Ethiopia: Who and What is Behind the Oromia Crisis

Politics News Opinions
Ethiopia’s transition has been a source of hope for many but the Oromia crisis highlights that the path ahead will be fraught.
In Ethiopia, opposition activists accuse Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government of trying to reassert central control over Oromia and dismissing their campaign for cultural rights and linguistic rights – at stake is the future of the country’s proclaimed system of ethnic federalism. (Photo: Mulugeta Ayene, AP)


Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power heralding an era of change, openness, and freedom. His ascent to power in Ethiopia, the second-most populous country in Africa, was welcomed by all those who desired change.

Although Abiy came from the political front that has ruled Ethiopia for the 27 years, his assumption of power marked an end of an era. His relative youth, charm, and vision captivated the imagination of millions. Upon assuming power, he used his pulpit as head of government to preach unity, reconciliation, and forgiveness.

Concrete changes

His message of solidarity and coming together was encapsulated in his catchword “medemer” which he elaborated in a book, laying out his governing philosophy and vision.

Abiy Ahmed’s oratory was accompanied by action. Under his leadership, more than 40,000 political prisoners were freed, political organizations previously outlawed were allowed to operate and exiled dissidents were welcomed back.

The Prime Minister reshuffled his cabinet and achieved gender parity. Such critical portfolios as the Ministry of Defence, the Office of the Attorney General and the Ministry of Peace (the ministry overseeing the Federal Police and National Intelligence and Security Service) were held by women.

Both the federal judiciary and the National Electoral Board are also headed by women lawyers with a track record of advocacy for women’s rights and democracy.

In a conservative and patriarchal society, this is an unprecedented shift. Topping this stride for gender equality, Ethiopia’s first woman President was elected in 2018.

Furthermore, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed introduced legal and institutional reforms for more political freedom and democratic space. He also apologized for the government’s past wrongdoings and instituted criminal charges against higher officials, for grand corruption and systemic human rights violations under the previous administration.

He also took the initiative to make peace with Eritrea, ushering in friendly and peaceful relations with a neighbor that had hitherto been considered the arch-enemy of Ethiopia since a bloody war broke out two decades ago.

Pockets of discontent and grievance

Although most of these reforms were welcomed, there were still pockets of discontent and grievance.

The first powerful enemy of the Prime Minister was to emerge from the ranks of the former regime. The former intelligence apparatchiks in charge of the coercive apparatus responsible for systemic human rights violations. This clique were also looting the scarce resources of the country and were unhappy to lose control of a kleptocratic state system they had.

They have proved to be determined and dogged adversaries.

This cabal of securocrats and plutocrats were disproportionately concentrated within the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which was the nucleus and the most dominant force within the ruling front (EPRDF).

Weakened by sustained and widespread protests, as well as internal divisions, the TPLF was blindsided by the resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn as Chairman of EPRDF and the election of Abiy Ahmed to the leadership of the front in early 2018.

Resistance against Abiy

By all accounts, TPLF fought tooth and nail to have Hailemariam replaced by anyone but Abiy. Strong-willed, having a strong sense of destiny, Abiy’s rise to the helm of the party and government meant an end to the dominance of TPLF. Despite their best efforts, the TPLF bosses were outmaneuvered and Abiy was elected to chair the EPRDF and assumed the premiership.

Abiy quickly sacked some top intelligence officials who then retreated to the TPLF’s home base and stronghold in the north. These operators tried to strike back against the freshly minted Prime Minister with an assassination attempt that seemed to have been intended to put a wedge between Abiy and the more militant wing of Oromo nationalism.

Investigations demonstrated that the assassination attempt was orchestrated by the former intelligence officials and executed by an extremist faction of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF).

Undeterred by the failure of this attempt, flush with the cash that has been looted from state coffers for decades and shielded by the protection of the Tigray National Regional State, this clique has continued to stir conflict and mayhem in various corners of the country.

Ethnic politics

Thanks to the salience of ethnic politics that has been institutionalized, it was easy to fan ethnic division and hatred. This well-funded shadowy network is trying to make the country ungovernable.

Sponsoring conflicts, funding, and arming militant ethnic groups, these hardliners left no stone unturned to undermine and de-legitimize Abiy Ahmed.

It is true that the animosity that the former securocrats have towards Abiy knows no bounds. But their actions were not exclusively motivated by a grudge.

There is also a Machiavellian calculation of self-interest.

The harder it becomes for Abiy to govern the country, the less likely that he will be able to bring to justice the fugitives holed up in Mekelle.

Instability and chaos in the rest of the country, they seem to have calculated, would sap the resolve and strength of the administration. It could even topple Abiy Ahmed, allowing the TPLF to reclaim some of its influence and strength at the center.

Hotbed of the resistance and protests against the TPLF

It did not take long for the Mekelle cabal to find willing partners in Oromia, the region from which Abiy Ahmed hails. Oromia, the regional state considered to be home of the most populous ethnic group in the country had been the hotbed of the resistance and protests against the TPLF.

