Identity Politics in Ethiopia: Some Further Reflection on the Current Crisis (Part 2)

By The Strathink Editorial Team


Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn has resigned as Ethiopia’s Prime Minister and the government has just declared a state of emergency. Next week, the EPRDF will choose a new Prime Minister. The general consensus appears to support the new Prime Minister coming out of the OPDO. This will be the first Oromo head of government in the country’s history. And if Dr. Abiy Ahmed, newly elected chairman of the OPDO, is appointed, the country’s Prime Minister will be a Muslim.

Many see this as an opportunity to quell the rising tensions in Oromia, populated by the country’s largest ethnic group. Oromos have historical grievances and a growing number feel marginalized from the power and economic resources of the country -despite their numbers and the natural resource wealth of their region.

Identity politics in Ethiopia today is seeped in the country’s ancient history and recent past. It is a complicated and layered narrative of centuries-old monarchy and feudalism with the addition of the last 26 years of EPRDF rule.

In today’s political climate, however, the discourse is both familiar and reductive. Power and resources are concentrated in the hands of a small elite. For centuries, the elite were the highlanders, mainly Amhara. Today it is the Tigrayans. It is precisely the language used by Ethiopia’s opposition and it is a widely held perception in Ethiopia.

The international media mimics this narrative—a population of merely 6% of the Ethiopian people controls the power and resources of the 94%.

Bronwyn Bruton, an analyst at the Atlantic Council who is an unapologetic defender of Eritrea’s Isayas Afewerki, is symptomatic of the poor reporting done on anything Ethiopia.

In “Ethiopia: End Game?” she writes, “Ethiopia’s new leader faces an increasingly emboldened population who demands real political reforms—which will require a painful, and potentially fraught, distribution of economic resources and power away from the TPLF ruling elite.” 

Ambassador Hank Cohen, another Isayas Afewerki apologist, writes on his blog: “By ‘power brokers’, I mean the key strongmen in the TPLF component of the EPRDF. These people benefit from TPLF affiliated businesses, especially in transportation and construction, where they hold monopolies on government contracts. Personal enrichment has been part of TPLF employment benefits for the past decade.”

We raise the question of how accurate is this narrative.

The consequences of this misperception can go in a positive direction or a catastrophically negative direction. On the positive side, the ethnic federal arrangement under the current parliamentary system of government may require a re-thinking and a re-tooling to meet the challenges of an increasingly frustrated citizenry. This is at the root of the reform process.

On the negative side, if the reform process cannot address the rising tensions of the people, the current scapegoating has the potential of careening off into a humanitarian disaster.

What Does identity Politics in Ethiopia Mean Today?

Tigrayan domination of power and resources is the dominant narrative of opposition politics. There is a widespread perception that Tigrayans make all the decisions about governance and you have a situation where the majority of the citizens feel marginalized. Ask people in the street who controls land policy? Tigrayans. Who controls education policy? Tigrayans. Who controls economic policy? Tigrayans. You get the picture.

Is this true or is this narrative a convenient tool for the opposition to use in mobilizing their base to take to the streets? What are the facts that drive this narrative? Is there a not-so-secret cabal of Tigrayans who manipulate the leadership across parties to serve the interests of small group? Is the leadership of OPDO, APDM and SNNPR a puppet of the TPLF? What do they gain in this arrangement? Or is this narrative a convenient form of scapegoating that is a disingenuous tactic to sow discord in the country?

It is not an unsuccessful tactic. In the United States, the President and his party are scapegoating immigrants to blame for all of the country’s problems. Scapegoating immigrants is one reason Donald Trump won the presidency of the United States. Of course, we know where this kind of scapegoating leads us—Germany in the 1930s and Rwanda in the 1990s. It is a dangerous game where everyone eventually loses.

We ask the question, what does identity politics mean in Ethiopia today?

Let’s begin the discussion by acknowledging the role ethnic federalism plays in institutionalizing ethnic political identity. Ethiopia’s ethnic federalist arrangement is constructed along ethno-linguistic lines and is a foundational principle in its constitution. Let us also suspend judgment on whether or not ethnic federalism is the optimal approach to governance. We begin with the premise that Ethiopia is an ethnic federalist state; hence, identity politics is the name of the game.

However, the irony of identity politics today in Ethiopia is the deliberate distortion of what is actually taking place. Instead of focusing on a federalist system that recognizes the country’s diversity and perhaps excessively promotes ethnic identities by institutionalizing self-governance on the basis of ethno-linguistic groups, identity politics deployed by the opposition has managed to demonize one group.

How can this apparent distortion be explained?  Part of the answer likely lays in history, especially the outsized role the TPLF played during the first ten years of post-Mengistu Ethiopia. This is, however, now an outdated stereotype that has outlived its usefulness in understanding contemporary Ethiopian politics.


First Impressions Are Lasting Impressions

There is no question that during the first ten years of the post-Mengistu government, the EPRDF, through the central government, played an outsized role in decision-making. In the beginning, following the overthrow of Mengistu’s government, there was the Transitional Charter, establishing two parallel systems of government—the central government and the regional governments. This was the first step in devolving state power to geographically based ethno-linguistic regions.

The regions had legislative, executive and judicial powers within their territory in matters not expressly given to the central government. The central government controlled defense, foreign affairs, citizenship, the economy and major development projects as well as a communications network. The regions controlled their own social and economic activities, language, education, health, culture, courts, police and security. During this period, the regional governments remained subordinate to the central government while the constitution was being worked out.

