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Beating Anger into Empathy: the Need of the Hour in Ethiopia

19 August 2020

Written by Joshua Castellino, MRG’s Executive Director, for Inter Press Service. (Image: In Ethiopia, a nine-year-old child carries jerry cans filled with water to her home, four kilometers away from the borehole. Credit: UNICEF/Ayene)

The murder of Haacaaluu Hundeessaa, an icon of the Oromo people in Ethiopia was a tragic loss for all who struggle for rights in systems that fail to accommodate them.

Suspicions around motivations for this murder and the swiftness of his burial in his village, rather than with a state funeral in the capital Addis Ababa in keeping with his status, enraged a community already in shock.

What happened next is disputed, interpreted and misinterpreted. The discernible facts state that violence broke out, over 200 people were killed and the government responded with mass arrests and an internet shut down, both ostensibly to curb further spread of violence.

Accounts of the violence showed “disturbing hallmark signs of ethnic cleansing”, as my organisation, Minority Rights Group International (MRG), wrote in a statement. We were particularly concerned about the dissemination of hate and incitement to violence targeting local minority communities. Many now fear the current lull may be the proverbial calm before a storm.

The situation bears the features of a society that could spiral into even more widespread violence unless concerted actions are taken to restore confidence. A critical step will be to seek an inter-community dialogue involving all those voices of moderation who are present right across Ethiopia’s incredibly diverse communities.

I am convinced that those who seek a peaceful resolution to the current ongoing tensions represent the true majority of Ethiopians, regardless of their backgrounds.

Modern Ethiopia only recently emerged from a long period of authoritarianism that created a hostile human rights climate. Its popular young Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali, elected in 2018, was awarded the Nobel Prize for peace ‘for his efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation, and in particular for his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea’.

He promised a vision of an inclusive Ethiopia and had already been awarded the 2018 Gender Award plaque for his role in promoting gender equality. Of Oromo ethnicity, he has gained widespread national support and has been feted as bringing positive change to Ethiopia.

Modernising Ethiopia requires vision, skill, empathy, political capital, and a determination to place Ethiopia on a world stage to contribute and benefit from global trade. A significant change is needed to ensure that rights flowed to all, and that the traditional dominance of certain ethnic groups, indicative of the choice of national language of the State, could give way to a pluralistic democracy based on common heritage, not ethnic lineage.

The Oromo, constituting an estimated thirty four percent of Ethiopia’s population while the largest ethnic group, suffered decades of exclusion and forced assimilation. This decimated their pastoralist lifestyle, further threatened in recent years by proposals to extend the capital Addis Ababa into traditional Oromo pastoral land.

The history of oppression gave rise to the Oromo Liberation Front in the 1970s which operated as a militarized group, even aligning with the Eritrean struggle for independence. Despite this history, the Oromo backed the candidacy of the current Prime Minister hoping he could uplift and modernise Ethiopia creating a country with rights for all.

The ethno-linguistic make up of Ethiopia is worth reflecting on. According to Minority Rights Group’s World Directory on Minorities and Indigenous Peoples, the population (102.37 million, 2017 census) consists a federation of ethnic, linguistic, religious, and regional minorities.

The census listed over 90 distinct ethnic groups, speaking over 80 languages, with the greatest diversity in the south-west, with Amharic (a Semitic language), Oromo, Tigrinya and Somali spoken by two-thirds of the population.

About 43.5 per cent of the population is Orthodox Christian, 33.9 per cent are Muslim with the remainder Protestant, Roman Catholic or followers of traditional religions.

Negotiating this terrain and seeking an optimal future for Ethiopia is a delicate task. There are legitimate political questions ahead, including the potential impact of altering the federal state and how that could undermine ethnic groups that do not feel represented in national politics.

A history of violence and oppression may also need to be factored in, as well as seeking accountability for the years of authoritarianism. Ethiopian society is divided on these tough political questions, which only Ethiopians can answer and decide a way forward.

Arriving at a consensus and clear plan is key to the country’s future stability, but such a discussion can only take place if the ambience of hate is not stoked.

There has been a tendency globally in recent years for anger and discontent to dominate the political, leading to name-calling, fuelling of hate and perpetration of violence. Recent history shows how such an ambience privileges strident voices and extremists, silencing the calm, intelligent moderate voices who need to find a way of configuring a peaceful path to prosperity.

The only way to preserve Ethiopia’s heritage and global contributions lies in celebrating its diversity and fostering a unity that makes Ethiopia much greater than the sum of its parts.

In the days, weeks and months ahead – if elections are cancelled due to coronavirus – the international community must support the voices of moderation, to create an ambience where the force of argument rather than the argument of force dominates.

It is vital to guard against signs that authoritarianism may be returning to the country’s governance, and to urge social media companies to act responsibly to safeguard against hate speech or other comments that inflame tensions.

Writing in the 1950s after a period of intense hatred, a scholar emphasized the importance of ‘beating swords into ploughshares’. Today words are wielded as swords, and when uttered passionately and disseminated to angry mobs, they create lasting damage. Beating anger into empathy is the urgent need of the hour.

The rewards are great: in the short-term prevention of violence, in the long term, the collective awakening of a country with incredible potential to take up its place on the world stage.