The Tigray War – Impact on the rest of Ethiopia

This is a chapter from the report: Tigray War and Regional Implications, which you can The Tigray War and Regional Implications – Volume 1.

The Ethiopian national context

Author’s name withheld 

Other chapters in this collection discuss detailed aspects of the war in Tigray: its outbreak, conduct and devastating impact within the regional state. This chapter broadens the focus to look at other political and conflict dynamics in Ethiopia and their articulation with the war in Tigray. It focuses primarily on politics in the Oromo and Amhara arenas. There has been a strong tendency before and after the outbreak of fighting in November 2020 to treat the political divergence – and now war – between the federal and Tigray governments as somehow “separate” and separable from other dynamics of the political evolution of Ethiopia. There are political and analytical consequences to this approach.

5.1 Contextualising the war in Tigray

The government narrative from Addis Ababa since the current Prime Minister came to power in April 2018 sought to separate the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) from other political actors. It attributed responsibility for the ills of “27 years of darkness”[1] to the TPLF, not to the wider ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) of which it was a member. It cast TPLF leaders (and not their EPRDF colleagues still in government) as criminals and accused them of destabilising the “transition.” The narrative has proved clear, effective and popular, tirelessly reiterated on all of the media sources easily available to Ethiopia’s public.[2] Since November 2020 the government and its supporters refer to the war as a local policing or “law and order” operation against a small group of “treasonous” lawbreakers. Even in the context of the rout of its military forces in late June, the government persisted in its “law and order” operation claims.[3] The approach has been designed to counteract an understanding of the war as driven by politics, or tractable only to a political – not to a policing or military – solution, as most observers believe. The formal proscription by Ethiopian lawmakers on 6 May 2021 of the TPLF (together with what the government refers to as “OLF Shanee[4]) as a terrorist organisation serves to reinforce this ring fencing strategy. It remained in force at the end of June 2021.


Many analysts have fallen in with this approach, treating the “Tigray conflict” not as civil war but as independent of a wider crisis of the Ethiopian state. Ethiopia is large, diverse and complicated and one way to try to unpick and convey this complexity has been to distinguish its different conflicts for separate analysis. But something important is lost in this way. An understanding of the interlinkages with wider disputes and developments is important to capture a sense of the complex and shifting motivations of the protagonists in the war, and of their myriad supporting cast members, many of whom operate across the broader political canvases of Ethiopia, the Horn and beyond. The war itself, and the polarisation and propaganda associated with it, now have an influence on Ethiopian political developments including the June election: rhetoric from late May 2021 about “foreign interference”, for instance, provided politically useful grist to the Ethiopian sovereignty mill,[5] activating powerful historical echoes.[6] It was supremely well-timed to galvanise support a month before national polls. Examination of the wider Ethiopian context, then, helps illuminate the scope and intricacy of the challenges that confront a sustainable resolution of the bloody conflict in Tigray. It also illuminates the scale of what may be at stake, far beyond the borders of Tigray itself.


5.2 A threat to Ethiopia’s integrity?


As “the war continues, destabilising Ethiopia and the wider region” so the perception has grown that it “is a cruel drain on the resources and population of Ethiopia and its neighbours [and] a potential threat to the entire region.”[7] As Martin Plaut has noted in the introduction to this collection, a group of senior US diplomats warned in late October 2020 that “fragmentation of Ethiopia […] would be the largest state collapse in modern history.”[8] As the war ground on beyond six months Ethiopia began to draw new and invidious international comparisons. US Special Envoy to the Horn of Africa Jeffrey Feltman, told Foreign Policy in May 2021 that the conflict has the potential to spiral into a full-fledged regional crisis: “If the tensions in Ethiopia would result in a widespread civil conflict that goes beyond Tigray, Syria will look like child’s play by comparison.”[9] Also in May 2021, Theodore Murphy the Africa Director of the European Council on Foreign Relations said “if the Ethiopian government can’t find a way out of this war, and we also understand that the war can’t be won militarily, it is akin to a sort of Afghanistan for the Ethiopian government. But it’s one that they can’t walk away from. It is just slowly leeching away at Ethiopia’s wealth and international standing, and of course with an incredible human cost.”[10] Ethiopia’s government, meanwhile, vigorously resisted this characterisation of the situation.


But on 28 May 2021 Ethiopia’s ruling Prosperity Party (PP) issued a statement that seemed abruptly to acknowledge the severity of the crisis facing the whole country, if only as a further reason to reject political negotiations: “The captains of a ship can negotiate internally and compete only as long as the ship survives. There can never be rights, dialogue, debate, negotiation or competition when the ship is sinking. It is the same when it comes to the affairs of a country.”[11] The statement, with its glossy accompanying video, seems to have been intended as an electoral appeal – seeking to draw on the well of Ethiopian nationalism in defence of a nation threatened. But it also begs the obvious questions: is the Ethiopian ship sinking, and if so, how, and why, and how did we get here?  This paper briefly reviews key political and conflict dynamics behind the “vicious deadlock” in Ethiopia.[12] It reviews conflict trajectories and risks beyond Tigray, focusing on shifting patterns in other parts of Ethiopia. It depicts the depth and extent of the differences of opinion between Ethiopia’s different political actors, and amongst those who observe and analyse them.


Truth has been a casualty of the polarisation of politics in Ethiopia in a context of limited information. This is a problem only exacerbated by insecurity, by acute constraints on travel during a pandemic, and by pressure and limitations on journalistic investigation.[13] Anthony Shaw in this volume notes the evolution of two diametrically opposed accounts – contrasting truths – of the war in Tigray, and the same is even more true of wider events in Ethiopia, making the job of international observers and diplomats particularly challenging. In late May 2021, Crisis Group’s Will Davison commented: “the tragedy for me is that whether we take the Tigray conflict, or the situation in Metekel zone (and this is just the current crises), or the Wollegas, or the situation in South Wollo and around Atayé in Oromia zone in Amhara, whether we take the build-up to the war and the outbreak of the war, Hachalu’s assassination, etc. etc., all of these events need better reporting, they all need exposing – like all of these massacres that are occurring, Amhara civilians, other civilians, in Oromia and Metekel. Who are the perpetrators, who are the victims, who’s funding the perpetrators? It all needs to be exposed properly. It is a cliché but it is in this darkness that evil flourishes. [Lack of exposure] facilitates all of this murky violent political activity.”[14]


5.3 Conflict and the rule of law


Observers across the political spectrum seem to agree that Ethiopia has become more violent and unstable in recent years, and that the rule of law has disintegrated, or been allowed to disintegrate, in many parts of the country. The extent of the security and governance challenge was brought into focus when Ethiopia’s National Election Board (NEBE) Chairperson reported in April 2021 that, of 45,000 polling stations expected to be opened in January 2021,[15] only half were operational, and that only 200,000 voters had registered across Addis Ababa municipality.[16] After an extension of the voter registration period by several weeks and a strong governmental push, “at least 36 million” voters were reported to have been registered, still “at least 10 million short of what officials were targeting” according to the BBC.[17] Significant parts of the country were excluded from the election on 21 June 2021, because of security issues,[18] and defective ballot printing logistics. A further area did not vote pending the conduct of a referendum on the establishment of a new “South-West Ethiopia” region, which was itself also postponed in early June to September 2021, because of persisting insecurity in some areas.[19] By the end of June 2021, no election results had been published, and NEBE reported that complaints had been lodged in 160 constituencies by 30 political parties, with five making broader claims of problems.[20]


If all now agree that there is an acute and deepening security crisis they agree on little else. For opponents and critics of the TPLF/EPRDF (and of the ethnic federal system they designed, and other ethno-nationalist or federalist political forces), the cause of instability and violence has been clear and singular. National Movement of Amhara (NAMA) chairman, Belete Molla, summed up the view shared across federal government, ruling party, and pan-Ethiopianist and Amhara opposition groups: “TPLF was always a mafia group, orchestrating massacres across the country.”[21]


As massacres and conflict have continued, even intensified, over the months since November 2020, during which the TPLF has been fighting (apparently for its survival) in Tigray, the credibility of that simple narrative should presumably have begun to unravel. It persists, however, as an important thread of government rhetoric[22] and analytical polemic,[23] and is widely believed in Ethiopia. The narrative that there is a “trail of repeated pre-war ethnic styled massacres … where the hand of the TPLF providing money and logistical support has often been present[24] is a cornerstone of the campaign in favour of the war in Tigray: emotive and resilient even in the absence of published evidence. This position often conflates with strong antipathy towards “ethnic politics” in general, seen as the root of all of Ethiopia’s problems, and a natural consequence of the current federal arrangement.[25] Ethno-nationalists are then dismissed as insurgent “terrorist groupings”, with no programme other than “nihilistic killings,”[26] in a further depoliticization of analysis. This narrative has facilitated their exclusion from electoral competition.


The following discussion examines developments in Oromo and Amhara politics since 2018 (and briefly elsewhere in the country), before concluding with a resumé of other factors relevant to the challenges Ethiopia faces in mid-2021.


5.4 Oromia politics and conflict – optimism and excitement


In 2018, after four years of anti-government Oromo protests, the new Prime Minister rode to power on a euphoric and well-cultivated wave of Oromo nationalism. His party brokered the return of Oromo (and other) opposition organisations. Pre-eminent amongst them was the Oromo Liberation Front, OLF, established in 1973 during the Haile Selassie period.[27] During a long period in exile (latterly hosted and trained in Eritrea) OLF toyed with a secessionist agenda, but this seemed to fade over time. Their return in September 2018 sparked more euphoria and wild optimism – and a violent backlash in and around Addis Ababa/Finfinne, as rival gangs of Ethiopianist and Oromo young men faced off. There were targeted killings of other groups, especially in Burayu.[28] Elders were mobilised to broker community reconciliation, but the damage was done in terms of the urban fear of dangerous “ethnic conflict,” a designation which seemed to provide its own explanation.


Social media activists and journalists who had led the Oromo protest movement from the diaspora also returned to Ethiopia in 2018. They initially worked closely with the Oromo ruling party, reinforcing the early popularity of the new regime, and (often controversially) encouraging returning rebels to demobilise. A Muslim from Arsi, Jawar Mohammed was a polarising figure: disliked both by the TPLF/EPRDF against whom he had mobilised since 2014, but also by Amhara and Ethiopian nationalists; but wildly popular amongst young people in Oromia. His return was a tumultuous affair, provoking extreme reactions – and shocking violence.[29] Although Government media sources were initially sympathetic to Jawar (and his Oromo Media Network, OMN, was given permission to broadcast), the Patriotic Ginbot 7 (PG7)-owned Ethiopian Satellite TV station (ESAT) and others campaigned against him and his followers as dangerous radicals fomenting ethnic violence.


