Ethiopia’s delicate transition is under severe strain. A ferocious burst of communal violence in July, touched off by the murder of a popular Oromo singer, which claimed some 160 lives, underscored the grave conflict risks the populous Horn of Africa nation faces.

Addis Abeba, August 13/2020 – The unrest in Oromia is complex. Long-festering grievances, discontent with PM Abiy’s policies and a deepening fracturing of the Oromo, have combined to create a volatile situation.

The escalating divisions, factionalism and contest for supremacy in Oromia packs enough destabilizing power to upend PM Abiy’s transition.

Urgent steps must be taken to mend the intra-Oromo rift, improve inter-ethnic relations, and put regional and national politics on a less combustible course.

A mystery assassination

The assassination of Hachalu Hundessa triggered a bout of violence and protest, the worst since PM Abiy came to power in April 2018. A week of communal clashes in Addis Abeba, the capital, and in Oromia, left close to some 160 people dead, according to numbers provided by government official. Protests engulfed much of Oromia and spread quickly to several cities with large Ethiopian diaspora communities in North America and Europe.

Businesses owned by non-Oromos were looted and shops torched. The government imposed a curfew, shut down the Internet, rounded up dozens of opposition leaders and stepped up the brutal security crackdown in Oromia.

The deaths, mayhem and destruction were not inevitable. In hindsight, it is not too difficult to see how a measured, sensitive and less heavy-handed state response could have produced a different outcome.

By failing to institute an open and credible commission of inquiry into the death; coming out with inconsistent statements barely hours after the killings and arresting opposition leaders, the government simply reinforced mistrust and inflamed sentiments.

The government has since lifted the Internet ban and eased restrictions on movements. A semblance of normality is returning to many parts of Oromia. But tensions still remain high and ethnic relations increasingly toxic.

Much of the current tense and ominous standoff can be attributed to the series of missteps and kneejerk responses by the federal authorities.

The crisis in Oromia is emblematic of the inherent tensions, contradictions and disjuncture between two forms of politics – the “vernacularized” and the national.

But these factors, in themselves, cannot explain the speed at which the situation deteriorated. Even without Hachalu’s death and the violent aftermath, a showdown seemed inevitable. To understand why, an analysis of the wider context is necessary.

From Accommodation to Coercive Containment

The crisis in Oromia is emblematic of the inherent tensions, contradictions and disjuncture between two forms of politics – the “vernacularized” and the national.

Oromia offers a fascinating case study of how Abiy’s posture and calculations changed over time; how the evolution from a policy of accommodation to one of coercive cooptation and containment is feeding the current unrest.

PM Abiy inherited a dysfunctional state that had ran out of road and desperate for new direction. Years of rolling mass protests in Oromia and Amhara states had brought the nation to a political impasse.

The EPRDF (Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front), once a strong and progressive party, had run out of steam and ideas; deeply riven by factionalism and power struggles. These divisions mirrored wider cleavages in society and the resurgence of competing ethno-nationalisms.

The economy was on the ropes, done by a combination of frenetic growth, expensive infrastructure modernization and unsustainable debt. The treasury barely had enough foreign reserves to cover a month’s worth of exports.

The challenges before the new PM were both complex and difficult. Over and above the onerous task of consolidating power, stabilizing the economy, reforming politics and putting the transition on a solid footing, PM Abiy had to grapple with the weight of public expectations.

Abiy’s administration in the first few months in office was characterized by a conspicuously Oromo theme. The premier ditched the suit for the flowing white cotton Oromo outfit. He treated visiting dignitaries to lavish banquets at which Oromo chefs laid out the finest of traditional cuisines. He gave away horses to special state guests.

This overt display of Oromo pride was deliberate and went down well in Oromia. Beyond winning the hearts and minds of his people, the strategy had potential to help him build a solid ethnic, regional support base, crucial in an ethnicized political system.

But to establish credibility and earn the trust of his Oromo ethnic group, the PM needed to do more. He released political prisoners among them prominent Oromo leaders. He appointed a record number of Oromos to key posts in the cabinet, the army and the security services. He unbanned the OLF, reached out to exiled activists and facilitated their return home.

Consolidating Oromo support proved more complicated for the PM. Despite his popularity, he had to contend with a diverse array of factions and personalities with local and national political ambitions, in some instances with large following and more influential.

