Prof. Yenshu Emmanuel Political Sociologist, University of Buea.
What explains the political and social turmoil in Ethiopia in the past three years?
Ethiopia is the only African nation that was not partitioned and colonized by any European power. It was a small empire for long until Eritrea, the former Italian colony, was joined to it after World War II. As an empire, Ethiopia was more stable because there was greater understanding and cohesion amongst the people. When the Dergue military junta overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974, Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam later became its leader. Then began the domination of the Amhara ethnic group until Col. Mengistu was overthrown in 1991 by the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, EPDRF Tigrean-led political coalition. At the same time, Eritrean broke away to form an independent nation.
The advent of EPRDF and Tigrean leadership in recent years led to social discontent and complaints amongst the Oromo majority ethnic group (who make up 40 per cent of the population) of marginalization and being kept sidelined from power-sharing at the federal level. There were demonstrations and arrests of Oromo people and intellectuals. Though the political prisoners were released at some point, they were soon re-arrested as the unrest continued.
So, the problem in Ethiopia, especially in the past three years, has been that of ethnic balancing in terms of power-sharing. Finding a solution is not by replacing one ethnic group with another. Once the leadership belongs to a particular ethnic group that lasts long in power, before you know it, others will start complaining of marginalization.
After the resignation of Haile Mariam Desalegn in February, Abiy Ahmed was sworn in on April 2, 2018 as PM. What is so particular about his election and what are the internal and foreign challenges facing his administration?
Dr Abiy Ahmed comes from a neutral ethnic group, the Oromo, though he has an Amhara Christian mother and grandmother, and an Oromo Moslem father and grandfather, like himself. Oromos have mainly been at the centre of the recent turmoil in the country, complaining about marginalization. Though only 43, Abiy Ahmed might have the solution to Ethiopia’s perennial problem of power-sharing between the ethnic groups. Ethiopia is a federation with regional autonomy. This gain should not be taken away.
A system should be found to sharing central power so that no ethnic group feels marginalized. Moreover, ensuring internal peace and stability will enable the country to better face foreign challenges. Once a nation resolves its internal cohesion problems, it becomes easier to face external aggression. But when a nation is weakened because of internal challenges that are not quickly resolved, foreign powers take advantage of the situation to interfere.
Take the case of the very big nation, the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC. Since the Rwandan interference of the mid 1990s, the country has not been able to fully recover because of its internal strife. Though a very little country compared to the DRC, Kigali has continued to influence happenings in eastern DRC because Kinshasa has not been able to put its house in order. Unless this is done, DRC cannot withstand external aggression, even from small nations like Rwanda. Stabilizing the polity by putting in place a power-sharing arrangement that satisfies most Ethiopians people could ensure stability. There is a price to pay for separation in terms of arising boundary disputes. There is therefore need for Ethiopia and Eritrea to reach consensus on boundary demarcation.
If there are natural resources that crisscross both boundaries, the two nations can agree on joint exploitation because they need each other. Ethiopia has since the breakaway of Eritrea in 1991 become a landlocked nation. Just like Addis Ababa needs Asmara’s sea access, Eritrea also needs Ethiopia’s transit fees for sea exports through its territory.
What are the new PM’s chances of stabilising the polity?
Abiy Ahmed’s chances of success depend on well he appeals to the people. His mixed ethnic and religious backgrounds might be of some advantage. If he is able to stabilize the polity, economic gains will pick up again.