Ethiopia: Climbing Mount Uncertainty

Abiy Ahmed has already gone down in history by breaking – in just a few weeks –almost every rule in the age-old Ethiopian way of governing. His liberal reforms and diplomatic openings fulfilled the pressing demands of the vast majority of Ethiopians, and thus brought to a halt the infernal spiral into which the country was headed. But Abiy Ahmed made three mammoth strategic errors.

First, he believed that – or at least acted as if – he could carry out his agenda by relying only on his charisma, his immense popularity and a handful of stalwarts, a kind of “team Abiy”. In short, he thought he could de-institutionalize his rule. There were even widespread rumors that he envisaged establishing a presidential system, a modern way to fit into the mold and don the apparel of the traditional “Big Man” – the “teleq säw” – in Ethiopian politics. In other words, he seemed to believe that he could bypass the EPRDF and the institutions – notably Cabinet, the ministries and Parliament – by acting unilaterally through his own micro-structure at the pinnacle of the state.

He has gone so far as to flirt with the political and historical rhetoric of the fiercest enemies of federalism

Second, the salvo of reforms he fired off created the positive shock of which whole swathes of public opinion were dreaming. But without any adequate preparation, without anticipating their effects, and therefore without being able to control their consequences. The most obvious overhastiness concerned the thorniest questions, like the return of formerly outlawed armed opposition groups (Oromo Liberation Front – OLF – and Berhanu Nega’s Ginbot 7) and the “normalisation” with Eritrea. The symbolism of the act, always carefully staged, seemed to matter more than the real outcome of the measure. The probable goal: to present his opponents with a fait accompli.

Third, it was the anti-TPLF (Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front) wave and the tactical alliance with ANDM (Amhara National Democratic Movement, now the ‘Amhara Democratic Party, ADP) that brought Abiy to power. This was founded on the demand for genuine federalism, and therefore for the end of domination by the Tigrayan elite (“Down Woyane!”). But in order to capitalize on this movement, Abiy has continued to reinforce it. He has gone so far as to flirt with the political and historical rhetoric of the fiercest enemies of federalism, and therefore of the TPLF. From Ginbot 7 to those who regret the passing of the Derg, they see the introduction of federalism as the source of all the evils that, according to them, have brought Ethiopia, the great, the eternal, the unified, to its knees.

Not just any party

The EPRDF, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, the ruling coalition of the four main ethnic parties, is not just a political party. Consistently with the age-old interweaving of government and state in Ethiopia, and now even more than before, the Party is de facto in charge of the state and – beyond it – of the entire public and para-public sector of the economy. If a civil servant were to give a truthful answer to the question: “what is your main duty?”, he would say: “to execute the orders of the party”. The state machinery has almost no intrinsic dynamic. Only a strong EPRDF leadership with an affirmed vision can give it impetus and direction. Having enjoyed hegemony for more than two decades, the TPLF had more than enough time to become the backbone not only of the party but also of the state.

“We come in the morning in the office, stay there doing nothing, and leave in the evening only to get our salary at the end of the month… We don’t receive any guideline from the top, we don’t send any instruction to the bottom,” reports a civil servant in a rural woreda administration. “Nobody takes any decision.” What might be called a “pen strike” is reminiscent of the uncertainties after the previous regime changes of 1974 and 1991. In addition, “the great majority of us know they will be fired or removed because they have been appointed by the party despite being unqualified for their job”.

Moreover, local administration is paralyzed not only internally but also externally

Moreover, local administration is paralyzed not only internally but also externally. Almost everywhere, it faces an unprecedented wave of hostility because of its constant former abuses: the people deny its legitimacy to govern local affairs. One key political leader asserted: “the state has collapsed. The top-down lines of authority have vanished. There is no respect, no fear. The power vacuum is abyssal.” “We are witnessing anarchy in the country,” concluded the last EPRDF Congress earlier this month.

The mutiny of October 10 demonstrates that “anarchy” has even reached the topmost pinnacle of the power system. The Ethiopian army claims that “it is up to the Military to maintain the stability of the nation”. It is sub-Saharan Africa’s second-largest force. Its outstanding reputation for discipline and professionalism has attracted much praise. Nevertheless, a group of soldiers was able to plan their operation and travel undetected across the Addis suburbs to the Palace, summon the Prime Minister, Commander-in-Chief of the national armed forces under the Constitution, bargain with him and quietly leave the Palace after the PM promised “to positively consider their demands.” These elite soldiers belonged to the Agazi Commandos, a name with deep connections to the TPLF. The mutiny was initially presented as being motivated by grievances over pay. Abiy Ahmed has just conceded that some of the soldiers wanted to kill him. “The intention was to abort the ongoing reforms.”

Insecurity state

In fact, day-to-day life carries on in relative peace in large parts of the country. Local wielding of authority has been spontaneously replaced by a kind of popular self-regulation. But petty crimes like theft or robbery are spreading like wildfire. Arms smuggling is skyrocketing, not to equip clandestine radical groups, but simply because ordinary people say that they need to be able to defend themselves in the absence of reliable security services.

Much worse is the wave of pogroms and “ethnic clashes”. “The number of violent events and protests have actually increased… in the six months since Abiy Ahmed has taken office relative to the six months prior… (with) an increase of over 48 percent in the number of reported fatalities… 954 fatalities from April to October 2018” (Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project). Around 1.5 million people have been internally displaced since the beginning of the year, more that in Syria or Yemen in the same period.

