Ethiopia's Slide into Ethnic Politics Shows the National Fragility

Defense & Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy, January 1, 2018 | Go to article overview

Ethiopia's Slide into Ethnic Politics Shows the National Fragility


IT WAS WIDELY ACKNOWLEDGED THAT THE ELECTION OF Hailemariam Desalegn to the Premiership of Ethiopia on the death of Meles Zenawi in 2012 was seen as tokenism: the real power would remain in the hands of the leadership clique of Meles' Tigré Popular Liberation Front (TPLF), which controlled the coalition EPRDF (the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front) Government. Why, then, does it matter who replaced Hailemariam as Prime Minister of Ethiopia following his resignation of February 15, 2018?

Basically, the context has changed since Meles died. The TPLF increasingly saw Ethiopia faced with internal and external challenges, and a significant resumption of foreignsponsored support for domestic secessionist movements and other regional threats. Within the party, particularly from around mid-2017, factional wars had resulted in what could be termed the "security and defense wing" assuming dominance, and the remnants of those who were close to Meles were being removed. The "anti-corruption" campaign which began its rise in 2017 paralleled the use of "anti-corruption" campaigns in the People's Republic of China (PRC) by Pres. Xi Jinping, and the similar cover campaign by Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

By early 2018, Ethiopia faced significant challenges due to ethnic divisions to an extent not imagined in 2012 when Hailemariam took oft ice (and ethnic distrust was already high then). It is true that Hailemariam Desalegn Boshe, now 52, was supported to the national leadership in many ways because he was not Tigrean. He was from a minority ethnic group, the Wolayta, in Southern Ethiopia, and he was a Protestant, from the Apostolic Church of Ethiopia, a Oneness Pentecostal denomination, not from the main stream of Ethiopian Christianity, the Orthodox Church (or even from the mainstream of Protestantism). And, because he was from a minority, he would not be seen as a threat to the other two major ethnic groups, the Oromo and the Amhara, let alone the Tigreans.

It was the EPRDF's attempts to re-define federalism along mainly ethnic lines (and the Ethiopian Empire of old brought together some 60 main ethnic groups) which caused a significant rise in inter-ethnic tensions, largely because it was perceived - rightly or wrongly - as a mechanism by which TPLF could "divide and rule". Imperial Ethiopia had, until the 1974 coup, been divided into a series of provinces (14 by the time of the coup), under governors appointed by the Emperor in ways which were historically understood. And while the Emperor reduced the power of the feudal aristocracy, the historical hierarchies in the subdivi - sions of the provinces remained important and respected. Old royal houses, and particularly those of Solo- monic descent, remained respected, and ethnic or tribal distrust was able to be managed.

By 2017, however, the older, smaller communal groups were being "bundled" into the larger, overarching or umbrella ethnic/linguistic designations, such as Oromo, Amhara, Tigrean, and the like. And the TPLF, which had essentially been handed power with the collapse in 1990-91 of the Dergue (and endorsed then by the US Government, which wanted to focus on the collapse of the USSR), found itself in control of the capital, Addis Ababa, and therefore in control of Ethiopia. …

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