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The ‘Ethiopian Spring’: Ethiopia plunging into a crisis

Oromo protesters have put up barricades on the road in the town of Wolenkomi, some 60km west of Addis Ababa (Credit: AFP)

By RENÉ LEFORT | Open Democracy

The Ethiopian leadership remains in denial. The long meetings of its ruling bodies have culminated in a report on 15 years of national “rebirth”, in which it awards itself good marks, while acknowledging the existence of a few problems here and there.

Nonetheless, the odd warning signal may be heard – though very seldom – in counterpoint to the general complacency. Hailemariam Desalegn, prime minister and chairman of what is essentially the single party, has gone so far as to warn that the issues facing the regime are a matter of “life or death”,[1] and that Ethiopia is “sliding towards ethnic conflict similar to that in neighbouring countries”.[2]

Well, these neighbouring countries include Somalia, epitome of the ‘failed state’, and Sudan, which has split in two and where civil war is raging in the new Southern State. In this, unusually, he is in agreement with Merera Gudina, head of one of the main opposition parties still permitted to operate, who speaks of the probability of “civil war […] if the government continues to repress”.[3] There is every sign that Ethiopia is plunging into a crisis whose scale, intensity, and multiple and interdependent drivers are unprecedented since the founding of the regime in 1991, although the impossibility of field research precludes any in-depth and conclusive assessment.

The first, very discreet signs of this crisis appeared in the spring of 2014 in a part of the country where they were probably least expected: in Tigray, where the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), pillar of the quadri-ethnic party ruling coalition – the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) – seemed both unopposed and unopposable.

Yet the Tigreans loudly and clearly accused “their” Front of neglecting them by only looking after its own interests or, as Hailemariam Desalegn expressed it, of using “public authority for personal gain at all levels”.[4]

The crisis erupted into the open a few weeks later in Oromya, with additional grievances. In the most populous of the nine states and two municipalities that make up federal Ethiopia, a state that is also the country’s economic powerhouse, students took to the streets to protest against the Addis Ababa Master Plan. Their suspicion was that this would inevitably lead to a transfer of sovereignty from the Oromo region to central government and be accompanied by “land grabbing”, the expulsion and dispossession of the local peasant farmers. Protests resumed in November 2015 and continue today at a larger scale that now includes the general population and almost the whole of Oromo State.

Turning up the heat

The heat was turned up a further notch in mid-July with the advent of protests in the historic heart of Amhara State. Together, Amhara and Oromo account for almost two-thirds of the country’s total population. The diversity of the ways of life that characterizes Oromo – farmers and pastoralists, of its religions – Orthodox Christian, Muslim, Protestant, animist, together with its very loose traditional structures, prompts Merera Gudina to emphasise “the chronic division between Oromo political forces”.[5] By contrast, the homogeneity of the Amhara population – in its vast majority small farmers and Christian Orthodox – fosters unity, while its mobilisation is favoured by its sense of hierarchy and discipline. Finally, the parallel protests by Oromo and Amhara, with largely shared reasons and objectives, breaks with their historical antagonism: the dispossession and subsequent exploitation of the Oromo by an Amhara – and Tigrean – elite from the late nineteenth century onwards, embedded their relations in a system that the Oromo have described as colonial.

The toughest demonstrations that the regime had faced followed the contested elections of 2005. They were essentially confined to Addis Ababa, with the young unemployed playing a major role. In all, they lasted only a few days, in two surges. They came in response to a call from established political forces for a very clear outcome – respect for the verdict of the ballot box. The regime reacted in unison with violent repression – killing almost 200 and arresting tens of thousands – immediately followed by a large-scale strategy of political reconquest through the expansion of the quasi-single party and a rallying of the elites. The protests very quickly died down, and the opposition forces collapsed.

This time, the protests affect the country’s two main states. Despite the repression – hundreds killed, thousands arrested – it has been going on for nine months, with varying degrees of intensity. The attempts at dissuasion through fear have not been enough[6] – at least for the moment – to demobilize the protesters, as evidenced by new forms of protest such as the recent “dead city” operations in the Amhara region[7] and the just launched boycott campaign in Oromya.

This time, a whole generation of young people is in the forefront of the protests – the 15-29 age group represents more than a quarter of the population – starting with, but not confined to, all those who have benefited from mass education, who have carried their elders with them. This time, their anger derives from widespread discontent, focusing on three areas.

