The Rise and Fall of EPRDF
By Assefa A. Lemu, December 9, 2018
The Rise of EPRDF: Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) is a coalition of four political organizations first established by Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the then Ethiopian Peoples’ Democratic Movement (EPDM), later called Amhara Democratic Movements (ANDM) and now called Amhara Democratic Party (ADP) in 1989. Then after, the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO), now called Oromo Democratic Party (ODP), joined EPRDF in 1990 and the Southern Ethiopia Peoples’ Democratic Front (SEPDF), now called Southern Ethiopia Peoples’ Democratic Movement (SEPDM) joined EPRDF in 1992. From the date of its establishment until Dr. Abiy Ahmed of ODP was elected as a Chairman of EPRDF in March 2018, TPLF was the mastermind of EPRDF. The other three members were simply subservient member organizations.
As Professor Paulos Milkias summarized in his paper titled “Ethiopia, the TPLF and Roots of the 2001 Political Tremor”, “In January 1989, it[TPLF] entered into an alliance with the Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (EPDM), a breakaway organization of the EPRP constituted mainly of Amharas from Gondar, Wallo, and Northern Showa….
“The TPLF also brought together military captives of Oromo lineage from the war with the Derg, and together with defectors form the Oromo Liberation Front [OLF,] created the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization [OPDO] to claim legitimacy in Oromia. Later, the Southern Ethiopia People’s Democratic Front [SEPDF] was added in order to expand into Southern Ethiopian territories … This phantom political party was named the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF.) The EPRDF’s charter which borrowed governing ideas almost exclusively from the TPLF manifesto called for the elimination of the relics of feudalism and imperialism from Ethiopia….” (https://scholarworks.wmich.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1051&context=africancenter_icad_archive).
The May 16, 1989 aborted coup against Mengistu Hailemariam which resulted in the killing of nine military generals and the arrest of many other military officials emboldened EPRDF to intensify its attack against divided and dissatisfied government soldiers. On top of that, EPRDF’s political analysis in which it condemned the preceding Ethiopian regimes and promised for the respect of the rights of nations and nationalities as well as better future brought more support for the organization. EPRDF redefined Ethiopia, Ethiopian history, Ethiopian heroes, and symbols representing Ethiopia. Undeniably, this political analysis and advocating for group rights attracted more supporters for EPRDF. EPRDF also exploited regional and ethnic grievances and adopted its operations to regional realities that appeal to the people residing in that area. For example, EPRDF named its military offensive against Derg in Amhara region “Zemecha Tewodros” (Operation Tewodros), a name given after Emperor Tewodros II of Gonder, and named its military offensive against Derg in the Oromo region “Dula Bilisumma Walqitumma” (Operation Freedom and Equality), named after the long standing demand of Oromo. TPLF force that was able to rally Amharas and Oromos around the political program of EPRDF, that forced the Derg army to be in disarray and top Derg officials including Colonel Mengistu Hailemariam either to fled the country or to surrender, and that got the approval of U.S. Government triumphantly entered Addis Ababa on May 28, 1991 and took government power under the name of EPRDF.
Consolidation of Power: Thirty three days after taking government power, EPRDF organized the Peaceful and Democratic Transitional Conference of Ethiopia held from July 1-5, 1991 in Addis Ababa that had discussed and approved the Transitional Period Charter of Ethiopia (https://chilot.files.wordpress.com/2011/11/the-transitional-period-charter-of-ethiopia.pdf ). The Charter laid down the rules governing the Transitional Government as well as set the principles for the Transitional Period (1991-1995).
During the transition, EPRDF used different political labeling to isolate and weaken its opponents and solidify its power as a sole political organization governing Ethiopia. Former civilian and military officials of the People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (PDRE) were labeled as Chefchafi ena Awure Derg Esepa (killers and beasts Derg WPE) and either jailed or banned from taking part in politics. As indicated in the preamble of the Transitional Period Charter, Derg was labeled as a continuation of the previous regimes and the fates of the officials or supporters of the Hailesellassie Regime were not different from that of the officials of Derg regarding political participation. The sympathizers of Pre-Derg regimes have been categorized as chauvinists and the sympathizers of the rights of nations and nationalities that refused to work under the guidance of EPRDF were categorized as narrow nationalists.
