Viewpoint

Old habits die hard

EPRDF leaders return to faking threats to silence dissidents, this time dressed up as a rather unlikely coup d’etat régional

Over the last three decades, the TPLF-led regime of the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front ruled at gunpoint. Repressive laws were used to silence dissidents. Fake documentaries fabricating armed resistance and jihad were propagated. Innocent citizens who spoke out were not only jailed and exiled but also killed and tortured.

That went on for two decades. But in 2016, the people said enough. A series of protests mainly in Amhara and Oromia, the two most-populous regions, forced ruling party leaders to meet for three weeks at the end of 2017. They realized they could no longer rule with the same approach. Therefore, they came up with a plan of change, both in leadership and program.

Some Ethiopians were suspicious at the idea that those who ruled with virtual impunity, embezzling and repressing, could now be agents of meaningful reform. But many were optimistic after new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed started to talk about radical changes. He admitted systemic state torture, unblocked critical websites, and promised a truly democratic environment.

He appointed a gender-balanced cabinet and pledged to unify an ethnically divided county He initiated peace with Eritrea and built ties with historically hostile Middle East nations. He deepened cooperation across the Horn, and shuttled across it and beyond as a peace broker. Speaking in liberal language, the West was lightning quick to embrace him; just like when they fell in love at first sight with our former strongman, Meles Zenawi.

Rhetorical reforms

But as time passes, Abiy’s purring engine ran out of steam. Contrary to the advice of several commentators, he did not produce a roadmap but relied on flowery rhetoric. There was no clarity on objectives beyond fuzzy concepts such as medemer. His biggest success took a hit when Eritrea closed all its Ethiopian border crossings after a few months. Abiy ignored institutions and conventional rules of diplomacy. He reportedly demanded some Ethiopian embassies, such as the in the U.S., report directly to him, while assigning Oromo allies to open new consulates.

Abiy appointed Oromo confidantes to key federal positions, such as Lemma Megersa as Minster of Defence, Berhanu Tsegaye as a powerful Attorney General, and Adanech Abebe as Minister of Revenue. Combined with his appointment of technocrats and aides at national level, the federal government is viewed by many as dominated by Oromos and Abiy loyalists. Yet the old resented officials of the pre-Abiy regime are still in charge at lower levels throughout Ethiopia. His hyped reform of the military only led to the replacement of Tigrayan dominance with Oromo dominance. He has established his own multi-million dollar protection force called the Republican Guard and spent millions of dollars refurnishing his office. His lavish and frequent state banquets cost tens of millions of dollars in a year.

Economic growth has slowed since he came to power, while annual inflation accelerated to 16 percent in May. Revenue from merchandise exports declined and hard currency shortages led to business closures and a booming black forex market. His plan to privatize state-owned enterprises to ease fiscal imbalances has faced fierce criticism from across society. But the schedule was never realistic, and emergency capital injections instead came from willing friends with influence in the Gulf and World Bank.

Over their bodies

Abiy’s reluctance to take action on crime, especially in Oromia, has led to a crisis. Unspeakable acts like stoning have killed innocents. Members of the Oromo Liberation Front, a returned armed group that reached an undisclosed deal with his administration, have allegedly robbed 17 banks and refused to give up arms. Yet their leaders sit comfortably in Addis Ababa hotels.

Abiy took no action when Jawar Mohammed, an Oromo activist who helped him come to power, gave orders to Oromo youths to take over new condominiums that were meant to be distributed to Addis Ababa residents. Jawar told “Qeerroo” that the houses would be given to Addis Ababans ‘over our dead bodies’. Abiy stayed silent rather than condemn this unjust campaign to have houses built with Addis taxpayers’ money to those who hadn’t saved and don’t live in the capital; and some Oromo evictees were indeed offered apartments.

In other parts of Oromia, ethnic Amharas and Tigrayans were persecuted for their inherited identity. A national census was postponed due to insecurity that led to more than three million Ethiopians becoming internally displaced, the vast majority by conflict. Months away from the planned signature national election, preparations are way behind schedule.

Abiy’s Amhara avoidance

The Amhara, who have historically inhabited almost all parts of the Ethiopian territory, became a minority in most of the newly formed ethnic states. The Amhara had no political representation during the early 1990s constitutional process that instituted ethnic federalism. The redrawing of boundaries in the 1990s also annexed areas that were inhabited by Amhara to other regions. Under EPRDF rule, Amharas have been subjected to ethnicity based killings and displacement with active or tacit support from governments in Oromia, Benishangul Gumuz, Tigray, and Southern Nations.

