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1. Col. Gebremedihin Gebre, Shhinelle Zone Coordinator and deputy commander of Somali Special Forces
2 Col. Fiseha, chief of intelligence of somali regional government, specializing particularly in Oromos and Oromia issue, also heads and supervises Fefem zone security
3. Col. Gitet Tesfaye , coordinates and leads disputed borders issue and security
4. Major Desalegn Haddish, Babile front intelligence chief
5 Major Abraha Sisay, heads training of mercenaries and somali recruits at Bobas training center
6 Brigadier General Hadgu Belay, advisor to the president of Somali region on security and organizational affairs on security at regional government level
7 Col. Gebretensae, heads and coordinates Somali militias organization Oromo mercenaries working with the TPLF officials
1. Lieutenant Hassan Ali, former member of defense forces of Ethiopia, now commands a Liyu Police unit consisting 120 members at attacking Erer district( wereda)
2. Captain Mohammed Ibrahim, with a unit of 120 members at Babile front( WEREDA)
3 Sergeant Usman Mohammed, Garalencha district
4 Sergeant Jibril Ahmed spies on Oromo militia in Gursum district, to Fafam direction
5 Sergeant Mohamed Usman, Raqe, Meyu Muluke areas military operations
6 Sergeant Fuad Aliyi, Chinaksen district
* The Liyu Police and Somali region militia are organized in 26 regiment each consisting up to 500 personnel.
UNPO has released a report on human rights in Ethiopia, shedding light on the worrying situation of the Oromo and Ogadeni peoples. While international partners tend to hail Ethiopia as an African democratic role model and a beacon of stability and hope in an otherwise troubled region, the fundamental rights of the country’s unrepresented continue to be violated on a daily basis. With the support of major international donors such as the European Union, Addis Ababa increasingly prioritises strong economic growth, development and a high degree of enforced political stability at the expense of human rights and civil liberties.
Ethiopia’s economy has been growing steadily in recent years, boasting a small emerging middle class and receiving continuously-increasing foreign investment. The country is seen as a key ally by Western powers in the fight against terrorism and the regulation of international migration. Meanwhile, Ethiopia remains one of the world’s poorest countries, with a third of the population living in abject poverty and the country’s regime is also one of the African continent’s most authoritarian in character, cracking down mercilessly on those who voice dissent.
Those living in the Ogaden and Oromia regions are most vulnerable to the State-sponsored persecution. Protests in Oromia were violently repressed by the government since they started in April 2014, and continue to be. “Jail Ogaden” holds thousands of prisoners of conscience in overcrowding conditions and unhygienic facilities. Rape is systematically used as a weapon by the government and local polices such as the Liyu Police, combined with other forms of torture. And those are just a handful of examples.
As of March 2017, 300 people have died of hunger and cholera in the Ogaden region, because of the restrictions imposed by the Ethiopian government. Limitations on freedom of movement bars access to healthcare facilities and the trade embargo causes critical food shortages. UNPO calls on the international community to play its role in safeguarding human rights by putting an end to the financial flows fueling the Ethiopian State’s oppression and intimidation of the most vulnerable among its population.
The Ethiopian empire was founded not based on the will of its nations and nationalities. It was formed by force by elites from the north with help of the European powers. Since its formation, Ethiopia has never respected the interests of other nationalities in the empire. Today, as in the past, the empire is serving only elites from the Tigray, particularly TPLF and members of its pseudo organizations, while majority of ordinary people from other nationalities, particularly the Oromos, are languishing under its tyranny. Subsequently, the economic, socio-cultural and political exploitations have continued unabated. Tired of such tyranny, the Oromo revolutionaries and the youth has stepped up an uprising that has engulfed the entire nation since 2014. Though the responses of the TPLF security forces were brutal, killing hundreds of peaceful protesters and detaining tens of thousands, the protest has continued and even expanded to the Amhara regional state and to the southern Nations and Nationalities regional state.
