Ethiopia Against the Odds

In a blogpost on Ethiopia’s current challenges, Yohannes Woldemariam examines the hurdles facing the new leadership in the country. While the recent protest movement has determined the course of the country’s reforms, Woldemariam sees ethnic conflict, political division and violence hampering a political class that continues to have blind faith in capitalist development. 

By Yohannes Woldemariam

Nation-building in polyethnic Ethiopia is proving to be a daunting challenge. Ethnicity was also contentious within the Ethiopian student movement of the 1960s. The late Marxist student leader Walleligne Mekonnen confronted it in 1969, at a time when it was taboo. Walleligne argued that there were many nations within Ethiopia and gaining social mobility was dependent on wearing an Amhara mask. Ethiopia had been described as a prison of nations. Once again, the ethnic genie is out the bottle, flaring up in every corner, testing the new Abiy administration’s ability to hold the country together.

Upon assuming power in 1991, the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) federal structure purported to ensure equality of ethnic groups but in practice became dominated by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and some elites from within the EPRDF. The effect of TPLF/EPRDF rule was to normalize the hegemony of the TPLF, sidelining the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) in 1992 and instituting a system of kleptocracy. The original reason for the founding of the TPLF in 1975 was to demand self-determination for Tigray which overtime vacillated between outright secession or autonomy within a democratic Ethiopia. The Tigray represents about six percent of Ethiopia’s population.

Eight months into Abiy’s administration, the EPRDF is all but history. The Amhara Democratic Party (ADP), the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region (SNNPR) and the Oromo Democratic Party (ODP) have been making a concerted effort to separate themselves from the TPLF and to appear as agents of change.

Clashes, claims and counterclaims

Clashes over claims and counterclaims of boundary areas and identity questions have intensified in Ethiopia. These disputes have territorial and descent-related emphasis. There is a long-standing dispute between Oromia and the Somali region over land, which have become deadly, causing displacement of an estimated two million people. Efforts at ethnic consolidation in different regions are being accompanied with violations of the rights of other ethnic groups residing in territories where they are considered non-indigenous.

Ethiopia has nine regions (known as ‘Kilils’). The Southern region, which consists of 56 ethnic groups has seen demands for a separate regional status from the Sidama, after multiple deadly clashes against the Wolayta in Hawassa. The Gurage are asking for Kilil status and that number is increasing. The reasons vary from deep socioeconomic inequality, competition for land, resources and the deliberate mobilization of ethnicity for political ends. The language-based formula of EPRDF federalism has further perpetuated the ethnic based conflict. There are over 85 languages in Ethiopia.

Many agree that some form of federalism is the way forward but the current language-based system is blamed for promoting sectarian violence. A federal project that ignores social realities, local capacities, and histories of particular places, while exclusively focusing on the consequences from a national perspective has been damaging communities. In Ethiopia, federalism has benefited local predatory powers who collaborate with TPLF elites, land grabbers, and investors from India, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and China. Very little power has permeated to the grassroots. The Benishangul-Gumuz and Gambella areas have been targeted because of their endowment with natural resources.

Clashes are ongoing between Oromia and Benishangul-Gumuz regions. The predominantly agro-pastoralist Afar are clashing with the Issa-Somalis. Issa Somalis from across the border in Djibouti and Somaliland are assisting Issa Somalis in Ethiopia against the Afar, threatening to block Ethiopia’s vital railway line to Djibouti’s port. Though there is now a more sympathetic administration to Abiy’s reforms in the Afar region, TPLF officials are fueling conflict with their deep networks in contraband trade in the region. Many in the Amhara region are also believed to harbor claims over territories from Oromia. The conflict against the Amhara in the Benishangul region has displaced many and lives have been lost.

Even university campuses have not been immune from ethnically inspired violence. There were 34 injured at the University of Assossa with three fatalities. Students from Tigray refuse placement in universities outside Tigray because of concern for their safety and security. The proposition that a region should have self-government assumes a correspondence between the boundaries of the nation and the boundaries of those who live in a specific Killil. Yet, in most of Ethiopia there are people in every Killil who are not members of the dominant ethnicity. There has never been a consensus on where one boundary begins and ends. For example, some Oromo nationalists claim territories as far as Wollo in the north. There are also ethnic enclaves whose national affiliations are ill-defined and overlap with territory claimed by two or more groups.

The Amhara region has claims over areas currently in Tigray, such as Humera, the Wolkite and Raya areas. Conversely, the TPLF believes there are no identity issues among the Raya and Wolkite, arguing instead that there are territories still included in the Amhara regions that belong to Tigray. Some Tigrean ethnonationalists claim land as far as Metema and argue that even present-day Gondor was once Tigrinya speaking. Meanwhile, ethnic violence in the Raya and Alamata areas of southern Tigray have been dealt with ruthlessly by Tigrean forces. Many ordinary Tigreans have also fled to Tigray from persecution and mob violence in other regions. While key leaders of the TPLF, including the former spy chief Getachew Asseffa targeted and indicted by Abiy’s anti-corruption campaign, are fanning Tigrean nationalism.