First, they are fed up not just with the regime’s authoritarianism, but more so with the way it is exercised: supervision and control that are stifling, intrusive and infantilising, imposed everywhere, all the time, on everyone, by a Party that has swallowed up the State. The second focus is the implementation of a federalism that is in theory equitable, but in reality profoundly unbalanced. Tigray, representing 6% of the population, was the epicentre of the rebellion, which threw out Mengistu Haile Mariam’s military-socialist junta in 1991, the Derg. It was headed by the Tigrean student elite that founded the TPLF. This historical role justified its initial primacy.

Twenty-five years on, however, this elite remains vastly overrepresented at the apex of political power, the army, the security services. In addition, through public and para-public companies, it controls two thirds of the modern economy, excluding traditional agriculture.

The third focus of discontent is the backlashes of the “developmental state”. This system centralises revenues at the summit of power, which supremely decides on its optimal use for development across the country. This strategy has been decisive in the exceptional economic growth of the last decade – probably around 6% to 7% per year – and in the expansion of education and health services alike. However, the centralisation it entails is evidently incompatible with authentic federalism. Moreover, in the specific Ethiopian case, the fact that the functions of political leadership, economic decision-making and the management of public and para-public enterprises are concentrated in the hands of the same people at the summit of the party-state, free of any control and political counterweight, has led to the creation of a tentacular and increasingly voracious and arrogant oligarchy, which has ultimately filtered down to village level.

These flaws have had a cumulative and mutually reinforcing impact. In Oromya in particular, the implementation of development projects dictated from above and often controlled by nonindigenous oligarchs, has frequently been marked by authoritarianism, spoliation and ethnic favouritism. In the case of “land grabbing”, there are multiple instances of land being brutally appropriated and embezzlement of the compensation owed to evicted farmers. The triggering factor for the protests in Amhara region was the authorities’ refusal to tackle the dispute arising from the incorporation into Tigray of the Wolkait region – a thin strip of land in the north that was part of the imperial province of Amhara – imposed after 1991 without public consultation of any kind, together with the transfer of western areas to Sudan, a process conducted in total secrecy.


The demonstrators’ slogans and targets speak for themselves. They have attacked prisons to free the inmates. They have ransacked public properties, not just offices, vehicles, etc., but also health centres, unemployment offices and cooperatives, places they see as existing more to control the population than to perform their purported functions.

They have gone after local party bosses and their possessions – the lowest layer of the oligarchy – targeting government representatives as much as the despoilers. They have burned businesses owned by national and foreign investors (farms, factories, hotels, etc.) because they symbolise an external stranglehold over Oromya and the Amhara region. “Oromya is not for sale” was one favourite slogan. In short, the demonstrators are targeting both the persons and property of those they see as having obtained position and/or wealth at their expense, through the patronage of the ruling power. “Thief!” is one of the most oft repeated slogans.

In Oromya, the conviction of having remained second-class citizens in a system dominated by a “northist” minority, and in the Amhara region of having become second-class and of feeling permanently “humiliated and marginalized”[8] because a part of the Amhara elite was dominant in the imperial era, is less and less tolerated. The assertion of ethnic identity and the demand for the full rights associated with it are at the heart of the demonstrations. “We want genuine self rule”, cry the Oromo, “We are Amhara”, declare the crowds in the historical capital Gondar, or in Bahir Dar, the new capital. However, these claims are also taking a very worrying turn. In Oromo, demonstrators have gone after Amhara and Tigreans, as well as their properties. Tigreans have been targeted in the Amhara region. However, distortions of every kind in the propaganda war make the reality difficult to grasp. In particular, were the rioters targeting arrivistes more than Tigreans, or vice versa? Anyway, Tigreans are even beginning to leave certain areas, notably in a “mass exodus” from Gondar.[9] Some go so far as to speak of “ethnic cleansing”.

There are pressing calls for these practices to cease, both on social media and from the legal opposition. But as Beyene Petros, one of its leaders, explains: “we’re just watching… people are coming out spontaneously… political parties are bypassed”.[10] By contrast with 2005, this popular protest is largely independent of the legal opposition, and even the illegal opposition groups, such as the Oromo Liberation Front, the oldest and most radical of the Oromo “nationalist movements”, and Ginbot 7, heir to one of the big opposition parties of 2005 and considered a pan-Ethiopian movement.