Desperate to control the people’s uprising, TPLF first declared a command post rule and then a state of emergency. However, neither of the command post nor the state of emergency has stopped the protest as TPLF hopes. Today, there is no political order in the country especially in Oromia and Amhara regional states. Failed to control the situation in the country, TPLF and its pseudo allies used various strategies to silence people’s quest for freedom and democracy. Since clinch on power, TPLF has been instigating a conflict along national and religion lines. Interestingly, after selfinstigating conflict using its undercover security agents, often it presents itself as a mediator while supporting one group with all sorts of logistics up to militarization. Subsequently, TPLF uses this self-instigated conflict as a propaganda on its statecontrol media to tell the people that TPLF is the best, perhaps the only, remedy for the state to continue as a nation. These are among the strategies that this minority group uses to stay on power. Contrary to this fact the TPLF and its dictatorial rule that are destroying the integrity of the country it claims to maintain.
In Oromia, there are countless instances where TPLF intentionally created a conflict between Oromos and other ethnic groups such as Somali. The current “Oromo -Somali conflict” in East and west Hararge, Bale, Borena and Guji zones seem unique in its nature from previous incidents. A well-trained special police forces (aka Liyu police) solely composed of ethnic Somalis are the fore front of the conflict. This conflict, perhaps a war, has been going on for now three weeks and hundreds of innocent Oromo people have been killed by this special police forces.
Although these special forces are composed of carefully selected ethnic Somalis, it is commanded by a TPLF general Abrhaa Qurater and is also enforced by TPLF Agazi Special Force. The Ethiopian government, as usual, is trying to divert this war as if it is just a conflict between Oromo and Somali farmers. Unlike previous conflicts, this is a large-scale war encompassing East and West Hararge, Bale, Borena and Gujii zones. It is also worth noting here that this Somali special forces are trained by Britain for a so called counter insurgency. The UK- and US-governments also finance the training and supported with all the logistics, which are now murdering innocent Oromo farmers in the East, south-east and southern Oromia bordering the Somali regional state. The TPLF government is using this special police forces, trained supposedly for counter insurgency, to raid just unarmed Oromo farmers. It not a simple conflict to ransack cattle and camels, as TPLF tried to present, however, it a war of ethnic cleansing by a well-trained police forces. Not only those directly involved in the war but also those who trained and armed them will be responsible for such atrocity on hundreds of innocent people.
Our people are fighting back with what they have, but one should note that these are a well-trained and armed forces. Thus, they need support from all Oromos in Oromia and across the globe. This is the time that we standup for the right cause, and show our support for those in dire need, putting aside our little differences. Thus, we call upon all Oromo in Oromia and in diaspora to stand with those who are facing the TPLF special forces with bare hand. The only ever lasting solution we have at stake now is to remove TPLF from power for once and for all. This is possible only when we all united and act as one people for one goal, remove TPLF, the killer of our people. We also call upon all Oromos who are currently serving at various posts in police and military camps of the TPLF to turn their weapons against the enemy of your people.
Those who supported the TPLF killing machinery financially as well as in logistics will not escape from accountability. Thus, we call upon the Western governments, specially the government of USA and UK who financially sponsored the training of such killing machinery should immediately withdraw their support and held the TPLF government accountable for all the killings and destruction. Finally, we would like to call upon all people in Ethiopian to stand together to bring an end to the TPLF tyranny.
Victory to the Oromo people!
Oromo Liberation Front
January 21, 2017
(Ayyaantuu News):There has been frequent, but in fact subsequent, attacks launched by what is called the Liyu Police Force of the Somali Regional State on different districts of Oromia along the South, South east and east particularly along the Hararghe, Bale and Borana lowlands. More than 200 people are estimated to have been killed so far. The Liyu Police, as commanded by the psychopath Abdi Illey did repeatedly commit war crimes and crimes against humanity on civilians in the Ogaden region. Most of the units of the Liyu police are said to have been recruited from Illey’s own clan. After he established the murderous militia group and took the command and control of it, Mr. Illey has literally turned himself into a war lord. He never gives sh* about what the officials at the federal gov’t had to say. It’s even with in the public domain that he spitted on the face of the puppet prime minister HMD in Jigjiga while he was there as a ‘guest of honor’ during the celebration day of what they call “nations and nationalities day” in 2013. While even most of the cabinet ministers of the federal government go on the routine per diem scales on trips to foreign countries, Abdi Illy makes it so differently. The man even contracts and commissions top security guards while reserving hotel rooms in some of the top hotels of the cities he goes for trip to.
