A glance at Ethiopia’s politics: nationalism vs. ethnicity

By Obang Ojwok Jobi*

July 27, 2006 — Modern Ethiopia is the product of many millennia of interactions among peoples in and around the Ethiopian highlands region. From the earliest times, these groups combined to produce a culture that at any given time differed markedly from that of surrounding peoples. A variety of ethnic, linguistic, and religious groups drove the evolution of this early “Ethiopians” culture. After the mid-nineteenth century, the different regions of the Gonder state were gradually reintegrated to form the nucleus of a modern state by strong monarchs such as Tewodros II, Yohannis IV, and Menelik II, who resisted the gradual expansion of European control in the Red Sea area and at the same time, staved off a number of other challenges to add to the integrity of the reunited kingdom. Despite its rich history, Ethiopia has been through political turmoil. Ethiopia never had a centralized government until the Menelik II regime. This was later reinforced by Negusa Nagast or King of King, Halie Selassie (1930-1974). Certainly, Halie Selassie was the central figure of the government not only as the leader of his people in the war and in diplomacy in the international arena, but also as a chief modernizing and centralizing force in the internal life of Ethiopia. Despite the fame of Halie Selassie and the long history of Ethiopia, few scholars have attempted to analyze politics in Imperial Ethiopia and even fewer have tried to validate all the myths which surrounded the Emperor and the political system of Ethiopia. However, the later years of Haile Selassie’s rule saw a growing insurgency in Eritrea that had been federated with and eventually annexed by the Ethiopian government following World War II. This insurgency along with other internal pressures including severe famine placed strains on Ethiopian society that contributed, in large part, to the 1974 military rebellion which ended the Haile Selassie regime and his 2,000 years of imperial rule.

The most salient results of the coup d’état were the eventual emergence of Lieutenant Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam as head of state, and the reorientation of the government and national economy from capitalism to Marxism. A series of crises immediately consumed the revolutionary regime. First, domestic political violence erupted as groups maneuvered to take control of the revolution. Then, the Eritrean insurgency flamed. At the same time, an uprising in the neighboring region of Tigray started. In the middle of 1977, Somalia intended upon wresting control of the Ogaden region from Ethiopia. Misery mounted throughout Ethiopia in the 1980s. By the late 1980s, the insurgencies in Eritrea, Tigray, and other regions intensified their struggles. They threatened the stability of the regime. Drought, economic mismanagement, and the financial burdens of war ravaged the economy of the country. At the same time, democratic reform in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union threatened to isolate the revolutionary government politically, militarily, and economically from its allies.

Historically, the Amhara and Tigrai tribes who together constitute approximately one-third of Ethiopia’s population have been ruling Ethiopia for centuries. However, the Amhara and the Tigrai elites who ruled the country after Menelik II and before PM. Meles Zenawi somehow stayed away from overt ethnic and racial base politics. Even though the tribal and ethnic politics card was plaid under umbrella of Ethiopia nationalism, the political marginalization of minority tribes like the Oromo (political minority only), Southern Nationalities, the Gambella tribes, the Somali, the Afar, and others has been pervasive. During those eras, the sovereignty and unity of Ethiopia by hook or by crook was in place. All laymen in the country had somehow a sense of nationalism, belonging, and one community.

However, the political hegemony, particularly, by the Amhara tribe had reared an ethnic and tribal oriented politicians like PM. Meles Zenawi. Thus, the modern political parties in Ethiopia or outside Ethiopia today are direct or indirect ethnically oriented. One of the best examples of tribal politics is Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF), the current ruling party, whose main political objective was “separation.” The TPLF might have given up its partition ideology, but instead the regime replaced its tribal politics by divided and rule policy which is very much in the making at the moment. While implementing the rule of division among the Ethiopian citizens, the PM. Meles tyrant regime also crackdown on political opponents, journalists, and put its noise into couple and families affairs. In addition to these, the regime’s Agazi tribal militia attacks any tribe who voice their concerns. Tribes who have peacefully coexisted before TPLF came to power are now hostile to each other. Igniting feud between the tribe or ethnic groups is one of the TPLF policies. The Gambella Anyuaks, and their fellow citizens from highland Ethiopia, for example, are not living in harmony any more because of the December 13, 2003 annihilation of the Anyuak in the Gambella town.

