Ethnic Politics: The Peril of Ethiopia?

Politics News

“Ethnic politics is Ethiopia’s Primary National Security Threat” – Gov’t

Ethiopia's ethnic politics is leading the country to Africa's next inter ethnic conflict.
Fears of Ethiopia suffering Africa’s next interethnic conflict are growing. (Photo: Mulugeta Ayene/Associated Press)


The euphoria that engulfed the country one year ago when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed assumed the hot seat at Arat kilo seems to be receding slowly. Another round of protests is visiting the country and they are erupting here and there. In fact, protests are even happening in places that have been relatively peaceful during the three years of protests which resulted in the ongoing reform led by the PM and his team.

New protests resulted in the death of many people, the displacement of others and the deployment of the military force to manage the security crisis in the area they are happening. Coupled with a wide range of challenges that the administration of Abiy Ahmed is facing, which includes economic and humanitarian predicaments in the country, have put the administration in a tight situation.

The security challenges of the country seem to have continued, according to the World Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community, released in January 2019. And assessment asserts that the challenges emanating from the country’s internal political matters.

“The states of East Africa will confront internal tension. Ethiopia and Eritrea will struggle to balance political control with demands for reform from domestic constituencies,” predicts the assessment.

Although the immediate cause of these conflicts in the country might vary from place to place and from people to people, ethnic politics seemed to be at the center of all of it. And, it appears this much has been admitted by the government.

In a press conference held on April 5 at the Office of the Prime Minister, National Security Advisor to the PM, Temesgen Tiruneh, identified ethnic politics as the national security threat of the country. He explained saying that criminals tend to hide in their ethnic identities to circumvent accountability; individual conflicts are also changing their nature to ethnic politics, in many places.

“It is radical nationalism that is the current national security threat of Ethiopia,” Temesgen told The Reporter, later adding that, “which the political leadership exploits by prompting their ethnicity to avert legal actions against them.”

According to him, ethnic politics might be the biggest and the primary security threat for Ethiopia, but not the only one.

“There can be many security threats as a country and what comes to the fore is the ethnic politics. All things we see these days seem to have forgotten the Ethiopian identity and even there are huge fragmentations within single ethnic groups,” Temesgen said.

But he believes that this might be debatable and some people might object to it.

“This is what we have formulated based on our day to day encounters. We have conducted a study to identify these threats which will be considered as input in the upcoming revision of the national security strategy,” he indicated.

Ethnic-based politics is at the center of the federation and the ruling party, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front. Hence, the statement from the security advisor made many speculate that the basic makeup of the current federalism and politics in the country is coming to an end.

On the other hand, there are more than 107 political parties in the country which signed a code of conduct with the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia and the majority of them are ethnic-based political parties.

“Saying that it is a national security threat does not necessarily mean that the basis for Ethiopian federalism should be changed; those sorts of decisions (political decisions) would require further discussion,” Temesgen clarified his statement.

“Identity and language as well as celebrating one’s roots are inalienable rights and as such, they will be respected,” he further explains his position. “But, it needs to be on the basis of mutual respect and on the anchor bond which is the Ethiopian identity,” explained Temesgen, “what we have to do is to balance the ethnic and national identities.”

What has been done previously is work against the anchor bond, he asserted.

Although he buys that idea of balancing between the national and ethnic identities, Abebe Aynetie, a political and security expert, questions the criteria, employed by the national security apparatus to identifying a threat.

According to Abebe, rule of law, the respect for human and democratic rights and institutional capacity of the security sector to maintain peace and security should be considered in analyzing security threats.

“The primary task of the government is to protect its citizens,” he asserts, and “it is unmanaged ethnic politics that has become a threat to the country. The ethnic identity of nations and nationalities is the pillar of the Constitution and nations and nationalities cannot be threats for national security,” Abebe argued. “The problem is the lack of balance between the national and ethnic identities and polarized politics.”

Indicating that EPRDF came to power by recognizing ethnic suppression in the country, and hence choosing ethnic politics, Abebe says it is because of failures to address the initial questions and to learn from past experiences that led the country to the current crisis.

“The democratic culture in our country is based on a culture of a winner and a loser; we are not open to accepting differences. The principal cause for this is because our democracy is directly copied from the western world and it did not tend to include our national values–Ethiopians are consensus-seekers and we reconcile disputes by bringing both parties to a middle and common ground without blaming any of them,” he critiques.

Making an example out of the Gamo elderly who managed to control potential conflict by raising wet grass and kneeling down in Arba Minch while the other part of the country could not do the same, Abebe says our democracy should be based on our intricate values. The Gamo elderly managed to do so because their conflict resolution methods are informed by their values and this has to come into play in the modern-day democracy, he recommends.

“Our problems are still here with us as they have been for the past 50 years and more; we could not do it now. Unless we interweave democracy with our national values, we won’t overcome the democratic drought being experienced in our time,” he asserts.

For him, Ethiopia’s security threat emanates from the inside and it is what the country could not bypass.

Despite the country’s history of preserving its identity and sovereignty without any technological input centuries ago, it has reached a time of cruel barbarism. And, unless the country addresses its internal affairs, it won’t be able to tackle external threats which are created because of weak internal situations.

“What exacerbates our external vulnerability is our internal problem; and when we overcome this, we will even protect in the outside,” he says.

And while doing this, Ethiopia has to make a change in continuity and should not start from scratch like the previous times, he advises.

Dr. Merera Gudina, a renowned politician and a scholar, agrees that there are problems with the ethnic politics which entered Ethiopian politics some 50 years ago.

“EPRDF which came to power promised to solve ethnic oppressions but established its own tyranny beginning from its assumption of power. It only used ethnic politics as a passport to power without doing anything to help solve the problem,” Merera argues, “There is no problem with the people who have been living together for a long period of time.”

Merera observes that the current challenge with ethnic politics in the country is triggered by the elite and they have to be both accountable for damages so far and responsible for solutions in the future.

“The proposed solution has to be appealing to all of us, too. It needs to bring all into participation and create a democratic system which benefits us all equally,” argues Merera.

Ethiopia is currently revising its Foreign Affairs and National Security Policy and Strategy and it is not clear how the current assessment of the national security threat will be incorporated in the national security strategy, which will be a standalone document separated from the foreign policy.

Temesgen says that the revision of the policy and strategy is underway and it will be available for discussion to the public.