It has been a matter of generic knowledge among the public that the Afar-Issa-Somali conflict over land was the cause for the dismissal for three-fourth of government cabinet members in the Somali regional State a couple of years back. At the heart of the conflict lies, as the Afar diaspora network claims, the Somali-Issa militia forces did expand their control into the heart of the Afar land reaching to the banks of the Awash River and the strategic highway linking Addis Ababa to the port cities of Assab and Djibouti. Apparently, the dispute was halted by TPLF’s interventionist deal that favored the position of the Afar. But insider informants had it that the TPLF-imposed decision to seal the deal favoring the position of the Afar asymmetrically divided the 12-membered cabinet of the Somali Regional State into a fiercely fighting group of 4 to 8 members. Accordingly, 8 of the 12 cabinet members including the then vice-president did reject the decision while 4 of them (including the president Abdi Illey) accepted the TPLF-imposed decision. But the whole saga then went astray so much so that the 8 cabinet members in the Somali Regional State who opposed the move had to be all fired out to implement the land dispute deal proposed by the TPLF, at the end of the day. Abdi Illey’s 4-membered group in the cabinet, a minority by any democratic sense, had to turn victorious by firing all the 8 others (including the vice-president) because Abdi Illey & co had the keen supported from TPLF Generals. What is more??
Why the TPLF wanted to favor the Afar in the tribal land dispute/conflict?
For the TPLF, the Afar region is just part of the greater Tigray it envisions. If article 39 of Ethiopia’s facade federalism is to be first invoked by the TPLF (the maker and its breaker) any time it reads greater risk in the wider Ethiopian politics, Tigreay will secede taking Afar along with it — we all know it and they all know it too. Tigreans have not only political and economic supremacy in the Afar areas but they even dominate the urban culture in there – much like the Amhara do in Oromia due to the lingering legacy of the imperial era and that of the derg. Most businesses in the Afar towns are owned by business men of Tigray origin who are affiliates of the TPLF, more often than not. So, for the TPLF, it’s a natural instinct choice for any land dispute deal between the Afar and the Somali being sealed in favor of the former. But more importantly, the TPLF can make sure that the later won’t lose the land it claimed or at least be compensated for it by what could possibly be paid by a party that had no involvement either in the conflict or in the deal to seal it at the end of the day. Here is where Abdi Illey’s attack on Oromia, as supported by the TPLF Generals comes in. He has already been declared as “the best person of the year” by the TPLF’s mouth piece called “Tigraionline.com”. Sooner or later, we will be told that some remote territories disputed among some tribal pastoralists of the Oromo and Somali have been given to the later. And that seals the backdoor deal between Abdi Illey and the TPLF Generals.
It’s conceivable that the OPDO are neither aware of it nor capable of stopping this deal. They are created to contradict the Oromo in the very first place. While the Liyu police not only raids Oromo villages crossing borders but also killing their cadre sitting in office, the OPDO did nothing other than dialing on the old digits of the Arat kilo palace. The response was loud and clear though: ‘the number you calling doesn’t exist’. But they are still calling….so amazing…….
So, the public should defend itself against these TPLF’s mercenary group called Liyu police by all means possible. We believe semi-organic bodies like the Oromia Police shall stand by the side of the public. We will overcome this dirty war of the TPLF too!
It is now more than a year since the Oromo Protest for justice and democracy began in Ethiopia. It reverberated throughout Oromia and exposed the regime’s use of brutality to suppress and silence dissenting voices. But instead of waning, the struggle gained momentum when the Amhara youth in Gondar and Bahir Dar came out not only to demand justice for themselves but also carrying slogans asking the regime to stop the killings, arbitrary imprisonments, the torture and forced disappearances of innocent Oromo civilians.
Such protest is not only the first of its kind to vehemently challenge the quarter century uncontested rule of the TPLF dominated EPRDF in Ethiopia, but also has significantly shifted the overall power balance, mindsets and political dynamics in the country. It also inspired other peoples of Ethiopia to rise up for their rights and engaged all Oromo from east to west and from south to north irrespective of age, gender or religion. (The streets in Oromia were overwhelmed by hundreds of thousands of protesters including a 77-year-old grandmother who went out with her stick in a brave act of defiance against the regime’s brutality.)
Because the protest has, beyond its initial call against land dispossession, evolved into a struggle for freedom, a resistance against injustice, and a longing for a dignified life, no amount of force or of coercion was able to suppress it, let alone stop it. A year on, it is now safe to conclude that this nationwide protest has already planted itself in the hearts and minds of millions of oppressed people as the most significant event of the year.
