Contemporary History of Ethiopia

Ethiopia has undergone dramatic changes in recent decades, not least in the economic sphere. The country has also seen extensive political-structural changes with the introduction of the so-called ethnic federal system. Ethiopia has also evolved in a direction where democracy has become increasingly tight and where systematic violations of human rights have become commonplace.

Mengistus fall

Mengistu Haile Mariam’s Derg regime (1974-1991) had been involved since the 1970s in the war E ritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) and Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) – fronts fighting for self-government in Eritrea and Tigray respectively. Following Mikhail Gorbachev ‘s takeover of power in the Soviet Union and as the Cold War drew to a close, Ethiopia’s military and financial support gradually faded. At the same time, the Ethiopian army suffered a series of defeats – especially in Eritrea and Tigray in the north, but also in the central provinces of Gondar, Gojan, Wollo and Shoa. On May 21, 1991, Mengistu Haile Mariam fled via Kenya to Zimbabwe, where he received political asylum. General Tesfaye Gebre Kidan took over the leadership of the government and started peace talks in London, while TPLF forces surrounded and took control of Addis Ababa. In 1989, the TPLF had formed the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), and this party was the starting point for Ethiopia’s new transitional government. EPRDF leader Meles Zenawi was elected President of the Transitional Government. The EPLF was not officially represented at the conference, but sent observers, and an agreement was drawn up between the EPLF and the EPRDF that Eritrea should govern itself as a de facto independent state, led by the EPLF, for a referendum on the future of the area. This happened in 1993 with the result that Eritrea became an independent state, detached from Ethiopia.

In the fall of 1999, Ethiopia tried to get South Africa to extradite Mengistu, where he stayed for medical treatment, which accelerated his return to Zimbabwe, which refused to extradite him. In 1995, the trial of Mengistu and others in Dergen began, prosecuted for crimes against humanity during the red terror of the 1970s. Only in 2003 did the defenders join the case, which then comprised about 6500 defendants, of which about 3000 in absentia.

The Lenin statue in Addis Ababa

The Lenin statue in Addis Ababa was removed in 1991 as a visible sign that many years of Mengistu Haile Mariam’s Marxist-Leninist rule were over. 

A new Ethiopia

A constitutional assembly was elected in 1994 – with a clear majority for the EPRDF / TPLF – and this year passed the country’s new constitution, which introduced, among other things, parliamentary governance. The country was divided into nine states, along ethnic divides, into a federal model. In theory, it is possible for states to break out of the federation and become independent. The constitutional regulations for federal entities on an ethnic basis were considered an interesting political endeavor in Africa, where ethnic divides emerged more clearly as a democratic problem and a major source of political-military conflict. In Ethiopia, the reform has had the effect, among other things, of the dominant position of the Amhara- the population group and central Shoa province have been significantly reduced. While Amharas formed a major part of the central government as well as the political elite during the empire and military dictatorship, this dominance following the EPRDF’s takeover of power was replaced by a strong influence of the Tigray people, reflected by the strong position TPLF has in the EPRDF.

Party State

Despite local autonomy and the pluralistic political system, the EPRDF gained extensive power, reminiscent of a one-party government, and where the executive power was added to the prime minister. Prior to the first free parliamentary elections in 1995, the EPRDF established a network of allied parties based on ethnic affiliation and based in the regions, and the EPRDF gained a total of 483 of 537 representatives. Meles Zenawi was elected by Parliament as prime minister, Negasso Gidada as president; followed by Girma Wolde-Giorgis in 2001, which was again succeeded by the current President Mulatu Teshome. Despite the EPRDF’s strong position of power, as well as some restrictions on democratic rights, there were a number of opposition parties and alliances. At the election of a new National Assembly in May 2000, the EPRDF secured 472 of the 522 seats, and most foreign observers were critical of the election. At the start of the 2005 elections, the regime facilitated a more open political debate and greater leeway for the opposition. This created optimism about a political shift in the population, but after the election, the results were waiting. The opposition demanded that the voting numbers be published and accused the EPRDF of manipulating the results. The turmoil grew, and in June and November 2005 there were extensive demonstrations in Addis Ababa. The regime responded by cracking down on the protests, and about 100,000 protesters were arrested. When most opposition politicians boycotted their seats in the National Assembly, they were also arrested and imprisoned. After apologizing for their actions, most of them were released.

