Ethiopia is a country in the horn of Africa that failed under communist military junta even though it successfully conducted a revolution that toppled the 42 years old monarch in 1974. It took 17 years of civil war to bring the current electoral autocracy regime. Since its revolution in 1974, there have been many forms of resistance to the repressive regimes; despite, Ethiopia still remains to be one of the most repressive states in the continent. Why does the “never colonized” African state which successfully removed a 42 years old monarch through a socialist revolution failed to be successful to show progress in its democracy and human rights for four decades?
A short history of resistance in Ethiopia
Student’s movement (1960 – 1974)
Resistance to the autocracy that has started in the early 1960s was the first organized resistance to political power in the country. This resistance was mainly lead by university students later joined by labor unions and associations. There had been State violence and clashes with protesters; students were evicted from universities and arrests were frequent. Though faced brutal crackdown, this time was known as the ear of “student’s movement” was a period of peaceful resistance for more than a decade. The movement has successfully toppled the 42 years old monarchy but failed to prepare for a political transition. This gap has given the military a chance to control state power and remained in power for almost two decades
Urban Armed struggle (1974- 1979)
The student’s group that was not able to prepare for the transition has quickly established political parties to challenge the communist military junta that controlled state power, two major parties got major acceptance from the public. Both parties, Ethiopia People Revolutionary Front (EPRP) and All Ethiopian Socialist Movement (AESM) also known as MESON (in its local language acronym in Amharic) have decided to use “urban armed resistance” when the military junta closed all avenues of protest and public participation. The “Urban armed resistance” included killings of members and supporters of the military junta, those who collaborate with the dictatorship at locality level and also attempted to assassin the then military leader president Mengistu Hailemariam. This form of resistance took the country to the dark era of “Red Terror” where any member of these two parties was criminalized and their members were being hunted by the regime and executed at sight. Killed opposition party member bodies were being thrown to streets to terrorize the public; mothers were forced to go to main streets to check if their children survived the nightly killings. The “Urban Armed” resistance was crashed within few years that lead to the full civil war in the country until 1991. The era of “Red Terror” where the military regime killed thousand (estimates range from 150,000- 500,000 in different historical recordings) is considered as a black spot in Ethiopia history.
Resistance to the Current Regime
The current regime led by the Ethiopian People Revolutionary Front (EPRDF) came to power in 1991, marked the end of the civil war. Even after the drafting of the new constitution in 1996 and introduction of the electoral system, the country failed to transfer to multi-party democracy. The current regime that is in power close to 27 years has faced few unorganized resistances until 2015. The major resistance before 2015 was a few days’ protests against the regime after the controversial elections results in 2005. The protests were easily crashed and 200 protesters in the capital were killed. Even though the protests have been pro-opposition, the rallies had not been organized and lead by opposition groups, hence they failed to sustain.
Oromo Protests 2015- 2018
In 2014, the government introduced a plan to expand the capital city to the neighboring Oromia region which brought an immediate resistance from the Oromo community, the largest ethnic group in the country. The protest that started in a small town in West Oromia spread to different small towns for the following three-plus years that changed the meaning of political resistance in Ethiopia. The protesters faced brutal state attack, which led to a killing of more than 200 citizens in less than a year. For the following 3 years, the protests expanded to bigger cities, keeping it going for weeks and at times failing to maintain for days. The Oromo protest movement faced continued brutal crackdown, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW) thousands has been arrested while another thousand has been killed. But surprisingly the protesters managed to maintain the peaceful movement for years. This has never been seen in the political resistance culture of Ethiopia, other than the student’s movement in the early 1960s. Both the 1960s student’s movement and the recent Oromo protests share strong non-violence discipline even in the face of brutal crackdown while the base for both movements is students in higher education and high school.
Amhara Protests 2016
Following the protest in Oromia regions, the second largest region and ethnic group Amhara joined the protests in 2016. The protest has stayed for couples of weeks as “stay home movements” and small peaceful rallies in different towns of the region. The regime responded with the usual brutal crackdown, close to 30 individuals ( some estimates say the number is close to 50) have been killed in a single day when they responded to peaceful rally. The protests turned violent the following days when rural armed citizens started an armed resistance. The government by claiming there was an insurgency movement going on killed close to 500 citizens in a brutal crackdown. The number of death within few weeks was almost close to the number of death resulted from the Oromo Protests in three years. The cost that has been paid by the Amhara protests has been very high compared to the non-violent movement in Oromia region and the resistance could not sustain for more than few weeks.
