Reform and resistance in Ethiopia

Reform and resistance in Ethiopia

(Awashpost)—Ethiopia is once more staring into the abyss. The Horn of Africa country is in the throes of a ruinous civil war and an economic implosion. Despite growing international outcry and deepening domestic political crises, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed appears intent on clinging to power by force.

The dire state of affairs is a far cry from the hopeful days of the 2018-19 promised reforms. In 2018, Abiy burst onto the scene promising, among many things, a free and fair election. Last month, Abiy Ahmed’s Prosperity Party (PP) claimed a landslide victory in the 21 June elections. Sadly, the latest election, the sixth such exercise since 1995, did not live up to even minimal expectations or standards of fairness. PP is slated to form a new government next month. Abiy’s early overtures to democratization were mere public relations stunts that were never meant to be realized. In effect, Ethiopians let a golden opportunity to reform and transition to democracy slip away, leaving in its wake horrid bewilderment, distrust, mutual denunciation, and the prospect for even more chaos and conflict.

Today, a Nobel laureate oversees a humanitarian siege in Tigray and mobilizes all-able-bodied Ethiopians for war while traversing the region to buy military hardware. Dismal as it is, this turn of events is not an aberration. Since the 1960s, the Ethiopian elite has squandered four splendid opportunities to forge a new, more inclusive, and representative social contract.

Something inherent in the Ethiopian imperial system seems to inhibit the “power elite,” chiefly tenants of the Arat Kilo palace in Finfinnee and their supporters, from undertaking a constructive reform agenda. There may be a range of causes for this. But the most obvious obstacles to reform are: a) incumbent’s avid lust for absolute power and a winner-takes-all political culture, b) pursuit of violence (over dialogue) to resolve political differences, and c) the outdated imperial streak to trample peoples’ identities and rights.

Tradition vs. imperial diktat

Traditionally, the different peoples of Ethiopia had their distinctive mode of government. The Tigrigna and Amharic-speaking peoples of the North were ruled by princes or kings and sometimes by military heads called rases.  In the South, some Somali and Afar tribes elected their sultan or ugas (leader), who governed with a representative council. People of the Gadaa culture, such as the Oromo and Sidama, elected leaders for a fixed term and ensured peaceful power transfer.

Since the creation of the modern empire-state in the last quarter of the 19th  century, the monarchical system of the north prevailed throughout Ethiopia.

We leave out debate on the impact of the imperial onslaught on the peoples of the newly acquired provinces and focus on the experience of the polity put in place in their wake.

It is beyond question that the imperial system was despotic and distinctly cold toward the conquered peoples of the South. Those murky features are enough to preclude the prospect of liberal agenda during the early imperial days. However, there were opportunities for reform during Haile Selassie’s long rule and at the end of his reign in 1974. Both chances were wasted by the dominant political forces of the day. Again, there was a historic opportunity for reform in 1991.

Initially, the 1990s transition showed promise by radically altering the narrative of the old governing class. But it was botched by the “victorious” Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) that dominated the EPRDF coalition. The latest opportunity for reform began in 2018. Despite early signs of hope, reform has veered away from the path to democracy. Let us now look deeper into the reasons behind those flops, which directly impact the current impasse.

Earliest proposal to reform 

The first serious suggestion for a genuine democratization of Ethiopia came through the United Nations at the behest of the Western powers. The event occurred several years after the 1960 coup d’état, whose eager and angry leaders branded the imperial regime unwilling and incapable of undertaking essential reforms. It was the Cold War era when the imperial regime was firmly in the Western camp, although it maintained good relations with and received both material and moral support from the Eastern bloc, particularly the Soviet Union. Haile Selassie’s regime was also a member of the Non-Aligned Movement, which underscored the emperor’s prestige and the country’s hearty diplomatic standing1. But its western friends appeared worried about the severely stagnant domestic political situation.

This initiative consisted of advice to the regime to introduce grassroots participation in matters that affect their lives, starting at the district or awraja level. The UN provided the necessary resources and expertise to carry out the program. Thus, the 1966 Awraja Administration Order was issued as an enabling law. The law details how to carry out an awraja council election of about 24 individuals by universal adult suffrage. The council would then nominate three of their members as candidates for the emperor to pick one as administrator. The elected reps, including the administrator, would jointly be responsible for local matters in the manner provided by the law. The advice and funds to implement it were duly received, but, sadly, the project was quietly kicked into the long grass2.