According to the political program of EPRDF, “The chauvinist ruling classes adhere to the principle of “Itiopiawinnet” (Ethiopianness) which kills identity based on nationality. So they do not follow the principle of forming a nation-wide organization through a union of nationality-based organizations. They aspire to form a dominant multi-nation organization composed of individuals from various nationalities and ethnic organizations that have betrayed the causes of their people and bowed to these chauvinists. Secessionists and narrow nationalist organizations do not want the fulfillment of the peoples’ common interests. So, they, too, do not want to form a nation-wide organization together with other nationality-based organizations” (Quoted by Jean-Nicolas Bach, EPRDF’s Nation-Building: Tinkering with convictions and pragmatism. file:///C:/Users/asab46/Downloads/cea-1501.pdf ). In general, EPRDF said my way is the only correct way for the future of Ethiopia and shut the dissenting voices. It used military force to crush opposition groups like Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) and used politicized laws and judges to control others. Several individuals were disappeared and jailed because of their political opinions. EPRDF that controlled government power through armed struggle controlled the politics through suppression and coercion.
The disagreement between the two former allies (TPLF and EPLF) which led to the Ethio-Eritrea War of 1998-2000, changed the political discourse of EPRDF to some extent. When Ethio- Eritrea war broke out in 1998, EPRDF wanted to mobilize soldiers and resources under Ethiopian national interest and appealed to Itophiyawinet (Ethiopianness). Following the end of Ethio-Eritrea War, some senior members of TPLF accused Meles Zenawi whose mother is Eritrean for being soft on Eritrea, for not being loyal to TPLF, and for undermining Tigray and Tigrayan nationalism for which many of their comrades gave their lives. On the other hand, Meles decided to crush his opponents before they crushed him and came up with the idea of “Bonapartism” in name of fighting corruption and anti-democratic behavior in the TPLF leadership. In March 2001, Meles confirmed his victory and purged his opponents from TPLF leadership and as a chairman of both TPLF and EPRDF he started focusing on loyalists and supporters outside Tigray. He also narrowly opened the political space once again for the opposition and promised to make the 2005 election free and fair. As a result, Ethiopia once again saw press and electronic media that entertained the dissenting opinions as it was once seen in the country in the first half of 1990s.
In the 2005 election, the total seats won by the opposition parties increased from 12 seats in 2000 to 174 seats. According to the final result of the 2005 Ethiopian General Election reported by the Carter Center, out of 547 parliamentary seats, EPRDF won 327 seats, EPRDF-affiliated parties won 45 seats, the opposition parties won 174 seats, and one seat was won by an individual candidate (https://www.cartercenter.org/resources/pdfs/news/peace_publications/election_reports/ethiopia-2005-finalrpt.pdf ). The increase in the total number of parliamentary seats won by the opposition parties from 12 in 2000 election to 147 in 2005 election shocked EPRDF and made it to retreat from the journey to democracy. Then after, EPRDF monopolized the political activities in Ethiopia as a dominant party (Awura Parti) and its chairman Meles Zenawi accused of being a dictator.
From 2005 to March 2018, EPRDF did everything it could to increase its members and supporters including giving them financial rewards, positions they didn’t deserve, giving them free hands to embezzle public funds, to sell government lands, and then blackmailing them. As the Chairman of Arena Tigray Mr. Abreha Dest explained in his Interview with Walta Television, EPRDF intentionally encouraged its members to steal public funds or be corrupt to blackmail them to be loyal and stay with the Front (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EH1NgxEA7UU) . EPRDF officials and members became above the law and untouchable. They looted public resources to enrich themselves, tortured anyone they thought opposing EPRDF, and committed several human rights violations.
EPRDF’s story is not only about negatives, but there are also positive achievements. Compared to the previous Imperial and Derg regimes in Ethiopia, EPRDF could be said better. For example, in political sphere, it tried to address the question of nations and nationalities which has been playing a pivotal role in Ethiopian politics. It tried to balance individual and group rights. In its program updated in 2017, EPRDF said “Democratic order is not limited to respecting human and democratic rights of the individual. On the basis of these rights and parallel to them, rights should extend to the right to self-determination and equality of nations and nationalities. The peoples of Ethiopia must become beneficiaries of these entitlements in full and on equal footing. In this regard, their capability to exercise these rights must be augmented and enhanced. In order to create a single, vibrant and coordinated economic community, all regions must have equal right and support to develop. A concerted struggle must be waged to create unity among Ethiopia’s peoples based on mutual interest and fraternity. To overcome sentiments that are hostile to the democratic unity of our people requires a relentless struggle based on democratic principles.” (http://www.eprdf.org.et/documents/10184/304166/EPRDF+PROGRAM.4+docx.pdf/e7e283a6-a52c-4336-b7e7-06cb22795d14 ).
