Why Ethiopia has postponed its census

Economist

IN ETHIOPIA, Africa’s second most populous country, it is often difficult to distinguish politics from demography. On March 18th the government announced that the national census, due to begin one and a half years behind schedule on April 7th, would be postponed for a third time. It said that security concerns, especially in the south and west, made holding one almost impossible.

The count, which comes ahead of national elections scheduled for next year, was meant to be a showpiece of digital innovation, with census officials capturing data on touch tablets and transmitting it over mobile phone networks. Instead the delay has confirmed the toxic power of demography and numbers in Ethiopian politics.

When it finally happens, this will be only the fourth census in
Ethiopia’s history. And every one of them has been contentious. The
first, in 1984, could not be conducted in large parts of the country
because of a civil war that was taking place at the time. The second, in
1994, came shortly before the introduction of ethnic federalism, by
which Ethiopia was divided into regions that ostensibly followed ethnic
boundaries. In the census all were made to choose an ethnicity, even
though many Ethiopians are of mixed heritage.

The third, in 2007,
was delayed because of unrest following disputed national elections two
years earlier. The results of that count were questioned by leaders
among the Amharas, the second largest ethnic group, who claimed that
their people were undercounted by as many as 3m of about 20m.

The
reason that counting people is so important to Ethiopia’s various ethnic
groups is because it influences how much power and money they get. The
formula calculating federal subsidies to the regions, for instance,
takes population into account. So does the allocation of seats in
Ethiopia’s upper parliamentary chamber, as well as the “political
weight” that each group has in demanding ministries and posts in the
federal government, notes Zemelak Ayele of Ethiopia’s Centre for Federal
Studies. Some now argue that it should also influence representation in
the politburo of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front
(EPRDF), the multi-ethnic coalition that has ruled since it took power
in 1991. Currently its four ethnically-based parties enjoy an equal
voting share, regardless of large differences in their respective
population size.

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Questions over numbers are particularly sensitive
given a shift in power within the EPRDF, which had long been dominated
by Tigrayans, who make up only about 6% of the population. Abiy Ahmed,
the prime minister, was swept to power a year ago on the back of rising
discontent among members of the Oromo ethnicity, which makes up between
one-third and, according to some Oromo activists, one-half of the
population.

On the basis of demographics, Abiy’s Oromo faction
boosted its representation across the federal government. For the first
time in Ethiopian history Oromos now dominate the organs of state. Large
numbers of Tigrayan officials have been purged, including from their
former strongholds in the army and national intelligence agency.

Ethnic
politics are also turning violent, at times. Activists from the Sidama
tribe who are demanding the establishment of their own region forced
some 2,500 people of other ethnicities from their homes in Hawassa last
June. In Oromia almost 1m ethnic Gedeos were chased from their homes
last year. This act of ethnic cleansing was fuelled in part by a belief
among Oromos that Gedeos had become the largest ethnic group in the area
and planned to annex it from Oromia. Meanwhile the regions of Amhara
and Tigray battle over disputed territories along their shared border.
“At root these are all conflicts over demographic representation,” says
Kjetil Tronvoll of Bjorknes University College in Norway. “A census
could directly contribute to ethnic cleansing.”

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Some observers
argue that, given the tensions, it makes sense to postpone the count.
Unlike an election, which in theory could be conducted incrementally
starting in more peaceful regions, the census must be carried out at
once for it to be valid.

The results will be disputed regardless.
“There is no trust in institutions,” notes Christophe Van der Beken, a
professor at Addis Ababa University. In Amhara, where activists have
campaigned against the census for months, rumours abound that the
government is forcibly sterilising local women to suppress the number of
Amhara people. “We believe numerical genocide will happen again,” says
Dessalegn Chanie, the head of the National Movement of Amhara, a new
opposition party. Meanwhile in the capital, Addis Ababa, many fear that
the Oromo-led administration plans to alter the city’s demographics in
favour of the Oromo. In a recent speech Lemma Mergersa, the regional
president, said his government had resettled more than half a million
Oromos around the city. “Politics in urban areas means ‘demography’,” he
said.

Many see the delayed count as an early sign that next year’s election will be postponed too. Though it would be technically possible to hold an election without the results of the census beforehand, it would undermine the poll’s credibility. Ethiopia’s constituency map has not been redrawn since 1995, in which time the population has more than doubled. More to the point, many of the problems that plague the census will also bedevil the election. “If a government can’t deliver a census how can it deliver an election?” asks one local academic.

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