 These outbreaks of unrest are rooted in age-old conflicts between communities

The powerlessness or passivity of the security service and police forces is such that they failed to foresee and subsequently to stop a pogrom in a suburb of Addis Ababa which lasted no less then two and a half days and left dozens dead and thousands homeless. The random mass arrests that followed, supposed to prove that the government was ready to take the bull by the horns, was in fact an admission of impotence. The Prime Minister continues to issue martial statements warning that these acts will be met with the full force of the law, but so far to no practical avail.

Most observers rightly point out that these outbreaks of unrest are rooted in age-old conflicts between communities, stemming from disputes over borders or land access, sometimes triggered and manipulated by local politicians eager to make their mark by playing upon and even eliciting these populist flare-ups.

Many also blame “forces of darkness”, a hidden but all-pervasive hand working to “sabotage” Abiy’s progress, steered by a brain naturally situated in the capital of Tigray. Up to now, however, not a single piece of concrete evidence of the existence of this network has been presented. Of course, “saboteurs” are active here and there. But the main culprit of this power vacuum is the state, beginning with the security apparatus, not through “sabotage” but through simple passivity, an attitude of “wait and see”. A state apparatus with a venerable tradition of strictly hierarchical operation has broken down for lack of a strong command post.


However, a more general and more perilous dynamic is coming into play: the radicalization of ethno-nationalist identities. For the first time in interviews, some intellectuals from different ethnic groups go so far as to refer to Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations”. They argue that the identities of the different ethnic regions are so irreconcilable that self-isolation is inevitable. In the past, regional identities were basically affirmative. Now they are increasingly tainted with exclusiveness, if not vengefulness and even xenophobia.

The last Congress shelved all major problems – i.e. all divisive issues – to prevent a split in the party. It took only two real decisions. The newly appointed Council re-elected Abiy Ahmed as its chairman, but could it do otherwise? It united around the attempt to save the Party by focusing on a single issue: law and order. Its final resolution – no more than a dozen lines – states: “the constitutional rights of citizens have been violated in different parts of the country… This should be stopped, the rule of law respected.” The question is how?

However, in the current state of insecurity, an election could not be organized

The transitional government solution is no longer on the agenda. Some still say (e.g. Jawar Mohammed, flag bearer of the young Oromo protesters, the Qeerroo) that “to save the revolution and the country”, the only way is “to prioritize and embark on negotiation and preparation for election.”[1] Six months ago, this was a view also shared by the author. “This would clarify the political landscape… Each force would be required to present voters with its flagship measures… Following the elections, this landscape could be structured and hierarchized on clear and transparent foundations… (If free and fair), the outcome of the election would be unchallengeable. (Above all) this would channel protest that is both vigorous and inchoate into a concrete, tangible, decisive and commonly shared goal.”[2]

However, in the current state of insecurity, an election could not be organized, let alone be free and fair. In the present political climate, there is maximum risk that an electoral campaign would only exacerbate hysteria and irrationality. It would seem that the only way out is first to re-establish law and order. This cannot be done by the security forces alone, as demonstrated by the years of unrest in Oromia. Their imposition must start at the lowest level, the kebele, through the more than half a million militiamen, whose loyalty is to the kebele chairman, usually the local chair of the Party. He is the final link in the party-state’s authority. So, the party-state needs to be put back in working order, which in turn demands the emergence of a leadership that can gain credibility through a minimum of inclusivity and cohesiveness.

Federalism focus

The very wise elder Leenco Lata declared: “We (the political parties) disagree on a number of basic issues. We disagree on what is Ethiopia… on what kind of democracy we want… A gulf separates various positions… We have no choice but to negotiate a compromise, or else the alternative is a total breakdown of order.” Even if enough goodwill existed on all sides to reach a compromise, who would be party to it and on what basis?

The debate that raged in the student movements of the 60s and 70s is now definitively over. Their question was: which will prevail, the “question of nationalities” or the “class struggle”? Officially, almost nobody challenges federalism. The main rifts in Ethiopia’s politics today are about what kind of federalism it should be. Economic and social issues have been shelved. The traditional and almost universal divide between “right” and “left” has become entirely subsidiary. As a former TPLF highest body member regretted to me in a discussion this month, “all parties are not raising programmatic issues but playing with an extreme ethno nationalism”.

All the other political forces wish to maintain a federalism based on ethnic regional states

Ginbot 7 is calling for a demarcation of the regional states on a geographical basis. But although it still has strongholds in Addis Ababa and other ethnically “mixed” cities, it would appear to be a minority voice at national level.

All the other political forces wish to maintain a federalism based on ethnic regional states, “delimited on the basis of settlement patterns, language, identity”, as stipulated by the constitution. But they differ on the relationship between the center and these states. That is the main rift now. The “federalists” or “centralists” advocate strong central authority and limited autonomy for the regional states. The “confederalists” or “decentralists” recommend a loose union of quasi-sovereign states. The intervention of the federal army to oust Abdi Iley is a case in point: justified by the “federalists” because the Somali state had fallen beneath the yoke of a corrupt autocrat; unacceptable for the “confederalists” because Addis Ababa forces can intervene in a regional state only at the request of its leadership, regardless of that leadership’s behavior.

