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The roots of the crisis in Ethiopia

map ethiopia
Ali Awali

May 29, 2021

Last November, the Ethiopian military launched an offensive in Tigray region in the north of the country, killing thousands and displacing millions. In December the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, reported on atrocities inflicted on civilians, including, but not limited to, "artillery strikes on populated areas, the deliberate targeting of civilians, extrajudicial killings and widespread looting."

The TPLF (Tigray People's Liberation Front) defeated the counter-revolutionary Derg military regime in 1991 and were at the centre of Ethiopian power from then until 2018. They are the ruling party in Tigray Region, and have substantial military power. Here, Ali Awali looks at the background to this conflict, and explains how it is a power struggle between different sections of the ruling class where a victory for either side will not benefit the ordinary people of Tigray, Ethiopia or the rest of East Africa.

In 1855-1868 Emperor Tewodros ll brought an end to what is known as the Era of Princes and united the Abyssinian kingdom. However, Tewodros' rule came to an end when he commited suicide before the invading British expedition led by Lord Napier. In 1871, King Yohannes was crowned Emperor Yohannes. He was from Tigray. In 1889, Emperor Yohannes was killed at the battle of Metema by Sudan's Mahadist forces who were fighting the British in Sudan. Yohannes was an ally of the British. In return, the British helped him train his army and supply him with modern guns and ammunition to keep him in control. After his death, it was supposed his son Mengesha Yohannes to be his successor.

However, the powerful Shoan king Menelik came to power and was crowned as emperor Menelik II in 1889. Menelik was an Amhara from Menz, in Shoa. Menelik amassed massive fire power during his reign. This was decisive in competition for the throne as well as expansion and conquests of the south, southwest and eastern part of present-day Ethiopia. The Emperor built an empire by expanding and conquering the different nations and nationalities. These people had their systems of government, religion and culture.

They were not able to resist Menelik’s well-armed army. Menelik’s weapons included tens of thousands of modern French rifles and hotchkiss artillery guns, ammunition and shells. He also acquired Tsarist Russian Berdan rifles, so also Gewek 88 and Karbiner 88 rifles and carbiners.

Menelik purchased these armaments from the French, Italians and Tsarist Russia. 

None of the nationalities had such fire power. He expanded into the south and conquered the Walyeta, the Oromos, the Sidamas and west into Walega, the land of the Oromos. He conquered the Emirate of Harar in the east. The Oromos of the east, the Somalis, the Afars, the Argobas and the Hararis were forcibly incorporated into the empire. Many consider the expansion of Menelik similar to that of European colonisation of Africa. The only difference was that the Europeans were white who crossed the seas, while Menelik’s forces were black, in the neighborhood. For people in southern, southwest and eastern present-day Ethiopia see no difference. Menelik established an Amhara supremacy and domination. The Tigreyans were junior partners in this imperialist project. Hence an Amhara Tigre rule. ie an Abyssinian orthodox Christian rule of Ethiopia. Menelik consolidated his Empire between 1889 and 1913. He built a unitary state with the newly founded Addis Ababa as the capital. He embarked on a modernization project, including the building of the Franco-Ethiopian Railway from Djibouti, in French Somaliland to Addis Ababa, the introduction of a modern education system; building the Menelik School, chartering the Abyssinian Bank, founding the telegraph, etc.

Menelik was succeeded by his grandson Lij Iyasu who ruled from 1913 to 1916. Then came Empress Zawditu, daughter of Menelik, from 1913 to 1930. She was deposed in 1930 by Tafri Makonen, who was crowned Emperor Haile Selassie l. Haile Selassie was emperor from 1930 to 1975. In 1935, Fascist Italy invaded Ethiopia from its colony in Eritrea. Haile Selassie fled the country and lived in exile in Britain for five years. In 1941 he came back with help of the British.

When he came back, Haile Selassie consolidated his power and introduced the provincial system. This was to create a centralized state where all the nationalities were brought into a unitary system. It was also to reduce the power of local lords and chiefs.                        

