By Abayneh Woldemariam
A promising beginning
A relatively young and previously obscure figure within the Oromo wing of the TPLF/EPRDF regime, Abiy Ahmed burst into the Ethiopian political scene in 2018.
He was catapulted to the position of Prime Minister on the coattails of the public revolt against the TPLF-dominated authoritarian government that had led the country since 1991. The popular revolt culminated with the ousting of the TPLF from federal power in a party line vote within the previously TPLF-controlled parliament. The Oromo and Amhara parties within the EPRDF coalition who were hitherto subservient to the TPLF were emboldened by the mass protest movement. They banded together and elected Abiy as the next Prime Minister of the country in April 2018. The previously all-powerful leaders of the TPLF left Addis Ababa and decamped to Tigray, their ethnic homeland.
Upon becoming PM, Abiy enthralled the population with his rising rhetoric about national reconciliation, unity, peace, and democracy. He repeatedly invoked the long history of Ethiopia as a country where diverse population groups and religions have commingled and lived in harmony, and collectively defended their country from foreign aggression. He freed political prisoners, invited all foreign-based opposition groups back into the country, liberalized the press and promised an era of transparent democracy, equality, civil liberties, and development.
He also garnered widespread acclaim from all the major political capitals of the world, and even won the esteemed Nobel Peace Prize for his speedy and seemingly genuine peace making with Eritrea. Eritrea seceded from Ethiopia in 1991 and the two countries fought a bloody war in 1998-2000 which ended in a stalemate that lasted for 20 years.
Abiy regularly appeared on TV, meeting with the country’s parliament and all manners of public groups, politicians, media, military leaders, artists, etc. and impressed all who met with him. He also did a whirlwind visit to all parts of the country, making rousing speeches about removing divisions, coming together as citizens (“መደመር”), and restoring Ethiopia’s honor (“ወደ ጥንት ክብሯ እንመልሳታለን”). He travelled to the US and Europe and held stadium rallies with the large Ethiopian diaspora where he received a rousing welcome.
The rapid descent to chaos and extreme violence
Abiy’s rosy promises began to crumble within the first two years of his meteoric rise, when violent ethnic conflicts broke out in many parts of the country. His new administration seemed completely unable to restore public safety.
The bulk of the conflicts were perpetrated by resentful tribalist forces his blanket amnesty unleashed on the population without any rules of engagement or security guardrails. They began to target and massacre minority groups within their ethnic enclaves.
The victims were mostly Amhara minorities in non-Amhara regions (per the 1995 constitution that divided the country into ethnic enclaves). The same group that bore the brunt of targeted ethnic cleansing in the prior 27 years. Other minority groups were also targeted in other regions. The Burayu and Hawassa massacres were cases in point.
Abiy’s government appeared powerless, and he resorted to ignoring or minimizing the widespread massacre of innocents, and attributing the carnage to a short-lived transitional dustup that will soon be over.
Abiy remained somewhat popular during these first two years, but his support was waning rapidly. There were also early signals that he is intolerant of dissent against his thinly veiled authoritarian and messianic tendencies. He also practiced political brinkmanship and kept everyone guessing whose side he was on.
In December 2019 Abiy singlehandedly reconstituted the EPRDF coalition to the “Prosperity” party, which is one party in name, but maintained its underlying ethnic divisions. He remained firmly in charge of the “new” party and rapidly consolidated all political power into his own hands – by at times pitting the party members against each other along ethnic lines (just like the TPLF did in the past). Abiy is an adherent of “Prosperity Gospel” aka “the health and wealth gospel”, which preaches that faith, positive speech and donations to preachers and their church will increase one’s material wealth.
Abiy loyalists lead each ethno-regional wing of the “Prosperity” party and tightly control key government functions at the federal and regional levels. Other groups including non ethnic blocs and smaller Oromo parties who do not align with Abiy’s diktats or have their own political ambitions, stood in soft opposition.
The TPLF, who were at the helm of the country for the previous 27 years refused to join Abiy’s party. Although ousted from federal power, the TPLF leaders retained tight control in Tigray and enjoyed considerable support from the local population. They were also wary of Abiy’s sudden friendship with their archfoe, Eritrean President Isaias Afeworki. The 1998- 2000 Ethio-Eritrea border war was caused by rifts between the former allies TPLF and EPLF. The war ended after two years of bloody battles and a truce that did not remove the distrust between the two parties.
After retrenching in their “native” Tigray, the TPLF leaders began a rapid buildup of their own regional army in the name of “protecting Tigray” from potential aggression by Abiy and Isaias. Abiy did make overtures to the TPLF leaders to negotiate on allowing his Prosperity party to operate in Tigray and take part in local elections, in return for a loose promise of immunity from prosecution for their corruption and political crimes of the past. The TPLF rebuffed Abiy’s terms and began to gear up for a possible war.