In terms of economic development, EPRDF designed successive strategies including Agricultural Led Industrialization (ADL I), Sustainable Development and Poverty Reduction Program (SDPRP) (2003-2005), Plan for Accelerated and Sustained Development to End Poverty (PASDEP) (2006-2010), Growth and Poverty Reduction Program I (GTP I) (2011-2015), and GTP II (2016-2020) and managed to bring economic growth and decreased the number of population living below the poverty line which was 44 percent in 2000 to 30 percent in 2011 and to 24% percent in 2016 (https://www.worldbank.org/en/country/ethiopia/overview and http://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/poverty/publication/ethiopia-poverty-assessment and file:///C:/Users/asabebe.USUSAID/Downloads/Ethiopia_Paper.pdf)
I hope some blind critics will not say that the number of population below poverty line was cut by half because EPRDF killed half of those who lived under the poverty line. Recognizing the achievements brought by EPRDF is not to write-off the wrongs done by EPRDF. The credits and the condemnations should be based either on the total balance sheet or by separate entries, but not based on blind assumption or generalized guesstimate. The baseline of pre-1991 and other benchmarks show that there is economic growth in Ethiopia under EPRDF.
In his discussion with Tigray Television, Mr. Asmelash Woldeselasie, who is one of the senior members of TPLF and member of the House of Peoples’ Representative of Ethiopia, argued that the last 27 years of EPRDF rule were not dark period, rather the period of Ethiopian renaissance. He said unless the current political situation and changes which are undermining the achievements of EPRDF, the constitution and other laws of the country, and the federal system are reversed, it will lead to the disintegration of Ethiopia. He believes the Tigray people and TPLF were betrayed and called upon them to reverse the current dangerous situation in Ethiopia in coordination with other forces. Asmelash didn’t explain who these “other forces” he advised TPLF to coordinate with (https://youtu.be/3jhNNrayjzw and https://youtu.be/q-rih2xa0j8 ).
Within EPRDF, currently, there are groups who demand the amendment or change of the constitution and those who want to maintain the constitution. Some are even rushing to get more autonomy for their people by exercising the right for self-determination enshrined in the current constitution before it is changed. For example the zonal councils of Sidama, Walayta, Guragie, and Kaffa Zones of SNNP State demanded statehood status for their respective zones (https://www.ethiopia-insight.com/2018/11/28/as-southern-nations-break-free-pressure-mounts-on-eprdf/ ). These demands and the demands of Konso to split from the Segen Area Peoples’ Zone and Qimant to split from North Gonder Zone show that there are groups who believe the current constitution can give answer for their questions regarding more autonomy. On the other hand, there are groups who argue that the current constitution cannot answer the question of certain groups. For example the leaders of ADP disclosed that previously they believed the question of Welkait to be either part of the State of Tigray or the State of Amahara could be addressed through the constitutional procedures, but now they changed that position and want the identity of Welkait to be determined based on historical conditions and the wish of the Welkait people (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r5h0Od133Gk ). ADP leaders who claimed Amhara are not lineage counters (Amhara zer kotari aydelem) (https://youtu.be/heR5LRHITBE?t=5679 ) said they do not want Amhara to be like Kurds who are divided into five countries and became minorities in all five countries (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r5h0Od133Gk ). The decision to disregard the constitutional procedures and the plan to curve all territories inhabited by the people they think are Amharas including Wlkait, Metekel, Rayya, and may be Finfinne in to State of Amhara through unconstitutional means may lead the country to chaos and dangerous.
EPRDF that used to centrally commanding its members is now became decentralized and loose coalition. Its member organizations are now focusing on the consolidations of their own powers and accusing each other.
The Falling of EPRDF: The beginning of the end of EPRDF seen in the second half of 2012 with the death of Meles Zenawi in August 2012. Following the death of Meles Zenawi, EPRDF faced leadership crisis. Even though Hailemariam Dessalegn was elected as a Chairman of EPRDF he failed to provide the required leadership. Since he is neither one of the guerrilla fighters of EPRDF nor the founder of the organization, he didn’t get the due respect as a chairman of EPRDF and Prime Minister of Ethiopia. The senior TPLF members were reluctant to follow his guidance and as Hailemariam’s former advisor Getachew Redda disclosed in his interview with LTV (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wJ6B5ohPrxc ), Hailemariam lacked confidence to exercise his power and to make decisions.