A collapsing consensus


After a honeymoon period in 2018, Oromo nationalist euphoria began to subside at the end of the year. On their return to Ethiopia in September 2018, the OLF enjoyed very strong support in western Ethiopia, especially Wollega and Illubabor.[30] There was no clarity about the terms of their return and arrangements for demobilisation, or – remarkably – whether these had been discussed at all.[31] At least one armed contingent resisted re-integration and re-emerged as the Oromo Liberation Army, OLA.  In late 2018, Ethiopia’s National Defence Force (ENDF) units were dispatched to the four zones of Wollega in what seems to have become an extremely brutal counter insurgency against armed units and factions, who had begun armed activity in western border areas.[32] By April and May 2019 the OLF leadership had issued statements distancing the organisation from the OLA’s armed activity.

Meanwhile between January and December 2019 pressure on alleged supporters of OLA/OLF increased, with mass arrests and extra judicial executions, notably in Guji and West Guji.[33] In 2018, violent clashes between Gedeo and their (Oromo) Guji neighbours saw up to a million people flee their homes, triggering a humanitarian crisis and bringing Ethiopia to the top of global internally displaced persons (IDP) rankings.[34] IDPs moved in large numbers from Kercha wereda of West Guji in Oromia into Gedeo; in smaller numbers also from several kebeles of Guji zone, Gedeb wereda, into West Guji. The displaced majority Gedeo were reluctant to accept government pressure to return home, and local attempts at peacebuilding were slow and uncertain.[35][36] Government blamed “violent criminals” for conflict, in the context of the raised ethno-nationalist rhetoric as diaspora forces returned to the country.[37] Less discussed were the longer standing dynamics of inter-group relations and conflict on this border, which were reshaped by new opportunities for elite jockeying in the 1990s, and formed a known political flashpoint.[38] Violence is reported to have returned to Guji in April and May 2021, hindering humanitarian access.[39]


In January 2019, there had been unconfirmed allegations of government airstrikes against the OLA in Kellem Wollega, as the ENDF moved into Wollega in force, undertaking a sustained military operation in the area.[40] The government crackdown cranked up again in the early months of 2020. By 3 January 2020 mobile and landline phone and internet services to the four Wollega zones were cut off.[41] On 21 January 2020, Oromo rights organisations had accused the government of “adding fuel to the fire.”[42] In March 2020, The Economist reported that the crackdown in Western Oromia was “bloody and lawless.”[43] Observers and rights organisations alleged a litany of extra judicial killings by the state.


Emerging Oromo opposition – neutralised


Nevertheless, in mid-/late-2019 most still anticipated that a free and fair poll would see a range of parties elected, and lead to a real political transition. A powerful Oromo coalition, including opposition figures, and with a clear popular mandate, was widely seen as likely to emerge, with the legitimacy to influence the direction of Ethiopia’s future evolution at national level. Polarisation grew in October 2019, with the controversial reopening of the renovated Menelik Palace.[44] Later in the month, the PM gave a speech in parliament threatening to take measures against “media owners with foreign passports;” and the following day Jawar alleged that the police had tried to orchestrate an attack on him.[45] In the febrile and violent uproar that followed at least 89 people were killed. In the absence of a credible investigation,[46] and with plenty of social, economic and governance failings providing grounds for grievance, highly politicised narratives filled the vacuum.


Many Oromos had grown critical of what they saw as increasingly “Ethiopianist” or “unitarist” government rhetoric, disappointment which crystallised when the PP was established on 1 December 2019.[47] Over the course of 2019 divisions had emerged between the PM and many of his Oromo allies, inside and outside the ruling party. Key Oromo figures grew uncomfortable with moves to a more unitarist “anti-federal” (for some even “anti-Oromo”) stance, but the PM drew support from elite politicians in the Oromo zones of Shoa, close to Addis Ababa. By the end of the year, his most popular ruling ally Lemma Megerssa had distanced himself. At the end of December 2019, the influential activist Jawar Mohammed finally declared that he would run for election and joined the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC). This abruptly raised the prospect of a strong pan-Oromo opposition movement, capable to mount a formidable challenge to the ruling party: with Jawar on board, OFC was recast as a nationally significant competitor, with appeal across Oromia zones of the protestant west (home of Bekele Gerba), and the Muslim east, as well its existing powerbase in west Shoa (home of Merera Gudina).


The prospect of a transformative election unravelled with the decision that they be postponed due to COVID-19 in the spring of 2020. When popular Oromo singer Hachalu Hundeesa was assassinated on 29 June 2020, three days of violence erupted during which hundreds of people died. Armed youths destroyed property in Addis Ababa on 30 June. Jawar and Bekele were accused of trying to politicise Hachalu’s funeral, and quickly detained, arguably fanning further violence. In Ambo, 3 policemen and 78 civilians, including Hachalu’s uncle were killed as the singer was buried.[48]  In Shashemene more than 150 people lost their lives, and non-Oromo communities (including Rastafarians) were reported to have been targeted.[49]


Analysis of these events is extremely divisive, and controversy persisted with the publication of the official Human Rights Commission (EHRC) investigation report.[50] Analysis produced six months later summed up the polarisation: “The party line is that officials who were negligent, disloyal, or complicit in the violence were removed. The counter-narrative is that the unrest was stoked and then used to purge opponents and ruling figures who sided with Lemma, or with the opposition, by falsely blaming them for orchestrating the violence.”[51] If the October 2019 violence and crackdown offered a test run for the identification and dismantling of Jawar’s qeeroo activist networks, July 2020 provided ample pretext for the arrest of opposition OFC and OLF leaders, along with tens of thousands of others. Lemma Megerssa and other critics were suspended from the ruling party in mid-August 2020. [52]  Diplomatic sources concluded that the government crackdown across Oromia from July 2020 reversed the early gains of the “transition,” which was now widely seen as fundamentally derailed.


Over the period from 2018 to 2020, ESAT had entrenched the narration of #AmharaGenocide, establishing a context conducive to the narrative of “ethnic conflict,” and the July arrests and September prosecutions were wildly popular beyond Oromo circles. OFC’s leaders were charged with extremely serious crimes,[53] just a few days after the PM published an opinion piece stating that “individuals and groups, disaffected by the transformations taking place, are using everything at their disposal to derail them. They are harvesting the seeds of inter-ethnic and inter-religious division and hatred.”[54] The wave of Oromo nationalism on which the PM had risen to power at the beginning of 2018 was silenced and discredited.[55]


Consolidation of a violent impasse


From the end of January to early March 2021 Jawar and other high profile Oromo prisoners went on hunger strike. By the time they finally agreed to call it off,[56] both OLF and OFC had withdrawn from the election.[57] All significant federalist and nationalist voices in Oromo politics had now been excluded, as a Shoa-dominated PP elite and its co-opted allies rolled out the ruling party election campaign on behalf of the PM. Although the pan-Ethiopianist opposition Ethiopians for Social Democracy (Ezema) will field candidates, and is likely to win support in some urban centres of Oromia, the ruling PP faces little or no competition elsewhere. Nevertheless, ongoing fighting and violence means that the election will not take place in significant parts of the region, including the four Wollega zones.[58] Protest has been effectively and comprehensively repressed, but violent opposition and the killings of civilians seemed if anything to have increased over the period to the end of May 2021.


Little is known about the real strength and scope of the OLA. Its social media presence has grown since the beginning of 2021, and videos seem to suggest extensive recruitment and improved equipment. In the words of one commentator it “waged a blitzkrieg over the last few months, starting in Wollega and expanding quickly into Arsi and Bale.[59] The killing of civilians in Oromia exploded in the national narrative on 31 October 2020 when 54 people were “rounded up and killed”[60] in a school compound in Guliso, West Wollega,[61] in what Amnesty described as a “horrendous attack on a village by armed group […] The fact that this horrendous incident occurred shortly after government troops abruptly withdrew from the area in unexplained circumstances raises questions that must be answered.[62] EHRC described the attack as an “unconscionable” “massacre.”[63]


Unexplained attacks on civilians have persisted, and many are reported to target Amhara groups. In February 2021, 12 people were killed in Eastern Oromia, and on 6 and 9 March, 42 died in Hora Guduru zone in the west.[64] At the end of March, 30 people were killed in West Wollega.[65] On 29 April “at least” 20 people were killed in Limu Kosa, in Jimma zone.[66] On 30 April, 15 passengers on a bus at Amuyu, close to Hora Guduru zone were killed.[67] “OLF Shanee” is consistently blamed for atrocities right across the region and in April and May 2021 also in Amhara (see below). The OLA has equally regularly denied responsibility. In the absence of credible investigation, and with ongoing counter insurgency, polarised rhetoric has filled the vacuum: Ethiopians on all sides feel sure they know who killed whom and why.


On 6 May 2021, Ethiopia’s parliament approved a bill defining TPLF and OLA/“OLF Shanee” as “terrorist” organisations,[68] finally introducing a measure which had been rumoured to have split opinion amongst PP decision-makers in late 2020 when first mooted. The move has been interpreted as an attempt to block international pressure for negotiations with the two organisations, as each has apparently begun to gain ground militarily.[69] International observers have privately commented that the move has also shredded what remained of the credibility of Ethiopia’s likeable Attorney General.[70] The legal shift has been followed only by worsening brutality, including a qualitatively different level of “authorised” state violence, in which social media activists have seen parallels with Derg-era executions.


