Why did the Ethiopian Empire fall


Dominic Johnson

To person

is a journalist and non-fiction author with a focus on Africa; at the "Tageszeitung" (taz) he heads the international department. [email protected]

When the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo on December 10, 2019, he opened the end of his speech with an appeal to his own country. "Our young men and women call for social and economic justice, they demand equal opportunities and an end to organized corruption," said the 43-year-old. "They insist on good governance based on accountability and transparency. If we deny justice to our youth, they will reject peace. Today, on this world stage, I want to call on my fellow Ethiopians to join hands and help a country to build that offers equal rights, equal rights and equal opportunities for all its citizens. In particular, I would like to stress that we should avoid the path of extremism and division driven by the politics of exclusion. (…) We have to weed weed out quarrel, hatred and misunderstanding and work every day, on good and bad days. "[1] Then he concluded with verses from the Bible and the Koran.

The Ethiopian was honored by the Nobel Prize Committee in October 2019 primarily because of his peace agreement with Eritrea - in June 2018, after only two months in office, Abiy had arranged and celebrated the reconciliation with the small neighbor and archenemy and his autocratic ruler Isayas Afewerki. But with Abiy, an entire generation of African reformers was celebrated internationally, and for him the award was confirmation and encouragement at a time when the enthusiasm in the country about his politics had long since given way to disillusionment. Immense hopes are still projected onto Abiy Ahmed from outside. The people of Ethiopia will judge whether they are justified and achievable when the next elections take place. Originally planned for August 2020, they were recently postponed indefinitely due to the corona pandemic.

In Ethiopia in the past half century, high hopes for a better life have been awakened and then disappointed twice. In 1974, the overthrow of the Ethiopian Empire by young Marxist revolutionaries literally swept the must of a thousand years away - only to replace the emperor's absolutism with a military dictatorship. In 1991 new guerrilla groups swept away this dictatorship - only to establish a militarized and increasingly autocratic regime themselves. Now the peaceful system change should succeed in the third attempt. The model should no longer be real socialism like after 1974 or the Chinese way like after 1991, but the strength and legacy of Ethiopian history itself.

Meles Zenawi: disappointed hopes

When the guerrilla leader Meles Zenawi became President of Ethiopia in 1991 at the age of 36, the hopes of the international community at least were as high as those of Abiy Ahmed 27 years later. Previously, the Soviet-backed military dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam, the so-called Derg regime, led Ethiopia through a policy of collectivization and forced resettlement in one of the worst famines in world history with an estimated 1.5 million dead, fought several wars with neighboring Somalia and with brutal repression against liberation movements in occupied Eritrea and insurgents among other population groups. Meles Zenawi, leader of the guerrilla movement TPLF (Tigray People’s Liberation Front), had initially founded the pan-Ethiopian rebel alliance EPRDF (Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front) around the TPLF, which is limited to the small ethnic group of the Tigray. As his troops neared Addis Ababa, the United States brokered high-level talks in London, in which an alliance between the EPRDF and liberation fighters from the EPLF (Eritrea People’s Liberation Front) and the Oromo guerrilla OLF (Oromo Liberation Front) was forged to take power. This made the bloodless change of power possible. Dictator Mengistu left the capital in mid-May 1991 and went into exile, just under two weeks later the young rebel fighters marched in. The EPRDF formed a transitional government with its two allies, with ongoing US mediation. Eritrea was then given independence under EPLF leadership. Ethiopia became a federal republic with federal states on a predominantly ethnic basis. Meles Zenawi - who became Prime Minister after the introduction of a new constitution - was seen as the star of a new generation of African leaders and innovators, especially in the USA, from Yoweri Museveni in Uganda and Paul Kagame in Rwanda to the ANC in South Africa.

There are several reasons why Ethiopia became the favorite child of the international community in Africa back then and at times the largest African recipient of development aid, and they are relevant again today. The EPRDF overthrow in 1991 was bloodless, the apocalyptic chaos of Liberia and Somalia in those years was avoided in Ethiopia, as was a civil war-like disintegration along the lines of Yugoslavia. Eritrea became peacefully and forgivingly independent after decades of war. With federalization and at least verbal commitments to political and economic reforms, the EPRDF clearly broke with the brutal, ideologically disguised centralism of the Mengistu era. Rather emotional factors were added: the positive charisma of the young Meles and the bad conscience of the international community about the Ethiopian famine in 1984/85. The world also relied on the EPRDF as an anchor of stability against the Somali chaos and against Islamist terror.

