Ethiopia’s Ethnic Cleansing

Ethiopia’s Ethnic Cleansing

For five months, the Ethiopian government has been tracking down citizens of Eritrean descent and expelling them by the thousands. This is a peaceful and mild version of ethnic cleansing, so far without the mass murder and rape characteristic of the disintegration of Yugoslavia. It comes in the wake of fighting along the border between the two countries in May and June, and so is fueled by wartime anxieties. But it is nonetheless an effort to purge the population of a country on criteria of ethnicity alone. As such it should disturb the international community much more than it has so far.

Ethiopia is one of the world’s most ethnically heterogeneous societies. Throughout the twentieth century, its leaders have been engaged in projects of trying to forge national unity among the peoples brought together by centuries of empire building. Perhaps the greatest progress in this direction was made by reformers under Emperor Haile Selassie, especially in the decades just after World War II. Agendas of national development, however, also fueled the communist revolution that toppled the emperor in 1973. The ensuing government of Haile Mariam Menghistu was extraordinarily ruthless and violent, but nonetheless committed to national unity. It drained the country’s resources (and considerable Soviet aid) to fight against the Eritrean liberation fronts, ultimately falling from power as Eritrea won its war for independence. The new government was formed by members of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), speakers of Tigrinya like highland Eritreans, alongside whom they had fought against Menghistu. In fact, though the Amhara had dominated through most of Ethiopia’s long imperial history, the primary alternative contenders for dynastic power had been Tigrayans and highland Eritreans. Ethiopia’s largest ethnic or national group, the Oromo, had been kept subordinate in most of this history, as had numerous others.

One of Menghistu’s policies had been to move large numbers of people from one province to another. This was presented partly as a response to drought and agricultural crisis; it was also a tactic to undercut regional ethnic consciousness. In this and other ways, recent Ethiopian history presents all too many opportunities for analogies with Yugoslavia. A similar process of disintegration is thus a real worry. Eritrean independence seems to have been a critical factor in destablizing the rest of Ethiopia, and whether and with what levels of violence it can be held together are now crucial questions.

The Ethiopian government’s decision to expel citizens based on their racial or ethnic identities needs to be considered in this light. Like the rest of the war of which it is a part, it cannot be understood simply in terms of international factors or the ostensible instrumental goals it might accomplish; it is a drama played before a complex array of domestic audiences.

In this case, the most important s...