Kellem Wollega zone, in particular, has seen a number of gruesome murders blamed on the authorities in Dembi Dollo. At the end of April 2021 university lecturer and doctoral student Kajela Tasisa was killed.[71] On 8 May Oromo broadcast journalist Sisay Fida was assassinated, and the government and OLA traded blame.[72] On 11 May 2021, authorities carried out the public parading and extra-judicial execution of 9th grader Amanuel Wondimu at a roundabout in the town, after reportedly calling members of the public including the boy’s family to witness the events. A video of them was posted onto Facebook by the local administration.[73] Only a few days earlier, the EHRC (itself periodically critiqued by Oromo sources for alleged “anti-Oromo bias”) reported concerns about the treatment of large numbers of those detained in centres in Oromia,[74] and now quickly expressed its alarm,[75] as did Human Rights Watch.[76] Later in May, unconfirmed reports of a second public execution, this time in Borana zone, circulated on Oromo social media, with reports that 300 family and community members had fled to Kenya.[77]


At the beginning of June 2021, Oromos in Horo Guduru zone and the OLF alleged that civilians were being abused and killed by Tigrigna-speaking Eritrean forces: a government spokesperson denied that Eritreans were present, and, as ever, blamed the TPLF.[78] On 10 June, OCHA reported that an additional 55,000 people had been displaced by renewed conflict in East Wollega zone.[79] On 11 June, a further OLF statement claimed that there had been a “new large-scale deployment” of Eritrean soldiers into Oromia and Benishangul Gumuz after 5 June 2021.[80]

There was much speculation over the early months of 2021 as to whether a non-competitive election in other parts of Oromia would provoke a backlash from the “Oromo street,” given the dramatic national leverage that Oromo protests achieved as they built steadily between 2014 and 2018. Two key drivers of the 2014-18 Oromo protests had been effectively eliminated – or at least silenced – during the intervening period: the critically important (tacit and active) support of OPDO ruling party cadres; and the network of social media information exchange and activism that animated the so-called “qeeroo.” A combination of financial co-option and forceful repression has apparently proved effective in much of Oromia. The ruling party ran unopposed in more than 100 constituencies in the region in June.


By 2021, the majority of the Oromo leaders of the ruling PP were from the zones of Shoa, close to Addis Ababa, where communities have tended to have a closer identification with the modern Ethiopian state centre, often involved in – or at least having a more positive experience of – its expansion at the end of the nineteenth century. The ruling PP can be expected to do well in many of these areas and especially amongst the new protestant church constituencies many of whose members have a particular enthusiasm for the PM. The scope for the completion of a peaceful process beyond these areas, remained to be seen at the end of June. Reports of governmental pressure on voters in Arsi surfaced in April/May 2021.[81]


After the emotive scenes of September 2018, there has also been particular concern about the poll in Addis Ababa (Finfinne), which it was thought could become a flashpoint for competing claims of Oromo and Ethiopian or Amhara nationalists, especially (but not only) if there were a shift in the balance of power (to Ezema or Balderas) as a result of the election. The decision of the cassation court on 24 May 2021 to allow four Balderas candidates (also jailed in the July 2020 crackdown) to stand for election in Addis Ababa has been highly significant and required NEBE to reprint 1.3 million new ballot papers.[82] Pending the declaration of results, the move seems likely effectively to have split the opposition vote in Addis Ababa to the benefit of the incumbent. The concerns expressed by the NEBE Chairperson (herself a former judge) about the constitutionality of the last-minute court decision raised eyebrows, but are politically (and arguably also constitutionally) less surprising.[83] At the end of June 2021, with results pending, many concluded that the opposition looked to have been neatly outmanoeuvred.


5.5 Amhara politics and conflict


If the dynamics of politics and conflict in and around Oromia are both murky and open to different interpretation, political developments amongst Amhara politicians, groups, and organisations, and in the Amhara region since 2018, are if anything yet more opaque, and subject to yet more speculation. The Amhara element of the EPRDF closely supported the election of PM Abiy in 2018, allying with Oromo peers, and belatedly withdrawing their own candidate, to ensure his victory. For some this was the culmination of the so-called “Oromara alliance,”[84] which had seen a people-to-people conference in Bahr Dar in November 2017.[85] Like the Oromo ruling party, the Amhara ruling party took early steps to distance itself from the EPRDF, renaming itself in mid-2018, and joining the PP in November 2019. With some notable exceptions (Deputy PM Demeke, for instance) there has been significant churn amongst Amhara ruling politicians since 2018, with rumoured tensions between different wings of the ruling party and across wider Amhara social networks, as to how, and how far, to support the PM.


A delicate balance – of power and perspective


Many observers have suggested that the outbreak and prosecution of the war in Tigray tipped the federal balance of power firmly in favour of the PP’s Amhara bloc, Abiy’s Amhara advisors, and President Isaias of Eritrea.[86] After the initial declaration of victory at the end of November 2020, sharp exchanges between the Amhara and Oromo (and other) members of the PP leadership were rumoured to have persisted through to the end of the year, reportedly destabilising the delicate alliance forged in 2017/2018.[87] Amhara and Oromo politicians’ concepts of Ethiopia’s history, their visions of the future, and readings of existing hierarchies, interests and party relationships seem to have continued to fluctuate and diverge within the PP.


One cannot generalise across groups of politicians, and political sociology would indicate that differentiation is likely to be marked by many issues. However, there are broad trends in political differences between the two blocs over three fundamental issues. Firstly, the future of federalism: many Amhara politicians are thought to been keener to see a return to a more unitary, or regional or at least non-ethnic arrangement than (many of) their non-Amhara ruling peers. (Amongst Oromo politicians, as noted above, willingness to move on this issue also tends to divide Shoa and non-Shoa elites.) Secondly, perceptions of the security and rights to land of Amharas living beyond the borders of Amhara region also diverge. Events in western and southern Tigray, and the prospect of further land annexation by the Amhara regional state greatly increased tensions relating to land. Military advances by the TDF in late June, and a unilateral federal announcement of “standing down” inflamed regional anxiety, and strong rhetoric.[88] Finally, approaches towards righting the perceived “wrongs of the past” – for instance with respect to the position of Amhara politicians and businesses in the overall political constellation have hardened within the ruling party: many (opposition and ruling) Amhara politicians are seen as favouring the restoration of a more influential position, “commensurate with history” or with restoring the widely perceived injustices of federalism.[89]


While the PM and the PP’s Amhara politicians consistently assert they want a real national (even multinational) federation, there is a widespread view this is mere code for establishing a “geographic” (i.e. non-ethnic) arrangement. This could dissolve the nationalities-based federation established under the EPRDF and reinstall a more uniform, centralised – even unitary – system: familiar from Ethiopia’s past, and stripped of nationality rights to self-determination. It is unclear exactly who seeks what form of constitutional reform, and what scope of change would be feasible when. For many stakeholders from other groups, the ambiguity is chilling. Unifying assurances that “everyone agrees that we should retain a federal system” do not reassure.


The influence of radical Amhara nationalist voices has grown in the politics of Amhara region in 2021, and a number of potentially conflictual unknowns are in play: whether the social base of the Amhara PP think of “geographic federalism” in terms of expanding the existing territorial boundaries of the region; how far the Amhara PP may in turn be prepared to push for this; how the PM and other PP politicians would respond; and whether Amhara and Oromo elites, who together have a controlling stake in the PP by virtue of the size of their respective populations, can sustain an agreement on how to distribute power among themselves. Observers have indicated that this situation has evolved into a delicate game of poker within the ruling party: even as the PM relies on Amhara actors’ support, he is well aware that they may not necessarily constitute reliable partners who share his longer-term political objectives; just as Amhara politicians are aware that he may not necessarily be a reliable partner for the achievement of their (diverse, opaque and shifting) goals. Constructive ambiguity about the scope of shared goals, and highly personalised politics at the federal level have allowed this unstable situation to persist as crisis has grown.


Regional political instability and the return of the opposition


The depth of instability within the Amhara regional government was demonstrated in June 2019, when regional President Ambachew Mekonnen, who had then been in power for three months, was assassinated along with his Vice President and Attorney General, allegedly by controversial regional security head, General Asamnew Tsigé.[90] Asamnew was himself killed the following day, removing the prospect of further investigation of his motives. The incident was officially described as a “regional coup” attempt, seemingly by a more militant Amhara nationalist security boss of his moderate pro-federal colleague. Shocking in themselves, the significance of the Bahr Dar killings increased with the murder the same day of the ENDF Chief of Staff in Addis Ababa. There is much that remains unexplained. It may be that the simultaneous killings in Addis Ababa were serendipitously organised by other actors, but this is difficult to assess in the absence of a public investigation and published findings, or a public record from judicial process. [91]


It seems likely that root causes of the “coup attempt” related to grievances from multiple overlapping interest groups over the direction and momentum of reforms, and their purchase over reforms at the regional and national levels. These issues remain unaddressed. Division may also have reflected zonal or historical “awraja” sub-region differentiation, with longstanding political competition between east and west: North and South Wollo versus the Gondar zones and East/West Gojjam. The PM quickly installed one of his national security advisors, a former colleague at the Information Network Security Agency (INSA), and the regional special forces were subdued, with a series of arrests. Deputy PM Demeke also tried to encourage rival regional ruling groups to agree on an agenda to settle insecurity. There was a broader reshuffle in September and October 2019, apparently geared at instilling loyalty and coherence within the regional administration.


The emergence after 2016 or return after 2018 of a range of opposition elites and organisations (notably the NAMA and PG7) to the Amhara political scene has also had the effect of radicalising the ruling PP within Amhara region, discouraging a more conciliatory stance on federal reform or land claims and pushing the party “into a corner.”[92] When armed opposition groups returned to Ethiopia, the Amhara ruling party sought to incorporate many, including Amhara nationalist militants newly released from jail. As a result, Amhara PP and opposition NAMA and Ezema groupings all have complex links with one another. Key members of the Amhara political elite and the ANRS security apparatus had been hosted by Eritrea, and these links continued to be influential. Within weeks of his release from jail in 2018, and well ahead of the July Ethio-Eritrean summit, for instance, Andargachew Tsigé told BBC’s Hardtalk “our relationship with Eritrea is not really based on short term gain [..] In fact my view about Eritreans has helped in convincing the current PM to take the measures he has taken” “there is going to be peace [with Eritrea] and a very close relationship in all respects as well.”[93]


NAMA emerged into prominence in 2016-18, appealing primarily to a young generation of Amhara nationalists who had grown up under federalism. Amhara nationalism had long been associated with the pan-Ethiopianism of the Derg-era Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP), and with its heirs in the 2005 Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD), PG7 and (most recently) Ezema. NAMA’s rhetoric had a tougher and more ethnically-tinged edge. It gained ascendancy during the early phases of the transition in 2018, arguing that the TPLF had extended structural inequalities against Amhara into the constitution promulgated by the EPRDF in 1995.[94] These (NAMA argued) limited political representation of Amhara interests to ANRS, undermining minority rights in other states where ethnic Amhara are also present. NAMA demanded the “return” of Amhara “ancestral” lands “removed by the TPLF” in the early 1990s. These included Wolkait “annexed” to Tigray,[95] Metekel “annexed” to Benishangul-Gumuz, and parts of Shoa “annexed” to Oromia. This approach presaged increased violence between Amhara and those three neighbouring regions. In March 2021, in Addis Ababa, NAMA, the Ethiopian Democratic Party (EDP), and Eskinder Nega’s Balderas agreed to work together in one Amhara-affiliated camp.[96]


Meanwhile, in May 2019, PG7, the EDP, All Ethiopian Democratic Party, Semayawi (Blue) Party, New Generation Party, Gambella Regional Movement, and Unity for Democracy and Justice merged, establishing Ezema, later adding ye-Ethiopia Ra’iy (Ethiopia Vision) party.[97] From the known PG7 leaders, only (non-Amhara) Berhanu Nega joined the executive committee (with an Ethiopian passport he was allowed to stand and campaign from the district level for the Ezema leadership election). After the congress, Ezema embarked on expanding its organisational presence throughout the country, establishing branch offices in all regions and trying to organise officers in all electoral constituencies. Although facing a rocky start in the Amhara region when Berhanu and PG7 attempted to hold a rally in the febrile atmosphere of 2019,[98] Ezema held large campaign rallies in Bahr Dar closer to the June 2021 election date.


