Even the BBC has woken up to the fact that a massive wave of protest is moving through Ethiopia. This isn't completely surprising as over a hundred people have been murdered by the Ethiopian government. The problem with the coverage by the BBC is the lack of an in-depth analysis of the causes of the problem, as is common in mainstream media. They make some superficial comments on land disputes between the Amhara and Tigray. However, the situation in Ethiopia is much more complex and worth a more in-depth analysis.
Ethiopia is the only country in Africa that was never truly colonized by Europe. Italy first tried this during the scramble for Africa but was defeated. Four decades later Mussolini tried again and this time, partly because of the use of mustard gas, the Ethiopians were conquered. It is said that Haile Selassie, the emperor of Ethiopia at the time, warned the world with the profetic words "it is us today. It will be you tomorrow."
Haile Selassie was himself deposed by a military coup in 1974. His regime was replaced by the Derg regime which claimed to be part of the Marxist-Leninist tradition. They promptly gained the support of the Soviet Union. As we've seen time and again with Marxist-Leninists, this turned out to be nothing better than a brutal dictatorship. When the Soviet Union began to disintegrate, so did the Derg. It was followed by the short-lived People's Democratic Republic of Ethiopia which was, in fact, more or less a continuation of the rule of the Derg. Eventually, the rebel armies which were, usually, also Marxist-Leninist would claim victory in a bloody civil war after which power was transferred to the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF). This organisation is connected to the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) which is still mostly controlled by the TPLF.
Ethiopia is, for many reasons, a unique country in Africa. The Derg, following the example of Stalinism, tried to reshape Ethiopia into a nation-state which was fairly unique in the African context where most countries have enormous ethnic divisions. Nevertheless, the EPRDF decided to try an "experiment" where they instituted a federation of ethnicities. The advantage of this was a renewed development of ethnic culture. However, the EPRDF have built the Ethiopian federation in such a way that ethnic groups are now separate political groups that are often in conflict with each other. The growing division has even given rise to the concept of "illegal" migration within Ethiopia by people from different ethnic groups.
The dominance of the TPLF doesn't mean that people with a Tigray identity are necessarily in a better economic or social position than Amhara, Oromo, or people from other ethnicities. Most Tigray are also heavily repressed by the government. At the same time, Ethiopias president is from an Oromo background. However, since the Oromo are protesting the government they are, indirectly, also protesting against him. From the protesters, there have been some calls for the Tigray people to rise up with them. At the same time, the dominance of the TPLF, which is ethnically connected to the Tigray, is questioned. Some people, on Twitter, talk about "Tigray fascism" and an apartheidsregime.
Although the EPRDF rule began with promises of decentralisation of power this has scarcely materialized. The points where the state has devolved some power the party keeps a tight control by appointing advisors. At one end some measure of control is given to the people and immediately taken away through party officials. The façade of democracy and decentralization clash with the harsh reality of the vanguard mentality of Marxism-Leninism. Of course, this mentality is present in all political parties.
The governing strategy of the EPRDF has generally been a stumbling block for solidarity between the various groups in Ethiopian society. The Oromo and Amhara, the largest ethnic groups in Ethiopia, have a history of conflict with each other. Nevertheless, these two groups have currently found each other in their opposition to the government. We can only hope this new-found solidarity will continue to exist and will extend towards other groups, including the Tigray. There are various demands from the protestors, amongst which are free elections. Given the political atmosphere that has come into existence after about a quarter of a century of ethnic politicization it may be unlikely that Ethiopia can continue to exist as a unified country. This may not even be a preferable solution. If, however, this is the future of Ethiopia the new-found solidarity between ethnic groups is utter necessity. In any case, solidarity is always preferable.
Federalism itself can be a good strategy to facilitate cooperation between various groups. However, federalism can't work when it's narrowly controlled by one party, nor can it work when the federation's members have little to no freedom. Furthermore, the problems for the Ethiopian federalist experiment are more complicated than the domination of an entire country by one party. I will discuss this in the next article.