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With mass protests and unofficial elections, oppositionists in Oromia and Tigray are demanding the federal system be redrawn
Although Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's government says it is trying to unite a divided Ethiopia, its opponents argue it is dismantling the multinational federation and replacing it with centralised authority. Furious reactions to the centralisation are, in turn, speeding up the process of disintegration.
In one of the starkest illustrations of the divisions, Tigray went ahead with its own provincial elections on 9 September, defying Abiy. The National Electoral Board of Ethiopia has previously stated it is the only body constitutionally authorised to run elections.
The federal government opposes the poll because it defies a June decision by parliament to extend all regional government terms of office beyond their five-year limit after elections planned for August were delayed by Covid-19. Yet intervening to prevent Tigray carrying out the poll would carry enormous risks for Abiy.
The Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF), once the dominant power in the now defunct ruling coalition, the Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front, refused to join Abiy's new ruling national party, the Prosperity Party, and is seen by many to be presiding over a Tigrayan drift towards outright secession, which is legal under Ethiopia's federal constitution.
Tigrayan, Oromo and other critics claim Abiy is repressing civil rights and stifling the opposition in a manner little different from the EPRDF, and not allowing sufficient freedom to ethno-nationalist forces, which are bursting out in several parts of the country.
There has been an angry response to Abiy in parts of Oromia region and in Wolayta Zone in the Southern Nations federal state, where activists want a regional state to be created for the Wolayta people. If the Tigray regional elections seem to threaten the state, the situation in Oromia, Abiy's home region, is arguably even more critical.
Protests in Oromia against Abiy's leadership began months ago, although anger had been building for two years as demands for genuine autonomy, greater language rights, and more benefits from Addis Ababa were ignored by the federal government.
Violent protests in early July, triggered by the unsolved murder of singer Hachalu Hundessa, saw Oromo groups kill local minorities and burn their property and united Oromo people. The federal and Oromia governments then conducted mass arrests, including influential politicians such as former activist Jawar Mohammed who were criticising Abiy's leadership, and Oromo journalists who published damning reports (AC Vol 61 No 15, Oromia cracks open again).
State security forces responded to further protests in mid-August, this time triggered by Jawar's brief ill-health in jail, with a wave of violence, killing elders, religious leaders, women, and youths, and arresting so many they had to be detained in schools, warehouses and even the offices of opposition parties in Gimbi town.
The brutality of the government's reaction is increasing anger and bringing the Oromo together in resistance, much as it did in 2015 when the protests that paved the way for Abiy to take power began in earnest.
The situation is also having a negative economic effect amid the Covid-19 pandemic, contributing to an increased annual inflation rate of around 20%, especially in the capital, since Addis Ababa is surrounded by Oromia and protests often close roads, halting distribution of goods and causing shortages.
Unless the government starts listening and changes tack, further deadly inter-communal violence could follow. Many opposition supporters in Oromia believe – against official protestations – that Abiy's government is shifting towards a modern version of the pre-1974 imperial system when the Amhara language, culture, and elite predominated.
Oromo protesters believe that Amhara today in Oromia – who are often called 'neftegna' (or 'neo-neftegna'), a term that literally referred to those who bore arms in the imperial era – are supporters of Abiy's centralising plans, or working with his Prosperity Party to oppress locals. These suspicions led to killings of Amhara by Oromo groups in the region in July.
Those attacks led to outrage and increased activism by opponents of the multinational federal system. They say the system that the TPLF was influential in instituting in the early 1990s has hardened ethnic identities and divided Ethiopians.
It's far from clear how to bring the two camps together given the entrenched dispute, level of political toxicity, and ongoing violence, while Abiy is leaning on centralisation because he does not know how to or does not want to satisfy ethno-nationalist demands.
In Tigray, Abiy risks appearing weak if he fails to intervene to defend federal authority, but any punitive action would only increase secessionist sentiment, which is already strong. One opposition party is explicitly pushing for independence.
An additional complicating factor is that Amhara region claims some areas of Tigray, known as Raya and Wolkait, making a peaceful Tigrayan exit from the federation highly unlikely.
The Southern Nations government's failure to address the statehood demand of Wolayta people and the forceful intervention of the federal government into Wolayta Zone in mid-August to silence protesters is another indication of where the country is heading.
The arrest of the senior zonal officials and killing of dozens of protesters intensified local anger. Unless the statehood demand is addressed quickly, anger may turn into violence if they begin to see peaceful pursuit of their demands as pointless. That was the pattern in nearby Sidama Zone, which was eventually granted a referendum on regional statehood after months of delays and protests, some of them deadly, and has now become the tenth regional state in the federation.
The question of autonomy is not, however, going to end in Wolayta. Other Southern Nations zones are already demanding statehood. The government's response will be another determinant of peaceful coexistence within the federation.
The Covid-19 pandemic is both the backdrop to and a key factor in the political turbulence.
Although many Ethiopians are not convinced of the veracity of the infection data the government is providing, or the virus's threat to them, the country is still being affected by its economic impact, and increased inflation and unemployment increase resentment of the government. For many, the situation has made it difficult to survive. An estimated 20 million Ethiopians, at least twice as many as usual, require nutritional support.
Many Ethiopians believe that the government is exploiting the pandemic. People in parts of Oromia wear face masks to avoid being beaten up by the security forces and take them off when the police are gone. Others think that the government is deliberately infecting critics with the virus, especially in police stations.
The government is due to decide whether to extend the State of Emergency brought in to combat Covid-19 in early April. A decision to lift it may well be an indicator that the Prosperity Party favours an election relatively soon. In July, it was decided that an election would be held nine to 12 months after health authorities decide the pandemic is controlled.
Either way, prospects do not look good. With their leaders on trial, many Oromo will reject an election, but if there is further delay it will add fuel to the ethno-nationalists' claims that Abiy is using the pandemic to remake Ethiopia's fragile constitutional order.
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