When the EPRDF took power, Ethiopia was in the midst of state collapse and economic ruin. Moreover, peace and security were hanging by a frayed thread. While institutions of government were being built at the regional level, the central government—the EPRDF—played a major role in policy-making.

Today, however, this has changed. Ethiopia’s regional governments have the power to tax their people and control their budgets. Regional governments control their police and security forces. Education and health policy is determined at the regional level. The courts are under the jurisdiction of the regional government. The regional economy is managed by the regional government.

Yet, the perception that the Tigrayans control everything in the country is only growing bigger and more fixed. Why?

“The TPLF control everything” is a narrative driven by the absence of fact and the promotion of false perception to sow conflict.

In the same way the President and the Republican Party in the United States is demonizing immigrants, the Ethiopian opposition is pointing its finger at Tigrayans, and more specifically the TPLF, for every problem in Ethiopia.

If six million Tigrayans disappeared from Ethiopia tomorrow, would Ethiopia’s problems disappear?

A reasonable person looking at the facts would answer no.

For example, Tigrayans are blamed for the land grabs in Oromia. Let’s look at the facts. According to the Constitution, the ownership of land is vested in the State. Landholders have only usufruct rights. They cannot sale nor mortgage their

landholdings. Smallholder farmers have usufruct rights in perpetuity while large scale farmers have term limits on their leased land.

Regional governments are empowered to administer land and other natural resources in accordance to federal law. Each of the regional states have land administration offices to implement the laws governing land distribution.

With the release of the Addis Ababa Master Plan, which expanded the municipality of the capital city into Oromia farmland, protestors took to the streets accusing the federal government, and more specifically the TPLF, of land grabbing smallholder plots. Yet, it was unclear just who were the land grabbers in a system where the regional government controls administration of land. How did the TPLF reach into the express affairs of the regional government? What were the administrative sleights of hand that transferred regional power into the hands of another regional party?

What are the facts on the ground that drove the narrative of TPLF members acquiring the farm land abutting Addis Ababa and Oromia?

The Master Plan, later rescinded by the Government of Oromia, called for economic integration of Addis Ababa, the capital city, and the Oromia Special Zone ‘to ensure the placement and exercise of a proper industrial waste output management system, to acquire designated industrial zones, and to decongest and coordinate public services for the ever rising urban population’. Experts from the African Union and the United Nation s reviewed the plan and gave it thumbs up.

In April 2014, officials from Oromia Special Zone and Addis Ababa City Administration met for a public discussion about the Plan in Adama. The discussion was reported on by the Oromia Government’s media. That discussion became a flash point for young people in Oromia to protest the plan—protests that turned violent.

How did the development of an urban economic plan for the capital—with all of its strengths and weaknesses—turn into a narrative where the TPLF was disposing small farmers in Oromia of their land?

Let’s please note that no action had taken place to implement the plan.

How did a plan for infrastructure and public services expansion suddenly become a “land grab” by the TPLF?

The consequences are huge. This false narrative was the beginning of the discord that is unraveling the fabric of the country.

It is a narrative taken up by the international media and by Western think tanks that advise policymakers.

It is a narrative used by the opposition to promote conflict and undermine confidence in the federal government.

Indeed, the narrative is so pervasive that there is a joke that blames the TPLF if a person gets a cold.

Identity Politics Define by “Otherness”

This brings us to the point in this essay about identity politics in Ethiopia today. Identity politics in Ethiopia today is defined by not being Tigrayan. Oromo and Amhara opposition leaders, in particular, mobilize their base by shaping ethnic identity around the “otherness” of not being Tigrayan. It is a single-issue political struggle built on a negative perception of not the government as a whole—the EPRDF is a coalition party of four separate parties—but by the TPLF. The single-issue is not belonging to a particular ethnic group perceived—strongly perceived—as unfairly dominating the political and economic life in the country.

What does this no mean?

This does not mean that ethnic groups in the country, especially the Oromo, do not feel a sense of marginalization. It is clear that Oromo, for example, have historical grievances that need to be righted. However, the sense of marginalization did not begin 25 years ago with the rise of the EPRDF.

We note that Oromos are a self-governing region with powerful ministerial posts, including Foreign Affairs and Communications. Oromos make up 8 out of the 19 Ministers, almost one-half. The Minister of Defense is from the south.

Do the Oromo have legitimate grievances? Yes. Are they under-represented in the federal government? No. Are they powerless within the EPRDF structure? No.

The same can be said of the Amhara.

Yet, opposition politicians articulate their struggle in terms of a minority ethnicity (6% of the total population) controlling the lives of 100 million people.

What do these numbers even mean?

Suddenly, the percentage of ethnic Tigrayans in the country has excluded the TPLF from playing a role in governing the country. Should the TPLF be confined to Tigray? And what about the other parties that make up the EPRDF? Are their leaders subject to the control of the TPLF? Can we really de-legitimize the leadership of the three other parties in talking about governance?

It makes no sense.

Identity politics in Ethiopia today has become a meaningless terrain of claiming exclusion despite facts to the contrary.

What can be done?

The leadership of the EPRDF needs to address this issue head on. Public perception about how the government works is undermining the gains of the last 25 years. This kind of identity politics is two steps backwards in nation-building and serve only the interests of self-aggrandizing political leaders with nothing to offer other than not being part of the TPLF.

The EPRDF leadership, particularly the OPDO and ANDM, need to forcefully speak out against the current trend of identity politics and push forward more empowering messages of Ethiopia’s reality. The drive to reform should include re-shaping public perception away from the message of victimhood to participation as an agent of change.



















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