Roots of Oromo Nationalism and Discontent

The Oromo are the single largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, and make up roughly 40 million of Ethiopia’s population. They inhabit a vast geography and dispersed across much of south, central and western Ethiopia, as well as across the border in Kenya. Sub-families of the Oromo, such as the Boran, Gabra, Burji, and Orma live in the counties of Marsabit, Isiolo and Tana River.

This sheer demographic size did not translate into political and economic power. Their history has been one of marginalization and exploitation.

The large-scale uprisings in Ethiopia from 2014, largely driven by the Oromo, and which eventually thrust PM Abiy into power, made the Oromo a potent political force that cannot be ignored.

The Oromo are not monolithic. They are the most internally-diverse of Ethiopia’s nations and nationalities, with sub-groups differentiated by significant linguistic dialects, religious and cultural variations.

Religious pluralism, historically manifested in the peaceful cohabitation between different faith systems (Islam, Christianity and the ancestral faith, Waqqeffana), makes Oromo society the least prone to religious bigotry and militancy

These factors in turn inflect political dynamics and ways in which communities respond to political pressures.Dispersal over vast geographies, diversity and heterogeneity makes Oromo society uniquely pluralistic and least insular of the different nations. These traits have been a major source of strength but also weakness.

Religious pluralism, historically manifested in the peaceful cohabitation between different faith systems (Islam, Christianity and the ancestral faith, Waqqeffana), makes Oromo society the least prone to religious bigotry and militancy. It also explains why hardline strains of Salafi Islam has found Oromia unconducive to put down roots. This culture of tolerance is now under strain from Evangelical proselytism and encroachment.

Divisive political co-optation tactics by state and rival political factions feed off these rich diversity within Oromo society and drive much of the tensions and fragmentations we are seeing today in Oromia.

No subject polarizes Ethiopia today more than Oromo nationalism. The bloody violence and protests in the wake of Hachalu’s assassination have made the debate even more heated, emotive and divisive.

To understand the drivers of Oromo discontent and nationalism; untangle the underlying trends, dynamics and plot the potential future trajectory, it is critical for policy makers to widen their analytical lens and develop deeper contextual insights into its specificity.

Complexity

Oromo nationalism, not unlike other nationalisms, is complex and dynamic. It is fed by multiple streams, taps into a reservoir of potent, accumulated grievances and draws energy and sustenance from a rich repository of cultural memory and aspiration. The latter point is important, not least, because there is a misperception primarily/wholly driven by politics.

In fact, the political manifestation of Oromo nationalism is fairly recent and comes off the back of decades of struggle for cultural freedoms. Key demands of the Oromo cultural revivalist movement included the right to accord Afaan Oromo same official privileges as Amharic and the freedom to openly observe traditional rituals (such as Irreecha). Pride in Oromo identity and need to affirm it inspired generations of young people. Hachalu was therefore the spokesman of this new generation; a proud, unapologetic and self-confident Oromo. His popular song Jirra struck a chord because its lyrics encapsulated those aspirations in one simple and powerful line: We are here!

The current debate about Oromo nationalism comes against the backdrop of an increasingly febrile and polarized political climate. The language of discourse, reflecting these tensions, is emotionally charged and adversarial

It is worth bearing in mind all ethno-nationalisms are forms of myth-making, constructed around romanticized notions of the past, links with a self-defined ancestral homeland and impelled by powerful emotions.

Narrative

The current debate about Oromo nationalism comes against the backdrop of an increasingly febrile and polarized political climate. The language of discourse, reflecting these tensions, is emotionally charged and adversarial; much of the discussions, invariably, as simplistic as they are de-contextualized.

More disconcerting, public opinion is being shaped more and more by misperception – a narrative of mutual “othering” and demonization.

Current anti-Oromo sentiments are varied and cover a wide spectrum. The most dominant and least acute is a generalized fear of Oromo hegemony, sometimes laced with perception Oromos are violent-prone. This is especially the case among smaller ethnic groups that have borne the brunt of targeted violence.

The debate about the Oromo has assumed a reductionist dimension and dominated by essentialism – a tendency to ascribe a category of problematic and negative “essences” to the ethnic group and its politics.

This strain of Oromophobia is now largely driven by an amorphous group of old elites, loosely described as neftegna. The term is controversial and contested. The animating force of the neftegna ideology is a set of exaggerated “patriotic” ideas that revolve around the imperative to preserve Ethiopia as a single, strong, centralized state. The Christian character of the Ethiopian state, though less accentuated, forms an essential part of the narrative repertoire.

