A Country on the Brink Ethiopia Sinks Deeper into Ethnic Conflict

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed promised democracy and a new beginning for his country -- and received the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for his initial efforts. It has been all downhill from there, however, and he is increasingly turning to authoritarian methods.
By Fritz Schaap in Shashemene
Pro-government fighters in the northern Ethiopian region of Tigray.

Pro-government fighters in the northern Ethiopian region of Tigray.


Eduardo Soteras / AFP

On this sunny morning, Falma wanted to speak about hate. About the anger and the rage that has destroyed his city and threatens to tear the country apart. He also wanted to talk about the hope that he and many others had felt when a young prime minister, hardly into his 40s, came into office – and of the disappointment that followed. But Falma isn't supposed to talk, not with anybody – and particularly, it would seem, not with journalists.

We had set up a meeting with him in Shashemene, a town located about five hours south of the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, to discuss his country and what the future might hold. Falma is not his real name. He is one of the leaders of the Qeerroo in Shashemene, a group of young activists who are demanding more autonomy for Oromia, Ethiopia's largest region. Qeerroo is one of a several organizations in the country that are fighting for more power and self-determination for their ethnicity. Some with more radical means and some with less. It is a situation that is not to the liking of the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, which is currently trying to bring an end to a war against the rebels from the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) and is concerned about losing control. That's why people like Falma are currently being treated as enemies of the state.

He had warned us of the police over the phone. Just recently, he said, a leading member of his group had been arrested by the authorities. Security, he added, is a huge problem, and asked us to tell him where we were just 10 minutes before the meeting so he could join us.

Just a few minutes before the meeting, we receive a call from the Ethiopian Broadcasting Authority (EBA), which is responsible for granting accreditation to foreign journalists. It also has the power to prohibit reporting and can dictate what parts of the country reporters are allowed to visit and what regions are off limits. The northern region of Tigray remains closed, while restrictions are in place for the rest of the country. The head of the agency himself is on the phone, and he doesn't sound happy. He says he knows that we are currently in Shashemene. "Come back to Addis immediately." It wasn't a request, it was an order.


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 51/2020 (December 12, 2020) of DER SPIEGEL.

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It isn't totally clear how the head of the EBA knows so precisely where a German reporter, a photographer, a driver and an interpreter are currently located. Plus, we have permission from the EBA to be in the region, we're in possession of all the necessary permits and we even obtained permission from the regional government. The interpreter looks concerned. Perhaps our telephones are being monitored, or maybe the agency has informants. Who knows?

When Falma parks his car on the side of the road a few minutes later and approaches us, he first scans his surroundings. A boyish-looking man with the deep voice of an adult, Falma is wearing a white polo shirt. He greets us through the driver's-side window. Immediately afterward, a text message appears on my phone. Again, it's the head of the broadcasting authority. He writes: "Come to Addis Ababa today. Immediately! Report to our office. Period!"

There is only one conclusion for us to draw: The EBA apparently knows who we are meeting with right at this moment.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed receiving the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed receiving the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize

Foto: Erik Valestrand / Getty Images

Falma looks around, bids a hasty farewell and hurries back to his car.

On the phone later, he says: "Everyone is afraid. There have been a lot of arrests and the security forces have also been ordered to fire on people who are trying to protest." That is why, he says, there are no longer any protests in the area.

A Conflict over Lost Influence

Arrests, protests, firing orders: Such are the realities in the country governed by the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Abiy Ahmed. A trip across Ethiopia in these extremely uncertain times is to encounter omnipresent fear and paranoia. Uneasiness is everywhere, from the bottom all the way to the top. The government is afraid of the disintegration of a fragile country while activists, the opposition and rebels are afraid of being persecuted and, in the worst case, killed by the government, by security forces or by other ethnic groups. Others are afraid of civil war.

The danger of an escalation rose dramatically in early November, when units belonging to the Tigray People's Liberation Front apparently attacked an Ethiopian military base in the north. Abiy's government sent ground troops to Tigray, while warplanes bombed regional government positions.

