Soreti Kadir and Ayantu Ayana

The last three weeks in Ethiopia have been full of tragedy. Beloved Oromo musical powerhouse and political activist Haacaaluu Hundeessaa was assassinated in Addis Ababa on June 29th. After the assassination, a series of events began to rapidly unfold. With the internet almost immediately shut down in the country, many Ethiopians grappled to understand what was happening in their homeland and to the people that they love. In the flurry of the last couple of weeks, which feel more like one elongated moment, the dominant narrative that has emerged centers on ethnic conflict.

The day after Haacaaluu’s assassination, leaders of the Oromo Federalist Congress, including Bekele Gerba and Jawar Mohammed, along with thirty-five of their friends and colleagues were arrested in Addis Ababa. Over the following days, several senior members of the Oromo Federalist Congress and the Oromo Liberation Front (both legally registered parties) as well as journalists from the Oromia Media Network were similarly detained. As of this week, the government has arrested more than 7000 civilians. Local sources suggest that this number is much higher.

Among those detained are youth, activists, artists, elders, scholars, businesspeople, along with the prominent members of Oromo opposition parties mentioned above. Leaders of other opposition parties have also been detained. Security forces have gone from house to house arresting and, in some cases, killing young Oromo people. In Addis Ababa, Oromo individuals and businesses bearing Oromo names have been attacked. In some parts of Oromia, members of ethnic Amhara, Christians, and in some cases Muslims, have been killed, their properties damaged, and livelihoods shuttered.  This is a tragedy that we condemn in no uncertain terms and we grieve with everyone grieving. We know that in the face of human loss, it is difficult to see past individual acts of violence and to observe events with nuance and context.

Currently, media coverage and social media conversations are extremely polarized. As writers and researchers, we are writing to locate this historic moment in the political context of the Ethiopian state. We argue that the current ruling party in Ethiopia, the Prosperity Party (PP), is working to systemically silence ideological dissent. Specifically, it is aiming to silence, detain or eliminate anyone affiliated with the Oromo grassroots youth movement (#OromoProtests). The Ethiopian government and their allies are intentionally centering the narrative of inter-ethnic violence as a pretext to justify and legitimize ideological and political dominance.

Many have described Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed as a leader who eschews ethnicity in favor of an Ethiopian national identity. What he has done, however, is to adapt an ideology that dismisses historic grievances and systemic injustice that have huge implications for millions of people. Ethiopia, the configuration of multiple nations and nationalities into one state, is the fruit of colonial conquest. Abiy and the PP do not espouse an ethnic neutral ideology. What they champion is a state ideology that denies historical facts and imposes upon diverse peoples a narrow political vision that strips millions of self-administration and cultural representation. There is no ethnic neutrality in a country where Abyssinian culture, religion, history, and economic institutions have historically been privileged and rendered the norm at the exclusion of all others.  

Reducing the Ethiopian crisis simply to ethnic conflict is a reductive and dangerous framing of a complex issue. Unfortunately, it is a common perspective through which matters pertaining to societies on the African continent are frequently understood. Reports of violence that we have gotten from different parts of the country tell a more complicated and disturbing story. They place the Ethiopian state as neither a neutral nor healing actor amidst multifaceted violence. To see this story with some clarity, we bear witness to the stories of state violence that have come out of the country over the last three weeks, and more broadly, over the last two years.

State Violence

This recent spate of violence occurs in the context of the last two years where state and nonstate actors have committed atrocities in different parts of the country, which were largely ignored by the government. Government forces have engaged in widespread torture, rape, land evictions and killings. In both the Oromia and the Amhara regions, there have been numerous reports of attacks against multiple communities including the burning of mosques, churches, and businesses. In June 2019, dozens of people were killed by armed militias on the border between the Amhara region and Benishangul-Gumuz. According to a report released by Amnesty International, in January 2019, armed Amhara vigilante groups burned houses and killed 130 members of the Qimant community—a minority group who have been demanding self-administration within the Amhara regional state. These are only a few of such cases.

In the past two years, the Abiy administration has not attempted any reparative process to address past and existing harm that have and continue to result in violence. There have not been any credible nor timely investigations of the numerous cases/incidents of violence against community and against individuals by the state. That the government is now weaponizing current attacks for the purpose of justifying their political strategy raises legitimate questions about the ability or commitment of this government to appropriately respond to historic and contemporary violence and their underlying causes. 