This division runs right through the Oromo Democratic Party (ODP ex-OPDO). Abiy continues to hammer home his “federalist” position. But the wave of young newcomers in the leading structures appears much more radical and closer to the “confederalists”. In addition, the ODP is a head without body. The loyalty of the rank and file cadres is far from a given. If questioned about their real allegiance, most would confess proximity to the other Oromo ethno-nationalist forces, which are irrefutably “confederalists”: Dawud Ibsa’s OLF, Merera Gudina/Bekele Gerba’s OFC, Leenco Lata’s ODF and, last but not least, the Qeerroo and Jawar Mohammed. The paradox is that despite having bowed to popular pressure by transferring – usually without firing – more than 20,000 local cadres, the ODP continues to be distrusted at local level, while Abiy remains an idol in Oromia.


The identity crisis of the Amhara Democratic Party (ADP, ex-ANDM) started with its birth and is deepening. It has never succeeded either in building a popular base or in appealing to the Amhara elite. In addition, it is now under heavy pressure from the new National Movement of Amhara (NaMA). This ultranationalist current capitalizes on popular resentment of the TPLF and on a widely shared aspiration for the Amhara nation to reassert its greatness after long years of constraint. ADP is officially seeking to extend Amhara’s borders to incorporate Welkait and Raya. Amhara activists have gone further by claiming other chunks of land not only in Tigray but also in Afar, Benishangul-Gumuz and Oromia. In addition, these Amhara movements want to play a greater role in central affairs, where they see Oromo incomers as having captured too big a stake. Amhara intellectuals are joining NaMA en masse. Its membership is skyrocketing, locals report.

The tactical alliance with the ODP to oust the TPLF, imposed at the very apex – the so-called “Oromara” – was welcomed because it sidelined the TPLF. But the great majority of the rank and file members, of the population, and of the elite, is strongly opposed to any further moves in that direction. To regain lost ground, ADP is increasingly drifting towards ultranationalist and even aggressive positions.

ADP is increasingly drifting towards ultranationalist and even aggressive positions

The Southerners remain a minor partner. The overtness of their recent internal conflicts has accentuated their weakness. But they cannot be out of the game: their representatives have a voice too in the Executive and Central Committee of the EPRDF.

Thus, Abiy does not have the structured political power base commensurate with his function either in Oromia or in the EPRDF. Probably recognizing a stalemate, he is backtracking toward a more “decentralist” stance as quickly as he initially drifted toward “centralist” positions. But he remains very ambiguous. Deliberately, some suspect. In this view, his game is to remain vague about the electoral rulebook so as to hinder the competing parties in their preparations and therefore to emerge at the end as the only savior.

Concerning the central debate, he said in his opening speech to the Congress, for those able to interpret it: “a federal form of government is a preferred option in Ethiopia as long as we don’t confuse regional arrangements with ethnic identity.” But is this ambiguity sustainable? In the end, he asked the former Executive Committee of the EPRDF, either word for word or in substance, depending whom you ask: “What shall I do?”


The TPLF is the first to blame for the sudden and total loss of its hegemony, which it attributes to a “leadership crisis”. In fact, treating its unquestionable economic successes as conclusive evidence of the rightness of its political credo and its way of governing, it for too long refused to question either. Rejecting a genuine renewal of ideas and personnel, complacent and arrogant, it proved incapable of realizing that society had profoundly changed, that its dominance could not last and that the only way out would have been through a commitment to a soft landing from the summit to a more rational position.

Its leadership closed ranks after its 37-day meeting in late 2017 more because of the external dangers it faced than because it had managed to define a common vision. It has now announced that it will devote itself first and foremost to Tigrayan affairs.

This is the first reason for the revival of the TPLF’s popularity in Tigray, after years of discontent. “When we asked for something, we spoke to empty chairs,” complained one peasant. The second is the anti-TPLF campaign, which has been counter-productive in this respect. The third is the expulsion of Tigrayans, mainly from the Amhara region, with local authorities at best turning a blind eye. The fourth is Amhara’s claims over areas that are currently part of Tigrayan territory. A short visit to the Tigrayan countryside reveals that the dominant feeling among the population is of being “under siege” because it is “surrounded by enemies,” starting with “the expansionist Amhara.”

“We shall prevail” is the popular refrain in Mekelle

Any kind of threat from the Oromo is never mentioned. “The TPLF is our only shield, to betray it would be like walking on the graves of our martyrs.” Of which each family has at least one. The fusion between the Front and the population is now almost total. Tigray is the only region that remains globally calm, probably the only one where the local authorities are not contested and are even respected. The entire political space is in the hands of the TPLF. It is the only party that is currently organized, almost unanimously supported, and has real political substance, whatever one might think of it.

“We shall prevail” is the popular line in Mekelle. This may seem surprising. In TPLF circles, the quiet belief is that their options are open. “We are willing to collaborate with any body who respect us. If not, we will go our own way.” Bravado? The TPLF has always done its utmost to prepare the region for this eventuality as a last resort. At least among intellectuals, whether supporters or opponents of the Front, never has there been such a strong expression of the aspiration to build a sovereign Tigray step by step, reunifying the two sides of the border, the “Agazian state”, following the same path as the European nations in the 20th century.

Developmental states?

The TPLF leadership is deeply critical of Abiy Ahmed. They say that it was in fact the Front that initiated the reform movement in the governing structures of the EPRDF, but criticize the lack of preparation, the failure to involve all stakeholders, the haste, and even the scope of the reforms.

