ethiopia, until the TPLF came to power in the early 1990s, division between the ruling class and ruled was mostly dependent on a person’s socio-economic status and a person’s position in government,” Gennet says. “Once the TPLF, led by a minority ethnic group, came to power, [it] started peddling historical falsehoods, putting one ethnic group against another, and stoking fear and violence among several ethnic groups.” 


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Written By
James Jeffrey

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