These were some of the grievances that led to the Amhara Resistance against the TPLF-led government that helped Abiy come to power. Amhara want regional boundaries redrawn and the return of areas which were formerly part of provinces now otherwise in Amhara, such as Wolkait-Tsegede and Raya in Tigray; Metekel in Benishangul-Gumuz; and areas such as Dera, Debre Libanos and others in Oromia. They also would like to see discriminatory regional constitutions revised. The constitution should stipulate a procedure to ensure Amharas everywhere can get government services in their own language. Amhara therefore want the federal constitution revised so all regional administrations include the national working language, Amharic, among their working languages.

Most Amhara welcomed the change amid high hopes that Abiy’s administration would work with them to address these longstanding issues. But the way Abiy treated Amhara was a source of frustration, as he refused to respond to key questions of the Amhara Resistance. On the issue of reform of a constitution in which Amharas had no part in writing, the response was clear: “The constitution will not be revised to just answer the question of Amhara region and ethnic Amharas”. This upset a lot of Ethiopians.

Amhara now see as the drama of Abiy Ahmed

First, although the constitution is defended by various ethnic elites, the call for revision is also supported by many elites, and a large proportion of citizens, especially in cities. Second, Amhara Democratic Party (ADP), the regional ruling party and a key ally of Abiy’s Oromo Democratic Party, has been advocating revision of the constitution.

Although support from ADP for Abiy in the EPRDF Council was the reason he become chairperson and prime minister, his refusal to consider constitutional amendment is a sign Abiy used his key ally to achieve power, and then dropped them. This was a sad awakening to what Amhara now see as the drama of Abiy Ahmed, where his early inclusive speeches were a strategic move to get people on side until he had consolidated his control.

Abiy has shown little commitment or capacity to stop the killing of Amharas in Oromia, Benishangul-Gumuz and Southern Nations regions, another key question of Amhara nationalism. In response to demands for the proper representation of Amhara in the federal government and to stop the persecution of Amharas, Abiy responded that ethnic nationalism is bad, and he is concerned that Amhara nationalism is ascendant. To hear this from a prime minister of an ethnically federated country and a chairperson of an ethno-nationalist Oromo Democratic Party—an insider who rode Oromo nationalism to power—shoveled salt into a gaping wound. This indeed was the moment Abiy’s intentions to build Oromo hegemony was revealed. Consistent with his earlier comments, Abiy saw the increasing popularity of Amhara nationalism as the main obstacle to this goal.

Oromizing Addis Ababa 

Abiy’s most enthusiastic supporters in his early days were in Addis Ababa. Tens of thousands joined a rally organized in support of him on June 23, 2018. Since then, support for Abiy evaporated due to discriminatory practices that created first- and second-class residents in the city.

The Ethiopian constitution stipulates that Addis Ababa (while geographically located in Oromia) is a separate district with full autonomy and accountable to the federal government. Ever since Abiy took office, the autonomy of Addis Ababa has been encroached on by an ODP-run administration. It started with the problematic appointment of Takele Uma as mayor. He was not a member of the city council, nor a resident of Addis Ababa. Second, he is a hardcore Oromo nationalist and not suitable to govern what is an ethnically diverse cosmopolitan city. As his close friend, Abiy appointed Takele mayor while aware of his radical views, such as that Addis Ababa belongs to only Oromos, as stated on his Facebook page. Third, engineering graduate Takele doesn’t have the experience of politics and public administration to lead a dynamic city with complex political and social problems.

Thus it wasn’t surprising when Takele quickly started to implement exclusionary policies. He demanded Oromos that live in nearby small cities in Oromia receive Addis Ababa resident identity card so that they can access funds to start small businesses in the city, and his administration fired city officers that opposed this illegal direction. He also advocated for the passage of a radical draft proclamation on the “special interest” of Oromia in Addis Ababa, which essentially would drive the agenda of creating an economic and cultural hegemony of Oromos, and undermine the entitlements of non-Oromo citizens.

