Cooperation between Amhara and Oromo oppositionists presents the government with one of its most serious challenges in 25 years

Protesters chant slogans during a demonstration over what they say is unfair distribution of wealth in the country at Meskel Square in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, August 6. TIKSA NEGERI / Reuters


By Africa-Confidential

The latest major jolt to Ethiopia's security and its ruling elites has come in the form of a protest in the north-western city of Bahir Dar, the seat of the Amhara regional government and a destination popular with tourists visiting Lake Tana's ancient island monasteries. After a large demonstration that passed peacefully the previous week in the historic town of Gondar around 110 kilometres to the north, large crowds gathered to protest in Bahir Dar on 7 August. Grievances included claims that the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) dominates an authoritarian government, the arrest of opposition-aligned politicians and journalists, and complaints that Tigray State annexed Wolkait district in the 1990s (AC Vol 57 No 15, Another restive region).

Significantly, the Amhara demonstrators expressed solidarity with their Oromo compatriots, of whom around 500 have been killed by security forces during an uprising that is now into its tenth month in Ethiopia's most populous province. In keeping with some of the Oromia incidents, the protest in Bahir Dar began peacefully, but when a security guard at a government-linked building opened fire on threatening crowds, looting erupted. Security forces then used lethal force, as they have done regularly in Oromia, killing perhaps 30 demonstrators (AC Vol 57 No 6, Oromia erupts).

The day before this violence witnessed what activists tagged the Grand Oromo Protests. One aim was to test the government's attitude following an apparently more permissive stance on the Gondar demonstration. However, the response was unambiguous: police, paramilitaries and soldiers gunned down around 100 Oromo demonstrators in different places across the region as protests descended into chaos. Thousands more people were reported to have been rounded up later and many hauled off to military camps, including some arrested after a rare demonstration in the capital, Addis Ababa. This deadly outcome means the Oromo protests may well turn into into something more resembling an armed insurgency. Still, Ethiopia's security apparatus is fearsome and it has decades of experience of seeing off disorganised rebellions.

Events in Bahir Dar and Oromia may not have been the most serious. In Gondar, there was further violence last week involving security forces and protestors, some of it directed against Tigrayan businesses. This has led to the mass exodus of Tigrayans from the city, amid reports of targeted killings and Tigrayans being told to leave Amhara Region.

Such events have created a rift within the Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the coalition of four regional parties that has controlled Ethiopia since allied rebels overthrew Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam's Derg military regime in 1991. TPLF supporters say they are alarmed by the anti-Tigrayan feelings accompanying the protest, as well as by the ethnic violence. Amhara party leaders are at the very least complicit, they say, through their failure to stamp out dangerous rhetoric and combat communal violence – all of which is exacerbated by a well-armed populace and proximity to enemy forces across the border in Eritrea.

Deep-rooted tensions
The tensions within the country's ethnic politics concern the post-1991 settlement but have deeper roots. Until the EPRDF divided the country into ethnically defined administrative units, the Amhara were the most powerful ethnic group ('nationality'), albeit one with major sub-divisions. The Amharic language is the lingua franca and Amhara settlers and landlords held sway in Oromia and other areas for decades. Many notable Ethiopian rulers were Amhara, such as a series of monarchs based in Gondar for two centuries from 1636; Emperor Tewodros II from the Sudan borderlands west of Gondar, who began to forge the nation from 1855; and Menelik II of Shewa, which encompassed Addis Ababa, who fought off Italian forces at Adwa in 1896 and extended Ethiopia's border through conquest.

The Amhara protests are bolstered by support from diaspora activists, such as the group Ginbot 7, that are vociferously opposed to the EPRDF's ethnic politics. Critics say the protest movement is less about democratisation than about the loss of historic Amhara privileges enjoyed at the expense of people of other ethnicities (AC Vol 50 No 9, Losing the plot). These fundamentally different interpretations mean the prospects for compromise look poor.

The Wolkait issue is a prime example of that intransigence at work. Amhara activists point out that before 1991, the district was part of provinces ruled from Gondar. TPLF supporters and others observe, correctly, that almost all its residents are Tigrinya-speakers, so it was legitimately incorporated into Tigray State when boundaries were set based on ethno-linguistic demographics. That debate is far from being the only one emanating from the EPRDF's system of ethnic federalism, which supporters staunchly defend as redressing the historical marginalisation and exploitation of Ethiopia's myriad minorities.

Another issue within Amhara illustrates the complexities. As the Oromo protests were exploding in November, trouble was also brewing among the Qimant, another Semitic group which lives just to the west of Gondar. A long-standing claim for autonomy, as promised by the 1995 constitution, came to a head when the Bahir Dar government offered to give the community control of 42 local administrations; the Qimant had asked for more than 170 councils. The Qimant duly rejected the offer and Amhara militias and regional security officials punished them for their assertiveness. By the time federal forces were deployed to quell the violence, almost 100 Qimant people were dead.

