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Violence Wracks Ethiopia  – But Don’t Expect Anything to Change

Courtesy of US Navy/ Wikimedia Creative Commons

This article was originally published by War is Boring on 11 August 2016.

Violent protests have shaken Ethiopia in the last month. More than 50 people have died, most of them shot dead by security forces. In contrast to an earlier wave of demonstrations that claimed the lives of more than 400 protestors and security agents early this year, this time the protests weren’t limited to the Oromo federal state, but instead originated in the Amhara region.

The spread of the protests — and the accompanying violence — points to increasing dissatisfaction with the government among large segments of the population. Together, the Oromo and Amhara people, whose presence largely correlates with the eponymous federal states, account for more than 60 percent of Ethiopia’s population.

Ethiopia is a key ally of the United States in the Horn of Africa region. It’s landlocked but occupies a strategically important position bordering Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia, all of which have hosted or supported terrorist groups hostile to U.S. interests. Parts of the massive U.S. targeted killing and intelligence program rely on drones based in Ethiopia and neighboring Djibouti.

The protests’ exact origins are murky, but the demonstrations seem to have originated in what security forces claim to be an anti-terror operation in the city of Gondar, north of the capital Addis Ababa. Officials rounded up several men accused of murder, robbery and hostage-taking, sparking protests by supporters who claimed the men were targeted for their involvement in an Amhara identity movement and their association with a contentious land-rights issues involving Ethiopia’s third ethnic group, the Tigray.

Contrast this with the protests of the Oromo people, which erupted in November 2015 around the issue of the expansion of Addis Ababa, for which a government master plan required the resettlement of thousands of Oromo farmers.

So while some observers have described the recent protests as an historic alliance between the the country’s two largest ethnic groups, which in the past have often been at odds, in reality it’s not so much a shared vision, but shared grievances, that have led representatives of both groups to protest against the government.

These grievances are well-founded. While Ethiopia in theory has a federalist constitution that guarantees wide-ranging autonomy for the ethnic-based federal states and equal participation in national politics, in practice political, economic and military power is concentrated in the hands of a Trigray-dominated elite.

These power structures can be traced back to Ethiopia’s civil war that lasted from 1974 to 1991 and which was eventually won by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which later transformed itself into the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front.

The EPRDF, like many resistance movements that have ascended to power, has displayed authoritarian tendencies. But these tendencies worsened in the later years of resistance leader and later prime minister Meles Zenawi, as well as under his successor Hailemariam Desalegn.

Zenawi, influenced by the example of China, organized Ethiopia around the principle of a developmental state, prioritizing economic growth above all else.

These efforts have had a certain measure of success. Ethiopia’s GDP per capita more than doubled between 1991 and 2015, rising from $270 to $619. And while some commentators have attributed the protests to rising inequality, by most measures Ethiopia is not suffering from high inequality — at least not in the typical sense of the word.

Instead, an U.N. report has warned of an increasing gap between rural and urban growth, something that is reflected in the Oromo protests. But these rising discrepancies shouldn’t hide the fact that most Ethiopians, Oromo and Amhara included, are economically better off today than they were 20 years ago — and that this is a feather in the cap of the government.

The protests are therefore unlikely to reflect frustration with the country’s economic development, but rather the lack of political space, for young people in particular, to influence this development. And in contrast to the current narrative of inter-ethnic solidarity between Oromo and Amhara youth, it should be read as a continuation and evolution of Ethiopia’s long-standing problems with ethnic competition, this time pitting Oromo and Amhara against Tigray.

The ethnic dimension shouldn’t come as a surprise, least of all to the ruling elite. Tigray dominance of the armed forces has long been accepted as a given in Ethiopia, as has the political dominance of the Tigray elite. And while not every member of Ethiopia’s military-political complex is of Tigray origin — Prime Minister Desalegn for example hails from the minority Wolayta ethnic group — the narrative is by now accepted as fact by most Ethiopians.

Proponents of the developmental state defend the required authoritarianism with promises of rapid economic growth. In their minds, pluralistic democracies and effective poverty reduction are incompatible.

