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Mar 1, 2018 | 12:33 GMT

5 mins read

The Long-Running Headache of Minority Rule in Ethiopia

A minority ethnic group, the Tigrayans, controls the country's military and government.
  • The domination of Ethiopia's military, key economic assets and ruling coalition by the minority Tigrayan ethnic group will make reconciliation with other protesting ethnic groups difficult.
  • It is unlikely that the next prime minister will be able to quell the protests given the long-standing grievances against the current political system.
  • Deeper reform will occur only when hard-line Tigrayan elites believe that security crackdowns are no longer able to crush dissent.

The unrest in Ethiopia can be boiled down to three numbers: 35, 27 and six. The first two represent the percentage of ethnic Oromo and Amhara, respectively, that make up the country's 100 million people. But neither of those groups controls the reins of government. The Tigrayans – 6 percent of the population – do, and for decades, the Oromo, the Amhara and others have been protesting and pushing for more power. On Feb. 15, after months of escalating protests in the regions outside the capital of Addis Ababa, Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn resigned. And a day later, the central government declared another state of emergency, only six months after ending the last one. But Desalegn's replacement will face the same ethnic divisions, and until the Tigrayans concede some control, turmoil will continue to threaten the stability of this East African giant.  

Rule by the 6-Percenters

The Tigrayan ethnic minority has controlled the government in Ethiopia since the fall of the Dergue, the communist committee that brutally ruled the country from 1974 until 1991, when a rebel alliance of Tigrayans and others destroyed it. The Tigrayans now have control over the military, key economic assets and the ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which underpins the country's political system. Over time, other ethnic groups have chafed under this rule; some have pushed for a looser federation, and others have sought greater centralization under their rule.

The two largest groups, the Oromo and Amhara, have agitated the question of deep reform to the political system for years. They want a greater say in a political process that is largely dominated by the Tigrayans. And they have used sit-ins, protest marches, and limited guerrilla-style attacks on police and businesses that appear linked to the central government. In response, Addis Ababa has cracked down by tightening its grip on social media, by making mass arrests of real or imagined protest leaders, and by taking tepid steps toward reform, including releasing some political prisoners.

But that suppression has had limited success. Though the current protests are nowhere near the intensity of those in 2016, they remain persistent and destabilizing for areas outside the capital. And the continued turmoil and resulting crackdowns have created sharper divisions within the EPRDF coalition. Desalegn was caught in the middle of this elite political struggle. He was largely seen as incapable of navigating among the coalition's factions, and his resignation soon followed. But a successor could emerge from within the ethnic Oromo camp within the ruling coalition. Some possibilities are Oromia Regional President Lemma Megersa, Ethiopian Foreign Minister Workneh Gebeyehu, and Dr. Abiy Ahmed, the head of the Oromo People's Democratic Organization, a party within the ruling coalition.

Despite the turmoil, the gross domestic product of Ethiopia has grown by almost 10 percent a year for almost a decade, making the landlocked country an emerging economic success story in East Africa.

Economic Costs

Despite the turmoil, the gross domestic product of Ethiopia has grown by almost 10 percent a year for almost a decade, making the landlocked country an emerging economic success story in East Africa. But the long-running unrest is tarnishing that growth. The protests in 2016 hurt foreign direct investment, which declined by more than 20 percent after attacks on foreign-owned businesses. This investment drop came amid a crippling and ongoing drought in the east and a decline in tourism. Current data suggest that investment has improved a little and that the drought has eased a bit during 2017-18, but tourism remains down. And Addis Ababa is aware of the economic potential of major projects, such as the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, and work on them will continue.

Holding on to Power

Regardless of who is placed at the top of the government — be it an Oromo figure or a politician from a tiny and powerless minority group — that selection is unlikely to be able to quell the overall protest movement. No matter the ethnic background of the new prime minister, many protesters will see him as a Tigrayan puppet who owes allegiance to the political system. And this will likely prove true, because the Tigrayans will not willingly surrender their hold on the military or other levers of state control. The government's six-month state of emergency — under which the government has enhanced powers to crack down on dissent — underscores the continued control of hard-line Tigrayan elites. Consequently, the next prime minister will likely have a weak hand when it comes to pushing for deep reforms.

Ethiopia's inability to manage its ethnic diversity has been the long-running source of its instability. Until the elites of the controlling Tigrayan minority see no other route, political reconciliation with the agitating ethnic groups will remain off the table. And the destabilizing protests outside the capital will continue to be a headache for the government.

The Long-Running Headache of Minority Rule in Ethiopia
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