This is Ethiopia’s Moment: An unprecedented democratic movement emerges in Ethiopia.

Abiymania (The Guardian/Charlie Rosser)


By Isaac Wilks


[dropcap]O[/dropcap]n the last, muggy Saturday of June 2018, in the heart of Ethiopia’s capital of Addis Ababa, thousands of joyful Ethiopians poured into Meskel Square, forming an undulating flood of red, yellow, and green. For the first time in any Ethiopian’s living memory, the nation was abuzz with change and hope.

The electricity of true democratic reform crackled through the air, which just months prior would have been unthinkable. And on stage, at the center of it all, was a man who looked more like an affable uncle at a summer barbecue than a venerable statesman. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sat comfortably looking out over the masses from his podium, clad in a lime-green T-shirt emblazoned with a power-saluting Nelson Mandela, a coffee-cream fedora, and his characteristically warm smile. The crowd throbbed with elbow-jostling excitement, a mood that, in just a few hours’ time, would instantly descend into panic as a grenade detonated to Abiy’s right, killing one.

It is hard to overstate the potential of Ethiopia. Boasting 105 million people, it is Africa’s second-most populous country and overtook Kenya in 2017 as Africa’s largest economy. Since 2000, it has attracted over $12 billion in Chinese investment, leaving it with comparatively superb infrastructure, such as an electrified railway—the first of its kind in Africalinking Addis Ababa with the Red Sea port of Djibouti, Djibouti. In 2015, sensing Ethiopia’s upward trajectory, President Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit the country, previously seen as a dysfunctional backwater. Ethiopia is on track to become a regional powerhouse, dominating the Horn of Africa and extending its influence eastward toward the Gulf states.

Despite these hopeful predictions, Ethiopia still faces many barriers to joining the ranks of advanced emerging economies like Brazil and India. For nearly half a century, Ethiopia has ricocheted between periods of ethnically-charged civil disintegration and returns to centralized despotism. The roots of much of its ethnic conflict run between its three main ethnic groups: the predominantly-Muslim Oromo, making up around a third of the population, the predominantly-Orthodox Christian Amhara, with a fifth of the population, and the predominantly-Orthodox Christian Tigray, who constitute around 6 percent of Ethiopians. Power struggles between these groups have reduced Ethiopian politics to a zero-sum game.

Prior to being violently overthrown in 1991, the Amhara dominated the state through a Marxist junta known as the Derg, reserving political capital for themselves alone. Since then, the Tigray have entrenched themselves as Ethiopia’s dominant ethnic group, creating a one-party regime helmed by the Tigray-dominated Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). This has come mainly at the expense of the Oromo people, of whom 20,000 people have been arrested under the current regime on suspicion of political organization. According to the U.N., 594 Oromo individuals were extrajudicially murdered at the hands of the state between 2005 and 2009.

The impunity of the state has extended to land issues as well. In 2008, the government unilaterally moved to sell off Oromo land to foreign agribusiness firms. In one case, a foreign company uprooted a Cape fig tree in rural Oromia. These trees carry religious significance in Oromo culture, and when local workers voiced concerns with the company, the manager reportedly told them: “Don’t worry, we will buy you umbrellas.”

Such disregard for the interests of the Oromo came to a head in 2015, when the government moved to expand the city limits of Addis Ababa into neighboring Oromia. This incited furious residents to protest, especially as it came on the heels of an EPRDF-rigged parliamentary election. The government eventually walked back the plan, but this did little to stem public anger. On the day the government announced their change of course, prominent Oromo activist Jawar Mohammed (then in exile) took to Facebook. “The Oromo people cannot take today’s announcement as lasting solution to their to freedom from eviction, systematic exclusion and mass incarceration,” he wrote. “Just as we achieved these concession through our struggle, we must step up to force their practical implementation.” And step up they did. Demonstrations spread like wildfire throughout the country and became a vehicle for general anti-government fervor, further contributing to the prolonged ethnic unrest brewing throughout the country. The government responded with a brutal crackdown, killing between 500 and 1,000 protesters in one year. Anti-government protests continued to roil the country in the following years, marking Ethiopia’s largest civil unrest movement since 1991. The government continued to respond in kind, making use of a 2010 antiterrorism law to arrest scores of journalists on trumped-up charges. Finally, in February 2018, after two states of emergency and tremendous pressure from popular activists, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn resigned.

Abiy Ahmed came to power in April, after handily winning the EPRDF’s first-ever contested internal leadership election. The son of a Muslim Oromo father and a Christian Amhara mother, he rose quickly through the ranks of the army and into the upper echelons of the EPRDF. Armed with a fluency in the Tigray language, he ingratiated himself with party leadership to win the deputy presidency of Oromia State, while also gaining fame fighting illegal land seizures. At age 41, he was Africa’s youngest leader, at the helm of a state being torn apart by ethnic strife. In the east, Somali-Oromo violence simmered along the Somali region’s western edge. In the Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s Region (SNNPR), inter-ethnic clashes during the Sidama people’s new year’s celebration turned deadly. In the north, rumors of pogroms swirled between Amhara and Tigray. Banks burned in Oromia. In early 2018, the U.N. reported that this violent upheaval had displaced a staggering 800,000 people.