“We have pardoned political parties who resided abroad…unfortunately they are working so hard… and exploiting this chance to topple the government (through) unlawful activities”, stated Debretsion during the last TPLF Congress. The “patriarch” Sebhat Nega insists to me that the “true political prisoners” should have been separated from the “criminals”. His opinion of the whole reform process: “not at that level and with wrong procedures”.

This is a ploy, argue some observers close to the Front: if it was really reformist, why didn’t the Front prove this in Tigray itself, where it had full legal authority to take the corresponding measures?

But at least one wing of the leadership, led by Debretsion, seems willing to go beyond these critiques.

The Front has set out three conditions for a rapprochement with Abiy Ahmed. First, full respect for the constitution, i.e. for federalism. But which federalism? TPLF’s overwhelming aim now is to govern Tigray with as little external interference as possible. It therefore champions a true “confederalism”. Second, endorsement of the “developmental state”, of “democratic centralism” and of “revolutionary democracy”, i.e. an apparent refusal to move one iota from its immutable dogma. And last, the end of the anti-TPLF campaign.

Up to now, the “developmental state” has been highly centralized. An alternative would be for each region to be empowered to decide on its own state’s role in economic development. This shift from a “developmental state” to a “developmental states” strategy could certainly be endorsed by the “confederalists”.

The TPLF’s insistence on the developmental state seems to be a response to the announcement of the intention to part-privatize national treasures like Ethio Telecom and Ethiopian Airlines. The modalities of this issue are not fixed and there could be room for bargaining.

As for democratic centralism, all parties both in and outside the EPRDF are in fact bound by this doctrine, though the term democratic is something of a misnomer. This could continue. It also held true within the EPRDF until its crisis. But that crisis opened a breach that cannot be closed. From now on, the components of the Party will be able to reach a real common position only by negotiation and compromise.

Towards Orogray?

The notion of revolutionary democracy is purely rhetorical, if not theological. It is a concept whose meaning nobody has ever understood. Being “neither democratic nor revolutionary,” this doctrine is a “bricolage… aiming at legitimizing the political and economical structure” put in place by the TPLF, according to an academic study. Yet it is the ideological DNA of the TPLF, which would perceive its abandonment as a negation of its identity and a denial of its contribution to Ethiopia’s trajectory since 1991. But the concept has almost no practical significance, since it can always be used to justify any zigzag.

The deal between OPDO and TPLF could be built on mutual self-interest. Among Ethiopia’s 11 administrative entities, Tigray ranked eighth in terms of poverty in 2011. Around three-quarters of the region’s budget comes from Addis Ababa. The oligarchic Tigrayan elite has built an economic empire through systemic corruption via its positions in the party-state. A very small proportion of its dubious assets are located in Tigray. Abiy Ahmed, who is certainly sitting on a mountain of dossiers on this issue, could forgive and forget to a certain extent.

He could also put a curb on the ongoing purge of Tigrayans, most visible for senior positions but also occurring, though largely unnoticed, at lower levels. In exchange, the TPLF could do much to help put the party-state machinery back in working order and, beyond it, the huge public and para-public economic sector. Tigrayans remain very present at middle-rank levels, especially in the armed forces and the security services. Their expertise cannot be replaced overnight.

ADP and NaMA have not endorsed the nostalgia for the Amhara elite’s age-old domination of Ethiopia

Above all, a rapprochement between ODP and TPLF at a time when the tactical alliance between ODP and ADP is clearly weakening, would send a clear and public signal that a dominant force is emerging inside the EPRDF and therefore that the end may be in sight for its leadership crisis. The impact of this in re-motivating the entire body of civil servants could be substantial.

But there is also a strong political rationale to such a rapprochement. ADP and NaMA have not endorsed the nostalgia for the Amhara elite’s age-old domination of Ethiopia (so-called “chauvinism”). Mainly in response to its marginalization and the stigmatization of the Amhara after 1991 as the historical “oppressors”, they gradually came to form part of a national movement (“Amharaness”), just as the Oromo or the Tigrayans had done long before. It may even be said that the position of the Amhara is now overwhelmingly ultranationalist, as well as “confederalist”. But with one crucial difference: “For the founders of National Movement of Amhara (NaMA), the Amhara nation is to be defined according to the territorial criterion, not on the basis of cultural [i.e. ethnic] features,” said academic Tezera Tazebew at a recent discussion on The Idea of Amhara Identity.

Now this “territorial criterion” is fundamentally expansionist. As a result, both Oromo and Tigrayans again see a common threat emanating from the Amhara region. The ambition is no longer to re-impose direct subjugation, as in the past, but to extend their territory. There is a palpable fear that they could ultimately try to do this by force. This risk is taken very seriously in Tigray, and not just rhetorically. For example, a large but discreet program of military training and retooling is underway. This is not confined to Tigray: many regions are reinforcing their armed capacities, principally through their regional police.

Escalation or consolidation

During the last meeting of the EPRDF Executive Committee and Congress, Abiy Ahmed systematically censured criticisms of the TPLF, particularly by the ADP. He asked for attacks against the Front to end. “A political culture that discourages the past achievements of our predecessors and negate the efforts of the previous generation need to stop.” While the TPLF was outraged at being totally excluded from the negotiations with Asmara, its chairman, Debretsion, is now in full charge of the normalization with Eritrea, according to reports from the Congress. Objections were raised against the concept of revolutionary democracy. Debretsion insisted that “unless you misrepresent the term ‘revolutionary’ in a negative way, revolutionary democracy stands for the peasantry.” ADP publicly rejected it.[4] In the end, the Congress agreed that the party’s ideology should remain in place. A future “study could be commissioned probing into the possibility of shifting it.”

