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Ethiopia

Ethiopia’s ethnic federalism is being tested

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FOR centuries the city of Harar, on the eastern fringes of the Ethiopian highlands, was a sanctuary, its people protected by a great wall that surrounded the entire city. But in the late 19th century it was finally annexed by the Ethiopian empire. Harar regained a bit of independence in 1995, when the area around it became the smallest of Ethiopia’s nine ethnically based, semi-autonomous regions. Today it is relatively peaceful and prosperous—and, since last month, a sanctuary once more.

In recent weeks thousands of Ethiopians have poured into areas around Harar, fleeing violence in neighbouring towns (see map). Nearly 70,000 people have sought shelter just east of the city. Several thousand more are huddling in a makeshift camp in the west. Most are Oromo, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group. Its members clashed with ethnic Somalis in February and March, resulting in the death of hundreds. The violence erupted again in September, when more than 30 people were killed in the town of Awaday. Revenge killings, often by local militias or police, have followed, pushing the death toll still higher. In response, the government has sent in the army.

Ethnic violence is common in Ethiopia, especially between Oromos and Somalis, whose vast regions share the country’s longest internal border. Since the introduction of ethnic federalism in 1995, both groups have tried to grab land and resources from each other, often with the backing of local politicians. A referendum in 2004 that was meant to define the border failed to settle the matter. A peace agreement signed by the two regional presidents in April was no more successful.

When the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) swept to power in 1991 after a bloody 15-year civil war, federalism was seen as a way to placate the ethnic liberation movements that helped it to power. The previous regime had been dominated by the Amhara, the second-largest ethnic group (the Eritreans broke away to form a new state). Eventually ethnic loyalties would wither as people grew richer, went the thinking of the Marxist-inspired EPRDF.

But the way federalism was implemented caused problems from the start. New identity cards forced people to choose an ethnicity, though many Ethiopians are of mixed heritage. Territories often made little sense. In the Harari region, a minority of Hararis rule over much bigger populations of Oromos and Amharas, a source of resentment. Boundaries that were once porous became fixed, leading to disputes.

For years the EPRDF sought to dampen the tension by tightly controlling regional politics. But its grip has loosened over time. Local governments have grown stronger. Regional politicians are increasingly pushing ethnic agendas. The leaders of Oromia, the largest region, have drafted a bill demanding changes to the name, administration and official language of Addis Ababa, the capital, which has a special status but sits within Oromia. They have stoked ethnic nationalism and accused other groups of conspiring to oppress the Oromo.

Politicians in the Somali region are no more constructive. They have turned a blind eye to abuses by local militias and a controversial paramilitary group known as the Liyu. The region’s president “has a fairly consistent expansionist agenda”, says a Western diplomat. “He may have spied an opportunity.” The federal government, now dominated by the Tigrayan ethnic group, was rocked by a wave of protests last year by the Oromo and other frustrated groups.

Many complain that the rulers in Addis Ababa are doing too little. They have been slow to respond to the recent violence, fuelling suspicions that they were complicit. “We are victims of the federal government,” shouts Mustafa Muhammad Yusuf, an Oromo elder sheltering in Harar. “Why doesn’t it solve this problem?”

Federalism may have seemed the only option when it was introduced in 1995. But some now suggest softening its ethnic aspect. “In the past the emphasis was too much on ethnic diversity at the expense of unity,” says Christophe Van der Beken, a professor at the Ethiopian Civil Service University. “The challenge now is to bring the latter back.”

This article appeared in the Middle East and Africa section of the print edition under the headline “Unity v diversity”

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Ethiopia

What triggered unrest in Ethiopia? INSIDE STORY

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Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn’s surprise resignation came after sustained anti-government protests in the East African country.

While the government considers who will take his place, it has imposed a state of emergency for the next six months.

Ethiopia is the second most populous country in the African continent, with 100 million people in more than 40 ethnic groups.

The two largest groups, the Oromo and the Amhara, make up around two-thirds of all Ethiopians.

Tigrayans account for just six percent of the population but they dominate politics and the security forces.

It’s a 25-year-old arrangement but one that is causing a great deal of resentment among the other groups.

So, what’s next for Ethiopia?

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Ethiopia

No Ethiopia military takeover, minister says amid emergency

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ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Ethiopia’s defense minister has ruled out a military takeover a day after the East African nation declared a new state of emergency amid the worst anti-government protests in a quarter-century.

Siraj Fegessa on Saturday also ruled out a transitional government. Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn remains in the post for now after making the surprise announcement Thursday that he had submitted a resignation letter to help planned political reforms in one of Africa’s best-performing economies succeed.

The state of emergency will last for six months with a possible four-month extension, similar to one lifted in August, the defense minister said.

The new state of emergency, which effectively bans protests, will be presented for lawmakers’ approval within 15 days. Siraj said security forces have been instructed to take “measures” against those disturbing the country’s functioning, with a new special court established to try them.

Ethiopia’s cabinet on Friday cited deaths, ethnic attacks and mass displacement as reasons for the latest state of emergency. The announcement followed crippling protests in towns across the restive Oromia region on Monday and Tuesday that called for the release of political prisoners and urged the government to carry out rapid reforms.
Similar protests have taken place across Ethiopia since late 2015, leading the government to declare a state of emergency in October 2016 after hundreds of people reportedly had been killed. A stampede at a religious event southeast of the capital, Addis Ababa, that month claimed the lives of several dozen people.

That state of emergency led to the arrest of more than 22,000 people and severely affected business.

Rights groups alleged that people were beaten and subjected to arbitrary detentions. The government said those arrested by mistake were released and those who unwillingly took part in the unrest were released after what it described as “trainings.”

The United States has responded to the latest unrest by warning its embassy personnel to suspend all travel outside of the capital. And Ethiopia’s state-affiliated Fana Broadcasting corporate reported that the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, met and discussed current political issues with Foreign Minister Workneh Gebeyehu in New York.

Befekadu Hailu, a prominent blogger who has been jailed for his writings, urged Ethiopia’s government to “carry out genuine reforms, negotiate with legitimate opposition groups and prepare the country for a free and fair election” to solve the unrest.

The new state of emergency will create a group of people with conflicting interests, Befekadu said. “The state of emergency was tested a year ago. It brings temporary silence but not normalcy.”

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Ethiopia

U.S. Embassy Statement on the Ethiopian Government’s Declared State of Emergency

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We strongly disagree with the Ethiopian government’s decision to impose a state of emergency that includes restrictions on fundamental rights such as assembly and expression.

We recognize and share concerns expressed by the government about incidents of violence and loss of life, but firmly believe that the answer is greater freedom, not less.

The challenges facing Ethiopia, whether to democratic reform, economic growth, or lasting stability, are best addressed through inclusive discourse and political processes, rather than through the imposition of restrictions.

The declaration of a state of emergency undermines recent positive steps toward creating a more inclusive political space, including the release of thousands of prisoners. Restrictions on the ability of the Ethiopian people to express themselves peacefully sends a message that they are not being heard.

We strongly urge the government to rethink this approach and identify other means to protect lives and property while preserving, and indeed expanding, the space for meaningful dialogue and political participation that can pave the way to a lasting democracy.

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