Protest, Repression and Revolution in Ethiopia

Protesters chant slogans during a demonstration over what they say is unfair distribution of wealth in the country at Meskel Square in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, August 6, 2016. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri - RTSLDSE

By Mebratu Kelecha

Since 2014 protests in Ethiopia have taken an unexpected and unprecedented turn, which has pushed the regime into permanent crisis. One of the triggering factors was in April 2014, when the Addis Ababa City Administration officially launched an urban expansion plan aimed at responding to the industrial and human growth of the capital city. Soon, the popular movement, known as the Oromo protests, began when students across Oromia protested a plan to expand Addis Ababa by 1.1 million hectares deep into the neighbouring Oromia region. Since then, an unprecedented wave of popular struggles have rocked Ethiopia.

There are two main reasons for these protests. The first concerns the existing political tensions, especially on land, socio-economic development and identity issues in the Oromo communities gathered around the city of Addis Ababa. The second is a violent security reaction that created a vicious circle of state repression. As usual, the government responded violently to protests, killed thousands, arrested and accused of terrorism many thousands of others. The desire to impose development projects from the above is another factor that partly explain the protests.

Before continuing, some context needs to be provided. Since 1991, the current regime in Ethiopia has been marked by recurrent violent incidents. Conflict with the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) from 1992 has been a continual feature for nearly three decades of EPRDF rule. For decades the OLF was outlawed and labelled a terrorist organisation. The 2005 elections, illustrative of state repression, left a legacy of trauma and pain: about 200 people were shot by security forces, and thousands were imprisoned. Yet for most of the period since the seizure of power, state repression remains largely ‘invisible’ to the outside world, except for well-informed observers, while international condemnation is rare. Ethiopia had long won this international acquiescence by becoming a key partner in the global war on terrorism, especially on the Somali front.

However, we need to look more deeply at the context of the Oromo protests to understand the significance. Several indicators point to a social explosion in Oromia region, even before 2014. For example, there were tensions between 2003-2004 on the transfer of the administrative capital of the Oromia region from Addis Ababa to Adama. After several protests over the political marginalization of Oromo, the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s government decided to return the regional capital to Addis Ababa after losing all city council seats during the 2005 elections. Yet such actions failed to quell dissatisfaction.

On the contrary, the feeling of not benefiting from the fruits of development has increased with the disappointing promises of the so-called developmental state in the last decade. There is widespread disgruntlement against expropriations, repressions and corruption. Taking advantage of this growing discontent, Oromo activists in the diaspora began reuniting with young people at home, promoting nonviolent resistance to engage in advocacy and hold demonstrations against government policy particularly since 2009. This began in response to the absence of an organized Oromo group at a time, and a general  frustration at the internal politics in the OLF.

Despite these problems, the movement of young activists developed rapidly, and within a few years they successfully established Oromo media houses in the diaspora and the creation of networks of Oromo activists at home. Thus, when the protests began in April 2014, it was relatively easy to mobilize young people, and concerns about the fate of farmers on land that the government wanted to transfer to Addis Ababa, for example, could be clearly articulated.

What actually happened?

At this point the protests were relatively small and student-led and limited to university campuses, though there were still many casualties among the students. The pre-election period in May 2015 prompted the government to suspend the city expansion project temporarily, which was due to resume immediately in the post-election period. On 12 November 2015, protests were resumed in Ginchi, a small town about 80 km southwest of Addis Ababa, because of the local authorities’ decision to remove forests and football field for an investment project. The Ginchi incident sparked protests that pulled the surrounding areas into a wider wave of action and spread into several other parts over the coming weeks and months.

By mid-February 2016 in the West Arsi area of Oromia, near the city of Shashamene, the federal police arrested a bus full of guests going to a wedding, they were playing Oromo songs in honor of brides and grooms. The police claimed there were Oromo activists on their way to ignite protests. The incidence prompted clashes between crowds of local farmers who gathered around the bus and the federal police. The police quickly used their weapons indiscriminately, causing multiple deaths and raising to the ground the nearby towns of Siraro, Shala and Shashamene. Police violence continued for nearly for a week. Led mainly by students from high schools and universities, further protests gained momentum quickly after they spread rapidly into more than 400 different locations throughout the Oromia region, students were now joined by farmers, government employees and other groups.