By 2019, Amhara politicians across the political spectrum seemed to have come to share the belief that Amhara interests had been marginalised under federalism since 1991 often “speaking in unison.”[99] All, including longstanding members of the ruling party, blamed “Tigray domination” for their perceived loss of land and national prestige under the federation. They differed over the best strategy for reversing the situation. All of the Amhara parties (ruling and opposition) have supported the Tigray war, and the ruling party in particular “needed a popularity boost … needed to shake off the image of subservience and subordination … It needed a victory.”[100]


The effect of the war in Tigray and the pursuit of land claims


A reshuffle over the first weekend of the Tigray war increased the influence of Amhara politicians’ decision-making at the head of the federal government. The Amhara regional President was appointed head of National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) at the start of the Tigray war, and replaced by Agegnehu Teshager, widely considered more robustly anti-TPLF. The Deputy PM took on the Foreign Ministry portfolio and his predecessor became a national security advisor, rapidly shuttling to Khartoum to protest about Sudanese advances at Al-Fashaga, as ENDF forces were relocated. Further signalling the revival of a more robust Amhara nationalism Brigadier General Tefera Mamo, the late General Asamnew’s special forces commander, was brought back to head the regional special forces, launching a recruitment drive.


The Amhara regional government and its special forces have been heavily involved in the war in Tigray, and Amhara occupation and annexation of land in Western and Southern Tigray has hugely complicated the political landscape and brought international condemnation of a campaign of “ethnic cleansing” of Tigrayans.[101] As with so many other issues, there are two incompatible narratives of the Western Tigray land issue,[102] and the establishment of new demographic facts on the ground in late 2020 pushed the achievement of a sustainable negotiated solution into the distance.[103] The Amhara regional government formally affirmed its intention to recover these areas in June 2020.[104] For many Amhara nationalists, including members of PP and NAMA, a key objective of the war has been the restitution of what they consider to be “ancestral” lands in Tigray, and the restoration of the old border of the Tigray Province of the imperial and Dergue eras, along the Tekezze River. They see the administrative area historically named Tigray as coincident with the “rightful” ethnic territory of Tigrayans, something the TPLF and Tigrayans reject.[105] For others, the annexation of land in western and southern Tigray since November 2020 now raises particularly complex issues of “just resolution of conflict” in the future.


Expansionist Amhara land claims reverberate more broadly across Ethiopia’s politics, well beyond Tigray. Over and above the issue of forced removal of the existing population, the effective expansion of Amhara region into Western (and Southern) Tigray would, if formalised, have serious implications for budgets, political representation, parliamentary seats, and the overall influence of Amhara at the national level. Other politicians will see this not only in relation to Tigray but in a broader context, with a knock-on effect on the federation. The quest for farmland underlies a number of tensions, either on the borders of the region, or where Amhara farmers have resettled (historically and during the 1980s) to other parts of the country.[106] They also have a regional implication. As Gumuz are pushed into Blue Nile state, Tigrayans into Gedaref and Kassala, and Beni Amer and others in Sudan are mobilised with the Sudan Armed Forces against “Amhara expansionism,” political dynamics internal to the Amhara region threaten to upend regional stability.[107]


The flip side of this is that political narratives within the region, and amongst elites beyond its borders have been strongly coloured by anger and anxiety about ethnic targeting of Amharas in other parts of the country, including particularly (but not only) in Oromia (as discussed above) and in Benishangul Gumuz.  Relations between the Gumuz and their Agaw, Shinasha and Amhara neighbours have long been complex, and a long history of slaving from the area has left a legacy bitterness between communities. When the federation was introduced in the early 1990s, Metekel zone of Bensighangul Gumuz was carved out of what had historically been Gojjam Province. Inter-ethnic relations were also complicated by the presence in Metekel of large numbers of highland farmers, who had been settled into Pawe wereda from elsewhere during the Derg’s 1980s resettlement programme.


Settlers complained in the 1990s that the new arrangements under federalism discriminated against them, denying them proper representation, and the issue went as far as the Council of Constitutional Inquiry and House of Federation. Relations stabilised in the context of intensive peace building work in the late 1990s and 2000s, but the controversy remained. With the mobilisation from 2018 of the large Amhara Special Force under Asamnew, which some observers saw as “out of control” of either regional government, conflict reignited: arguably less a function of ethnic difference than of poor local management of incendiary political interests.[108] A Gumuz militia soon emerged, some even suggesting that it was deliberately fomented. In April 2019, violence in Dangura wereda of Metekel zone[109] sent IDPs into neighbouring Awi zone; large scale revenge killings in Gumuz villages in Jawi wereda of Agaw Awi were then reported.[110]


Escalating violence


Social media claims of #AmharaGenocide in Metekel began to circulate. In October 2020, Deputy PM Demeke publicly called on civilians in the area to form militia to defend themselves from attacks by armed groups.[111] On 9 December 2020, the Benishangul Gumuz regional government began arresting Benishangul Gumuz officials it said were complicit in conflict – from the former Gumuz Vice President Adgo Amsaya to the PP head for Metekel zone. On 17 December 2020, sources claimed that a Benishangul Gumuz administrator was abducted by Amhara special forces who camped around the areas of Jawi and Menta Wuha on the border. In Guangua district in Agaw Awi zone, the communications bureau reported Gumuz attacks on civilians in Jawi wereda.


On 22/23 December 2020, a concerted armed attack killed a large number of highland civilians, in Bikuji kebele of Bullen wereda (Metekel). The EHRC reported that armed men killed more than 100 people, largely from the Shinasha ethnic group, setting houses on fire while people were asleep inside and using firearms (NAMA claimed more than 200 were killed). Over 100,000 IDPs were displaced from Dibate, Bullen and Mandura, as well as Wombera and Guba, between July 2020 and January 2021.[112] The EHRC investigation found there were no security personnel assigned to the area at the time of the attacks. As the PM travelled to Metekel at the same time in late December, a participant in a town hall meeting he chaired said in a statement, later posted to Facebook, that Fano groups and militia under the late Gen. Asamnew Tsigé had sought the expulsion of the Gumuz from Ethiopia “claiming they were Sudanese”, and were taking the opportunity to burn Gumuz houses as the ENDF focused on Tigray. The depth of tension which has now been ignited in the area is unlikely to be settled soon. The Amhara regional government leads a Command Post which administers Metekel zone of Benishangul Gumuz region under emergency powers: an estimated 7,000 refugees had moved into Sudan’s Blue Nile State by February 2021.[113]


In March 2021, violence erupted in the Oromo zone of Amhara to the east, around Atayé town and the Kemissie area, killing around 200 people in April, displacing an estimated 358,000 civilians,[114] and further ethnicising bitterness also in that area. The scale of the violence seems to have been significant, much greater than earlier rounds of tension.[115] Conflict erupted in Atayé town when on 19 March 2021 an Oromo Imam was killed outside his mosque. It escalated over the subsequent days, with aggressively contradictory political rhetoric at national level. Diametrically opposing explanations of the violence emerged from the two wings of the ruling party: the Amhara PP blamed “OLF/Shanee and TPLF” for the violence, and the Oromo PP squarely blamed the Amhara Regional Government’s Special Forces.[116] Their rhetoric seems to reflect community anger and fear on all sides[117] and violence continued and escalated into April, as massive displacement continued. Local sources are quoted as saying that “it did not come out of the blue. It was a war. Each side was attacking the other.”[118]


At the beginning of April, the Amhara regional president claimed that the OLA was now operating in Amhara region, with the tacit support of some in the Oromia regional government, and called on the federal government to take emergency measures.[119] OLA denied categorically that its forces are active in that area, alleging a fabricated excuse for “ethnic cleansing,”[120] and influential diaspora Oromo nationalist activists have drawn an explicit parallel with “ethnic cleansing” and land expropriation in Western Tigray.[121] Whatever the truth of the matter, Amhara sources blame “OLF Shanee” (OLA) attacks, whilst Oromos blame Amhara special forces. Lives and livelihoods lie in ruins.


Meanwhile in May 2021, there have been unconfirmed social media reports of fighting and killings between Qimant minority and Amhara security forces in Gondar, Chilga, and Aykel, a continuation of a brutal conflict which peaked in late 2018.[122]  The Qimant minority had lobbied since the 1990s for a separate administrative district uniting their disparate villages and giving them a voice at regional level. The government in Bahr Dar finally granted self-administration status for 42 kebeles/sub-districts in Gondar and surroundings. However, self-administration claims persisted from additional Qimant-community inhabited kebeles, and some regional politicians believed they saw interference from Tigray. After violence escalated from 2016, and pressure for a settlement built from the federal government, a referendum was held in September 2017.


This did not resolve the issue, and violence continued through 2018. In the second week of February 2019, 56,000 people were displaced in West and Central Gondar. After Asamnew’s death in mid-2019 and the reshuffles of September and October 2019, the mood shifted. The regional Security Council called for the intervention of federal security forces to end repeated violence in West and Central Gondar zones, the city of Gondar, and the Qimant administration. This decision seemed to acknowledge that partisan regional security forces could no longer arbitrate in the Qimant conflict. Nevertheless, in October 2019 another 22 people were killed in clashes between ANRS forces and the Qimant near Gondar.[123]


Identifying drivers of conflict and assessing the land claims of Amhara populations is now exceptionally divisive nationally: where some see evidence of “Amhara genocide” others claim that Amhara politicians have themselves been involved in fomenting conflict – to encroach on land in unstable areas, or to discredit “ethnic” federalism.


