Ethiopia is convulsing with national problems that will test the mettle of Abiy Ahmed’s administration. The country also faces a fraught situation emanating from problems with Egypt and Sudan over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (Gerd). It is politic to look at the circumstances surrounding the genesis of the current administration, as it would give perspective to the gravity of the current quandary confronting Abiy. His accession to the position of Prime Minister elicited widespread acclaim, in both Ethiopia and outside the country. When commenting on Ethiopian politics, it is almost unavoidable to mention the ethnic element – which has been an enduring source of internecine tension and disillusionment. Abiy Ahmed is of Oromo extraction and his ethnic group forms the biggest ethnic demographic in Ethiopia numbering somewhere between 35 and 40 per cent of the total population. Despite their numerical superiority, history dealt the Oromo a cruel blow in terms of political influence. Expectedly, this has been a longstanding source of umbrage and has been at the heart of Oromo agitation against past governments. Some writers have sought to tone down the salience of ethnicity in Ethiopia’s storied history of the masses rebelling the ruling elite, which was mostly from the Amhara ethnic group. This argument avers that class, rather than ethnicity, was the sine qua non of the considerable number of historical rebellions.
Apart from the ethnic appeasement that Abiy Ahmed’s election engendered, it was also refreshing to see a young person, he was 42 at the time, taking charge of Africa’s second-biggest population. Abiy has had a busy two years in power, characterized by his bold overtures to Isaias Afwerki in order to find a solution to the enduring stalemate between Ethiopia and Eritrea. In addition to that, he was called upon to mediate in Sudan after the overthrow of Omar Al-Bashir in April 2019. For his enormous efforts in such a short space of time, the Nobel Committee awarded Ahmed the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, which was to all intents and purposes an imprimatur of his leadership. Despite the general approval that Ahmed has enjoyed, he faces a challenge to his leadership from the least expected demographic: the Oromo people, his own ethnic group. Currently, the Ethiopian government has blocked internet services in the country for more than two weeks after the killing of singer cum activist Hachalu Hundessa from Oromia. Blocking internet coverage is a popular initiative that Ethiopian governments have used in order to block the flow of information during violent periods. Influential Oromo activist, Jawar Mohammed was arrested for intercepting the convoy taking Hundessa’s remains to his hometown. An Oromia police officer lost his life during the bedlam over Hundessa’s body, giving the basis for Jawar’s arrest. Jawar has an active online following on Facebook, with more 2 million followers. In addition, Jawar founded the Oromia Media Network (OMN) which he uses a platform to broadcast his ideas. It is not difficult to surmise that blocking the internet limits the divisive online coverage that Jawar’s resources could easily generate. The violence following Hundessa’s death has claimed hundreds of lives and has left thousands injured, both civilians and security officers.
This violence constitutes what could be Abiy’s biggest challenge to his premiership thus far. The nationalistic sentiment that Jawar has made in the past, and his patently ethnic-based activism even under current circumstances, threaten to undo Abiy’s “coming together” dictum of Ethiopia’s different ethnic groups. The Prime Minister is understandably in a quandary as he tries to play a delicate act of reassuring his Oromo tribespeople that he has not deserted them, but at the same time carrying out his obligations to Ethiopia as a nation. Whatever he decides to do will impinge on his fortunes in the next elections. Abiy has political and moral choices to make; for political reasons, he might want to cozy up to his Oromo base even though, judging from how deep the fissures between him and Jawar have opened, it might be too late to mend fences with prospective voters that are sympathetic to Jawar. Moral reasons, on the other hand, would demand that he holds true to the promises he made at the beginning of his term, even though this might mean forfeiting the support of some sections of the Oromo people. Losing some part of the Oromo vote is a likability because Jawar has promised to take “direct and active participation in the next election.” The merit and expectation of Abiy’s Nobel Peace Prize will clash with his position as an ambitious politician; does he save the nation by promoting national cohesion, even at the expense of Oromo support, or does he go the Machiavellian way, succumb to Oromo nationalism and bolster his chances of winning the next election? His is a classic case of a catch-22. It is an unenviable position to be in.
Emmanuel Matambo is a Senior Researcher at the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Africa-China Studies (CACS).