Another ethnic conflict

The case of the Oromo in Ethiopia might lead to a new separation.

Ethiopia is made up of numerous ethnic groups who share common characteristics. Despite the commonness, ethnic cleavages have often escalated into hostilities and some of them have led into fully fledged wars. Ethiopia has over 80 different ethnic groups. Most people in Ethiopia speak Afro-Asiatic languages, mainly of the Cushitic and Semitic branches, and those who speak the Cushitic languages are mainly the Oromo and Somali, and those who speak the Semitic languages include the Amhara and Tigray.

As seen in the case of the Ethiopian-Eritrean border conflict, the issue of ethnicity has been at the centre stage of the melee. Ethnic divisions in Africa have always led to bloodshed and reconfigurations of state boundaries since the medieval past. African history is awash with episodes of violence whose impetus stem from ethnic differences. For instance, the ethnic divisions in Zulu empire in South Africa caused a lot of mayhem in the 15th and 16th centuries, a situation which led to what has been called the Mfecane (a time of trouble). In Southern Africa, due to ethnic differences among the people of several ethnic groups, namely Zulu, Xhosa, Ndebele and Shangaan among others, , endless wars were fought leading into movements of people from the places of massacres to other places, hence reconfiguring the traditional borders zooming of new states such as the Ndebele State in Zimbabwe, the Ngoni State in Zambia, the Shangani State in Mozambique.

Ethnic divisions and wars were not confined to Southern Africa alone, as all parts of Africa had ethnic groups which fought against each other for dominance as seen, for example, among the Hutu and Tutsi  in Rwanda and Uganda, the Nuer and Dinka in South Sudan and the Kikuyu and Luo ethnic groups in Kenya. The coming in of colonialism did little in easing the hostilities in most African countries but rather inflamed the divisions through the famous ‘divide and rule tactic’ which was usually used by the British and other colonisers.

Decolonisation, for most African states in the 20th century, seems to have worsened the divisions as incidences of ethnic cleansing were seen in most post-colonial African states along with their further disintegration. For instance, during the 1980s, a few years after the independence of Zimbabwe from Britain, an estimated 20,000 Ndebele were massacred by the Shona dominated army wing under the tutelage of the Shona Prime Minister Robert Mugabe in an infamous ethnic cleansing episode which has been dubbed the Gukurahundi (clean up the chaff) episode. This episode has been at the centre of political debates in Zimbabwe until today and threatened to tear the country into two.

The infamous Rwandan genocide of the early 1990s has also seen about 800,000 people  being killed when Hutu and Tutsi turned against each other. In the early 2000s the  Darfur crisis was an ethnically motivated genocide where about 480,000 dark skinned Africans were killed by the predominantly Arab-Africans, a situation which has led to the birth of the youngest African country called South Sudan. The series of fighting and massacres based on ethnicity have taken a newer dimension with the religious differences taking a centre stage. As seen in Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Central African Republic, the issue of  religious differences, mainly between Muslims and Christians, caused violence and in some instances massacres, which originated from the will for independence as seen in the case of Sudan and Ethiopia, with the creation of South Sudan out of Sudan and the Eritrean state out of Ethiopia.

The famous salute/gesture by an Ethiopian runner Feyisa Lilesa at the 2016 Rio Olympics in solidarity with the protesters of the Oromo people of Ethiopia evoked the memories of the Ethiopian-Eritrean conflict which has led to the dividing of Ethiopia hence the creation of the Eritrean state. The Oromo people who have been protesting against economic and political marginalisation based on ethnicity seem to have received global attention and sympathy which has created the possibility of another Eritrea. The overwhelming support that Lilesa, who is from the Oromo ethnic group, got when he pleaded to get help from the international community for his relocation to the United States, shows the extent to which the Oromo issue has deeply divided Ethiopia. Despite the heavy handedness the Ethiopian government has shown against the Oromo, the marginalisation of the latter might lead to serious ethnic confrontations.

In summation, does the current debacle have the potential of dividing Ethiopia again as seen when Eritrea declared independence after years of ethnically driven hostilities?

Mehari Fisseha

Mehari has PhD in Social Policy and Social Work, Masters in Government and Public Policy. Mehari has been an advocate for refugees and asylum seekers in Ireland. Mehari is a passionate champion on Human Rights and Development issues, with a focus in Ethiopia and Eritrea. He is also interested in the reform of the United Nations. His academic work is driven by his commitment to empowerment and ‘betterment’ of the powerless (people, communities), often invisible in the eyes of policy makers, that policies ignore their very ‘realities’. Mehari is a recipient of European Academy of Diplomacy award for the best candidate in the European diplomacy and Foreign policy workshop.
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