On the face of it, meanwhile, within the Amhara region, much of it[124] looked set to have amongst the most competitive elections in the country in June 2021, with these polarising narratives interacting with local competition in complex ways. The ruling Prosperity Party faced at least two parties with relatively strong local constituencies, which represent a key “duality” of Amhara politics: the pan-Ethiopianist Ezema, and the Amhara nationalist NAMA. Ezema’s pan-Ethiopianist predecessor CUD polled strongly in Amhara in 2005, with many observers believing that it won the vote in the region (it clearly faced very significant violent intimidation); but there are signs that (until recently) the organization struggled to gain traction or win support in the region. Until 2015, Amhara political sentiment was broadly seen as aligning with a pan-Ethiopianist vision, but a younger generation of ethno-nationalists have been drawn to the more “assertive” (some would say exclusionary) politics of NAMA. In the run up to the June poll NAMA complained of unfair pressure from the ruling PP, and this can be expected to increase if their electoral popularity also seems to increase. They are reported to have presented a number of complaints to NEBE.[125]


During the first few months of the war in Tigray, the Amhara ruling PP seemed to have won strong popular support in the region because of its militarily assertive policy, the “restoration” of “Amhara land” (see above), and by placing few demands on farmers. Gondar and parts of Gojjam were thought to be particularly supportive. The mood in Wollo and Simien Shoa may have shifted after heavy conflict and displacement around the Oromia zone in March and April 2021 caused communities to reassess who would “best protect” them. But elections were postponed in these areas. As pre-election analysis concluded, at least in those areas where elections did then take place in June “there are no insurgent groups actively roaming the forests and mountains of Amhara. The opposition, although many experienced arrests in the wake of the June 2019 violence, remain largely free—but the regional political issues remain no less complex and uncertain.”[126]



5.6 The south, east and west


The Southern Region


The ruling EPRDF organisation in the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region (SNNPR) joined the PP in November 2020, although there are a number of key politicians who are thought to have been less than enthusiastic. Politics in the region has been complicated by agitation for the establishment of separate regions out of this “federation within a federation,” with the Sidama region finally inaugurated earlier in 2021. The ruling party now seems likely to push for a constellation of a further five states, reasonably similar to that which applied during a brief period in 1991/92. A referendum on the formation of a new South West region was scheduled to be held in the Kaffa, Sheka, Bench Sheko, Dawro, West Omo zones and Konta special wereda at the same time (and instead of) national and regional elections in those areas, but the vote was postponed for September due to ongoing conflict.[127] The plans will see winners and losers, and have seen particularly vigorous opposition in Wolayita, triggering the detention of zonal politicians, and demonstrations and deaths especially in August 2020.[128]


Elections in many parts of the region were likely to see a contest between the ruling PP and Ezema, which is thought to be particularly strongly entrenched in the SNNPR, especially (but not only) in its urban areas. The opposition polled particularly strongly in Guraghe zone in 2005, and the same support could be expected for Ezema in 2021. Meanwhile, opposition Medrek leader Beyene Petros called for a rerun of the poll the week after it was held.[129] Support for the ruling party would in principle have been expected likely to suffer across the region as a result of longstanding corruption and poor governance in the region, and political foot-dragging over the “separatist” zonal agendas, although protestant communities may have supported the PM, and (Muslim) Silte zone’s politicians are still prominent at federal level. The Sidama Liberation Movement (SLM) may have benefited from its campaign for separate statehood, and ongoing frustration about a slow division of resources, and the relatively limited benefits which have so far accrued to the new region. Results remain to be seen.


As already noted above, violent conflict with the neighbouring West Guji zone (Oromia) affected the Gedeo zone in 2018, and many remain displaced, with insecurity rising again in recent months. Konso has also been hit by sporadic fighting in July, September, November and December 2020, with multiple deaths, and displacing almost a hundred thousand.[130] Karaté town authorities imposed a curfew in May 2021 to combat “lawlessness.”[131] Since an attack by unknown gunmen in October 2020 killed 31 Oromo and Amhara farmers at Gura Ferda, west of Tepi town, the newly created “Bench-Sheko zone” (amalgamating several pre-existing zones in September 2020, apparently with the intention of forming a new “South West Ethiopia” region subject to referendum) has also faced escalating insecurity.[132] Incompetent management (or no management) of tensions over political restructuring as well as local animus have seen “ethnic others” often targeted.


5.7 Somali Region


Ethiopia’s Somali region arguably benefited more from the change of government in 2018 than any other region. The federal removal of a brutal existing regional President in August 2018 saw a new President appointed, who had returned from exile in Kenya, amidst a wave of euphoria. Also returning were the leaders, rank and file and long-exiled supporters of the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), who had left government and returned to armed struggle in the 1990s, when their call for a referendum on independence was quashed.[133] Reform of a brutal regional special police force was promised, and diaspora Somalis flocked to do business in a newly deregulated economic space. Trade, including contraband, boomed, and the Ethiopian Somali region’s natural international linkages with the rest of the Somali arena flourished – perhaps for the first time in Ethiopia’s modern history.


The optimism of 2018 and 2019 has given way to greater concern and cynicism as elections were postponed in 2020,[134] and then in the run-up to polls planned in May, then in June 2021, and postponed again in regional constituencies to 6 September 2021.[135] Opposition parties, including but not only the ONLF, have all voiced complaints of harassment and intimidation.[136] Relations between the regional government and NEBE also suffered when NEBE decided not to hold elections in the 30 polling stations in 8 kebeles affected by Afar-Somali conflict.[137] There have been controversies over the number of registered voters in the first half of 2021: voter registration was suspended in 7 constituencies amidst allegations of systemic irregularities.[138] Problems escalated to such a level that in April 2021 three very diverse opposition parties (ONLF, Ezema, and the Freedom and Equality Party), and independent candidates in the region took the unusual step of writing a joint complaint.[139] The Somali region held the most free and fair election in Ethiopian history in the early 1990s, and it remains to be seen whether this entirely exceptional event can be repeated.


A very serious period of conflict along the borders between the Somali region and neighbouring Oromia killed hundreds and displaced more than a million over the period from 2016 to 2018.[140] A long-disputed process of attempted border demarcation between two regions of pastoral communities with long histories of movement and inter-mingling offered fuel for political elites to ignite violence, in the period of heightened ethno-national consciousness and political contestation that brought the new PM to power. Here again, “Inter-ethnic strife [was] driven by interests that emanate from other places, namely regional and national elites.”[141] New governments in both regions, with new sets of interests, have been at pains to restore positive relations since 2018. Conflict has subsided, although many remain displaced, and ongoing resource claims are likely.


More recently Afar-Somali conflict re-erupted in relation to the three towns on the main Djibouti road which are within the borders of Afar but long claimed by the Somali region: Gedamaitu (Amibara), Undufo (north in Gewane) and Adaitu (north again in Mille). The towns are potentially lucrative entrepôts for informal Somali trade and contraband to access the asphalt highway and Ethiopia’s highland markets. As informal trade in the Somali region has boomed since the new regional government was established in mid-2018, the commercial significance of the towns has returned, and violent conflict with it.[142]About a hundred civilians” were reported killed in April 2021, primarily in Gewane,[143] and national elections were quickly excluded in the 30 polling stations in the disputed areas.[144] Pressure over the Afar-Somali border and conflict with Somalis in Shinille zone is longstanding, and Afar see a historical pattern of Somali encroachment towards the Awash river: also a matter of vigorous – and violent – dispute.

At the end of June 2021, it remained to be seen whether (and when) the election could be held in the Somali region without recourse to violence. The balance between the large Ogaadeen clan, and other smaller clans in the region has often influenced politics in the region (and drawn in meddling from Addis Ababa): since 2009, regional government and the ONLF have both been led by Ogaadeen politicians, and this remains the case in this contest, a change in the constellation of the cast of protagonists notwithstanding. The political dispensation amongst non-Ogaadeen clans may again prove crucial to the formation of a new regional government post-election. In the wake of polls elsewhere, many observers at the end of June 2021 considered the outcome of Somali region elections in September increasingly unlikely to influence the national outcome, but this remains to be seen.


5.8 Afar Region


The establishment of the PP in November 2019 formally brought Afar politicians into the ruling party at national level: as in Somali region, a locally popular move that also gave Afar individuals (including women) federal portfolios.[145] Regional President Awol Arba was not a newcomer. He had earlier replaced his longstanding predecessor in 2015, and the PP largely took over the existing structures of the EPRDF-affiliated ruling party, the Afar People’s Democratic Party (APDP).


There was a significant turnover of political appointees and administrative staff at local level in Afar woredas during 2018, and (as in some other regions) a new generation of younger cadres came into local administration. They combined enthusiasm and optimism about the future with a lack of experience, and little indication of a new strategy for institutional development or what might change in practice.  At the regional level, meanwhile, changes seem to have been more of a reshuffle, with more independent minded politicians replaced by those amenable to federal pressure. A spate of arrests at the end of 2019 ensured that the shifted constellation (which initially ruffled clan feathers) could settle in, and the pre-existing cadre system continued to operate, with apparently limited change in practice.


Afar clans have taken a pragmatic approach to multi-party politics, each ensuring that it placed its key people in all of the contending ruling and opposition parties, to cover all eventualities. It is unlikely this strategy will change. Apart from the Afar chapter of the ruling PP, other political actors include the opposition Afar Liberation Front (ALF), The Afar Revolutionary Democratic Unity Front (ARDUF) and the Afar People’s Party (APP). ALF is closely associated with the Alimirah family (Awsa Sultanate with a historical base at Assaiyta) which fought the military regime through the late 1970s and 1980s; two of its members held the regional presidency from 1991 to 1996, before being replaced by an EPRDF ally who remained in position for nearly 20 years. ARDUF, also known locally as Uguguma, conducted armed operations in the “internal periphery” along the western border between Afar and neighbouring Tigray and Amhara. The organisation was thought to have been bought off in the 2000s, under a deal cut to allow commercial access to the salt pans at Afdera and Berahale.