Abiy kept his benevolent sounding rhetoric in the midst of the increasingly fraught political picture in the country. He also played a Machiavellian political chicanery that kept everyone guessing, until he felt he had gained full control of the security and armed forces.
Although it quickly became clear that Abiy wanted to lord over the whole country, it was increasingly apparent that he sought to build his primary political base in his “native” ethnic group, the Oromo. Afterall, he identifies himself as Oromo and it was the large-scale Oromo revolt against the TPLF (that was quickly joined by the Amhara) that brought him to power and may in turn give him a buffer against others who might oppose him.
Many Oromo politicians within and outside of Abiy’s party were also openly proclaiming that it is “Oromos’ turn” to rule the country and determine its future direction in a way that would be partial to their ethnic group. Although Abiy is assumed to be of a mixed heritage, he identifies as Oromo and cut his political teeth in the Oromo wing of the EPRDF coalition.
Meanwhile, the pogroms against the Amhara population in non-Amhara regions, especially in the Oromo region worsened dramatically. Given his thinly veiled desire to keep the Oromo population as his core political base, Abiy continued to turn a blind eye. Oromo militias repeatedly rampaged across the “Oromia” region burning villages, massacring residents and forcibly evicting thousands of poor Amhara rural dwellers who have lived there for generations. These massacres continue unabated to this day.
The ethnic cleansing and horrifying violence against the Amhara were egged-on by various Oromo demagogues who called themselves “activists” and were given a free reign by Abiy. They whipped up grudges against the Amhara, whom the poisonous and often false narrative of the previous 30 years depicted as historical “oppressors”.
This was in the face of the clearly obvious irony that the Amhara were actually the primary targets of persecution during the twenty-seven-year reign of the TPLF-led regime from the moment they came to power in 1991, all the way to their replacement by Abiy in 2018. The relative predominance of Amharic speakers in government positions had ended with the demise of the monarchy two generations ago in 1974. Even before that, the mainly Amhara regions in Ethiopia were never beneficiaries of preferential treatment. Contrary to the mindless demagoguery by tribalist agitators, Amharas in Ethiopia have always been as poor as other ethnic groups and sometimes worse. Hundreds of thousands of them have perished during major famines over the past few decades alone.
Although Abiy desired to lock-in the large Oromo region as his core power base, he was not and is still not fully successful. There are other groups there like the “OLA” (a faction of the OLF) who oppose Abiy and compete with him for supremacy in the region. The OLA and associated militias simultaneously desire to cleanse “Oromia” from other ethnic groups, and they repeatedly carry out horrifying rounds of carnage against the Amhara population. They also routinely make incursions into bordering areas within the Amhara and southern regions, burn villages and slaughter large numbers of citizens.
The mass displacements and targeted ethnic massacres continued in other regions too, including Benishangul-Gumuz – a sparsely populated ethnic enclave in western Ethiopia. The local tribes in the region were for long fed the same manipulative hatred for other ethnic groups, especially the Amhara who constitute more than a fifth of the region’s population. Aside the from the Amhara, the victims included Oromos and other minority tribes in the region. The Benishangul-Gumuz region was created after 1991 from what used to be western Gojjam and northern Wollega.
Conflicts also erupted in other tribal lands including between Afar and Somali, Sidama and Wolayta and others, in which scores of people died in violent skirmishes of varying scales. This was on top of the 2016-2018 conflict between Oromo and Somali in eastern Ethiopia that had displaced over a million Oromos.
In October 2019, alleged threats by Abiy’s security agents against the popular firebrand Oromo activist Jawar Mohammed led to riots by his fanatic followers across several locations in the Oromo region and the death of many innocent citizens. Not long after that, in June 2020, the popular Oromo singer Hachalu Hundessa was mysteriously killed in the outskirts of Addis Ababa. News of his death unleashed an even larger riot by Oromo mobs who went on a wild rampage in many towns across the Oromo region, including in the outskirts of Addis Ababa. Hundreds of innocent people were dragged out of their homes and hacked and bludgeoned to death, their homes and businesses burned to the ground. The violent mob entered Addis Ababa too but were repulsed by self-organized residents. Jawar had a big hand in facilitating the Oromo uprising against the TPLF between 2015-2018 and competed with Abiy for popularity among the Oromo. Hachalu was popular amongst urban Oromo youth for his songs uplifting the Oromo people and culture. He was close to Abiy’s circle and was likely killed by agents of rival Oromo factions.
