Although work is a struggle for 35-year-old Huey Berhe, who does mostly odd jobs to pay the bills, he feels safer now that he’s living among his own community in Mekele, the capital of Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region.
Previously, Huey was studying at Jimma University in western Ethiopia, when fights began breaking out on campus that targeted Tigrayan students.
“I left my studies at Jimma after the trouble there,” Huey says. “It was bad—it’s not something I like to discuss.”
Huey’s experience points to a troubling reality: while Ethiopia is turning into an African powerhouse with the continent’s fastest growing economy, ethnic tensions there are on the rise. Tigrayans comprise just 6 percent of Ethiopia’s population of 100 million people. But they are perceived as a powerful—and unpopular—minority because of their ethnic affinity with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which is blamed for monopolizing power over 27 years in the current ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition government.
Last year’s election of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (from the Oromo ethnic group, Ethiopia’s largest), and the ensuing massive redistribution of power in government—away from the TPLF—ushered in some important and necessary changes for Ethiopia. These have included the opening of borders, the freeing of political prisoners, the lifting of restrictions on media, and the opening of political space to previously banned groups.