The ALF and ARDUF were both registered with NEBE to compete with the PP and Ezema for the upcoming elections, along with the APP (which returned from Eritrea with its 400 fighters in 2016) and an Afar Peace and Democracy Party (APDP). APP in particular has been outspoken in its social media criticism of alleged strong-arm ruling party politics, and “fully rejected the whole process” in the wake of the June poll.[146] Ezema’s predecessor, the opposition CUD, gained some support in the urban centres in Afar region in 2005, and they were fielding candidates again the region. Little is known about the reach of Ezema into Afar clan networks. On the face of it, a competitive election was not likely to be in prospect, with voting likely to accord with a pre-arranged deal between clans, cemented via the distribution of food aid.  


The Eritrean opposition Red Sea Afar Democratic Organisation (RSADO) was based in Ethiopia during the EPRDF period but is thought to have been expelled since the peace-deal between Asmara and Addis Ababa. Afars live in all three states of Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti, and secessionism has long complicated the politics of the region. Afar politicians felt that they lost influence on the Ethiopian state with the loss of the port of Assab when Eritrea seceded in 1993, and access stopped with the outbreak of war in 1998. Plans to reopen Ethiopian use of Assab at some point in the future could change the pattern of Afar winners and losers, in unpredictable ways. Meanwhile, social media commentators alleged at the beginning of June 2021, that Afar regional bodies were also keen to annex land on the border with Eastern Tigray, reports which have not been confirmed. Afar loyalty forms an important plank of any national federal strategy to encircle Tigray.


5.9 Benishangul Gumuz


The ruling party in Benishangul Gumuz (B-GPDUF), which had been allied with the ruling EPRDF, joined the PP when it was established in November 2019. The existing regional President, Alshadli Hasen (Berta) had been appointed in 2016. He remained in position but removed many of his cabinet after the change of government in 2018, including a number of well-qualified Shinasha.


The balance of power between the five (controversially) so-called “indigenous” groups (Berta, Gumuz, Mao, Komo and Shinasha) and large populations of other “settler” groups (Amhara, Oromo, Kambatta and Tigrayan) dominates political sensitivities in the region. Whilst the constitutional arrangement nominally invests political power in the former, economic power and job opportunities have tended to remain with the latter. Sensitivities have been further exacerbated by disputes over land, and the demarcation of the region’s borders. In 1991 Benishangul Gumuz was carved from the pre-existing provinces of Gojjam (north of the Nile) and Wollega (south), a dispensation accepted neither by Gojjami Amhara nor by Wollega Oromos, as noted above. Land sensitivities expanded greatly when large tracts of land in the region were allocated to commercial investors both domestic and foreign, after 2001/2.


The geopolitical salience of Benishangul Gumuz has increased with the establishment of the GERD within the region. Recent tensions between Ethiopia and Sudan have seen Sudan realign itself with Egypt in the dispute over the filling of the dam and use of Nile waters. Benishangul Gumuz is host to around 65,000 refugees from Blue Nile (Sudan) and Upper Nile (South Sudan).[147]As noted above, the area north of the Nile (Metekel zone) remains under an emergency Command Post, and no election was to be held here in June. NEBE at the beginning of June 2021 added Kamashi zone to the list.[148] In the zones south of the Nile, the Benishangul Gumuz ruling PP was unlikely to face strong opposition, although Ezema was fielding candidates in urban and settler areas. A longstanding opposition grouping, the Benishangul Gumuz People’s Liberation Movement (BPLM or Behenen), has strong roots in Berta-related communities in Damazien in Sudan. Although it agreed to return to electoral politics after 2018 and formed an alliance with a number of other smaller ethno-nationalist parties, its status remains uncertain.


5.10 Socio-economic stakes and the cost of the war


An overall assessment of the economic impact of the war, and of Ethiopia’s economy in the face of the wider patterns of conflict described above, lies beyond the scope of this paper. In a jaw-dropping speech on 29 June 2021, however, PM Abiy stated that his government had spent 100 billion Birr over and above the war. This is roughly equivalent to US Dollars 2.3 billion or 18% of Ethiopia’s current annual budget of 561.7 billion Birr.[149] This figure would clearly give a substantial jolt to even the healthiest economy, and most robust political settlement.


Economic factors, however, will clearly be critical to the country’s ability to withstand and recover from what EU Commissioner Jutta Urpilainen in June 2021 called the “shaking of its whole fabric.”[150] Economic updates as recently as March 2021 focus not on the war or wider conflict but on the economic impact of COVID-19, and the implications of an associated collapse in global demand.[151] These reportedly drove a 4.1 percent reduction in merchandise exports (excluding gold) during July-December 2020, and a 20 percent decline in FDI during Financial Year 2020. A broadly upbeat analysis nevertheless acknowledges that Ethiopia requested debt treatment under the G-20 common framework and that “downside risks to this outlook loom large due to internal conflict.”[152]


Recent analysis of Ethiopia’s debt position observed that “investors and creditors have for years underplayed the political risks in Ethiopia. With the outbreak of conflict in Tigray, continued turmoil in Oromia, and the regional tensions around the government’s flagship investment —Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam— these are now impossible to ignore. In the meantime, the government’s response to these challenges has so far been inconsequential, with exercises such as the launching of the Ten-Year Pathway to Prosperity Plan that appears to be detached from the contingency of reality. It is doubtful that the ambitious goals set in the plan are going to be met when, according to OCHA, 23 million Ethiopians are currently in need of humanitarian assistance.[153]


Ethiopia’s key vulnerability lies precisely here: in the scale of actual and potential poverty and food insecurity. The latest World Bank update acknowledges that “against a backdrop of a large vulnerable population, a shock across the country that reduces household consumption by 10 percent would, all else being equal, raise the poverty rate by 6 percentage points. This would bring about 6.5 million people into poverty, reversing all the progress made in poverty reduction between 2011 and 2016.[154] These risks have been well established, and long documented. As the world waits to see whether food supplies will be allowed to reach starving Tigrayan at the end of June 2021, the stakes could not be higher. Acute risks also pertain to the wider national picture.


Almost eight months into the war in Tigray it is salutary to return to a comprehensive analysis of national trends and potential developmental scenarios up to 2030, which was conducted in 2016/17.[155] This concluded that “the possible consequences of the Crisis and Stalled Development scenarios paint an alarming picture. In the Stalled Development scenario, there could be roughly 14% more Ethiopians living in poverty, GDP per capita could be approximately 8% lower and Ethiopia’s HDI score could be nearly 3% lower in 2030 relative to the Current Path. In the Governance Crisis scenario, there could be about 25% more people living in poverty in Ethiopia, GDP per capita could be 25% lower, and the country’s HDI score could dip by more than 4%, relative to Ethiopia’s current development trajectory. Finally, in the combined Crisis Scenario, Ethiopia could be facing more than a 50% increase in extreme poverty, a 29% reduction in GDP per capita and a 6% reduction in its HDI score, relative to the [2016] Current Path in 2030.”[156]


Ethiopia must create two million jobs a year to keep pace with the number of young people entering the workforce; the most optimistic analysis suggests it is meeting less than one-third of that target.[157] In this context, migration to the Gulf has been described as a “release valve,” and one which has steadily closed as Gulf states have placed blocks on informal migration.[158]


It is in this socio-economic context that Addis Fortune on 30 May 2021 reported that Amhara region was requesting two billion Ethiopian Birr (around US$ 47 million) for reimbursement of the costs of the medical treatment of members of the Ethiopian forces injured in the war.[159] At the beginning of June Ethiopia approved an 18% rise in its annual budget,[160] but little is known about off-budget financing arrangements or international support. Observers can be forgiven for wondering just what scale of human and financial cost the country will pay for the deep political crisis of which the war in Tigray is a part; and for speculating about just how – and at whose expense – this charge will be met.[161]


5.11 Concluding remarks


Well-placed commentators[162] and important political stakeholders[163] have noted that the war in Tigray is only “the tip of the iceberg” of conflict and political crisis across Ethiopia. This paper documents these others conflicts: that dominant narratives about why are often superficial, and that they are always violently contested. It suggests that central tensions emerge not from “criminality” or “ethnic conflict” but rather from profound political divisions about the desirable shape of the Ethiopian state; from the current regime’s determination to marginalise and exclude uncompromising “federalist” stakeholders on one side of this political argument; and from its active political failure to manage and avert known conflict risks in good faith.


For many observers (on both sides of the political divide about “ethnic” federalism), the 2018 transition, and its culmination in the 2021 election was a second attempt by pan-Ethiopianist groupings to wrest control of, and potentially to reshape, a multinational federation that does not serve their interests: in essence an “Act Two” designed to succeed where they failed to take power in 2005. A year ago, as the “transition” evolved, one such commentator saw a “2005 Redux,” and warned “this time the risk is higher than 2005. The political narrative is no longer dominated by Addis Ababa and its Amharic-speaking elite. Indeed, the narrative is not even occurring in Amharic. It is clear now there are at least three main political power bases: Tigray and Afar; urban elites, including the PM himself; and the Oromo-dominated south. Add the heightened political consciousness produced by protest movements, social media, and regional structures, and Ethiopia’s political constituency looks sharply demarcated.[164]


Over the intervening year since that commentary was written, violent political engineering achieved a dramatic weakening and discrediting of two of those three power bases – each at terrible ongoing cost: Tigray by means of the war; and what the commentator calls the “Oromo-dominated South” as a result of the clampdown on popular opposition post-Hachalu. It would be perverse not to look for the active hand of the third bloc in deliberately effecting these changes. The ground for these violent political exclusions has been laid incrementally over a lengthy period, and with a depth of propaganda and occlusion that has generated a fevered public enthusiasm. In 2005 the gamble was arguably confined to the ballot box: in 2018-2021 it has proved much more extensive and ambitious, and much more destructive in its scope.


That the regime, and the Ethiopian nationalist “bloc” has had external support from Eritrea in achieving its ambitions – in Tigray clearly, and now allegedly also in the theatre of conflict in Oromia – was an unexpected but all-too-intelligible aspect of the “transition.” Much depends on one’s view of Eritrea’s President Isaias and his likely motivation vis-à-vis Ethiopia: analysis which also lies beyond the scope of this paper.[165] For anyone in doubt, Worku Aberra’s hair-raising account of the Ethio-Eritrean “common market” period from 1991-98, offers a further useful corrective to the saccharine rhetoric of Ethiopia’s current leaders.[166]


On 28 May 2021, the ruling Prosperity Party stated that “the main aim of the bodies who don’t want to see the civilisation of Ethiopia is to create a weak Ethiopia. Towards this end they use three methods: use every opportunity to put Ethiopia into war with its neighbouring countries, to weaken Ethiopia’s economy and to create conflict among Ethiopians based on religion and regionalism.[167] An alternative analysis is that these are precisely the processes in which (knowingly and perhaps unknowingly) the ruling and opposition politicians cultivating the popular narrative of Ethiopian sovereignty in the run up to national polls have colluded: in an attempt to undermine the federal arrangement, and demonise their ethno-nationalist opponents.


