In Prosecuting Oromo Leader, Ethiopia Continues Dangerous Policy

A few days ago, Dr. Merera Gudina, a leading opposition figure for Ethiopia’s Oromo ethnic group and the leader of the Oromo Federalist Congress, was charged with terrorism. Gudina was originally arrested in December after returning to Ethiopia from Belgium. His arrest and prosecution come as part of the Ethiopian government’s six month state of emergency designed to curb massive protests by the country’s Oromo and Amhara populations. Since it began its crackdown against dissent, the violent protests have largely subsided, but over 500 protesters have been killed in the process. Thus the Ethiopian government is using force to put down protests while continuing the very disenfranchisement that sparked the protests in the first place, putting the future of the country at risk.

Ethiopia, with Africa’s second largest population and fastest growing economy, is a regional powerhouse despite its widespread poverty. It has over 100 million citizens, about 34% of whom are Oromo and 27% Amhara. As NewsAware explained in an October article, the country’s government is running a developmental state that aims to emulate the rapid economic growth of Asian countries like South Korea, Taiwan, and China. The problem? The government running the economy is dominated by the Tigray ethnic group, which makes up only 6% of Ethiopia’s population.

Ethiopia’s location in Africa.

The October article concluded that sustained development under such conditions is untenable because a disproportionately large share of the benefits will go to the Tigray, fueling ethnically charged resentment. The Oromo and Amhara are calling for democracy to free them from the repression by the Tigray, but a democratic system would undermine the developmental state, which requires authoritarian intervention. For the developmental state to continue, it must construct a powerful Oromo and Amhara elite that can buy into Ethiopia’s current economic and political model alongside the Tigray.

Doing so, however, is very unlikely. To construct an Oromo and Amhara elite would mean sharing the fruits of development more equally, resulting in smaller gains for the current Tigray elite. As a result, the current elite is far more likely to protect their share rather than divvy it up. To do so, they must repress the Oromo and Amhara even more. If the events of this week are any indication, that is exactly what they are doing. By charging Dr. Gudina with terrorism, they are silencing one of the loudest voices advocating for greater Oromo representation, and the state of emergency as a whole is little more than a ploy to legitimize widespread repression. Foreign media has been restricted, a curfew has been imposed, and protests have been criminalized. The government is reacting to discontent by suppressing it.

This is an incredibly foolish path to follow. The elite believes that it is protecting itself by attacking its opponents, but it is only short-term protection. In the long-run, it is hurting itself. Whatever the goal of the Tigray leadership, it seems that it is tied to an increase in wealth through an aggressive pursuit of development. It sees widespread protests as an existential threat to this system, so it attempts to suppress them. The real existential threat, however, is the root cause of the protests: the systemic disenfranchisement of the Oromo and Amhara. If the resentment caused by that disenfranchisement boils over, it risks dethroning the Tigray and throwing the entire developmental state into disarray. In imposing a state of emergency and harassing opposition leaders, the government is engaging in the very same disenfranchisement that is fueling this resentment in the first place.

It is time that the government recognize that attacking its largest ethnic groups is not only wrong, but is also an existential threat the Ethiopia’s current model of economic development. Allowing greater representation for the Oromo and Amhara is not only the right thing to do, but is also within the interests of the Tigray leadership. Ultimately, the Tigray elite must decide what it values most: Tigray dominance or development and wealth for Ethiopia as a whole. It cannot have both. The former is doomed to collapse and undermine the latter as ethnic resentment boils over, and the latter will benefit both the Tigray and the rest of Ethiopia’s population. It seems like an easy choice, but the events of this week indicate otherwise.

Somalia’s New President: Should Democracy Be His Priority?

Since its descent into civil war in 1991, Somalia has come to be known as the world’s prime example of a “failed state.” Between 1991 and 2012, it had no central government. The central government that exists today is wildly corrupt, and it struggles to administer its territory and provide basic services to its citizens. The Islamist militant group al-Shabaab controls portions of the country, and a large section of the country’s north is administered by a separatist government. As of Wednesday, Somalia’s new president, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, is now the man in charge of country’s slow healing process.