From the outset, the government accused the protest movement of infiltration by rebel groups, including the OLF. As we have seen the government long held that these groups were terrorist organizations supported by external forces such as Eritrea and Egypt. These kinds of label were actively used to discredit protesters and to justify the deployment of the Antiterrorist Task Force in the region, which was eventually deployed on December 15, 2015. Added to this was the surprising arrests of several moderate opposition leaders, such as Bekele Gerba and Merara Gudina of Oromo-Federalist Congress.

In 2016, there were two further important and symbolic victories for the movement. In May 2016, Oromo activists leaked Ethiopian national exams before the exam date. This incident, while sending a strong message that the Oromo protests were a grassroots mobilization, also seriously embarrassed the government which had claimed mass support for decades. There was another symbolically important moment later in the year. On August 21, 2016, the marathon runner Feyisa Lelisa crossed the finish line in Rio de Janeiro and immediately crossed his hands over his head, expressing his solidarity with the protest movement in Ethiopia. The athletes’ gesture cames directly from the nonviolent resistance movement that was organizing demonstrations across Oromia. Lelisa’s solidarity was important to Oromo and other oppressed people in Ethiopia and was a call to global public consciousness. Such incidents helped to galvanize popular protests in the country and solidarity action abroad.

Repression continues, protests intensify

As government repression intensified, activists effectively deploy Oromo’s resistance music to promote protests, represent their experiences of marginalization and resist official narratives. Activists established contacts with prominent Oromo musicians and provided them with the resources they need to travel around the country and abroad, as well as to organize concerts that brought together Oromos from all walks of life. Dozens of such resistance songs were released during the protest movement.

These musical events played a central role in providing alternative spaces for voicing Oromo issues, exploring concerns of unemployment, poverty and exclusion and clarifying the complex dilemmas facing the struggle for political freedom. Stages were effectively used to mobilize resources, build networks and organize people for nonviolent resistance. Without fear of exaggeration, Oromo music became the driving force of Oromo-nationalism, to protest the injustice and repression in Oromia.

Accordingly, Oromo protests continued and were relayed by the Oromo in the diaspora throughout 2016, peaking in October 2016 after a tragic event during the Irreecha celebration, the annual Oromo Thanksgiving festival in Bishoftu, a city fifty kilometers from the capital. A stampede at the festival, provoked by the security forces, killed dozens of people and fuelled public actions that caused the destruction of government institutions, including foreign companies they believe had exacerbated their suffering. A national state of emergency was declared on November 9, 2016, and government repression intensified, as federal military units were deployed throughout the Oromia region. A few months after declaring a state of emergency, the regime announced itself the winner, believing that the movement was dead.

However, despite the restrictions imposed by the state of emergency, in parallel there have been significant developments. First, the decrease in riots and protests led to an increase in political activity that prompted opposition movements to unite their forces against the regime. Second, since the beginning of 2017, many Oromo public figures have spoken out against a marked increase in attacks by paramilitary groups, including the Liyu police (a paramilitary militia). The growing attacks of the Liyu police were provoked by the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF), the leading party within the ruling EPRDF, helped spread conflicts between ethnic Somalis and Oromo, giving the military the excuse to further weaken protests. Third, despite the regime’s assertion that the state of emergency succeeded in suppressing Oromo protests, Oromo activists made a conscious decision to regroup and strategize for the next phase of the struggle.

Thus, despite the repressive tactics used by the regime against demonstrators, Oromo protest action managed to sustain itself and began to organize another wave of protests in August 2017. The economic boycott and the Stay at Home campaign was announced by Oromo activists on August 23, 2017. As planned, the campaign began on the scheduled day throughout Oromia. For three days, businesses in large and small towns, daily markets in rural villages and intercity transportation remain closed. Across the Oromia region the shut down and boycott was complete.

