Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who assumed power in 2018 and entered the Menelik Palace as the country’s first prime minister from the Oromo nation, has so far failed to deliver on his economic and social pledges to the Ethiopian people.
Ethiopia continues to be torn by ethnic frictions, rivalries between its national groupings, and sharp discrepancies in the distribution of power and wealth. Ahmed has also been unable to meet the aspirations of the Oromo themselves, and though the largest of Ethiopia’s ethnic groups, they continue to suffer from marginalisation, the lack of infrastructural development in Oromo regions, high rates of unemployment and poverty, and a lack of equal access to wealth and power.
Their disgruntlement has been met by harshly repressive measures including mass detainments, extrajudicial killings, and Internet blackouts. The country is now on the verge of a constitutional crisis due to the postponement of general elections using the Covid-19 pandemic as a pretext.
While he has made some undeniable achievements and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for political reasons that are not at issue here, the Ethiopian prime minister’s policies have worked to disrupt the country’s social structure, undermine the constitutional order, and obstruct the democratic transition. His Prosperity Party has effectively transformed itself into a clone of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) against a backdrop of mounting ethnic tensions, as was epitomised by the recent murder of the prominent singer Hachalu Hundessa, which triggered unrest that has so far left over 100 people dead.
Ahmed’s government has managed this crisis in the same manner as preceding Ethiopian governments — through avoidance, dismissal, blaming “conspirators” at home and abroad, the use of excessive force against protesters, and the absence of solutions. The grassroots protest movement that is on the rise in Ethiopia at present is the product of accumulated ills endured by the Oromo over decades of marginalisation and injustice on the part of successive governments in Addis Ababa that have refused to recognise their numerical majority.
The Oromo, a Kushitic people native to the Horn of Africa, represent 35 per cent of the Ethiopian population. The Oromia region is noted for its high-quality, fertile soil and is home to large farming estates and about half the livestock in the country. The region is also rich in mineral wealth, although this has also been a source of the troubles that have afflicted the Oromo since the rule of the 19th-century Ethiopian emperors Theodore, John IV, and Menelik II. Such troubles have included armed conflict between the Oromo and Amhara peoples and their marginalisation by the Tigrayan people.
The Oromo have long sought to preserve their distinct ethnic and national identity and, simultaneously, to claim their equality with Ethiopia’s other ethnic groups. The Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) was formed in 1974 to press for Oromo rights, for example, and it was instrumental in the overthrow of the former Mengistu-Derg military order in Ethiopia and participated in the first civilian government and parliament afterwards. However, the OLF withdrew from the government when it realised that the Tigrayan people dominated the ruling EPRDF. It clashed with the government led by former Ethiopian prime minister Meles Zenawi, and this banned the OLF and rounded up thousands of its members.
A major turning point in the history of the Oromo came in 2014 with the rise of Qeerroo, a movement of young Oromos advocating political change. Qeerroo, which in the Oromia language refers to young people involved in agriculture, livestock farming, and fishing, originated in the town of Ambo where, in response to a government decision to drive thousands of Oromo farmers from their land in order to make way for the expansion of Addis Ababa, a group of Oromo youth began their struggle for greater political freedom and social justice and more equitable representation in government.
Taking advantage of modern communications technologies, the Qeerroo youth movement managed to hold demonstrations, exchange information, and make their cause known to public opinion both at home and abroad. The movement grew rapidly, much to the surprise of the Ethiopian authorities, and it became a source of inspiration to young people from other Ethiopian ethnic groups, giving rise to the Fano-Amhara movement, the Berbera movement in the Somali region, and the Gambela movement in the Gambela region. The Qeerroo’s widespread popularity and success forced the government to abandon its urban expansion project.
The protest movement then continued to acquire momentum, and over the next three years it spread through most of the Ethiopian regions. Although thousands of young people were killed in clashes with the security forces, the movement was able to sustain such pressure on the government as to force Ahmed’s predecessor, Hailemariam Desalegn, to resign in 2018 both as head of the ruling coalition and as prime minister.
However, Desalegn’s resignation did not satisfy the OLF, and it was insufficient to meet the Ethiopian people’s demands. The OLF’s official spokesman at the time stated that what was needed was an end to the marginalisation of the Oromo people, the equitable distribution of wealth and power among all the country’s ethnic and national groups, the creation of a truly representative interim government, and the holding of free and fair elections. Significantly, the spokesman stressed that the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) was being built primarily for political ends and not for development purposes. “The ruling EPRDF seeks to monopolise control over the sources of the Nile and, in the framework of deeper international alliances with various powers, to force Egypt to buy water in a subsequent phase,” he said.
Ahmed has utilised disputes with other countries in the region, including the crisis over the building of the GERD and the border crisis with Sudan over the Fashqa region, to accomplish narrow short-term ends. His government’s rhetoric and propaganda campaigns on these questions primarily seek to rally the Ethiopian public behind the government and against perceived “plots” against the country’s development, undermining the opposition and diverting attention from socio-political and economic crises at home and engineering the unconstitutional postponement of the general elections.
These tactics appear to have backfired. Ahmed’s attempts to mislead the Ethiopian people and evade their demands have led to widespread demonstrations, while his intransigence in the negotiations over the GERD, largely driven by a fear of giving ammunition to the Ethiopian opposition, has forced Egypt and Sudan to bring the dispute to the UN Security Council, generating additional outside pressures on Ethiopia.
The writer is an expert in national security affairs.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 July, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly