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.
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.