Balderas was barred from using hotels

In collaboration with the Oromia administration, Takele’s administration is building thousands of houses in Addis Ababa to be exclusively distributed to Oromos who will relocated from Oromia region to Addis Ababa. In explaining this plan, Lemma Megersa, then president of Oromia, stated that the ODP prioritized urban politics and placed importance on demographics. Meanwhile Addis has got more dangerous under Takele and Abiy’s watch.

Following these unfortunate developments, a group of concerned citizens aimed at countering Oromo hegemony and discriminatory policies in Addis Ababa formed an advocacy group called Balderas, a group of concerned citizens that aim to counter hegemonic ambitions and represent the interests of the people. Abiy and Takele were quick to launch repressive actions against this group. Balderas was barred from using hotels to give media briefings and police forcefully dispersed its meetings. Abiy threatened to confront the group’s leader, international award-winning activist-journalist Eskinder Nega, who received arrest threats from police and death threats from Qeerroo .

Abiy’s popularity has evaporated over the last six months in other regions too. His administration has let drift the regional statehood bids by Sidama, Wolayta and other Southern Nations groups. Tigray, led by TPLF, is increasingly distant from the federal government and acts defiantly. Abiy is accused of targeting Tigrayan in his prosecutions of former officials allegedly involved in human-rights abuses and corruption.

Benishangul-Gumuz’s recent decision to include Oromiffa in its school curriculum is perceived by locals as an outcome of ODP influence. In Somali region, Abiy successfully installed his own loyalist by removing the president and his cabinet. Although Abdi Iley was a tyrant, the intervention was unconstitutional, angered several clans, and almost led to conflict in the region. All this ethnic favoritism led to Abiy’s popularity plummeting—so a plan was needed to contain the growing opposition.

Fake coup not failed coup  

On the evening of June 22, the head of the Press Secretariat of the Office of Prime Minister announced on national TV that an operation was ongoing to counter a coup attempt in Amhara. A few hours later, Abiy addressed the nation in a recorded video where he confirmed that a coup attempt failed but top regional officials in Bahir Dar and Chief of Staff of the military in Addis Ababa had been shot. The government accused Brigadier-General Asaminew Tsige, head of Amhara security bureau, of masterminding the plot, and claimed a link between the assassinations in Addis Ababa and Bahir Dar.

The international media dutifully reproduced the official narrative. A key contributor is the alleged history of the participation of Asaminew in a 2009 attempt against the late Meles Zenawi’s government. Asaminew had been released in 2018 as part of the ruling party’s desperate amnesty and, seemingly in recognition for wrongs committed against him, his military rank and benefits were reinstated. Shortly after his release, he was assigned to the very crucial position of Amhara head of security.

However, a coup attempt was not a plausible description for a number of reasons. First, Ethiopia’s federal arrangement makes a coup at a regional level impractical, as the military can easily overcome such action. It is very hard to believe an experienced officer like Asaminew could miss this fact. Second, there appears to have been little or no attempt to control airports, the regional broadcaster, and other key institutions, as would occur during a typical coup.

His intention was unlikely to be a coup

Third, there were no attempts to mobilize armed men other than a couple of hundred recently hired armed police that were under Asaminew’s command. Fourth, none of the survivors called it a coup—at least not until later when the government insisted on sticking to the coup narrative.

Fifth, despite shutting down the internet for over a week and being the main source of information, the government offered conflicting facts and an unconvincing narrative. In the most recent backtrack, it said it is still investigating a possible connection between the two sets of assassinations. There were also contradicting stories about the fate of the bodyguard assassin of General Seare Mekonnen. First he was arrested, then dead from suicide, later hospitalized.

Sixth, Asaminew told the only journalist he spoke to about the absurdness of a coup at a regional level, and speculated that the narrative might be a strategy of the federal government for military intervention in the region. Thus, more than a week after the assassination, the government has failed to show there was a coup. Even if Asaminew was behind the killings, let’s say motivated by disagreements he had with the regional leadership, we can say that his intention was unlikely to be a coup. The decision to only kill three of the seven leaders in the same meeting suggested instead the motivation was to remove those he disagreed with.

Crackdown comeback

One wildly misleading framing is that June 22 was a backlash to Abiy’s reforms. The Amhara region gave Abiy overwhelming support when he rolled out his agenda. Both the alleged perpetrator and victims are hardcore supporters of change. Asaminew was against TPLF, whom Abiy is also estranged from. Asaminew wants to answer the questions of Amhara Resistance that helped Abiy ascend to power. He was a fierce advocate of the return of annexed areas such as Wolkait, Raya and Metekel to Amhara region, and has received fierce criticism from TPLF. He reportedly led the regional security effectively to identify and detain individuals, including Oromo leaders involved in instigating communal conflict in Oromia Special Zone of Amhara region; and, for that, has been demonized by some federal and regional Oromo officials.

