How Abiy Ahmed Betrayed Oromia and Endangered Ethiopia
A former government official recounts how the prime minister’s failed reform agenda paved the way for war in Tigray.
By Milkessa M. GemechuJANUARY 25, 2022, 4:00 AM
The war in Ethiopia has been devastating. However, when the West looks at Ethiopia these days, the public generally sees only the war in Tigray, a relatively small region where 6 percent of the country’s population lives. Some specialists add the neighboring Amhara and Afar regions to their accounts. These views ignore the bulk of the population—Oromia and the wider south—where critical events are taking place that will have a major impact on the country. Without this background, the West will remain blind to what is required to make a transition to peace, stability, democracy, and real prosperity in the whole of Ethiopia.
As a former senior leader in Ethiopia’s Oromia state, I had a front row seat to the process that has since led to conflicts across the country. Indeed, the seeds of the crisis in northern Ethiopia first germinated in Oromia. Only by understanding why and how the war in Tigray started will it be possible to find a lasting path to peace. By tracing the origins of the conflict to Oromia—where Abiy Ahmed was once very popular and is now deeply unpopular—it becomes clear how contentious political differences led to the hostilities in Tigray and beyond.
I served Abiy’s government in different senior positions in the Oromia regional state from November 2017 to June 2020. I was the vice president of Oromia State University and a member of the central committee of Oromia’s ruling party, the Oromo Democratic Party, which is a member party of the now-defunct Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition. I was a university instructor when I joined Team Lemma, named for the reformist former president of Oromia, Lemma Megersa, who was once Abiy’s boss and close comrade. I was also an active participant and among the leaders of Qeerroo, the nonviolent youth movement whose resistance brought about Ethiopia’s leadership change in 2018, catapulting Abiy to power.
I grew up in student activism, fighting against injustice and for democracy. From 2001 to 2017, I organized protests against the oppressive EPRDF government as a high school and university student. I was arrested and tortured by federal security agents in the city of Dire Dawa in 2012. I was also imprisoned in Ethiopia’s notorious Maekelawi prison in the same year due to my activism. My journey from academia to politics, from anti-government protester to government leader, and from an Abiy ally to an Abiy critic, has given me a unique perspective to analyze the crisis in Ethiopia.
The complex crisis in Ethiopia has largely been presented in the Western press through the narrow lens of a civil war in the northern part of the country. Both the international community and mainstream media have portrayed the country’s problems as emanating from a dispute centered in Tigray. Until the recent announcement of the military alliance between the Tigray Defense Forces and Oromo Liberation Army, the existence of deep problems in other parts of Ethiopia was largely ignored.
To overcome this blind spot requires an analysis of how Abiy came to power. He stepped into power as a result of the historical success of the Qeerroo movement that I was a part of. This unprecedented grassroots movement enabled the birth of Team Lemma, a reformist group within the ruling party of Oromia, which in turn forced the EPRDF, the long-ruling authoritarian party to undertake an intraparty “telk tehadiso,” or deep reform, in response to the youth’s relentless demands.
The Tigray People’s Liberation Front-dominated EPRDF coalition recognized the demands of the youth movement by saying, “Our deep reform is popular, constitutional, and within the EPRDF platform.” As a result, Ethiopia saw for the first time in its modern history a peaceful transfer of power from a sitting prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, to Abiy. The world has yet to recognize the significance of this nonviolent force that succeeded in opening political space for a transition to democracy in Ethiopia.
Abiy publicly committed to follow the mandate given to bring the country through a transition to democracy under his watch. He has failed to honor that commitment. Abiy was not a part of the youth movement, yet he came to power on the shoulders and sacrifices of the Oromo youth. Not even one year into his premiership, he had already lost his popular base. To a large extent, he was openly regarded as a traitor in Oromia. I watched it happen.
Abiy was extremely popular in his first six months in office because he was required to begin, and he promised to continue, to implement the reform agenda drawn up by the EPRDF in response to the youth demands. However, once he believed he was in full command of key branches of the federal state apparatus, including the national intelligence and security services, defense forces, and other key state institutions, Abiy began to think about his own power consolidation rather than transitioning the hitherto authoritarian country into a democracy. And he had to start that process at home in Oromia.
His first major operation was to begin a “house cleaning” process in his own regional party, the Oromo Democratic Party. Abiy purged all individuals in the party’s executive and central committees whom he perceived as potential competitors or obstacles to his personal quest for absolute power. In this process of power centralization, he lost his close comrade and former president of Oromia, Lemma, who had brought Abiy to the fore both in the Oromo Democratic Party and the EPRDF coalition.
Within less than a year, Abiy betrayed Lemma by unceremoniously sacking him as president of Oromia.