Sources familiar with how the system worked later recounted that the emperor’s entourage concluded carrying out the reform amounted to giving power on a golden platter to “undeserving people.” They specifically referred to the Oromo and other southern peoples using derogatory terms coined to denigrate and dehumanize them. The event showed that the imperial elite dreaded democracy, especially free and fair election, not only as a threat to their absolute control over the country’s resources but also as a conveyor belt to put them and their offspring on equal footing with sons and daughters of former serfs – gabbars – who should be kept in their place.

Rejection of the reform plan may have given members and supporters of the ruling elite some respite. But it could not stop the demise of the whole imperial edifice in due course. Lessons ought to have been learned, but did they?

The next prospect for reform

The second opportunity to “democratize” occurred from 1950 to 1962 during the federal pact between the Empire of Ethiopia and the former Italian colony of Eritrea.

The UN body that conducted opinion surveys and suggested the federal union of the two countries had drawn up a constitution providing for democratic institutions, including the separation of power, freedom of speech and to organize, election, an independent judiciary, and use of Tigrinya and Arabic in schools. These ideas were obviously unacceptable to the political elite at the helm of the Imperial Government.

Hence, from the time the federal union was set up with the UN and U.S. backing, the emperor and his minions undermined institutions created to protect the freedom and welfare of the Eritrean people. They extended their assimilationist policy to Eritrea. With some help from Eritrean allies, they managed to wreck the federal system. When the Eritrean people rebelled, the imperial regime resorted to violence to suppress the revolt.

Members and supporters of the governing class touted the undoing of federal structures as the ultimate fulfillment of Ethiopiawinet, Amharic for Ethiopian-ness. The effort to replace Eritrea’s democratic institutions with feudal autocracy was an astounding feat of ‘progress in regress.’ In the end, the Eritrean people’s struggle for freedom and similar revolts in other parts of the empire contributed to the demise of the imperial regime and the dawn of the 1974 revolution.

The third opportunity for reform 

During the final days of Haile Selassie’s regime and on the eve of the 1974 revolution, another splendid prospect occurred to reform the Empire of Ethiopia.

As widespread unrest rocked the regime, a new figure replaced the long-serving premier Aklilu Habtewold. Bowing to popular demand, the new premier, Endelkachew Makonnen, agreed to a constitutional commission, which came up with an auspicious liberal draft that envisioned a constitutional monarchy. The central plank of the proposal was a division of power into different branches, a free and fair election with the executive headed by the prime minister, who must have the support of a parliamentary majority.

The draft would have arguably met part of the popular reform requirement at the time. And, on the emperor’s demise, many hoped that the military committee – the Derg – would take popular demands forward and adopt an agreeable reform agenda. The Derg promised as much in its early days. However,  the Provisional Military Administrative Council (PMAC) set up a military dictatorship, ending any lingering hope toward democratic reform.

One of the key popular achievements of the military regime was the “land to the tiller” proclamation. This law partially addressed enduring political and economic questions most relevant in the southern provinces. In addition, it impacted the economic base of the imperial elite.

In most other respects, the Derg echoed all key features of the imperial policies. It entrenched autocracy as the head of the Derg, Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam, eliminated rivals, and assumed absolute power. The Derg regime harassed, intimidated, locked up, and purged people with different views. To make it all worse, the Derg accelerated the imperial policy of erasing the identity and cultures of the non-Amharic peoples. It continued with violent repression of different peoples’ struggles for self-determination and freedom. The Derg’s brutal rule engendered resistance across the country, with more than a dozen liberation fronts fighting the regime at its height.

Eventually, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 dried up the Soviet military supply that kept the fading Derg regime alive and helped put it out of its misery. It was only then that Col. Mengistu confessed how difficult it proved to find people prepared to die for his “ኢትዮዽያ ትቅደም or Ethiopia First” ideology.

In due course, the struggle of different peoples waged for freedom on the back of the Derg regime and ushered in the 1991 prospect for reform. The downfall of the Derg and Haileselassie regimes proved that dictatorship, war as means to settle political issues, resisting democratic reform, and the pursuit of backward policies could only hasten and not save a regime from ruin.

The fourth opportunity to reform 

The defeat of the Derg in 1991 offered an unprecedented opportunity for a new beginning in Ethiopia.