All of these factors can be applied almost identically to contemporary Ethiopia, with Abiy Ahmed in the role of Meles Zenawi. The question now arises whether the reasons why the hopes in Meles Zenawi were disappointed are also relevant today with Abiy Ahmed.

The multi-ethnic alliance of 1991 - Tigray, Eritrea, Oromia - fell apart after the EPRDF came to power. Eritrea went its own way, the OLF was never a real power factor and quickly went into Eritrean exile and the underground opposition. In fact, the hard core of the Tigray guerrilla leaders ruled Ethiopia through the TPLF and its ethnic satellite parties. After only a few years, the former Tigray and Eritrean brothers in arms went to war with one another. For the regimes in Addis Ababa and Asmara, the war from 1998 to 2000 with 100,000 dead was equally the basis for a new national legitimation. Ethiopia won the war and afterwards could have taken the path of democratic opening - Meles Zenawi favored this and thereby drove his TPLF to the edge of the split - but when the elections of 2005, the first halfway free elections in Ethiopia's history, the victory of new ones When opposition parties emerged, at least in the cities, the old guard reacted with brutal violence. After that there was no longer any talk of democratization, armed conflicts in the Oromo and Somali regions and a "frozen conflict" with Eritrea shaped Ethiopia's policy up to Meles' death in 2012 and also in the first years after that, when the southern Ethiopian Hailemariam Desalegn of mercy the TPLF took over the office of Prime Minister.

Even strong economic growth, often in double digits and above the long-term average, the highest in Africa, could not sustainably reduce Ethiopia's deep poverty. Funded by foreign investments, Ethiopia has undertaken enormous economic modernization steps and successfully nourished export-oriented new branches of the economy in areas such as the textile and leather industries as well as in commercial agriculture. The capital Addis Ababa is hardly recognizable thanks to its modern infrastructure. But the proceeds from economic growth were not widely distributed, and the rightsless peasant subsistence economy was not strengthened. According to a study, Ethiopia's textile workers are the lowest paid in the world, with an average base salary of $ 26 a month. [2]

From youth protest to a change of power

The unrest that shook Ethiopia from around the end of 2014 and contributed to the rise of Abiy Ahmed has its origin primarily in the disenfranchisement of the population in relation to economic decisions - a structural disenfranchisement in the EPRDF system. One factor was land grabbing - The driving away of peasant populations in favor of foreign investors on agricultural land in the special Ethiopian context of the lack of private property. In addition, there was the widespread perception of an increasing gap between the still very narrow EPRDF elite in Tigray, which exercised political power and claimed first access to economic opportunities, and the populations largely excluded from decision-making processes.

The project to enlarge the capital region of Addis Ababa at the expense of the surrounding Oromia region in order to turn Oromo farming communities outside the capital into new industrial areas on the outskirts ("Addis Ababa Master Plan") was the initial spark for a protest movement that quickly expanded . The displeasure fell on fertile ground far beyond the original demands - with a young generation that knows nothing but the EPRDF rule and can do little with its historical justification; with a new, self-confident middle class, some of whom have returned from the diaspora, who want a say; among young women who oppose the extremely conservative and patriarchal traditions of Ethiopian society; all in all in a modern, mostly urban society that is culturally much more mixed than its parents' generation and no longer recognizes itself in a politics that is sorted purely by ethnic group and structured according to a military hierarchy.

The riots and mass protests and their violent suppression resulted in 669 deaths, according to the Ethiopian state human rights commission, and even the official report admitted: "The main reasons for the destructive unrest in Oromia were a lack of good governance, a violation of the law, unemployment and a lack of timely Responding to public complaints and delays in public projects. "[3]

From those born in the EPRDF era, a new generation of protests formed in the unrest. How far ethnic nationalism - the historical marginalization of the Oromo, the disempowerment of the historically ruling Amhara by the Tigray rulers - actually played a role in this young generation is neither clear nor ultimately decisive. What was clear, however, was that even within the EPRDF, Oromo and Amhara forces kept their distance from the government. As early as October 2016, the Oromo component of the EPRDF, the OPDO (Oromo People’s Democratic Organization), changed its leadership and thus the government of the Oromo region; the new leadership around the new Oromo Prime Minister Lemma Megerssa and his deputy Abiy Ahmed approached the young Oromo radicals, known as "Qeerroo".