Oromo discontent in recent months have been inflamed by perception PM Abiy has bought into aspects of the neftegna narrative. Even if not true, the PM’s rhetorical appropriation of Ethiopiawinet (Ethiopianness) and the strident airplay it is getting on state media is polarizing. It is a divisive term; a throwback to the imperial age when it was instrumentalized to subject and control Oromos.

There is nothing exotic about Oromo nationalism and protest. The sense of alienation, disillusionment and grievances activists articulate have their roots in real material conditions. The primary engine feeds on long-festering socio-economic and political factors – massive unemployment, unequal wealth and income disparities, elite-driven land grabs, corruption and youth aspiration.

Ethno-Nationalism and Violence

There is no doubt that violent ethno-nationalism constitutes Ethiopia’s gravest threat, in the short to medium term.

The last two years saw a resurgence of volatile strains of ethnic identity politics in Ethiopia that ratcheted up inter-communal tensions and stoked violence.

The most serious of the conflicts were in Oromia-Somali Regional State (SRS) borders, Oromia-Afar regional state borders, the Guji Oromo-Gedeo community border areas, the Amhara-Gumuz regional state borders, the Oromo-Benishangul Gumuz regional state borders, and the Oromo special zones in Amhara region.

Hundreds were killed and the violence triggered waves of fresh displacements, one of the worst in the country’s history, bringing the number of IDPs to over 3 million in early 2019.

The upsurge in violence is not surprising. While much of it could be attributed to the disruptive power of Abiy’s speedy dismantling and opening up of the old state, subsequent state response played a significant role in compounding the crisis.

State-driven violence is a major contributor to localized violence in Oromia. Aggressive and hostile policing, mass arrest of activists, indiscriminate and disproportionate use of lethal force to quell protests have all combined to create a combustible environment of siege that stokes counter-violence.

That the worst fracturing of the Oromo is occurring in a state led by an Oromo PM is ironic, and, arguably, an indictment.

Oromo Fracture

Oromia is today more deeply divided and unstable than it has ever been in decades. The region is now both an incubator – generating destabilizing currents outward – and a barometer (to gauge the undercurrents of unresolved tensions in PM Abiy’s transition).

That the worst fracturing of the Oromo is occurring in a state led by an Oromo PM is ironic, and, arguably, an indictment. But before delving into the causes, two general pointers are worth noting.

First, Oromo politics was, and is, never monolithic. The region’s politics have always had a distinctly localized flavor, influenced, mostly, by a whole host of “structural” factors: strong sub-group loyalties and identities, geography and an inter-generational divide.

Second, a convergence of two powerful political homogenizing trends – one driven by national imperatives; the other by a “vernacularized” politics of resistance – aggravates the situation.

The multiple splits in Oromia partly reflect old regional cleavages. The traditional regional rivalry (Gaanduumma) between Bale and Arsi and Shewa Oromos (the former predominantly Muslims) appears now more pronounced. The Bale/Arsi vs Shewa rivalry constitutes a potentially dangerous fissure, in large part because it is assuming religious dimensions and, likely, to stoke sectarian tensions.

There is also an emerging three-way split, partly animated by traditional regional identity politics but also stoked by intra-elite contestation: the Wollaga (where Lemma Megersa is from); Shewa (the seat of the Oromia regional state), and Jimma (home region of PM Abiy).

Abiy-Jawar Rivalry

The power struggle between PM Abiy Ahmed and Jawar Mohammed has in the last one year moved to the center of Oromia’s unsettled politics. The intensifying battle for supremacy between the two men is the single most potent wedge factor currently feeding intra-Oromo fragmentation.

PM Abiy and Jawar were not always adversaries. Jawar’s media outlets and influential social media presence was instrumental in fomenting and directing the popular protests that eventually catapulted Abiy to power. The two men fell out quickly after Jawar returned from exile, began building his own political base and turned into the premier’s most vocal critic, owing laregely to PM Abiy’s misplaced priorities.

Abiy and Jawar share a common interest. They have national leadership ambitions and desire to consolidate Oromo support ahead of the now deferred elections. A solid ethnic constituency is a great advantage in an ethnicized political system, but even crucial in competitive politics if it translates into votes.

Abiy and Jawar’s leadership styles are not too dissimilar. Both men are populists; relish playing to the gallery, have a penchant for exaggerated rhetoric and rely more on the sheer force of charisma to win supporters.

