Understanding evolution of Ethiopia’s current political turmoil  

By Andualem Sisay Gessesse – It was a surprise for many external observers when Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn of Ethiopia announced his plan to resign a few weeks ago though many Ethiopians didn’t seem to take it seriously. Hailemariam said he made the decision to be part of the political reformation of the country and become example of a peaceful power transition.

His announcement came days after leaders of the four member parties of the ruling coalition, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) publicized the decision reached by the coalition to release all political prisoners and shutdown the famous torturing prison in Addis Ababa – the Meakelawi. The decision is reached after the EPRDF held a 17 days meeting.

But what are the real internal and external pressures that prompt the control-freak EPRDF regime to launch this political reform? How did these pressures evolve?

History recorded that most of Ethiopia’s history is all about war. Some of these wars were with foreign aggression, while most are fighting each other for power. One of these civil wars was the one that brought to power the current regime in 1991 after defeating the Marxist Derg Regime, which also overthrow Emperor Hailessilassie in 1974.

Spearheaded by the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF), the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) defeated and controlled Addis Ababa in May 1991.

EPRDF, which is the coalition of three ethnic-based parties including TPLF and one region-based political party, has brought to an end the bloody war that claimed tens of thousands of lives.

EPRDF facilitated the introduction of a new constitution that herald Ethiopia’s entry of a controversial era of ethnic federalism, which divided the country into nine regional states and the two city administrations – Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa. The EPRDF argued that Ethiopia has been a prison of different tribes for centuries because people were denied the right to exercise self-determination through ethnic federalism.



On the other hand its critics say that the real reason the regime promotes ethnic politics is because that is the only way the TPLF, which represents only 6% of Ethiopia’s 105 million populations, can cling on power for unlimited time.

Printing tribe on national ID

The conclusion of the civil war with the Derg was mostly welcomed by parents and the youth who were tired of the national military service. Meanwhile, the decision by the EPRDF regime to force everyone to put her/his tribe on the national identification card is not appreciated by many Ethiopians who grown up under the nationalist dictator – Mengistu Hailemariam.

As a result the regime has faced immediate criticism from those who managed to foresee the danger of the ethnic politics the country is heading towards. Some elders have also begun criticizing the over-stretched bragging of the TPLF about its victory over the Derg.

They asserted that the people who killed each other during the war are brothers and sisters from the same country. Some began warring that portraying the Tigre tribes as the only heroes in video clips taken from the battle field on Tigrigna TV programs everyday will lead ultimately lead to isolation of the people from the rest of Ethiopians.

Meanwhile the regime still continues business as usual and if one flips to the state channel from 7 pm – 8 pm, she/he may still watch those battle video clips from the battle of TPLF with the Derg, which took place from 1974-1991.

In what looks the fruit of this isolation strategy of the regime, today one can rarely find a Tigrian elder or scholar even in the diaspora who dares to come out publicly and criticize the regime for the injustices against other tribes of Ethiopia and the human rights violations the government has been accused for committing. But this doesn’t mean that all the people of Tigray are benefiting from the EPRDF regime, still millions of Tigray farmers, including who used to provide water and food for the former TPLF fighters during the war, are still trapped abject poverty.

The major open criticism came in the capital Addis Ababa Stadium during a public holiday where government officials were attending. The popular master of ceremony and comedian from the National Theater, Tamagn Beyene, criticized the ethnic politics in his humorous jo

Former National Theater comedian and master of ceremony who converted to political activism opposing the the tribal politics of the TPLF right after the rebels took power in Addis Ababa in May 1991.

kes at the state. It was clear from the face of the politicians at the time that they don’t like his nationalist (one Ethiopia) comment.

Not long after, he was forced to exile to the United States from where he continues to lead campaigns against the human rights violations in Ethiopia by the current regime.