An internally displaced family in the Somali region, Ethiopia (Oxfam)


The newly-minted Prime Minister crisscrossed the country, from the violence-weary Somali region, to the hyper-divided south, to the northern metropolises of the Amhara heartland, preaching a message never before heard in Ethiopia. Traversing the fragments of a broken land, he extolled the virtue of medemer: unity. He swiftly lifted the national state of emergency, and with it, martial law. He spoke of democracy, of justice, and bluntly acknowledged Ethiopia’s human rights abuses. “Our constitution doesn’t allow it, but we have been torturing, causing bodily damages and even putting inmates in dark prison cells,” he spoke in an address to parliament, saying that “these were terrorist acts committed by us, and using force just to stay in power is a terrorist act too.” This frank, honest admission of state-terrorism astonished observers, Ethiopian and international. Jawar Mohammed returned home from exile in August, lauding Abiy’s ascension as “a unique opportunity [for a] peaceful transition to democracy.” A wave of hope began to form in Ethiopia, and as rhetoric turned to action, it began to crest.

Abiy embarked at a staggering pace on a series of reforms, amounting to what Ethiopian policy analyst Solomon Dersso dubbed—in a Dickensian conceit—“the spring of hope.” He ordered the release of journalists, activists, and political dissidents held in prison as “terrorists,” and oversaw the shuttering of the notorious Maekelawi prison where many of them were held, before extending amnesty to all exiled dissidents. He forced the retirement of powerful army and prison officials who for years had perpetuated state terrorism against Ethiopian civil society. He completely retooled his cabinet, achieving gender parity, and appointed the nation’s first-ever (albeit largely symbolic) female president, Sahle-Work Zewde. In an unprecedented liberalization of the political sphere, he decriminalized opposition parties, publicly dined with opposition leaders and praised political competition, unblocked access to hundreds of political websites and media outlets, and promised free and fair elections in 2020. Dizzyingly, he pushed on, brokering various intra-clergy disputes within faith-based organizations, Christian and Islamic. He opened hulking, state-owned industrial conglomerates to private investment. Abiy met with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki to hammer out a deal that opened the border between their two countries for the first time since the end of mutual hostilities two decades prior, uniting thousands of families. The national wave of hope was now a towering tsunami, and it had a name: Abiymania.

It was Abiymania that flooded Meskel Square with a sea of hopeful humanity on that overcast June day. It is impossible to know what Abiy Ahmed felt as his security detail flocked around him and shepherded him off the stage, away from the poorly-aimed grenade. But it almost certainly wasn’t surprise. Moving so quickly in a country where distrust cuts a deeper divide than the Great Rift Valley, he was bound to make enemies. While the presidential caravan whipped through Addis’s dusty streets, the crowd—many still clutching signs bearing the words “One Love, One Ethiopia”—began to slowly disband, chanting nervously yet resolutely, showing unity even in dispersion. Soon, they would turn to their smartphones as Abiy made a hasty address on state media. Looking as somber as he could in his fluorescent shirt, he declared the attack an “unsuccessful attempt by forces who do not want to see Ethiopia united.” The identity of these forces soon came to light: five disaffected Oromos, pledging allegiance to the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). Ironically, the first eruption of resistance to his sweeping visions was carried out by Abiy’s own people. His attackers, as they would declare months later in court, viewed him as a traitor to the Oromo for not taking the reins of the OLF and leading it to governmental dominance.


Abiy Ahmed (Zacharias Abubeker/AFP/Getty Images)


Although it appears a unified, one-party coalition, the EPRDF government within which Abiy must operate is just as divided as the people it seeks to unite. Despite years of Tigray control, the EPRDF is technically a four-party coalition, composed of parties representing the Amhara, Oromo, Tigray, and SNNP people. As Abiy seeks to shift the balance of power away from Tigray domination, he must juggle the different demands of embittered factions. If he is perceived as being insufficiently assertive of Oromo grievances, he could anger the Oromo. On the other hand, and perhaps more dangerously, his confrontation of entrenched power is fanning the flames of anger across Tigray. Many in this northern region feel that Ethiopians are indebted to the Tigray for ending the Marxist junta three decades ago, and ushering in the country’s recent economic prosperity. Abiy’s mass detention of state officials—many of them Tigray—on human rights abuse charges has not sat well here. In recent months, Reuters describes a “siege mentality” that has begun to grip the Tigray capital of Mekelle. “Nobody will kneel,” asserted a resident to the outlet. In December an anti-Abiy rally, sponsored by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, packed a stadium there in an exercise of mass catharsis. Many noted that Abiy owes the Tigrayans for the very existence of the EPRDF regime atop which he now rules. From the ochre hills of Tigray, a new axis of anti-government sentiment is beginning to cut yet another rift in Ethiopia’s craggy political landscape.