The EPRDF power structure that had ruled and shaped Ethiopia for a quarter of a century was history. Without at least formal loyalty of the Amhara and Oromo peoples of the central Ethiopian highlands, the Ethiopian central state is not viable.

On February 15, 2018, Meles Zenawi's successor, Hailemariam Desalegn, a southern Ethiopian from the small Wolaytta ethnic group from the border area with Kenya, announced his resignation as Prime Minister of Ethiopia and chairman of the EPRDF on state television. The following day, the government again imposed the state of emergency that had ended only six months earlier, followed by new arrests of critics of the regime who had just been released. Only on the night of March 28th did the EPRDF Council, the party's highest decision-making body, elect the young Abiy Ahmed as its new chairman. The long interim period revealed deep disagreements at the top of the state. According to Ethiopian reports, the TPLF had pushed through the state of emergency against the will of the other EPRDF constituents and in return found itself isolated in the election of Hailemariam's successor. [4] OPDO boss Lemma Megerssa could not be elected because he was not a member of parliament - his deputy Abiy prevailed with 108 out of 169 possible votes; Shiferaw Shigute of Hailemariam's SEPDM (Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement) received 59 votes, mostly from the TPLF; the two remaining votes went to TPLF chairman Debretsion Gebremichael, who was not set up by his own party but by the Amhara party ANDM (Amhara National Democratic Movement), to present him. It was an unprecedented disgrace to the historic Tigray leaders. One analysis said: "By all standards, the EPRDF, as the Ethiopians knew it, no longer exists." [5]

Abiy Ahmed's political shock therapy

Abiy Ahmed's inaugural address as prime minister in the Ethiopian parliament on April 2, 2018 already illustrated the extent of his ambitions. Right at the beginning he spoke of a "transfer of power", as if a new political force were coming to the government. He thanked the EPRDF for "bringing about fundamental changes in all areas and establishing a federal constitutional system in the years it has led our country," but also stressed "that there are shortcomings that must be remedied immediately . (…) The crux of the matter is to catapult our country to a higher level of development and move forward, while at the same time securing its unity on a sustainable basis. " Differences of opinion are normal: "National unity does not mean unanimity. (...) Peace is not the absence of conflict. Peace is unshakable unity based on our common understanding." [6]

"Catapulting" is a pretty good match for what followed. Within a few days, Abiy closed Addis Abeba's notorious Maekelawi torture prison, released the most important political prisoners, switched on the blocked mobile Internet again and formed a new government with gender parity and his previous Oromo boss Lemma Megerssa as defense minister. The state of emergency ended at the beginning of June 2018 and peace with Eritrea was announced. At the beginning of July the underground protest movement "Ginbot 7", the Oromo rebel movement OLF and the Somali rebel movement ONLF (Ogaden National Liberation Front) were removed from the terror list. At the beginning of August, the central government overthrew the dreaded Somali regional government and dissolved its police force, followed by formal peace agreements with the OLF and ONLF. In early September, Ginbot 7 leader Birhanu Nega returned from exile in the US - a symbol of the failure of Ethiopian democratization under Meles since his election as Mayor of Addis Ababa in 2005 and his subsequent persecution. In October and November women took on important positions as heads of state, chief judge and head of the electoral commission.

Emotional moments accompanied this political shock therapy. In June, for the first time since the war, Eritrean flags waved in Addis Ababa, in July Abiy traveled to Asmara, followed by an acclaimed return visit by the Eritrean dictator to the Ethiopian capital. The triumphant return of the long ostracized and opposed OLF leadership from Asmara to Addis Ababa in September was just as historic. Both were occasions for popular festivals, and in those months of 2018 it seemed as if Abiy Ahmed had reestablished the historic alliance of 1991 between the EPRDF and the Eritrean and Oromo allies - a kind of reset to make people forget the decades in between and Ethiopia restart.