The location of Somalia in Africa

Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, nicknamed Farmaajo, became the president of Somalia after a long-awaited and much-delayed election. Considering the fact that Somalia does not have the resources to extend the vote to all of its citizens, Farmaajo was elected not by the people but by 275 Members of Parliament and 54 Senators. These, in turn, had been elected by a group of 14,000 elders within Somalia’s traditional clan system. According to the New York Times, the election was marred by characteristic Somali corruption, with bribes from numerous sources buying off clan elders and MPs. It is surprising, then, that the victor of this expensive election is widely seen as the toughest on corruption during his tenure as prime minister.

For eight months in 2010 and 2011, Farmaajo was appointed the prime minister of Somalia. The prime minister has considerably less power than the president, but is responsible for numerous administrative duties. Farmaajo became known for reducing the number of ministers, regularly issuing military salaries, and setting up an anti-corruption commission. As a result, he became widely recognized as having the interests of the population at heart. He was dismissed by the president and speaker of the Parliament in 2011 “as part of their deal to extend the transitional government,” and “although the president was reluctant to see Mr. Mohamed go, he agreed in order to keep his own job.” After Farmaajo’s dismissal, riots broke out in response to what the people saw as one of the country’s few selfless politicians being dismissed by in a selfish act by his superior.

Farmaajo’s reputation for selflessness is accentuated by the fact that, after he stepped down as prime minister, he returned to his previous job in Buffalo, New York. A dual citizen of Somalia and the United States, Farmaajo had worked for many years as a nondescript employee of the New York State Department of Transportation, and he returned to his old cubicle in 2011. Thus his humble background is promising in that he appears to be motivated by a desire to help Somalia rather than by the pursuit of wealth or power, but it also raises the question of whether he will be able to rein in those who are not as selfless as he is.

The Somali government only controls the areas colored red on this map.

While he was prime minister, his harsh criticism of corruption failed to translate into progress. According to the anti-corruption organization Transparency International, “more than $72 million in donor assistance was stolen between 2009 and 2010, and a further $250 million in revenues could not be accounted for.” Clearly, the Somali government is plagued by a deep-rooted culture of corruption. Furthermore, the fact that the government frequently recruits high-ranking officials from overseas as it did with Farmaajo is indicative of the fact that the political elite is made up of only a tiny sliver of the population. What this ultimately means is that, despite Farmaajo’s best efforts, political power will likely remain concentrated within this very small, very corrupt group until the country’s security and developmental situations have improved enough to allow for greater civic participation. That’s something that the international community does not seem to understand.

After Farmaajo’s election, the US State Department released a statement that said “We encourage Somalia’s new administration to take credible steps to stamp out corruption and to establish strong electoral institutions to enable a free and fair one person one vote poll in 2020.” The west’s primary aim is to facilitate the establishment of democratic processes. This is a noble aim because democracy in western countries has largely succeeded in increasing the government’s accountability to the people, but it has often failed to live up to its promises in countries with dire security situations, low levels of development, and tiny governing elites. The real priority in Somalia should be to discourage a selfish political culture and encourage an accountable one, and building easily abused institutions around those who may exploit them may not be the way to do so.

The most promising aspect of Farmaajo’s election is that his attitude toward government seems to indicate that he will not exploit Somalia’s governing institutions. What is less promising, however, is the fact that the international community continues to push the belief that democracy is the ultimate goal. Before reaching for this goal (and reach for it he should, eventually), Farmaajo should focus his honest governance on prioritizing the security and developmental issues that impede it. Much of the world believes that democracy is an end to strive for. In reality, it is a means to achieve the end of a more responsible government. While it is often the most effective means to achieve that end, we mustn’t forget to question whether there are times when it is not.