The First Wayane Rebellion in Tigray 1943

The people of Tigray saw this as an encroachment into their autonomy and refused to pay what they saw as heavy taxation. They staged the first Woyane Movement, a rebellion of the peasants. The Tigrayans were not a conquered or oppressed nationality like the Oromos, Wolayitas, Somalis and many others. The Woyane movement was to make Tigray autonomous from the Amhara of Shoa to be governed according to their culture and elect their leaders. For about ten months they controlled most of Tigray. The movement shocked the Haile Selassie government, his regime was saved by the British Royal Airforce. The Tigrayans were not satisfied with their junior partnership and felt they were mistreated by the Amharas. Their movement was crushed with the help of the British.

Emperor Haile Selassie adopted the name Ethiopia in 1943 and registered his country with this name at UNO 1945. Why Ethiopia and not Abyssinia? Abyssinians are only Tigrayans and Amharas. The word 'Etiopus' was used by ancient Greeks in reference to the dark-faced people of sub-Saharan Africa. Emperor Haile Selassie adopted this name to create the impression of a homogeneous country that existed for three thousand years, and not one of multinationals with different cultures, religions and languages that were forcibly brought together by Menelik's conquests. During Haile Selassie’s regime, apart from Wayane there were several uprisings by other nationalities.

The National Question in Ethiopia

Haile Selassie continued the expansionist policy of Emperor Menelik ll. He created 12 provinces to limit the powers of local chiefs. Different nationalities were put together into one province, and the provinces were given names that did not represent the identity of the nationalities. A process of Amharisation was embarked upon: Amharic became the official language, the Tewahido Orthodox Christian Religion was the official religion. All other religions, languages and cultures were suppressed.

Emperor Haile Sellasie wanted to annex both Eritrea and Italian Somaliland. Also, Britain handed part of British Somaliland to Ethiopia. In 1948, Jijiga was handed to Ethiopia by the British. In 1954, another part of British Somaliland – the Haude – was handed to Ethiopia.

Eritrea became an Italian colony in 1890. In 1941, British forces occupied Eritrea and formed a British administration as a United Nations trustee territory. The United Nations General Assembly voted Eritrea as a federation of Ethiopia. In 1968, the Eritrean Liberation Front was formed. Eritrea was annexed by Ethiopia and became part of the Ethiopian provinces. In 1969, full-scale guerrilla war started by Eritrean Liberation Front

Nationalist rebellions in Harar. Harar is a walled city which was the centre of Adal, a powerful Islamic Emirate that flourished around 1415 to 1577. In 1543, Emir Nur assumed power after the death of Ahmed Ibrahim Alghazi who for fourteen years succeeded in conquering Abyssinia. Emir Nur built a wall around the city. In 1887, Menelik defeated the Emir of Harar, Emir Abdulla. Harar fell and was occupied by Menelik and made part of the Empire.

During the reign of Haile Selassie, the Harari people faced brutal repression. The Harari people have a very good relationship with Somalis. In late 1940, they formed the Kulub movement  which had relations with Somali Youth League [SYL] that had offices in Somali territories. The Hararis were forced into exile. Haile Selassie wanted to disperse the Hararis to weaken their resistance.

In the 1960s, there were rebellions in Bale province by the Oromo and Somali peasants. Rebellions were also in some southern regions. The nationalist uprisings were hotly debated in the Ethiopian student movement. A young revolutionary socialist called Wallelign Mekonnen was courageous enough to raise the question that was considered a taboo in Ethiopia.

Rebellion in the Northern Provinces 

Gojam, Gonder, Tigray and Wello are the core of the Abyssinian culture of the Orthodox Church, Amharic language. Rulers in these regions claimed to be the rightful descendants of the Solomonic dynasty. Peasants and poor in these regions lived in abject poverty in the feudal system, where the Rases and nobility exploited them. In Gojam, an Amhara region, the poor and peasants rebelled about the time of the Bale Rebellion in the South East.

Even in Shewa, the centre of Emperor Menelik, discontent grew during Haile Selassie's reign. Ethiopia was a feudal empire, with a feudal class structure: lords and nobility at the top and a poor and exploited class of peasants at the bottom. Ethiopia did not transit from feudalism to the capitalist system. However, with modernization begun by Menelik and Haile Selassie, there were some industries like textile, cement and others with a small working class who had their unions.