Jawar seems to enjoy significant advantage over Abiy in the contest for Oromo hearts and minds. His popularity has soared since he teamed up with Bekele Gerba, a widely respected Oromo politician to lead the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC). Unlike the PM, he is on the ground and not distracted by juggling competing priorities. He is more adept at grassroots politics and his “vernacularized” brand of politics has huge traction with a broad cross-section of Oromos disenchanted with state policies. This is especially true of the youth movement, Qeerroo.

More important, Jawar’s initiatives to repair Oromo divisions, intervene to ease localized tensions and conflicts endeared him to many Oromos. This contrasted with Abiy’s top-down approach and cooptation strategies that catalyzed divisions. The PM’s use of mass arrests, draconian security crackdowns to undermine Jawar’s support base have, so far, not only been unsuccessful, but also bred widespread resentment.

Their differences have progressively widened in recent months, but, whether it has solidified into an organic ideological and policy split, is debatable.

Federalism

The multinational federalism model in Ethiopia still remains hugely popular. Bigger nations see it as a system that protects their interests and privileges; the smaller ones as the only viable route out of marginalization.

Much of the disenchantment with the system in recent years is driven by perceptions it had become hollowed out, conferred no meaningful autonomy, bred its own inequities and stoked inter-ethnic tensions and violence. Yet, the preference, it would seem, of many, is reform, not dismantlement.

PM Abiy’s ambivalent and initial mild aversion to the federalism seems to have hardened – rhetorically, at least, in the last one year. The PM is instinctively a centralist and the recent lurch into the traditional default narrative of his predecessors did not come as surprise. There was always an implicit anti-federalism tenor to his rhetoric and a bias for a centralized state.

But what alienates Oromos more than the PM’s views on federalism is the strident patriotic messaging that now accompanies it – on the imperative for a united and strong law and order state. This type of discourse tends to be associated, rightly or wrongly, with the “assimilationist nationalism” of the past.

The prime minister’s dissenting views on the issue of the federalism seem not to have evolved much since 2018. In practice, his approach has shifted, somewhat. Whether due to electoral calculations, realism and political opportunism (understandable in an election year), he does appear more accommodating than many had expected.

The creation of Sidama Regional State, Ethiopia’s 10th federal state, in late 2019 may lend credence to this tentative “softening”, even though it is worth pointing out the process to establish the state has been in train for many years and involved a bloody battle even in post-Abiy Ethiopia .

PM Abiy’s anxiety about Jawar stems, partly, from awareness of his vulnerability on the multinational federalism arrangement. By being strong on federalism and making it a central plank of his national campaign, Jawar was in effect signaling intent to leverage his competitive advantage to the maximum.

Arrests

Jawar is loved and loathed in equal measure. Despite his huge popularity in Oromia, he has struggled to develop an appealing national profile and support base particularly among these who benefit from the largess of structural privilege in Ethiopia’s state building project. His critics continue to exploit some of his past careless rhetoric and links with the Qeerroo to paint him as a narrow ethno-nationalist bigot wedded to violence.

His potential to grow into a national leader and his electoral prospects ought not to be discounted. He was beginning to develop links with opposition groups beyond Oromia, particularly in the Southern regional state. Crucially, his strong focus on federalism attracted national attention and galvanized important ethnic constituencies.

The arrest and trial of Jawar, likely to last months (and possibly years if convicted), gives the Ethiopian PM the space and time, potentially, to reconfigure Oromo politics. This is a prospect almost certain to be complicated, if not fail.

First, Jawar’s popularity has not waned; if anything, it has increased. Second, the massive security clampdown and campaign of mass arrests of opposition activists and leaders has dented the PM and tilted Oromia into a less sympathetic political terrain.

OLF splits

The Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), its ambitions and brand of politics adds another volatile and complicated layer to the fractured politics and insecurity in Oromia. The ex-insurgency’s combatants and commanders returned home in September 2018 under a general amnesty and negotiations facilitated by Eritrea. A botched integration process served as the initial spark that ignited open dissent against the regional and national government. This quickly morphed into a low-grade conflict, pitting regional troops, supported by federal troops against armed factions of the OLF, Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) in late 2018.

A series of failed talks, peace pacts and mediation led by deeply-riven traditional Abba Gadda councils between November 2018 to April 2019 tipped the stalemate into a full-blown crisis

The OLF’s swift transition from an ally of the Abiy government to adversary can be attributed to several factors. The amnesty deal negotiated in Asmara was vague and done in haste. Important issues were either overlooked or not properly addressed. As a result, trust broke down quickly. Disputes over the troop integration process and the latitude of political freedoms allowed the leadership soon became problematic wedge issues.