Heads of state from several East African countries gathered in October 2019 in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa to celebrate the grand opening of Unity Park, an urban park located inside the imperial palace.
The park – personal initiative of Ethiopian reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed – contains Ethiopian historical, ethnic and cultural galleries. It also maintains a display of a colossal wax statue of ancient Ethiopian rulers, such as Emperor Menelik II and Emperor Haile Selassie, two monarchs whose combined reigns lasted nearly 70 years.
The park aims to tell the story of all Ethiopians and celebrate the country's diverse ethnicities, religions, cultures, historical figures, and endemic plants and animals.
But a quick review of the news about the park's opening on social media revealed politicized and nationalistic reactions with two mutually exclusive narratives that largely coincided with the ethnic lines of the two main ethnolinguistic groups, Amhara and Oromo.
At the center of this division are two opposing reactions to the unveiling of monuments depicting two emperors seated on their thrones, adorned in imperial robes: They represent fault lines rooted in Ethiopian politics.
The Amhara nationalists were very happy, although some criticized it, described it as Abiy's vanity project: Abiy himself identifies himself as an Oromo.
Meanwhile, several Oromo politicians and activists were furious, notably prominent opposition politician Jawar Mohammed, who was upset. Jawar said that building wax statues for Emperor Menelik II and Emperor Haile Selassie is an affront to the Oromos and all other ethnic groups crushed by the emperors.
Emperor Menelik II is considered to be the first modern Ethiopian monarch to transform the Ethiopian state. They venerate it as a symbol of freedom and forgiveness; They also blame him for expelling people from southern Ethiopia from their lands and for privileging the Amharic and Christianity.
The next day, Jawar, along with Lencho Leta, a political veteran and founding member of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), led a pilgrimage to the central-eastern district of Hetosa de Oromia, the largest region in Ethiopia, to visit the memorial of the Martyrs of Anole, a historical site that means a permanent complaint of the Oromo nationalists for what they call the brutal killings of the Emperor Menelik II, the cultural marginalization and the loss of their ancestral land in the late 19th century.
Weeks later in a television interview, Jawar said:
As long as they elevate Menelik, we will dig out his crimes and make generations know about his crimes, as long as they elevate Haile Selassie. … We are going to do that.
As long as they raise Menelik, we will unearth their crimes and make generations aware of their crimes, as long as they raise Haile Selassie. … let's do that.
But this was not an exceptional case.
After Abiy lifted the nation's oppression in April 2018, which ended 27 years of dictatorship, controversies over cultural events, flags, political protests, monuments, and the importance of former rulers began to occupy the The bulk of Ethiopia's social media conversations, often surrounded by inflammatory language.
It is a repeating pattern.
Briefly, it works like this: A government official, an opposition leader, a journalist, or a prominent celebrity weighs in on the significance of a historical figure, say, Emperor Menelik II, on a popular social media platform. Within minutes, social media platforms are overrun with hundreds of scathing or supportive responses.
These culturally charged exchanges reinforce an atmosphere of resentment in numerous online spaces between different Ethiopian ethnic groups, or more accurately, their elites. This strengthens the feeling that the ethnic group of one is threatened with extinction as the object of the aggression of another.
The multiple broadcasters that emerged after April 2018 as an important part of Ethiopia's changing media landscape have tended to repeat and widen this divide, with fatal consequences.
For example, community violence rocked Oromia after Jawar alleged on his Facebook page that government authorities had conspired to assassinate him in October 2019. The regional coup plot in the Amhara region in June 2019 may also be nominally connected with ultra-nationalist social media narratives.
In many cases, an army of Ethiopian Facebook and YouTube personalities, government supporters, opposition figures, political parties, and journalists abroad often engage in or sow incendiary information in an already complex, confusing, and elevated social media ecosystem, often as a way to get support for their causes.