For the most part of Ethiopian history, resistance has been mixed with violence and arms. There is also a widely known saying “Kaledeferese Ayeteram” in its literal meaning “it will not purify unless it is filthy” which most movements use to mobilize the youth, encouraging violent shake-up. But two major lessons can be learned from the experience of different resistances in the country. The first one is that from different forms of resistance the one’s that have somehow succeeded are the non- violent struggles, while the student’s movement toppled the 42 years old monarchy, the current movement has also sustained for a longer time and pressured the state to make some changes. When freedom fighters tried to use violent ways, the country went to civil war and Red Terror. The second lesson is that the human cost of non-violence resistance is much lower compared to armed resistance. The two attempts to bring political change by violent means led to Red Terror and Civil war and in both times the country failed to bring any democratic transition.
I thoroughly enjoyed your blog post and found the topic to be rather interesting. Ethiopia is an intriguing case study, especially since it has never been “colonized”, and the monarch was overthrown. This makes Ethiopia a rather complex case and raises several questions, such as the one you successfully addressed in your post.
By looking at Ethiopia’s history since 1960, it becomes clear violent resistant movements have stifled Ethiopia’s development. I found the youth movement very interesting. There are several cases in which youth has been on the forefront of change. Their ability to overthrow a monarch is impressive. While this would appear to be positive, I appreciate how you addressed the students were not prepared for the transition, which further complicated the issue. One of the main issues I found in my case study was violence being returned with violence, and therefore causes democratic erosion. Democracy cannot survive in hostile environments. Democracy exists when the people’s voices are being heard, not squelched. Therefore, it is essential nonaggressive tactics are utilized. As you pointed out, the current movement has resulted in change. This leads me to some questions. Do you believe the people, after living through or hearing about the Red Terror and Civil War, have changed their views on violence? What would this imply for Ethiopia in the future?
Thank you for sharing your insight on this subject.
Thanks for the feedback. these are interesting questions. there has never been a formal research on what is the opinion of the public on violence/ or non-violence struggle. but it looks like the new generation who has never seen the terror of violent struggle tends to have a limited understanding of the impact of violent struggle in general. there has not been a conversation and an effort to pass the lessons to the new generation freedom fighters. in addition to that Ethiopian society is a society of “Heros”. culturally every myth about the state was build on the fact that the nation is a nation of fighters, winners, and warlords. that has an impact on the understanding of the concept of wining especially in some parts of the country. so the explanation can be both that there has never been a lesson learning and conversation b/n generations and also the cultural impediments to on the concept of struggle and win
I enjoyed the reading, however, I have a theory about why the African state which successfully removed a 42 years old monarch through a socialist revolution, and being colonized failed to be successful to show progress in its democracy and human rights for four decades. First and foremost, the African states, weather the former rulers were domestically grown, or colonized, after ridding themselves of that oppressive condition, had no experience in running a country. This leads to poorly run, and mismanaged governance. In further examination of the country of Ethiopia it is trying to compete with the developed nations, and finds itself wanting. Most developed countries will not assist outright; the way assistance is given weather physically, or monetarily (IMF), is that it comes with strings attached. These strings only further deepen the crisis by making the help conditional. If help is provided, the receiving country must do x, y, and z. these conditions only creates dependency. the question to be asked, is if this is intentional?
Hello, I particularly enjoyed this post because I am also from Ethiopia and am glad to see a blog post on East African politics. Despite not being colonized, I believe ethnic tension within Ethiopia is one of the biggest problems the country faces. I also think that recent protests such as the Amhara and Oromo are triggered by ethnically driven crimes against certain groups in the past. Many Oromo protests are influenced by the idea that their voice as the largest ethnic group is not being heard. Also the same with Amhara, both of these protests have been triggered by the long reign of late prime minister Meles Zenawi. I believe Ethiopia needs more ethnic representation in parliament/positions in office, and maybe even reparations for those who have been affected by recent protests. I believe Ethiopia is heading towards a positive direction currently, especially after its new prime minister Abiye Ahmed who is from the Oromo ethnic group. This may give Oromos a chance at fair representation in government which would result in less violence.
I absolutely loved your post and I thoroughly enjoyed it as I myself am also Ethiopian. Growing up, I have witnessed each political change that went on firsthand. I have never understood Ethiopian politics to be honest but something that has always been glaringly obvious is that there is a greater feeling of ethnic pride rather than patriotism or pride of their country in Ethiopians. Ethiopians have always used ethnicity as a way of choosing who they associate with, forming stereotypes and even as a way of defining themselves. Ethnicity plays a major role in the day to day life of Ethiopians and is one of the major reasons for the tension going on right now. I believe the best way to bring everyone together is by reminding them that they are a part of something bigger than just their own communities and their own people. One of the reasons Ethiopians were not colonized was their sense of patriotism, their ability to put their differences aside for something bigger and it was also what helped them win. Ethiopians can work together, we have seen it before and I am confident they can also do it now.