There is no secret central command orchestrating events, although there is no doubt that informal clandestine networks, with links to the diaspora, are contributing to basic coordination and the exchange of information. “These protests are at the level of an intifada”, claims Merera Gudina,[11] or rather at the level of what could be called an “Ethiopian Spring” reminiscent of the “Arab Springs”.

‘Arab plot’

In addressing this situation, the ruling power clings stubbornly to a binary, reductive and simplistic analysis. True, it quickly shelved the Master Plan, an entirely unprecedented turnaround. It also reaffirmed the self-critique that emerged from the congresses of summer 2015: beyond the immense benefits that it has brought – peace and development – its action has been marred by failures and deficiencies, notably with regard to corruption, bad governance, unaccountability and youth unemployment. The narrative is that these are the only failings that the “public” condemns, which makes them “legitimate”. It has undertaken to correct them and “to discuss with the people” in order to tackle them more effectively.

So the legitimacy of these “public” claims is accepted. But those who demand more are supposedly driven by a “destructive agenda” manipulated by “destructive”, “anti-peace”, “anti-development elements”, “bandits”, or even “evil forces” and “terrorist groups”, “extremist Diaspora members who have negotiated their country’s chaos for money”, which are puppets of “foreign actors” or “invaders”, starting with Eritrea. It is they who are “hijacking” peaceful demonstrations and turning them into illegal and violent protests. Websites close to the TPLF, among the few accessible in Ethiopia, are more explicit: according to them, the wave of protest is simply the outcome of an Arab plot, led by Egypt, in which Asmara, the OLF and Ginbot 7 are mere “foot soldiers”. Their real purpose? “To destabilise” Ethiopia, repeats the government, “the total disintegration of Ethiopia as a country”, according to these websites.[12]

To attribute the crisis to external, foreign conspiracy is unjustifiable. Eritrea, still in an on/off state of war with Ethiopia, and Egypt, deeply alarmed by the construction of a colossal dam on the Nile, would undoubtedly welcome a weakening of Ethiopia. It may even be that they are trying to fan the flames. But they do not have the means to light the fire and keep it burning. And the ruling power’s claim that they have been able to do so is itself an admission of weakness: for them to succeed, the regime must already have been resting on weak foundations.

This externalisation also exempts the government from having to consider the grievances at the heart of the protests, going far beyond a few personal failings and deficiencies in implementation. Externalisation is also used to justify repression as the only possible response: there can be no compromise with the enemies of the motherland. It would therefore be pointless to move beyond the use of force and engage in the political sphere, as it did in 2005. Above all, however, the government rejects this option because a political response to the protesters’ demands would require it to question its whole political structure and policy.


The TPLF is a child of the student movement of the end of Haile Selassie’s reign, radically Marxist and above all Leninist. From its creation, it adopted the movement’s analysis of Ethiopian society. The peasantry – still 80% of the population today – backward and illiterate, the working class tiny and in any case ‘trade-unionist’, the ‘national’ bourgeoisie equally small and anyway indecisive, assigned an irreplaceable role to “revolutionary intellectuals”, as Lenin defined them. They are the only ones able to develop the path that would bring Ethiopia progress and well-being, and therefore the only ones with the legitimacy to impose it on Ethiopians, willingly or by force if necessary.[13]

This conviction remains. Just a few years ago, Hailemariam Desalegn explained: “due to poor education and illiteracy, the Ethiopian public is too underdeveloped to make a well reasoned, informed decision”; so the “enlightened leaders” have “to lead the people”.[14] At the other extreme, every local official is convinced that his position places him within the circle of “enlightened leaders” and that he has the right and duty to assume all the authority associated with that role.

This messianic vision creates an unbridgeable divide between a handful of ‘knowers’, an ‘intellocracy’, which alone has the legitimacy and the capacity to exercise power, and all the others, the ‘ignorant’, in other words the people, reified and bound to obey in its own interests, whatever it may think. It justifies a totalising ascendancy in every sphere, exercised through an age-old hierarchy on which the Leninist formula “democratic centralism” confers a modern and revolutionary dimension. Or, in this particular case, “revolutionary elitism” or “elitist centralism”.[15] Of course, the outcome has been exactly the same: centralising excess and denial of democracy, culminating with the installation of a “strong man” at the apex of a pyramid of power. Meles Zenawi, the prime minister until his death in 2012, would become the acknowledged fulfiller of this role, drawing on immense rhetorical skills backed by an exceptional intelligence.

