Ethiopia: How popular uprising became the only option
Posted on October 7, 2016 by Michael C. Mammo
In theory, the Oromo and Amhara are well-represented by parties in
government. But they have never been perceived to have either
legitimacy or autonomy.
The government claims 52 people were killed in the Irreecha
celebrations, but the opposition puts the figure much higher.
The government claims 52 people were killed in the Irreecha
celebrations, but the opposition puts the figure much higher.
When Shibiru Amana heard gunshots ring out near his home in the town
of Mandi on 26 September, he immediately rushed outside where he saw
people clamouring for safety and kids running for their lives. Across
the commotion, he later told VOA Afaan Oromo, Amana spotted a young
boy lying lifeless on the ground. He mustered up the courage and took
a few steps towards him. It was his younger brother Lidata.
Lidata, who was just 15 years old, had been shot in the torso. His
transgression had been shouting a few anti-government slogans at a
gathering on the eve of the Meskel holiday.
A week later, enormous numbers of people from all corners of the
Oromia region descended on the town of Bishoftu to celebrate
Irreechaa, an annual Oromo thanksgiving festival. When some began to
protest, security officers responded by firing tear gas and live
ammunition, according to witnesses and videos that later emerged on
The crowed was packed between a lake and treacherous terrain, and in
the panic that ensued, many died. The government reported that 52
died. Human rights groups say several hundreds were killed. Meanwhile,
the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) put the death toll at a huge 678.
The ongoing wave of protests in Ethiopia was initially triggered in
November 2015 by a development plan that would have expanded the
capital Addis Ababa into neighbouring Oromia towns. This plan was
eventually suspended, but the protests amongst the Oromo people
continued and have since spread to over 200 towns and been joined by
Amhara demonstrators too. The government has often responded by
sending in security forces that have engaged in deadly violence,
leading to the deaths of over 600 people, according to rights groups,
and over 1,000, according to activists.
[Ethiopia’s unprecedented nationwide Oromo protests: who, what, why?]
While some of these killings in Oromia have been carried out by
regional police, it is notable that much of the security response has
been conducted by the federal police and army. As Amana explained, “I
wanted to ask the police officers why they killed my brother but they
speak a different language”.
Under Ethiopia’s system of ethnic federalism – comprising of nine
states and two chartered cities – significant powers are devolved to
regional authorities, including the right to establish a state police
force and maintain public order within the region. The federal army is
only permitted to intervene at the request of the Oromia regional
However, the reality is that much of this devolved autonomy only
exists in theory, and the fact that federal forces have been deployed
reportedly without the express request of the Oromia government speaks
to its lack of sovereignty.
Indeed, for the last 25 years, politics has been controlled by the
four-party ruling coalition known as the Ethiopian People’s
Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). This alliance includes the
Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation (OPDO), the Amhara National
Democratic Movement (ANDM), and the Southern Ethiopian People’s
Democratic Movement (SEPDM). But its lead partner is the Tigray
People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
This latter party’s base represents just 6% of Ethiopia’s 100 million
population, but TPLF elites have long dominated the country’s
political and economic spheres and kept a hold on key posts such as
defence, intelligence and foreign affairs.
It is partly anger at these inequalities that is driving protests in
Oromia and Amhara. The government has largely denounced these
demonstrators and used force, but it also recently announced it would
evaluate the performance of its regional parties and engage in the
necessary reforms of them to address the people’s concerns.
In 2001, the year Lidata was born, the Ethiopian government also faced
the need for an internal upheaval. A struggle for power within the
TPLF had just concluded and the faction led by then Prime Minister
Meles Zenawi had come out on top. A major purge of his opponents in
government soon followed.
OPDO’s leaders had been indecisive in declaring their loyalties during
the factional fight and were largely sidelined. Negasso Gidada, former
president of Ethiopia and chair of the OPDO, was suspended along with
other senior leaders. Meanwhile, Kuma Demeksa, an OPDO central
committee member and president of the Oromia region, was removed and
later replaced by Juneydi Saaddo, a new technocrat on the block.
In times of crisis and internal party strife such as these, there was
nothing Meles enjoyed more than conducting a highly charged meeting
(‘gimgema’) in which participants engaged in criticism and
self-criticism. Those from the OPDO reportedly engaged in a frantic
admission of guilt.
15 years on from this – and four years since Meles’ death in 2012 –
today’s widespread protests have forced senior leaders in the TPLF and
EPRDF to resurrect their ideologue’s penchant for reform. These recent
changes have been spoken about under the banner of Tilq Tehadiso,
which is Amharic for “deep reform”, and are supposed to “tackle
rent-seeking” and “root out nepotism”. But the reality is that the
exercise has been, at best, a cosmetic reshuffle.
