Hopes dashed: sabotage and mayhem in Ethiopia

Jan Abbink is an anthropologist-historian and carries out research on the history and cultures of the Horn of Africa (Northeast Africa), particularly Ethiopia.


As a researcher with a career made largely in/on Ethiopia, working on the history and cultures of this fascinating and diverse country, I observe with dismay and shock the unfolding violence and political sabotage in progress. Now, 2,5 years after the change of leadership and the decline of the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), and despite the dawn of a new era with the rise to power of Prime Minister Dr Abiy Ahmed, we see grounds for deep concern. The most recent indication is the eruption of armed conflict between the Tigray region armed forces and the federal army on 4 November 2020, provoked by an assault of the Tigray army on a federal military base (near Dansha town in Tigray) to rob equipment, arms and ammunition, and with many people killed. PM Abiy Ahmed always deeply resented taking any military action on Tigray, despite a string of provocations, but it seemed they now crossed a red line.

The new spirit of reconciliation
PM Abiy Ahmed emerged in March 2018 from within the then ruling party EPRDF - a ‘coalition’ of four parties formed in 1990 by the dominant Tigray Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF, from the Northern region of Tigray) and the main insurgent military force that ousted the Derg military regime in May 1991. He announced an unprecedented and highly innovative programme of reform, seriously departing from the dismal political record of the EPRDF. He brought a new, positive spirit of reconciliation and peace-making to the country. He responded to years of (youth) protests and to the needs and aspirations of the Ethiopian public at large for political, economic and social freedoms, aiming towards a reset of the political system. Since his assuming power, he has registered successes: breathing space for citizens, legalisation of opposition political parties, liberalising the media, peace with Eritrea (which yielded him the 2019 Nobel Prize for Peace), mending relations with neighbouring countries (Sudan, Djibouti, Somalia and Somaliland), economic dynamics and broader national investments, reconsidering land policies, justice reforms, army restructuring, installing a real Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, etc., and intensifying or upgrading relations with foreign powers and donor countries. Some critics said that it was a mistake to unconditionally welcome back all opposition groups, even those with a programme of violent resistance. But the general message and style of PM Abiy, a bright and fast-working leader of exceptional quality, was reconciliation and looking towards the future. His tone was not, like with the previous PMs, the routine conjuring up of ‘enemies’ and of using threatening language, but genuine openness and a style of camaraderie. Indeed, he aimed to transform the country’s repressive political culture.

Stuck in past models of sectarian and eternal grievance politics
His appeal to the Ethiopian population in all its diversity, while generating enthusiasm, also put large demands not only on the political actors and (opposition) leaders but also on the Ethiopian people at large. Although most Ethiopians support democracy, it soon appeared that not all could take up the challenges and could not change with PM Abiy in his high tempo. Many remained stuck in past models of sectarian and eternal grievance politics and ethnic-based distrust. Violence by ‘non-state actors’ often acting on ethnic and religious agendas led to insecurity and loss of life. Renewed religious-communal tensions also emerged (also see this article). In addition, the substantial amount of autonomy of the Regional States in Ethiopia allowed a region like Tigray to block the liberal reforms proposed by the new federal government. The TPLF regional government is not uncontested either in its own region (also read this article), but exercises strong repression. The TPLFs also rejected all efforts by civil society for dialogue. For example, they sent back representatives of various religious groups, influential people, elders etc. who came to Tigray’s capital Meqele wanting to mediate between TPLF and the Ethiopian Cabinet. But TPLF leaders said they did not want reconciliation on a one-to-one basis with the Cabinet/PP, but rather together with all ‘federalist groups’ and the government.

Criminal investigation
The recent confrontation in Tigray is a serious escalation. It illustrates that the TPLF - the EPRDF member that had been the boss behind the scenes until 2018 and which lost power in April 2018 - could not accept the new order. From day one after PM Abiy’s election as PM (within the EPRDF Council), the TPLF elite bore a grudge against the new leader and operated primarily in a negative, reactive manner. Their thought was: ‘We should not have lost power and it is unfair’. The TPLF (based largely in the Tigray region and people, being ca. 6-7% of the total population) thought they should have all credit unto eternity for creating a ‘new and economically fast-growing Ethiopia’; and perceived their being relegated to the background as ‘unjustified’. Some Ethiopian observers stated that this pitiful self-perception has dominated them ever since and may partly have been fueled by the deep fear that their politico-economic exploitation, nepotism, corruption and deeply repressive policies of the past 26 years would be ‘exposed’ and possibly be the object of criminal investigation. Indeed, some of the major offenders have been indicted. One of those accused of abusing power and funds was Maj.-Gen. Kinfe Dagnew, the former chief of the state Kuraz Sugar plantations project that destroyed southwest Ethiopia’s environment and the economies of local people. As noted, the overall human rights record of the previous regime was appalling, and is still awaiting full judgement. Unfortunately therefore, as part of its rejectionist attitude towards PM Abiy’s initiatives, the TLPF leadership in Meqele increasingly called on Tigrayans (parliament members, federal government ministers, high officials, etc.) to ‘leave’ Ethiopian federal institutions and come to Meqele.

Anti-federal government actions
Since 2018 PM Abiy Ahmed’s initiatives towards Tigray remained constructive: he tried to keep the lines open, visited Tigray several times giving speeches in Tigrinya, transferred federal budget to the Region, stimulated continued investment there, never gave collective judgement on the Tigrayan leadership and tried to keep them involved in federal governance, ignored their snubs, insults and unreasonable reproaches and the obstruction from TPLF members in the federal parliament (the House of People’s Representatives) in Addis Ababa, and retained many of the key people from TPLF (of Tigray ethno-linguistic background) as long as possible on their posts in the administration and the federal army. But all to no avail. Over the past 2,5 years the TPLF leadership kept grumbling. They also refused to join the new ruling party, the Ethiopian Prosperity Party, formed in November 2019 as the successor to the EPRDF. There have also been many reports in the local media that Northern military and political commanders have stood by idly when so-called ‘ethnic violence’ erupted across the country and that they did not take preventive law enforcement action. In addition, many reports of the last year in Ethiopia have contended that TPLF units and financiers have actively supported all kinds of anti-federal government actions across Ethiopia, from supporting armed groups (like the break-away Oromo OLF faction ‘OLF Shene’, engaging in various terrorist actions, in fomenting armed opposition groups and illegal arms trading, inciting local ‘ethnic’ conflicts, e.g. among minorities like the Qemant, the Guji, etc. In addition, as we know from local eye-witnesses, from the start in early 2018 the Tigray authorities planned on rapidly expanding their Regional army, asking and forcing families to provide youngsters for army service. There was also talk of economic sabotage, like distributing massive quantities of counterfeit money (even the newly announced Ethiopian birr introduced in September 2020 was already being copied), and undermining the federal anti-COVID-19 measures. For instance, in September 2020 the TPLF held ‘parliamentary elections’; in their own region of Tigray while this was not called for, as the national parliamentary elections originally scheduled for May 2020 were delayed due to the spread of the pandemic. TPLF leaders in Meqele contested the delay and said it was ‘unconstitutional’. They did not see the corona pandemic as a reason for an emergency, although the Ethiopian constitution (art. 93.1) allows this in case of an epidemic.

The regressive political model in the mind
But not only the TPLF is a problem. There have also been numerous ‘ethnic clashes’ over the past years, in the Oromia, Benishangul-Gumuz, Amhara, Harar, Afar, and Southern Regional states. In the first region, Oromo youth groups called qeerroo, as well as violent insurgent splinter groups (e.g., the ‘OLF-Shene’) demonstrated for rights and access to resources, but also have used intimidation and violence on ‘non-Oromo’, often taking the form of ‘ethnic cleansing’ and inspired by irresponsible opposition leaders. Horrific incidents were the result, with new forms of cruelty and killing carried out, akin to actions of the ‘Islamic State’. In many instances, it is said that some members of the administration and Regional army troops were not doing their job in controlling and preventing the violence, with some units even complicit. So despite PM Abiy’s unprecedented reform measures, the ride has been rough: the multiple violent incidents, economic setbacks, the corona-pandemic, the East African locust plague, and ethnic-styled divisions. His policies of openness and democratic restructuring could not (yet) undo the decades-long misery of repression, regional inequalities, exploitation and preferential treatment of previous regimes, and demanded too much in one go from the battered Ethiopian population. PM Abiy’s quest for freedom, equity and inclusiveness has allowed reactionary ethnicist forces – basically the creation of Meles Zenawi’s policies of discrediting the Ethiopian nation - to get free reign. The worrying thing is that the well-sounding model of ‘ethnic rights’ of the 1990s has become an engrained mold of political thinking in Ethiopia over and above that of human rights, pan-regional and pan-ethnic political democracy and economic inclusiveness beyond ethno-national origins. PM Abiy has to contend with the forces of the past, and, in a way, is confronted with the ‘harvest’ of the model of antagonistic ethnic politics created by the previous rulers since 1991. This is not easily remedied, because, as I know from fieldwork in Ethiopia, the model is in the heads of people, and the older generation that had a more inclusive, accommodate view of ethnic and religious diversity is dying out. This seems to have become the key problem: the regressive political model in the mind, and neither the current arguments about ‘who started’ or who is ‘most to blame’ for the violent incidents, nor the ‘grievances’ of which any group seem to have plenty, and never their own fault.