Lemma, then chairman of the Oromo Democratic Party and sympathizer of the Qeerroo movement, abdicated that post in favor of Abiy as a strategy to help him assume the ultimate power of Ethiopia’s premiership. Within less than a year, Abiy betrayed Lemma by unceremoniously sacking him as president of Oromia. (I use the word “betrayed” intentionally because, at that time, I was a cabinet member in Oromia and was party to the details.)
Abiy unconstitutionally removed Lemma from the Oromia presidency in April 2019 and replaced him with Shimelis Abdisa the same day. This was accomplished through brazen disregard for protocol, without even considering or adhering to the regional state council’s procedure and approval. As a result, the leadership in Oromia was divided into two rival sectors, and I was on Lemma’s side.
Many people, especially in Oromia, started to question Abiy’s moves. During his expulsion operation, Abiy identified individuals he suspected of being “hardcore” Oromo nationalists (often those who might not yield to his will) and purged them from any role in his government at federal, regional, and local government levels. By the end of 2019, Abiy had already filled key posts in his federal and Oromia governments with those who could act as yes men.
The second major factor that led to the loss of popularity of the prime minister in Oromia was his betrayal of the youth there. Before cracking down on the Qeerroo, Abiy’s government in December 2018 had already started extensive ground attacks against the Oromo Liberation Army insurgency in western and southern Oromia.
But Abiy did not limit his crackdown to these insurgents. The Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), founded in 1974 to fight for advancement of Oromo rights, returned to Ethiopia from exile in Eritrea in September 2018 following a peace deal with government. As part of that deal, the OLF agreed to be part of the political process by integrating its military wing, the Oromo Liberation Army, into the regional armed forces. The OLF had been antithetical to the Oromo Democratic Party, a coalition member of the EPRDF. Indeed, their disagreement in late 2018 set the stage for the ongoing insurgency in Oromia.
In June 2019, during a high-level central committee meeting of the Oromo Democratic Party, at which I was present, Abiy argued that the Qeerroo posed the “number one” potential threat to his power. Many of us were shocked by this sharp reversal. He demonized the youth as an “ungovernable pestilence that must be dealt with as soon as possible.” He said that “these unarmed Qeerroo are more dangerous” than the Oromo Liberation Army. Although there are no recordings of these central committee meetings, I made careful notes about the proceedings because I was so shocked and alarmed at the direction things were going.
After that meeting, Ethiopia’s mainstream media opened a propaganda campaign against the Qeerroo. A prime case of this targeted and well-orchestrated campaign was a poem read by a woman artist in the presence of the prime minister on a live feed of Ethiopian television from the National Palace on the eve of Ethiopian New Year in September 2019 dehumanizing the youth, characterizing them as “menga,” which means mob. Instead of condemning the hate speech, senior Abiy officials translated the word into Oromo as “girrisa,” which means locusts, insects, or “wild ungovernable creatures” to be beaten back lest they overpower the state.
In the following months, mass arrests and killings of youth leaders were launched in Oromia. In October 2019, an alleged plot to assassinate Jawar Mohammed, a popular figure and leader in the anti-government protests of the Qeerroo, reignited mass street protests, this time against the prime minister in Oromia. As a result, hundreds disappeared and were suspected of having been killed, and thousands were arrested, but the government admitted the killings of only 74 people at the time.
Because of the war waged on the Oromo youth, many of them have joined the Oromo Liberation Army, while many others have preferred to lay low during this difficult time. The widespread movement has been stunted, but the potential for nonviolent democratic youth movement did not disappear.
The third factor that contributed to the eroding support for the prime minister in Oromia was the announcement and the formal registration of the Prosperity Party and its “medemer” political program in late 2019. Abiy’s plan was to merge all regional parties and create a national party. His key argument for the regional merger was that he could assign and remove regional state governors by using the party structure. He has succeeded in this regard.
With the creation of this party, Abiy shifted dramatically toward the public dominance of Ethiopian nationalists who are organized around Amharic language and culture, the Ethiopian Coptic Orthodox Church, and those who support a return to an overtly centralized unitarist government. In doing so, Abiy has angered the ethnonationalist forces, also known as multinational federalists, who advocate for greater devolution and regional autonomy.
The event sent a shockwave through the Oromo population. Hachalu gave an interview criticizing Abiy’s emboldening of those who aspire to restore the imposition of Amharic language and culture over the rest of Ethiopia on Oromia Media Network, a private broadcasting enterprise that had effectively served as a media wing of the Qeerroo movement from 2014 to 2018. He was brutally killed less than a week later. The government quickly accused rebel forces. But no independent investigation has been undertaken to date and Hachalu’s family and supporters continue to demand justice for him.