Propping up Hailemariam with three Deputy Prime Ministers and several advisors, continuous meetings for renewal and deep renewal (tilk tehadiso) of EPRDF, declaration of state of emergency (marshal law), and establishing Command Posts failed to improve his leadership and to save EPRDF from falling. His weakness gave a way for gross violation of human rights and corruption by EPRDF officials. As explained by the current EPRDF chairman, Ethiopia became a country where the citizens were tortured in various private and government prison houses and public funds were looted in millions. The level of suppression and coercion made Ethiopia to reach a point where EPRDF cannot rule in the old way. The protest against EPRDF which was started in Oromia expanded to Amhara and Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples (SNNP) states and forced Hailemariam Dessalegn to resign from the positions of EPRDF chairmanship and Prime Minister.
In the first half of 2018, the three members of EPRDF (OPDO, ANDM, and SEPDM) turned against TPLF. The supports of Amhara and Oromo which helped TPLF to take power and stay in power as a core leader of EPRDF for 27 years were withdrawn and made TPLF to lose control of power in the Federal Government. As the ADP leaders explained during their meeting with Amharas living in Washington, D.C., on December 2, 2018, what brought the current change in EPRDF and in Ethiopia was the solidarity of Amhara and Oromo people. As Dr. Ambachew Mekonnen put it, the solidarity of Amhara and Oromo brought change in Ethiopia that liberated Ethiopians including EPRDF members (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=heR5LRHITBE&t=267s ). He also said that the change in EPRDF was happened in surprise where those who lost the control didn’t know that they would lose and where those who won were not sure that they would win. He emphasized that the victory of the winners was achieved when Dr. Abiy Ahmed was elected as the Chairman of EPRDF. There are also indications showing that SEPDM joined OPDO and ANDM to get Dr. Abiy Ahimed elected as a chairman of EPRDF (http://www.aigaforum.com/amharic-article-2018/the-undoing-of-eprdf-and-hailemariam-betrayal.htm ). In the recent interview with EBS TV, the former EPRDF chairman Hailemariam Dessalegn himself confirmed that he knew that Dr. Abiy will replace him as a EPRDF chairman even before the EPRDF central committee elected him (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tY5XOnSYXrE).
After the election of Dr. Abiy Ahmed as a chairman of EPRDF which automatically made him the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, the country saw unprecedented changes. The liberation fighters like OLF and ONLF as well as armed groups like Arbegnoch Ginbot 7 were invited to come to the country and promote their political agenda in peaceful means, the invitation they accepted; several political prisoners and those who were charged of treason and terrorism were given amnesty, top EPRDF officials who seem untouchable were removed from their positions.
Regardless of the remarkable changes made, it seems that the current trends in Ethiopia show that Ethiopian politics is going in a usual vicious circle. Emperor Hailesellassie took power by forcing Empress Tayitu Bitul to banish to Entoto, by deposing Lij Iyasu , dominating Empress Zewditu Menelik , and penalizing the supporters of Lij Iyasu. Derg took power by killing Emperor Hailesellassie and his top officials and arresting the rest. EPRDF that removed Derg from power charged top Derg officials for gross violation of human rights and killings and arrested them. The cycle is going on. Now, the Reformed EPRDF leaders are charging some of the top EPRDF officials for gross violation of human rights (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uGUcAV5fgng ) and looting of public funds (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9txunzSE71Q ) and putting them in jail. No one knows when this circle breaks and stops.
Today, EPRDF exists simply by name not in practice. We have individuals who rule the country in the name of EPRDF, but there is no EPRDF that we know for the past 27 years. As its leaders themselves said, EPRDF was broken like an egg. It doesn’t matter whether it was broken from inside or outside, but EPRDF was broken. The broken EPRDF failed to coordinate the actions of its member organization, failed to hold responsible its officials who are undermining the constitution in violation of Article 9 (2) of the constitution of the FDRE which say “All citizens, organs of state, political organizations, other associations as well as their officials have the duty to ensure observance of the Constitution and to obey it”. The broken and failed EPRDF is not in the position to stop Ethiopia from sliding back to the pre 1991 situation. For example, the Council of Ministers of the broken EPRDF-led government approved the draft “Administrative Boundaries and Identity Issues Commission Establishment Proclamation” (
https://chilot.me/2018/12/administrative-boundaries-and-identity-issues-commission-establishment-draft-proclamation/ ) which violates the constitution and intends to reduce the status of member States of the FDRE to the pre- 1991 administrative regions (https://youtu.be/99tkG4AZ25E ). The broken EPRDF is unable to stop the erosion of the constitution and the federal system.