What Is Behind the Oromo Rebellion in Ethiopia?


The Ethiopian government is now faced with unprecedented rebellion from the Oromo ethnic group, consisting 35% of the Ethiopia’s population, which it disingenuously claims is inspired by terrorism. The immediate pretext is the Addis Ababa Master Plan encroaching and displacing Oromo farmers, but this masks a deeper grievance which has been brewing for at least two decades under this regime, and for over a century under successive highland Ethiopian rulers. In the following, I will try to provide some context and offer some analysis of the danger Ethiopia and the region are facing.


The late Ethiopian Prime Minster, Meles Zenawi, achieved power in 1991 as “the first among equals” in a ruling coalition. After the 1998-2000 “border war” with Eritrea, he moved to consolidate his power by rewarding loyalists and weakening or imprisoning his rivals. Meles institutionalized one-party rule of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and his Tigrayan inner circle, with the participation of other co-opted ethnic elites who were brought into the ruling alliance under the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).

The EPRDF consists of four groups: the Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organization (OPDO), the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM), the South Ethiopian Peoples’ Democratic Front (SEPDF) and the Tigrayan Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF). The Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) decided to withdraw from the EPRDF coalition in 1992 and was pushed out after unsuccessfully trying to assert its independence from the TPLF within the coalition. The role of OPDO, ANDM and SEPDF is simply to rubber stamp TPLF’s agenda. In North American parlance, one can describe the members of OPDO, ANDM and SEPDF as the uncle Toms of Ethiopian society.

Zenawi’s violent crackdown on the 2005 demonstrations protesting the widely believed rigged election was a clear indication of his determination to hang on to power. In the 2010 elections, the EPRDF won 499 out of 547 parliamentary seats — with all but two others going to EPRDF-allied parties — and all but one of 1,904 council seats in regional elections. Despite the semblance of parliamentary rule, those elected were irrelevant to the governance of the country, since the TPLF and PM Zenawi maintained near absolute control over the country’s politics.

If there was any doubt in 2005, in the 2010 and 2015 elections, it became clear that this was a one-party rule with a vengeance, ensuring the triumph of repression, the squashing of dissenting voices and the shutting down of independent media. Elections in Ethiopia are shenanigans to show complete EPRDF control rather than engagement in democracy. There is a clampdown on internet access, and the arrest and sentencing of political opponents and journalists. Even two Swedish journalistsreporting in the Ogaden were imprisoned on terrorism charges.

Succession Not Transition

There was a speculation that Meles’s passing in august 2012
could touch off an internal power struggle expected to take place within the ranks of his loyalists. But the succession of a new prime minister turned out to be an uneventful affair and at least outwardly peaceful. The number of Tigrayans in the cabinet decreased, but key posts remain in the hands of aging Tigrayan loyalists. The talk of “generational change” over the past few years was simply a charade.

Among the exceptions is the current PM Hailemariam Desalegn, the relatively unknown ex-Deputy Prime Minister. Desalegn’s ethnicity gives a superficial semblance of balance and cover for the Tigrayan oligarchy. Desalegn is a Wolayta, a somewhat marginalized ethnicity in the periphery of Ethiopian society, and a born-again Christian in a country where the dominant church is Ethiopian Orthodox. He never participated in the armed struggle that brought the various factions of the EPRDF to power. His status as an outsider was perceived by many to be an asset that gave him broader legitimacy, insulated him from criticism, and allowed him to present himself as an underdog protected from the historical baggage of the Amhara and Tigrayans.

Yet, in his three years in power, Desalegn has announced few new policies. Some suggest that he is a mere figurehead and that real power is still within a core TPLF group shadowing him. In any case, party leaders seem lost without Zenawi. They govern on autopilot, following the vision and templates he left behind. In effect, Zenawi is ruling from the grave. Yet developments like the Oromo uprising expose the limits of ruling from the grave. Regime officials seem confused. Different officials say different things and contradict each other. They look like deer caught in the headlights. As is often the case, oppressors are blind to what they perpetrate on their victims and surprised when the oppressed rise up defiantly.

Resistance to EPRDF Rule

While opposition and discontent have been growing in Ethiopia, the security apparatus is ever vigilant against them . Rioting Muslims were effectively contained. The TPLF marginalized both the legal and the extra-legal opposition, leaving little option but to protest as in the current Oromo uprising. The few co-opted Oromo elites within the EPRDF have little credibility, and protesters scoff at statements coming from Oromo leaders serving the regime.

Other ethnic groups deeply dissatisfied are the Ogadenis, Gambella and Benishangul-Gumuz. The Ogaden national liberation Front (ONLF) in Ogaden is waging an insurgency exacerbated by forcible relocations to allow oil and gas exploration. Similar insurgency rages in Oromia led by the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). Oromia was incorporated into the Ethiopian empire in the 1880s by emperor Menelik IIduring the time the European scramble for Africa was underway.

Resentment to TPLF rule extends even among parts of Tigray, where a part of the population feel left out by the TPLF elites interested only in making money and investing it in the capital or abroad. The EPRDF has unsuccessfully lobbied the U.S. government to label the ONLF and the OLF as terrorist organizations. Nevertheless, the controversial use and abuse of the Anti-Terrorism Law is applied with impunity. The government attributes the ongoing Muslim and Oromo protest to infiltration from Saudi Arabia, Eritrea and the opposition Ginbot 7 movement.