Yet, the federal government has rolled out a mass arrest with so far more than 300 people arrested on suspicion of participation in the “coup attempt”. Not surprisingly, the targets of mass arrest are members of groups Abiy’s administration has identified as formidable challenges: ethnic Amharas, members of National Movement of Amhara, Balderas members, and leaders of security institutions in Amhara. So it has become clearer that the likely motivation to call it a coup was to launch an operation to contain the popularity of Amhara nationalism and its leaders, dismantle Amhara region security institutions, and disrupt Balderas.

Abiy’s administration’s decision to investigate suspects for “terrorism”, a tried and trusted tactic of the EPRDF regime, is an indication that his administration is rolling back much-praised political reforms and retreating to repression. The only difference is the new people in power are from a different ethnic group and have savvy propagandists that are willing to squeeze facts to sell a false narrative.

Amidst a lack of consistent and reliable information about what is happening, with the Internet shut down for more than a week, speculations and emotions have been running high, particularly in Amhara. Given many people are legally armed and there is a large flow of weapons into the region, Abiy’s crackdown on peaceful dissidents could be an invitation to an armed uprising. Abiy and friends should learn from history, stop the mass detention, release the detained individuals, and allow an independent investigation of what happened on June 22.

Query or correction? Email us

This is the author’s Viewpoint. However, Ethiopia Insight will correct clear factual errors.

Main photo: Asaminew Tsige’s funeral in Lalibela; June 27; social media

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

Hone Mandefro

Hone is a Ph.D. Student and Vanier Scholar at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada, and Lecturer at University of Gondar. His research has been published in, among others, the Journal of Modern African Studies, Journal of Indigenous Social Development, and the International Review of Sociology.

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28 Comments

  • It is very long but very very interesting &atractive .
    Dr hone I strongly believe you
    you are honest and based on aground fact .God bless you &uour entire family

  • A great narrative of what transpires when ppl. are too naive to entrust one man or one party to take them to the land of democracy. What Ethiopians should’ve & still should demand for is a power-sharing transitional government until a fair election is held. Its implementation will not be so strange to PM Abiy since he himself help draft one for the ppl. of Sudan.

  • wtf???!!! What’s this all about?! Why dont u put all the truth?!

    i can tell boldly that this is a complet lie.

    stop mis informing.

    come down and discus with your bros.

    Believe in equality.

    You and your types problem is that you want to dominate but hate to live in equality with your fellow citizens/ethics. That will never ever come again. it’s dead! believe me!
    Tghank u!

  • What am afraid now if we had faced this catastrophic or collateral damages whiten one year it is easy to predict our futures what it will look like to be honest we don’t have neighbour due to the class difference,some of them blindly advocate our transition for current instablity. What i see in abiy administration thire is no any political stablity and they just focus how to let one nation being benefited.he is just preaching infront of his Tv to blame certain peoples for their blasphemy or sacrilege.we had ben through TPLF but now ODP those leader i don’t think they understood power is in the hands of people. God pleas give us our father heart.

  • Every one who are out of amhara regional state has fear
    By amhara nation
    They belive amhara people hard and they considered displaced or masked by amhara.
    Due to this bad threat they think wrong and accept mal ideas
    to amhara
    .the last option of amhara is struagile those negative thinker
    Starting from centeral government.

  • Ethiopia will get her peace when Article 39 respected. Beacause every nation want to represent Ethiopia that’s not possible.

  • It’s a good sight or I shared all ideas. I think in Ethiopia politica is like circle. Abiy seems different but at the same time he is making the same circle.
    In my point for you also don’t take a side just try to show us or the audience the true story and also how we make the better Ethiopia. Try to be representative of Ethiopia people who want to tell the truth. Cause everything in Ethiopia politics built by untrue stories.
    Please try to show the rest of the world the true story. And try not to take side in any aspect . Just transfer the truth. Then I will be the follower.
    Thank you.

  • We are Africans. This ethnic thing is killing us. Divided, we will suffer and disappear. Eventually Africans will be on the endangered species list because one will think one ethnic group is different then the other. War will start, and at the end they will be little Africans left for the picking. Africans are not the enemy. If you are African, you are brothers.

