Over the past two decades, Ethiopia has experienced explosive economic growth, lifting millions out of poverty in the process. Between 2000 and 2016, the share of citizens living in absolute poverty dropped from 40%, the highest in Africa, to 24%. Under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who was appointed in 2018, the nation has also opened up politically. However, a persistent scourge for the country that has continued under Ahmed is ethnic violence.
Ethiopia is a melting pot of over 80 ethnolinguistic groups all living under one multi-ethnic federation. Long-simmering conflicts over access to land and political power have frequently boiled over into violence. While ethnic conflict is tragic, it also has tangible and concrete impacts on the economic prospects of impoverished Ethiopians. Ethnic violence in Ethiopia is endemic in Oromia, the country’s most populated region, and the Amhara region, home to some of the poorest people on the planet.
Ethnic Strife in Oromia
Oromia makes up approximately one-third of Ethiopia’s total area and is home to 37 million people. The region has achieved significant food insecurity reductions in recent years. Still, an astonishingly high number of people, especially children, are impoverished. In Oromia, 90% of children under 18 experience multidimensional poverty. This high number of vulnerable residents pairs poorly with the area’s history of ethnic tensions.
Despite being the largest Ethiopian ethnic group, the Oromos have not held power in modern Ethiopia. Consequently, Oromos have banded together within ethnic-nationalist movements, such as the Oromo Liberation Front, in order to push for political empowerment. The narratives promoted by such outfits have often been accusatory and hostile toward other ethnic groups. Ethnic resentment is baked into the Oromia region’s identity.
In 2018, the outlook in Oromia became particularly fraught. In the spring of that year, a scarcity of productive farmland led to an intense conflict between Gedeos and Gujis, two smaller ethnic groups. In the fall, Oromos clashed with other communities in two neighboring provinces. Just in the first seven months of the year, over 800,000 Oromian residents had been forced to flee their homes due to conflict and become internally displaced.
Internally-displaced peoples (IDPs) is a label that covers far too many Ethiopians in Oromia and beyond. Ethiopia was home to 2.9 million IDPs in 2018, the most in any country. Unfortunately, becoming internally displaced is often a precursor for falling into poverty. Farmers who fled Oromia in 2018 left their land behind, abandoning their entire livelihoods and becoming entirely dependent on outside humanitarian support. A World Bank report on the world’s forcibly displaced observed that displacement-induced poverty “condemns generations—mostly women and children—to a life on the margins.”
Luckily, Ahmed’s government has managed to break through some of the major fault lines, including between Oromos and southern Somali groups. The thousands of Gedeos who were displaced within Oromia two years ago have mostly been able to return. Yet to the north, the struggle of one ethnic group demonstrates that a steady home is no guarantee for prosperity.
The Plight of the Amhara
Under the Ethiopian monarchy, Amharas dominated the country’s government. However, since the overthrow of the emperor in 1974, the community has suffered a steep fall from grace. Similar to Oromia, poverty is inescapable for many in the Amhara region with 26% of the population living below the poverty line and 91% of children are multi-dimensionally deprived.
Due to poverty’s catastrophic toll, the Amharans lead the world in one undesirable area: The prevalence of trachoma, a disease that blinds millions of the world’s poor. Spread by flies and poor hygiene, the disease thrives in Amhara, where 84% of the population lives in rural areas and 47% of households lack access to safe drinking water. Entire villages complain of poor eyesight and intense pain that, without treatment, leads to blindness.
Adding to their misfortune, other ethnic groups demonize the Amharas for their involvement in the country’s imperial history, inspiring a sense of victimhood among Amharas that only creates new waves of conflict. In 2018, authorities of the neighboring Benishangul-Gumuz region accused ethnic Amharas of killing 200 people over a land dispute. One year later, Amhara’s regional president was murdered by the region’s own security chief, who had links to Amharan ethnic-nationalist groups, in a suspected coup attempt. This shocking development vastly destabilized the region and emboldened radical ethnic armed groups.
The aftermath of the assassination demonstrates another upshot of ethnic violence in Ethiopia that can worsen poverty: Profound instability. Following the coup attempt, a harsh crackdown on Amhara ensued, including the arrest of 250 people and, dismayingly, a total internet shutdown. Growing internet access across Ethiopia and other African nations have been hailed as a major step forward developmentally, but internet shutdowns reverse this progress and exact millions of dollars in economic losses.
A More Inclusive Future
While the government’s efforts to quell ethnic violence in Ethiopia and its resulting human impacts have not always been successful, Ahmed has inspired hope that peace is achievable. The creation of a national commission focused on ethnic reconciliation is a step forward, as is the prime minister’s promise to reform the country’s federal system. In Amhara, the distribution of antibiotics has led to a major decrease in trachoma prevalence. Hopefully, Amharans who had their vision saved can soon open their eyes to a brighter future ahead—for them and all Ethiopians.
– Jack Silvers