“Abiy controls the international narrative but not necessarily the country,” the Tigrayan former communications minister Getachew Reda remarked in an interview with Reuters. Abiy Ahmed, for all of his democratic superstardom, does not possess unlimited political capital—and it is showing. For all of his bold rhetoric, harsh political realities have militated against a true staunching of the bleeding in many of Ethiopia’s chaotic ethnic borderlands. Throughout the first half of 2018, a staggering 1.4 million people fled their homes, giving Ethiopia the most new internally displaced people in the world at that time—a figure higher than was recorded in countries mired in wholesale wars, such as Syria and Yemen. Abiy has sometimes responded to this widespread uprootedness with a heavy hand. In August, as clashes erupted between federal troops and local police in the Somali region, the government shut down the internet there, a favorite tool of repressive African governments, and a strategy that harkened back to the Desalegn administration. In September, as Oromo nationalist protests in the capital of Addis Ababa turned deadly, the government again shut off internet services. And in October, in a stunning display of Abiy’s vulnerability, a cohort of disgruntled soldiers stormed his compound and loudly voiced their desire to kill him. To defuse the situation, Abiy led the troops in an impromptu push-ups routine, his face locked in an absurd smile that masked feelings certainly more intense than Abiy would have us believe: “Inside I was very unhappy,” he said later.

The strife that perpetually threatens to tear Ethiopia apart is rooted in its constitution. Drafted by the Tigrayan-dominated government in 1994, it dictates that a citizen’s rights to representation and land ownership are derived not from residency, but from arbitrary ethnic indigeneity. Ethnic divisions are thus inseparable from Ethiopian civil life. Among the most heinous ramifications of this twisted etho-federalism is the mandatory listing of one’s ethnicity on their personal ID card, providing an infallible vector for discrimination, and even pogroms. Many blame the Tigrayans, who only make up a tiny fraction of Ethiopians, of instituting this constitutional regime as a divide-and-conquer strategy. Analysts have cynically noted that such a strategy is indistinguishable from those employed by colonial European minorities to turn the governed majority against one another. Others, such as Columbia University professor Mahmood Mamdani, have likened this inbuilt ethnic fragmentation to an emulation of Soviet-style ethnic republicanism, inspired by the lingering residue of Marxist sentiment left over from the days of the Derg. Either way, if Abiy wants to achieve long-lasting, structural change, he will eventually have to confront the system that drives Ethiopia apart by design. “Mr. Abiy can achieve real progress if Ethiopia embraces a different kind of federation—territorial and not ethnic—where rights in a federal unit are dispensed not on the basis of ethnicity but on residence,” wrote Professor Mamdani in the New York Times. “Such a federal arrangement will give Ethiopians an even chance of keeping an authoritarian dictatorship at bay.”


Ethiopia’s ethnic federalism (Wikipedia)


And yet, however dire Ethiopia’s current moment may seem, its historical plight only serves to heighten the staggering nature of Abiy’s fight. Abiymania is real, to be sure, but so far it has taken the shape of genuine national pride and yearning for peace, rather than a pure cult of personality. These past turbulent months, for all of the continued violence, have flowered with random acts of happiness. On the day that the firewall came down between Ethiopian and Eritrean telecom connections, residents of both countries gleefully dialed random numbers, to share their optimism with strangers. From London to Minneapolis, Ethiopians of all stripes have rallied in solidarity with their compatriots back home, jam-packing stadiums and parading through parks. And for the first time in decades, Ethiopians living abroad are thinking about finally coming home. “I’m planning to go back to Ethiopia for good in one or two years’ time. I have to see the change, whether the peace and tranquility lasts,” London taxi driver and asylee Alex Abraham told CNN.

Here at Yale, an Ethiopian international student who requested anonymity plans to return to Ethiopia after college, and says that day-to-day political instabilities won’t dampen his optimism about the tectonic political awakening that has shaken the country. “Before Abiy came to power,” he said, “people didn’t normally watch the news on TV, and preferred other entertainment channels. But then, people started watching the news. People were excited about what was happening in the country.” As a native of multiethnic Addis Ababa, this student has always identified as ethnically Ethiopian before anything else. And recently, he explains, he sees this sentiment of unity reflected in national politics. “The prime minister often says: ‘it’s not me, it’s all of you that are working for the country. So don’t expect me to say “Oh, we should work towards this.” I want you to take initiative,’” said the student, quoting Abiy. “And people started listening,” he added. “When seeing history, people want to take initiative.”


Isaac Wilks is a first-year in Pauli Murray College. You can contact him at