At worst, it has been used to usher in an even more confrontational
approach to the protests. In its September 2016 party congress, for
instance, the OPDO replaced its chair and vice-chair with Lemma
Megersa, a former Security Chief for the region, and Workneh Gebeyehu,
a former Director-General of the Federal Police Commission. This shift
is widely believed to have been choreographed by the TPLF, and the
combined intelligence and law enforcement expertise of the two new
leaders will be of immediate value to the government. According to
Jawar Mohammed, a US-based Oromo political activist, the move is an
attempt to “further militarize the administration in Oromia”.
Indeed, early evidence suggests the new leadership is taking a more
ruthless approach. Weeks after the change of guard, crackdowns have
intensified in parts of Oromia, leading scores if not hundreds such as
Lidata to lose their lives. “That’s the closest I have ever been to a
war,” Bayesa Abera, who has attended every Irreechaa celebration for
the past 10 years, said of events earlier this week. “I am lucky to be
Neither the cause nor the solution
The OPDO is not the only Oromo political party in Ethiopia, but thanks
to the TPLF, it has developed a sense of near invincibility over its
competitors in the region since the 1990s.
According to insiders, the TPLF masterminded the very creation of the
OPDO in 1989 in order to pit them against the Oromo Liberation Front
(OLF), a group with which its relations were deteriorating. The TPLF
struggled to encourage the formation of this new OPDO party, however,
and reportedly had to call upon on Oromo-speaking prisoners of war to
make up its members. From its early days, OPDO officials were widely
referred to disparagingly as ‘maxxanne’, Oromo for freeloader.
In 1992, the now banned OLF, a more potent symbol of Oromo
nationalism, finally withdrew from the transitional government in
acrimonious circumstances, and since then, the TPLF has ensured that
its OPDO ally has completely dominated in the region. As a Human
Rights Watch report from 2005 noted, “From top to bottom, the OPDO has
had a near-total monopoly on political power in Oromia since 1992”.
Two Oromo opposition parties – the Oromo National Congress (ONC) and
Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement (OFDM) – did manage to enter the
political fray when they won seats in the 2005 elections. But they
were constantly undermined to prevent them from mounting a real
challenge to the OPDO’s supremacy. This strategy of restricting
political space to opposition parties culminated in the 2015 elections
in which the OPDO officially won all 537 seats in the regional state
council and all 178 seats allocated to the region in the federal
The OPDO’s loyalties have thus always been with the TPLF, and when men
and women across Oromia have been gunned down, no OPDO official has
had the courage to condemn excessive use of force. Juneydi Saaddo, a
former ODPO cabinet minister who is now in exile, explained recently
in an interview that those in government fear reprisals if they speak
out against TPLF dominance, and confessed that the OPDO has never been
able to shake off its subservient status.
[Behind the Ethiopia protests: A view from inside the government]
For the protesters in Oromia therefore, the OPDO possesses neither
legitimacy nor autonomy, and any reshuffle of its leadership is
considered as inconsequential as the party itself. The overwhelming
belief is that its leaders are handpicked by the TPLF puppet-masters,
and the new generation of Oromo youth – known as the ‘Qeerroo’ – have
seen that it is business as usual after the latest reform. As Jawar
Mohammed argued following the change of guard, “the OPDO is neither
the cause nor the solution for the political crisis”.
Over the past year, Oromo protesters have been calling for genuine
representation in government, an end to the dominance of a single
ethnic group, respect for democratic and human rights, an end to
indiscriminate killings and repression, and the cessation of
marginalisation and evictions of Oromo from their ancestral lands.
These are issues that far exceed the powers of the OPDO.
A Luta Continua
Over the past few months, the Amhara have joined the protests and
there have been shows of unprecedented solidarity with the Oromo,
united in their shared grievances. This is a significant development.
Together, these two ethnic groups make up more than two-thirds of
Ethiopia’s population, and Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn’s most
urgent and perhaps toughest job now is to halt or reverse this growing
[“The blood flowing in Oromia is our blood too”: Why Oromo-Amhara
solidarity is the greatest threat to the Ethiopian government]
Former strongman Meles Zenawi long managed to avoid this situation by
stoking historical antagonisms in order to create perpetual mistrust
between the two groups. He effectively drilled this trick into his
disciples too, including current Communications Minister Getachew
Reda, who in a recent interview, bluntly admitted that “the alliance
between the two…is clear evidence that the government has failed to do
But Prime Minister Hailemariam, a former technocrat hailing from
Ethiopia’s southern region, has proven less politically cunning than
his predecessor. His attempts at employing the old divisive tactics,
even mimicking Meles’ language and gestures at times, have failed as
solidarity between the Amhara and Oromo has grown both within Ethiopia
and in the diaspora. When the state TV recently unearthed and aired
old footage of Meles expounding on the “narrow nationalism” and
“chauvinism” of the two groups, it highlighted Hailemariam’s
comparative lack of skill in delivering effective propaganda.
