Over the last three decades, the TPLF-led regime of the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front ruled at gunpoint. Repressive laws were used to silence dissidents. Fake documentaries fabricating armed resistance and jihad were propagated. Innocent citizens who spoke out were not only jailed and exiled but also killed and tortured.
That went on for two decades. But in 2016, the people said enough. A series of protests mainly in Amhara and Oromia, the two most-populous regions, forced ruling party leaders to meet for three weeks at the end of 2017. They realized they could no longer rule with the same approach. Therefore, they came up with a plan of change, both in leadership and program.
Some Ethiopians were suspicious at the idea that those who ruled with virtual impunity, embezzling and repressing, could now be agents of meaningful reform. But many were optimistic after new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed started to talk about radical changes. He admitted systemic state torture, unblocked critical websites, and promised a truly democratic environment.
He appointed a gender-balanced cabinet and pledged to unify an ethnically divided county He initiated peace with Eritrea and built ties with historically hostile Middle East nations. He deepened cooperation across the Horn, and shuttled across it and beyond as a peace broker. Speaking in liberal language, the West was lightning quick to embrace him; just like when they fell in love at first sight with our former strongman, Meles Zenawi.
But as time passes, Abiy’s purring engine ran out of steam. Contrary to the advice of several commentators, he did not produce a roadmap but relied on flowery rhetoric. There was no clarity on objectives beyond fuzzy concepts such as medemer. His biggest success took a hit when Eritrea closed all its Ethiopian border crossings after a few months. Abiy ignored institutions and conventional rules of diplomacy. He reportedly demanded some Ethiopian embassies, such as the in the U.S., report directly to him, while assigning Oromo allies to open new consulates.
Abiy appointed Oromo confidantes to key federal positions, such as Lemma Megersa as Minster of Defence, Berhanu Tsegaye as a powerful Attorney General, and Adanech Abebe as Minister of Revenue. Combined with his appointment of technocrats and aides at national level, the federal government is viewed by many as dominated by Oromos and Abiy loyalists. Yet the old resented officials of the pre-Abiy regime are still in charge at lower levels throughout Ethiopia. His hyped reform of the military only led to the replacement of Tigrayan dominance with Oromo dominance. He has established his own multi-million dollar protection force called the Republican Guard and spent millions of dollars refurnishing his office. His lavish and frequent state banquets cost tens of millions of dollars in a year.
Economic growth has slowed since he came to power, while annual inflation accelerated to 16 percent in May. Revenue from merchandise exports declined and hard currency shortages led to business closures and a booming black forex market. His plan to privatize state-owned enterprises to ease fiscal imbalances has faced fierce criticism from across society. But the schedule was never realistic, and emergency capital injections instead came from willing friends with influence in the Gulf and World Bank.
Over their bodies
Abiy’s reluctance to take action on crime, especially in Oromia, has led to a crisis. Unspeakable acts like stoning have killed innocents. Members of the Oromo Liberation Front, a returned armed group that reached an undisclosed deal with his administration, have allegedly robbed 17 banks and refused to give up arms. Yet their leaders sit comfortably in Addis Ababa hotels.
Abiy took no action when Jawar Mohammed, an Oromo activist who helped him come to power, gave orders to Oromo youths to take over new condominiums that were meant to be distributed to Addis Ababa residents. Jawar told “Qeerroo” that the houses would be given to Addis Ababans ‘over our dead bodies’. Abiy stayed silent rather than condemn this unjust campaign to have houses built with Addis taxpayers’ money to those who hadn’t saved and don’t live in the capital; and some Oromo evictees were indeed offered apartments.
In other parts of Oromia, ethnic Amharas and Tigrayans were persecuted for their inherited identity. A national census was postponed due to insecurity that led to more than three million Ethiopians becoming internally displaced, the vast majority by conflict. Months away from the planned signature national election, preparations are way behind schedule.
Abiy’s Amhara avoidance
The Amhara, who have historically inhabited almost all parts of the Ethiopian territory, became a minority in most of the newly formed ethnic states. The Amhara had no political representation during the early 1990s constitutional process that instituted ethnic federalism. The redrawing of boundaries in the 1990s also annexed areas that were inhabited by Amhara to other regions. Under EPRDF rule, Amharas have been subjected to ethnicity based killings and displacement with active or tacit support from governments in Oromia, Benishangul Gumuz, Tigray, and Southern Nations.
These were some of the grievances that led to the Amhara Resistance against the TPLF-led government that helped Abiy come to power. Amhara want regional boundaries redrawn and areas which are predominantly Amhara—such as Wolkait-Tsegede and Raya in Tigray; Metekel in Benishangul-Gumuz; and areas such as Dera, Debre Libanos and others in Oromia—to be included in Amhara. They also would like to see discriminatory regional constitutions revised. The constitution should stipulate a procedure to ensure Amharas everywhere can get government services in their own language. Amhara therefore want the federal constitution revised so all regional administrations include the national working language, Amharic, among their working languages.
