In 2004, the former Chairman of CUD party, Hailu Shawul, held one of his conferences in Addis Ababa before the election. In his speech, Hailu told the crowd that he is not worried about the TPLF ruling party imprisoning him and the opposition. “I am most concerned about the slow and sporadic mass killings due to the false hope of unrealistic tribal borders,” he said.
13 years later, the deadly consequences of ethnic-federalism might not be in slow motion anymore. In the last few days, dozens of Sidamas have been killed and over 50,000 Sidamas have been cleansed out of BALE by Oromo extremists, a region the two communities shared for centuries. And last month, nearly a thousand Oromos and Somalis have perished due to another tribal border conflict in the southeast, a region that can never be ethnically demarcated due to the nomadic lifestyle of each side. Many of those who died there were women and children, with tens of thousands more becoming refugees in their own country.
This is the ugly face of Ethiopia’s ethnic-federalism, an apartheid-style separation of land to divide people based on tribe. It is a dangerous experiment created and institutionalized by former TPLF Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
For many years, the WEST disregarded the warning signs but as the body count keeps growing, it will get harder to ignore. This week, The ECONOMIST, one of the major newspapers in the world, went to the war zone to cover the ongoing ethnic conflict in southern Ethiopia. With narrow “ethnic agendas” closing porous boundaries, competing for nationalism fueling violence and mixed-Ethiopians forced to choose one identity, the ECONOMIST media admitted that the whole ethnic-federalism concept makes almost no sense. Unfortunately, such factual and informed observation by the Economist writers will not save a single human life, as the killing will continue.
It will get worse as more ethnic elites rise up and become impatient with the harsh reality that ethnic-federalism on paper is unrealistic and impractical on the ground. Just like Rwanda’s tribal warlords, the Ethiopian “activists” & intellectuals representing various tribes have stirred up the country like never before. But unlike in Rwanda, most tribal elites with “ethnic agendas” are often western-based and educated: and they use the internet and social media; not radio or walkie-talkies. For example, tribal elites like Tekle Yeshaw, Jawar Mohammed, Tsegaye Ararrsa and others have become outspoken about the failures of TPLF’s ethnic-based administration. The big problem is these tribal elites don’t want liberal democracy, and they don’t oppose tribalism; they actually want more of it. For example, Tekle Yeshaw wrongly claims towns in northern Gondar belong only to his Amhara tribe; and Tsegaye Ararssa has spread the genocidal propaganda that non-Oromos are “alien” “settlers” in Addis Ababa; while Jawar Mohamed is famous for chanting “Ethiopia out of Oromia.” Oblivious of the fact that Oromos themselves migrated to this area and that the former Gondar province was never synonymous with “Amhara,” such misinformed tribal elites have instigated the so-called #Oromoprotests and #Amharaprotests. All these tribal elites share one thing in common with former dictator Meles Zenawi: the disturbingly wrong concept that every piece of land in Ethiopia is exclusively owned by one ethnicity.
This dangerous concept is one of the reasons some Oromo students rose up against the natural expansion of a diverse metropolitan city like Addis Ababa. After all, diversity, globalization, urbanization, and multiculturalism are a threat to the narrow ethnocentric worldviews of tribal elites. (A worldview imposed nationwide since 1991 by the TPLF Ministry of education, where ethnic-politics is valued more than the Math & Sciences.) Therefore, many analysts are not surprised that the new drivers of the new opposition are actually former students, soldiers and ex-cadres of the OPDO and ANDM branches of the ruling party. And with dreams of rewriting the multiethnic history of Addis Ababa and the larger Shewa region; Tribal nationalists have even demanded to rename the various districts of Addis Ababa in another language. Now, the only thing stopping genocidal tribalists from repeating what they did in Bale, again in Addis Ababa, is the capital city’s status as the political center of Africa and international consulates.
But away from the eyes of the international community, ethnic conflicts are heating up again in every rural area. Even the United States Embassy in Addis Ababa announced its concern with “troubling reports of ethnic violence and the large-scale displacement of people.” This is a big deal because it takes a lot for Western governments to admit problems facing their darling ally in Addis Ababa. A few dozen Ethiopians dead is usually not a big deal for the West. It is not that they don’t value human life, but their expectation of Africa is not much. We may call it their “soft bigotry of low expectations” or a by-product of geopolitics. Since the end of the Cold War, the West barely cares about the Horn of Africa, and even well-informed observers admit that the bar is set very low for TPLF. How low? A British journalist recently gave me his pessimistic assessment of TPLF’s great job approval in western eyes. “There hasn’t been a resumption of civil war (in Ethiopia)– which is an achievement,” he concluded.
This is a blunt reminder that the world has no plans to end this Rwanda in slow motion. Ethiopians are alone, all on their own.
Ironically, a big factor that has prevented Ethiopia from collapsing altogether is the primary trademark of TPLF’s tyrannical rule: its homogenous Tigrayan federal security. Unlike the previous DERG regime which had a multiethnic diverse federal army that defected under pressure; the TPLF federal army is immune from desertion and enjoys a strong ethnic cohesion. But whether an overstretched single tribal army can contain so many crises in a country of 100 million remains to be seen. One thing is for sure; once tribal killings get started, they can quickly get out of control. As we saw it in Somalia, even warlords became powerless to stop the cycle of wars. And Ethiopia’s Facebook warriors and instigators will have even less power to stop future conflicts. The endless cycle of revenge violence has a tendency to take on a life of its own.