Failed concessions and a widening movement

As of January 2016, the authorities announced a series of corrective actions, including the removal of the Addis Ababa master plan, ministerial reshuffles at the federal and regional levels and the opening of discussions between the government and opposition parties. However, the appearance of these measures failed to reassure demonstrators. In addition to lost confidence, the withdrawal of the master plan was regarded as an attempt to conceal the lack of genuine concessions. Thus, the protests continued, taking advantage of a surge of new discontent — a serious disappointment over an illegal tax increase and the invasion of the Liyu police in Oromia, as we have seen.

The Oromia region was not the only region affected by a wave of popular protests. The persistence of Oromo protests in the face of the government’s harsh reaction inspired other regions to air their grievances, especially Amhara, where repeated tensions intensified from 2016. The tensions stemmed from a series of events that caused deep discontent. For example, repeated rumors about the transfer of border lands to Sudan were spread by opposition groups and the diaspora in the United States. There was also discontent at the fate of the Amhara people from other regions, where there were reports of harassment and forced displacement caused by TPLF ’militias’. The Ethiopian Satellite Television and Radio (ESAT), a Washington-based opposition television station, repeatedly aired these issues, presenting them as genocide against the Amhara people. In addition, the Wolqayt identity questions, suppressed in the Tigray region, similarly raised protests and violent reactions around Gondar in August 2016. Lastly, there is another question concerning the issue of identity by the Qemant people in the Amhara region, whose activists met with violent reactions from the authorities. Protests have spread in these two regions and more widely at the country level. Increasingly, we were witnessing a national movement.

Estimating the number of deaths of protesters across the regions from government repression is exceptionally difficult. However, while we cannot find an accurate figure, we can establish several facts. The protests were for an extended period, three years, during which repression, violence and murder were a feature from the start. As the scholar, Yohannes Woldemariam, has shown that the commissioner for human rights wanted access to investigate but this was denied. Yet mass graves are still being discovered.  Woldemariam  states, ‘One figure that was given in the last three months is 669. A gross underestimate in my view… another estimate of the death rate by Human Rights Watch is over 1000 deaths and tens of thousands detained.’ This is also likely to be a serious underestimate.

Understanding the protests

The large-scale movement in the Oromia region certainly took the name of Oromo protests, but the protesters were highlighting social and political injustice, unemployment, forced evictions, unequal representation, constitutional rights violations, marginalization, repression, undemocratic practices and corruption that impacted every Ethiopian. These are slogans that were chanted throughout the protests.

In addition, there is was a political event that played an important role in intensifying the crisis within the ruling party and to provoke the arrival of reformist Abiy Ahmed to the EPRDF’s helm. Over the years of Oromo protests, the voices calling for an historic alliance between Amhara and Oromo groups have grown louder. This appeal first appeared in a foreign country in July 2016 thanks to the rapprochement of two competing online TV channels based in the United States: the Oromo Media Network (OMN) and ESAT. The former is directed by Jawar Mohammed, who was a leading advocate of the Oromo protests, while the latter is founded by Amhara intellectual circles.

In Ethiopia, however, this call struggled to bear fruit, until solidarity demonstrations in August 2016 were held in the Amhara region to condemn violence in the Oromo region. Many expressions of solidarity were made at rallies, at one in the Amhara region it was stated that, ‘the blood flowing in Oromia is also our blood.’ Immediately this challenged  the ruling party’s ‘divide and rule;’ tactics, pitting the Oromo and Amhara against one another.

In November 2017, the Oromo Democratic Party (ODP) reached out to Amhara Democratic Party  (ADP) in a spirit of solidarity and cooperation that led to renewed hope of ‘expropriating’ power from the TPLF. However, the broader alliance established by ODP and ADP to wrestle power away from TPLF was tactical from the outset, and not strategically anchored on a shared political visions. Ethiopia’s political history shows the difficulties faced by the main elites of Oromo and Amhara to ally themselves durably. The regime has often tried to use ethnic and ideological cleavages to precipitate the fall of popular movements. It was the popular movements from below that provided the impetus for community solidarity.