Most Amhara welcomed the change amid high hopes that Abiy’s administration would work with them to address these longstanding issues. But the way Abiy treated Amhara was a source of frustration, as he refused to respond to key questions of the Amhara Resistance. On the issue of reform of a constitution in which Amharas had no part in writing, the response was clear: “The constitution will not be revised to just answer the question of Amhara region and ethnic Amharas”. This upset a lot of Ethiopians.
Amhara now see as the drama of Abiy Ahmed
First, although the constitution is defended by various ethnic elites, the call for revision is also supported by many elites, and a large proportion of citizens, especially in cities. Second, Amhara Democratic Party (ADP), the regional ruling party and a key ally of Abiy’s Oromo Democratic Party, has been advocating revision of the constitution.
Although support from ADP for Abiy in the EPRDF Council was the reason he become chairperson and prime minister, his refusal to consider constitutional amendment is a sign Abiy used his key ally to achieve power, and then dropped them. This was a sad awakening to what Amhara now see as the drama of Abiy Ahmed, where his early inclusive speeches were a strategic move to get people on side until he had consolidated his control.
Abiy has shown little commitment or capacity to stop the killing of Amharas in Oromia, Benishangul-Gumuz and Southern Nations regions, another key question of Amhara nationalism. In response to demands for the proper representation of Amhara in the federal government and to stop the persecution of Amharas, Abiy responded that ethnic nationalism is bad, and he is concerned that Amhara nationalism is ascendant. To hear this from a prime minister of an ethnically federated country and a chairperson of an ethno-nationalist Oromo Democratic Party—an insider who rode Oromo nationalism to power—shoveled salt into a gaping wound. This indeed was the moment Abiy’s intentions to build Oromo hegemony was revealed. Consistent with his earlier comments, Abiy saw the increasing popularity of Amhara nationalism as the main obstacle to this goal.
Oromizing Addis Ababa
Abiy’s most enthusiastic supporters in his early days were in Addis Ababa. Tens of thousands joined a rally organized in support of him on June 23, 2018. Since then, support for Abiy evaporated due to discriminatory practices that created first- and second-class residents in the city.
The Ethiopian constitution stipulates that Addis Ababa (while geographically located in Oromia) is a separate district with full autonomy and accountable to the federal government. Ever since Abiy took office, the autonomy of Addis Ababa has been encroached on by an ODP-run administration. It started with the problematic appointment of Takele Uma as mayor. He was not a member of the city council, nor a resident of Addis Ababa. Second, he is a hardcore Oromo nationalist and not suitable to govern what is an ethnically diverse cosmopolitan city. As his close friend, Abiy appointed Takele mayor while aware of his radical views, such as that Addis Ababa belongs to only Oromos, as stated on his Facebook page. Third, engineering graduate Takele doesn’t have the experience of politics and public administration to lead a dynamic city with complex political and social problems.
Thus it wasn’t surprising when Takele quickly started to implement exclusionary policies. He demanded Oromos that live in nearby small cities in Oromia receive Addis Ababa resident identity card so that they can access funds to start small businesses in the city, and his administration fired city officers that opposed this illegal direction. He also advocated for the passage of a radical draft proclamation on the “special interest” of Oromia in Addis Ababa, which essentially would drive the agenda of creating an economic and cultural hegemony of Oromos, and undermine the entitlements of non-Oromo citizens.
Balderas was barred from using hotels
In collaboration with the Oromia administration, Takele’s administration is building thousands of houses in Addis Ababa to be exclusively distributed to Oromos who will relocated from Oromia region to Addis Ababa. In explaining this plan, Lemma Megersa, then president of Oromia, stated that the ODP prioritized urban politics and placed importance on demographics. Meanwhile Addis has got more dangerous under Takele and Abiy’s watch.
Following these unfortunate developments, a group of concerned citizens aimed at countering Oromo hegemony and discriminatory policies in Addis Ababa formed an advocacy group called Balderas, a group of concerned citizens that aim to counter hegemonic ambitions and represent the interests of the people. Abiy and Takele were quick to launch repressive actions against this group. Balderas was barred from using hotels to give media briefings and police forcefully dispersed its meetings. Abiy threatened to confront the group’s leader, international award-winning activist-journalist Eskinder Nega, who received arrest threats from police and death threats from Qeerroo .
Abiy’s popularity has evaporated over the last six months in other regions too. His administration has let drift the regional statehood bids by Sidama, Wolayta and other Southern Nations groups. Tigray, led by TPLF, is increasingly distant from the federal government and acts defiantly. Abiy is accused of targeting Tigrayan in his prosecutions of former officials allegedly involved in human-rights abuses and corruption.