EPRDF leaders give the impression that they would like such issues to disappear so that the nation can harmoniously focus on their development agenda. Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn has made comments suggesting that all claims over ethnic autonomy have been settled. However, that isn't the view held by the Qimant or indeed by others such as the Konso community in the bewilderingly multi-ethnic south. Hailemariam used to be President of the Southern Nations', Nationalities' and Peoples' Region.

Although mechanisms for conflict resolution exist, such as the upper chamber of the federal Parliament, the House of Federation, they suffer from the same problem as all other political institutions: they are controlled by the EPRDF and so are not impartial. Other more fundamental constitutional challenges, most pertinently the Oromo demand for greater autonomy, are a reiteration of perennial questions about Ethiopian statehood. As such they can be dealt with only through major political processes, rather than technocratic fixes.

Radicalism absent
As a radical party with a popular base and a history of internal debate, the EPRDF should in theory be capable of making a credible effort to meet such challenges. Instead, it is increasingly seen as hollowed out as a result of recruitment drives over the last decade to boost its membership. While it may have six million card-carrying members, many of the new followers are interested only in the material benefits of allegiance, rather than possessing a belief in the capacity of the party's 'revolutionary democratic' doctrine to transform Ethiopia into a modern nation through collective action.

There are also major question marks over the leadership. Rather than producing legions of superb strategists and thinkers in the mould of the revered late leader Meles Zenawi, the Front instead largely churns out over-promoted cadres who seem to have arrived at senior positions purely through political loyalty. Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekonnen, the head of the Amhara National Democratic Movement, is a case in point: a politician who doesn't command the respect of the people and is not known as a sophisticated problem-solver (AC Vol 56 No 7, Easy on the landslide). The President of Amhara Region, Gedu Andargachew, appears more likely to lose his position than to lead a process of healing dialogue.

The problem is most apparent in Oromia, where the ruling Oromo People's Democratic Organisation has been missing in action since November, reflecting its huge legitimacy crisis among the 35 million Oromo. The former Revenue and Customs Authority Director, Beker Shale, has been appointed to shake up the OPDO but the results of his efforts are as yet unclear. Little has been heard from figures of the Oromo establishment such as popular former President Abadula Gemeda, Speaker of the federal legislature since 2010 (AC Vol 51 No 18, The new guard steps up).

Radicalism present
The radical and spreading nature of the protests, many of which seek regime change, and the reality of a weakened, bruised EPRDF, mean Hailemariam and others are very likely to fall back on tried and tested methods. That may mean more brutal repression, including mass internment, and zero tolerance for anything but officially backed 'demonstrations'. As well as ploughing ahead with national infrastructure and industrialisation projects, it also means an effort to create jobs by supporting small businesses, as well as attempts to root out corruption and improve public administration. Still, the politicisation of the civil service, the smothering of the autonomy of institutions and rising corruption among party-affiliated individuals, especially in Oromia, work against effective reform. These problems are systemic and stem partly from the EPRDF's de facto one-party state; they are therefore difficult for the Front to solve.

Whether opponents can capitalise on the EPRDF's stuttering response is far from certain. Reports from Bahir Dar suggest that after the massacre there, local people are in a state of terrified shock rather than defiant revolt. The unity and organisational skills of the Amhara activists, and the resolve of the demonstrators, is at this stage untested.

An alliance was formed this month between two exiled parties, the Oromo Democratic Front and Ginbot 7, whose respective political aims of Oromo autonomy and national unity are generally seen as incompatible. It has given the protestors a boost, though. The ODF is a splinter group of the Oromo Liberation Front, which fought against the Derg alongside the EPRDF before falling out with the TPLF during the transition and continuing as a rebel group. Ginbot 7 is headed by Berhanu Nega, who was elected Mayor of Addis Ababa in 2005 before being gaoled after post-election turmoil. He has fighters based in Eritrea. It's unclear at this stage what effect the strategic alliance will have on the ground but a united front between the two groups' supporters could certainly have significant propaganda value.

Oromo and Amhara activists are already mounting joint demonstrations outside embassies abroad, partly with the aim of putting pressure on Western governments, which support the EPRDF's Ethiopia despite its poor human rights record. While the United States and European Union are getting nervy about the unrest, donor support is long institutionalised and the geopolitical calculations that make Ethiopia a key ally in the Horn of Africa are not about to change.

The various opposition elements also have a long way to go before convincing the world that they present a better governing option than the EPRDF. For all its repression and other failings, it has a solid track record of maintaining relative law and order, improving public services and overseeing infrastructure-led growth (AC Vol 57 No 14, Dam fine).
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