These facts revealed the limitations of the EPRDF’s overall political project. The protests point not only to the patterns of governance that must be changed, but also to the highly indoctrinated EPRDF political project, which is anchored in revolutionary democracy and its organizational discipline of democratic centralism. EPRDF, which often relies on its seven million members, finally appears to be struggling: the Amhara branch (ADP) has begun to break away from the messianic doctrine of the ruling Front. Under these pressures, big political changes were about to take place. The EPRDF – and its principle anchor, the TPLF – faces the most serious challenge in its decades long struggle for political hegemony.

We can say categorically that without the conditions prepared by the protests the reform process that was embarked on in 2018 would have been unthinkable. As Woldemariam has explained, emboldened by the protests and the general climate of ungovernability, the constituent parts of the EPRDF, particularly the ADP and the ODP outmanoeuvred the TPLF in the selection process that saw the election of Abiy Ahmed.

Manoeuvres and reforms from above

On 15 February 2018, Hailemariam Desalegn, Ethiopia’s beleaguered prime minister, resigned hoping to facilitate an end to ‘unrest and political crisis’ in the country. A second state of emergency was also declared the day after Hailemariam’s resignation, mainly to subdue tensions within the EPRDF by placing the country under military control. The resignation was another concession to the popular protests that already created a rift between hardliners and soft-liners in the ruling coalition.

One of the most categorical achievements of the Oromo protests is the emergence of a faction known as Team Lemma, named after Oromia President Lemma Megerssa, and offering an alternative future for EPRDF and Ethiopia. The package included replacing the old guards with a new generation of leaders and including tthe reformist Abiy Ahmed. Once in place Prime Minister Abiy quickly moved in to convince people that real change was being made. Being the country’s first Oromo leader, the ethnic group at the centre of three years of anti-government protests, Abiy Ahmed was officially sworn in as the prime minster in parliament on April 2, last year. He was again almost unanimously re-elected as the head of the ruling coalition at the EPRDF Congress, held in Hawassa at the end of October 2018. His election saw the release of tens of thousands of political prisoners, including Bekele Gerba, the key figures of the Oromo protests and the abducted Briton Andargachev Tsege, who had been on death row.

Thus, having produced Team Lemma as its overall effect, the Oromo protests have since become, in the opinion of some commentators, a full-scale revolution that is increasingly triggering fundamental changes in the country. Abiy has initiated intense and inclusive discussions with members of the public inside and outside the country including members of the Ethiopian diaspora in North America and Europe and called on political parties in exile to return to their home and resolve differences through dialogue. Political prisoners have been released, armed groups decriminalized, massive human rights violations and torture practices by state security and police have been openly addressed. Reform of the judicial system and democratic institutions have begun, and women have been appointed to half the posts in Abiy’s new cabinet, he has also created a new ministry of peace to strengthen the momentum of his radical reform programme and boldly mobilized to build consensus on a common national agenda to help lay the foundation for a stable political culture.

As has already reported, the rapprochement between Ethiopia and Eritrea was unlikely until Abiy Ahmed came to power as a result of the popular protests. There is no doubt that the dawn of peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea will continue to serve as a catalyst for resolving the long-standing conflicts in the region and becomes an instrument for rectifying the diplomatic impasse. Eritrea seems to be moving towards improved relations with its neighbours, which have raised hopes for a more stable Horn of Africa. The open rejection of revolutionary democracy by ODP and ADP, much to the chagrin of the TPLF, is another sign that Ethiopia seems to be moving in a dramatic new direction. The success in this political ‘spring’ and the return of dissidents has created a completely new situation in the country. The prime minster seems to believe that elections are the basis of a democratic Ethiopia. The concrete step in this direction was the consultative meeting held on 27 November 2018, with the leaders of political parties. The discussions focused on the process of democratization, as well as the electoral reforms needed to ensure that the forthcoming elections are free and fair, enhance democratic space, ensure justice and the rule of law.