The protests and the public debates that followed have also impacted others’ views on the long-standing plights of the Oromo and the Amhara, the two largest ethnic groups in Ethiopia. Prior to these protests hardly anyone understood, much less publicly recognized, the sacrifices paid by the Oromo and the Amhara to live a dignified life in their own country. Above all, it exposed how successive regimes in Ethiopia have marginalized, denied and robbed these two groups of their ability to develop and flourish as human beings in their own country.
What a demanding public exposed
Inspired by these protests, currently, Ethiopians all over the country are asking their government to protect and respect their economic, social and cultural rights as well as their civil and political rights. But at the same time, the government’s response is helping the people of Ethiopia to realize that it has almost no leadership capacity to respond to their demands. Ethiopians now see that their government is dysfunctional and its leadership in crisis; what exists and functions is a dissonant leadership that exacerbates conflict, driving the society into a downward spiral from frustration to resentment, and perpetuates antagonism and hostility.
Throughout the year, the ruling party has demonstrated no notable leadership capacity; not one political leader has spoken authentically to the hearts and the minds of the people in order to solve the common problem amicably. Instead of making an effort to lead through this crisis and face the challenge by creating an accommodating environment for all Ethiopians, the ruling party cliques have remained empty demagogues who keep on sending divisive messages and wielding their power by fear-mongering techniques.
Beyond the call for freedom and justice, the Oromo and Amhara protests, as well as the defiance in various parts of the country including from the people of Konso in the south and Tigray in the north, have exposed the truth about EPRDF’s leadership capacity, which was mystified by ‘*seventeen years of relentless struggle and tested leadership to defeat the largest military in Africa*’. It is now clear that it is nothing more than an empty ideological rhetoric and a means to frighten, belittle and silence people who ask difficult questions and challenge the system. But that doesn not mean than the rest of Ethiopians do not recognize and appreciate the sacrifices and the agony the Tigray people have paid for seventeen years to oust the military dictatorship. However, it is not hard to see that the TPLF, which was born out of this struggle and had led this protracted war to victory, and the regime it dominates, have turned out to be an authoritarian regime.
There for good or bad
Although the yearlong nationwide protests led by the Oromo and the Amhara, as well as others to various degrees, have exposed the regime’s inability to bring in meaningful political leadership, for good or bad, the TPLF dominated EPRDF is the government in power which, for now, will determine the course of actions to respond to the current struggle for justice and democracy.
There is a possibility that the TPLF dominated EPRDF might take one of the following two courses of actions. Both have a potential to direct or misdirect the current call for democracy and justice in two mutually exclusive directions.
First course of action: road to democratization and peace
The first direction and course of action the TPLF dominated EPRDF may consider is the road to democracy and sustainable peace. However, reversing the current dire political condition and responding to the needs of the people requires it to recognize and understand the need for change; it requires embracing the change and transformation the people want to realize through a democratic process.
Hard as it may be, the following course of actions should precede any other course of action to start the democratization process.
Restore the constitution – build trust and confidence of citizens around the constitution by making it a practical document. Arguably, this means the regime itself should begin respecting the constitution and lead by example.
Scrap laws and policies which are against the constitution and which prevent citizens from exercising their democratic rights enshrined in the constitution. These include, but not limited to, scrapping the Anti-Terrorism Law, which is so far mainly used to silence citizens and violate their rights than persecute suspected terrorists; amending the draconian press law, which is so far used to violate citizens’ right to freedom of expression and access to information; scrapping the Civil Society and Charities Law, which is prohibiting the growth of independent civil society organizations which are the pillars of non-state actors in the development of democracy and human rights in the country.
Release all political prisoners unconditionally. Obviously, once the laws and procedures, which often undermine the constitution, are lifted there is no reason to keep people in prison.
Reform, among others, the justice system, the police, security forces and prison administrations as well as the election board, the anti-corruption commission, the human rights commission, and the state-controlled media.
The ruling party would lose nothing for taking this revolutionary action. In fact, it would help it to breath; to objectively address its current leadership crisis and reemerge as a legitimate political force. It would also provide it with the opportunity to think strategically.
