Illustrations by Hannah Robinson
Ethiopia, situated in the Horn of Africa, is a landlocked country that gets incredibly little airtime on western news channels. Though they have been struggling with inter-ethnic conflict for decades, very few people know about it. Today, tensions are at an all-time high and there have been new waves of violence and killings. But where has this come from? I am going to explain the recent developments, as well as some of the relevant history briefly, as it is important to be aware of political struggles outside of the mainstream media.
The centre of the ethnic conflict is the Benishangul Gumuz Region in the west of Ethiopia, one of the ten regional states. This means that Benishangul Gumuz has its own semi-autonomous government and has a degree of independence from the central institutions, based in the nation’s capital Addis Ababa. This region has five ‘indigenous’ ethnic groups, the largest being the Berta and the Gumuz peoples, as well as ‘non-indigenous’ settlers like the Oromos, Amhara and Tigrayans. The region has been plagued by ethnic conflict in recent months, both between ‘indigenous’ and ‘non-indigenous’ peoples, and within ‘non-indigenous’ communities too. A recent attack came on the 23rd of December, when more than 200 ethnic Oromos and Amharans were slaughtered by unidentified armed groups; those asserted to be from the Gumuz ethnic group. The Amhara civilians have borne the brunt of the bloodshed, as Gumuz militia have reportedly told them to leave the region or die. However, the conflict is much more complex than merely Amhara v. Gumuz, seeing as certain local security services are siding with Gumuz militia.
The Benishangul Gumuz region has been deteriorating politically since 2019, and the pace of which has increased to an extremely worrying extent. According to the UN, an estimated 101,000 people have been displaced since July 2020 due to the violence. The decline in the conditions in the region has meant that aid provisions have also suffered. The regional government has been able to supply life-saving assistance only; international charities have had to relocate due to the violence, and access to worse affected areas is virtually impossible. There is a huge gap between the response and the need of suffering people – many are lacking access to food, water, shelter and gender-based violence support.
This comes within the context of an ongoing war between the federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in the northern region of Tigray. The TPLF formerly were ruling partners in the governmental coalition, but they lost this in 2018 with the election of President Abiy Ahmed. During this war Abiy banned journalists, blocked the internet, shut out aid agencies and kept the world in the dark about the truths of the conflict. An estimated 4.5 million are in need of emergency rations, and there have been persistent reports of massacres, tortures, abductions and rape. 50,000 have fled to Sudan and thousands died in this conflict alone.
Ethiopia, under the current Abiy regime is going through a very dark time, where violence is one of the only political certainties – but where does this ethnic conflict arise from?
Ethiopia’s current political arrangement is a so-called ‘ethno-federal’ system of governance. In a federal system, like the USA, power is shared between autonomous units, finding unity within diversity. This is often in place in very large states, like Russia, or one divided along many different ethnic lines, like India or Ethiopia. Ethno-federalism refers to an arrangement where the autonomous units are founded on ethnic division. This has the dangerous potential to worsen inter-ethnic divisions through the creation of ethno-nationalism. This ideology claims the right of a specific group to self-rule in their homeland, in effect politicising ethnic and tribal identity with dangerous consequences. In Ethiopia specifically, ethno-nationalism gained prominence with the rise of the TPLF and their claims that Amhara domination explained many of the plagues Ethiopian society suffered. This discourse remains and contributes to the conflicts that we have seen in the country, specifically in the Benishangul Gumuz region in the last few years.
So why is there so little coverage of the violence and suffering that many Ethiopians suffer on a daily basis?
The Ethiopian political culture of the media is incredibly secretive and the government has a huge amount of power in controlling the information that the world accesses. As previously mentioned, during the war in Tigray the government banned journalists and shut down the media. However, the government also has significant control over the Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation, so they are not allowed to report any kind of regional conflict to the rest of the nation. Likewise, foreign broadcasts are jammed, and honest journalism is likened to terrorism by the government.
Ethiopia is in the midst of a massive humanitarian crisis; the more people know about it the better.