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Ethiopia… Almost Like Reading About Many Other Countries

Ethiopia… Almost Like Reading About Many Other Countries

Thursday, 19 November, 2020 - 10:30

Another one of the many identitarian conflicts, another one of the difficulties that block the building of states and societies.

When does the history of Ethiopia and 110 million inhabitants’ tragedy begin?

The earliest date leads us to Haile Selassie, an emperor who was the first to establish centralized governance at the minorities and peripheries’ expense.

His story begins with that of its “greatest” emperor, Menelik, who defeated the Italians in 1896 but was then paralyzed with dementia in 1908, despite which he stayed alive until 1913. Mr. Menelik named Lij Lyasu to succeed him. A vicious man who suffered from syphilis, Lyasu’s reckless belligerence nearly split the country and set the flames of a perpetual civil war. But his young cousin Tafari McConnen got the better of him in 1916, becoming the heir to his mother’s throne. When Empress Zodito, the first woman to occupy such a position in Africa, passed away in 1930, her son Tafari became Emperor Haile Selassie I.

A whirlwind of developments set off by foreign powers cemented the emperor’s prestige: in 1924, the British made an attempt to share Ethiopia with fascist Italy, but Selassie, as crown prince, thwarted it with a letter to the League of Nations. When the Italian invasion followed, Britain and the League abandoned Ethiopia and tried to avoid implementing the sanctions imposed on Italy. Britain refrained from supplying the emperor with arms, so his resistance collapsed, and he fled to Britain as the leader of an oppressed people.

Internal developments went in another direction: in 1955, he put in place a nominal constitution but governed as an absolutist emperor. In the mid-sixties, 54 hospitals were available for nearly 18 million Ethiopians, and only one of them was free. Roads were very few and extremely rudimentary; conditions in the countryside were as they had been since antiquity, while the illiteracy rate was 90 percent. Famines came in quick succession, and the famine that went on from 1972 to 1974 claimed a hundred thousand lives, while Haile Selassie’s family continued to live lavishly.

The Amhara culture and language were imposed on all Ethiopians, and high-ranking positions were allocated exclusively to the Amhara people, whom the Omoros accused of seizing their lands, though the former account for the second-largest ethnic group in the country (30 percent), preceded by the Oromos (34 percent). The region of Eritrea, which was the farthest geographically and the most culturally and religiously distinct, was the first to rebel, declaring its desire for independence in the late fifties. But the army also became enticed by the booty that could be attained through a military coup, making a failed attempt in 1960.

The middle period of the tragedy begins in 1974. The head of a military junta known as the Derg, Sargent Mengistu Haile Mariam, overthrew the imperial dynasty that had been in power since 1270. The new regime adopted Marxism-Leninism and joined the Soviet sphere of influence: repression became more severe and hunger more widespread, while internal and external wars were successive. Mengistu and his “Red Terror regime” were overthrown in 1991. Meles Zenawi, a leader in the resistance to Mengistu who assumed the premiership after the latter fell, described the conditions of the Ethiopians at the time as follows: my ambition is for Ethiopians to be able to eat three meals a day.

Zenawi was a leader of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the faction that played the most prominent role in weakening Mengistu militarily and the subsequent toppling of his regime. The Front was founded in 1975 as a Marxist student organization that supported the overthrow of the emperor. Still, it was skeptical of Mengistu and the Derg’s ability to “solve the problem of nationalities,” and it quickly turned to armed struggle. After 1991, the Front took over the northern province of Tigray, and the Tigray people (6 percent of the population) came to wield far greater influence over the center than is proportional to their size.

The most recent period leads us to 2018, the year Abiy Ahmed assumed the premiership. He weakened the security grip and limited ethnic powers’ influence, including that of the Tigray. He made peace with Eritrea, winning a Nobel Peace Prize as a result. But he also angered the Tigray, whose region is on the Eritrean border and who came to feel increasingly marginalized and abandoned by Addis Ababa.

Abiy accuses the leaders of the Front of corruption and resisting reform, while the Front accuses him of disregarding the federal system stipulated by the 1995 constitution that grants ethno-linguistically-based Regional States the right to self-determination. His ideology, known as “medemer”, calls for combining the cultivation of national unity with the preservation of pluralism, but it seems a difficult combination to attain in a country that has ten ethnicities, 90 spoken languages, and where 63 percent of the population is Christian and 34 percent Muslims. In this vein, he announced his intention to merge the Front and the other ethnic factions into his Prosperity Party. But the Front refused to do so and responded by holding elections in its region last September.

Abiy Ahmed is an Oromo, the first Oromo to become premier, but this doesn’t negate the presence of the anti-central government Oromo Liberation Front, whose opposition has become fiercer since 2015, when the capital’s territory was expanded at the expense of Oromo lands. Abiy’s supporters are the civil servants, the educated, and the farmers of the Amharic elite. They are the most attached to unity and central authority and the most hostile to separatist movements in the peripheries.

A war broke out a few days ago: its two factions are the Tigray Front and the central government. During the war, civilians were massacred with knives and machetes in Mai Kadewa, a town in southwestern Tigray. The Front is likely to have perpetrated it. It also bombed Eritrean territory, accusing Asmara of supporting Addis Ababa. Thousands have been displaced to Sudan, and fears of an open civil war that may go beyond Ethiopia’s borders have returned to the fore.

Indeed, it seems as though we are reading about many of the other poor countries!

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