    • Dear Brother Patrick,

      What he writes is the actual undeniable situation of the country with a more logical and sensible way. The government stands only for one ethnic group “the oromos” that is not enough they had a revenge startegy together with tplf to exterminate the Amhara people from the face of the earth. I do believe in what you are saying, but we can’t sustain peace and harmony with only one side interest.

  • In his inaugural speech as Abiy became PM of Ethiopia, almost all Ethiopians everywhere were making noises of happiness. But I was not. Because in that moment of speech I knew that in his speech all the statements were in future tenses or they were simply pledges which could be implemented partially or never. And I wrote my commentary on my Facebook page the day after his inauguration speech. What is happening now is just what I expected. So, not surprising for me. Lovely article Hone! Stay blessed.

  • The Amhara are a threat to world peace, the world must unite against these terrorist orthodox adherents who even support Islamic extremism in Ethiopia by calling the statement made by the Ethiopian government against Al Qaeda in Ethiopia as “fabricated”. They’re disappointed that Abiy didn’t hand over Ethiopia to them. They don’t want oromo to speak their language, they want Amharic language to be the sole form of communication, if Abiy doesn’t crackdown on them, he will lose power, this Ethiopia=highlander notion must be stopped.

    • Dear Fasil; Ethiopians are diverse, hard working, loyal and patriotic peoples all ver the world. Just like the many beautiful ethnic groups in Ethiopia the Amhara people have sacrificed blood and bone throughout the history of Ethiopia. And we know that the world is blindly afraid of Ethiopians because they are faithful and religious people who have their own alphabet, calendar, and are the origins of mankind plus technology. So please don’t try to separate brothers and sisters who have helped each other and lived for more than 5000 years defending and cherishing their country Ethiopia.

    • Can you actually hear yourself. Your words man. Your words. These words are forbidden on this continent. We are Africans. Self destruction is not the African way.

  • I never had faith on the same establishment, a bloodless change never a fact in the history of Ethiopian political life. What makes the current regime dangerous is the fact that they cheat their way into the resistance movement bodies and instituted a fake democracy. Even the current “transition government” institutes the same Oromo base public policy, in the end it will fail. Most of us in the West are doing very well; however, we had hope to be part of the helping hand to Ethiopia regardless of ethnicity. What a looser proposition. The truth and fairness always govern the day; given time things will change for better or worse.

  • Thank you! Thoughtful and Wonderful piece of article. I love how you articulated key areas of concern. Keep it up!

  • Amazing, this is exactly whats happening. We supported Abiy believing his words, but as you described it clearly his actions were on the contrary. He lost the support of millions including mine. So unfortunate to think that he can fool everybody for long. It just shows how immature, laying, and gridy the ODP leadership is, they are just so eager to establishie Oromo dominance and they betrayed the Amharas who actually put them in power.

  • This feels more like a regurgitation of the Amhara point of view than any analysis, sorry to say. Yes, you are right on many points, like the disservice done to Amhara populations in Oromia and other parts, as they were denied representation. Some other parts of the article like blanket statements we read on facebook “Raya is Amhara. Welkaite is Amhara”…is disappointing to read especially in a place like Eth. Insight. The problem with Abiy is the same problem with your article. To see things as inherently existing. Amhara or Tigre as ethnic entities assumed solidity after the drafting of the constitution. The constitution divided up the country into peoples and nationalities without LEGALLY defining what constitutes a people and nationality. is it hereditary or, geographical or matrilineal or patrilineal? is it changeable by generation (children born of Oromo parents but who speak only Tigrinya…what are they? They are a legal limbo in the constitution). Can one belong to 5 ethnic groups? Can one choose ethnicity? Without addressing the legal contradictions of the construction of identity in Ethiopia, you offer to give us a narrative of the Amhara…hence your solution exacerbates the problem.

    • This is the analysis I came to read. Interesting questions that I pray can be further discussed in future pieces.

  • I strongly beleive that the writer has put real facts in detail which had been done in Ethiopia since last year.

      • I think these is not false look the evidence is there and what we are looking is not good. Abiy is immature.

        • the article is fantastic.it tells the truth. the coup is fake.the prime minister is a great liar.
          shame on abyie

          he is a great liar of the 21 century