Treating the war in Tigray in isolation from Ethiopia’s wider political developments undermines analytical understanding of its political drivers and complexities: of the deeper power and ideational struggle of which it now forms a part. The narrative from Addis Ababa since the current Prime Minister came to power in March 2018 sought to separate the TPLF from other political actors. Ironically, the barbarity of the war has elicited a symmetrical desire for “uncoupling” on the part of a Tigrayan diaspora now mobilised in support of Tigray’s eventual independence of Ethiopia. This has been an impassioned response to the atrocity which has been the hallmark of the war – but also to the failure of other Ethiopian friends, neighbours and colleagues to call out these evils, a silence which has added insult to deep injury. After almost eight months of brutalisation, many Tigrayans say that they can no longer see a place for themselves in Ethiopia. Whether this view can evolve depends critically, at the time of writing, on whether the urgent delivery of emergency food and medicines reaches Tigrayans living in areas controlled by the Tigray regional government. In broader terms, meanwhile, it is hard to see how an Ethiopia as violently divided as it is in mid-2021 charts an inclusive future capable of drawing out the pain of all those affected by conflict.


The hope that elections might somehow provide a conclusion or resolution of Ethiopia’s crisis has preoccupied Ethiopians and outsiders for years. The US government in June 2021 expressed itself “gravely concerned” that the opposite may be true, given an electoral environment in which polarisation has hardened.[168]  Abadir Mohammed Ibrahim has argued that “going into transitional elections in a divided society before agreeing on core constitutional issues was never a good idea. If normal elections are a contentious process, transitional elections in which the “social contract” has not been negotiated risk turning into referenda on constitutional matters.”


Arguably, in this case partial June polls have now offered a referendum in which (in many places) only one side of the constitutional argument could be selected. But Abadir is also right to argue that Ethiopia is now well beyond the sequencing problem, and that elections will do nothing to resolve Ethiopia’s longstanding inability to move towards a politics of inclusion and consensus. Ethiopia, he notes, needs “a system in which its heterogeneous members have mutual assurances that their core interests are secure from being obliterated by the whims of electoral politics” – or indeed by war. This paper has set out the devastating scope of the consequences of the failure to achieve this beyond Tigray. We can only conclude with Abadir, that “Ethiopia may not collapse in the coming weeks or month. But that prospect is heightened with every mistake that is repeated.[169]

[1] PM Abiy, a few months into his premiership, cited in

[2] including government broadcasters ETV, Walta, Fana, and the “opposition” ESAT channel, which is closely associated with Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice (Ezema). Established in the diaspora by critics of the government in April 2010, the ESAT channel was re-established as a public broadcaster in Ethiopia in May 2021, under the directorship of former Patriotic Ginbot 7 (PG7) secretary, Andargachew Tsige, A dispute within the organisation and amongst well known ESAT journalists in mid-2019 (over financial ownership and administration, links to PG7, and editorial policy) saw the establishment of the alternative Ethio-360 media in Washington DC in June 2019, This is a division which has produced a rich seam of divergent perspectives and mutual criticism. In August 2017, a pro-Tigray Horn Affairs author accused ESAT of anti-Tigray hate speech, calling it “the voice of genocide”

[3] PMO statement on 28 June 2018, claiming to be responding to a Tigray interim administration call to stand down, and following military defeats in central Tigray. The interim administration had by that time fled to Addis Ababa. See

[4] There is no organisation or grouping which refers to itself in this way, and many Oromo observers regard this terminology as dismissive if not derogatory. The Oromo language word Shanee refers to a committee which supports the Gadaa system. Government sources seem to use the term to refer to the self-styled Oromo Liberation Army, OLA, the name which is used here.

[5] Horn Observer, 18 May 2021,

[6] “Hands off Ethiopia” is a direct echo of the 1935 anti-fascist movement protesting Mussolini’s occupation, see Joseph Fronczac, April 2015

[7] Martin Plaut in the introduction to this collection.

[8] US Institute for Peace (USIP) Senior Study Group on Peace and Security in the Red Sea Arena, ‘Final Report and Recommendations,’ 29 October 2020,;


[10] Theodore Murphy, ECFR, IPSI Panel Discussion “Ethiopia: Too big to fail. What role for the international community in the Tigray Crisis?” 26 May 2021,

[11] Statement of the Executive Committee of the Prosperity Party, 28 May 2021,

[12] René Lefort ‘Ethiopia’s vicious deadlock,’ Ethiopia Insight, 27 April 2021,

[13] Maggie Fick, Reuters, 28 May 2021

[14] Will Davison interviewed by Teklai Michael, Mereba Esset, posted 27 May 2021,

[15] Embassy of the FDRE London, 29 December 2020,

[16] Daily Monitor, 25 May 2021,

[17] BBC, 18 May 2021,

[18] NEBE confirmed on 22 May 2021 a list of 40 constituencies in six regions which would have no poll in June, Addis Standard, 22 May 2021,

[19] Addis Standard, 10 June 2021,

[20] NEBE Press Conference, 29 June 2021, @NEBEthiopia; see also Addis Standard, 26 June 2021,,

[21] Quoted by David Pilling and Andres Schipani in the Financial Times, 18 November 2020,

[22] See for instance Addis Standard, 2 June 2021, citing Oromia spokesperson Getachew Balcha

[23] Jon Abbink, “The Atlantic Community Mistake on Ethiopia”, March 2021

[24] Abbink, March 2021, p.28

[25] See for instance, Andargachew Tsige, shortly after his release from jail: “ethnic politics has been entrenched now for 27 years, and that is one of the major problems the current prime minister will be facing. But the way he thinks about it, all his speeches, is towards really solving this ethnic problem and creating a unified country.” (Interviewed by Zeinab Badawi, BBC Hardtalk, 2018, )

[26] Abbink, March 2021, p.22

[27] Throughout period of the Derg government the OLF had had a fractious relationship with the TPLF/EPRDF, always closer to the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front. Although they briefly joined the transitional government in 1991, the stage was set for a showdown. They withdrew from government in 1992, but quickly found themselves outflanked by EPRDF.

[28] In Burayu in September 2018, 23 ethnic Guraghe and Gamo were killed; 3,000 Oromos were arrested in what critics saw as a return to repression. See Zecharias Zelalem, O-Pride, 26 September 2018,  At the time, Burayu was the fastest growing municipality in the country, under pressure both from rural migrants to the city, and urban Addis Ababans in search of affordable commutable housing. As land lease prices escalated, a roaring trade in illegal land deals and acute pressure on local resources fed the nationalist antipathies of local administrators and tensions were extremely high.

[29] At a rally to welcome him in Shashemene in August 2018, his supporters notoriously lynched and crucified a man they suspected of treachery; Engidu Woldie, ESAT, 13 August 2018,

[30] OLF lays claim to the powerful legacy in the protestant west of social activist and Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus Secretary General Gudina Tumsa, who was killed by the Dergue in 1979.

[31] See Marew Abebe Salemot, Ethiopia Insight, 24 April 2021,

[32] On the background to the build-up of tension in the west see Ermias Tasfaye, Ethiopia Insight, 1 January 2019,

[33] Amnesty International, 29 May 2020, AFR 25/2358/2020,

[34] Tom Gardner, The Guardian, 14 March 2019,

[35] The New Humantiarian, 11 November 2019,

[36] Addis Standard, 16 March 2019,

[37] Addis Standard, 15 July 2019,

[38] See, for instance Shibru Abate Dagne, ‘Conflict and Conflict Resolution in Ethiopia,’ 2013,; Ingvild Grindaker, ‘A study of recurring inter-group conflict in Ethiopia’ November 2020,

[39] OCHA, “Access Snapshot, Guji zone, January-April 2021,” 30 April 2021, published 15 May 2021,

[40] Abdur Rahman Alfa Shaban, Africa News, 13 January 2019

[41] Human Rights Watch, 9 March 2020,

[42] Ermias Tasfaye, Ethiopia Insight, 14 February 2020

[43] The Economist, 21 March 2020,

[44] James Jeffrey, CNN, 18 October 2019,

[45] Abdi Latif Dahir, New York Times, 24 October 2019,; Tiksa Negeri, Reuters, 24 October 2019

[46] Human Rights Watch, 1 April 2020,

[47] See for instance Awol K Allo, “why Abiy Ahmed’s Prosperity Party Could be Bad News for Ethiopia” Al-Jazeera, 5 December 2019,

[48] CNN, 3 July 2020,

[49] Arefaynie Fantahun, Ethiopia Observer, 6 July 2021

[50] EHRC, undated, “It did not feel like we had a government”,

[51] Ethiopia Insight, 5 January 2021

[52] Dawit Endeshaw, Reuters, 18 August 2020,

[53] Al-Jazeera, 19 September 2020, The inclusion of allegations of collusion with Egypt raised eyebrows.

[54] Abiy Ahmed, Economist, 17 September 2020, cited in The Independent, 21 September 2020,

[55] Jawar published a call for an end to the war in Tigray from jail: Kush Media Network, 1 December 2020,

[56] Mahlet Fasil, Addis Standard, 8 March 2021,

[57] Since 2020 a separate faction led by Ararso Bikila vied with Dawd Ibssa’s leadership for the title “OLF”, with NEBE asking for clarification of its status in February 2021,, which at the end of March 2021, apparently came too late for participation There has continued to be confusion on this point, allowing sources to claim that the OLF will participate in the election.

[58] NEBE confirmed on 22 May 2021 that seven constituencies in the west of Oromia would have no poll in June, Addis Standard, 22 May 2021,

[59] René Lefort ‘Ethiopia’s vicious deadlock,’ Ethiopia Insight, 27 April 2021,

[60] BBC, 3 November 2021

[61] Amnesty International, quoted in The Guardian, 2 November 2020,

[62] Amnesty International, 3 November 2020

[63] The Organisation for World Peace, quoting Commissioner Daniel Bekele,

[64] Zecharias Zelalem, Al-Jazeera, 20 March 2021

[65] Reuters, 31 March 2021,

[66] Reuters, 29 April 2021,

[67] Garda World, 1 May 2021,

[68] Addis Standard, 7 May 2021,

[69] On the changing military balance in Tigray see Ermias Teka in this volume.

