More than two years have passed since Ethiopia began its path to vast reform. The last two years were punctuated by setbacks—not least during the past two months. The latest news is the war between the Ethiopian federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation front (TPLF), which ruled Ethiopia with an iron fist for most of the last three decades.
The government offensive began on November 4, 2020, after the TPLF attacked a federal military base. On November 28, 2020, the Ethiopian government declared that the National Defense Forces had taken control of Mekelle (the capital city of the Tigray region, in the northern part of the country) and the military operation ended. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed tweeted, “Our focus now will be on rebuilding the region and providing humanitarian assistance while Federal Police apprehend the TPLF clique.”
But the damage is already done. As of December 6, 2020, The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported that it has registered 45,000 Ethiopian refugees crossing into Sudan. That number is expected to go up. Ordinary civilians have lost their lives and homes. Others remain separated from their families. That is a tragedy.
As an Ethiopian immigrant who calls Minnesota home, I watch these developments from Ethiopia with dismay and a strange feeling of déjà vu. Minnesota is home to thousands of Ethiopians immigrants, with the Oromo ethnic group representing perhaps the largest Ethiopian population in the state. That’s why Minnesota is referred to by many Oromos as “Little Oromia.”
What happens in Ethiopia directly affects the immigrant community here. I usually check in with my Ethiopian friends on how their families are doing, given the conflict. This time around, I reached out to my circle from the Tigray region and Eritrea. My friends’ families are fine, thank God.
But I do read horror stories about many people whose families have been affected in one way or another. Many in the diaspora were unable to reach their families because the internet was shut down during the military operation. It takes a toll on you not to know if your family is safe. I came across that sentiment a few weeks ago in a tweet:
One country, multiple flags
Many of us in the diaspora wonder, When will this cycle of violence end? Two years ago, we were very hopeful. In April 2018, Abiy Ahmed was appointed as the country’s first prime minister from the Oromo ethnic group, after the previous prime minister resigned. The change of government came in response to popular youth protests, primarily in the Oromia region and later in the Amhara region—home to the two largest ethnic groups in Ethiopia. Almost immediately, the new prime minister opened political space by inviting opposition leaders back from abroad and freeing jailed politicians and journalists.
On July 30, 2018, Abiy Ahmed visited Minnesota as part of his U.S. tour to engage the Ethiopian diaspora. Enthusiastic Ethiopian and Eritrean immigrants filled Target Center to listen to the new leader. I was there: It was refreshing to hear a new kind of leadership. He talked about building an inclusive government and restoring honor and trust in the country.
I should point out that, for the most part, Ethiopia is organized along ethnic lines. And those ethnic divides carry over to the diaspora. Typically, this is manifested in the flags people carry to gatherings or protests. The green, yellow, and red represents the old Ethiopia—that is, the Ethiopia of the early 20th-century emperor Menelik. The flag that is red, green, and red, with a yellow sun, a star, and a sycamore tree in the middle—this flag represents the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), an influential political party.
Never mind that these two flags are practically the same colors. They engender opposite political views. Strong emotions are attached to each flag. It is safe to say it was the first time that many Ethiopians from all corners of the country came together under one roof in Minnesota. The tension was high that day in the Target Center, but Abiy managed the crowd by appealing to each group’s higher self.
Abiy went on to end the war with neighboring Eritrea. He won the Nobel Peace Prize for it in 2019.
Revolution or reform?
That was when the trouble began. Criticism and attacks started to mount against the prime minister. Some grievances are understandable. A number of elites wished the political transformation that happened in April 2018 had been a revolution—that the country could have been restarted from scratch with completely new leadership and a new constitution.
Under this scenario, politicians with significant followers expected unhindered power and influence in the new government. It became quickly apparent that what happened in 2018 was not a revolution but a reform. A reform meant continuity of government and taking the necessary time to fix the shortcomings from many years of poor government.
Greed took over. Instead of sitting across the table and solving the problem, social media became the theater for spreading misinformation. And that rampant misinformation drove a wedge between the different groups and polarized the country.
Abiy pressed ahead with his reform. He stabilized the country’s main religious institutions, unifying the two feuding wings of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo churches. And he urged Ethiopian Muslims—in particular, the Islamic Affairs Supreme Council—to resolve internal disputes.
On the economic front, banks were struggling with liquidity, as many people kept their money outside the banking system. Abiy introduced new notes to curb cash hoarding and limit illegal business dealings.
When Abiy came to power, the TPLF exerted a monopoly over every industry in the country, including the military. It was reported that 57 of 61 generals in mission-critical positions were ethnically Tigrayan. Abiy shook up the military ranks through forced resignations of notorious generals and the retirement of old TPLF guards. In turn, the new military promoted non-Tigrayans who’d previously been sidelined.