A major decision, largely unnoticed, was to include leaders of affiliate organizations on EPRDF’s Executive Committee and five Executive Committee members from each organization on the EPRDF Council without voting rights, and to commission a study to transform the EPRDF into a national party. These affiliate organizations represent Afar, Harar, Gambella, Somali and Benishangul-Gumuz, 15 percent of the total population. For the first time in Ethiopia’s history, these peripheral areas could in future have a real say at central level. This could heavily weight the balance of forces between “federalists” and “confederalists” in favor of the latter. These are territories that have a particularly long memory of “Amhara domination”.

One objection is that the EPRDF is simply beyond repair

A race against time has begun between the escalation – currently continuous – of all these ethnic, religious or resource conflicts, or simple settling of individual or communal scores, and the emergence of a powerful leadership. Four possible scenarios may be envisaged.

The risk of a progressive shift toward personal power, and thus a return to autocratic rule, but softer and less archaic than before, is frequently mentioned. This risk seems slim, at least in the short term. Supposing that this were his aim, it is nevertheless hard to seen how Abiy Ahmed could build a power base of personalities loyal to him first and foremost and numerous enough to fill all key positions required for authoritarian rule.

He must rely on the EPRDF. Reciprocally, his trans-ethnic popularity means that the Front is largely relying on him for the forthcoming elections. In this balanced deal, the space for personal ascent seems narrow.

The rapprochement between ODP and the TPLF, reinforced by the support of some Southerners, particularly the Sidama, and by the peripheral affiliated structures, would produce a leadership capable of getting the party-state machinery running again. Opinions are divided as to whether or not this option is possible.

One objection is that the EPRDF is simply beyond repair.

An elitist path

The Oromo nationalist forces are now convinced that Ethiopia’s destiny is in their hands. But are they capable of shouldering the necessary historical responsibility? In other words, can they overcome their historical, cultural, religious and material divisions? The different movements, or more precisely their different leaders – Merera Gudina and Bekele Gerba, Leenco Lata, Dawud Ibsa – have their respective sub-regional strongholds, not to mention Jawar Mohammed, who reaches a much more dispersed public.

The open conflict between ODP and the OLF over the latter’s disarmament, the “alleged operatives of the OLF” behind the grenade attack at the Abiy Ahmed rally on June 23, are some cases in point. Dawud Ibsa went as far as to openly challenge the government: “no one will disarm, and no one is able to make [us] disarm.” To further complicate things, reliable sources in Mekelle report that discussions are underway between the “Tigrayan elite”, without further detail, and OLF. Despite being the pillar of the EPRDF, therefore, OPDO is unable to capitalize on all these Oromo forces.

Last but not least: how would ADP and NaMA react if they felt that the consolidation of the links between ODP and TPLF would result in the Amhara region being squeezed between Tigray and Oromia?

The nightmare scenario of an intensification and exacerbation of the “ethnic clashes” obsesses everybody. However, up to now at least, they have remained localized. Could they coalesce? The memory of the civil war of the 70s and 80s haunts the middle-aged generation. Young Oromo were accused of a pogrom against Southerners in Burayu, in the outskirts of Addis Ababa. Young Southerners in Arba Minch wanted to take revenge on the local Oromo. It was the middle-aged who managed to stop them. This kind of intervention is not unusual. It could be the ultimate lifeline for avoidance of a Yugoslavian scenario.

Structured links between the people and the political organizations in the hands of this Elite are at best loose

The fourth scenario would be a continuation of the present situation, come what may, until the next elections: limited unrest, a wavering leadership, an economy still making headway despite the uncertainties. Following elections, Ethiopia would face the challenge hitherto deferred: to build a coalition of ethnic parties strong enough to govern in a probably highly fragmented political landscape.

A last remark.  At this stage at least, the future destiny of Ethiopia will inevitably be shaped through a “Grand Elite Bargain”. The structured links between the people and the political organizations in the hands of this Elite are at best loose, though the members of the vanguard popular movement, the Qeerroo, are starting to register for different Oromo nationalist parties. In its resolution, the EPRDF Congress did not even mention the forthcoming elections. Few of the opposition forces are really pressing to design the framework within which those elections will proceed. It is as if a tacit agreement has been made between the leaderships of the political organizations, whatever side they are on, to try first to reach an agreement among themselves and only then to put it before the electorate for endorsement.

Abiy Ahmed has held meetings in all regional capitals. He has engaged in discussion with many socio-professional categories. Opposition leaders have done the same in their strongholds. Until evidence of the contrary, it is highly symptomatic that none of them went into the rural areas, if for no other reason than to show that they were interested in listening to a group that represents four-fifths of the population.

Whatever path is chosen, however, it will be steep and tortuous, making its way up a mountain of uncertainties.

Query or correction? Email us

Article published in partnership with openDemocracy

Main photo: Abiy Ahmed with party leaders at the EPRDF Congress; Oct. 21, Fitsum Arega

Published under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. Cite Ethiopia Insight and link to this page if republished.

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About the author

René Lefort

René has been writing about sub-Saharan Africa since the 1970s and reported on the region for French newspapers. He is now a researcher and publishes in academic titles such as The Journal of Modern African Studies.


