Ethiopia: Protest and the "danger of ethnic conflict"
By Eskinder Nega | February 18, 2011
Up to Friday, February 4, 2010, Egypt’s people power revolution was by and large peaceful. But as dusk slowly overshadowed the designated “day of departure” for Mubarak with his steely determination to storm out the protests still intact, Egypt’s youth snapped with rage.
The worst came the following day, though. Extensive looting and lawlessness paralyzed Cairo’s 18 million plus residents. Egypt’s enraged unemployed youth seized streets in affluent neighborhoods armed with guns, knives and sticks. Those who had the means fought back with firearms. But the majority clearly fell to the mercy of looters.
The television images shocked the world. Perilously, this sudden turn of events almost turned the tide of public opinion—both local and international---against the protests.
Mubarak suddenly had a smile on his face.
Fortunately, the backlash from the Egyptian public, which was adamantly for the protests and understood what was at stake, was swift and decisive. People organized neighborhood watches virtually overnight, and by Monday had reversed the threat of chaos forcefully. Best of all, the much predicted violence between Islamic militants and the Christian minority, which the ruling party had for years used to discourage protests, never came to pass.
The frown was back on Mubarak’s face.
Those 48 hours dampened spirit in Addis no less than they did in Egypt. Suddenly, the content of public debate shifted from the prospect of the protests spreading beyond Egypt to the ominous danger it holds for Ethiopia: ethnic conflict.
Egypt and Tunisia are broadly perceived as homogeneous societies. (But Egypt is at least multi-religious.) Ethiopia, on the other hand, is famously the lone champion of ethnicity based federalism in Africa; a “nation of nations, nationalities and peoples,” as the official parlance depicts the country. There lies latent danger, many people fear.
In the seven decades since the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in the mid-thirties, the issue of ethnicity has had a place in the national discourse with varying degree of intensity. It was the Italians who first introduced it, albeit as champions of what they described as the “disenfranchised non-Amhara majority.” And with the expulsion, at their behest, of thousands of Amharas from what are now Oromo and Southern regions in 1936 and 1937, a new and dangerous precedent was set.
But even granted that the expulsions were an aberration, a consequence of Italian divide and conquer manipulation rather than natural outbursts, the pre-invasion land tenure in the south, the gebar system, was the ideal setting for an impending class conflict with ethnic overtones. The Italians were able to see that and use it to their advantage.
Fortunately for the nation, the restored monarch, Haile-Sellassie, resisted strong pressure from his nobility for reinstatement of the gebar system and opted for the relatively milder chesegna system.
However progressive the chesegna system looked in comparison to the geber system, though, it stood in sharp contrast to the egalitarian land tenure of the north, the rist system. By the mid-'60s and early- '70s, when the politicization of Ethiopia's youth expanded dramatically, this disparity, two geographically delineated land tenures in one country, arguably fueled the advent of identity politics more than any other factor, particularly amongst Oromo students, who hail from the nation's largest ethnic group.
Once the genie was out of the bottle, neither the Derg’s revolutionary land to the tiller proclamation, which uprooted the economic foundation for identity politics, nor the rise to power of the EPRDF, one of its multitude of militant champions, has been enough to diminish its emotional appeal to a large number of people. It still thrives in Ethiopia's politics both as a powerful force and a favored means of divide and rule.
Does this pose a threat of ethnic strife in the event of Egypt-like protests? Would people really go as far as engaging in ethnic conflict, particularly in relatively sophisticated Addis Ababa, home to the nation's greatest diversity?
Even in these times of heightened ethnic consciousness, the melting-pot standing of the nation's capital has persisted virtually unchallenged. An established ethos encourages tolerance and co-existence for first generation settlers from the regions, who have always constituted a majority, and assimilation in to a hybrid culture for succeeding generations. Even the Amharic spoken in Addis, which, like American English, has developed a distinctive accent, is evolving as it continues to assimilate increasing number of words from other languages.
Addis is uniquely one of those rare African cities with no ethnic ghettos. The few neighborhoods that started out as ethnic enclaves---Wello sefer, Gimira sefer, Wellega sefer etc--- have all been overwhelmed. Amidst this diversity, all school instructions are by consensus in the lingua-franca, Amharic. There are no private or public ethnic schools in Addis. The protection and upkeep of ethnic identities, which is held dear by most Ethiopians, is understood to be the preserve of either their home regions or a private matter.
Naturally, with ethnically diverse neighborhoods the norm, the extent of inter-marriages is exceptionally high. An ethnically homogeneous extended family is virtually non-existent. The process of assimilation in this realm is as vibrant as ever.
This is the Addis Ababan reality which had enabled the CUD to score a sweeping electoral victory in 2005. For the entirety of the city's residents, heightened ethnicity, let alone conflict, militates against day-to-day life. A neighbor is rarely an ethnic kin. A family member is usually married to someone from a different ethnic group. A co-worker almost always comes from a different ethnicity. The same goes for a fellow worshiper. Unlike the US or parts of Africa, the concept of an ethnically exclusive church simply does not exist. The ties that bind Addis Ababans are extensive and deep.
It is also true that Addis Ababans argue about politics passionately. And, indeed, ethnicity is a factor for many people in taking sides. But their lifestyles serve as a deterrent against an outright outbreak of ethnic conflict. There is no better antidote.
Where then does the genesis of the public’s apprehension about such possibility lie?
The answer: EPRDF generated half truths and propaganda.
There were no ethnically motivated attacks in the 2005 post-election riots. Some EPRDF members of all ethnicities, however, were illegally and reprehensibly attacked. There was no rational for them.One house was burned. One man was knocked unconscious. But, thankfully, there was not a single fatality.
EPRDF members were not targeted indiscriminately. Those attacked were all allegedly directly or indirectly involved in the suppression of either the June or November protests. Omit this fact and the image is fundamentally distorted.
But when state media went on to relate of the attacks they deliberately highlighted only those victims with distinctly Tigrayan names. No mention was made of their alleged bond with the ruling party. No mention was made of their alleged role in quelling the protests. But these were exactly what motivated the attacks. Ethnicity was not a factor. And no less crucially, no mention was made of the attacks against non-Tigrayan EPRDF members.
By simple acts of omissions and half truths, actual events were twisted to fall in line with official propaganda, which for months had fantastically accused the opposition of genocidal predisposition.
It was a classic spin.
Nonetheless, this is no reason for complacency. If protests are ever to break out in Ethiopia, success will rely on whether the essential lessons of the Tunisian and Egyptian protests will be embraced or not.
If there is to be change in Ethiopia, it must be focused on the future. The mistakes of the 1974 and 1991 changes were in having been revolutions primarily against the past as opposed to being revolutions primarily for the future. In this way, they were doomed to fail from the very outset.
If the winds of change do reach Ethiopia, the future must dominate. It is time to undo the dominance of the past once and for all.
A note to readers
It's time for me to re-connect with AMHARIC readers. God permitting, I will produce a WEEKLY article in AMHARIC every Tuesday as of March 1, 2011.