Ethiopia’s moment

How Abiy elects to deal with trouble in the country’s East will determine how others approach the Horn of Africa conflicts

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Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed
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BY Alexander Opicho

As one paper put it, “the changes are nothing short of seismic, proof that nothing remains the same forever… In just over 100 days, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has taken radical steps aimed at dismantling the country’s troubled past and paving the way for a new future. After years of protests, state killings, ethnic violence, internet shutdowns, and emergency rules, the Horn of Africa nation has made an astonishing and promising turnaround for the better.”

While many challenges stand in the way of Abiy after this honeymoon period is over, none presents a bigger challenge than the Horn of Africa conflict. For a while before Abiy became prime minister, conflict had been smouldering in Eastern Ethiopia. And when he took over, he made clear his desire to strengthen and stabilise this autonomous region. The biggest manifestation of the actualisation of this promise yet was the arrest of Abdi Mohamoud Omar, aka Abdi Iley, after a brief military engagement between his Special Forces and federal government forces.

Before Abiy sent in the troops, various local media in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa region reported massive looting by armed mobs, particularly targeting the ethnic minorities in Jijiga, the capital of the semi-autonomous Somali region. Media reported scores killed, with thousands internally and externally displaced.

The British think-tank Chatham House, commenting on the security issues in the Horn region, pointed out, “Economic conflicts in the Somali region had worsened”, sort of propelling Abiy to begin acting on his promise for reforms promised reforms to end violent conflict internally. For perspective, the Somali region had been politically excluded for a long time, courtesy of Mohamoud’s actions.

This political marginalisation can be traced back to the colonial times when the British and the Italians subdivided the Somali nation into small and powerless communities that currently exist as marginalized minorities in Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda and Rwanda. The remaining Somalis formed states like Djibouti and Somalia. This early balkanization of African nations in regions of economic value to the colonial masters is also the primary reason for politico-religious conflict today, such as the Rwanda genocide, the Sudan wars and many others.

The federal armed forces arrested Omar in Jijiga last month.

However, historical misfortunes in Africa’s past cannot work as justifications for deliberate failures by the current governance structures. African leaders have a duty to make sound political decisions, and Ethiopia is no exception. The country is that juncture where it must adopt a properly nationalised and inclusive approach to the Somali question.

For example, the landlocked Ethiopia relies heavily on ports in neighbouring countries, mostly in Djibouti, Kenya and Somalia. Transport corridors between Ethiopia and these port countries pass through a very impoverished Somali region on the eastern side of Ethiopia. Social logic would dictate that a socially inclusive political approach in Ethiopia would reduce economic and security challenges in the Somali region. Without stressing the point, the trade routes which run through the Somali region are extremely important for the Ethiopian economy.

Kilong Wenani, a political scientist at Moi University who writes extensively about the Horn region, argues that several forces can now escalate a small spark into prolonged war in the Horn of Africa. He points out, for example, that the precarious military presence of China in the Horn of Africa, India’s concerns about Chinese ascendancy, Western determination to eclipse the Chinese, the previously persistent political marginalisation of Somalis in Ethiopia, extant tribal war between the Somali and Oromo, as well as collective Somali nationalism across the boundaries of the countries in the Horn region can explode into full-scale war at the slightest provocation.

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