How two opposition figures nurture support
Two opposition figures, Jawar Mohammed, a member of the Oromo Federalist Congress, and Eskinder Nega, a former politician and president of a recently created political party, Balderas for Genuine Democracy, are spokesmen who stand out for how they use social media to win support. .
Jawar, with nearly 1.9 million followers on Facebook – often enthusiastic supporters – is positioned as an advocate for the interests of the Oromo. With a large following, he is symbolically important to the Oromo youth movement known as Qeerroo and is generally portrayed as its leader.
On the other hand, Eskinder has become increasingly dependent on Twitter as a means of reinforcing support. Although Eskinder joined Twitter late, he garnered a sizable following, and his comments often provoke angry reactions from detractors. Their acceptance of the platform is considered a political imperative, as mobile devices and mobile connectivity have become widespread.
Eskinder routinely uses his twitter account to accuse Qeerroo members of committing genocide against the religious and ethnic minorities of Oromia. Its Qeerroo framing resonates with thousands of Twitter accounts representing Amhara nationalists and followers of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church.
Although Jawar and Eskinder dominate two different platforms – Facebook and Twitter – their negative chemistry is equally evident.
Both manage to articulate sharply opposed opinions on issues such as the Ethiopian federal structure, the legal status of the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, a multi-ethnic city nestled within the Oromian border, the story of Emperor Menelik II and the Ethiopian Constitution.
His goal is to strengthen his already strong connections with his followers on social media. Reactions, comments, retweets and broadcasts on Facebook and Twitter are greater than those of any other opposition figure.
And despite all the differences between Eskinder and Jawar, they both do their part to inject misleading information into Ethiopia's information ecosystem.
Eskinder often goes around and overflows Ethiopian exceptionalism, the destruction of historical sites, and highlights the atrocities committed in the Oromia region.
For example, in this tweet, Eskinder wrote approvingly that Amharic was selected for inclusion among the working languages of the African Union. But the Amharic was never selected:
YES to AMHARIC, Ethiopia's. working (offiical) language for over 700 years, as one of the working languages of the AFRICAN UNION… ..AMHARIC is the embodiment of AFRICA'S long history of NATION BUILDING …… this is not about a language, its about AFRICA'S place in world HISTORY pic.twitter.com/0hvK19tFRw
– Eskinder Nega (@eskinder_nega) February 10, 2019
YES to AMARIC, Ethiopia's (official) working language for over 700 years, as one of the working languages of the AFRICAN UNION… AMARIC is the incarnation of the long history of AFRICAN NATIONAL CONSTRUCTION… it is not about of a language, but of the place of AFRICA in the world HISTORY.
Since September 2018, the two have been caught in a lengthy battle that took place in November 2019 in the United States, when they both toured to raise funds from members of Ethiopian groups abroad for their political projects in Ethiopia. .
If Qeerroo is a rebel without cause, you would still be rotting in Weyane's gulags! Ungrateful! https://t.co/ekMS9rKxtu
– Jawar Mohammed (@Jawar_Mohammed) September 15, 2018
As I tweeted yesterday … they are all really empty threats … REBELS WITHOUT CAUSE go nowhere … this is an absurd DRAMA that is being written scandalously with the blood of the innocent … WHO is responsible? …
If Qeerroo is a rebel without a cause, you would still be rotting in Weyane's gulags! Ungrateful!
No moment captured the rivalry and the ideological dispute between the two men better than their tour of the United States, their followers played cat and mouse during their tours.
Jawar's tour had come after several tumultuous days in which communal violence spread through Oromia, leading to the deaths of 86 people after their Facebook complaint triggered a chain of reactions that began with the gathering of their supporters outside his home in Addis Ababa.
His detractors say his Facebook post killed 86 people – and Eskinder, in particular, attributed The responsability.
Jawar denied that his messages had anything to do with violence, and claimed that his actions actually prevented worse violence.
