Can new leader prevent civil war in Ethiopia?

(NRC) – After weeks of feverish debate behind the scenes, Ethiopia has a new prime minister. His name is Abiy Ahmed and his task is to calm the large-scale unrest that has brought the country the brink of civil war.

Abiy Ahmed is an Oromo, the largest population group in Ethiopia. It is true that Oromos in recent months have been on the streets en masse, organized strikes and attacked foreign companies.

In Ethiopia, a country of over one hundred million inhabitants, the prime minister is the highest ranking leader. Prime Minister HaileMariam Desaglen unexpectedly resigned last month because he was unable to contain the civil unres, after which for the second time in two years a state of emergency was proclaimed. The tug-of-war within the ruling party that preceded the election of his successor Abiy Ahmed points out that the long-term crisis in this country, strategically located in the Horn of Africa, is not yet over.

The Ethiopian regime released hundreds of political prisoners earlier this year, including politicians and journalists, but last weekend some of them were arrested again. This indicates that the old guard of the Tigrean People Liberation Front’s (TPLF) continue to hold levers of power behind the scenes.

The ruling Ethiopian Democratic Revolutionary People’s Front (EPRDF) consists of four tribal parties: those of Oromos (34 percent of the population), Amhara (27 percent), Tigreans (6 percent) and ethnic groups from southern Ethiopia. A solution to the crisis in Ethiopia seemed no longer possible without the two major ethnic groups, the Oromos and the Amharas, taking significantly more power at the expense of the Tigrayans, who after their military takeover in 1991 took control of the army and they dominate the country’s economy. Demeke Mekonnen, who was appointed as Deputy Prime Minister, is an Amhara.

The Oromos have played a key role in the popular revolt that exploded in 2015 in their Oromiya region of Ethiopia. The appointment of Abiy Ahmed is intended to control the crisis before a full-fledged civil war engulfes the country. The core of the crisis is that the intolerant central government that is dominated by the minority Tigrayans does not represent most Ethiopians. First Oromo youths rebelled, followed by the country’s second largest ethnic group, the Amhara. Army and police killed hundreds of people and jailed tens of thousands. Foreign companies were attacked by the demonstrators.

The Oromos initially directed their anger at the government in Addis Abeba, because those large tracts of land were taken away from farmers in the Oromiya region for the expansion of the capital. After the protests, the government reversed its decision, but then the civil unrest had already been spread to other parts of Ethiopia.

The Oromo Democratic People’s Organization (OPDO) under the leadership of Lemma Megersa, president of Oromiya, and his right-hand man and now Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the OPDO supported the demands for reform of the demonstrators. Thus the OPDO became the mouthpiece of the Oromos and at national level the driver of reforms.

“Danger is that ethnic politics is now so internalized by ethnic federalism that it is easy for politicians to make the other group a book of sin,” says Jan Abbink, expert in the Horn of Africa at Leiden University. This became painfully clear at the end of last year when a million people got displaced and hundreds were killed in a border dispute between Oromiya and the Somali region.

“The division of the country into ethnic regions has led to xenophobia,” says Abbink. It is not only the Oromos who claim their rights on the basis of their numerical majority. “For the time being, the Tigray minority party still retains enormous power within the ruling coalition party. They have been trying to play Oromo’s against Amhara. Because the Tigrayan-dominated regime lacked new ideas to govern the country. It resorted to old and favorite methods of authoritarian rulers: declaring state of emergency.