The election in 2005 was in many ways a crossroads in Ethiopian politics. It was the beginning of a more authoritarian regime, where a number of new laws restricted the freedom of political parties, the press and the rest of civil society. In addition, an extensive campaign led to millions of people being forced to sign up as members of the EPRDF. As a result, the opposition has been greatly weakened, and the optimism that prevailed in 2005 has been replaced by apathy and fear. At the 2010 election, only two representatives were elected to the National Assembly, and after the 2015 election, no opposition members were elected. Foreign observers generally agree that this was the result of widespread electoral fraud. The EPRDF leader and Prime Minister Meles Zenawi died in August 2012, and power was then taken over Hailemariam Desalegn, who comes from the small ethnic group wolaita in the south.

Armed conflicts

There are also groups that still have the armed struggle that was waged against Dergen, especially the Oromo Liberation Front(OLF) and the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF). The former joined the transitional government, but withdrew in 1992 and continued the armed struggle. The OLF is fighting for an independent Oromo state and reinforced this objective at its 1998 conference, after which the movement received support from Eritrea and stepped up its activities. In recent years, the organization has been significantly weakened, not least because of internal disputes. Parts of ONLF joined the Somali People’s Democratic Party in 1998, while the majority of the movement still has guerrilla activity in Ogaden. Eritrea has also trained and armed another rebel movement, the Benishangul People’s Liberation Movement, in the state of Benishangul Gumuz in western Ethiopia. In 2003–2004 there were serious ethnic differences in the Gambela region.

Ethnic tension

The Ethiopian state has grown ever stronger since the 2000s, and has developed a comprehensive system of control that has made political dissent difficult. Despite this, protests against government policy have been witnessed. From 2012, the capital’s Muslims mobilized through weekly demonstrations against what they experienced as the regime’s illegal interference in religious affairs. The demonstrations were hit hard, and in 2015 the leaders were charged with terrorism and sentenced to long prison sentences.

Extensive ethnic protests from 2014 represented a serious challenge for the Ethiopian regime, bringing the country into a serious political crisis. The demonstrations first arose in 2014 among oromo youth who protested against the so-called Addis Ababa Master Plan. This plan meant significant expansion of the capital’s borders, and the Oromans believed that this would result in the loss of Oromo lands. The demonstrations were brutally beaten down, but repeated with new and expanded force from November 2015. The protests extended into the Amhara region, where clashes between security forces and demonstrations were of a violent nature. Protests have also escalated in the western state of Gambela, where the allocation of land to foreign investors and commercial agriculture has resulted in the local population being deprived of land. The regime eventually responded by declaring the state of emergency in October 2016, and until it was repealed in August 2017, federal security forces conducted campaigns that brutally and effectively ended the protests. Tens of thousands were arrested, among them the most central oromo opposition politicians. Officially, about 500 people were killed during the demonstrations, but there is reason to believe that this figure is higher.

Abiy Ahmed’s liberalization

In August 2017, Ethiopia experienced a new round of internal unrest in the form of violent clashes between Oromo and Ethiopian Somalis along the border between the Oromo regional state and Somali regional state – shortly after the state of emergency was lifted. This conflict stems from disagreements over the border between the two regions, and meetings involving the two regions’ security forces have led to hundreds of deaths, and mass exodus of mainly oromo from the border areas. The official number of refugees has been around 600,000, a figure that is most likely too low. Oromo and Amhara protests continued into 2018, and when Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn unexpectedly resigned in February, a new state of emergency was introduced. This also led to a deep crisis in the leadership of the EPRDF, a crisis that was averted by the fact thatAbiy Ahmed was appointed prime minister in April 2018. He initiated comprehensive reforms and succeeded in ending the protests. Ethiopia has also seen a flourishing of ethnic conflicts across the country, which has led to over one million internal refugees.

The war with Eritrea

The relationship between the new TPLF-dominated regime that took power in Ethiopia in 1991 and the Eritrean Eritrean liberation movement that took over the control of Eritrea in the same year were basically good. The EPLF-backed Ethiopian government facilitated Eritrea’s independence in 1993, and several cooperation agreements were signed between the two neighboring countries. With the detachment of Eritrea, Ethiopia lost its border with the sea, and access to the ports of Assab and Massawa was of particular economic importance to Ethiopia; the third port to serve Ethiopia was Djibouti. In line with Eritrea’s need to highlight its newfound independence, the cooperation climate between neighboring states deteriorated, creating discontent in Ethiopia when Eritrea introduced its own currency in 1997, nakfa; until then Eritrea had also used the Ethiopian birr, which also facilitated close economic relations.