While traveling in the United States, his supporters showed their solidarity, coordinated public assemblies, and raised funds in various cities in the United States with a significant Oromo population.
People who oppose Jawar – most are members of the Eskinder support base – held a series of rallies to oppose Jawar municipal meetings.
Like Eskinder, Jawar also has a habit of using questionable persuasion techniques. He often accuses the authorities of the Amara regional state of being nostalgic for Ethiopia's imperial era and highlights the violence affecting minorities in the Amhara region.
After completing his tour of the United States, Jawar accused the authorities of the Amhara regional state of organizing and financing what he described as a “hateful, shameful and violent campaign.”
As proof of his accusation, he accompanied his note with a photograph showing Yohannes Buayalew, a high-level official of the Amhara regional state, with Yoni Magna, a foreign social media personality known for his outbursts, insults, and conspiracy theories.
The attempt is to insinuate that officials from the Amhara regional state have worked with Yoni Magna, who has also been seen at one of the protests.
Some people openly launched intolerant slanders used to refer to someone of Oromo descent during the protests, but there is no evidence to suggest that these demonstrations were organized and funded by the Ethiopian authorities.
Feeling ultra-nationalistic with songs
Until now, incendiary language has been limited to writing, memes, short videos, graphics, and images. But as the role of social media gains ground, the terrain of ethnic tension has expanded to YouTube music videos.
New law on hate speech and disinformation
In early 2020, Ethiopian lawmakers approved the Hate and Misinformation Speech Prevention and Suppression Proclamation, to contain the spread of hate speech and misinformation to promote “social harmony” and “national unity.” However, rights groups say the law is dangerous to freedom of expression because it contains broad and imprecise definitions and provisions that do not meet international human rights standards.
In an avalanche of music videos in Oromo and Amharic eagerness, the singers promote nationalistic narratives that affirm the superiority of their group, and sometimes even promote conflict with the other group.
Some very nationalistic expressions of the songs focus on the homeland, the flag and historical figures. Praising Emperor Menelik II as a deliverer or denouncing him as a monster has long been a recurring theme.
What's more, there is a Facebook page that was uploaded in 2013 to highlight the atrocities committed by a soldier of Emperor Menelik II.
But the Unity Park launch sparked several Oromo music videos that focus on the ethnic origins of government authorities.
Because the park is Abiy's project, some songs portray him as someone who committed ethnic treason by honoring Emperor Menelik II. A song describes him as a seller; another question if it's oromo.
(embed) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p8zDUmtVc-w (/ embed)
Caalaa Daggafaa, an Afan Oromo singer, accused Abiy of being a sellout for praising monarchs of the past. He was mad at the statue of Menelik II, whom he described as a monster.
In the same video, he shows his respect for the armed forces of the Oromo Liberation Front, and describes them as heroes who do hard work as they continue the fight for the emancipation of the Oromo people.
Meanwhile, Amharic singers deliver odes to Menelik II, describing him as unifying and liberating.
In a music video, Dagne Walle, a rising American singer, leans towards the camera, as he brandishes his rifle and hums that he has inherited the courage of Menelik II, alluding to the emperor as his father.
Images of crowds in traditional costumes armed with rifles stomping as Ethiopian flags wave, and a roaring lion punctuate the music video titled “Wey Finkich” (“Of course not”).
(embed) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ylUuQ1N2dmc (/ embed)
These songs have many visits on YouTube, and garnering advertising dollars as ethnic polarization hardens.
This article is part of a series called “The Identity Matrix: A Regulatory Platform for Online Threats of Expression in Africa.” Those messages challenge hate speech or online discrimination based on identity based on language or geographic origin, misinformation, and harassment (particularly against women activists and journalists) prevailing in the digital spaces of seven African countries: Algeria, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Sudan, Tunisia and Uganda. The project is funded by the Africa Digital Rights Fund of the Collaboration for International Policy on Information and Communication Technologies for Eastern and Southern Africa (CIPESA).