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Is Africa’s oldest country falling apart?

Despite Africa being known for political instability post-WW2, there has been almost no change to African countries and borders since independence from colonial rule. Only three new countries have been declared from other African nations in the past 30 years – Namibia, Eritrea and South Sudan. This might change soon however, with the collapse of statehood in both Libya and Somalia. But not only these ’failed states’ are in danger; Ethiopia, one of the oldest countries in Africa, faces the threat of collapse.

Unrest is common in Ethiopia. In the wake of the 2015 election, the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) regime, with its allies, won every seat in parliament. They continued land seizures on behalf of the federal government and international investors, causing mass unrest beginning in May 2016. Since then, police brutality against demonstrators has caused hundreds of deaths. The government also shut down the Internet in Ethiopia to prevent demonstrators from organizing. A state of emergency was declared on October 9, enacting martial law in Ethiopia for the first time since the overthrow of the Derg regime in 1991. The Ethiopian government has also denied a request from the UN to admit Human Rights observers.

Ethiopia’s history began with the foundation of the Semitic kingdom D’mt  in approximately 900 BC. Later, the kingdom of Aksum would lay the foundation for a modern Ethiopia and a continuous Ethiopian state, from around 100 BC  into the modern federation we see today. The people descended from the ancient Semitic people are collectively known as Abyssinians or Habesha. Abyssinians further subdivide into Tigrays, Amhara and many smaller peoples in eastern Africa. The distinction between Abyssinians and other Ethiopians of Cushitic or Nilotic ethnicity is still prominent today, causing strife and discord in the country where Abyssinians have constituted the ruling elite of Ethiopia for several millennia.

The Federal Units of Ethiopia. (Picture: Golbez; Wikimedia Commons)

In its modern, post-imperial state, Ethiopia has experienced decades of political turmoil. The EPDRF came to power in 1991 after they successfully overthrew the Marxist Derg regime. The Derg had come to power having themselves overthrown the last Ethiopian emperor, Haile Selassie, in 1974.  In the late 80’s, the Derg were fighting three different rebel groups (EPRDF, OLF and EPLF) and the regime would eventually collapse in 1991 at the hands of the Tigray dominated EPRDF. The EPRDF would go on to form a transitional government with the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) while the EPLF would go on to form the independent republic of Eritrea. All of which illustrates the complexity and instability within modern Ethiopia.

Since 1995, Ethiopia has existed as a federal republic with regions (Kililochs) based on ethnic lines, which are largely self-ruling and hold the constitutional right to democratically secede from the federation.

Despite having administered Ethiopian economic growth to be one of the fastest in Africa, the EPRDF have  also been heavily criticized for voter fraud and human rights abuses as well as ethnic favoritism towards the Tigray people (who constitute approximately 6 % of the  population). Indeed, the era of EPRDF governance has been marked by ethnically based unrest and insurgency. The Oromo, who constitute the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia (35 %) have resisted the government with a mixture of peaceful protests and armed insurgence. Likewise, ethnic Somalis of the eastern Ethiopia region, the Ogaden, have engaged in armed insurgence against the government with the goal of an independent Ogadenia region. Discontent has also spread north to the Amhara region, home of Ethiopia’s second largest group who have dominated Ethiopian politics from the 13th century until the fall of the Derg. The alliance between Amhara and Oromo is an unlikely one, and could prove to be weak and ineffective due to ethnic tensions within the alliance. Before the Tigray came to power it was the Amhara who had ruled and oppressed Oromo identity for centuries.

(Picture: GDJ; Pixabay)

Despite the overall unrest thus far being disorganized and divided, the situation could escalate and come to undo the EPDRF regime. What would follow remains unclear, though a few alternative futures post-EPDRF present themselves:

  1. A shift of power in Ethiopia: The Tigray could either be replaced be a new hegemony under the Oromo, or by a more democratic and peaceful new federation. A democratic Ethiopia would be an Oromo union state due to Oromo plurality, though, which could be cause for continued ethnic tensions.
  2. A disintegration of Ethiopia: Which new states and borders would emerge is hard to predict fully, although Oromia and Ogaden would most likely become independent. The fate of the rest of the country remains unclear, as these disintegration tendencies could continue along lines of ethnicity, religion and geography. It could also heavily involve  the countries of the African Horn, such as Somalia and Eritrea. Add to that the spread of every major ethnicity of Ethiopia outside their national regions, and a dissolution of the country could mean a humanitarian crisis due to long standing conflicts of interests.

For now, it is impossible to tell if the situation will eventually calm down, leaving the EPRDF to remain in power, or if they will be ousted. Whatever the result of the ongoing unrest is, it is clear that ethnic tensions run deep within the country, making long lasting peace hard to achieve, and sooner or later this could threaten the very existence of Ethiopia.

Erik Hoff

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