Zehner: The Ethiopia Example

The country's current goals are detrimental to its political development.

by Callum Zehner | 8/2/19 2:20am

Now is an interesting time for Ethiopia. The country has emerged in the last year as the sweetheart of the developing world, in large part due to the leadership of its new reformist Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed. But a central issue has threatened the country’s new-found prosperity: ethnic nationalism. At the moment, Ethiopia’s budding progress is being diluted by the secessionist ambitions of its myriad ethnic minorities. However, this is not the time for individual nationalist ambitions to be entertained by the central government. Rather, it is time to establish a functioning national government that can enable a well-oiled, growing economy.

The root of the current problem lies with the ascendancy of the admirable Prime Minister Ahmed. The Ethiopian Constitution of 1994 explicitly states that each of the country’s ethnic groups, of which there are more than 90, has the right to form their own autonomous region or even secede. But prior to Ahmed, the government in Addis Ababa ensured that no ethnic group was allowed to exercise this ability. With the new government placing a large emphasis on expanding the freedoms of the populace, portions of the newly-invigorated citizens are now calling for autonomy, and many old ethnic tensions have come to the fore. In isolation, there is nothing inherently wrong with the principle of self-determination, but the current situation in Ethiopia has led to a slew of issues.

Only a few months ago, a coup d’état to overthrow the regional Amhara government was attempted, ending with the killing of multiple officials. In the year since Ahmed came to office, millions of Ethiopians have been displaced amidst a backdrop of soaring ethnic violence. In 2018, the country saw more people flee their homes than any other on the planet. More than 25 people were killed in riots after the government delayed a referendum on statehood for the Sidama ethnic group. And the violence appears to be no closer to ending.

The rise of this ethno-nationalism is also a genuine threat to the progress Ethiopia has been making. Under Ahmed’s regime, relations with neighboring Eritrea have been normalized after decades of animosity, political prisoners have been released and the former authoritarian state has been slowly reformed into a working democracy. But the growth of ethno-nationalism has led to unfounded claims that the Prime Minister is only seeking to establish political hegemony for his own ethnic group. These claims, alongside the threat of further coups, only undermine support for the progressive leader, thereby endangering the democratic regime Prime Minister Ahmed appears to be creating.

To best improve the living standards of the Ethiopian population, the country should remain in one piece. One need only to look at the ongoing civil war in South Sudan — a state since 2011 — to see that granting independence without much planning can have disastrous consequences. The states in Ethiopia, which are able to write their own constitutions, do not have a great track record of protecting the rights of their smaller minority groups. As a result, the establishment of more autonomous regions will likely lead to further persecution of these groups, furthering civil strife within the country. Furthermore, the Ethiopian economy has surged in recent years, with growth averaging 10 percent in the decade to 2018. From this, it is clear that living in a relatively stable, unified state has substantially boosted the economic circumstances of the average Ethiopian — the poverty rate dropped from 50 percent to 31 percent between 2000 and 2011.  

Self-determination is an admirable goal. But the way Ethiopia pursues this goal is detrimental to all parties involved. The current plague of ethnic violence imperils the new reforms that seek to modernize the nation and will add further bloodshed and strife to these communities. It can be hard for members of multi-ethnic states to find common ground with one other, but cooperation can be achieved. Much like in Rwanda, tribal identities could be eclipsed by an overarching sense of national identity. For this to happen, the enduring hope must be that Prime Minister Ahmed finds a way to expand the nascent national democracy and economy to placate ethnic tensions and resolve long-standing disputes. The hope must be that Ethiopia becomes a byword for cooperation and not division.