This is some of the ethnic hatreds the TPLF/EPRDF despot government is spreading throughout Ethiopia. Lieutenant Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam’s regime was a dictator but it did not crackdown on mere civilians or kill them. His vicious government was killing only political opponents. Unlike PM. Zenawi’s government, Lieutenant Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam’s regime never broadcasted or agitated racial or ethnic hatred. PM. Zenawi plays tribal/ethnic based democracy by dividing the country into regional states. If the system was not under umbrella of TPLF divided and rule policy, the political minority/ethnic minority who never had a share in Ethiopia politics for centuries would have appreciate it.

Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) is/was pursuing a separatist schema on the basis of national self determination. The OLF struggle for “Oromia” had started before the TPLF’s struggle, but because of its adamant “separatist” agenda, it has not been accepted by the whole country. The land Oromo want to liberate from Ethiopia is dubious. They are everywhere in Ethiopia except in handful provinces. If they were politically smart, they would not even go outside Ethiopia and rebel against the government in Addis Ababa. The Oromo are the majority and well educated tribe in Ethiopia. It is simply because they alienated and subordinated themselves from typical Ethiopians politics. Had they participated in non-ethnic based politics, they would rule the country for centuries.

Collusion for Unity and Democracy (CUD or Kinijit), the newly formed political part, is a party that derived from the combination of All Ethiopian Unity Party (AEUP), United Ethiopian Democratic Party-Medhin (UEDP-Medhin), Kestedamena and Ethiopian Democratic League. According to their motto, it is a party dedicated to bring unity, peace, and prosperity to the citizens of Ethiopia through the democratic process. These parties were originally belonging to Amhara tribe. AEUP, for instant, was called All Amhara Party (AAP), and UEDP-Medhin) was formed by former foreign minister Mr. Gushu Walde. Paradoxically, CUD, which draws much of its support from the Amhara community who has traditionally ruled Ethiopia, is now one of the rival opposition parties in the country. If the Amhara tribe has learned a lesson from the mistake their elites have done in the past and accepts a multi-ethnic society with diversities as it stipulated in CUD unofficial manifesto, it will somehow make their political renaissance better. For PM. Zenawi and his political clique, CUD/ Kinijit vs. TPLF/EPRDF are Amhara tribe vs. Tigrai tribe for this is one of the ways he could divide the people of the Ethiopia and steadily rule the country for decades to come.

One of the recently formed political parties, Alliance for Freedom and Democracy (AFD), a combination of Collusion for Unity and Democracy (CUD), Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), and Ogadian National Liberation Front (ONLF), seems to have some kind of national political objectives rather than ethnic based politics. It is a sound political step in the country. The formation of AFD is one of the issues being debated or discussed among Ethiopian politicians both inside and outside the country today. The merger of these three parties, if it is not going to be a joke, it would bring the Ethiopia politics into a new era. If Oromo and Ogadian change their political agendas, “separatism,” it will be a good chemistry. Will the United Ethiopian Democratic Forces (UEDF), which comprised fourteen political parties, joint the AFD? If not, the Melese regime will find a loophole to penetrate the party and destroy it anytime soon. If yes, the AFD would be a symbolic for all Ethiopian nationalities. Ethiopians are sick, tired and fed up of thug politicians who make use of tribal politics to pursue their personal interests. The mere citizens of Ethiopia are sheep without good shepherd. They need one who will guide them into freedom, and equality through true Democracy not hypocrisy.

* Obang Ojwok Jobi is a graduate student at St. Cloud State University, MN, USA. He can be reached at onjo0201@stcloudstate.edu


















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