One thing is certain. Abiy’s government used his killing as a pretext to crack down on all remaining Oromo opposition leaders and supporters in Oromia. Key Oromo leaders, including Jawar, Bekele Gerba, and Dejene Tafa of the Oromo Federalist Congress, and Abdi Regassa, Gemechu Ayana, and Mikael Boran of the Oromo Liberation Front and countless other figures were arrested. After keeping them in custody for over 18 months, including during the election in June 2021, Abiy’s government released some political prisoners earlier this month. The OLF leaders, including chairman Dawud Ibsa, remain under arrest as of this writing.
Abiy once said his government should learn from the TPLF, observing that it ruled Tigray for over 27 years without any opposition, especially from within the region.
When opposition leaders were arrested en masse, I recalled that during an Oromo Democratic Party central committee meeting that I attended in late 2018, Abiy said his government should learn from the TPLF, observing that it ruled Tigray for over 27 years without any opposition, especially from within the region. He asserted that the Oromo Democratic Party should rule Oromia as the TPLF had been ruling Tigray. By then, Abiy had already started consolidating power by co-opting, sidelining, or coercing critics, modeling his rule on the methods of the TPLF he despises, and derailing Ethiopia’s transition from authoritarianism to democracy.
Abiy moved to rule Oromia with an iron fist, silencing all opposition. Those who opposed him are strong supporters of multinational federalism and decentralization of state power. Abiy moved to eradicate those voices from the scene. I know Abiy was always extremely nervous and especially harsh when it came to his opponents in Oromia. As a result of these purges in the summer of 2020, the Prosperity Party was the sole party to run during the 2021 election in Oromia.
The preceding series of steps were carefully taken by Abiy in an attempt to consolidate his personal power at home in Oromia, completely destroying the popular support that he enjoyed in the early months of premiership when the population believed that Abiy was committed to democracy.
Moreover, by crushing Oromo nationalist forces in Oromia, the largest regional state, he was silencing the major protagonist of multinational federal democracy. Hence, his move had an ideological dimension because the prime minister shifted to create alliance with unitarist forces, known as Ethiopianists, who were ready to support his centralization policy. Abiy and the Ethiopianists, including Amhara nationalists, developed a symbiotic relationship, as the former centralized his power and the latter pleased by the crackdown on federalists in Oromia and eagerly waiting for a similar policy be applied in Tigray.
Despite the history of the TPLF’s abuse of power when it ruled the country at the helm of the EPRDF, Tigrayan and Oromo nationalism shared a similar vision of creating more autonomous self-governing regional states in Ethiopia. It became a war of visions between federalists and Ethiopianists. Once Abiy felt that he had successfully targeted Oromo nationalists against his own popular base, he turned to launching a war to stifle the TPLF’s mobilization of Tigrayan nationalism by refusing them to merge with his Prosperity Party and hold elections, according to the multinational federalist model, in defiance of the federal government.
Eritrea was invited to join the war on the side of Abiy and other centralizing forces. In retrospect, the rapprochement between Eritrea and Ethiopia, billed as a peace agreement that notably drew the recognition of the Nobel Prize Committee, appears to have been more of a war pact wherein Abiy invited a foreign state onto Ethiopian territory to assist him in consolidating his position in Ethiopia. Thus, leaders of the former enemy state wanted to exact revenge on the TPLF for the decades-long border conflict.
Abiy’s lust for absolute power, ideological positions that supported his authority, and miscalculated measures against his potential supporters in Oromia were then expanded to the Tigray region, where a deadly civil war was launched in the name of “law enforcement” in November 2020.
The world has watched as this misadventure quickly evolved into a deadly civil war. Although the TPLF dominated the military, political, and economic scene in Ethiopia through repression for nearly three decades—and despite the TPLF’s repressive history against Oromo nationalists—Oromos did not support Abiy’s war in Tigray, believing that it was merely an ideological war extended from Oromia to Tigray to reverse Ethiopia’s decentralizing federal experiment.
Any attempt to understand the problems of Ethiopia should be comprehensive. The international community’s continued focus on northern Ethiopia while ignoring the problems in the southern regions—including in Oromia, Wolaitta, Sidama, Somali, and Benishangul Gumuz—will be counterproductive without this perspective and understanding. The Abiy regime still uses force to stifle political movements and federalist demands for more autonomy and self-government in the country’s south.
Simply put, a bilateral negotiation between Abiy’s government and the TPLF-led government of Tigray will not lead to stability or peace, even if it ends the war in northern Ethiopia. Nor it is enough for Abiy to miraculously restore his lost support from Oromos to bring about sustainable peace.
Addressing Ethiopia’s complex historical and contemporary challenges will require, first and foremost, a holistic understanding of those problems. A credible, negotiated, and comprehensive national dialogue that includes all stakeholders, whether they have defended themselves with arms or not, is a good starting point.
Milkessa M. Gemechu is a visiting assistant professor of political science at Albion College. He most recently served as the head of Oromia Regional State Land Administration Bureau. Twitter: @milkessam