Ethnic Polarisation and Internet Shutdown in Ethiopia

3 mins read

By Ebba Holmström

Contrasts and contradictions. On 10 December 2019, the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed received the Nobel Peace Prize for resolving the border conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Less than one year later, he is waging a military operation in the Tigray region, northern Ethiopia. The recent events have caused many to ask how this could happen with such a promising peace-making leader. The situation is, however, far from uncomplicated and the underlying tensions have been boiling for some time.

In the beginning of November this year, security forces, loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), attacked the Northern Command of the Ethiopian National Defense Force. Abiy Ahmed responded that the TPLF had “crossed a red line” and the government launched an airstrike against Tigray. Authorities shut down internet, telephone, and electricity services in the region and all forms of transportation were banned. On 26 November, Prime Minister Abiy began what he called the “final phase of the rule of law operations”, and the government ordered the National Defense Force to attack Mekelle, the Tigrayan regional capital. On November 28, the Prime Minister tweeted that they had taken command over Mekelle, however, it has been reported that there is still unrest in other parts of Tigray. Consequently, thousands of people have fled, and continue to flee, across the border to Sudan.

The TPLF was part of the ruling coalition Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) that governed Ethiopia for 27 years. In 1991, the authoritarian Derg regime was overthrown by the EPRDF, orchestrated by TPLF leader Meles Zenawi. Following the coup, Zenawi became the new head of state and turned Ethiopia into a federation of self-governing regional states based on ethnicity and language. The EPRDF coalition included four parties that represented different ethnic groups; Amhara, Oromo, Tigray and the people of Southern Ethiopia. At the 2007 census, Tigray constituted 6 percent of Ethiopia’s population, in comparison to Oromo with 34.5 percent and Amhara with 26.9 percent. Considering this, many of Ethiopia’s other ethnic groups have often claimed that the Tigrayans, through TPLF, had a disproportionately large influence on the Ethiopian government. 

In 2018, when Abiy Ahmed took over as Prime Minister he introduced several extensive reforms. Political prisoners were released, the border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea was resolved and media channels were unblocked. As a result, the political space opened up and Ethiopians suddenly got the opportunity to express their opinions freely. This has occasionally been explained as lifting the lid on ethnic tensions and Abiy has been struggling to keep the ethnically divided Ethiopia together. Abiy, who is Oromo himself, has been highly criticised for not doing enough for his own people as they have complained about marginalisation for a long time. A couple of days after Abiy was announced a Nobel laureate, Oromo protesters burnt his newly released book. Additionally, there have been several bloody protests in the past year, which escalated further when the Oromo singer Hachalu Hundessa was shot in Addis Ababa in June 2020.

Abiy has been trying to centralise Ethiopia by deviating from the ethnic divisions within the federal system. In 2019, the EPRDF party was dissolved and transformed into the nationwide Prosperity Party. Abiy invited the four parties from the previous coalition to join, however, while three of the previous members joined, TPLF refused. Due to COVID-19, the general elections that were supposed to be held in 2020 have been postponed until 2021. The TPLF, however, interpreted the adjournment as an illegal attempt by Abiy to remain in power. Therefore, in September 2020, the Tigrayan region held elections on their own and claimed that TPLF won. The Tigray election was considered illegal by the central government and has been regarded as a triggering factor for the taking up of arms in November. 

One of the main issues regarding the current situation in Ethiopia is the lack of credible and impartial information from Tigray. Considering the history of imprisoned journalists and the restraints in freedom of expression, there is no strong and independent Ethiopian press. Previous attempts by Prime Minister Abiy to reform the media seem to now have been reversed, since six Ethiopian journalists were arrested early in November this year. The Ethiopian Broadcasting Authority also suspended the press license from Reuters’ correspondent in Ethiopia as they claimed the reporting to be biased. Furthermore, the FOJO Media Institute’s recent report explains how “ethnic belonging and identity politics are gaining significance as central frames of reference in the current Ethiopian media discourse”. The shutdown of telecommunications in Tigray and the lack of a neutral and independent press, create a breeding ground for the spread of rumours and disinformation. Manipulated photos said to be from Tigray have circulated online, and propaganda is gaining traction within and between different ethnic groups on social media. 

Although the dispute between the Ethiopian government and the Tigrayan regional state arose quickly, the underlying causes are deeply rooted in the political history of the federal system. Abiy Ahmed does not face an easy task when trying to unite an ethnically divided country in the midst of a pandemic. However, shutting down the internet as problems arise is not a sustainable solution. Like all over the world, rumours and fake news are easily shared on Ethiopian social media, and in this case, propaganda is further stimulated by the lack of an independent and reliable press. The people of Ethiopia have for a long time been hoping for change; however, the opinions regarding in what direction Ethiopia should head tend to differ. Therefore, it is paramount that the Ethiopian government reassures its citizens that the elections will take place in 2021.

Cover photo: Matthew Morris

Ebba Holmström completed her undergraduate degree at Uppsala University, and is currently pursuing an MSc in African Studies at the University of Oxford. Ebba has a great interest in the African continent and has previously lived in Tanzania, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, and France.

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