Unfortunately, Ethiopia is currently on track to become exhibit A for the counter theory. Any gains made by rapid economic growth are nullified if insufficient political participation leads to widespread social conflict and violence.

The Ethiopian government has so far shown a complete unwillingness to address the concerns of the protesters. While the Addis Ababa master plan, the original source of the Oromo protests, was cancelled, a general dialogue about the relationship between the state and its citizens and Ethiopia’s political trajectory in recent years has never been proposed.

Instead, the government has chosen to treat the protests as an existential threat to the state, using anti-terrorism legislation and rhetoric to justify the extreme brutality of its actions against the protesters.

Ironically, this reliance on overwhelming force and in the eyes of most observers unjustified delegitimization of the protests only proves the protestors’ point. And even if the government should decide to enter negotiations at some point, this is easier said than done. Thanks to the repression of all organized political opposition over the last few years, there are essentially no individuals or organizations that would be able to speak credibly on behalf of the protesters.

For the United States and other Western governments this situation is becoming increasingly uncomfortable. Ethiopia has been not only a close ally in the war on terror, in some way rendering the United States guilty in the misappropriation of the term to largely peaceful protesters, the government is also a major recipient of development aid, which it has used to legitimize its increasingly authoritarian tendencies.

In a world where foreign policy was value-based, the United States and other Western democracies would use their economic, diplomatic and military influence to pressure the Ethiopian elite to reduce the violence and address the grievances voiced by the opposition.

But the reality is fundamentally different. Both the United States and European countries are focused primarily on “stability” in their foreign relations, defined as the perpetuation of the status quo wherever possible. This is especially true for countries like Ethiopia, which are perceived as beacons of stability in otherwise chaotic and threatening regions.

For Ethiopia’s protest movements, this means that there is little hope for outside pressure on the Ethiopian government. Given the coherence of Ethiopia’s elite and its control over the very capable and well-equipped security forces, forcing the government to address their grievances will be an uphill battle, to say the least.

The West, meanwhile, will waste another opportunity to mitigate the very real long term risk of a destabilization of a major regional power, because it prioritizes short-term stability.


About the Author

Peter Doerrie is a freelance journalist and analyst specializing in resource politics and security in Africa. He blogs at www.peter-doerrie.de and tweets as @PeterDoerrie.

For more information on issues and events that shape our world, please visit our CSS Security Watch Series or browse our Publications.

14 Responses to “Violence Wracks Ethiopia  – But Don’t Expect Anything to Change”

  1. The Amhara are protesting because they lost their hundreds of years old hegemony in 1991.
    The Oromo youth are protesting because they have been brain washed to do so by US based Oromo nationalist extremists.They are being told the other federal states lack natural resourses thus if Oromiya state seceeds all Oromos will become rich because the enterprising Tigrayans won’t be able to share the “rich natural resources” of Oromiya with them.
    All things considered Ethiopia never had it so good.

  2. Very good reporting. But you ignored that ethnicity is not simple like Amara and Oromo etc because many Ethiopians in the urban Addis Ababa are multiethnic. That is why the opposition party rejects the ethnic federalism apartheid system, which is the source of all this problem on land ownership or land rights.

    Yes, the Obama admin does not really care about long term stability.
    On top of that, the Ethiopian regime has paid millions to Clinton foundation so the state department will remain silent when our people get massacred.

  3. Dear Peter;
    It is true that currently Ethiopia is in turmoil. However, I disagree on sum of the comments and the reasons behind. Like the other authors which they claim the main reason behind is because of the dominance of the Tigray your argument is also similar. I wish if you really could open your eyes and explore to what extent people from Tigray are in the ministerial and other higher positions at federal as well as at regional levels. Instead of researching the exact conditions and look for the administration set in the Ethiopian federalism system you are simply voicing the unfounded claims. If you really want to know it is the people from Tigray that they are rather marginalized and are being unfairly treated by the other Ethiopian brothers for the only reason that we sacrificed a lot just to be equals with others and never became dominant.
    What ever problems exist all over Ethiopia, the primary responsible body is the regional governments which Tigray is only responsible for its own region. Problems seen in Oromia it only because their Oromo brothers failed them and we Ignore are not to be blamed. The same is true for others.
    I hope you will explore more information regarding the governance system and now how one region have no say or influence in the decisions made by other regions in their internal affairs.
    Just have an open and unbiased mind.