  • Ridiculously biased propaganda masquerading as research paper. The article reads like an old TPLF leaflet, complete with references to Amhara expansionism, Oromo incompetence and disarray, inevitable Oromo/Amhara conflict, etc. and of course TPLF to the rescue. These are all long held TPLF stereotypes that Ethiopians reject. The basic premise of this article are therefore wrong. The fact is that Ethiopians demanded change and that is why Abiy enjoys massive popular support. It’s a new day in Ethiopia with a new direction and widespread enthusiasm and hope, which this article doesn’t seem to recognize.

  • Good read and feed..thank you.

    PM Abiy apparently jumped the gun before jumping through vital hoops and got initial jump on TPLF.

    The flirting might seem tactical move to neutralize competitive forces. But the catch is on the one with Eritrea , a venomous tango.

    Mr Lefort unless well connected with intelligence sources might miss much on closed door deals.

    Yet the article disregarded the role of external players . Historically , Ethiopian ruling elites used to leverage on such influence with varying degrees except on insignificant occasions . Portugal , UK , America,, USSR and Israel .

    Regarding your question :

    The Oromo ..”are they capable of shouldering the necessary historical responsibility? “

    They are endowed with dynamic well versed youth , but they have to transform the mind set from opposition to statesmanship , treat all nationalities on equal footing and avoid TPLF’s shortcomings . They have to align with like minds and interests , even reformed TPLF , and carefully check the tangoed and its envoy in Addis.

    They have to curb the nostalgic expansionist dreams . Even if seduced by Asmara’s unprecedented offer. It’s a bet, ask the Eritrean and Ethiopian victims all along .

    Eritrea , a bitter steak , was the main cause of Ethiopian monarch , military and ruling party’s weakness or demise.

    Ethiopia is vital to the well being of the region as a whole and hope its elites tackle the crises prudently to a sustainable inclusive social contract.

  • I don’t think this analysis can much of most Ethiopian people believe. The mass is with Dr. Abiy. Few are creating political confusion not to settle the mass. We are indifference with them. Most Ethiopians are happy with Dr. Abiy’s leadership skill. Also we love and support him!! So, I said it ‘Fake analysis’!

  • I do not suppose these two wrote about a thing coincidentally. I suspect they are both cheaply sponsored.

    “የትግርኛ ስም ያላቸው አባላቱ ከማባረር፣ የትግራይ ተወላጆችን እስከ መግደልና የትግራይን መሬት እስከ መውረር አቅዳል። ብአዴን ለመለወጥ ማቀዱ ለማሳየት የአጎራባች ክልሎችese two መሬት በግርግር ለመንጠቅ አቅዶ እየተንቀሳቀሰ ይገኛል። በዚሁ መሰረት ከዓፋር (የተለያዩ ቦታዎች)፣ ከትግራይ (ራያና ወልቃይት)፣ ከቤንሻንጉል (መተከል) እና ከኦሮምያ (አዲስ አበባ እና ዙርያዋ) ወዘተ ለመውሰድ ዕቅድ አለው። ይህንን ሕልሙ እውን ለማድረግም በነዚህ ክልሎች ውስጥ ብጥብጥ መቀስቀሱ አይቀሬ ነው።”
    አብርሃ ደስታ (facebook status update entitled ሁለት ነጥቦች ስለ ራያ ጉዳይ!
    The identity crisis of the Amhara Democratic Party (ADP, ex-ANDM) started with its birth and is deepening. It has never succeeded either in building a popular base or in appealing to the Amhara elite. In addition, it is now under heavy pressure from the new National Movement of Amhara (NaMA). This ultranationalist current capitalizes on popular resentment of the TPLF and on a widely shared aspiration for the Amhara nation to reassert its greatness after long years of constraint. ADP is officially seeking to extend Amhara’s borders to incorporate Welkait and Raya. Amhara activists have gone further by claiming other chunks of land not only in Tigray but also in Afar, Benishangul-Gumuz and Oromia. In addition, these Amhara movements want to play a greater role in central affairs, where they see Oromo incomers as having captured too big a stake. Amhara intellectuals are joining NaMA en masse. Its membership is skyrocketing, locals report.”
    Rene Lefort (

  • I found this article rather a biased, single-sided view. For instance, the author labeled the Amhara as “expansionist”. Which is absolutely wrong. The Amhara never ever asked for expansion. The Amharas has been demanding for preserving their own identity, and right of living. So on and so forth. The author further fails to put a concrete reason an/or reference for the arguments that the author claims. As an article from an independent researcher, I would expect the article /analysis (if we call an analysis) to genuine, balanced, professional. Unfortunately, the author failed to show.

  • This article is a joke.
    TPLF cannot be both a proponent of Democratic centralism and Confederalism.
    The sad truth is that every ethnonationalist group when in power wants total control, and immediately alienates the others by doing so.
    The solution is not more ethnic coalitions, we know about Amhara+Tigre, Oromo+Tigre (1991), Tigre+Somali and Amhara+Oromo. None have worked. Oromo+Sidama+Tigre wont work, unlike what Jawar thinks.

    People are not confederalist. They dont even now the word. They want solution to their problem : rampant xenophobia, favoritism, poverty.

    Time for patriotic Ethiopian coalition. Bring back the multiethnic Addis Ababa youngsters from Tolay. Tap the diaspora. I am sorry if it hurts some feelings, but bring back Derg people. Ginbot 7 is very relevant also.

    • You lost me at “bring back the Derg.” Monumental lack of imagination… you don’t look for solutions for today’s problems in the darkness of yesteryears. The corrupt, incompetent, ignorant, murderous Derg never had any solution and it is gone forever. Thank God! Now on to better times!

