Ethnic divisions in Ethiopia date to the 1880s when the Abyssinian Empire invaded its southern neighbors, creating the boundaries of modern Ethiopia. European powers supported Emperor Menelik (1889 – 1913) with weapons, military advisors, and diplomatic recognition. Emperor Haile Selassie I (1916 – 1974) made Amharic the official language, though only 27 percent of Ethiopians are Amhara. Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity became the official religion. Eritrean Muslims fought for independence for decades. Eritrea finally seceded from Ethiopia in 1993, but war continued. Ogadeni Somali Muslims also seek secession. Oromos constitute one third of the population, but they held no political power until 2018.
Since the sixth century, Beta Israel, a persecuted Jewish community, has lived in northern Ethiopia. Over 100,000 Ethiopian Jews emigrated to Israel from 1979 to 1999. Those who remain face discrimination.
In 1974, the Derg, a Marxist-Leninist military junta, seized control of the country and systematically implemented genocidal killings of political rivals. The Derg abolished parliament, arrested Emperor Haile Selassie I, who died in custody, and suspended the constitution. The Derg was backed by the Soviet Union. The Derg’s “Red Terror” murdered over 500,000 Ethiopian citizens. In 2006 the Ethiopian Supreme Court convicted Derg leader, Mengistu Haile Mariam of genocide (in absentia) and sentenced him to death. Mengistu fled to Zimbabwe, then under Robert Mugabe, where he remains with impunity.
The Derg was overthrown by the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) in 1991. The EPRDF was dominated by ethnic Tigrayans. Under Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, the EPRDF committed genocide in 2003 against the Anuak people of Gambella province, and it committed crimes against humanity against the Somalis of the Ogaden.
In 2018, an Oromo, Abiy Ahmed, became Prime Minister. He negotiated an end to hostilities with Eritrea and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019. He named a multi-ethnic cabinet, but all Tigrayans resigned.
Ethiopia’s regions are divided on ethnic lines. Persecution of minorities is increasing. Regional governments recruit ethnic militias. Since 2018, ethnic violence has displaced one million people. University dormitories have become segregated by ethnicity. Most Tigrayans have left universities.
Tigrayans claim that Amharas, Oromos, and other groups have destroyed Tigrayan businesses and homes. Prime Minister Ahmed fired many Tigrayan ex-officials on corruption charges, which Tigrayans see as ethnic persecution. Persecution by the Oromo Liberation Front has forced ethnic Gedeos to flee from West Guji. The Ethiopian diaspora funds ethnic divisions, though some leaders advocate unity.
In 2019, Amnesty International released a report implicating the country’s security forces in extrajudicial killings of 39 people in Oromia. The report also accused security forces of standing by while 130 people were killed in ethnic clashes between Amhara and Qimant communities in the Amhara state.
In early July 2020, security forces arrested several members of the Oromo opposition party and critics of Prime Minister Abiy after an estimated 239 people died in protests surrounding the murder of Hachalu Hundessa, a popular Oromo singer. Most of the victims belonged to the Amhara ethnic group. The government shut down the internet and the Oromo Media Network TV station for two weeks.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, The Prime Minister’s term has been extended and elections postponed.
Genocide Watch is issuing a Genocide Warning for Ethiopia due to the government’s inaction to stop ethnically motivated violence between Oromo, Amhara, Tigrayan and Gedeo peoples.
Genocide Watch considers Ethiopia at Stage 6: Polarization according to our Ten Stages of Genocide.