  4. @Wedi Tigray, your comment is exactly what is expected of you. You are from Tigray that is the only thing you would say of course. In a country where 80% of the people have no access what so ever to internet you are saying that the diaspora is the reason for the protests. Never mind, the killing, the imprisonment, the torture your party TPLF subjects the ethiopian people eh?

    The Amhara people have been subject to systemic genocidal actions for the last 25 years. The Oromo was imprisoned and kicked out of their land for the last 25 years. The only reason the TPLF led government stayed this long was because it was able to divide the people along ethnic lines. I give you that, you are clever that being 6% of the total 90mil+ Ethiopian population you still managed to rule with iron fist through fear. That is over now. The only reason TPLF was an ally to the west is because of scores of bad intel it provides them. While being the major agent that destabilizes East Africa itself. The sooner the corrupt state department officials in East Africa are replaced, the sooner the truth will come out.

  5. Some people just don’t seem to care for the reality no matter what, like TPLF/EPRDF and its disciples.
    Ethiopia today is a place where having a different opinion other than one published, broadcasted and regurgitated by the ruling mouth pieces-that is all the print and electronic media- because freedom of speech is a luxury, is considered and dealt with at the same level of severity as terrorism.

    Ethiopia today is a place where small minority got used to running the military, the police, the judicial system, government office from small towns to ministerial levels and got so despotic, almost forgot that just 25 years ago, they were part of the poorest of the poor, got intoxicated with power and start considering themselves as majority.

    It’s a place where the ruling minority opted for brutal suppression of dissent for dialogue, one party rule for democracy, simple mindedness and rubber stamp for diverse views and debate, stoking old historic grievances for promotion of social cohesion and instead of looking inward and trying to improve , always blame the other one.

    But first you have to be able to wake up , open your eyes and ears to see and understand what’s happening around you.

  6. Yes, the Western political system was and remains to be hypocrite and short sited as the experiences of their alliance and engagement has evidenced in different parts of the world.

    With regard to the above comment, your externalization of the problems is absurd. This tactic had been used for the last quarter of a century by this regime, now, people realize such falsified narrations. With regard to Amhara people, first of all, do you think that the poor farmers and youth who are protesting now care about the fabricated illusion Amhara ‘domination’? For your information, the majority of Amharas had been suffering from the Imperial and Derg regime equally with other citizens of Ethiopia. Read about so called ‘Red Terrorism’ committed by Derg and the lost generation of Gonder, Amhara during that time. Secondly, this is 21st century and era of democracy and diversity, except in your wasted mind, no Amhara wants to ‘dominate’ any one. People just request their basic human rights and constitutional rights. Both Amhara and Oromo protesters demand equality and equity in every aspect of the country. They demand execution of the Constitution. That is the least any government can do!

  7. Weddi Adegi Tigray,

    We the Oromo and the Amhara protest not for the reason that you mentioned. You know the reality what is going on in Ethiopia. You know very well what the Woyanes did in the last 25 years. You know who is benefited from the regime. The world knows how we are suffering due to your oppressive system. Who is the owner of all the big enterprises, businesses… Who is controlling the military, security, media, telecom, transportation, health and other gov’t organizations. Your family… the 3% of the population.

    This is the end of your term. period.

  8. First of all there is No such thing called EPRDF but TPLF. Ethiopia with over 100 million population is controlled by 6% Tigray elites. The economy, military, Securty, police, Airforce, politics including the country’s parliament 100% controlled by Tigray People’s Lebration Front. Even in their own ruling party the pressuring is skyrocketing, there is no trust among the party, TPLF always intervene in regional affairs, control almost everything, removing people from their power, manipulate administrations, killing, arrest, torture and disappearances cases happing every day. The country becomes jail for its own citizens. Currently, more 300,000 people are in TPLF prison cells mostly the Oromos, for just demanding justice.
    The protests in Oromia is now entering 10 month. More then 1000 people were killed, 6000 badly injured and over 150,000 people are languishing in a very bad condition prison. There are also many reports of disappearances. Right now Oromia is controlled by military forces, soldiers are everywhere even in small village terrorising people, beating, torture, killing, rape et al . Well let wait and see if they can go ahead like this. The struggle continues! People power wins!