  • The author is conveniently forgetting about Ginbot 7, and the people who say they are Ethiopian first, including the 5 million of Addis Ababans (more population than Tigray).

    There lies the true solution to unstability and pogroms.

    A compromise between old-guard TPLF and ODP would be nothing else but the reinstatement of TPLF OLF deal of 1991. Protip : TPLF is not interested in being a junior partner.

    Solutions ?
    – Put down the Ethiopian Dream on paper, for people to love it or to hate it : post ethnic society, multilinguism, reunification with Eritrea, multiethnic federal states instead of tribal Kilils.

    – Instead of empowering TPLF cronies, tap young patriotic Addis Ababans for responsability in lieu of sending them to Gulags for “brainwashing”.

    – Reach out for the Tigrayan people, and opposition, using Abiys mastery of Tigrinya, and the obvious cost inflicted upon the traditionally cosmopolite and travalling Tigrayans by narrow tribalism. It worked well before the border issue was handled unsensitively.

    – For short term security, Abiys already has the army, the federal police, and both Oromia and Amhara police. He can strengthten them more. TPLF blackmailing to civil war wont take them very far.

  • A well observed and insightful piece, I wish more and more would be written in a manner that shows much thought and responsibility had gone into it, just like this article.

  • Bitter challenges are smoothly moving to better chances in Abiy’s government and it brighten the future of Ethiopian people. Your analysis needs scientific investigation which leads you to many corrections. E.g About ADP, TPLF exclusion,NaMA ..

  • I agree with you in several issues that you grilled in the note; however, it seems that you note or writings seems to be escapitical to point out the big them . I mean your note approaches but reluctant to touch the big picture- which is a plan that TPLF, OLF , EPLF and their allies started the second chapter to disintegrate the ancient nation- Ethiopia. To make clear that the first chapter was concluded by seceding Eritrea and this is to secede Oromos and Tigiria as soon as Oromos gain economic power as TPLF accumulated in the las 2 decades. For that matter, today powerless cabinet with only 20 members which is dominated by Oromos can be a good copy of Meles Zenaw’s model that Jawar astonished in public in order to follow it. We, Amhara and southern Ethiopians need to stand up to kick back all internal and external powers that have been working to disintegrate moma Ethiopian, cradle of human race. TEAM UP to Save our nation and unify Just as Hailesilasie did so that we need help of UN, the greatest US and Europeans because all the ambush camps are located in some Arab countries. Good luck to us!

    • To Hulum,

      Come away from your enclave. There’s no such Arab threat today .. The players you infer to simply replaced Haile Sellasie and the Shah of Iran as cost effective outposts. Trump and company have no appetite for Kennedy’s commitment to preserve Haile Selassie and lineage. Well god bless Africa and Ethiopia with prudent elites.

  • Interesting read; but i think your analysis about Amhara is not entirely correct (or not properly researched) – because “ultra-nationalist” and “expansionist” are terms that do not describe the majority of Amhara people (not even majority of elites). Otherwise a good analysis, it contains vague language in many places.

  • I’m amazed by Lefort’s bias against the Amhara people. It almost reflected the rhetoric and old tactic that TPLF & OLF use to maintain their unfair power share. Lefort reported nothing how the Amhara are under pressure from the two sides. Lefort said nothing about the 2.5 million exterminated Amhara, Lefort did say nothing about the forced identity change happened in Wolkaite, Rata, and Metekel, Lefort didn’t want to say anything about the world’s poorest people apart from talking about the old rhetoric. Lefort didn’t want to reflect about the economic injustice happened to the Amhara people… where you can find lots of statistical evidences from world bank, IMF, and Ethiopian central statistics Agency. Lefort does’t seet to stand for truth. Otherwise, he would have reported all these man made challenges on the ethnic Amhara for being Amhara. It seems that Lefort wants to see either the 27 years dictators who brought Ethiopia into this darkness to maintain their colonial rule over the ethnic Amhara or the seccessionist OLF to hold the power vaccume. I found your article very biased because it didn’t reflect the true cause of Amhara, defending its very survival. Your attempt to hide the mounting survival challenge the Amhara are facing. The Amhara are not exoansionists. Where is your evidence to blame the Amhara as expansionist. You can go and directly survey and make ministudy on Wolkaite and Raya people regarding how their identity is imposed by the TPLFites

  • A good analysis of the political situation in Ethiopia but void of the passion and perception of the Ethiopian people. Indeed, France-afrique wouldn’t have been possible with a genuine participation and involvement of the African people. I hope that Ethiopia will learn this lesson for moving forward with democracy!

  • My dear sir René Lefort i really appreciate you too! Really realy really a wise and presized expression. I look forward of your journals.

  • The writer confused with the issue on the so-called Federalism in Ethiopia. No one in Ethiopia oppose Federlism but they demand the modern 21st century type Federalism but NOT the Zero-sum 16th century style, the twi decades-old Ethnic-Federalism that lead to massive killings, fights and other human right viloations of one ethnic group over the other etnic groups accross the country also in Burayu!. Please allow yourself to learn from Ethiopians. Don’t consider yourself as a master-mind ofEthiopia especially on key political issues that divide the country.

  • Partly agree but it is Exaggerated and I doubt your sources.You certainly did not get the real situation on the ground.