Change is a natural state, which we cannot completely control or make predictable. It is overwhelming and chaotic, but rewarding at the end. The most important step to start the process of change is by being bold, letting go of the old and rigid ways of thinking and governing. The regime in Ethiopia has to come out of its fear of change and see the bigger picture; it should relax its grips on old practices, which did not contribute to its own growth or to that of the rest of the country for the last 25 years.
There is no question that by taking such bold actions, the TPLF dominated EPRDF has a comparative advantage over other political groupings currently operating in the country. As it has shown in the past it can rehabilitate itself quicker than others and appear as a viable political organization in the years to come.
Above all, this action ensures the continuity of the democratization processes by engaging citizens to determine their own future and relieves the existing state-citizen tensions. If this is done, the healing process, as well as the peace and reconciliation process will be relatively easier. Ultimately, this approach also guarantees the existence and continuity of Ethiopia as a nation home to all its citizens.
Implications for a protesting nation
This peaceful democratization process can bring change and transformation to the people of Ethiopia in general and the Oromo in particular, who are the largest ethnic group in the country and have been the driving force of the nationwide protests. As a result, the Oromo struggle for democracy and justice might fall under one of the following two scenarios.
First is the scenario in which Oromo elites, by the virtue of being a middle class, by affiliation to any Oromo-related organization, or by their prior personal experience come together and create a consortium, a democratic front, or a party to lead a meaningful struggle. This may, in turn, render irrelevant disorganized struggles, which often hamper or even take hostage the Oromo struggle for freedom and justice.
The physical and emotional separation and distance of the Oromo elites from the struggle on the ground may at times prevent them from sensing and living the struggle itself. Unless the democratic process on the ground creates room to accommodate all dissenting voices both from within and abroad, those who have the leadership capacity and the necessary political know-how cannot provide adaptive leadership or have the empathetic capacity to connect to the mass, particularly with the young generation that is both leading and shouldering the brunt of the struggle.
The second is a scenario in which the need to phase out the old and replace it with the new thinking and political organization both within the country and abroad takes precedence. The Oromo Protest and the current awakening is a painful form of labor to give birth to a new dynamic and profound political organization fit for the 21st century.
For this new Oromo organization to be born and to become the vanguard of the struggle, all old Oromo organizations, which were and still are trying to contribute under different names and ideologies, have to die a natural death and give way to new thinking and new possibilities. The new will have the energy and capacity to unify and transform the Oromo to a higher level and lead the struggle to victory. Like the TPLF, all Oromo organizations which existed for decades and have tried to contribute, albeit less successfully, have reached their maximum limit and are in need of reform.
The struggle between the old and the new is natural – even our cells are continually dying and being reborn. The Safuvalue, which is unique to Oromo culture and psyche, reaffirms this natural process, which urges the old to peacefully pass the scepter to the new.
Qeerro, the emboldened youth (as the name implies) is currently filling the leadership gap and taking the responsibility of leading the resistance against the current government, even as they are met with brutal responses. The Qeerro is successful in amplifying the struggle to all corners of Oromia and beyond, as well as inspiring all Oromos irrespective of age, religion, gender, class and locality. It has also unified the Oromo under the motto of ‘Tokkummaa’ (oneness or unity) and the ‘Say No’ or ‘Diidnee’ slogan.
Above all, by flying the resistance flag (not the OLF flag) the Qeerro demonstrated that the flag is the sign of freedom for which all revolutionary Oromos sacrificed their lives even long before OLF was created. It has raised this flag because it embodies hope and reminds all Oromos about those beautiful young people who died flying it. Therefore, to lead the struggle to its final destination, the current Qeerro movement is in the stage of development to come out with the new leadership and organization from within its rank and file. Many think that Qeerro is just the network of youth from colleges, high schools, and elementary schools who are just driven by social media. But the fact is there are engineers, professors, medical doctors, businesspeople, and other professionals who are part of the rank and file of the Qeerro.
When the situation is ripe and there is a favorable political environment, the Qeerro can easily transform into a political organization. It is this organization and leadership of the Oromo which can navigate the ship towards freedom through the storm and onto its final destination. It is time this passion gets a new leadership it deserves.
Status quo: The second course of action for TPLF/EPRDF
The above scenario is in the event that the ruling party takes the course to democratize through reform. The second course of action is about maintaining the status quo. But it is a dangerous choice; a choice of war. It is about TPLF/EPRDF refusing to bring change from within itself and the country as a whole.