  9. This why Ethiopia people are protesting look how how wealth they collect while 20 million people starving

    Top 20 Richest Ethiopians – 2011
    The following is a list of 20 richest Ethiopians in 2011. The list is compiled by Ethiopian Review Intelligence Unit. Except for a few of the individuals in the list, most of them, particularly the TPLF members, have enriched themselves through corruption and outright thievery. Girma Birru and Tadesse Haile, for example, forced construction companies to make them partners if they want to win bid for government projects. These are the parasites who made Ethiopia one of the poorest nations in the world. Only Eyob Mamo, who owns most of the gas stations in the Washington DC Metro Area, became rich through hard work, business savvy,  and some luck. Omer Ali, Ketema Kebede, and Minwuyelet Atnafu are not affiliated with the ruling party, but they pay huge sums of money to Azeb Mesfin and the other TPLF officials to keep working inside the country. 
    The 20 Richest Ethiopian in 2011
    (The net worth amount is in U.S. dollar)
    1. Mohammed Al Amoudi, owner of Midroc Corporation, estimated net worth: $10 billion
    2. Meles Zenawi, self-declared prime minister of Ethiopia, head of the terrorist group Tigrean People Liberation Front (TPLF), estimated net worth: $3 billion
    3. Azeb Mesfin, wife of Meles Zenawi, member of the TPLF politburo, head of the $40-billion Endowment Fund for the Relief of Tigray (EFFORT), partner in several large businesses in Ethiopia, widely known as “the Mother of Corruption,” estimated net worth: $3 billion
    4. Sebhat Nega, former chairman of TPLF, ex-TPLF politburo member, former head of EFFORT, current chairman of Wugagan Bank, owns several buildings and luxury villas in Ethiopia and the U.S., net worth: $2.5 billion
    5. Berhane Gebrekristos, TPLF central committee members, personal investor for Meles Zenawi, paid his wife $4 million in divorce settlement and hush-up money in Washington DC when he was an ambassador, currently deputy foreign minister, uses his diplomatic immunity to smuggle gold and precious stones for Meles, Azeb and himself, estimated net worth: $2 billion.
    6. Samuel Tafesse, owner of Sunshine Construction, partner with Azeb Mesfin, estimated networth: $1.5 billion
    7. Sioum Mesfin, former TPLF regime foreign affairs minister, currently ambassador to China, smuggles marijuana and other types of illicit drugs to Thailand, China and other Asian countries using his diplomatic immunity, estimated net worth: $1 billion.
    8. Omer Ali Shifaw, Owner of Nejat International, until TPLF’s Guna Corporation took over, the largest coffee exporting company in Ethiopia, currently threatened by TPLF’s Guna Corporation, estimated net worth: $800 million
    9. Aba Gebremedhin (formerly Aba Paulos), self-installed patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, part-time priest, full time businessman and gun-totting TPLF cadre, the only “religious” leader in Ethiopia who built a statue for himself, owns shares in several companies, estimated net worth: $600 million
    10. Abadi Zemo, TPLF politburo member, former head of EFFORT, currenly ambassador to Sudan, net worth: $500 million.
    11. Eyob Mamo, CEO and Chairman of Capitol Petroleum Group, Washington DC, estimated worth: $500 million.
    12. Ketema Kebede, KK Trading, Alsam Real Estate, Addis Ababa, estimated networth: $400 million.
    13. Minwuyelet Atnafu,  Owner and major share holder of Star Business Group, Tana Transport, Mina Trading, estimated net worth: $400 million.
    14. Girma Birru, former TPLF Trade and Industry minister, currently ambassador to Washington DC, owns shares in several large companies, including Dembel Business Center in Addis Ababa, owns several real estate properties, estimated net worth: $300 million
    15. Tadesse Haile, long-time state minister of Trade and Industry, invests in several large projects that he himself authorizes, owns shares in construction and trading companies, estimated net worth: $250 million
    16. Tewodros Hagos, TPLF politburo member, owns shares in several of EFFORT companies, estimated net worth: $200 million
    17. Abdullah Bagersh, General Manager of Bagersh International, a leading coffee exporter, currently struggling to survive after Guna entered the coffee exporting business, estimated net worth: $150 million.
    18. Debre-Tsion Gebre-Michael, TPLF politburo member and information technology minister, tasked  with jamming radio, TV and and web sites, travels regularly to the U.S. and Europe to invest his loot, owns shares in companies that work on projects for his minstry, has several real estate properties in Arizona, estimated net worth: $100 million
    19. Bereket Simon, TPLF propaganda chief, owns real estate properties, estimated worth: $100 million.
    20. Yemiru Nega, owner of Dembel City Center, partner with Azeb Mesfin, Girma Biru and Tadesse haile, estimated net worth: $100 million