[70] In a critical response, the OLA described the move as “tantamount to a declaration of war on the Oromo people”. The use of the term OLF Shanee in the proclamation has caused legal controversy.

[71] Addis Standard, 29 April 2021,

[72] CPJ, 21 May 2021,

[73] Addis Standard,  12 May 2021,

[74] Addis Standard, 6 May 2021,

[75] Cited by Ethiopian Monitor, 12 May 2021,

[76] Human Rights Watch, ‘Boy publicly executed in Oromia’ 10 June 2021,

[77] Sam Bekele, Twitter, 28 May 2021,

[78] Addis Standard, 2 June 2021,

[79] Addis Standard, 10 June 2021,

[80] OLF statement, 11 June 2021,


[81] Addis Standard, 18 May 2021

[82] Addis Standard, 3 June 2021

[83] Addis Standard, 3 June 2021

[84] Dandana Bafkane, Kichuu Info, 5 January 2018,

[85] Borkena, 4 November 2017, citing Addisu Arega Kitesa

[86] Africa Confidential, 3 December 2020,

[87] Although DPM Demeke and PM Abiy continued to lead the two groupings, the internal political constellation within each of the two regional PP groupings had shifted very considerably by late 2020.

[88] See for instance , 29 June 2021

[89] See for instance Yohannes Gedamu, Quartz media 21 June 2018,

[90] General Asamnew had risen as a commissar in the ENDF, before being arrested and convicted of fomenting a Ginbot 7 coup within the military in Bahr Dar in 2009 ( He was prosecuted along with Melaku Tefera, Tefera Mamo, Alehubel Amare and others, and (in absentia) Berhanu Nega, and Andargachew Tsige, now of Ezema and ESAT respectively. Asamnew was tortured in prison and released only in the February 2018 amnesty at the end of PM Hailemariam’s tenure. His appointment to the Amhara government as head of Security and Administration shocked TPLF/EPRDF observers, signalling the emergence of a new, assertive nationalism in the Amhara ruling party, and the determination to equip it with a strong Special Force. Asamnew’s funeral in Lalibella drew tens of thousands of mourners.

[91] In comments which have a different resonance in 2021 in the context of the war in Tigray, Andargachew Tsige was quoted in the wake of the killings as saying: “the way to perdition is wide open. What we have witnessed recently is a glimpse of the first steps to a downward spiral towards hell. […] There simply is no possibility in the country where one group will perish and others spared. We all stand or fall together.” (Andargachew Tsige, 4 July 2019, quoted in the Ethiopia Observer

[92] See Anonymous, Ethiopia Insight, 7 June 2021, ‘Amhara Nationalism at the Polls’

[93] Andargachew Tsige, interviewed by Zeinab Badawi, BBC Hardtalk, 14 June 2018,

[94] See Crisis Group, ‘Bridging the Divide in Ethiopia’s North,’ 12 June 2020,

[95] See Achamyeleh Tamiru, 2019, ‘The Wolkait Affair’ or and Kalayu Abrha, AigaForum, 31 January 2021,

[96] Borkena, 18 March 2021,

[97] Morris Kiruga, The Africa Report, 14 May 2019,

[98] Borkena, 29 March 2019,

[99] Anonymous, Ethiopia Insight, 7 June 2021, ‘Amhara Nationalism at the Polls’

[100] Anonymous, Ethiopia Insight, 7 June 2021, ‘Amhara Nationalism’

[101] Al-Jazeera, 10 March 2021,

[102] The extent of Amhara (and Eritrean) irredentist claims is summarised with maps at Passport Party, 11 November 2020, The Tigray account is summarised in a piece by Daniel Berhane, Horn Affairs, 5 June 2011 This advances a Derg-era map of the Institute for the Study of Ethiopian Nationalities (ISEN) to argue that “Gondar Province” was inhabited by Amharans and Tigrayans just as “Tigray Province” was inhabited by Tigrayans and Afars.

[103] Pro-Tigray Tghat media has documented what is claims are Amhara regional government leasing initiatives for the area, 18 May 2021,

[104] See also Crisis Group, June 2020,

[105] As above, see Achamyeleh Tamiru, 2019, ‘The Wolkait Affair’ and Kalayu Abrha, AigaForum, 31 January 2021,; also Passport Party, 11 November 2020, and Daniel Berhane, Horn Affairs, 5 June 2011

[106] For the remarkably inflammatory claim that “Wollega is Amhara” see the veteran politician Dawit Wolde Giorgis’s interview with Abebe Belew, 21 April 2021,

[107] Compare also Rights for Peace, March 2021, ‘Discrimination and Hate Speech fuel violence in Sudan’

[108] Tsega Etefa, The Conversation, 16 March 2021,

[109] OCHA, Access Snapshot Metekel zone, November 2020,

[110] Addis Standard, 3 May 2019,, The Ethiopian Reporter, 11 May 2019,

[111] Reuters, 13 October 2020,



[114] Ethiopia’s Ombudsman Endale Haile indicated up to 200 deaths in further violence in April, with 250,000 displaced in Simien Shoa zone of Amhara and 78,000 in the Oromo zone of Amhara, Al-Jazeera, 25 April 2021, . The figure for displaced was later revised up to over 400,000,

[115] Addis Standard, 9 April 2021,

[116] Addis Standard, 23 March 2021, and 24 March 2021, Several observers on both sides of the dispute have seen a “drama” staged in the heated dispute in parliament, to benefit the PM who remained above the fray (personal communications).

[117] Oromos injured in the violence have reportedly been taken as far as Adama, travelling via Afar, for treatment in locations they consider “safe.”

[118] France24, 3 June 2021,

[119] Addis Standard, 1 April 2021,

[120] OLA spokesman quoted by Vice World News, 12 May 2021,

[121] For instance, cf. Free Oromia podcast, episode 22, ‘Stand up for Wallo,’ 26 March 2021,

[122] Crisis Group, 12 June 2020,

[123] Giulia Paravicini, Reuters, 3 October 2019,

[124] Eight constituencies in Oromia and Simien Shoa zones affected by recent violence will not conduct elections

[125] Addis Standard, 26 June 2021,

[126] Anonymous, Ethiopia Insight, 7 June 2021,

[127] In June 2021 NEBE postponed the referendum, eliciting anger, see Addis Standard, 11 June 2021, See also UNOCHA, 15 May 2021,

[128] Reuters, 10 August 2020,

[129] Addis Standard, 26 June 2021,

[130] Addis Standard, 23 November 2020,

[131] Addis Standard, 7 May 2021,

[132] New Humanitarian, 23 November 2020,

[133] Aden Abdi, Conciliation Resources, October 2019,

[134] Tobias Hagmann, CRP Briefing Paper, 11 September 2020,

[135] Addis Standard, 11 June 2021,

[136] Khalif Abdirahman, LSE Blog, 25 March 2021,

[137] Bruk Abdu, The Ethiopian Reporter, 27 March 2021,

[138] Addis Standard, 18 May 2021,

[139] Addis Standard, 20 April 2021,

[140] Tobias Hagmann and Mustaphe Mohammed Abdi, CRP Research Memo, March 2020

[141] Tobias Hamann and Mustaphe Mohammed Abdi, March 2020.




[145] The Civil Engineer Aisha Mohammed Musa was briefly Minister of Defence, before being moved to Construction and Urban Development.

[146] Addis Standard, 26 June 2021,

[147] UNHCR, Regional Sitrep, June 2020,

[148] Addis Standard, 1 June 2021,

[149] on the increase and scale of the budget this year see Reuters 5 June 2021, The speech was later posted on the official Twitter account of the office of the Prime Minister of Ethiopia at

[150] Jutta Urpilainen, 10 June 2021, at the EU-US High-level roundtable on the humanitarian emergency in Tigray,

[151] World Bank, “Ethiopia 8th Economic Update: Ensuring Ethiopia’s Resilient Recovery from COVID-19”, March 2021,

[152] World Bank 8th Economic Update, March 2021, p.ix

[153] Federico Rogai, “Ethiopia’s debt: an economic and political liability,” Ethiopia Insight, 10 May 2021,

[154] World Bank 8th Economic Update, March 2021, p.ix

[155] Jakkie Cilliers et al., “Ethiopia Development Trends Assessment” ISS and International Futures for USAID, March 2017,

[156] Cilliers et al., “Ethiopia Development Trends Assessment”, March 2017, p.156.

[157] USIP, Senior Study Group, 29 October 2020, p.38, citing Lauren Kelly and José Carbajo Martinez, “Can Ethiopia Create 2 Million Jobs Every Year?,” World Bank Independent Evaluation Group, September 4, 2018,; International Crisis Group, “Managing Ethiopia’s Unsettled Transition,” February 21, 2019,

[158] USIP, Senior Study Group, 29 October 2020, p.28

[159] Addis Fortune, 30 May 2021,

[160] Reuters, 5 June 2021,

[161] See for instance, Alex de Waal, interviewed by Telile Dange of KMN, 17 February 2021 I fear will happen is the Ethiopian government will start offering large scale areas of land, please come buy our land, you can control this land so that we can have a little bit of cash to bail out our ailing economy to pay our army etc Danger.. These are the types of things that a desperate government will do.”

[162] René Lefort “Ethiopia’s vicious deadlock,” Ethiopia Insight, 27 April 2021,

[163] Oromo Liberation Front, statement 28 April 2021, cited in Addis Standard, 29 April 2021

[164] Anonymous, Ethiopia Insight, 22 May 2020

[165] For the view that he is behind the war, see Goytom Teklu, ‘Ethiopia’s Treacherous Transition’ Ethiopia Insight, 21 March 2021; see also Alex de Waal, interviewed by Kush Media, 11 February 2021 . For a more positive view of Issaias’s potential role and influence in Ethiopia see Andargachew Tsige’s interview with BBC’s Hardtalk, where he claims to have influenced PM Abiy’s decision to do business with President Issaias

[166] Worku Aberra, ‘Asymmetric Benefits: the Ethio-Eritrea Common Market (1991-1998)’

[167] Statement of the Executive Committee of the Prosperity Party, 28 May 2021,

[168] Reuters, 11 June 2021,

[169] Abadir Mohammed Ibrahim, Ethiopia Insight, 9 June 2021,

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