An African model for ethnic reconciliation?

Ethiopia’s new leader has quickly begun democratic reforms but none will mean more than reconciling the country’s ethnic groups. Recent violence shows the urgency to develop a civic identity that he says starts with forgiveness.

Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

With its great diversity of ethnic groups, Africa has long needed models of governance that are inclusive, especially after conflicts driven by ethnic differences. For nearly six months, Ethiopia has shown promise of being such a model. A new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, has so far achieved a whirlwind of reforms, such as releasing political prisoners and making peace with neighboring Eritrea. But now he has begun to search for ways that Ethiopia, with its more than 80 ethnic groups in Africa’s second-most-populous nation, can work together to form a civic identity that prevents violence. 

With the new freedoms allowed under Mr. Abiy, ethnic fighting has picked up in recent months. Many groups are settling old scores, often over land rights. Hundreds have been killed. More than 2 million have been displaced. The old authoritarian political structure in place since 1991 was able to suppress many of these ethnic-based resentments. But with its collapse earlier this year and the surprise assent of the reformist Abiy, a new structure must be put in place quickly – one that works against ethnic antagonisms.

“We need to create a society in which love and solidarity rule over cynicism and polarization,” Abiy tells Ethiopians. 

He hopes to build a democracy based more on individual rights and freedoms than on a balancing of ethnic interests. 

But to achieve that he still needs to help Ethiopians come to terms with the past, such as government use of torture and other human rights abuses. He is expected to set up an official inquiry to air the truth about past misdeeds and seek justice while also allowing enough mercy to achieve national reconciliation. That is an essential path to prevent ethnic conflict.

Other African countries, from South Africa to Sierra Leone to Liberia, have used various types of “truth and reconciliation” processes in an attempt to reconstruct their societies after racial or ethnic conflict. Now it is Ethiopia’s turn. 

Abiy is also racing to create jobs in a country where the median age is 19 and many youths are unemployed. He is selling off state enterprises, winning international finance, and wooing Ethiopia’s vast diaspora to return home. 

“If reform succeeds, Ethiopia could become one of the world’s few victories for democratic governance with significant implications for the entire continent,” says Yoseph Badwaza at the Washington-based Freedom House.

Abiy, who has a PhD in conflict resolution, knows the key to reconciliation lies in changing people’s thinking. “I call on us all to forgive each other from our hearts. To close the chapters from yesterday, and to forge ahead to the next bright future through national consensus,” he said in his inaugural address.

Such a future could provide just the hope needed in many of Africa's ethnic-riven nations.

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