During Haile Selassie’s time the progress of the economy stagnated, and dissatisfaction was widespread. In 1953, the Ethiopian constitution allowed labour organisation. It was not until 1962 that Haile Selassie's government recognized the formation of the first labour union, the Confederation of Ethiopian Labour Unions (CELU). CELU was organized at local levels and represented only 30% of labour. CELU's problem was financial. However, they played a role in the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie. In 1974 they called for a general strike when the Prime Minister refused to meet their demands. Three days later, there were wildcat strikes all over the country which forced the Prime Minister to concede to the labour demands. The Ethiopian student movement was another militant movement which was instrumental in the downfall of Haile Sellasie's regime. CELU opposed Haile Selassie and his government, especially on handling the famine in Wollo and Tigray provinces, where over 200000 people died of the famine.

The Ethiopian student movement in the sixties and seventies is where a call for change and even the overthrow of the regime came from. In 1960, a coup d’état was staged by the Neway Brothers – Mengustu Neway, the older brother, a Brigadier General of the Imperial Body Guard (an elite division that guarded the emperor); and Girmame Neway, a graduate of Columbia University who returned to Ethiopia in the 1950s and was governor of Jijiga, the restive Somali region. They were from the upper echelon of Amhara nobility. However, they opposed what they called a reactionary feudal regime that had to be toppled. Girmame called for the complete overhaul of the regime and the distribution of the land to the tiller, justice for the oppressed. The coup failed but it had an impact on the university students of Addis Ababa who supported the coup. These initiated the student movement.

By 1974 there was a widespread rebellion in the provinces, workers’ strikes, mutiny in the army, student protests. The regime was under siege. There was a revolution and the emperor was overthrown. A military junta known as the Derg seized power and preempted the revolution. The Derg broke the backbone of the aristocracy, executed about 60 of them, and imprisoned Emperor Haile Selassie. It brought an end to feudalism in Ethiopia by the land proclamation advocated for redistribution of land. While there was wide jubilation and "ululations" all over the country, the revolution did not go far because it did not address the demands of CELU, which was workers’ demands of minimum wages, more freedom of the press and association and of assembly.  Students demanded a quick transition to civilian rule.

The Derg also failed to address the nations and nationalities question. Soon the Derg was facing opposition from all sides. The military junta cracked down on all opposition. The war in Eritrea continued. Socialist organisations such as Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Party (EPRP), composed of former students, and the All Ethiopian Socialist Party took their fight into the streets. Nationalists also got new organizations like the Oromo Liberation Front and the Western Somali Liberation Front (WSLF). WSLF got support from Somalia and in 1977 a major war broke out between Somalia and Ethiopia. Initially WSLF and the Somali army smashed the 3rd division in the East and went deep about 1000 km. Alarmed, Colonel Mengistu turned to Soviets and the Cubans who came to his rescue. Somalia was a protégé of Soviets who trained and supplied modern weaponry to the Somali army. The Soviets were angry when Somalia turned away from them and thus switched to Ethiopia. In 1989, Ethiopia declared to be a Soviet-style Socialist State. Moreover, the Derg waged what it called the Red Terror to suppress any opposition and civil war raged in the cities where hundreds of thousands died. By 1987, the civil war was over and the Derg was in full control of the cities.

In 1987, Ethiopia adopted the 1977 Soviet constitution – but there were two differences: in Ethiopia, it was a one man rule of the president and it did not adopt the federalism of Soviets. It was a unitary state and failed to address the national question, although there was a hot debate in the central committee of Derg by the Workers Party of Ethiopia to adopt federalism to resolve the national question. The Workers Party of Ethiopia was established by the Derg to replace CELU. The Derg carried out a massive military campaign against the Eritreans in the north.

The Second Woyane Movement

The Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) was founded in 1975. Tigreyans felt the Derg did not address their grievances. They established a relationship with the Eritrean Liberation Front and waged guerilla war from the mountains of Tigray. For sixteen years they carried a successful campaign against the Addis Abeba government.

