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Ethiopia’s dilemma: A peace award but no peace

In Ethiopia, the East African country whose name has been heard frequently in the last two years, unrest has continued unabated. Abiy Ahmed – who assumed the office of prime minister following Hailemariam Desalegn’s resignation over protests on April 2, 2018 – quickly became a hope for his country. However, the deaths of 67 people in the protests last month clearly show that some problems continue to be ignored in Ethiopia.

In Ethiopia, where ethnic conflicts continued until 2018, Prime Minister Abiy achieved many firsts as a member of the Oromo people, the country’s largest ethnic group.

The “hope” Abiy brought to his country was seen as an inclusive representation of his country’s mosaic of languages, religions and ethnic groups. During his first one-and-a-half years as prime minister, he attracted the attention of the world with the reforms initiated in his country.

Then, thanks to his efforts to solve the country’s border problem with Eritrea and to ensure public unity and social justice within the country, he became the Nobel Peace Prize winner; however, Abiy’s shining star began to fade with his inability to fully resolve the ethnic tension in his country.

Ethiopia, which has endured two coup attempts in one-and-a-half years and intense protests against it, has recently come up again in the news.

Returning from exile

Before Abiy came to power in 2018, the role of the Oromo people in the unrest was quite prominent. The Oromo, who are underrepresented despite being the majority in the country, were the epicenter of anti-government protests.

One of the Oromo leaders outside Ethiopia, journalist and activist Jawaar Mohammed, who owns Oromia Media Network, was able to mobilize hundreds of thousands of people with his influence.

After Prime Minister Desalegn resigned, Abiy showed the positive outcome of these protests by becoming the country’s first Oromo prime minister.

Following this change in the country, Mohammed, who has been living in exile in the U.S. for many years, returned to Ethiopia at the invitation of Abiy. Jawaar continued to run the Oromia Media Network, which he founded, in Ethiopia and increased his popularity among the Oromo people.

Oromos are not satisfied

Shortly after Abiy became prime minister, Oromos who had felt excluded for years embraced Abiy in the hope that his demands would be met. While Abiy’s multi-faceted and peaceful diplomacy, initiated globally and regionally, has increased his popularity, his country again fell at risk of ethnic conflict.

Abiy, who defeated a coup attempt by the Amhara ethnic group this year, ended up sparking public unrest because of his own people, the Oromos.

Jawaar, who has become increasing popular among the Oromo people, has been strongly criticizing the Ethiopian government for about four months, eliciting a reaction from Abiy.

Last week, the guards previously issued by Abiy for Jawaar’s protection were withdrawn in a night operation at his home in the capital Addis Ababa.

With the withdrawal of his bodyguards, Jawaar told millions of his followers on Facebook that he wanted to be arrested by the Abiy government and called on the Oromo people to “resist.”

By the morning following the removal of his guards, Jawaar’s words had produced a reaction across the country. Oromos in many different parts of the country took to the streets in protest against Abiy.

All roads surrounding the capital have been blocked. In the demonstrations in Adama and Harar, the capital of Harari in the Oromia region, 67 people were killed during the intervention by the Ethiopian army.

The government’s expectations

Ethiopia entered a new era after the overthrow of the communist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991. Meles Zenawi, another “guerrilla” leader who played a major role in the end of the communist era, took over the country.

The fact that minority group was not in line with the country’s multi-religious and multi-ethnic identity caused other ethnic groups to be treated as second class citizens for years.

Ethnic tension in Ethiopia have risen more than ever since Meles, who ruled his country for 21 years, died in 2012. The largest protest ever which lasted for years was started in 2017 by Oromos.

The Oromo people being the largest ethnic group in the country but being underrepresented prompted the resignation of the first prime minister to take up the post after Meles, Desalegn. After his resignation, an Oromo prime minister took office for the first time. Abiy’s vision for his country, which has a mosaic of ethnic groups, was to represent every color, every religion and every ethnic group.

However, this vision did not last long. The recent discontent of the Oromos and the Amharites devolved into street protests.

After the dissatisfaction, Abiy said he would take control of some media outlets who made “unfounded” criticisms at a parliamentary session. Oromia Media Network was one of these media organizations, undoubtedly spelling out the fate of Jawaar as well.

“The media wants to be free, but to be free and achieving freedom are different things,” Prime Minister Abiy said, while adding that the government would also impose sanctions on ethnic and religious nationalism.

However, the Oromo, Amhara and Tigray ethnic groups do not seem to be giving up their right to criticize the media and Prime Minister Abiy. This mistake made by Abiy on his way to the 2020 elections may hurt his political power.

After his threats to Jawaar, Abiy’s newly published book and photographs were burned and the chant of “Down Down Abiy” was heard on the streets.

In an interview with Al Jazeera after authorities attempted his arrest, Jawaar said: “He thinks that he is a candidate in the regional or federal legislature in the upcoming elections.” This statement revealed the division of the Oromo people. Abiy is a part of the Oromo people, and therefore, the division of his ethnic group will significantly diminish his political power.

Ethnic conflict risks

The Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition, which has ruled the country for 28 years with the membership of the most powerful parties of the Amhara, Oromo, Tigray and Southern states, is going through one of the most difficult periods in its history.

Following anti-government protests in Oromia in 2015, which then spread to Amhara, the Oromos becoming the head of the coalition has broken all the yearslong balance of power in the country.

Abiy’s strengthening of regional and international power has caused some internal problems only to be shelved. It is felt in the country that until the elections in March 2020, different ethnic groups will not leave the streets empty with their various demands, and the effects of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning prime minister still fail to provide peace in the country.

*Journalist based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, freelancer at Anadolu Agency (AA)

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