In this binary vision, the political spectrum is inevitably polarised at two extremes. The ruling power is the sole promoter of peace and development. Those who oppose or merely question it are assigned to the “anti-peace”, “anti-development”, “anti-federalist” camp, as “chauvinists” or “narrow nationalists”, threatening the Ethiopian state and the integrity of the country. Although masked in the early days of the TPLF by the collective operation of the leadership, this conception of ruling, monopolistic and exclusive to the point of extreme sectarianism, is in essence undemocratic. It legitimises the use of force whenever those in power deem it appropriate.

A new middle class

However, a growing section of the population is no longer prepared to be stifled, undervalued and marginalised. A new middle class has emerged, essentially in the public sector, in services and – largely unrecognised – in the countryside, where a rump of recently enriched farmers has emerged. 700,000 young people are in university, 500,000 have obtained degrees in the last five years.[16] In a country of close to 100 million inhabitants, the number of mobile phone customers has reached 46 million, internet users 13.6 million,[17] compared respectively with fewer than a million and 30,000 ten years ago. Satellite dishes have sprouted on the roofs wherever electricity is present, breaking the public television monopoly. It is estimated that 4 million Ethiopians live abroad, but still maintain close relations with their native country. Millions of Ethiopians are suddenly connected to the world. More globally, the demands society now places on the regime are commensurate with the upheavals brought about by the development it has driven. In this sense, the regime’s very successes have come back to bite it.

Ethnic faultlines are also imprinted in the regime’s DNA. From the mid-1980s onwards, the TPLF carried its combat against the Derg from the regional to the national level. At least within the country’s two major “nations”, Oromo and Amhara, it thus had to find ethnic political movements to join it. But rather than forming partnerships, which would have entailed power-sharing, it imposed its grip on them. That is the original sin of federalism ‘Ethiopian style’.

Rather than reaching agreement with the spearhead of anti-Derg struggle in Oromya, the OLF, it created the Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation (OPDO), drawn from among its Oromo or simply Oromifa-speaking prisoners. This structure would be confined to the rank of ‘junior partner’, even more than the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM), the Amhara component of the EPRDF, although its initial nucleus had been an autonomous group. The new Oromo and Amhara elites that joined this structure did so more out of opportunism than by conviction, and in general at least without recognising their leaderships as legitimate representatives.

Federalism, which was supposed to achieve a harmonious balance in inter-ethnic relations, has in fact as practised led ultimately to their deterioration. It faced an insurmountable contradiction. On the one hand, it promoted new ethnic elites to political, administrative and economic functions; on the other, it continued to keep them subordinate, while sharpening ethnic identities. Large parts of these elites, and moreover large swathes of their nations, are no longer prepared to tolerate this.

Deepening faultlines

Ultimately, the exclusiveness and top-down approach are having a negative impact on the economy. In the first phase, the party’s control over the State and the modern sector encouraged the mobilisation and effective use of resources. At this time, the ‘developmental state’ proved its worth by delivering remarkable economic growth. It has to continue if the regime wishes to tout it as a pillar of its legitimacy.

However, this model is on the wane. The developmental state has gone off the rails, diverted by the oligarchical dynamic. The onus is on private investors, in particular foreign investors, to take over from public investment to drive structural transformation towards a globalised market economy. However, the governing power’s obsession with maintaining control is stifling those investors.

Finally, the party political discipline imposed on the technocracy smothers its professional capacities and its confidence. This is one of the primary sources of frustration. It also hampers the effective use of the resources essential for growth in an increasingly complex economy. Yet even at its current rate, that growth is unable to absorb the two to two and a half million young people entering the labour market each year, including new graduates, contributing to the anger that is now exploding in the streets.

In light of these contradictions, the fault lines are deepening. The discontent of the Tigreans has triggered the emergence of a ‘reforming’, pragmatic and politicised current inside the TPLF, which wants to rally them by making the Front work for them again. It advocates breaking with the “rule of force”, an immemorial feature of Ethiopian history.