  • This is for Ethiopians, Don’t be an opportunist! Abiy saved the the state from down fall. Just enjoy the safe space created for you to act better in because you could not even think about it a year ago. And also be noted that you cannot win the heart of Ethiopians by abusing your media. Thanks obbo René Lefort
    ************************** ቄሮ ለዘላለም ትኑር ******************************

  • amhara is not an expansionist ….amhara only claims what historically thiers …wolkait raya and other places were given by tplf to other region after the overthrow of derg to punish amhara for the crime they didn’t commit .places where amahara ethnics reside .

    and the report is amatersih which did not take historical background for the amhara or others ethnics grievances .

  • Highly alarmist and exaggerated view. Things are not as bad as this piece makes them to be. The relative lawlessness is a natural phenomenon under the circumstances. But the picture of anarchy the author tries ro paint is highly exaggerated. For example, he mentions 1.5 million displaced people in this year alone without giving the places and mentioning those who returned to their villages. This is typical of the European reporters’ hopeless assessment of Africa. Ethiopia will succeed in its quest to become a democratic state because we have no choice and because we know how.

  • The statement regarding “Amhara as expansionist” is inaccurate and reinforcing the same narrative that TPLF used from the last 30 years to oppress these poor people. Amhara was not at the table nor consulted when the current ethics federalism was put into place…hence its interest was not taken into account and many territories with great Amhara population were put under other ethnic groups completely neglecting the rights of the individuals that live there (i.e. Beneshangul, Shewa, Welaqit, Ray, etc). Amharas are now asking for their basic right to be respected if this type of ethnic federalism is to continue….anything less will only lead to further conflict and escalations of tensions since there are 30 to 35 million Amharas that have been feeling oppressed on so many levels for the last 30 years…

  • Very insightful analysis, as usual. It emboldens my view that constitutional reform is absolute necessary before the next election. It also proved my argument with my “centralist” (For centralized & unified Ethiopia) friends that they should not confuse identity based politics which is reflected thru political competition among parties based on ethnic or religious basis with that of federalism based on ethno-linguistic criterion and should stop attacking the latter. I advised we should focus our energy and demands on constitutional banning of political parties formed along ethno-linguistic-religious basis. Because, countries with ethno-linguistic based regions such as Canada, India, or South Africa have succeeded and continued to be multi-party democracies. But no one nation have survived where a political competition for national offices or during national elections are between political parties based on ethnicity or religion. Statements such as “..Probably recognizing a stalemate, he is backtracking toward a more “decentralist” stance as quickly as he initially drifted toward “centralist” positions…” despair me. I feel that my “unionist” friends attack on federalism may have contributed to such retreat. My hope is for PM Abiy and his reformist political allies to succeed in changing EPRDF not as sum of ethnic parties but as a national party with multi-cultural ideology and comprised of individuals from different ethno-linguistic or religious backgrounds and for other ideological parties old and new to compete for vote of Ethiopians in national elections with EPRDF. This way the influence of Oromo. Amhara, Tigray con-federalist extremist which I agree with Monsieur LeFort are exponential growing in all regions will be diminished.

  • This is a nicely presented in-depth analysis but unfortunately full of syllogism from poor understanding of the reality in the country or deliberate twisting. Clearly, all the facts are sourced from TPLF people or their affiliates. Please come again with similar piece that is based on fair and comprehensive source of data. If not, better not to waste your time and our time.

  • Good read. Just a perfect piece about what is happening. Nonpartisan. I see a lot article on online supporting one and condemning another. But this article is clean from all that. Thank you sir. I appreciate your job. Hope to see more.

  • How did yoy came uo with this conclusion, wgat us your source? Try to be optimistic and rational, i am hearing from you that Young Southerners wants to take revenge on th local Oromo!! The reality is not this one. Moreover, your report lacks a lot of credible information.

    “Young Oromo were accused of a pogrom against Southerners in Burayu, in the outskirts of Addis Ababa. Young Southerners in Arba Minch wanted to take revenge on the local Oromo.”

  • It is a piece forwarded to please those who believe they are z architect of the new but confusing state.It totally ignore the historical affiliation of the people to a unified form of stste.Second the fate of the nationalist will be decided based on the fairness of their contemporary acts .

  • Ethiopia is now walking for development with the brilliant leading of Dr Abiy With the support of all Ethiopians!
    The struggle changed in to the real change in Eastern Africa,in Ethiopian History

  • “…though the members of the vanguard popular movement, the Qeerroo, are starting to register for different Oromo nationalist parties.”
    1. What do you mean by ” vanguard popular movement, the Qeeroo?
    2. How do you come up to conclude Qeerroo’s are starting to register for different oromoo nationalist parties?
    Hint: Qeerroo’s are not members of political parties. They are young generation of Oromo people. So, don’t you think you conclusion is hasty generalization?

  • Mind your own business Mr.Rene Lefort. Just stay away. Ethiopia belongs to Ethiopians; who and whence are you? Meddling is a kind of viral life. And I believe you lived that way enough. Time to repent before you tie on your neck the infamous rock destined to hell.

  • “He is the final link in the party-state’s authority. So, the party-state needs to be put back in working order, which in turn demands the emergence of a leadership that can gain credibility through a minimum of inclusivity and cohesiveness.” could u explain what u mean by this…as it seems its the most important view..yet very little explanation

      • Good read. Just a perfect piece about what is happening. Nonpartisan. I see a lot article on online supporting one and condemning another. But this article is clean from all that. Thank you sir. I appreciate your job. Hope to see more.

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