It is a war being waged far away from the eyes of the global public. Reporters aren't allowed to travel into the conflict regions and telephone service was largely suspended and has only been partly reactivated in recent days. The internet remains shut down. For a long time, not even the United Nations was allowed to deliver aid to Tigray. Last Tuesday, Abiy's government admitted to having fired on a UN team that had been trying to advance into a restricted region.

The conflict is primarily one of lost influence. For decades, the Tigray held power in the capital despite only making up around 6 percent of the population. The country's economy and prosperity grew under their leadership, but freedoms were curtailed and corruption blossomed. Tigrayans had better opportunities than others to benefit from the upswing.

After taking over as prime minister, Abiy Ahmed removed all the old powerful Tigrayan figures from key positions. Since then, those who were removed have been trying to disrupt Ahmed's government at every chance they get. In September, the regional government in Tigray held elections against the will of the central government, an additional step toward complete escalation.

In late November, Abiy announced that the regional capital of Mekelle had been brought under control, but it is doubtful whether that means the conflict is now over. The leadership of the TPLF is currently on the run, but their units still have plenty of fighters at their disposal – and likely heavy artillery and rockets as well. Possibly more than 1,000 people were killed in the fighting, including, presumably, a considerable number of civilians. Around 50,000 people have thus far fled across the border into neighboring Sudan. It is reasonable to assume that the TPLF will now ensnarl the government in a guerilla war, and according to intermittent reports, incidents of heavy fighting continue.

A street scene in the southern Ethiopian town of Shashemene.

A street scene in the southern Ethiopian town of Shashemene.

Foto: Christian Werner / DER SPIEGEL

The conflict in northern Ethiopia shows just how fragile the country is. In Shashemene, too, which is located far away from the northern region of Tigray, the wounds of ethnic tension lay open, visible to all. A few hundred meters up the road stands an entire row of burned-out buildings -- blackened by soot, windows shattered and shutters melted into clumps. They stand as silent witnesses to a vast failure. The charred remains of cars and buses still litter the roadsides, rusty brown like the hard earth of southern Ethiopia.

A Promising Beginning

A wave of protests gripped the region of Oromia in late June, after the singer Hachalu Hundessa was gunned down in Addis Ababa. The songs of Hundessa became the soundtrack of the Oromo protest movement, which began in 2014 and ultimately brought Abiy to power in 2018. Thousands poured into the streets after his murder. Many Oromo still believe that Abiy's government is behind the killing.

More than 160 people died during the summer protests, some of them brutally murdered by the mob, others gunned down by the security forces. Homes, factories, shops, hotels, government offices and cars went up in flames. The government was worried that the riots could spread, and it shut down the internet for most of the country. More than 10,000 people fled the violence.

"If we deny our youth justice, they will reject peace."

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed during his speech in acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019.

The unrest was a far cry from the promising start to Abiy's tenure. He had a dream. A vision of nurturing a pan-Ethiopian nationalism to bind the country and its nine regions closer together, thus putting an end to the cycle of tensions that have repeatedly flared up among the country's more than 80 ethnicities. He envisaged a strong country that would provide a democratic home to people of all backgrounds. It was a fine dream.

Abiy promised to loosen the central government's iron grip. Shortly after he was named prime minister, he released political prisoners, allowed opposition leaders to return from exile and proclaimed the unity and the harmony of all religions. At the same time, his government returned a border town claimed by neighboring Eritrea in a bid to reduce foreign policy tensions as well. At an ensuing Ethiopian-Eritrean summit, the two countries finally agreed on a peace deal after 20 years of conflict. Partly as a result, Abiy was chosen last year to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

At the ceremony in Oslo, he said: "Our young men and women are crying out for social and economic justice. (…) The youth insist on good governance based on accountability and transparency. If we deny our youth justice, they will reject peace." Today, it no longer sounds like a message of hope, but like a dark prophecy.

His attempts to foster unity in the country didn't go well for long. In the Oromia region, despite early optimism among the population there due to Abiy's local roots, a strong opposition developed against the prime minister. In the north, meanwhile, the independence movement grew in strength while to the southwest, the Sidama ethnic group demanded autonomy. It looked as though the country was breaking up into small islands.