  10. @Wedi T[i]gray: You are misrepresenting the real cause of Oromo and later Amhara protest.The Amharas ruling dynasty used to share power and autonomy to others including to Tigray(Tigray has always had its own governors).

    The Oromos are protesting not because their “rich natural resources” are being exploited by Tigray elites,It is rather deep rooted socio-economic ,and political marginalisation and deprivation piled up over years in particular during the past 25 years.

    The TPLF-EPRDF iron-fist rule has failed to fairly distribute the country’s wealth as only those close or loyal to the ruling party have been benefiting from the so called economic growth.

    The frustration of the youth could be seen in the number of young people leaving the country en droves risking their lives trying to cross Red sea,Mediterranean sea and on shore to reach South Africa where they think the pasture is greener.

    For TPLF-EPRDF holding on power is a matter of survival than principle .It will do anything to please the western “vital strategic interest” in the horn of Africa including on going engagement in Somalia in fighting Al-Shibab Islamic militants.

    The young and educated which make up two-third of the entire population of Ethiopia will continue to put pressure on the ruling party until their demand is heeded.Their demand is clear:t to see a democratic government which is predictable and accountable to its actions.

    For now authorities will continue to kill and incarcerate peaceful protesters in their thousands without due process of law and impunity.

  11. Western countries intelligence forces, and journalists have a problem often reading the forces that are at work in a country like Ethiopia.

    Here are a few pointers about the present power balance in Ethiopia.

    The TPLF which controlled the country for the last 25 years by force and corruption has lost one of it’s key control instruments. This are the satellite organizations that it created to control the regions by proxy. This two organizations are OPDO (the Oromo peoples Democratic Organization and ANDM Amhara national democratic front. It is well known the protests in Oromia region has the blessing of the lower level cadres and officials in Oromia who are increasingly bitter of Tigrean dominance in their regions. When TPLF sensed this revolt it literally dismantled the OPDO striping them of the meager influence they had previously. Now the Oromo regions are effectively under a shadow military rule. But this also means TPLF has very littel control in the Oromo region.

    2. The ANDM situation is similar to the OPDO with one marked difference. ANDM for years has strengthened it’s independence from TPLF and the rank and file as well as most of the higher officials and especially the regions president Gedu Andargachew has successfully challenged the TPLF dominance. More over the Amhara officials gave sanctuary for the Wolquites whos land were forcefully incorporated in to Tigray and on whom for over 30 years what can only be described as ethnic cleansing has been committed by TPLF and Tigrean nationalists.
    And the question Wolquite is a trigger for the recent protest.

    Not only that the Amhara region officials allowed the population to Arm themselves even though there were protests from the Tigrean overlords. TPLF believing that at the end of the day it can only trust the Tigrean community has armed every Tigrean all over the country since the 2005 election.

    Unlike the protesters in Oromo region the Amhara region protesters were Armed and highly organized. More over the local security forces were unwilling to shoot at the protesters therefore TPLF has to import sharp shooters from Tigray region to try to stop the protests. But it was not successful.