It underlines that the only way to achieve long-term stability, beginning with peaceful changes of government, is through the step-by-step introduction of the “rule of law” by full and integral application of the constitution, notably the separation of powers, the exercise of fundamental liberties and an authentic federalism.[18] It would have to be “consociationalist”. The chief nations would be equally represented, with decisions taken by consensus, so each would possess an effective right of veto. The second “traditionalist” or “conservative” current rejects significant change and argues for continuity. Essentially, it takes the view that Ethiopia is not yet mature enough for democratic move, and still needs to kept under iron control. A website close to the TPLF argues: “the people are not ready yet in every aspect and meaning of the word (democracy). Any attempt to accelerate that process other than its natural course… can only lead to darker places”.[19]

Reflecting the intensity of this division, these websites are full of heated debate between those who show real understanding of the protests and those who utterly condemn them, between those arguing for immediate political openness and those calling first and foremost for the crushing of the unrest. However, they agree on one point: an unprecedentedly virulent condemnation of the leadership of the Front, which is deemed inept and incapable of handling the situation.

This political division has also reached the ranks of the ANDM and OPDO, but here the focus is on federalism. The “ethno-nationalists” reject the asymmetries of the current federal system and are keen to assert their party’s autonomy from the TPLF. Their adversaries are considered too weak to fend for themselves and vitally in need of the TPLF’s support. So, the OPDO base has literally disintegrated. At its summit, there is overt opposition between Abadula Gemeda, who expresses understanding for the claims of protesters and is the only leader who enjoys real popularity, and Muktar Kedir, who is perceived as an insubstantial apparatchik imposed by the TPLF. The same applies to the problematic destiny of Gedu Andergatchew, President of the Amhara region, number two in the ANDM and the Movement’s real heavyweight in terms of popularity, and the official number one, Demeke Mekonnen, a much criticised figure who is nevertheless supported by the TPLF.

This ethnicisation of the political landscape is also apparent in the deterioration of relations between TPLF, ANDM and OPDO. Discussions with their rank and file members and a reading of their websites give an insight into their mutual mistrust.

In the TPLF, there is an iron belief that the “rotten chauvinists” and “revanchist” Amhara, controlled remotely by Ginbot 7, have “hijacked” the ANDM, are intent of restoring their former hegemony by “overtaking the position of TPLF in the Ethiopian politics” and are even once again forcing Tigreans “to defend our existence from extinction”.[20]

In the ANDM, there is a conviction that the TPLF wants to continue to make Amhara pay for the former dominance of some of their elite, to marginalize them and to dispossess them of ancestral lands.[21] For the ordinary OPDO party official, nothing has changed since the nineteenth century conquests: exploitation, oppression, marginalisation, or even quite baldly “genocide”. Hackneyed as it clearly is, the word is widely used, symptomatic of a paranoia that casts doubt on what remains of the unity at least at the base of the EPRDF.

These fractures were born since the initial formation of the ruling power. Meles Zenawi widened them, but succeeded in masking them by maintaining an iron grip over the tensions that they engendered. The present wave of protests has exacerbated them. They are splitting, not to say cracking, the party, from its summit to its 7 million member base, which is torn between loyalty and discipline, the material advantages of membership, and the ever-growing swell of popular aspirations within it.

In Oromya, part of the OPDO pushed behind the scenes for overt opposition to the Master Plan. The regional police were unable to cope or adopt a prudent ‘wait and see’ strategy. Today, they are virtually out of the game, and the federal police and army have had to intervene. The OPDO has essentially been relieved of the government of Oromya, which is under military administration via a “Command Post” based in Addis Ababa and headed by Hailemariam Dessalegn.[22] In the Amhara region, at least the big initial demonstrations were held with the support or tacit approval of part of the ANDM, although officially forbidden. Out of their depth, the Amhara State authorities had to request army intervention. The region has been placed under military command.[23]

The growing number of leaks of documents and recordings of discussions at the highest level of government and the State-Party are testament to the fact that frontline leaders now have one foot in the government camp and one in the protesters’ camp. Villages and entire local areas are taking advantage of the dilution or even disappearance of public authority to set up embryonic forms of self-government. In places, the State-Party’s local structures have placed their organisations at the service of the protesters. Armed men, who can only be village militiamen in principle strictly under local government control, have fired in the air alongside demonstrators. They are necessarily involved in fatal ambushes on soldiers and attacks on military depots. Desertions and overt acts of insubordination are taking place.

Losing authority

By contrast with 2005, when neither the federal nor regional governments lost control, today – at least at certain times and in certain places – they have lost authority over their own agents and even their monopoly on the use of force. Hailemariam Desalegn had to concede: “chaos” has broken out “in parts of Oromia and Amhara states”..[24] There has been a shift from demonstrations to riots, and then from riots to pockets of insurrection. Militiamen and farmers hold hundreds of thousands of weapons. The transition from unrest towards a scattered armed peasant revolt (a “jacquerie”), is a possibility.