Now, Abiy's most bitter opponents include the Oromo in southern and central Ethiopia along with the Tigray in the north. They see his vision of a united Ethiopia primarily as an extension of central state power and an attempt at assimilation. Both groups are demanding more autonomy.

An African Yugoslavia?

For quite some time, Abiy didn't seem to have a plan for dealing with the opposition to his policies. Ultimately, though, he decided to adopt the means relied on by the old regime, which he used to serve – including as head of the agency responsible for surveillance of telecommunications. Since then, the surveillance and repression of critics has steadily increased, and journalists have been silenced and arrested. In Oromia, arrests and killings by security personnel have likewise increased. Abiy is now seeking to regain control through the use of violence – out of fear that the country may otherwise fall apart.

Ethiopia has a long and sometimes bloody history of tensions between its many ethnic and religious groups. In the 1930s, Italian orientalist Carlo Conti Rossini called the country a museum of peoples. He meant it in a positive sense, praising the country's diversity. But the present seems more consistent with the assessment of another man: The country, said the Ethiopian Marxist Wallelign Mekonnen in the late 1960s, is more of a prison of peoples. A nation state that most ethnic groups submit to. Ethiopia has remained somewhere between a museum and a prison to the present day.

There were around 1.8 million internally displaced persons even before the conflict in Tigray. Fighting between the Oromo and Somali ethnicities from 2016 to 2019 alone was responsible for 1.2 million people fleeing their villages. The Somali have also been involved in intermittent fighting with the Afar as well. Meanwhile, in the Benishangul-Gumuz region in the west, ethnic tensions have increasingly erupted into armed fighting.

And in Oromia, the region that is home to the largest population group, resistance has grown more and more fierce. Rebel groups are increasingly arming themselves and fighting against government troops, but they have also been responsible for killing civilians belonging to the Amhara, the country's second largest ethnicity, which ruled the country for centuries. In the Oromo regions of Wollega and Guji, brutal shadow wars are being fought. There are dozens of fighting fronts in Ethiopia, and observers are concerned that the country could transform into an African Yugoslavia – into a country that tears itself apart in a bloody civil war.

"The war is a gift from God."

Falma, an activist from Oromia

The war in Tigray could light the fuse for a larger conflagration, in part because it will occupy elements of the Ethiopian army for a long time to come. Mostly, though, because the central government is increasingly being seen by its critics and opponents as the aggressor. Opposition-linked journalists in the capital are already speaking of the development of a new dictatorship.

Members of the Tigray report over the phone of arbitrary arrests, dispossessions, work bans and firings. Even at Ethiopian Airlines, one of the country's flagship companies, employees with Tigrayan roots are being dismissed. In Somalia, where Ethiopians represent an important contingent of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), Tigray officers are likewise being removed.

An Iron Fist

The preliminary victory over the provincial government in Tigray could ultimately prove hazardous for Abiy Ahmed. Many regions have long had a deeply antagonistic relationship with the Tigray, who were heavy handed during their decades in power. Now, though, because the Tigray are fighting against the increasingly hated government in Addis Ababa, not a few ethnicities have begun seeing the Tigray as the enemy of their enemy. As a possible friend. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's power is partly dependent on whether the mutually hostile groups can form an alliance against him and overthrow his government. Or whether his army will wear down in a multi-front conflict.

Falma, the activist from Oromia, doesn't necessarily think that is a bad thing. "The war is a gift from God," he says over the phone. "The troops should go ahead and kill themselves, Abiy's troops and the Tigrayans." Both, he says, are enemies of the Oromo. "They should all die."

In Shashemene, after our failed meeting with Falma, we begin our return journey to Addis Ababa. But first, we head briefly south, where our hotel is. An hour after the first call, the telephone rings again. This time, it's not the broadcasting authority but the spokesperson from the Oromia government. He says he has already informed the police and security personnel. If we stay even just a minute longer, he continues, we will be arrested. He says he is no longer able to guarantee our safety and that something could happen to us on the return journey.

The next morning, in front of the office belonging to the head of the media authority, it becomes clear that our communications are under surveillance. And then, before we can even carry out even a single interview, we are officially expelled from the country – a country in which a Nobel Peace Prize laureate is trying to hold together his fragile state as the rulers before him once did: with an iron fist.

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