In an empire dubbed “a prison of nationalities,” the defeat of a backward political and military establishment that trampled peoples’ human and democratic rights was indeed a remarkable achievement. In 1991, Ethiopia finally admitted diversity and recognized the right of nations, nationalities, and peoples to self-determination. A historic conference of June 1991 in which representatives of many hitherto marginalized peoples took part adopted a transitional charter. The basic law of the transition envisaged each component of peoples to govern their affairs and participate in central government on an equal or proportional basis. It was a recipe for turning a multinational empire into a multicultural state.

The meeting also endorsed the independence of Eritrea. And, all seemed set for a peaceful democratic future in the Horn of Africa region. However, heightened optimism for change was doused quickly as the jinxes that stalled past democratic reform prospects rudely reared their dreadful head again. For starters, from June 1991 to the end of his life in 2012, the late premier Meles Zenawi ran the country as an emperor without a crown using the repressive  EPRDF party machine as a tool of control.

The now-defunct EPRDF coalition consisted of the TPLF and its auxiliary bodies, namely the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO), the Amhara People’s Democratic Movement (APDM), and the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM). Created during the final years of the Derg, the EPRDF’s objectives contrast with the OLF proposal at the time, which called for an all-party coalition to topple and replace the Derg with a genuine democratic system.

Next, upon gaining control of central power in 1991, the TPLF faced a dilemma to either adhere to principles it supposedly fought for, including equality, self-determination and free elections, or pay lip service to those ideals and pursue a different priority. Their resolve was tested during the 1992 “snap elections,” in which non-EPRDF parties such as the OLF and Sidama Liberation Movement (SLM) were poised to do well. The transitional rules required carrying out a free and fair election and, depending on the outcome, either relinquishing or sharing power. The TPLF befuddled the situation in a trend-setting manner using EPRDF cadres to run the entire electoral process from registration of voters to declaring results. The OLF and some other competitors had to boycott the rigged election3.

In a true-and-tried tradition of the governing class in Ethiopia, the TPLF resorted to manipulation to control peoples’ resources and speedily spawn a mainly Tigrayan propertied class before applying democratic practices. Tragically, this quest for riches transmuted into a frenzy of cliquish self-enrichment fiasco. And, in the end, the regime’s excesses beat any real and imagined successes and discredited them entirely.

Repeated flops left TPLF not only unloved but vastly resented and loathed even by those who served them and shared in the loot, particularly their former OPDO and ANDM minions. Ultimately, sustained resistance by Qeerroo and later Amhara youth dislodged the TPLF from the Arat Kilo palace and steered in the 2018 reform agenda.

The 2018 prospect and challenges 

The Qeerroo-led struggle that impelled TPLF to retreat to Mekelle had also forced the change in the EPRDF leadership with the selection of Abiy Ahmed as the coalition’s chair.

Initially, Abiy made several headline-grabbing pronouncements. Among these is the release of political prisoners, the return home of exiled opposition parties and activists, the opening up of political space and freedom of expression. He promised to liberalize the economy and hold a free and fair poll. And the new premier was widely praised, at home and abroad, for these overtures. Ending hostilities with Eritrea, which turned out to be a massive hoax, earned Abiy the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize.

However, even as he basked in those successes, things went amiss on many fronts. The main worry stemmed from the premier’s contempt for the constitution, his crude praise of real or imagined imperial glory, and cavorting with forces actively campaigning to undo the federal structure. Abiy’s rhetorical excesses steadily detached him from his constituency in Oromia, the largest and most populous of Ethiopia’s ten federal states. Also, a vast gap emerged between the regime and all federalist forces, which is the overwhelming majority of the people of Ethiopia.

The autocratic instinct that infected previous Arat Kilo tenants became glaring as Abiy flouted financial and other official procedures. His resolve to use force to deal with political opponents became stark as he took to alienating Qeerroo and his regime resumed harassing and detaining members and supporters of opposition political parties, particularly the OLF and OFC, two formidable opponents that posed a direct electoral threat to Abiy’s power.