Abiy’s message of ‘Ethiopiawinet’ (pan-Ethiopianism) is viewed with suspicion by some within the Oromo opposition who see it as assimilatory, even as it has gained resonance with the Amhara, in the multi-ethnic city of Addis Ababa and within the vocal diaspora. Yet, the Oromo see the Amhara as expansionist and disrespectful of Oromo culture. It is a historic grievance that was buried briefly because of common opposition to the TPLF. The Oromo youth movement (recently discussed on which helped propel Abiy to power, is impatient with what they see as slow pace of reform at the local Woreda and Kebele levels. While former EPRDF officials with a history of benefiting from corruption and enforcing TPLF human rights violations are still in place.

Abiy succeeded in convincing the OLF to abandon its armed struggle based in Eritrea and return to Ethiopia to wage ‘peaceful competition’ for power. Yet, the leader of the OLF, Daud Ibssa, is in a contentious relationship with Abiy over disarmament and the reintegration of OLF troops. Although Ibssa’s troops repatriated from Eritrea have been disarmed, other troops already in parts of Western Wollega are in open warfare, reportedly robbing banks and destroying government property. Other decentralized armed bands also operate in the area, making it difficult to know who is responsible.

In contrast, another faction of the Oromo resistance led by General Kemal Gelchu seems to have reached an understanding with the ODP, which Abiy chairs. Indeed, Gelchu has been appointed as the security chief for the Oromia region where Lemma Megersa, a close ally and adviser of Abiy’s, is the regional president. This is resented by his rival Daud Ibssa. Another faction, the Oromo Democratic Front (ODF) led by Lencho Letta, was among the first to embrace Abiy and return to the country.

These elite rivalries have a regional character. Gelchu’s supporters hail mainly from the southeast and have generally warmed up to ODP views, while Daud’s supporters are mainly from Wollega and tend to be closer to secessionist opinions. Western Wollega is where law and order has been persistently violated. Some horrific killings have also been carried out in Burayo against the southerners and the Amhara. Within the Amhara region, violence has occurred against the Kemant and the Agew. Recurrent violence in the Moyale area perpetrated by armed Oromo militants towards Garre Somalis continues to spill over into Kenya. Businesses, homes and livelihoods have been destroyed with thousands seeking refuge across the border in Kenya.

Federal troops have intervened in the Somali region by arresting the notorious Abdi Illey – currently in prison awaiting trial – and appointing as president a sympathetic Somali economist Mustafa Omar, who was in exile until recently. This region of Ethiopia has experienced much communal violence under Illey’s Special Forces in cahoots with TPLF generals. A mass grave implicating Illey was uncovered in the region.

The Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) fighting a low intensity guerilla war in the region since 1984 is another group returning from Eritrea that has abandoned its armed struggle to wage a peaceful struggle for ‘self-determination.’ This is a region where the Chinese have been exploring for oil and gas. The conflict in the Ogaden is in part due to the investment in resource extraction and the grievances associated with the lack of development.

Other groups that have similarly returned from Eritrea include the Tigray People’s Democratic Movement (TPDM), Amhara Democratic Forces Movement (ADFM) and Patriotic Ginbot 7 (PG7). PG7 leader, Berhanu Nega says his organization’s task is to assist in the stability of the country before any political competition can take place. His troops have disarmed. Some have demobilized and the majority are in camps being assisted to reintegrate into society. Yet, some of his own troops accuse him of making false claims, reneging on his promises and abandoning them.

In addition, the much-heralded peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia has yet to be accompanied by the implementation of the border demarcation according to The Hague verdict. The peace overtures towards Eritrea seem to exclude the Eritrean people with opaque agreements concluded in secret, increasingly angering the long-suffering Eritreans. The language used by the Eritrean dictator, that the ‘border doesn’t matter’, is creating deep anxieties and suspicions among Eritreans. Eritreans value their independence which came at a huge cost.

Initiatives for Peace

To remedy human rights concerns and regional disputes, the Abiy administration has proposed the establishment of a National Truth and Reconciliation Commission and an Identity and Branch Commission to resolve border and identity disputes. The House of Peoples’ Representatives approved a bill to establish a commission with a mandate to carry out an investigation related to identity and regional boundaries. The bill was opposed by TPLF members as a violation of the constitution but the ADP, ODP and the SNNRP members voted for it overwhelmingly. The Commission, accountable to the Office of the Prime Minister, is mandated to produce research-based recommendations on disputes over identity and regional boundary issues.