Abiy belongs to a Pentecostal Church, just as many Oromo oppositionists tend towards Protestantism rather than the historically Amharic-dominated old Coptic Church of Ethiopia, and many of his speeches and deeds have the beginnings of revival sermons. His family is mixed Muslim-Christian and Oromo-Amhara, he sees himself as the embodiment of the diversity of Ethiopia. In the meantime he has also published a programmatic book with the title "Medemer" (in Amharic) or "Ida'amuu" (in Oromo) - the title is mostly translated by Ethiopians as "synergy", meaning "sum", which is greater is as their parts. Abiy used the term shortly after taking office: "Medemer is a bigger term than the mathematical term: When you and I come together, we are not just two people as in mathematics, but we are 'we'." [7]

In his Nobel Prize Speech in 2019 Abiy "Medemer" also stated - "a social contract so that Ethiopians can build a just, equal, democratic and humane society", or "a vow of peace that draws unity from our common humanity." [8]

The dark side of a new beginning

When Abiy was celebrated worldwide at the end of 2019, skepticism and criticism had long since spread in Ethiopia itself.In the year and a half since he took office, more people had fallen victim to violence than during the violent crackdown on the previous protests. The number of internally displaced persons due to conflict in Ethiopia grew from 1078,400 to 2,615,800, the largest such increase worldwide, during 2018, according to the UN Refugee Agency; [9] the number continued to rise to over three million by April 2019, before repatriation initiatives brought the numbers down significantly . [10]

International organizations had warned early on of an escalation of ethnic violence: as early as June 2018, Amnesty International called on the Ethiopian government to protect Amhara people from "violent attacks on their homes by ethnically motivated youth groups in Oromia". [11] The return of the former Oromo guerrilla OLF as a legal party to Addis Ababa, which is mainly inhabited by Oromo, in September 2018 was followed by ethnic pogroms in the capital with dozens of deaths. Ethnic unrest rocked several regions of the country in the months that followed. "Long-standing strife between Ethiopia's ethnic groups is becoming more acute; the forces that had at least partially contained them are loosening, and across the country groups who consider each other to be rivals are vying for power," the International Crisis Group analyzed in early 2019 . [12] An attempted coup rocked the Amhara region in June 2019, and up to 86 were killed in Addis Ababa in October when angry Oromo youths took to the streets against Abiy.

On November 23, 2019, the Sidama district of the southern region voted for its own state - the first official break with the EPRDF system, but certainly not the last. In the southern Ethiopian federal state, which comprises around 45 ethnic groups, not only the largest ethnic group, the Sidama, but also the second largest ethnic group, the Welayta, have registered claims to their own statehood. Ethiopian analysts interpret this as a visible manifestation of an all-Ethiopian trend towards local self-assertion in times when the central government level no longer appears reliable. "Ethnic district administrations have taken advantage of the openings offered by the turmoil within the governing coalition to base themselves on the constitution and demand their own regional states (...). The district leaders do this during a destabilizing transition phase that is overwhelmed by Abiy's ambitions." ]

At about the same time, Abiy took his most courageous and far-reaching reform step: the end of the EPRDF. In a series of meetings in November 2019, the individual, ethnically defined components of the EPRDF decided to dissolve themselves in favor of a joint new "Prosperity Party" (PP). The formal self-dissolution of the EPRDF by the electoral commission responsible for party admission took place in February 2020. The decision was extremely controversial even within its own ranks. Abiy's important companions such as his former OPDO boss and current defense minister Lemma Megerssa were against it; Lemma called the founding of the party "premature" and the wrong priority for a period of democratic transition. [14] The TPLF, founder and historically ruling force in the EPRDF, took a stand from the start and was the only one of the previous EPRDF components that did not dissolve. "In the absence of a unified vision, a practical strategy and an ideology, it is very difficult for a certain political grouping to survive," commented the TPLF on the establishment of the PP before it was actually established. [15] In February 2020, shortly after the official end of the EPRDF, the TPLF pompously celebrated its 45th birthday as an armed movement in the Tigray capital Mekele, and its boss Gebremichael declared in a speech: "The disease is in the leaders, not in the people. "[16] The longtime Ethiopian secret service chief Getachew Assefa, a historic figure in the TPLF, who was dismissed by Abiy, is said to have gone into hiding in Tigray despite an arrest warrant and is variously named as the mastermind behind destabilization of the country.