This is also a choice that looks for easy answers; but it is not the easy way out of the current quagmire. It is easy because it does not require critical thinking and having difficult conversations. This course of action is a decision to repress and silence the current cry for democracy and human rights through the barrel of the gun. It is about war and involving its armed force, intelligence, federal police and militia in the internal issues of the country to brutally suppress the uprising. By doing so, it will only intensify the conflict to a higher level and bring human and property losses to the level the country and the people of Ethiopia can no longer endure.
Unfortunately, this is what we are witnessing today; military forces killing, arresting and torturing citizens on behalf of a regime in power. The impending consequence is that they will never be regarded as a national army delegated to protect the constitution, and will be labeled only as the enemy of the people.
In addition to its military solution to the conflict, TPLF/EPRDF is getting into its age-old habit of manipulating and drawing other nations and nationalities into a civil war; perpetuate religious conflict in different places by pitting one religion against the other; and create conflicts between rural people/farmers and urban dwellers. But it should be known that this will benefit no one, including the ruling party itself.
What is next?
Inspired by the yearlong Oromo and Amhara protests the rest of Ethiopians have made it loud and clear that they need a fundamental change; they have been saying so for 25 years, too. Ethiopians have tried with all their might and used every means possible to make their voices heard and have time and again proclaimed a moment of reckoning for a paradigm shift. Alas, instead of objectively and purposefully responding to this popular demand, the government is stuck into its old tactics of blaming, accusing, and intimidating people.
Now in a frantic act to quell and pacify the protests and silence the voices of the oppressed, in October this year the government declared a state of emergency for six months. However, the state of emergency is doing more harm than good and its implementation is driving millions to the edge of bitterness. The sooner the ruling party realizes that such techniques are only good to temporarily pacify rising public demands, the better. The only road to bring lasting solution is the road that begins by protecting the constitution and striving to build a democratic country with respect for human rights and the rule of law. This is also true for opposition political organizations, which are operating both in the country and abroad.
The underlying cause for the current protest and uprising is the struggle between the old and the new. The old is trying to do everything in its capacity to extend its life while the new is striving to shape and realize the new world it is envisioning.
For the good of all, the old (self and system) has to be courageous enough to accept and let go of its old organization, thinking, and power; it has to accept the inevitable.
The people of Ethiopia in general and the Oromo youth in particular, are determined to leave the past behind and move forward. They don’t want to be chained to and distracted by the past, which contributes less for the wellbeing of today and humanity of tomorrow.
Only when the old gives way to the new do citizens develop trust and confidence in a political system and themselves to take the responsibility of contributing to a democratic society and prosperous nation.
The seizure of large tracts of land is a process of re-concentration and of the marginalization and disempowerment of Ethiopia’s (non-Tigray) ethnic groups.
The EPRDF’s governing ideology, “revolutionary democracy”—a curious concoction of Marxist, Maoist, and ethno-regionalist thought—demands Soviet-style submission to the Tigray-dominated state. It calls for communal collective participation and democratic centralism. Through gim gima, nationally publicized government evaluation sessions, the regime weeds out dissidents and indoctrinates citizens. Following the regime’s violent clampdown during the disputed 2005 elections, the EPRDF published a booklet entitled Democracy and Democratic Unity that it used nationwidegim gima to explain away its brutal response. The booklet gave Ethiopians a “clear choice between dependency and anti-democracy forces” (i.e. opposition parties) and “revolutionary democracy (peace and developmentalism).” Rather than participants in a liberal order, then, Ethiopian citizens are mobilizing apparatchiks for the vanguard party. And since 1991 they have been subject to the diktats of one ethnic (minority) group. Resistance has been met with imprisonment, or worse.
Since November 2015, Ethiopia has been beset by an unprecedented wave of protests. They began as a rebuke to a government plan to expand the municipal boundaries of the capital, Addis Ababa, into Oromia Region. They have since expanded to the neighboring Amhara Region, underscoring decades of grievances against ethnic marginalization and authoritarian rule by the governing Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). The regime has responded aggressively. Human Rights Watch reports upwards of five hundred people have been so far killed in what the United States has decried as an “excessive use of force.” Tens of thousands more have been detained. An unexplained fire on September 3 in Kilinto prison in which hundreds of political prisoners are housed killed at least twenty-three. Rather than backing down, however, the protesters are gathering steam. The unrest has opened a pandora’s box of institutional and ideological contradictions that strike at the heart of contemporary Ethiopian statehood. Understanding these issues is essential for an understanding of the unrest now gripping the country.