The crisis is not only about a change of government, or even regime change. It is systemic, because it is rooted in the form in which contemporary power has been exercised since its bases were laid down in the middle of the nineteenth century. This has been theocratic, authoritarian, centralised, hierarchical, ethnically biased, monopolising the country’s resources.

“Intellocracy” has replaced theocratic feudalism, but other main traits have been more or less transposed in an updated form. The ruling power faces more or less the same demands as those it addressed to Haile Selassie’s regime forty years ago: rule of law; fair use of assets, beginning with land (“land to the tiller”, went the slogan; denunciation of “land grabbing’” now); the “national question”, in other words a balanced relationship between Ethiopia’s 80 “nations, nationalities and peoples”; and, at the crossroads of the land issue and the “national question”, the border conflicts between the states.

“They want to rule in the old way, and people are refusing to be ruled in the old way”, is Merera Gudina’s concise summing up.[25] What the protesters – and indeed the “reformists” – are demanding is huge: the shift from an imposed, exclusive and closed system, to an accepted, inclusive and open system. This would require a total reconstruction, an outcome that the successors of Haile Selassie, then of Mengistu, failed to bring about.

For the moment at least, this goal is well beyond the EPRDF’s capacities. Firstly, it is paralysed by its divisions. These range from personal conflicts to business rivalries, from old ethnic tensions to new political disagreements. Secondly, the Front would risk disintegration if the “reformists” tried to force through their views. Whatever side they are on, its leaders know that a split would be fatal to everyone. They are obliged to maintain unity, with the result that they seem for now condemned to immobility.

Opening up

The majority of the Front perceives opening up as a leap in the dark and a fatal threat to its positions and its interests.

Opening up to the opponents of the Front would have to go hand-in-hand with an internal opening up. It would inevitably threaten numerous unfairly acquired positions.

Until now, the rule of winner-takes-all has reigned. In the general perception, or at least ‘Abyssinian’ perception, authority is either absolute or moribund: if it accepts concessions, it implicitly acknowledges that its end is imminent. To open up would therefore trigger a sharing of power, which could culminate in total loss of power.

Opening up would also mean a historic shift. For centuries, power has been “northern”, Abyssinian. A fair representation of the different ethnic components is inconceivable without the Oromo, the largest ethnicity, playing a central role, a role moreover that they are demanding.

That would be an even more hazardous leap for the TPLF, abandoning its domination and betting that a genuinely democratic federalism would emerge. In other words, that nations or a coalition of nations much more populous than the Tigreans would not impose majority rule, threatening the preservation of what for the Front is non- negotiable: Tigreans remaining in charge of Tigray.

Finally, power and enrichment go together. From the summit of the state-party to its most modest ranks, official positions and oligarchical rents are mutually reinforcing. This material dimension is an overwhelming reason to preserve the status quo. In particular, the vast majority of the Front’s members think that it is right that their commitment and obedience should be rewarded with direct or indirect favours.

To open up, but to whom, in what domain, and to what point? Everyone agrees that the protest movement has neither a recognised leadership nor a clear programme, which is its major weakness. Would it consider itself authentically represented by the legal opposition, enfeebled through repression and its own divisions, or by the more radical illegal opposition, whose real representativeness is impossible to assess? Would these very diverse forces agree on a sort of shared programme of demands?

Up to now they have always stumbled over two crucial points: whether to maintain public ownership of land – far and away the primary asset – or to privatise it; and whether to accentuate or to temper federalism. For the moment, the voices making themselves heard cover a very wide spectrum of demands, from the launch of a national dialogue through to the total and immediate overthrow of the EPRDF. And history tells us that in such circumstances the extremists quickly prevail over the moderates.

