Long before a demonstration against South Sudan’s president forced Nikki Haley to evacuate a displaced persons camp in Juba on Wednesday, it was a safe bet that much of the coverage generated by her first trip to Africa as U.S. ambassador to the U.N. would concern the civil war in that country—with some possible competition from her stop in the Democratic Republic of Congo. President Donald Trump specifically mentioned both countries when he announced in September that he planned to send Haley to the continent. Haley has been openly critical of the South Sudanese and Congolese presidents for months, increasing the likelihood of confrontational one-on-one meetings.
The trip began, though, in Ethiopia, the home base for the African Union and a stalwart U.S. ally that remains central to Washington’s priorities in the region, especially the fight against terrorist groups.
Traditionally seen as a bastion of stability, Ethiopia currently faces internal security problems that are impossible to deny, even if they receive scant attention beyond its borders.
First, there has been little effort to meaningfully address ethnic grievances at the root of anti-government protests that are destabilizing the country. In 2015, the Oromia region, home to the Oromo people, was the starting point for protests sparked by plans to expand the nation’s capital, Addis Ababa, into its territory. The protests quickly spread throughout Oromia and into the neighboring Amhara region, reflecting widespread anger over marginalization and repression at the hands of the central government, which is dominated by the Tigray ethnic group.
A crackdown by security forces resulted in more than 1,000 deaths and tens of thousands of arrests, according to Human Rights Watch. While a 10-month state of emergency—lifted just this past August—helped restore calm, strong anti-government sentiment continues to fester. In protests at this month’s Irreecha festival, a local Thanksgiving-style holiday, tens of thousands of Oromos called for the fall of the regime.
Over the past year, this unrest has been compounded by a separate crisis that has only recently garnered any real attention. Ethnic violence in the border zone between Oromia and its neighboring region, Somali, has left hundreds dead, displaced more than 100,000 and, as The Washington Post reported, “raised the specter of ethnic cleansing.”
Taken together, these problems raise serious questions about the sustainability of Ethiopia’s model of “ethnic federalism,” which was established by the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front after it overthrew the country’s communist regime in 1991. The model granted limited autonomy to nine regions organized on the basis of ethnicity.
While ethnic federalism was intended to empower long-repressed ethnic groups, it has contributed to “a continuing process of ethnicization” and rivalry, says Jan Abbink, a senior researcher and Ethiopia expert at the African Studies Center at Leiden University in The Netherlands. As a result, local disputes can quickly erupt into something much larger.
Left unchecked, this phenomenon could lead to a more general unraveling that, from Washington’s perspective, would entail strategic costs on top of the obvious humanitarian ones. “A stable Ethiopia is a prerequisite for all U.S. interests in Ethiopia, including on counterterrorism,” says Felix Horne, senior researcher in the Horn of Africa region for Human Rights Watch.
Quiet diplomacy hasn’t worked in Ethiopia so far, and there’s little sign the government is inclined to abandon its repressive tactics.
Details about the violence between the regions of Oromia and Somali have been slow to emerge, but it’s apparent that the government has, at best, failed to muster an adequate response. “Federal security forces have been very slow in reacting,” Abbink says. “Ethiopia has one of the most powerful armies in Africa. I cannot imagine they could not, at a much earlier stage, have stopped an escalation of the conflict.”
Many observers point to evidence not just of negligence, but also of active state involvement in the fighting. “What is clear is that the Somali region’s abusive Liyu police have been involved in many of the attacks inside Oromia at various times over the last year,” Horne says, referring to a notorious paramilitary force.
In an article for Democracy Now, journalist Rene Lefort made similar points, highlighting the impunity enjoyed by Abdi Mohamud Omar, also known as Abdi Illey, who is president of the Somali region and controls the Liyu police. Lefort criticized accounts that chalk up the violence to vague ethnic tensions, while paying little mind to its actual instigators. Such accounts, he wrote, can make it seem as though Somalis and Oromos decided to turn on each other “one fine morning, for no particular reason.”
The government has announced plans to investigate the unrest and its origins, though Abbink says there is no guarantee of real answers, noting that Ethiopia is “a highly nontransparent polity.”
If Haley’s trip this week is any indication, there will be little external pressure to bring those responsible to account. Her brief stay in Ethiopia functioned primarily as a curtain-riser for her South Sudan visit. Her time in Ethiopia featured a tour of a camp for South Sudanese refugees in western Ethiopia, where she expressed anger at the seeming intractability of the civil war next door and talked tough about consequences for South Sudanese President Salva Kiir.
Meanwhile, the top line of the readout of Haley’s meeting Monday with Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn praised Ethiopia as a haven for refugees. Only at the end did the readout cite the need to promote peace and economic growth within Ethiopia “by building strong institutions and fostering an open society.”
This is, without question, the approach Addis Ababa wants Washington to take. According to Horne, Ethiopia’s embassy in Washington has pushed back hard on congressional resolutions expressing concern over the country’s human rights record, threatening to withdraw Ethiopia’s cooperation on counterterrorism should they come up for votes.
But quiet diplomacy hasn’t worked in Ethiopia so far, and there’s little sign the government is inclined to change its tactics. As the instability drags on, there’s a risk it could inflame tensions within the upper reaches of the ruling coalition in Addis Ababa. In a worrying development earlier this month, Abadula Gemeda, an ethnic Oromo and speaker of the lower house of parliament, resigned from his post, citing “disrespect” for the Oromos.
The move was highly unusual—as Horne notes, “high-ranking officials in Ethiopia just don’t resign”—and could be an indication that the situation in Ethiopia is as grave as the government’s critics contend. Should the various crises deteriorate further, they could jeopardize the government’s fundamental ability to maintain control, whether Washington chooses to talk about them or not.
Robbie Corey-Boulet is an associate editor at World Politics Review.