Ethnic nationalism is the PM’s major hurdle, he has to pacify interest groups

Saturday June 29 2019

Ethiopia's Prime minister Abiy Ahmed. The PM is now confronted for the first time since he took office in April last year. PHOTO | SUMY SADRUNI | AFP


The ethnic nationalism now standing in the way of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s democratic reforms has its roots in the Cold War era.

After the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Western powers backed the Tigray minority against the interests of the majority Oromo, Abiy’s community, who they believed were difficult to deal with in pushing their security and resource interests in the Horn of Africa.

Abiy’s purge on the military, intelligence services and placement of reformist leaders in regional governments has threatened to upset this apple cart, bringing to the fore what has overtime been dubbed the Oromo question.

Observers say more changes are in the offing in the security sector, which, while not necessarily elevating his closest advisers to the top, will leave the PM with more authority to drive the changes.

On Friday, he announced new appointments in the military, naming Gen Adem Mohammed as Chief of General Staff and Lt-Gen Mola Hailemariam as Chief of Ground Forces. Demelash Gebremichael was appointed Director of National Intelligence and Security Service.

“Abiy has to overcome the challenge of trying to carry out far-reaching reforms of the state while relying essentially on the structures put in place by the previous government,” said Messay Kebede, professor of philosophy at the University of Dayton in the United States said.


Foiled putsch

Indeed, Abiy said the five people killed in the attempted coup were targeted for their reform credentials.

“These people had understood the change, its value to the national agenda and had the potent to usher us all in the path of their vision,” Abiy said in a statement to the Ethiopian Press Agency on Thursday.

He said the Amhara nationalists blamed for the killings had ill motives, starting with stopping the reforms and creating mistrust among Ethiopians; demoralising and disrespecting the country’s security personnel to create ethnic division and put the nation at great risk.”

With reference to the envisioned changes, Abiy said the struggle would leave behind those who “never dreamt of anything other than power, “those who cannot see beyond anything other than their gains.”

The immediate signal to the direction Abiy will take will be in appointing a military chief-of-staff to replace Seare Mekonnen, the general killed in his Addis Ababa villa by a bodyguard as he directed a counter to the Amhara coup.

Abiy’s choice will indicate whether the Oromo, in power for the first time in 300 years, want to keep off the Amhara and the Tigray from regaining control.

Ethnic mistrust

Some analysts are also looking to see whether the transitional government will go on with elections scheduled for next year or delay them to restore calm across the country, now torn by ethnic mistrust and clashes that have displaced thousands.

Abiy heads the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) which is in a coalition government of the Oromo People's Democratic Organisation, Amhara National Democratic Movement, the Southern Ethiopian People's Democratic Movement and the Tigray People's Liberation Front once led by former prime minister, the late Meles Zenawi.

The reforms in Ethiopia are being watched keenly in the region, especially in Kenya, which has over the years benefited from the status quo in Addis Ababa.

Southern Ethiopia’s politics, business and security are intricately tied with those of northern Kenya.

Despite construction of the Isiolo-Moyale road a decade ago and the signing of a Special Status Agreement in 2012, trade between the two countries has not picked up as expected, because of insecurity.

During a recent discussion on Kenya-Ethiopia ties at the University of Nairobi, it emerged that Kenya, through which East Africa connects to Ethiopia via the Northern Corridor, could lose out in Abiy’s ongoing reforms.

Abiy has prioritised access to ports in the Horn to move Ethiopia’s famous coffee, leather and other merchandise to overseas markets.

This explains his involvement in the Djibouti Freeport, the construction of Addis Ababa-Djibouti standard gauge railway and his interest in the $442 million redevelopment by Dubai’s DP World of the Berbera port in Somaliland.


The Isiolo-Moyale road is itself part of the ambitious Lamu Port South Sudan Ethiopia Transport corridor, through which Kenya targeted to offload oil from Turkana and Juba and goods from southern Ethiopia to the sea for export.

Competition aside, these developments would be rendered futile by the resurgence of a full-blown armed uprising against the rising political power of the Oromo’s and their allies already evident in high profile ministerial appointments.

Ethiopia’s nine regions have autonomy over their revenues and security forces, making influence in the Federal government key to getting additional resources.

National security nightmare real

The brief says militant groups that joined forces in October 2016 to bring down the government are now a threat to Ethiopia’s national security and territorial integrity should the Abiy reforms not come through.

A letter by the UN Security council dated October 7, 2016 shows the Benishangul People’s Liberation Movement, Gambela People’s Liberation Movement, the Ogaden National Liberation Front, the Oromo Liberation Front and the Sidama National Liberation Front – met in Asmara, Eritrea under the Congress of the Peoples’ Alliance for Freedom and Democracy where they resolved “to uproot the current oppressive minority regime.

Economic Interests

Oromiya is rich with minerals, especially gold deposits whose mining is contracted to some companies in the West and Saudi Arabia.

Gold is Ethiopia’s main mineral export. But besides gold, there are also reserves of platinum, copper, potash, natural gas and hydropower and produces 7 per cent of the world's supply of tantalum, a corrosion resistant mineral used in electronic components.

Ethiopia’s other minerals include niobium, platinum, tantalite, cement, salt and gypsum, clay and shale, and soda ash.

Not surprisingly Ethiopia is a darling of foreign investors who pumped in $8.5 billion in 2017, according to the US Central Intelligence Agency. The investors were from China, Turkey, India and the EU with the United States pumping some $567 million.

Historical objection

The Oromo have historically objected to being part of Ethiopia and have struggled to regain sovereignty over their ancestral lands called the Oromiya.

An Addis Ababa masterplan sparked protests in 2014 when it emerged that the expansion of Addis Ababa would have brought 30 towns and villages in the Oromia region under the capital and displaced thousands of farmers.

It is these protests in which 1,200 people were killed that eventually led to the resignation of Abiy’s predecessor Hailemariam Desalegn in February 2018 and cancellation of the master plan.