Ethiopia: First Signs of a New Dawn for Ethnic Relations?


Preliminary negotiations between the Desalegn’s government and ONLF suggest potential for change in Ethiopia’s ethnic politics.

On September 6 and 7, new Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn sent officials to Nairobi to meet with the ethnic Somali secessionist group, the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), with the aim of ending a 28-year insurgency against the state.

Press statements issued by the ONLF indicate that a Kenyan team, designated by Kenyan president Mwai Kibaki, facilitated negotiations between Abdirahman Mahdi, the ONLF foreign secretary and Siraj Fegessa, the Ethiopian minister of defence.

Negotiations are at an early stage, and primarily established the formalities and foundations for future talks. While a monumental step, the discussions did not preclude using old tactics to show dominance – Ogadeni sources reported an attack by Ethiopian forces on the first day of the meeting. However, should the negotiations succeed and peace be fostered, two aspects of political relations in Ethiopia could fundamentally change – namely, the uneven balance of power between ethnic groups and the use famine as a weapon of war.

Ethnic exclusion

Ethiopian regimes over the past 150 years have responded to the vast array of ethnic and linguistic differences amongst its people in three distinct yet similar ways, all of which have led to opposition defined along ethnic, linguistic or geographic lines.

Emperor Menelik II, who ruled from 1889 to 1913, implemented policies of state expansion – both administrative and geographic – which continued until the overthrow of the last monarch, Haile Selassie, in 1974. The emperor attempted to centralise authority and create a modern nation state through the promotion of Amharic as the sole language of instruction and public discourse and by placing the Ethiopian Orthodox Church at the heart of the cultural life of the multi-confessional nation. This process of obliterating difference via linguistic and cultural policies in the pursuit of central state development can be seen as analogous to similar processes that took place earlier in the creation of other nation states such as France, Germany or Britain. The patterns of resistance to these attempts at centralisation often took on an ethnic or cultural character.

After overthrowing the monarchy and assuming power in 1974, the Derg regime led by Mengistu Haile Mariam maintained a centralised approach, albeit one situated within a radically different discourse. Whilst generally presenting itself as the polar opposite of its predecessor regime, the Derg’s centralising policies sought to erode difference, but based on statist socialism rather than the monarchy’s claims to a holy Solomonic legacy. Mengistu allowed greater freedom of use for non-Amharic languages and was more lenient towards cultural diversity, but under the tutelage of the Soviet Union, rejected ethnicity as a legitimate organising principle for social, economic or political affairs. The Derg’s bloody rejection of ethnic politics can been seen in assaults against ethnic-based movements, especially during Ethiopia’s civil war.

The rule of the emperors created ethnic opposition as well as a plethora of Marxist-Leninist groupings, of which the Derg was one. The Derg’s rule solidified the peripheral ethnic or regional character of opposition. Both the Tigrayan Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF) – the dominant party within the currently ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) – and the ONLF were born out of opposition to the Derg, each seeking secession from Ethiopia. In a last attempt to appease them, Mengistu permitted the adoption of a new constitution in 1987 that devolved power and established autonomous regional governments. However, the move was too little (showing no discernible devolution), too late. Mengistu fled for exile in Zimbabwe in 1991 as the EPRDF captured Addis Ababa.

After the EPRDF victory, Meles Zenawi sought to create an ethnically federalist constitution, which would guarantee autonomy and independence for Ethiopia’s ethnic groups without the dissolution of the state. Already by June 1992, there were ructions in the ethnically-based anti-Derg movements as the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) exited the constitution-drafting process citing lack of trust in Meles and the TPLF. Like the Ogaden National Liberation Front, the OLF is now a proscribed organisation in Ethiopia.

The OLF may have been right to be worried. Although the 1995 constitution provides for ethnic federalism and the right to secession of any ethnic group, the state-driven developmentalist approach that Meles followed mirrored some of the previous two regime’s patterns of ethnic exclusion.