Benishangul-Gumuz’s recent decision to include Oromiffa in its school curriculum is perceived by locals as an outcome of ODP influence. In Somali region, Abiy successfully installed his own loyalist by removing the president and his cabinet. Although Abdi Iley was a tyrant, the intervention was unconstitutional, angered several clans, and almost led to conflict in the region. All this ethnic favoritism led to Abiy’s popularity plummeting—so a plan was needed to contain the growing opposition.
Fake coup not failed coup
On the evening of June 22, the head of the Press Secretariat of the Office of Prime Minister announced on national TV that an operation was ongoing to counter a coup attempt in Amhara. A few hours later, Abiy addressed the nation in a recorded video where he confirmed that a coup attempt failed but top regional officials in Bahir Dar and Chief of Staff of the military in Addis Ababa had been shot. The government accused Brigadier-General Asaminew Tsige, head of Amhara security bureau, of masterminding the plot, and claimed a link between the assassinations in Addis Ababa and Bahir Dar.
The international media dutifully reproduced the official narrative. A key contributor is the alleged history of the participation of Asaminew in a 2009 attempt against the late Meles Zenawi’s government. Asaminew had been released in 2018 as part of the ruling party’s desperate amnesty and, seemingly in recognition for wrongs committed against him, his military rank and benefits were reinstated. Shortly after his release, he was assigned to the very crucial position of Amhara head of security.
However, a coup attempt was not a plausible description for a number of reasons. First, Ethiopia’s federal arrangement makes a coup at a regional level impractical, as the military can easily overcome such action. It is very hard to believe an experienced officer like Asaminew could miss this fact. Second, there appears to have been little or no attempt to control airports, the regional broadcaster, and other key institutions, as would occur during a typical coup.
His intention was unlikely to be a coup
Third, there were no attempts to mobilize armed men other than a couple of hundred recently hired armed police that were under Asaminew’s command. Fourth, none of the survivors called it a coup—at least not until later when the government insisted on sticking to the coup narrative.
Fifth, despite shutting down the internet for over a week and being the main source of information, the government offered conflicting facts and an unconvincing narrative. In the most recent backtrack, t said it is still investigating a possible connection between the two sets of assassinations. There were also contradicting stories about the fate of the bodyguard assassin of General Seare Mekonnen. First he was arrested, then dead from suicide, later hospitalized.
Sixth, Asaminew told the only journalist he spoke about the absurdness of a coup at a regional level, and speculated that the narrative might be a strategy of the federal government for military intervention in the region. Thus, more than a week after the assassination, the government has failed to show there was a coup. Even if Asaminew was behind the killings, let’s say motivated by disagreements he had with the regional leadership, we can say that his intention was unlikely to be a coup. The decision to only kill three of the seven leaders in the same meeting suggested instead the motivation was to remove those he disagreed with.
One wildly misleading framing is that June 22 was a backlash to Abiy’s reforms. The Amhara region gave Abiy overwhelming support when he rolled out his agenda. Both the alleged perpetrator and victims are hardcore supporters of change. Asaminew was against TPLF, whom Abiy is also estranged from. Asaminew wants to answer the questions of Amhara Resistance that helped Abiy ascend to power. He was a fierce advocate of the return of annexed areas such as Wolkait, Raya and Metekel to Amhara region, and has received fierce criticism from TPLF. He reportedly led the regional security effectively to identify and detain individuals, including Oromo leaders involved in instigating communal conflict in Oromia Special Zone of Amhara region; and, for that, has been demonized by some federal and regional Oromo officials.
Yet, the federal government has rolled out a mass arrest with so far more than 300 people arrested on suspicion of participation in the “coup attempt”. Not surprisingly, the targets of mass arrest are members of groups Abiy’s administration has identified as formidable challenges: ethnic Amharas, members of National Movement of Amhara, Balderas members, and leaders of security institutions in Amhara. So it has become clearer that the likely motivation to call it a coup was to launch an operation to contain the popularity of Amhara nationalism and its leaders, dismantle Amhara region security institutions, and disrupt Balderas.
Abiy’s administration’s decision to investigate suspects for “terrorism”, a tried and trusted tactic of the EPRDF regime, is an indication that his administration is rolling back much-praised political reforms and retreating to repression. The only difference is the new people in power are from a different ethnic group and have savvy propagandists that are willing to squeeze facts to sell a false narrative.
Amidst a lack of consistent and reliable information about what is happening, with the Internet shut down for more than a week, speculations and emotions have been running high, particularly in Amhara. Given many people are legally armed and there is a large flow of weapons into the region, Abiy’s crackdown on peaceful dissidents could be an invitation to an armed uprising. Abiy and friends should learn from history, stop the mass detention, release the detained individuals, and allow an independent investigation of what happened on June 22.