“You cannot remove the ethnic issue from Ethiopian politics,” Eskinder Nega, a now-imprisoned Ethiopian journalist and democracy activist, told me in 2010. At the time I was an overeager doctoral student living in Addis Ababa and researching Chinese investments in the country. I had been introduced to Eskinder by a university professor, and he was kind enough to indulge (and endure) the inquisitive pepperings of a graduate student. Ethiopia is made up of nine dominant ethnic groups and approximately eighty others. Historically, the Amhara people—of which Eskinder is a member—were the country’s governing force. Emperor Haile Selassie, Emperor Menilek (1889–1913) before him, and Mengistu Haile Mariam’s Derg regime (1974–89) after him were all Amhara. Each sought to establish a unified Ethiopia with Amharic as the official language and the Amhara culture as the foundation of Ethiopian identity. All other identities were to be eliminated—either by way of assimilation, or by force. In this the Derg was especially merciless. It perceived ethnic diversity as a threat to state unity; through its Red Terror campaign, it brutally slaughtered over five hundred thousand people—all, in its eyes, enemies of the Amhara state. The policies of the Derg were especially damaging to the population of Tigray, a tiny region in the northernmost part of Ethiopia along the border with Eritrea. Today, the Tigray make up a mere six percent of the population. Government brutality, lack of economic opportunity, and prohibitions on labor migration left the Tigray ethnically and economically isolated.
Years of repression ultimately gave way to resentment of the Amhara and, by extension, the state. It also gave rise to what Ethiopian historian Gebru Tareke calls “dissent nationalism,” and the emergence of ethno-nationalist groups like the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). For the TPLF, the state was an oppressive and colonizing force from which the country’s ethnicities had to be liberated. In 1975 the group waged what amounted to a secessionist struggle: its 1976 manifesto established “the first task of the national struggle will be the establishment of an independent democratic republic of Tigray.” When in 1989 the TPLF, then already under the direction of Meles Zenawi, successfully overthrew the Derg and in 1991 merged with three other political factions to form the EPRDF, Ethiopia was subdivided into nine mostly ethnic regions, each with the right to independent lawmaking, executive, and judicial powers. Enshrined in Article 39.3 of the constitution is the right of all ethnicities to “self-government.” Ethnic communities ostensibly inherited Ethiopia. The catch, of course, is that the EPRDF believes the only mechanism capable of ensuring sovereignty for each of the country’s ethnicities is the EPRDF itself. Relations between the central government and the regions have over the years become so centralized, and local authority so emasculated, that the de jurepremise of the modern Ethiopian state—ethnic federalism—is meaningless. Contemporary Ethiopia is a shining example of the ancient dictum, repeated throughout the ages, dīvide et īmpera—divide and rule. Further complicating the narrative is the fact that the EPRDF—in which the TPLF remains the dominant force—has never fully surrendered its vision of an independent Tigray. The 1976 manifesto has never been revised.
In this way, decades of Amhara control have given way to decades of Tigray control. The presidential office, the parliament, central government ministries and agencies—including public enterprises—and financial institutions have since 1991 all been controlled by the TPLF. So too the military. 99 percent of Ethiopian National Defense Force officers are from Tigray; 97 percent are from the same village. Only the prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, is not Tigray: he is Wolayta, an ethnic group that forms the majority of the population in the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s Region (SNNPR). His historically close ties to Meles, first while President of SNNPR, then Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, have, however, effectively rendered him Tigray by association.
