ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia—In Ethiopia’s two most populous ethnic regions, anti-government rallies turned into a bloodbath in early August as security forces again used live ammunition against protesters. In the western part of Oromia, the largest of Ethiopia’s nine ethnically based states, the town of Nekempte looked like a “war zone,” according to a protester. An opposition party said almost 100 people were killed and thousands arrested after demonstrations across the sprawling Oromia region, which encircles the capital, Addis Ababa, and borders Kenya in the south and South Sudan in the west. A day later in Bahir Dar, the capital of Amhara state, Amnesty International said police killed as many as 30 people. The government said a protest descended into a riot. Historic Gondar city to the north also saw more demonstrations, vandalism and repression.
The sustained discontent in Oromia, which began after unrest erupted last November, presents a major challenge to the country’s government, which came to power in 1991 when an insurgency led by the minority Tigrayan ethnic group overthrew a military regime. Having been granted autonomy in a federal system, the Oromo, who number around 35 million as Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, are asserting their rights.
The Oromo’s demands have included the scrapping of a greater Addis Ababa strategic plan that threatened Oromo farmers; the introduction of Afaan Oromo as a federal government language; the release of political prisoners; an end to police brutality; and complaints about subservience to Tigrayans in the ruling coalition. Despite the January cancellation of the master plan, the protests continued. And now they have been compounded by vociferous opposition from the Amhara, the country’s second-largest ethnic group, who wielded significant power as rulers, administrators and landlords during Ethiopia’s imperial past.
The Amhara claim parts of their territory were unfairly incorporated into Tigray state during the post-1991 transition. That reflects opposition to a system of ethnically defined federalism, which is portrayed as divisive and facilitating rule by Tigrayans, who make up 6 percent of a population of around 100 million. During recent demonstrations, protesters praised past Amhara emperors and replaced the current federal flag with emblems representing previous unitary constitutions as they also chanted pro-democracy slogans. Protests in various towns have been ongoing this week in the region.
The four-party Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, or EPRDF, has controlled politics since capturing state power in 1991. Its parties represent Ethiopia’s main ethnic groups: the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO), the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM), the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM) and the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). With allied parties, the coalition controls all federal parliament and regional council seats, as well as managing rural areas through farmers’ cells. The resilience and tactics of protesters will be key to the demonstrations’ success, but most critical to how the situation unfolds will be the EPRDF’s cohesion. Even sympathetic observers worry about the bloc’s ability to respond adequately to popular demands.
The current situation increases strains within the ruling coalition, given the legitimacy crisis of its Oromo wing, whose corruption partly led to rising tensions over highly sought-after land on the fringes of booming Addis Ababa. There is also apparent disloyalty within the ranks of the Amhara party, the ANDM, with elements being accused of stoking protests and anti-Tigrayan violence in the city of Gondar. The situation has led to a growing siege mentality within the Tigrayan bloc, the TPLF, which is frequently cast as controlling an authoritarian government.
After last year’s elections, when the only opposition federal lawmaker lost his seat, Daniel Berhane, the founder of the Horn Affairs website, which covers politics in the Horn of Africa, predicted unrest in Ethiopia, as the space for legitimate opposition was all but extinguished. He believes the problems in Gondar and elsewhere in Amhara partly also reflect the contemporary weaknesses of both the ANDM and the ruling EPRDF.
Though the Amhara party is a staunch supporter of federalism, it struggled to sell its philosophy to the region’s old elite, Berhane says. As with other EPRDF parties, its leadership seems to lack the popular legitimacy and ideological unity to sway protesters. Amid this discontent, some ambitious politicians are sensing a chance to assert the ANDM’s influence within the ruling front at the expense of the TPLF.
Such internal discord may partly be a result of the EPRDF increasing its membership eight-fold to around six million people in the past decade. That means there are many members who have not been inculcated into its Marxist-Leninist-influenced doctrines on how collective action and the power of the state will transform Ethiopia into a prosperous, modern nation. Purges are necessary, but Berhane doubts that they will achieve much more than officials rooting out rivals.
An ANDM insider thinks such divisions are overplayed, and that protests stem from outsiders in the Ethiopian diaspora hijacking local discontent. “The area is still underdeveloped in infrastructure, and there is a huge good governance problem,” he says, referring to the Gondar area, where the opposition has been most serious. The region is prone to what he calls “anti-peace forces, both internally and externally.”
Daniel and others think the unrest in Oromia is easier to respond to, as the grievances are articulated within the country’s constitutional framework. But that is countered by the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization’s own internal problems and weakness; the party has changed chairperson three times in six years. Contempt for the party was made clear by Abay Tsehaye, a senior TPLF veteran and now policy adviser to Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, when he blamed the OPDO’s turmoil and poor administration for the crisis.
The government could respond to protesters’ demands and perhaps end the crisis by deepening federalism, allowing more pluralism within government and space for critical voices from the opposition, media and civil society as part of a democratization process. But that’s unlikely. The EPRDF has spent over two decades trying to become a hegemonic force capable of implementing the state-led development model of its chief ideologue, Meles Zenawi. While the absence of the late prime minister from the TPLF is keenly felt in terms of strategic and charismatic leadership, his ideas are still prominent.
In late August, party leaders from the EPRDF gathered to discuss the crisis, but there was no new thinking on display. Instead, the politburo promised to combat political extremism and enact reforms to root out corruption. “The party that has from the very outset decided to build a democratic and developmental government knows the existence of incessant temptation among some people in a transition economy to abuse of power for personal gains,” it said in a statement.
Nahusenay Belay, who is pursuing a doctorate in democratization in Ethiopia at Addis Ababa University’s Institute of Federal Studies, welcomes the Oromo demands, but is critical of what he calls the “chauvinist, expansionist” Amhara agenda. He thinks the government needs to suppress violent protests that he says threaten anarchy—and then embark on an unprecedented program of dialogue, public consultation and reform, including releasing political prisoners.
Yet with the opposition exiled, imprisoned or otherwise neutered, there is a lack of potential partners. “They have to empower the local opposition or anyone willing to participate in the democratic process peacefully,” Belay says of the government. Despite his appreciation of the EPRDF’s federalism and economic achievements, Nahusenay doubts there is enough support within the front for much liberalization, which would jeopardize its political monopoly. But like many, he sees the dangers of the status quo: “If you close all the ventilation mechanisms, at a certain point it will explode.”