The Ethiopian government and its supporters insist that nothing unconstitutional is happening and that the government’s response is necessary. They argue that Ethiopia is in the throes of “ethnic violence”, with clear perpetrators and victims. They argue that this is the single most urgent issue threatening Ethiopia’s stability today. This narrative reverberates across some sections of the Ethiopian diaspora and has now begun making it into international media such as Reuters and the Associated Press.

The continued acts of state violence occurring across the Oromia region of Ethiopia need an urgent response. The government and those that echo its sentiments have positioned this state violence in relation to their inflamed and contextless version of ethnic violence. They have created a framework that justifies authoritarian state practices such as mass detention and closure of the internet and non-government media. Why is the Ethiopian government, who has not been committed to protecting communities, so invested in centering the ‘ethnic-violence’ narrative? Why have we seen military forces and state apparatuses systematically target Oromo people from all sections of Ethiopian society?

The Political Agenda

Abiy Ahmed came to power following the successful 2014-2018 #OromoProtests, a grassroots youth movement which first started in the Oromia region and spread throughout the country. The #OromoProtests served as a catalyst for major changes within the then ruling party, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). Abiy was selected by the EPRDF to lead what was to be a transition to democracy through free and fair elections. Initially, his emergence was viewed by many as the beginning of an era where Ethiopians solved their problems peacefully. The return to the use of militarization and punitive punishment against ideological difference under the guise of curbing civil unrest is a dangerous move in a country that was just starting to emerge from an experience of years of civil protest being met with state violence.

At the crux of the unfolding political crisis is the fate of the multinational federation adapted in 1995. Its establishment was a compromise that enabled the Ethiopian state to remain standing. The Oromo protesters demanded further decentralization and realization of the regional rights enshrined in the 1995 constitution which had been ignored by the previous ruling party over the last two decades. Since coming to power, Abiy has taken actions that undermine the federal system. He dissolved the coalition of parties that made up the previous federal government structure. Representatives of all regions in the federation now belong to one party. The current structure of the PP centralizes power and undermines possibilities of regional autonomy and shared federal rule. It is the first step towards a gradual weakening and eventual elimination of the multinational federation.

A political approach centered on regional sovereignty is important because the demands of Ethiopia’s diverse nations and nationalities for self-administration go back decades. These are not just a collection of cultural and linguistic groups without diverse political needs, but structured nations with their own approaches to governance. The right to multi-national existence and self-rule in Ethiopia is important to millions of historically marginalized groups as evidenced by ongoing demands for decentralization.

This reform by Abiy gives us perspective with which to raise our first question: why the hyper focus on ethnic violence, and as the investigation by Amnesty International reveals, why would state actors have a role in exacerbating these unhealed, collective wounds? For one thing, focusing on ethnic based violence legitimizes Abiy’s Ethiopian nationalism rooted in Abyssinian ideology. The reasoning is this: if ethnicity can be established as the most serious problem facing Ethiopia, then it seems rational to see the solution as an approach that is free of ethnicity. In other words, Abiy needs ethnic conflict to justify dismantling any protection that the constitution provides for regional sovereignty and self-determination. This view takes the country back to the same old thing: a failed unitary system at the heart of the perennial conflict that has afflicted the Ethiopian state since its inception. By foreclosing possibilities for peaceful realization of a multinational state it encourages national groups to take the path of armed conflict to assert their sovereignty once again.

Historically, the Ethiopian government has internalized and actualized the purpose of its existence by using the military to preserve the state and to control perceived stability. Instead of centering people and their justified generational grievances, the state has used militarization to violently silence dissent. Not unlike other governments around the world, the Ethiopian government has made “stability” synonymous with eliminating ideological opposition. Abiy’s administration has framed dissent as a disruption of stability thus making the case that militarization is necessary for a peaceful Ethiopia.

If Abiy’s government continues to centralize power in Addis Ababa and keeps amassing his individual political and military power, Ethiopia faces an uncertain and volatile future. The government must be encouraged by all parties engaged with Ethiopia to address the root causes of ethnic violence, compelling the administration to sincerely assess its readiness to lead a country like Ethiopia. Ethiopians must also challenge Abiy’s use of the military and other state violence across Oromia, because it will not remain contained in the Oromia region. Wherever an ideological threat is perceived state-sposnored violence will follow. If we can see past the minimalistic and in many cases, suspiciously evidenced narratives of neighbor-on-neighbor violence that the government and its counterparts are pushing, then we may find grounds to stand together in this moment.

Soreti Kadir is a storyteller, facilitator, and activist. Follow Soreti on Twitter at @iamsoreti.

Ayantu Ayana is an activist and doctoral student. Follow Ayantu on Twitter at @ThaAyantu.