The EPRDF’s governing ideology, “revolutionary democracy”—a curious concoction of Marxist, Maoist, and ethno-regionalist thought—demands Soviet-style submission to the Tigray-dominated state. It calls for communal collective participation and democratic centralism. Through gim gima, nationally publicized government evaluation sessions, the regime weeds out dissidents and indoctrinates citizens. Following the regime’s violent clampdown during the disputed 2005 elections, the EPRDF published a booklet entitled Democracy and Democratic Unity that it used nationwidegim gima to explain away its brutal response. The booklet gave Ethiopians a “clear choice between dependency and anti-democracy forces” (i.e. opposition parties) and “revolutionary democracy (peace and developmentalism).” Rather than participants in a liberal order, then, Ethiopian citizens are mobilizing apparatchiks for the vanguard party. And since 1991 they have been subject to the diktats of one ethnic (minority) group. Resistance has been met with imprisonment, or worse. If, as William Davidson writes, today’s protests “seem to be taking on a worrying ethnic tinge,” that is because they have been ethnic from the start. Politics in Ethiopia is inherently ethnic.
Of the EPRDF’s most beloved methods of centralizing control is through the centralization of land—land grabbing—which has become a rallying point in the current turmoil. While it is foreign firms in Ethiopia who are generally accused of expropriating land, the blame in fact lies with the EPRDF. A 2009 government regulation gives the EPRDF full control over all aspects of land investments over five thousand hectares (approximately 12,350 acres), including the right to expropriate land from the country’s regions and transfer it to investors. Under Ethiopian law all revenues, taxes, and associated infrastructure resulting from the investments now accrue to the EPRDF. Previously, real estate transactions had been handled by each of the country’s nine regional governments. As Chatham House, a London-based think tank, notes, “it is the state that stands to reap the most significant gains.” But the factors underpinning the government’s land grabs extend beyond simple economics: they are also a means for the TPLF-dominated EPRDF to realize some version of an independent Tigray. The seizure of large tracts of land is a process of re-concentration and of the marginalization and disempowerment of Ethiopia’s (non-Tigray) ethnic groups. Theoretically at least, it is intended to forge greater dependence on the central state and to render it increasingly difficult for rebel groups to emerge and operate in lowland areas. Most projects are concentrated in Benishangul-Gumuz, Gambella, SNNPR, and northern Amhara—remote regions of the country where government processes of assimilation and integration are ongoing. By commandeering the land, the EPRDF hopes to speed them up.
Violent attacks carried out by Ethiopian protesters on Dutch, Israeli, Indian and Belgian-owned farms in Amhara in early September therefore did not target foreign interests in the country per se, but EPRDF efforts to strip Ethiopians of land and identity. Foreign firms were the unfortunate middlemen.
For the better part of the last quarter century the EPRDF has attempted to whitewash its ethnic ambitions with its economic development agenda. Ethiopia is at the heart of the “Africa rising” narrative and has succeeded in lifting millions out of extreme poverty, cutting child mortality rates, and overseeing an impressive decline in HIV/AIDS-related deaths by 50 percent. Some argue that rather than ethnic tensions, the protests reflect mounting frustrations with an uneven distribution of the economic pie. This is undoubtedly part of the story. Yet as unrest engulfs places like the Amhara capital, Bahir Dar, and Adama, Oromia’s most vibrant city, which have benefitted from economic growth, it is clear that economic grievances are secondary. When in 2010 Eskinder told me, regrettably, that Ethiopia has become “the world’s star backslider,” he did not mean this economically. He meant in terms of governance and in terms of statehood. “Meles’ rule,” he said, “is not only that of the party but of the ethnicity. Meles’ relatives, friends, et cetera are putting pressure on him not to give up control because he would be giving up the control of the entire Tigray people.” This rings true of the TPLF today.
This is what makes the Ethiopian unrest so significant—and potentially dangerous. At the heart of the protests is the fundamental question of how to build a modern nation state on the back of ethnic fault lines that have been exploited over centuries. Through its formula of ethnic federalism and revolutionary democracy the EPRDF has merely succeeded in repeating the errors of its predecessors through different means. In many respects the state-building question has gone unresolved; Ethiopia’s crisis is largely an existential one. In the coming weeks Hailemariam Desalegn will likely attempt peace by announcing a redistribution of government investments. Most—if not all—political and economic power will remain vested in the TPLF. While this may quell the protests for a time, without genuine attention to the country’s conflicting institutional and ideological challenges—central to which is the dominance of the TPLF and the Tigray—the situation is likely to get worse before it gets better. All that is at stake, is everything.
Aleksandra W. Gadzala is an independent political-risk consultant based out of Boca Raton, FL and an Africa contributor with Oxford Analytica. She holds a PhD in Politics from the University of Oxford.