TPLF organized a successful coalition called Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, which was composed of three other nationalities: Oromo Democratic Party, Southern Peoples Democratic Movement and Amara Democratic Party. Meles Zenewi became the President from 1991 to1995 and the 2nd Prime Minister of Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia from 1995 until his death in 2012. He was considered the founder of the federal state of modern Ethiopia. He was succeeded by Hailemariam Desalegn. He was from the Southern Nation and Nationalities. Hailemariam resigned when a protest that demanded change and reform was widespread. The protests were mainly by the Oromos and Amhara. Although they had opposing views, they were allied in their anti-TPLF-led government. Abiy Ahmed, member of EPRDF who served in the government, was seen as the perfect candidate, his father an Oromo Muslim and his mother a Tawahido Orthodox Christian Amhara. Abiy Ahmed introduced reforms limiting the power of the TPLF. He pardoned all political exiles and all armed political organizations. Abiy made peace with Eritrea. These reforms earned him the Nobel Peace Prize. He was acclaimed as a reformist and peace maker. Dr. Abiy Ahmed began dismantling the EPRDF and replaced it with a nationwide Prosperity Party. He distanced himself from federalism. The Oromos and the other nationalities who gained from the federalism introduced by the TPLF saw this as a betrayal. Opposition came from the Oromos. People did not completely hate the TPLF.

Ethiopia is now composed of ten regional states. The old provincial system is done. All those oppressed nationalities have their own autonomous states. Thus, they do not want to negotiate. On the other hand, the Amharas want to dismantle the federal system. On June 24, 2020 an Oromo singer and activist Hachalu Hundessa was killed. This triggered a massive uprising. The government cracked down on the uprising and imprisoned prominent Oromo leaders like Jawahire Mohamed. This created a rift between Abiy and his Oromo supporters. In the meantime, elections were around the corner. But the government postponed the election, giving Covid-19 as an excuse. TPLF rejected this, and carried out its own election. It also refused to join the national Prosperity Party of Abiy. There was a standoff between TPLF and the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. The peacemaker is now war-maker.

On November 3 2020, at midnight, Dr. Abiy ordered the ENDF to deal with TPLF militarily. This was a response to the TPLF attack on Northern Command stationed in Tigray. Tigray had 200,000 seasoned paramilitaries. The Ethiopian National Defence Force has 140,000 and about 5000 Airforce. If you compare the forces, Tigray seems to have the advantage, but there are tens of thousands of Federal Special Police; together, these made combined Ethiopian forces about 350,000. On the side of Ethiopia were 10,000 heavily equipped militia also Afar region forces. To the north was Eritrean National Defence; people estimate 42 divisions of EDF were involved. Tigray was attacked from the North, the South, the East and West. TPLF complained the Arab Emirate Forces' drones stationed in Eritrea were the ones that were bombing Mekele, Tigray's capital.

On November 28, ENDF and allies entered Mekele. TPLF withdrew to the mountains with most of their weapons. Although Prime Minister Abiy declared victory, the war is far from over.  Young Tigreans, angry at the atrocities committed by the Amhara militia and Eritrean forces, are joining the TPLF in their thousands. In Southern Ethiopia, ENDF are also engaged with Oromo fighters, mainly with armed guerilla in Walleg area of Oromia Region.

Abiy, who used the excuse of Covid-19 to postpone the election, is waging war in the middle of the devastating Covid-19 pandemic.

The other question everyone is asking is why Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea, a former freedom fighter, is opposed to federalism in Ethiopia. Isaias is a dictator who ruled Eritrea since 1991 when Eritrea got its independence from Ethiopia, with the help of TPLF. He is now on the side of his former oppressors and not the oppressed. Three years ago, before the peace settlement, Asmara (capital of Eritrea) was hosting some of the liberation fronts and opposition groups like Oromo Liberation Front, Ogaden National Liberation Front etc. It is an irony.

Currently there are ten regional states and two chartered cities – one is Addis Ababa and the other is Dire Dawa. The conflict in Ethiopia now stems from those who advocate for a federalist state and those who want to return to a unitary state.


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