Abiy’s premiership was welcomed by many in Oromia as a fruit of the struggle of the Oromo people and as a fulfillment of their aspiration for greater voice and influence at the center. However, Abiy’s more centrist tone and rhetoric, his reluctance to show favoritism to one ethnic group, and advance a strident ethnic nationalist agenda disappointed key figures in the Oromo nationalist camp.

Furthermore, when he pushed for the dissolution of the party he chaired – the Oromo Democratic Party – and spearheaded the establishment of a multinational pan-Ethiopian movement – Prosperity Party – through the merger of ethnic parties which were members of and affiliates to the EPRDF, disappointment turned to opposition.

The more militant wing of the Oromo nationalist camp viewed the Ethiopian state as a problematic proposition that could be accepted only after the federal state makes several concessions to address their grievances.

The demands for historical, cultural, and economic justice and inclusion championed by Oromo nationalists ranged from “ownership” of the capital city Addis Ababa to the designation of Affan Oromo as a federal language.

Many in the Oromo nationalist camp felt that Abiy has not done enough to address these demands. By forming a pan-Ethiopian party, some argue he has abandoned or relegated the Oromo nationalist cause.

Complicating this picture was the insurgencies of the Oromo Liberation Army, the armed wing of the Oromo Liberation Front, the preeminent, and pioneer Oromo nationalist political organization. At the initial stage of the transition, the OLF political leadership itself was ambivalent about laying down its arms and becoming an ordinary political party that engages in peaceful political contestation.

Despite equivocating on this issue and dragging its feet, the OLF finally agreed to disarm. However, a faction of its armed wing refused to lay down arms. This group, led by a youthful commander, became rebels without a cause.

Without a clear political goal or end, rebuffing all attempts at mediation, this group which colloquially came to be called “OLF-Shane” descended into a campaign of looting, assassination, kidnapping, rape and all sorts of atrocities in parts of the Oromia National Regional State.

United by a cynical calculus of expediency, the alliance of the TPLF diehard wing and Shane – an axis of division and chaos – continues to wreak havoc in several parts of Oromia and neighboring regional states.

Logic behind this alliance

The logic behind this alliance is the mutual interest of these two groups to keep the country divided along ethnic and religious lines so that the administration of Abiy Ahmed will not get any respite to implement its agenda for reform and prosperity.

They fear that if Abiy consolidates power and continues to enjoy popular support, their political demise will be guaranteed. This axis of chaos is hellbent on causing mayhem and conflict in as many parts of the country as possible, with the objective of triggering a violent response from the federal government, distracting it from its economic and political reforms.

One cannot overestimate the challenge this malignant alliance poses to the administration of Abiy Ahmed. If his administration tolerates the violent shenanigans of such groups, exposing the public to the terror, destruction, and carnage they unleash, it would become complicit in their wrongdoings through its failure to act.

When it responds to their crimes through law enforcement and military operations, it is perceived as resorting to the autocratic practices of the past. A tolerant and accommodating stance is seen as weakness; a robust and forceful response is seen as a return to the autocratic past.

Both perceptions are amplified by the propaganda machinery of the former securocrats and unwittingly echoed by gullible international human rights “watchdogs” who fail to appreciate the complicated reality and see the bigger picture.

The vision of the axis of division is clear

What is transpiring in Ethiopia right now is an epic struggle for the soul of the nation. The fate of the nation hinges upon who will win this battle. The vision of the axis of division is clear: it is to see an Ethiopia that is very much akin to current day Somalia.

The de facto chief spokesperson of the axis, Getachew Reda has said as much in a recent interview where he asserted that going forward, the relationship of the government of the Regional State of Tigray and the federal government should emulate the situation in neighboring Somalia.

This vision is to see the Ethiopian state dismembered and the central government dissolved into a loose confederation of ethnic fiefdoms led by regional warlords. Such a state of affairs would suit them just fine. It would enable them to avoid accountability and enjoy their ill-gotten wealth in the security of their ethnic enclave.

But for the majority of Ethiopians, this is not an appealing option. Regardless of our ethnic and religious fault lines, there is no gainsaying that a united, inclusive, multinational, and democratic Ethiopia is the best bet for our collective prosperity, security, and freedom.

The administration of Abiy Ahmed should remain steadfast in its commitment to economic and political reforms.

It should maintain the delicate balance of fighting the axis of chaos while at the same time pushing forward with efforts to build a more democratic, prosperous, inclusive, and equitable Ethiopia.

The international community should be cognizant of the complexities and challenges of contemporary Ethiopia and should continue to offer its support to the administration of Abiy Ahmed.

Bottom line

The administration cannot be expected to appease the axis of chaos that has repeatedly rebuffed the olive branch extended to it by the federal government.

After all, it has an inherent mandate, as the government of the day to maintain law and order and as the territorial integrity of the state.

Overtures for an amicable resolution of differences have been met with scorn time and again. Perhaps, this is the time to adopt a different approach to make the axis of chaos more amenable to reason.