Behind the Ethiopia protests: A view from inside the government
Posted on September 16, 2016
by Juneydi Saaddo <http://africanarguments.org/author/juneydi-saaddo/>
*An ex-cabinet minister in the Ethiopian government and former president
of Oromia Regional State explains why the current turmoil has come as no
[image: Scenes from the recent protests. Credit: Jawar Mohammed.]
Scenes from the recent protests. Credit: Jawar Mohammed.
For over two decades, the Ethiopian government has been walking with its
eyes shut towards the edge of the cliff. It is now tittering on the brink.
The protests and strikes that have been held across several towns and
cities since last year and have intensified over the past couple of months
may have come as a surprise to those who accepted the “Ethiopia rising”
myth. But it has come as no surprise to those of us who have seen the
political system unfurl from the inside.
[*Ethiopia’s unprecedented nationwide Oromo protests: who, what, why?
When a coalition of insurgent groups defeated the former military ruler
Mengistu Hailemariam in 1991, most Ethiopians hoped the country would
finally put aside its sad history of civil war and poverty and embark on a
democratic and prosperous future.
This hope was not without reason. A transitional charter that got rid of
the much despised centralised state structure culminated in a federal
system that would give self-rule to the country’s 80-plus ethnic groups.
Eritrea was allowed to hold a referendum to secede, which it did.
Furthermore, given that the rising power-holders were former student
radicals who had rebelled against military rule, many hoped the new leaders
would be committed to democratic principles.
Yet within a year, this hope had begun to crumble. In 1992, the Oromo
Liberation Front (OLF), a key member of the transitional government, was pushed
and resumed armed insurgency. Then, in 1994, the Ogaden National Liberation
Front, which had represented the Somali ethnic group (the third largest in
the country) in the negotiation of the Transitional Charter
also resumed armed struggle.
But despite such setbacks, many in the international community and in
Ethiopia gave the new rulers the benefit of the doubt. In 1998, then US
president Bill Clinton praised
Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, Isaias Afewerki of Eritrea and few
others as the “new generation of democratic leaders” in Africa.
Domestically, some began to embrace the new rulers too, whether out of
disappointment with the fractured opposition or because they were pleased
with some positive changes in social and economic policy.
In 1998, war broke <http://www.peri.umass.edu/fileadmin/pdf/Ethiopia2.pdf>
out with Eritrea. This conflict dashed hopes of peace in the region, but it
brought about national cohesion within Ethiopia as the public rallied
behind the government, led by the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
Many hoped the ruling party would use this support to establish an
inclusive and democratic political system in the post-war era a couple
years later. But instead, the war brought friction within the ruling party,
with the winning faction led by Meles Zenawi purging almost half the senior
Nevertheless, this move still strengthened hopes for reform. The perception
was that the hardliners had lost in the purge, while the reformists had
won. Meles had also aligned himself with non-Tigreans to help him overcome
the leadership challenge within the TPLF, leading many to assume Tigrean
dominance would be reduced. Furthermore, the prime minister put several
reforms on the agenda for internal and public discussion.
However, as it turned out, Meles was only keeping up the prospect of reform
until he re-consolidated power. And he soon began attacking ideas of
political and economic reform as part of conspiracies by neoliberal Western
The country responded to the now growing authoritarianism and Tigrean
domination by severely punishing the ruling coalition in the 2005 elections
with some claiming the opposition was robbed of victory by electoral fraud.
In the face of the mass protests that ensued, Meles resorted to extreme
repression and a crackdown against the opposition, killing hundreds
At this point, many Oromo military generals gave up on the hope of internal
reform and defected to Eritrea to join the OLF rebels. Amhara generals were
accused of plotting a coup d’etat and were thrown in jail. And thousands of
high and mid-ranking Amhara and Oromo officers were purged.
Meanwhile, mistrust and paranoia within the TPLF leadership continued to
increase. In order to cut off economic support for the dissent, businessmen
of Oromo, Amhara and Gurage origin had their business activities taken over
by Tigreans or were jailed.
*Meles’ death, Hailemariam’s **staged succession *
Meles died in the summer of 2012 after 21 years in power. As he was the
main actor blocking reform due to fears of losing personal power, many
believed his departure could lead to a fresh start. Those of us within the
regime clandestinely circulated this idea.
However, the reaction from the TPLF leadership was extremely negative. They
perceived the idea of a new transition as a conspiracy to push them aside.
They appointed a non-Tigrean – Hailemariam Desalegn – to be Meles’
replacement, but this gesture was totally disingenuous as they
simultaneously took swift measures to cripple the new PM’s power.
To begin with, they appointed some 37 generals, almost all of them
Tigreans, before the new prime minister took office in violation of the
constitution which gives such power to the prime minister and president.
They reduced the prime minister’s control over ministries by increasing the
number of deputy prime ministers from one to three, with each ministry
having to report to these deputies rather than the PM himself.
The Chief of Staff of the armed forces, the chiefs of intelligence, and
foreign affairs remained in the hand of the TPLF. Several senior advisors
were appointed to Hailemariam, almost all of them Tigreans. And while most
of the hardline TPLF members who were pushed out in 2001 began to work
covertly with the system again, those in government opposed to the
increasing one-party monopoly were either demoted or, as in my case, purged.
The country did not only lose a chance to reform with Meles’ death, but
entered a new and dangerous era. As the TPLF could not find a direct
replacement for Meles, leadership rivalries emerged and fractured the TPLF.
Meanwhile, several non-Tigreans in government finally gave up on internal
reform and started actively colluding with opposition parties and activists.
For those of us who have seen the genesis of the current crisis from the
inside, the current turn of events is therefore not surprising.
The eruption of mass <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-36940906>
protests in the two largest regions of Oromia and Amhara was inevitable as
these communities have been deliberately and systematically marginalised.
The resilience of these protests is also not unexpected, given not just the
depth of the people’s grievances but the complete lack of will to reform
from the government. The brutal response
<http://www.reuters.com/article/us-ethiopia-violence-idUSKCN10J0Z8> of the
regime is also in keeping with its paranoia about the rise of either the
Oromo or Amhara against Tigrayan domination or of the alliance between the
The government seems to think it can kill and jail its way out of this
unprecedented crisis, but no government could ever kill or jail such a vast
percentage of its population.
The ruling party has shown that it can no longer reform itself and the
state apparatus. It is therefore in the best interest of the country and
the region that the regime steps aside to allow an inclusive transitional
*Juneydi Saaddo is the former President of Oromia Regional State, the
largest region in Ethiopia. He served as Ethiopia’s Minister for Transport
& Communication, Minister for Science and Technology, and Civil Service
Minister until 2012.*
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