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State of the World's Minorities 2007 - Ethiopia

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 4 March 2007
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities 2007 - Ethiopia, 4 March 2007, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/48a97129b2.html [accessed 11 July 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

The efforts of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi to control separatism in Ethiopia appeared to be unravelling in 2006, as various ethnic movements drew inspiration from government repression and lack of democratic participation.

Ethnic liberation movements toppled former Communist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991, and Meles Zenawi, the leader of the Tigrean People's Liberation Front, set about organizing the state as an ethnic federation, albeit one in which he would lead co-opted representatives of other ethnicities under a single-party umbrella: the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front. This proved a particularly difficult undertaking as Tigreans comprise only around 6 per cent of the Ethiopian population. Prime Minister Meles's reelection in flawed May 2005 balloting only deepened the resentment of other ethnic groups.

This was especially true of Ethiopia's Amhara people, about 30 per cent of the population of the country. The Amhara are prominent in the political opposition and suffered in the government crackdown on protests at election fraud, which resulted in at least 193 deaths and 763 injuries.

In February 2006, the government arrested thousands of Oromo – an ethnic group making up approximately 30–50 per cent of the country's population – following its protests of the election irregularities called for by the rebel Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) in the south of the country. In September, two senior Ethiopian military officers defected to the OLF.

In December 2006, the Ethiopian military, backed by the USA, took on the Islamist alliance in neighbouring Somalia, driving it from control of the capital Mogadishu on 28 December. Ethiopia is the principal backer of the weak Somali transitional federal government headed by President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi justified the invasion by citing national defence interests, claiming that the Islamists had been infiltrated by al-Qaeda. Sabre-rattling by the Union of Islamic Courts – calling for a holy war on Addis Ababa, and overt support for the Ogaden self-determination groups – raised tensions in 2006. Two wars have already been fought over the Ogaden region in the South-East of the Ethiopia, where the majority of the population is ethnic Somali. Although Ethiopia has vowed to withdraw its forces completely from Somalia, it is unclear whether the promised AU peacekeeping mission will transpire. Without Ethiopian military support, a question-mark remains over the TFG's ability to hold onto the territory seized in December's offensive.

Meles also faced rebellions among smaller ethnic minority groups. The Anuak – traditional hunters, farmers and fishers – make up approximately 1 per cent of the country's population, and for centuries have lived in the area that is today's Gambella region of south-western Ethiopia. The Anuak have lived alongside, and in competition with, Nuer pastoralists. Under the Mengistu regime, the Anuak faced considerable suppression as the authorities seized land and forcibly conscripted Anuak villagers for service in the army and on collective farms. Some 60,000 peasants, mostly lighter-skinned 'highlanders' from other parts of Ethiopia, were also forcibly resettled in Gambella. Tensions have risen as competition for land and water has intensified.

In recent years, the Meles government has also moved against the Anuak, with human rights activists reporting murder, rape and torture. The government has increased the military presence in the area following attacks by militants. It argues that the military action is targeted at the rebels – but Anuak leaders claim that civilians are also being targeted. In April 2006, there were reports that the Ethiopian army was cooperating with the Sudan People's Liberation Army to disarm Anuak along the border. Amnesty International reported in May 2006 that, in the previous two and a half years, the Ethiopian government had detained 900 Anuak opposition members without trial, though it had released 15 former senior officials in December 2005. Tensions rose again in June 2006 when attackers thought by aid workers to be Anuak militia members ambushed a bus travelling from Addis Ababa to Gambella, killing an estimated 14–30 civilians. In the immediate aftermath, water and power were cut to Gambella town, and Ethiopian troops and highlander militias enforced a curfew. In September 2006 a Dutch humanitarian NGO reported that more than 44,600 internally displaced persons – Anuak, Nuer and Highlander alike – were living in camps and in dire need of assistance. Oil is another factor in this dispute. Although in May 2006 the Malaysian oil company Petronas announced that its first test well in the area had proved barren, land use rights in Gambella remain contentious, and efforts to discover oil could yet intensify the struggle for control of the region.

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