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The Ethnic Tensions Haunting Africa’s Newest Powerhouse

Ethiopia is a success story. But hatred of its native Tigrayans is causing some to think nervously of Rwanda.

Although work is a struggle for 35-year-old Huey Berhe, who does mostly odd jobs to pay the bills, he feels safer now that he’s living among his own community in Mekele, the capital of Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region.

Previously, Huey was studying at Jimma University in western Ethiopia, when fights began breaking out on campus that targeted Tigrayan students.

“I left my studies at Jimma after the trouble there,” Huey says. “It was bad—it’s not something I like to discuss.”

Huey’s experience points to a troubling reality: while Ethiopia is turning into an African powerhouse with the continent’s fastest growing economy, ethnic tensions there are on the rise. Tigrayans comprise just 6 percent of Ethiopia’s population of 100 million people. But they are perceived as a powerful—and unpopular—minority because of their ethnic affinity with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which is blamed for monopolizing power over 27 years in the current ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition government.

Last year’s election of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (from the Oromo ethnic group, Ethiopia’s largest), and the ensuing massive redistribution of power in government—away from the TPLF—ushered in some important and necessary changes for Ethiopia. These have included the opening of borders, the freeing of political prisoners, the lifting of restrictions on media, and the opening of political space to previously banned groups.

Tigrayans watch Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on a TV at a fish restaurant. Credit: James Jeffrey

But Tigrayans say that what has not changed—what has only gotten worse—is the narrative embedded in Ethiopian society that they are guilty by association for the problems of the TPLF, which is loathed across Ethiopian society for its corruption and rent seeking.

“The rest of the country hates us now,” says Weyanay Gebremedhn, a Tigrayan in his twenties.

Anti-Tigrayan sentiments have been erupting more overtly since political shifts began in 2015. Sometimes they become violent, with roads barricaded and Tigrayan homes looted and attacked.

“They are closing the roads through Amhara and stealing goods from our trucks,” said a Tigrayan businessman in Addis Ababa at the close of 2018. “Ethiopia is my country, but the idea of Tigray becoming independent is getting more appealing.”

Comprised of 80 different ethnic groups, disagreements between Ethiopia’s diverse parts aren’t rare and frequently spiral into communal violence. But increasingly they have expanded to the regional level and resulted in mass displacements.

In the first half of 2018, Ethiopia’s rate of 1.4 million new internally displaced people (IDP) exceeded Syria’s. By the end of last year, the IDP population had mushroomed to nearly 2.4 million. Although Tigrayans constitute a relatively small part of overall IDP numbers so far, there’s still a sense it could get much worse for them.

“There is a lot of [lies] and propaganda, and the TPLF has been made the scapegoat for all vice,” said Gebre Weleslase, a law professor at Mekelle University. “The new prime minister has not said anything when Tigrayans have been attacked, or told the public where these attacks have happened. The ethnic killings carry doubt into the minds of Tigrayans—about 45,000 Tigrayans have left the Amhara region for Tigray in the last four years.”

The cruel irony is that most Tigrayans have reason to feel betrayed by the TPLF, having endured just as much—if not more—poverty and struggle as the rest of Ethiopia.

“My father fought for the EPRDF; he was wounded in the head and now works just as a watchman. He might as well be a beggar,” Weyanay says. “They did nothing for him. Now they are saying they will compensate, but it’s too late as far as I am concerned.”

One of the few things Weyanay says he is grateful for is the recent rapprochement and opening of the border with Eritrea, with which Tigray shares a border as well as historical, cultural, and familial ties. Weyanay explains that this renewed bond and kinship, in essence an ethnic one, offers some solace when set against the rest of the country’s antagonism toward Tigray.

Others, however, counter that while Ethiopians may hate the TPLF, they make a distinction with ordinary Tigrayans.

But when faced with the country’s two largest ethnic groups—the Oromo and Amhara, who together make up over 60 percent of Ethiopia’s population—both of which have long-standing grievances against the TPLF, Tigrayans say it is hard not to fear that their situation could become more precarious.