Despite a dishonest attempt to externalize the issue, Ethiopian Muslims, who number anywhere from 40% to 50% of the population, and the Oromo have historically been marginalized, and the protest is very much homegrown and rooted in a long list of grievances.

Ethiopia, the U.S. and its Western Allies

Ethiopia is a key strategic ally for the War on Terror, which insulates it from any UScondemnation. Ethiopia receives the largest aid in Africa — an average $3.3 billionper year. The government abuses aid money to the extent that even government-provided seeds and fertilizer is denied to farmers who are not party members. Regarding the current uprising, the United States has issued a statement of concern. However, the regime itself is noticably unconcerned because it knows these statements by the U.S. are accompanied by little or no action. Even the African Union, with its headquarter in Addis Ababa, while rightly concerned about a potential genocide inBurundi, is conspicuously silent on the massacre taking place against the Oromo right on its doorstep.

The late Zenawi had the wit to position himself as an indispensable ally of the West in the fight against “terrorism.” Ethiopia is seen as a bulwark against extremism and the chaos of Somalia. From the U.S. point of view, Ethiopia is a military bridgehead to contain Al Qaida infiltration in Somalia and even across the Red Sea in Yemen.

International aid subsidizes about 50 % of Ethiopia’s national budget. United Kingdom funding of $4.9billion for a brutal resettlement scheme was only withdrawn this year. Germany continues to aid Ethiopia for “strategic” reasons despite voicing concern about human rights violations. The regime has deepened its economic relationship with China (which is tight-lipped on human rights issues) by utilizing its comparative advantage: capitalizing on the availability of plentiful cheap labor and Chinese subsidies for projects encroaching in Oromia.

The Economy

Zenawi engineered Ethiopia’s success in securing aid from the European Union and the U.S.; he was adept at maneuvering and securing money from Western financial institutions that even his detractors acknowledge. He counted among his admirers big names such as Professor Jeffrey Sachs of Harvard as well as Professor Joseph Stiglitz of Columbia University and a recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics. The country’s rulers have perfected the culture of begging and dependency and are now appealing for a $1.4 billion to feed the 10.2 million drought victims even though they engage in the business of leasing fertile land to foreign investors who export everything they grow. Drought does not have to lead to hunger and famine, if a government plans for it. Poor governments can store grain when there is good harvest in preparation for such emergencies.

Consistent with the notion of state-directed developmentalism espoused by the EPRDF, it aspired to oversee the development of roads, rail, electricity and telecommunications, boasting double-digit growth although the IMF disputes those figures and puts the growth rate at 7.5 per cent . It did succeed in Addis Ababa getting sub-Saharan Africa’s first light-rail network. However, the government’s claim that its socio-economic policies have helped the poor is disputed by critics, who point out that the primary beneficiaries are the political elite and that the gap between the elites and the poor is ever wider. The Oromo uprising is partially resentment over displacement and over environmental damage in the name of development.Corruption is rampant in the country. Theft from state enterprises and participation in the black market, including widespread graft is all too common.


Ethiopia under the EPRDF was officially declared a federal state. In states with true federalism, regions enjoy political primacy, as it is they who consciously decide to form the state, unlike centralized states where the constituting units come into being in line with EPRDF administrative requirements from the center. The strong center in Ethiopia never allowed for the true spirit of federalism to emerge. The country could never rid itself of the lingering grievance of the regions, of not getting their share, commensurate with their resources. There is a whole list of such claims, such as, misuse of river waters and cheaply leasing of indigenous land to foreign capitalists, urbanization (as in Addis Ababa’s Master Plan), and increasing Deforestation.

The TPLF military and the future

The Ethiopian military as an institution has acquired unprecedented power. Under any conceivable scenario, the military will continue to be a key and decisive player. Yet, it is not a truly national army; at the officer corps level, it is heavily dominated by Tigreans. Historically, the rank and file soldiers come mostly from the Oromo nation and have been the cannon fodder in the country’s numerous wars under Haile Sellassie, Mengistu Hailemariam, and now under the TPLF dictatorship. There is deep grievance within the army resulting in high profile desertions from the Air Force and other branches.

Control of key economic sectors by the military under the EPRDF have made it difficult to limit its role to a strictly military one. The military’s role has other consequences of spiraling ethnic conflicts which have reached a boiling point in the current uprising. EPRDF rule has engendered profound hatred and resentments among different groups with Ethiopian society and among the former ruling classes of the Amhara ethnic group.

The Ogadenis have a longstanding group grievance that is part and parcel of their indomitable desire for self-determination, which has never been addressed. The current uprising is a culmination of systematic injustice perpetrated against the Oromo. Resistance in Ethiopia in the absence of political space for cross-ethnic alliances is being channeled along ethnic and religious lines, potentially setting the stage for the balkanization of the country. In the 20th century, highland monarchist absolutism, Stalinist dictatorships and today’s make-believe “democratic federalism” may contribute more to fragmentation and dismemberment than nation-building. The legacy of dictatorship, from Menelik II, Haile Selassie, Mengistu Hailemariam to Meles Zenawi has endangered the country.

Ethiopia’s future is, therefore, clouded with uncertainties.


 : Associate Professor of International Relations and Environmental Studies at Fort Lewis College


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