    Ethiopians have a very keen sense of law and order. in 1991 when Mengistu fled and TPLF took power there was a power vacuum for more than 2 months in most of the country yet there was very little disorder and most residents claim that that was the most peaceful and crime free time they had ever known.

    Despite the a political system that very much like the Apartheid south Africa where the Tigreans who are less than 6% of the population control all the wealth political and military power the people of Ethiopia has shown very little apatite for ethnically based civil war. It is this fear TPLF used successfully to stay on power. Especially by creating animosity and mistrust through a carefully crafted propaganda between the two largest communities the Oromo and the Amhara.

    But now the animosity towards Tigreans has reached to a level that a backlash against Tigreans is becoming imminent. And TPLF is choosing to risk civil war and breaking away the Tigrean region while the rest of Ethiopia engulfs in anarchy instead of giving up power.

    The armed forces are becoming increasingly unresponsive to their commanders who are exclusively Tigrean.

    This is the state of Ethiopia today and the United States or Any other world power will have very little influence on the future of the country.

    The US authorities seems to be aware of this fact because recently they were trying to get in touch with an entity called “Bete Amhara” who they believe are responsible for organizing the protests in the Amhara region.

    “Bete Amara” are rather a group of “Amhara Nationalist” bloggers whos idea was trigered as responce to the highly Anti-Amhara stance and action of Tigrean and Oromo nationalists. For the last 25 years Amhara were demonized, prosecuted and ethnicaly cleansed all over the country spearheaded by TPLF.

    The “Bete Amhara” nationalist call was resonated to the prosecuted Amhara but the “Bete Amhara” is hardly in control of the protests.

    There is credible reports that Tigrans are liquidating their wealth amassed in the last 25 years in the rest of the country using their military and political power and moving it to Tigray region.

    Tigray is highly militarized with Military equipments, air force facilities, that were moved from the rest of the country. The excuse is the Eritrean threat but the people in Ethiopia believe that TPLF is fortifying Tigray to withstand the backlash against it’s misrule.

  12. Ethiopia has had kings for centuries but was never seen this unique development going on under the leadership of EPRDF. Some people from Amhara region STILL believe they are the only ones Holly Anointed to lead the great nation, Ethiopia. Unfortunately, that will never and ever happen. Different nationalities or regions or states of Ethiopia are governed by their own people unlike in the previous governments: the Amhara Elite by force and mass murdering non-Amhara tribes. The Oromo people never trust the Amaharas because they were abused, tortured, killed and we’re not counted as humans during Kings Minilik, Hailesilassie and so on. If EPRDF leaves power, everyone should expect an all out civil war. I can assure you the Oromo will not hesitate to annihilate the Amaharas. I hope this day doesn’t come. EPRDF is a combination of representative grouped from all tribes in Ethiopia. The fall of EPRDF will bring a disastrous environment in the region and east Africa will be a hub for ISIS and other extremists.

    I am not saying EPRDF is a perfect government. It has its own weaknesses and strengths just like in other countries’ governments. Weaknesses should be resolved through peaceful dialogue and peaceful demonstrations. For example, the government partially lacks good governance but also does an extraordinary job in keeping the country safe from external threats. Violence always brings disaster. Businesses are being destroyed and burnt by protestors. No one should expect Ethiopia become a developed country just like the USA or Europe. It was born 25 years ago. The previous governments have done NOTHING. Please check history books for your references.

    Abay Dam Admirer
    Ethiopian

  13. Very good article.
    Although the repression imposed by the Tigrayan dictatorship affects all the ethnic communities in Ethiopia, the situation of the Ogaden Somali’s is particularly critical.
    Terrorized by a paramilitary force called Liyu Police – funded, trained and armed by the Ethiopian government – the Somali population in the region suffers from aid embargo and systematic persecution.

  14. Dear Peter,

    I really doubt the truthfulness and depth of your political analysis. I don’t want to waste my time giving response to each of the points you raise. But for your conclusion “….But Don’t Expect Anything to Change” I want to say wait and see what will happen. Then I will demand you to write another white paper showing that you were wrong.