Before the dissolution as a party, the EPRDF had already gradually disappeared as a state apparatus. The system of close control of the population at the grassroots level, which is common in authoritarian African development dictatorships - one state "controller" for every five households - quickly withered after Abiys took office, which is true of the hated constant surveillance and harassment of the population, but also of every implementation of political guidelines, for example in the area of ​​development brought to a standstill. [17] The strong Ethiopian army with a war-hardened core of TPLF officers also lost influence in favor of the regional security forces of the individual states. Abiy distrusts these old rule structures as a blocking force. Speaking to Parliament in February, he called it his "toughest challenge" and declared: "The network that extends to the bottom of the administration has the capacity to bring everything to a standstill (...) Breaking the network is not easy." [18]

The young, radical generation of protests, the Amhara and Oromo, from 2015 to 2018, in turn, did not fall asleep again after Abiys took office, but remained as an alert companion and gathered around the opposition politicians returning from imprisonment or exile. After legalization, the OLF brought 1,300 fighters back to Ethiopia from Eritrea, who, contrary to what was thought, were not integrated into the army, but instead went into hiding among the Oromo population. Oromo attacks against members of other ethnic groups have since increased, encouraged by the conviction that now, after a quarter of a century of Tigray domination and before that of centuries of Amhara rule, Abiy is finally "one of us" in power. This in turn has encouraged the formation of self-protection militias among other sections of the population.

Uncertain future

Peace with Eritrea, a constitutional order in which all the peoples of Ethiopia find themselves, a policy that improves people's lives, and a role as a stabilizer in the Horn of Africa - these expectations and hopes with which the EPRDF came to power in 1991 was welcomed internationally exist unchanged at the end of this chapter of Ethiopian history. Two years after Abiys took office, the balance is only positive on the first point. The latter is neutral because, for example, the pacification of Somalia depends on other factors. It is too early to judge on the other two issues affecting Ethiopia's internal development, but the signs are only partially encouraging. Ethiopia has never known a real democracy. So far, every ruling political force has been identical to the state apparatus as such. But Abiy now got rid of the EPRDF system before a new system could grow up. It is more than questionable whether the PP, which is still emerging, with its prosperity and harmony credo, half old-school hegemonic claim and half redemption discourse in the style of evangelical Pentecostal churches, is a convincing legacy.

"The widespread feeling among the population is fear", analyzes the Ethiopia expert René Lefort: "Fear because the ancient pyramidal structure of rule has disappeared; in addition to the absence of authority, the traditional social hierarchy has crumbled." We can no longer even have our own Saying something to children, 'complain the elderly. Fear, because in this unprecedented present and unknown future,' something bad can happen ', as people say (...). Most believe that some form of armed conflict is approaching. "[19]

In the EPRDF era, Ethiopians were unable to legally join any political party other than the EPRDF affiliated party of their respective ethnic "nation". Now all of these parties are officially dissolved. The vacuum is primarily filled by "free radicals" from the various ethnic groups and the young protest movements. Theoretically, the Oromo politician Abiy could have kept the old system and simply replaced Tigray with Oromo as number one - but his ambitions are greater: He wants to found a new, genuinely "Ethiopian nationalism" that goes beyond ethnic groups. But this automatically puts all existing "ethnic nationalisms" in opposition to his new prosperity party.

Young people who actually share the goal of post-ethnic "Ethiopian nationalism" are also critical of Abiy's methods: They lack an open and participatory debate about Ethiopia's future. So around the long-imprisoned blogger and journalist Eskinder Nega, new political forces have formed, which see themselves in the legacy of the former opposition party CUD (Coalition for Unity and Democracy) from the short-lived democratic spring of 2005 and "a real multi-party system for that Want to build up the country ". [20] Older, non-ethnic opposition parties already announced electoral alliances at the beginning of the year, the aim of which is "that the country does not fall apart". [21]

The weight of all these forces beyond a few intellectual circles is doubtful, especially in comparison to radical ethnic-nationalist groups in rural areas or at the Ethiopian universities. But they show that Abiy is by no means undisputed in the political landscape of his own country. In any case, the political future of Ethiopia is wide open. Abiy Ahmed's reign is like an adventure ride into the unknown. The scope of this experiment can hardly be underestimated in a country with around 110 million inhabitants and high population growth, deep mass poverty, immense old and new ecological challenges and a key role for stability in one of the most restless regions of the world.