For the past several years as one of the founders of Ethiopian satellite TV and radio known as ESAT, Tamagn and other likeminded Ethiopians in the diaspora, became a major headache for the regime. The channel has been documenting and exposing the human rights abuses, the economic favoritism that resulted from ethnic politics.

ESAT, which has been changing its frequencies claiming that Ethiopian government is jamming its transmission, is categorized by the government as a channel run by anti-peace forces and terrorists.

In fact during the last year state of emergency period tuning to ESAT was forbidden by the government.

The recent evidences presented by ESAT includes, list of names, photos and ethnic compositions of the people who lead security, military, police, electoral board and courts, among others.

Systematic favoritism

Their evidences have reinforced what most Ethiopians were already murmuring about. After looking around to make sure that there is supporter of EPRDF around, people have been gossiping for years about how many businesses are overtaken by the people from the Tigre ethnic group.

Such systematic favoritism of the people of Tigray by the regime becomes more and more public in recent years to the point where the government can’t even argue about it anymore.

One report presented to the parliament recently exposed that the state bank, in charge of providing loans without collateral for investors engaged in selected productive sectors, has given agricultural loans for dozens of investment projects in Gambella Region. All the investments are owned by the people of Tigray and none of these projects have delivered on their promises after securing the loan.

Another report revealed that the ten state-owned sugar development projects given to a company owned by the defense force of the country (Metals and Engineering Corporation) have failed to bear fruit after tens of millions of dollars of public money is spent.

Converting friends to Terrorists

The other challenge the EPRDF regime is still facing has come from the groups, which were part of the transitional government between 1993 -1995.

This includes the oldest two, the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) and the Oromo Liberations Front (OLF). The two groups thought that their fighting for decades will result in forming their own independent states by using the right to cessation Article 39 of the new constitution.

Meanwhile their aspiration to have an independent state like Eritrea, which succeeded in 1993, has failed to bear result. Following the disagreement with the EPRDF regime both groups are finally labeled by the parliament as terrorist organizations, along with Al Shabaab, Eritrean government and an armed group used to be known as Ginbot 7 – established following the controversial 2005 national election.

The romantic relationship between the new country Eritrea, which is separated from Ethiopia and the leadership of the EPRDF also didn’t last long.

The friendship between the TPLF of the late Meles Zenawi and the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) changed to hostility leading to the outbreak of May 1998 war. The war broke out over a claim of a border area, Badime.

Meanwhile many believe that Badime is just a pretext. The war is a result of the gray relationship developed over time between the TPLF and of Isaas Afewerki’s ELF, who is often mentioned as mentor of the former.

The war concluded in June 2000 has resulted in death of over 70,000 people from both sides with injuries of thousands of people and huge economic loss. The implementation of the UN mediated agreement reached in Algiers is not still realized.

As anyone of them has not achieved tangible result for their people, the war is considered by many as nothing but a deadly military exercise aimed at testing their military capability. The two countries still accuse each other for militarizing and hosting armed group to topple one another.

The glimpse

Since the first national election conducted in 1995, the EPRDF has been in control of the 547 seat national parliament. Since then the country has been conducting parliamentary elections every five years through its fairness and transparency and electoral board’s independence has been in question.

Meanwhile the first glimpse of fair and competitive election was observed in 2005 when the opposition was given a fair amount of airtime on the public media. The televised debates with the ruling party officials have helped most opposition parties to get massive support.

Professor Birhanu Nega, one of the former leaders of the opposition party coalition (CUD), which won 22 seats of the 23 Parliament seats of Addis Ababa city in 2005 election. After released from prison following the controversy, he along with other colleagues launched a rebel fighters group Ginbot 7 (now called Patriotsg7, which is based in Eritrea.

The result was unexpected for both the ruling party and the opposition that merged at the 11th hour and formed the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD).

Out of the 23 seats Addis Ababa city has in the national parliament, the CUD won 22 of them while securing victory in major cities across the country.

On aggregate result the ruling party has won the election, according to the electoral board. This was not accepted by the CUD and some of its leaders decided not to join the parliament accepting their parties defeat.

Following the confrontations and demonstrations around 200 demonstrators are killed by the government forces, while thousands locked in jail and many more exiled.

One of them is the founder of Ginbot 7, Dr. Birhanu Nega, who was elected by the CUD to be the mayor of Addis Ababa city. He ended up in jail along with hundreds.

After pardoned by the government a few years later, Dr. Birhanu and his former colleagues along with Andargachew Tsige, who was snatched from Yemen Airport a few years ago and now serves life sentence in Addis Ababa, have launched Ginbot 7 from the United States.

Ginbot 7 also has known as G-7, has merged with another armed group in Amhara Region – Arbegnoch Ginbar (Patriots Front) a few years ago forming Patriotg7. Based in Eritrea, Patriotg7 has been launching gorilla attack and became another headache to the EPRDF regime.

Dr. Birhanu, who was a university professor in the United States, is not only the leader of the group; he has also been lobbying decision makers in the United States Congress and the European Parliament.

Introduction of stringent laws

The unexpected result of the May 2005 national election has also made the regime to introduce some stringent laws, such as anti-terrorist, civil society and telecom fraud declarations, which aimed at silencing independent views.

In what seems ‘if you are not with me, then you are against me,’ unwritten law, the government has begun charging bloggers, journalists, and opposition members, religious leaders, among others for criticizing the regime’s actions and policies.

It has become difficult for the few private media left to find a professional who boldly comment or criticize anything the government does.

This has resulted in decline on the number of independent media outlets as the journalists are either jailed or exiled in fear of prosecution or changed their profession to other jobs such as, public relations.

Today there are ten times more private and independent Ethiopian media outside the country than the few staggering in Addis Ababa.

In what seems to relieve the bored people of Ethiopia with state propaganda machines, some individuals have begun launching entertainment TV channels from abroad, following the foot-steps of ESAT but avoiding politics.

As the number of these channels increases, the government is working to bring all on the satellite, which the Informational National Security Agency of the government has rented.

The justification brought by the broadcasting authority, which regulates the media, is to help the country save hard currency the TV stations pay. But many didn’t seem to believe the justification. They say that it is like giving the remote control of their channel to the state security agency to turn off whenever they want.

The Magnitsky Act

As the United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visits Ethiopia this week, a bill called HR128 by human rights activists in the U.S is progressing towards the U.S. Congress.

This bill has also been another headache for the EPRDF regime, which has been denying criticism of several human rights organizations for years.

If approved HR128 demands Ethiopian government to open its doors to independent investigators to check the human rights abuses, killings of civilians, etc. Otherwise the country’s politicians and generals who are allegedly involved in the crimes against humanity during the EPRDF era will faces travel bans and asset freezing, as per the Magnitsky Act approved during President Obama.

Pointing her finger to an Ethiopian sitting on a wheelchair within one of the corridor of the United States Congress, “Every day I meet another Ethiopian like Guya, who is tortured in a prison like Maekelawi, in a military camp, folks attacked on the street, women rapped because they refused to join the ruling party,” said Andrea Barron, Advocacy and Outreach program manager at the U.S. based Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition in a video interview posted end of January 2018.

“… I hope one day there won’t be Ethiopians coming to our office talking how they are tortured because they stood up for free speech and democracy in their country,” she said.

One of the speakers to the media in the video is Representative Christopher H. Smith, who has been calling on the U.S. Congress for several years to take actions against the human rights violations of Ethiopian government.

“…We listened to these strong human rights defenders…HR128 is ready for action. The Ethiopian government really now has to come forward with real tangible reform or else that resolution will be on the floor,” he said, indicating that he will be holding another human rights hearing on Ethiopia at the Congress in this March.

Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy is the other person in the crowd that commented to the media in the video. “For too long the united states was looking the other way on the human right abuses of Ethiopia in favor of their security cooperation, while Ethiopia is terrorizing its own people.  It is time the U.S. acknowledges the problems of Ethiopia. And tries to change Ethiopia to respect human rights and become a pluralistic democracy. And this (HR128) is one step towards that long goal,” he said.

External opposition against the EPRDF regime is also joined by some government officials, who defected from the party and exiled including, Ermias Legesse, the former state minister of government communications.

Now based in the United States in his series of books, Mr. Ermias has exposed the secrets of EPRDF from lad related corruptions to ethnic favoritism to revealing the individual power struggle within TPLF figures and EPRDF in general.

The Jawar factor

Oromo activist Jawar Mohammed who became a major headache to Ethiopia regime leading Oromo youth protests using social media and his statelite TV channel Oromia Media Network

Another headache of the regime is Jawar Mohammed, who over the past four years managed to mobilize the youth in Oromia against EPRDF while living thousands of miles away from Ethiopia – Minnesota, United States.

Using social media, mainly facebook, and Oromia Media Network TV channel, he has managed to call somehow successful strike from last Monday till Wednesday opposing the controversial state of emergency the parliament approved on Friday.

“Give it up TPLF. Retaking Oromia is not only impossible, it is unimaginable. The State of Emergency has been defeated in parliament and effectively defied on streets. There is nothing you can do about it,…” Jawar posted on the second day of the strike.

Local resistance, the split  

The external opposition the EPRDF is facing is currently aligned with the legally registered opposition parties in Ethiopia, such as Semayawi party, Oromo Federalist Congress, with some of the influential leaders such as, Dr. Merera Gudina and Bekele Gerba, who recently released from prison after government pardoned.

This is of course in addition to the resistances and confrontations the EPRDF is currently facing in different parts of Amhara Region such as Gondar, Bahir Dar, Weldiya and Kobo, among others.

The other headache to the regime, which is believed to be among the push factors is the hard to reverse awakening of one of the four members of ruling party coalition, the Oromo Peoples Democratic Organization (OPDO).

The fresh blood that recently took over the leadership of OPDO seems to outsmart the old guard in the TPLF. The team of Lemma and Dr. Abiy, who is expected to become the next prime minister, has begun challenging the regime with its own constitutions and rules of game.

Unlike the old OPDO members who often criticized as agents of TPLF, the team of Lemma has tried to demonstrate their loyalty to their own people by their words and actions.

OPDO has managed to get support of almost all Oromo people while their nationalist one Ethiopia comments have also won them support from other tribes in the country.

The way they recently helped and facilitated the welcoming of Oromo Federalist Congress leaders such as Bekele Gerba in stadiums has also brought them closer to the opposition.

After the release of opposition leaders OPDO has also expressed its interest to sit and talk with any political party in the country or outside the country without any preconditions. This has also increased the acceptance of the team of Lemma. OPDO is also liked by many for allowing peaceful demonstrations of youth in Oromo Region.

It is in the face of all these internal and external pressures that Prime Minister Hailemarim Desalegn who was chairman of one of the four member parties of EPRD, Southern Ethiopian Peoples’ Democratic Front (SEPDF), has submitted letter of resignation.

Many observers agree that SEPDF is in support of the current TPLF-dominated EPRDF, whose actions including declarations of the state of emergency, doesn’t signal the party’s plan genuinely reform and end one ethnic group dominance over everything.

On the other hand, it is not easy to predict if the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM), which represents the second largest ethnic group in Ethiopia next to Oromia, is with OPDO in terms of reforming the EPRDF for good.

Many agree that weather the intent of the current TPLF-dominated EPRDF is genuine or not will be revealed starting the coming Sunday when the executive council of the coalition meets to select its new chairman. That will be followed by a 180 members’ assembly which involves 45 representatives from each member party.

The final stage will be endorsement of the selected party leader by the parliament to become prime minister of the country, which likely will be followed in the coming days by formation of a new cabinet of ministers.