There are no details yet on the scope, depth and duration for these commissions. Will reconciliation entail an investigation only into TPLF/EPRDF years or will it go further back to the Dergue period? Can Ethiopia move beyond ethnic politics and towards policy, class or citizenship-based politics? Will the commission’s recommendations be accepted by the TPLF which views its very formation as a violation of the constitution? Currently, there are more questions than answers.

Though Abiy mania is still pervasive, increasingly there are questions about his ability to restore law and order. Random vigilante violence and ‘score settling’ is widespread while federal troops are intervening in certain areas to put out localized fires.

Forthcoming elections

It is against this background that elections are scheduled for 2020. It is hoped that elections might channel ethnic competition into nonviolent democratic expression. The rules of the game have yet to be laid out. Birtukan Medeksa, a former judge and political prisoner under the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, has been appointed by Abiy to head the National Electoral Board. Ethiopians have little faith in the neutrality of the electoral board from past elections. The only contested election was in 2005, where the opposition surprised the EPRDF by winning most of the seats in Addis Ababa, resulting in bloodshed and a crackdown on opposition leaders.

For some it is hard to imagine a credible election taking place in the country considering the fragile security situation. Politician and activist, Berhanu Nega, thinks more time is needed to establish the rules of the game to ensure fair and free elections. Berhanu emphasizes the importance of building durable institutions rather than holding hasty elections for the sake of holding elections. While those arguing for the scheduled elections see the poll as essential for changing the composition of parliament which is currently dominated by the EPRDF and its exclusionary notion of democratic centralism.

There is a proliferation of numerous political parties, 81 by some estimates. Many of these political parties are organized along ethnic lines with few organized around ideas, ideology and political differences that cut across ethnicities. Abiy is urging that the number of parties be limited to three or four. Ethiopians must quickly weigh the suitability of various consociational, federal, or other decentralized constitutional arrangements and of coalition governments, proportional representation, and other electoral systems.

In some ways, Abiy’s situation resembles that of Mikhail Gorbachev who was an international celebrity while the Soviet Union was crumbling from within. Nations with many different ethnic groups, can still develop a national culture around shared history but Ethiopia appears to be finding it difficult to find such common convincing references. Abiy persists in trying to inculcate ‘Ethiopiawinet’ by mentioning symbolic battles where Ethiopians died together, fighting foreign invaders. However, the human and social cement that creates and sustains identity in Ethiopia still lies in the family, the ethnic, the sect, or religious confession, not in statehood or nationhood – and here lies the challenge.

In conclusion, it is hard to imagine Ethiopia will be ready for any meaningful elections in a year and half with some fearing elections might further fuel ethnic violence. What the protests in the last three years did was to weaken the state. In one sense this was good because it was a repressive and violent structure, but it left a vacuum in law and order that could accelerate the unravelling of Ethiopia as a country. We should celebrate the protests, but we must remain sober about the challenges that Ethiopia now faces.

Yohannes Woldemariam is a political economist who has taught and worked in universities and research centers in Europe, Costa Rica, Africa and the United States. He can be reached at:

Featured Photograph: A 1999 map of Ethiopia (Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division).


  1. this is a valuable contribution to an understanding of the ethnic divisions and conflicts, some of which are long-standing, now taking an increasingly violent and aggressive form, but it is not helpful, in my opinion, to refer to these ethnic groups as ‘nations’, which always reminds one of Lenin’s views in what I suggest is a very different social, political and economic context.

    Also, although there is reference made to ‘the political class’, this is a difficult term to decipher, although it is one that presumably is intended to draw attention to the role of the state and politicians in maintaining what is referred to as a ‘kleptocracy’ but sits strangely with the emphasis on the importance of ‘ethnic politics’ and the multiplicity of ethnic groups and ethnic-based political parties.

    Federalism has always been a mechanism for ‘divide and rule’ under the TPLF-dominated government, but despite references to ‘local predatory powers who collaborate with TPLF elites’, there are also references to ‘land-grabbers’ and to ‘investors from India, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and China’ which implies some form of external predatory investment for profit.

    Finally, it seems strange to argue that ‘the political class’ (whatever that is) ‘continues to have blind faith in capitalist development’ when its strategy is more ‘extraction-based’ than based on ‘capitalist development’ – indeed, I suggest that this is a large part of the problem: the development of the economy is ultimately hampered by a deadly combination of political fragmentation and centralization under ‘federalism’ that has allowed both a predatory form of exploitation of both resources and labour power and also external intervention which together create a very different configuration from anything that might be described as ‘national capitalist development’, let alone something one might wish to describe as ‘socialism’. It is effectively the bastard child of globalization and prebendalism.

    Whether the political change that PM Abiy is attempting to generate – a new form of less authoritarian and more egalitarian federalism, moving towards ‘democratic elections’ will bring stability and a real prospect of social and economic development for this giant but ‘least developed’ country remains to be seen. Only the de-politicization of identity politics and the emergence of new political coalitions and alignments based on different common interests, including those associated with class, are likely to contribute positively to the future of Ethiopia.


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