At a regional level, Abiy’s government drove a plan to complete and fill the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, despite a negotiation deadlock with Egypt. The issue is contentious: Egypt is concerned about losing its historical control of the Nile. Ethiopia is working to fulfill its national pride and spur economic development.
Even Abiy’s comrades were shocked by the pace of change he has been driving. The prime minister believes in making changes fast and adjusting and learning as we go. Others wanted a slower and more measured transition.
Join the Prosperity Party—or get left out
The biggest criticism against Abiy was his creation of the Prosperity Party and his dissolution of the previous ruling political coalition: the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which had dominated Ethiopian politics since 1991. The Prosperity Party is the biggest and broadest coalition ever in the country’s history. To form it, Abiy pulled together parties that were previously marginalized and moved them from the periphery to the center.
The affiliate parties representing Afar, Benishangul-Gumuz, Gambella, Harari, and Somali regions are now part of the new coalition (joining the Tigray, Amhara, Oromo, and Southern Nations and Nationalities). These affiliate groups were previously second-class, non-voting members of the long-ruling EPRDF. Now they are part of the Prosperity Party just like everyone else.
That realignment alienated the TPLF and its base in the Tigray region; they refused to join the Prosperity Party.
The establishment of the Prosperity Party was necessary. It is naive to think that real reform would take place within a political system that created the inequality in the first place. It was an attempt to create a forward-looking system that reflected the diversity of the country. Representation in the Prosperity Party followed the principle of democratic representation: The representation of each group is proportional to their population.
The TPLF enjoyed ruling over all Ethiopia by itself for three decades. They now get a 6 percent representation corresponding to the population of the region.
But TPLF didn’t sit on the sidelines. After a series of high-profile civilian killings, on November 4, 2020, TPLF attacked the Northern Command of Ethiopian National Defense Force, in Tigray. The TPLF leadership has admitted doing this as a preemptive strike to defend itself.
No country can tolerate a militia attacking its own federal force, Nobel Peace Prize–winner or not. Abiy has a responsibility to protect Ethiopian forces and Ethiopia. Having tried to ignore previous provocations, this time the government launched a military operation against TPLF and within three weeks captured Mekelle, the capital city of Tigray region.
Abiy will ultimately be judged by what he does from now on. He came to power when the country was at its lowest point politically and economically. In these turbulent times, genuine leadership is needed more than ever. Difficult work is ahead in healing the nation from historic injustice and establishing democratic institutions.
I firmly believe that now is the time to hit a reset button, so that we can engage in a genuine national dialogue. Why now? Because it is abundantly clear that power cannot be obtained at this moment through violence in Ethiopia.
Politicians are exploiting people’s fear to create havoc in the country. Some people fear the return of old Ethiopia, one that was built on one religion, one language, and one superior group who saw themselves as endowed by God to lead the nation. Others fear loss: loss of a proud history that existed for centuries. Some fear religious freedom and equality. Yet others fear revenge on them for the injustice and oppressions their leaders inflicted on others.
Some of these fears are real and some are irrational. Leaders must work relentlessly to alleviate these fears.
One of my criticisms toward Abiy Ahmed’s administration has been its failure to prioritize the national dialogue. It is easier said than done, I get that. It also takes more than one or two groups to undertake such a massive project. Leaders must be willing to muffle their own egos and work for the betterment of the people.
Ethiopians in Minnesota wage political battles over social media
Now that the military operations in Tigray are concluded, it is time to build the country, brick by brick. Reconciliation will be hard due to the competing narratives that exist.
This is demonstrably the case in our diaspora community, which remains polarized along ethnic lines. If you want to understand how the ethnic strife plays out here in Twin Cities, follow the flags. You may recall this summer’s protests throughout the Twin Cities: at the Capitol, in front of the governor’s mansion, on the interstate. You could simply look at the flags to know who was protesting.
These flags themselves are divisive. The polarization issue is not just between different ethnic groups, though. It runs much deeper than that—often within the same ethnic group. As in Ethiopia, the divide often separates those who support the current Abiy Ahmed government and those who despise and oppose him.
Often this divide takes hold on social media. Social media can be an ugly place these days. Over the summer, numerous people reported abuse and harassment from their own community—sometimes through social media posts, other times through private messaging. This is especially hard under the current pandemic situation, where people are already isolated from face-to-face human connection.
Now there is a fatigue. The sweeping protests and furious social media campaigns have dwindled for the most part. People are asking themselves, What did we achieve? The answer is very little, which is difficult to swallow.
Here is what I tell my friends: Be part of the solution. At a minimum, don’t contribute to the problem here at our front home, in Minnesota and at our back home, in Ethiopia. What we say and do on social media has real consequences on people’s lives here and abroad.