>From Hailemariam’s first day in office, it has been clear that the
TPLF still calls the shots. In fact, it is believed that his very
survival strategy is to play second fiddle to gain approval from the
TPLF hierarchy. But if protests continue, he could end up as a
However, one thing the PM may take encouragement from is the fact that
despite the turmoil facing the country, support from key Western
allies hasn’t wavered. The US government in particular has shown
little interest beyond penning half-hearted statements of concern,
reluctant to criticise a partner it sees as a force for stability in a
volatile region and a major ally in its War on Terror.
In this configuration, the Ethiopian government has barely had to
project even the semblance of democracy for Western diplomats to
continue singing its praises. For instance, when US President Barack
Obama paid a visit to the country in July 2015 – just two months after
the ruling party and its allies won 100% of seats in parliament amidst
accusations of intimidation and fraud – he described the government as
“democratically elected”. The killing of hundreds of protesters since
then has done little to shift this position.
The events of the last 11 months – and the responses from the
Ethiopian government and its allies – have shown that Ethiopia’s
protesters must take it upon themselves to define their destiny and
bring an end to their peripheral role. Indeed, this seems to be the
position that demonstrators in both Oromia and Amhara have willingly
adopted, aware that as the two largest ethnic groups in the region,
the success of their struggle lies in their ability to galvanise the
public to rally and create links of solidarity with others who share
their grievances. External actors can facilitate, but not replace,
But this struggle goes on. At the funeral of Lidata, just one of many
who have lost their lives at the hands of security forces, friends and
family said their eulogies to celebrate his life and grieved that it
had been so tragically cut short. A whole community gave him the
send-off that he deserved, with mourners chanting pro-freedom slogans,
of which one particularly stood out. Qabsoon itti fufa, or Oromo for
“A Luta Continua”.
Michael C. Mammo is studying for his PhD at the University of
Birmingham. He is a former Ethiopia correspondent for Inter Press
Service and Spanish News Agency (EFE). He tweets at @mcmammo.
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4 thoughts on “Ethiopia: How popular uprising became the only option”
Monte McMurchy says:
October 9, 2016 at 10:47 am
For me, reading this most excellent article in Kinshasa, DRC, the
takeaway is that violence is never an appropriate response to civil
unrest which is non violent. Violence has unfortunately an kinetic
tendency to spin out of control whereby all the participating actors
are no longer able to direct and control the activities of their
people leading into circumstances most unfortunate as civil order
The Government of DRC ought to take heed and respect that any or
all demonstrations in voice must not be responded by kinetics.
All Citizens have the right to articulate in voice concerns which
are directed to the authorities. The authorities do not have the right
to respond with force disproportionate.
Africa is in need of responsive leadership which understands that
leadership entails responsibility in being accountable to the people
who within the ethos of a ‘social contract’ are indeed the master.
thomas gedle says:
October 9, 2016 at 3:08 pm
As an avid reader with huge interest in Ethiopian Politics, I have
read countless articles and participated in may online discussions,
but Mr. Mammo’s piece is by far the most comprehensive and most
succinct analysis of what is going on in Ethiopia today. Well written
and very informative article.
zawdie ferede says:
October 9, 2016 at 4:02 pm
First- my deepest sympathy and support goes out to the victims the
wounded and their Families !!! (2nd) people should know that ! They
weren’t “peaceful Protesters …They were ‘RIOTING’ ..there is no excuse
for such behavior ! Protesters carry sign and work for Peaceful change
in civilized manner ! instead this people of looters took the
opportunity to rob ,steel, burn, endangering peoples lives ,and ruin
privet store owners and also attacking more than 20 foreign owned
factories burn down to the ground..who had nothing to do with anything
…because of that over 50.000 jobs were lost as well ! Yet ! they
wonder why the majority of society has no sympathy and their messages
is being ignored ! unbelievable …if you commit a violent Act for the
intent to create fear or inflict pain on large group people , no
matter what RACE or Religions you are by definition a’ Terrorist’ it
means to use of violence and threats to intimidate or Coerce
,specially for political purposes ! all of witch are offenses worthy
of arrest !! If you wish to blame your situations on Racism and
blaming the Ethiopian government for everything happen is Wrong !!
Eend of Story…. thank’s.
October 10, 2016 at 6:58 am
The so called state of Emergency can not bring peace; in fact, it
agravtes the matter. Even before the state of emergency was declared
the notorious security was taking measures included in the law. They
were already practising
– arrest with out court oder
– forbiding public gathering and peacful protests
– arbitarry killings
I suspect that the law has rather a hidden objectives such as
1. commiting more severe genocides
2. frightening freedom fighters
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