In August 2017, US President Donald J Trump refused to directly condemn white nationalists and merely blamed “violence on many sides” after one death and dozens injured during a white nationalist, Neo-Nazi riot in Virginia. Ethiopian Prime Minister Dr Abiy Ahmed faced a similar situation though more deadly xenophobic crisis, but weeks later, he still has refused to directly condemn both the perpetrators and the violent act by a nativist Oromo mob.
On October 24, an Oromo youth known locally as “Qeerroo” hacked to death Henok Tamirat, a recent graduate of Hawassa University, and his father in Kofele town of Oromia. Their corpses were then paraded in the streets as the xenophobic attacks spread around the region. The savagery was reminiscent of a public lynching in Shashemene town of Oromia region last August, when Qeerroo hanged a man during a rally. Near eastern Oromia, several more were killed at the end of October, including a man named Mesfin in Harar, whose mother also died seeing his body, as the mob burned down their house. For months prior, the town has been under reoccurring siege from Qeerroo, as Oromo elites consider it part of their ever expanding territory in Ethiopia.
This latest violence sparked after a US citizen and ethnic Oromo nationalist, Jawar Mohammed, spread fake news online that he was being arrested by the government of Dr. Abiy. As of today, he has not been arrested, and there is no credible evidence that he was ever going to be arrested.
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Yet, facts did not matter as Oromo nationalists protested in various cities mostly peacefully; but in Oromia towns like Bale Robe and Dodola, Qeerroo Oromo mobs massacred dozens more non-Oromos. When some of these nativist tribal riots evolved into religious attacks (since their target ethnic Amhara “foreigners” are often Christians), even some Christian Oromos also became targets. In Adama city, Jawar’s Oromo supporters stabbed to death not only Amharas but also other Oromos, like Kidane Tolosa, who refused to join Qeerroo, according to AFP. In the city’s outskirts, people were being stopped and asked by Qeerroo gangs if they speak the Oromo language and stabbed to near death if they couldn’t speak it properly. Besides the loss of human life, what occurred in Adama was appallingly symbolic since the city was once seen as a multilingual and successful blueprint for other cities like Addis Ababa to copy, but it became clear that militant tribalism does not even spare moderate Oromos as well as liberal Ethiopians who embrace Oromo language and culture.
Meanwhile, in Sebeta suburb surrounding Addis Ababa; several ethnic Gamo, Wolaita, Gurage and Dorze people were slaughtered with machetes by the Qeerroo; only a year after 65 people from these same tribes were massacred by the Oromo mob in nearby Burayu town.
Due to the mounting death toll and the brutality of these xenophobic killings, many Ethiopians expected direct condemnation of the perpetrators by the Prime Minister. After recently winning the Nobel Peace Prize for creating peace with Eritrea (due to his willingness to give up the disputed border town of Badme) Dr Abiy had showed relative courage a week before, by condemning hate disseminated by partisan mass media, including the Oromia Media Network (OMN) owned by Mr Jawar. However, like President Trump, Abiy refused to directly condemn the mass killings in Oromia and the Qeerroo mob that carried out most of the attacks. As if the killings occurred out of thin air with no perpetrators; Abiy blamed the “sad violence” as his Spokeswoman Billene Seyoum blamed “the senseless act.”
One thing both Trump and Abiy have in common is fear of losing their nationalist base. Under Ethiopia’s dreaded ethnic-federalism system, losing an ethnic base is even more crucial.
Such identity politics in Ethiopia, though, is more about politics than true identity, which becomes a self-fulfilling invention by virtue of one’s political stance. Case in point, like millions of mixed-Ethiopians, both Jawar and Abiy are not full ethnic Oromos by ancestry, but in Oromo (and other tribal) nationalist politics of Ethiopia; adopting the most militant political ideology often rewards one with a mandate to claim real Oromoness – Oromumma. Thus, common sense moderation is looked down upon as weakness or even betrayal, as evidenced by recent chants of “Down down Abiy” by Oromo supporters of Jawar.
None of this, however, should hold Dr. Abiy from doing the right thing, if he is truly a visionary leader who transforms Ethiopia. Just like Trump’s Republican Party leadership who condemned the white nationalists; the top official of Abiy’s ODP party Mr. Taye Dendea has blamed Jawar for the ethnic-based killings and the FDRE President Sahle-Work Zewde said “when ethnicity and religion is politicized to displace and slaughter citizens….the red line has been broken.” But Abiy himself needs to show the same courage and leadership. Unfortunately, Abiy has refused to directly condemn the perpetrators and he even tried to cover up the nature of the crime by legitimizing a made-up statistics of victims, published by Oromia Police – the same authority accused of helping Qeerroo massacre Ethiopians.
In response to the killings triggered by Jawar Mohammed’s comments, Mr. Dendea also said Jawar was “jealous” of Abiy’s Nobel award when he agitated his Qeerroo supporters. But it is more complex than that. Two weeks before, Abiy’s Oromoness was being questioned by Jawar’s popular OMN media as Prime Minister Abiy attempted to reform his ruling party away from tribalism. Why such reform? In 2018, after ethnic violence (mostly in and around Oromia) led to nearly two million internally displaced Ethiopians, Abiy’s party has covertly tried to tamp down forces of ethnic division and nativism. So far it appears like mission impossible. Unfortunately, Abiy has inherited a government structure and a constitution that virtually attempts to institutionalize ethnic segregation. Any attempt to fix this flawed constitution; crafted mostly by TPLF and OLF elites, will face opposition chiefly from both Tigray’s ruling party and Oromia’s ethnic nationalist majority led by Jawar’s camp.
Unlike Ghana, that outlawed ethnic political parties, and Rwanda, that outlawed all ethnic labels after a genocide, Ethiopia is not yet at that political developmental stage. When it will arrive at that critical point is unknown. As the ethnic massacres and nativist attacks have become a regular part of life in Ethiopia, “we are losing our moral compass,” once said Dr Berhanu Nega of the “Ezema” opposition group, also known as the Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice party. But he is a lone voice, while loud nativists like Jawar have gained more power. Unlike in the United States, where white nationalists like David Duke are in the fringe of American society; in Ethiopia, such segregationist nationalists are actually embraced by a portion of the country.
Nonetheless, Dr. Berhanu is free to tell the truth because he does not have a narrow ethnic base. His progressive multiethnic party seeks to include all Ethiopians. Berhanu’s party has no fair chance to compete in the upcoming national election; other than in a handful of cities. That’s because, since 1991, Ethiopia has been ruled by ethnic-based regional officials who control the local mass media nationwide and monopolize nearly all institutions and infrastructure needed to maintain power. For example; in the southwestern Hawassa city, the Sidama ruling party, a minority ethnic group, failed to control the progressive multiethnic town. So it literally expanded the boundaries of the city into its zone; in order to make ethnic Sidama the majority and it is now engaged in a ceremonial referendum towards full-blown apartheid.
Therefore ultimately, whether Ethiopia joins Ghana, Rwanda and other progressive African nations to reduce tribalism depends on how much courage Prime Minister Abiy displays to challenge and transform his own ethnic base and ruling party. Until that moment of real change arrives in Ethiopia; not only peace, but also the whole economy will remain unpredictable and held hostage by militant nativism and tribalism.