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Political Earth Tremor in Ethiopia

By Obadiah Maliafia

IT was a big relief to all democratic forces in Africa when the Ethiopian military putsch of Saturday, June 22, was crushed by the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. It all began ominously enough with the assassination of Amhara regional president, Ambachew Mekonnen, whilst at a security meeting with key officials in the city of Bahir Dar. Almost simultaneously, in Addis Ababa, the Chief of the General Staff, Se’are Mekonnen, was gunned down by his own orderly. The alleged mastermind, Brigadier-General Asamnew Tsige, had apparently intended to instigate simultaneous attacks on prominent political and military leaders across the country so as to bring down the government.

Coming out in full military combat fatigues, Prime Minister Abiy rallied all Ethiopians to unite “against the forces of evil”. Flags were flown at half mast while internet access was temporarily shut down. More than 250 arrests were made. Monday, June 24, was declared a national day of mourning while the casualties were given a befitting state burial.

These events underline the Carthaginian Peace that has haunted Ethiopia for decades like a dark phantom that would not go away. A few years ago, while attending an AU Summit, I caught up with old friends at an upmarket café in Addis. In the course of our conversation I asked if it’s ever foreseeable for Ethiopia to have a constitutional monarchy as obtains in England, Belgium, Norway, Spain or the Netherlands. You could hear a pin drop. My friends were from the old Amhara aristocracy. Their silence spoke volumes.

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Ethiopia is an old society seemingly trapped in the Middle Ages until recently. It is yet to fully come to terms, in a manner of speaking, with modernity. Emperor Haile Selassie reigned as absolute monarch – Negus Negusa – from 1930 until his ouster in a military coup in 1974. Despite his foibles, he was a moderniser who invested in education and infrastructures; a champion of pan-Africanism who fought for the liberation of our continent and the dignity of black people throughout the world. But he was also a medieval despot who inflexibly believed in the Divine Right of Kings. During his almost sixty-year reign, he left the feudal lords pretty much to their own devices whilst his country was ravaged by famine. And that is why, when the revolution came, it was so brutal and so violent.

Ethiopia is the second most populous nation in Africa, with a population of 100 million, comprising some 80 odd tribes. The dominant ones are: the Oromo 34.4 per cent, Amhara 27 per cent, Somali 6.2 per cent, Tigrinya 6.1 per cent, Sidama 4 per cent, Gurage 2.5 per cent and Welaita 2.3 percent. For centuries the ruling elite were drawn predominantly from the fair-skinned, Semitic Amhara northern highlanders. The Amhara language remains the national lingua franca. The violent revolution that overthrew the monarchy in 1974 led to massive ethnic cleansing of the Amhara ruling elite.

The overthrow of the Mengistu Derg military-Stalinist dictatorship in 1987 ushered in a new era of hope. Meles Zenawi and the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front, TPLF, in coalition with the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front, EPRDF, instituted modernisation programmes that set the country on a new path. But Meles was also an authoritarian. He waged a savage border war with his former comrade, Isaias Afeworki, in neighbouring Eritrea. His development programmes nonetheless won him enormous respect. He was genuinely mourned when he passed away in 2012. I had the honour of meeting his successor Hailemariam Desalegn; a mild-mannered statesman far from the image of the repressive autocrat that was projected by some media groups.

The path to Ethiopia’s modernisation has been fraught with pitfalls. The 1994 constitution abolished the centralised unitary state and replaced it with a confederation of nine regions defined by ethnicity rather than citizenship.

The regions reserve a constitutional right to declare independence from the rest of the country should they choose to do so. Ethnic federalism has reinforced the power struggle between the Big Three – Tigrinya, Amhara and Oromo. Although the ruling EPRDF is a coalition of four parties, the minority Tigrinya have always called the shots at the expense of the others. Ethiopia reminds me in many ways of Russia, with which it shares the Orthodox faith and a leadership tradition steeped in what the Marxist political philosopher Perry Anderson terms “the lineages of the absolutist state”. Some ethnic leaders have bitterly complained that the hegemony of the relatively small Tigrinya political elite has come at the expense of the bigger groups, notably the Oromo and the Amhara. Over the last few years, ethnic militias have been growing in strength and audacity. In June last year Prime Minister Abiy narrowly escaped a grenade attack that left two members of his entourage dead. In October soldiers mutinied over pay and invaded the prime minister’s office. It was only his adroit handling of a potentially explosive situation that saved the day.

All the regions jealously guard against encroachments on their territories and prerogatives. In 2015, when the federal government wanted to expand some projects from Addis Ababa into neighbouring Oromo territory, there were, surprisingly, rather wild howls among the Oromian people. Everywhere across the country, there are strident demands for more human rights, greater freedoms and more representation at the federal centre. The reflex response by succeeding governments has been more and more repression, and more brutal force, thereby compounding a bad situation.

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