A border dispute between the two countries at the disputed land area Badme, in May 1998 led to full war involving large troop forces and causing significant losses on both sides. The Eritrean government claimed that the land in question was part of Eritrea following border demarcation between Italy as the then colonial power and Ethiopia, while Ethiopian authorities were of the opposite opinion. The two parties had different versions of the events of the outbreak of war: Ethiopia accused Eritrea of ​​sending soldiers into Ethiopian territory; the Eritreans claimed that the land in question was part of Eritrea – and that Ethiopian forces had entered Eritrea. The battles spread to three fronts; at Badme and Zalambessa in Tigray Province and Bure in Afar region. The war escalated, and Ethiopian planes bombed, among others, the airport in Eritrea’s capitalAsmara, while Eritrean planes attacked the provincial capital of Mekele in Tigray. Following a joint political intervention from the United States and Rwanda, as well as from the African Unity Organization(OAU), a temporary ceasefire was achieved. Both parties used this time to buy more weapons and build up their army forces. In February 1999, new fighting broke out, on the same three fronts, and Ethiopian forces moved in and occupied Eritrean territory. The OAU re-engaged in an effort to settle the conflict, but Ethiopia continued to advance even as Eritrea accepted the terms of the OAU plan. Even after the fighting ceased in the spring of 1999, occasional clashes continued throughout the year, and into 2000 – until the war broke out again, with a major Ethiopian offensive in May, with extensive bombings against the port cities of Massawa and Assab, and the conquest of Zalambessa.. The UN Security Council adopted an arms embargo on the two countries. On May 25, Eritrea announced that the country would withdraw its forces from the disputed areas.

The two countries finally signed a peace agreement in Algiers in June 2000, negotiated by the OAU. The agreement, by far, meant a victory for Ethiopia, and Ethiopian forces remained in those parts of Eritrea that were under Ethiopian control at the time of the agreement. In July, they were replaced by a UN peacekeeping force, the United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea(UNMEE), of 4200 soldiers. It was deployed in a 25 km wide buffer zone on the Eritrean side of the border. Norwegian observers participated in UNMEE from the beginning. A final peace agreement was signed in Alger in December, while the issue of border demarcation was left to a border commission under the International Court of Justice in The Hague, which both sides pledged to accept. But when the Commission presented its assessment in 2002, Ethiopia refused to accept the decision, which meant that Badme – as well as another border area, Irob – belonged to Eritrea. Consequently, the UN’s work on a physical demarcation of the border was also trained by Ethiopia, while Eritrea made the work of UNMEE more difficult.

Apparently, the war has revolved around the control of six disputed lands that are partly suitable for agriculture and partly considered as potentially mineral rich. However, the war is believed to have economic causes beyond territorial conditions. The conflict is not least linked to the fact that Ethiopia, by Eritrea’s independence, lost access to the sea and thereby control over the ports of Assab and Massawa. Ethiopia has rejected its intention to try to regain control of Assab. However, it is also seen as possible that there are oil reserves in the sea off Assab, from which Ethiopia would naturally want to reap profits.

It is unclear how many were killed during the war and how many died as a result of it indirectly; estimates are at least 80,000. The fighting in the spring of 2000 coincided with a severe famine on the Horn of Africa, which intensified the humanitarian disaster in much of Ethiopia. As a result of the war, around 100,000, most farmers, were forced away from their homes on both sides of the border. Ethiopia expelled about 40,000 people of Eritrean background, including many who had Ethiopian citizenship, even though they were accepted as Ethiopian citizens even after Eritrea’s independence in 1993. About 550,000 Eritrean backgrounds were in Ethiopia by independence. After the end of the war in Eritrea in 1991, some 130,000 Ethiopians were expelled from there; in 1998-99, over 20,000 chose to leave Eritrea as a result of the war. The newly appointed Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared in June 2018 that Ethiopia was willing to approve the terms of the Alger agreement and make peace with Eritrea. He visited Eritrea in July,

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