Although the Oromo and the Ogandenis technically have the right to succeed, their main groups arguing in favour of secession or greater autonomy have since been officially banned. The continued dominance of the Tigrayan ethnic group, which constitutes about 6% of Ethiopia’s population, led opponents of Meles’ regime to criticise it for continuing and entrenching a ‘colonial legacy’ on ethnic groups which have less access to state power.

Famine as a weapon of war

One of Mengistu’s central war strategies against opposition ethnic or regionally-based political movements was the use of famine as a weapon of war.

It was first used against Meles’ TPLF and Eritrean separatists during their struggle against Mengistu, intensifying the catastrophic 1983-1985 famine to what in the West were described as “biblical” proportions. But in summer 2007 and autumn 2011, amidst continuing drought across and famine in parts of the Horn of Africa, the regime which came to power after fighting against Mengistu’s politicisation of famine, followed in its predecessor’s footsteps.

Meles employed aid as a tool of repression by denying food, seed, and fertiliser to the Ogaden region, citing the prevention of guns and material from reaching the separatist ONLF, which the parliament had recently branded a terrorist organisation, as the justification.

Why should Meles’ regime fall back on a policy strategy previously used against its own political coalition? Mengistu fought out of insecurity. So did Meles.

Both regimes’ actions resemble Samudavanija’s conception of a three-dimensional state that retains legitimacy by tackling three objectives: security, development, and participation. It isn’t that development was unimportant – rather that security was made paramount.

Meles’ revolutionary reign initially also took steps toward democratisation. However, as the insecurity of his rule increased (particularly after the 2005 elections), so did authoritarianism. In 2003, a bill was passed to enable the federal government to intervene militarily and temporarily suspend regional administrations in situations deemed to be causing insecurity, human rights violations, or danger to the constitutional order. Ultimately, only nominal decisions were devolved to states, leaving the party and its patronage machine to control the state bureaucracy and development plans.

Meles’ centralised regime largely determined the country’s development direction (and saw stability as a prerequisite for that development), labelling critics ‘anti-development’, ‘anti-peace’ or sometimes even ‘terrorists’. As Ethiopia’s politics are explicitly ethnic, opposition to Meles’ rule tended to take on an ethnic character and Meles’ moves to consolidate power, particularly denying aid to the Ogaden region, reinforced ethnic exclusion.

Schisms and speculations

The political impact of Desalegn succeeding Meles as head of the EPRDF is yet to be seen. The TPLF has shown schisms since 2001 and it is unclear what impact Meles’ death will have on its position within the EPRDF coalition. Some indicate that the TPLF, primarily through the influence of Chinese ambassador Seyoum Mesfin and Meles’ widow Azeb Mesfin, will control Desalegn like a puppet.

If that is the case, and especially if Desalegn is the political novice that many assume, one has to wonder not only how and why these negotiations were started, but also on whose initiative they were conceived. Success in the talks would signal not only a victory for the Ogadeni, against whom the recent famines have been leveraged, but also a transition away from Tigrayan dominance in the EPRDF – Desalegn is a Protestant Wolayta from the country’s south.

While federalism arguably eased large-scale ethnic conflicts, it has often further disadvantaged marginalised groups and led to the ethnicisation of socio-economic disputes. Perhaps the negotiations will serve as a way for the regime to heal some of the grievances caused by the exclusionary nature of Meles’ policies on economic modernisation and political stability.

Most international observers hope that Desalegn’s non-Amharic and non-Tigrayan roots will allow him to foster broader political support. That these negotiations have even started suggests the consideration of less damaging strategies to maintain political security. Even without concrete outcomes, the establishment of a foundation for future negotiations places an unprecedented level of political tolerance and dialogue within reach.

Courtney Meyer is currently studying for an MSc in Development Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. Her interests include politics and official development assistance in sub-Saharan Africa.

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Posted by on September 29, 2012. Filed under COMMENTARY,VIEWS. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.