It can be assumed that the 2020 elections will lead to fierce competition between federalist and pan-Ethiopian groups that support and oppose the current federal structure, respectively. One of the risks facing the new prime minister is also the ways in which the basic contradiction between these two groups can be accommodated in his initiatives and future reform programs. Thus, the 2020 election will certainly be an unprecedented test for the new regime, but also a great success if it leads to a new form of fair electoral competition alongside the already established popularity.

We can say, without exaggeration, that the protests of the last three years erased the status quo and allowed the government of Abiy Ahmed to emerge, and embark on a project of serious political and democratic reform. However, despite the real hopes, there are still many systemic problems to be solved. First, there is an urgent need to organize rules for political engagement and participation. A clear political roadmap is needed to support the impressive measures that have been announced. Failure to build consensus on the rules of the game could threaten the regime’s survival. Second, the conflicts that occur here and there, if not dealt with properly, could turn into a threat to the existence of the Ethiopian state, giving way to possible political regionalism raising its head. Such a scenario has the a capacity to plunge the entire region into chaos.

I think that the collapse of the state amounts to committing collective suicide, and Oromo youths and others have a vested interest and moral responsibility in preventing such an outcome. As the majority, the Oromos do not lose anything from democracy taking root in Ethiopia, but they can end oppression and give young people the opportunity to play a key role in the region. This was revealed when protesters chanted for democratizing the system, creating an inclusive political community and making the country home to every Ethiopian, with jobs, rights and dignity for all.

Finally, the democratic transition that Ethiopia currently needs is a complex process, in which the interaction of social forces with organized politics will influences its trajectory and results. The transition requires the simultaneous destruction of the existing authoritarian structures and the construction of a new democratic order, based on popular participation and action.

Mebratu Kelecha is currently a Doctoral Researcher at the School of Politics and International Affairs, University of Westminster. He works on comparative religion, public policy federalism, democratization, and developmental states. Mebratu is a member of the editorial board of the Review of African Political Economy.

Featured Photograph: Protesters during a demonstration chanting against the unequal distribution of wealth in  Ethiopia (Addis Ababa, August 6, 2016).


  1. This is a welcome piece on the recent political changes in Ethiopia in so far as it provides a relatively detailed background, considering the role of the ‘Oromo protests’ in response to the federal government’s plans for rural development which were widely seen not only as a land grab directed against the Oromo but as a more general attempt to drive forwards a particular strategy for rural development. What is lacks, however, is a sense of the full complexity of inter-ethnic politics in the TPLF/EPRDF ruled federal state prior to 2018 and above all the contradictory dynamics of Ethiopian politics in the past few months since the emergence of Prime Minister Abiy.

  2. Mebratu did an excellent job of showing the Oromo resistance in effecting change in Ethiopia.

    But is this change sustainable? The fragmentation occurring in real time both within Oromia and at federal level, as I try to show in my upcoming piece in ROAPE is threatening the very foundations of the Ethiopian state.

    Even the much hoped for peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia has yet to be accompanied by physical demarcation of the border and demilitarization of the border. A key demand of the Eritrean people but still being resisted by the leaders of TPLF in the Tigray region. Also, the peace overtures towards Eritrea seem to exclude the Eritrean people. Abiy and the Eritrean dictator are concluding opaque agreements in secret angering the long suffering Eritreans. The language used by the Eritrean dictator is creating deep suspicions in Eritrea. Eritreans have questions at a very basic level. Eritreans value their independence which came at a huge cost both materially and with lives. They have never had a chance to savor their independence and do not relish the prospect of non transparent agreements which might compromise their sovereignty.

    Tigray is also like a de facto separate region now. It is no longer an effective player in the center at the federal level but still capable of playing a spoiler role nationally.

    The ethnic genie is out the bottle and is flaring up in every corner testing the new Abiy administration’s ability to hold the country together. Will we have a strong and Democratic Ethiopia at peace with its neighbors or will we have another Sudan, Central African Republic, the DRC beset with chronic ethnic wars? The question facing Ethiopia is reaching that basic level? A nation of over a hundred million people facing ethnic wars is not only dangerous for Ethiopia but for the entire region.


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