The war in Tigray was the extension of the repressive and violent impulses deployed against Abiy’s opponents in Oromia, Sidama, and Wolaita. For Abiy Ahmed’s anti-federalist supporters, degrading the TPLF, if successful, would have a domino effect leading to the defeat of other federalist forces. This now seems to have backfired. As things stand, the TPLF has sprung into action and humbled the federal and regional forces deployed against it. As with the Derg-era, numerous liberation forces operate in many parts of the country with significant unforeseen consequences. The alliance last month between the TPLF and the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) signaled the stiffening of resistance even more.

In all instances, all parties to the conflict need to reflect that the fortunes of war fluctuate and that negotiation remains the best way out of the quagmire.

There seems to be lingering doubt if TPLF learned from past mistakes and can be trusted to deal with other parties as equal and rightful players. Be that as it may, the Tigrayan forces are beginning to gain tacit empathy from the federalist camp. Paying the price required to defend the Tigrayan people’s right to self-determination, the TPLF have earned their place in an equitable coalition to build on the rights gained since1991.

By contrast, the Abiy regime and its anti-federalist cohorts stand increasingly isolated and reduced to sleep PR and bravado.

Even then, there should still be time for forces that misguided the premier to reassess their position, embrace the constitution, reconcile themselves with the rights of people to self-rule, and agree to resolve their issues by legal means. They need to realize that almost all the non-Amharic nations, nationalities, and peoples of Ethiopia wish to strengthen and democratize the federation and are bound to resist a return to the old ways in any shape or form.

In the end, the wacky imperial instinct and autocratic tendencies of Arat Kilo palace occupants, their predisposition to war instead of dialogue to settle political issues, and fear of democracy remain a common feature running through all reform prospects from the 1960s to the present. The people of Ethiopia should, once and for all, bring this trend to an end.


Finally, the following points are advanced to help break the stalemate, keep everyone in the loop and strive to put the 2018 reform back on track.

  • The PP regime needs to affirm respect for the Constitution and ensure that amendments are introduced only through an established legal frame. This is the best alternative to keep everyone in the loop, create trust and build a better and tolerant common future.
  • The June 21 elections should be disavowed, as they did not meet acceptable standards of fairness and accountability.
  • An inclusive consultation should be held about the country’s future in which all opposition, including those engaged in armed resistance, participate. The agenda shall include a request for UN input to set up a neutral electoral body and supervise elections within two years.
  • The State should uphold freedom of conscience and stop meddling in religious matters.
  • Relations with all states should be governed by intentional law and custom. Relations with Eritrea should begin with an application of the 2000 Algiers Agreement.
  • Foreign forces should leave Ethiopia immediately without any preconditions.
  • Conduct an impartial investigation of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Tigray, Oromia, and other parts of Ethiopia, and bring all state and non-state perpetrators to justice.
  • International humanitarian assistance should be allowed into Tigray and wherever there is need without any hindrance.


  1. I have a sincere respect for Jaal Taha Abdi, a true Oromo icon in our struggle for national liberation! While I enjoyed reading his article, I am not buying the notion that, an attempt at ‘democratizing’ Ethiopia via negotiations between the elites of the various nations of the Empire which has FAILED on four separate occasions by Jaal Taha’s own account, is somehow going to succeed at the ‘fifth’ attempt!

    I rather prefer an approach well argued for by Jaal Taha’s own colleague at Awash Post, by the name of Sorreti Kadir, an idea which GIVES THE PEOPLE of the Empire CONTROL over deciding their future relationship to each other and to the Ethiopian Polity, via an internationally supervised referendum!

    Here is the link to Sorreti’s article:

  2. Doesn’t Obo Taha’s article indicate that an Empire can’t be reformed, specially when the “reform” is negotiated among the elites of the colonized nations and the colonizers, and NOT the people of those nations? I think it does!

    What Oromos, and the other people of the Empire, by right, are fighting for is NOT to ‘democratize’ Ethiopia, an Empire which has PROVED to be irredeemable like all empires, as Obo Taha’s article clearly demonstrates, but to decide on their own future relationship versus the Empire via a credible and internationally sanctioned referendum! Whether or not nations choose to remain or go their way, based on that decision AND on that decision alone, each can then workout NEW arrangements which suits its people’s interests vs other nations!

    The fact that the Oromo people and the other people of Ethiopia WERE NEVER accorded this fundamental right in the history of Ethiopia’s formation makes it an imperative today, if we are going to settle the never ending crisis the Empire roils in, year after year, decade after decade, and endlessly!

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