“The pace and scale of the change happening in Ethiopia is quite unbelievable,” says Ahmed Soliman, a research fellow with the Africa Program at the London-based think tank Chatham House. “The impact of inter-communal tensions and ethnic violence presents a serious challenge for the new leadership–in Tigray and elsewhere. Abiy’s aggressive reform agenda has won praise but shaking up Ethiopia’s government risks exacerbating several long-simmering ethnic rivalries.”

Tigrayans increasingly feel isolated from their fellow Ethiopians and the political changes taking place more than 750 kilometers to the south in Addis Ababa. Even those Tigrayans who dislike the TPLF now say that its patronage may be their only source of protection.

“The TPLF political machinery extended everywhere in the country—into the judiciary, the universities—and if everything is flawed, you are going to have a flawed view of reality. It became like something out of George Orwell’s 1984,” Huey says. “But the fact is that now the TPLF may represent a better evil, as we are being made to feel so unsafe.”

A statue of a General Hadush “Hayelom” Araya, a walkie talkie in his hand as he directs the battle,
stands in the center of the Tigray city of Shire. The general fought for the Tigrayan Peoples’
Liberation Front—now part of Ethiopia’s ruling coalition—against Ethiopia’s former military
dictatorship. Credit: James Jeffrey

Some say that worsening ethnic tensions in Ethiopia, and the maneuvers politicians are making based on them, could result in worse fighting. They warn that the new prime minister must do more to protect ordinary Tigrayans and show that they are not the enemy if Ethiopia is to transition peacefully to an effective democracy.

“The prime minister needs to be careful not to allow his targeting of anti-reform elements within the TPLF, to become an attack on the people of Tigray,” Soliman says. “The region has a history of resolute peoples and will have to be included with all other regions, in order for Abiy to accomplish his goals of reconciliation, socio-political integration and regional development, as well as long-term peace with Eritrea.”

The current swirl of frustrations, demands, and grievances extend beyond Ethiopia’s borders. The Ethiopian diaspora is particularly active, and while it has done much to speak truth to the power of the former regime, it is in its realm of social media that, perhaps not surprisingly, anti-Tigrayan sentiment has become the most toxic.

“I hope all of you ‘civil servants,’ police, army, members and cleaners, whores, pimps, gigolos working for #EPRDF die from diarrhoea today,” remarked one lady back in 2017.

Such vitriol has contributed to making the country’s inherent ethnic fault lines more fragile and susceptible. Walk into an Internet café in Ethiopia, and the majority at computers are young men hoovering up posts on Facebook or other social media sites, many of whom are out of work and without much chance of improving their prospects.

“Tigrayans and other minorities have been targeted in part because of perceptions and even aspirations of other communities, and which have been hammered into people’s minds through organized and persistent propaganda for two decades by domestic and diaspora media and political groupings,” says Addis Ababa-based Daniel Berhane, a blogger and founder of the online magazine Horn Affairs.

In 1990s Rwanda, radio programs such as Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines spread much of the toxic hatred that fueled the country’s genocide. In today’s Ethiopia, social media appears similarly capable of spreading untruths and stoking tensions.

Thus there are Ethiopians across all ethnic groups saying that the time has come to look beyond just criticizing the government and face up to the inherent prejudices and problems that lie at the core of Ethiopian society.

“It’s about the people being willing and taking individual responsibility—the government can’t do everything,” Weyanay says. “People need to read more and challenge their assumptions and get new perspectives.”

The threat posed by ethnic rancor looms large and forebodingly. It’s generally agreed that civil war is unlikely and that comparisons to the likes of Rwanda are clumsy and inappropriate. At the same time, though, surely it is better to err on the side of caution and be heedful of the warning signs.

“Ethnic tensions are the biggest problem for Ethiopia right now,” says Tewodrose Tirfe, chair of the Amhara Association of America, a U.S.-based advocacy group. “You’ve got millions of people displaced—it’s a humanitarian crisis, and it could get out of control.”

James Jeffrey is a freelance journalist who splits his time between the Horn of Africa, the U.S., and the UK, and writes for various international media. Follow him on Twitter @jrfjeffrey.