Ethiopia is at a time when it has to pay the costs of past repression. Even though it is trying to reform politically, it is also facing the consequence of antagonising political relationship.
A lot of positive political changes have happened since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was sworn in in 2018. Ethiopia has made peace with Eritrea, which was its foe for almost two decades. The ruling party has also opened the political space for its opponents by releasing jailed political prisoners, delisting outlawed political organisations and by welcoming exiled politicians. The reformer leadership has also started the trials of previously corrupt officials and gross violators of human rights.
In the wake of the optimism that followed this reform, shocking threats of insecurity posed serious trouble towards citizens. Unlike before, the threats are sourcing from non-state actors in this current time.
Shocks of Mob Justice
The first few weeks of the political reforms introduced by Prime Minister Abiy were for testing the waters – many a dissenting people demonstrated in public supporting the changes while also condemning the previous times of repression. However, it was only a short time before every silenced question of the public suddenly burst through in unexpected manner. In a country that has been suppressing its media and civil society as well as having a parliament 100% controlled by the incumbent, civility became a luxury.
In June, protesters who were demanding regional statehood status in Hawassa city of the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Region (SNNPR), attacked ethnic Wolayita members and caused the death of one, injury of a dozen people and displacement of many. In August, attacks continued as mobs looted shops and burned down properties of ethnic minorities in Jigjiga city of the Somali region. In September, another shocking attack that claimed at least 23 lives was reported in Burayu town, a small town in the outskirts of the capital city.
It had already became a trend that rumours have been heard of individuals stoned to death by mobs, but the worst of all happened in Shashemene town where a mob murdered a man, hanging him upside down in the middle of a public demonstration, “because he was rumored to be a spy” in the welcoming ceremony for Jawar Mohammed, an influential figure during the years of political protests. Jawar Mohammed condemned the incident by writing, “the mob attack that has happened in Shashemene was cruel, disgusting and damaging to the image of this beautiful city that has been a hotbed of resistance that brought these changes we enjoy today.” He further added that similar incidents happened in many other places in the country,
“from Asosa to Jigjiga, Belesa to Hawasa, from Sodo to Dire Dawa and now Shashemene; we have been witnessing barbaric mob attacks usually instigated using rumors.”
As frustrated as anyone by the successive mob attacks across Ethiopia, the Prime Minister said to military members in August that “freedom doesn’t mean anarchy; …mob justice must be stopped.”
As of March, the Ethiopian government announced 8.8 million people need humanitarian assistance in the country. Out of these, 3.1 million were displaced from their villages due to ethnic conflicts.
Conflict between the Guji and Gedeo communities is a showcase of communal clashes in Ethiopia. IOM reported in October that “localized conflict and insecurity between communities in Ethiopia’s Gedeo Zone (SNNPR) and West Guji Zone (Oromia Region) led to the rapid displacement of nearly 960,000 people between April and July 2018”. According to reports, the tension between the two relate to land and water resources. Gedeos have long claimed discrimination by Gujji-Oromo officials for farming coffee on the Oromo side. After the conflict has caused displacements, the government is also accused of suppressing the information with an intention to force the displaced to return to their villages without restoring peace and having taken reconciliatory measures.
Lack of Consensus on the Solution
As there is a lack of consensus in defining the root causes of the problem, there is also no specific kind of fix which many could agree up on.
Some people accused the federal system which is demarcated in ethnic lines “for institutionalising ethnicity which eventually became a cause of conflict”, while others argued it is actually federalism that “holds the country together which would have been disintegrated otherwise”.
The government blamed ‘hate speech’ for it. The Prime Minister’s twitter page shared a one-page priority dashboard, which introduced the reform plans for two years ahead. In the dashboard, it was indicated that the government have plans to “reduce the incidence of communal clashes and violence, through adoption and enforcement of an [anti-] hate speech law.” Rights activists have taken this as an attempt of addressing the symptom instead of the causes.
In the meantime, violence has been privatised and citizens are longing for the government’s protection.