Sadly, once again, the largest group who paid the ultimate price in this round of extreme random violence were Amhara residents, along with other non-Oromo town dwellers. Oromos who follow the Ethiopian Orthodox faith were not spared in places like Shashamane, which has a large Muslim population and where the hateful propaganda had taken a hitherto unknown religious dimension.
Nearly all of the victims were far removed from the events surrounding the murder of Hachalu and many did not even know what had occurred. Owing to the freewheeling hate propaganda by so called Oromo activists (including many within the Oromo wing of Abiy’s “Prosperity” party), who doubled down on the hateful ethnic rhetoric, it had become routine to use any excuse to randomly murder completely innocent Amhara civilians who received zero protection from the authorities.
Shortly after the massacre of these innocent citizens, it was publicly disclosed that local Oromo police forces in many locations where the murders occurred were either turning a blind eye or openly colluding with the murderers. It was also later revealed that while the horrifying killing of innocent civilians was occurring, the “President” of the Oromo region Shemeles Abdissa willfully rejected the plea for security support from the mayor of Shashamane – a town in the Oromo region where some of the most brutal and widespread massacres took place and many parts of the city were burned to the ground.
On the other hand, the so called “OLA” had gathered enough armed followers. Beyond marauding widely in the Wollega region within “Oromia” and bordering areas within the Amhara and other regions, burning villages and massacring civilians, they also conducted guerilla attacks against Abiy’s local forces. This resulted in bombings and killings of Oromo civilians in areas where the OLA is thought to be operating.
Across the country, vast numbers of citizens were paying a heavy price as a result of the near complete breakdown of public safety, law, and order under Abiy’s neophyte regime. Thousands of people were killed and some of them were buried in mass graves. Close to two million people became IDPs (internally displaced persons) by 2020 and many of them suffer immensely to this day.
Abiy’s barely hidden shrugging-off of the widespread violence and his complete lack of empathy for the victims was astounding. His seemingly incomprehensible stance (that stood in stark contrast to his rhetoric) was associated with his undisclosed alliance with the rapidly emerging and virulently tribalist forces within the Oromo wing of his party. This group had begun to openly air their yearning for “Oromuma”, an Oromo hegemony aspiration where;
“A much-expanded ‘Oromia’ will be cleansed of all non-Oromo populations, and the Oromo or “Oromuma” would become the unquestionable masters of the country.” A very dangerous fascistic agenda that can only lead to the catastrophic dissolution of the country.
The leader of the Oromo region was recorded in a closed session of the Oromo wing of the “Prosperity party” extensively elaborating on how they will use a “confuse and convince” deception to achieve this. He described an expansive plan for an ascendant Oromo domination of the country that included ploys to take over key economic levers, alter the demographics of Addis Ababa as well as systematically undermine the national lingua franca, Amharic. Yet Abiy, said nothing about this fascistic plan that was clearly articulated by the man who leads the largest region in the country and is regarded by many as the second most powerful politician in the country.
Abiy’s utter lack of empathy in the midst of the widespread carnage in the country reflected an underlying narcissistic and possibly psychopathic mindset that has time and again manifested itself in his insatiable ambition for personal power, at any cost to the country and the people.
It was also becoming apparent that despite his rising rhetoric, his overall caliber as a leader is nowhere near the kind of knowledge, skill, experience, and wisdom that leading a complex country like Ethiopia requires.
This became evident as he continued to muddle through incoherently on key issues facing the country, with no clear strategy or road map, except for a messianic confidence in his personal “vision”. This report by a New Yorker Magazine journalist who was given a rare and close access to Abiy was revealing in this regard.
In the midst of the unspeakable violence in many parts of the country, Abiy continued to engage in tiresome and often sophomoric pontifications to parliament and to the public about the coming “prosperity” of the country under his tutelage. He repeatedly exhorted the public to place their trust in him. (“በእርግጠኝነት ልንገራችሁ…በድጋሚ ላረጋግጥላችሁ”…)
He was also engrossed with his pet vanity projects like building city parks, tourist resorts, and beautifying public squares in Addis. He also for a short time seemed to pay some attention to the on-going construction of the GERD. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Abay (Blue Nile) River was started by the EPRDF government in 2011 under the direction of the then PM Meles Zenawi. Meles was also the main architect of the ethnic-based federal system in the country that has been the source of division and mayhem since 1991.
The widespread instability of the country coupled with the COVID 19 pandemic was causing a downward impact on the economy. Inflation continued to skyrocket, making daily life unbearable for millions.
The extreme and widespread violence during Abiy’s first two years in power were terrible enough in a country that has for long been unable to unshackle itself from vicious cycles of strife and suffering. Sadly, even worse was to come that would further debilitate the country and impose an even heavier and unbearable price for vastly more citizens.
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