Yet short of plunging the country into chaos, there exists no credible alternative to the existing authority, except in the long term. Supposing the EPRDF were to decide “to rule in a new way”, it would only do so on condition that it remained in control of a very gradual and therefore very long process of change. Which of its adversaries would accept this? On one side or the other, all-or-nothing politics have so far been the rule. But an inclusive and open system cannot be created unless all the stakeholders, without exception, are ready for compromise, in other words ready to make reciprocal concessions in order to reach an agreement. But the word compromise has no direct translation in Amharic…

Worst case scenario

So every scenario remains possible, including the worst-case. The regime may decide to continue on the same trajectory, relying on repression and the acceleration of its recovery plan for the state-party. It could be that the machinery of repression will stifle the protest movement. This machinery is extensive and experienced. It is even possible that the army could decide to take matters into its own hands, if it thought that the political leadership was failing. Its effective head, Samora Yunus, has always said that “the army is always vigilant to safeguard the constitutional order”.[26]

But will it be able to, especially if protest intensifies, and in particular if it takes root in the rural areas? From a leaked record of a meeting of army chiefs, it seems that some are uncertain about the physical capacity of the troops to hold firm on multiple fronts, and above all about the risks of insubordination, or even mutiny, resulting from the ethnic divisions in their ranks.[27]

Even supposing that simple repression works, the probability is high that it would only offer the regime a period of respite before, sooner or later, a new – even more devastating – surge of unrest. To prevent this, it has just decided to put on the table the question of Wolkait and the relations between Addis Ababa and the Oromo lands around it, and above all to “sack and reshuffle party and government officials including Ministers” in the coming month, all through wide-ranging discussions “with the people”.[28]

But even the legal opposition judges these reforms to be “cosmetic”.[29] Up to now, these discussions have always consisted in a massive process of self-justification, with no genuine consultation of the people, which is unable – or does not dare – to make itself heard. Moreover, this promise is an old chestnut. The struggle against the dark triad of corruption, bad governance and unaccountability, on the agenda since the early 2000s, has had no impact. The campaign to “purify” the state-party of its black sheep, launched with much fanfare in the autumn of 2015, has been a damp squib. It touched only minor officials, while none of the senior figures – some are notorious for their corrupt practices – was affected, leading the population to conclude that the campaign was nothing but a smokescreen.

This triad of failings extends from top to bottom of the EPRDF. It is hard to see how the Party could put an end to them in response to what it sees as the main demand emanating from the people, without putting itself at high risk.

Killing is not an answer to our grievances”, cry the demonstrators. For the moment, however, no other genuine answers are to be heard or seen, unless basic common sense, not to mention democratic aspirations, were to prevail in the ruling power.

[1] Walta, August 30, 2015

[2] BBC, August 3, 2016

[3] Thomson Reuters Foundation, August 11, 2016

[4] Ethiopian Herald, September 2, 2016

[5] OPride, August 3, 2016

[6] AFP, August 15, 2016, Le Monde, 15 août 2016, New York Times, June 16, 2016,

[7] Daniel Berhane, August 17, 2016

[8] ECADF, September 2016

[9] Daniel Berhane, August 13, 2016

[10] AFP, August 17, 2016,

[11] Washington Post, August 9, 2016,

[12] See, for example, Walta, August 31 2016, The Ethiopian Herald, August 20, 2016; Tigray On Line, August 13, 2016; Walta, August 11, 2016.

[13] See for example Messay Kebede, From Marxism-Leninism to Ethnicity: the Sideslips of Ethiopian Elitism, University of Dayton, 2001.

[14] Cable from the US Embassy in Ethiopia, April 28, 2008

[15] Gebru Tareke, The Ethiopian Revolution. War in The Horn of Africa, New Haven/London, Yale University Press, 2011, p. 89.

[16] Ministry of Education, Education National Abstract 2013-2014, Addis Abeba, June 2015.

[17] Walta, July 13, 2016

[18] The most notorious expression of this position has just been provided by General Tsadkan, a military hero of the TPLF and then of the Ethiopia-Eritrea war, since excluded from the Front but still profoundly respected within it.

[19] Aiga Forum, August 25, 2016

[20] See also Aiga Forum, August 7, 2016

[21] Messay Kebede, a well know intellectual, underlines “the TPLF’s systematic policy of humiliating and marginalizing” the Amhara, which led to “the psychological frustration of humiliation at being both degraded and demeaned”; Ethiopian Review, September 2, 2016

[22] Addis Standard, June 25, 2016

[23] Addis Standard, September 1, 2016

[24] Walta, August 13, 2016

[25] Washington Post, August 9, 2016,

[26] The Ethiopian Herald, September 3, 2016

[27] ESAT Daily News Amsterdam, August 12, 2016

[28] Daniel Berhane, September 1, 2016

[29] Ethiomedia Forum, August 31, 2016
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