Targeted mass slaughter
As researchers I and many colleagues are greatly perturbed by this massive and repetitive ‘ethnic’-styled violence in Ethiopia, unprecedented and akin to pogroms on ‘minorities’ or on those labelled as ’Others’. The latest incident - even reported by the BBC and other international news media usually silent on incidents in Ethiopia – was an exceptionally cold-blooded killing of a group of Amhara-speaking people in Guliso, Wollega region, in western Ethiopia (Oromo Regional State), among them women, children and elderly that had been living there since at least the time of the Derg regime (1974-1991). On the morning of 1 November 2020 these local Amhara were ‘rounded up’ by the armed rebel group ‘OLF-Shené’ and brought to a school. Then they were attacked and c. 54 of them were killed with hand grenades and bullets, in what can only be called a targeted mass slaughter. The victims were people that had committed no crime: innocent local farmer people living peacefully in the area. Their ‘mistake’: they were born as Amhara(-speaking) and living in an area dominated by Oromo. Not that all local Oromo were ‘against’ them. But army units stationed in the area had just been withdrawn and the arrival of local police replacing them ‘delayed’, so no one was there to protect them. Two weeks before, on 18 and 21 October this year, 31 Amhara-speaking people were killed in the Gurafarda district (the Bench-Sheko Zone), a place well-known to one of us from fieldwork. The same pattern of ‘ethnic cleansing’ prevailed here. Local protection was absent, and some years ago these farmers, cultivating near forested areas, had even been forcefully disarmed by the local authorities.

The killing of popular singer Hacalu Hundesa
These events were only the latest of violent actions that have been frequent in the past years: in Shashemene, Burayyu, Benishangul-Gumuz, Guji-Gedeo, the killing (by dissident Oromo radicals) of popular Oromo singer Hacalu Hundesa in October this year and the ensuing premeditated rioting and violence, cost more than 160 people their lives. This is apart from violent incidents in more marginal areas, among them those perpetrated by regional army units on smaller minorities (like the Mursi, the Bodi and the Suri in Southwest Ethiopia), that get no attention anywhere in the media. PM Abiy is mired in problems not of his own making and is partly undermined, not only by willful political sabotage and perpetually distrustful, would-be elite opponents, but also by forces and people of dubious loyalty that still populate the army and the administrative institutions. Many of them are old-style EPRDF loyalists, and not all support the reform agenda, some are “paid by Northerners”, and others see personal advantage in fomenting unrest and violence on the basis of extremist ethno-nationalist agendas. This violence undermines the stability of the country, shows the callousness and failure of self-appointed ‘ethnic entrepreneurs’, and is the pernicious result of divisive ethnicist policies developed under the previous regime. ‘Ethnic liberation’ has proven fake liberation. While recognizing linguistic and cultural rights of ethnic groups (i.e. basically all Ethiopians) is of course commendable, the alternative for national governance would be to work on territorial-regional and not ‘ethnic’-based issue politics.

The role of Western donor countries in the past 30 years, supporting the so-called ‘great economic progress’ under the Meles regime, has often been negative. Not hindered by any understanding of Ethiopian politics or political psychology, and only interested in growth figures but not in their nature and quality, they have up to 2018 been supporting, in the name of ‘stability’, a regime that was busy dismantling socio-cultural harmony, political consensus and democratic, economic and human rights. Of course the West, notably the EU (not to speak of dictatorial regimes without any interest in equity and justice, like China, Russia, Iran, Turkey, etc.) now go scot-free and moan about the current violence in Ethiopia, but fail to face or recognise their role in condoning the prehistory of conflict.

As researchers, we fear for our research communities and our friends, some of them threatened, beleaguered, and victims of the mayhem in the country. As if the ravages of COVID-19 are not enough, the people of Ethiopia are beset by problems created by irresponsible and self-serving ‘elites’, usually led by the figments of ‘ethnic politics’. If this is not tamed or overcome by a culture of institutionalised dialogue, we have a sure recipe for durable disaster.

Photo credits
Top photo: Still from PM Abiy Ahmed's speech on 4 November, in which he announced military action in Tigray. Via Youtube.
Photo right: locust plague. Photo: FAO.
Photo left: Still from Hachalu Hundessa interviewed by OMN: ቆይታ ከአርቲስት አጫሉ ሁንዴሳ ጋር., at 36:24 min. Photo by Firaabeek Entertainment via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0.

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Abiy Ahmed
political reform
Hacalu Hundesa
ethnic-based politics


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Dear Professor Abbink. It is clear to me by hearing Ethiopians in my network, that the progressive and unifying reforms of PM Dr. Abiy Ahmed are being strained by the old security networks and PR machine run by TPLF. You write:
`The most recent indication is the eruption of armed conflict between the Tigray region armed forces and the federal army on 4 November 2020, provoked by an assault of the Tigray army on a federal military base (near Dansha town in Tigray) to rob equipment, arms and ammunition, and with many people killed. PM Abiy Ahmed always deeply resented taking any military action on Tigray, despite a string of provocations, but it seemed they now crossed a red line.`
Could you clarify why in the West and most news bulletins there is a narrative in which the TPLF and Abiy are posed as equal parties and that there especially is a hiatus or gap in the history of the terror and destabalising forces of the TPLF, please? Because I would think that the international community should know more bout the ways of the TPLF maybe.