The root cause of today’s Oromia-Ethiopian conflict goes back to the formation of the Ethiopian empire state in 1880’s. Before that period, the many ethno-national groups we find today under the Ethiopian empire were used to live side-by –side independently, governing their own affair by themselves. These ethno-national groups were, however, in constant interaction with each other, peacefully as well confrontational, in search of access or control over resources. But none managed to conquer the other. However, the balance of power changed with the advent of power arms in Europe during the scramble for Africa.
The power that shaped the colonization of other Africa countries also shaped development in the horn of Africa. Western aid and ammunition helped the Abyssinian warlords to control Oromia and other ethno-nations in the region. That move culminated in the unwillingly incorporation of many independent ethno-nations, upon losing the war, into Abyssinia. To diffuse the tension and to legitimize the annexation, Abyssinian king changed the name of the incorporated empire states in 1950 to the present day Ethiopia. Accordingly, the present day Ethiopian empire-state comprises several ethno-national groups that include broadly the Cushitic, Semitic, Nilotic and Omotic ethno-language groups. In terms of population, the Cushitic people constitute by far the majority, accounting for about 70% of the population of that empire, yet for almost a century since the conquest by the north, they remained a ‘political minority’. The northern minority, the Semitic, who have been dominating political life in this part of the world, on the other hand, altogether account only for 25% of the population.
Further, the national integration envisaged resulted in forced yet unsuccessful assimilation of the majority into the culture of the northern minority while centralization ensured a monopoly of power. Control of state power enabled the northern minority unabated access to resources and thereby full control over both the production and distribution of material and social products, while the conquered ethno-nations have been denied access to resources, overtly as well covertly. This resulted in centre- periphery confrontation. Further compounding the problem is the unwillingness of the state to address the problems of the oppressed national groups. In response to the divide and rule system of the minority rule, the different ethno-nations organized themselves on ethnic line, making ethnic the defining political principle in the country, and the national group mobilized its resources to defend its territorial, economic, cultural and political claims (1).
With narrow political bases, successive Ethiopian regimes have been compelled to use excessive forces in order to retain exclusive control of the state power. As a result, state power became increasingly arbitrary, violent and brutal. That has been why the Ethiopian empire state had become the targets of the many liberation forces of the oppressed nationals.
It was the effort of such liberation forces, among many other factors, that overthrew the Haile Sillassie monarchy in 1974. However, the military junta that followed it made no better and was forced to flow its predecessor, after 17 years. The focus of the analysis is on the confrontation between the two major forces representing the centre-periphery opposing lines and the impact of their confrontation on the democratisation process in the country.
The transitional period: Its goals
The transitional government was merely to facilitate and pave ways for smooth transition to multiparty democracy after holding national election within 2 years time and was to handover power to the party or parties that gain majority in the National Assembly (2).
The forces in the transitional government of Ethiopia
The liberation forces that overthrew the military junta, created the transitional government. However, they had diverging opinion with respect to state power. But for simplicity, one can lump them into two: those opting for more centralization through consolidation of state power to the centre on one hand and those fighting for a real decentralization and democratisation of the empire state on the other hand.
These two forces could be represented by the two dominant forces in the transitional government namely the Tigray peoples liberation front (TPLF) and the Oromo liberation front (OLF). The OLF represents the Oromo people of the Cushitic group while the TPLF represents the Tigray people of the Semitic group who enjoy political ‘majority’ albeit being minority in terms of population size. The TPLF represents the centrist group and is bent on consolidating state power. The OLF, on the other hand, advocates decentralization of power and democratisation of power in real terms.
The road to the Palace
OLF and TPLF fought against the military junta. However, TPLF was more powerful militarily, enjoyed wider international support such as from the US. As a result, when the military junta was forced to collapse and power vacuum was created, the US unilaterally endorsed the TPLF to take power. And the two parties, with many others shared power and created a coalition government. In that coalition government, the TPLF had upper hand while the OLF the next. Power alignment in that coalition force was that TPLF was the boss and the OLF a subordinate.
The need for alliance
Though their common goal was to lead the country jointly during the transition, they also sow the opportunity differently. TPLF with its limited popular support, however, had neither dreamt of coming to power nor sure of staying on power longer. Therefore TPLF wanted some sort of alliance to gain legitimacy and acceptance across the different nationals, at least until it consolidate its grip on power.
As for the OLF it was a great opportunity, to reach the entire Oromo area- a vast land and, to carry out political activities aimed at increasing public awareness and participation in the upcoming election, as the OLF had strong public support in Oromia and was sure to win regional election if free and fair elections were to be held.
Further, there was a popular demand from the oppressed people for real decentralization of power. On top of that the US and other international allies and supporters of the TPLF promised more aid given that the TPLF launch a democratisation process. These all lead to the formation of the TGE.
The making of tyranny
TPLF and OLF, with dozen small parties shared power and created the TG. Election date fixed and all the parties started campaigning. As election date came closer and closer, tension between the two dominant forces increased.
In the meantime, TPLF and OLF kept expanding their local offices across the country to increase their sphere of control. In this confrontation, the TPLF enjoyed access to the national budget while the OLF enjoyed its huge popular support. As the election date came very close, popular support for the OLF increased dramatically, as indicated by snap election shoot.
In fact that result was a blow to the democratisation process in the country. It was indeed, because the TPLF found it absolutely necessary to reverse that popular support. But the only way the TPLF could do that was through some sort of coercion, particularly intimidating and limiting the OLF and its authorities from reaching out to the public. To that effect, first the media was used to dis-inform the public. Press releases were coming out of the offices of both parties day and night. Both seated in the same government but kept on blaming each other.
As the main election date came closer, the crisis became very serious. The US and EPLF of Eritrea started mediation. The two major forces brought OLF and TPLF together and negotiated settlement reached. But it was a hasty decision that rarely took into consideration the real cause(s) behind the conflict. The mediators and stakeholders agreed that the stakeholders to strongly refrain from using violence to win election. To that end, it was agreed the forces of the two parties to be camped and only the police force to oversee law and order in the country. This would enable the country to hold fair and free election enabling the people to elect their representatives to the National Assembly. The mediators were to oversee the implementation of the negotiated settlement and the upcoming election.
Accordingly the OLF encamped its army. The TPLF, however, defied the agreement in pretext of defending the security of the country against the ‘enemy’, as its army was equated as the national army. The stakeholders failed to respect the settlements agreed upon while the mediators failed to enforce it.
TPLF intensified intimidating OLF supporters and sympathizers. Worsening was when the TPLF army made a swift attack on the OLF army in different camps across Oromia. Fighting erupted, under the eyes of the mediators and the OLF was forced to leave the coalition government and was banned from peacefully operating in the country. After removing the OLF, the second most powerful opposition party, from the coalition government, TPLF became the only powerful party: the creator and destroyer of every thing. That move brought democratisation process in the country to halt. TPLF became tyranny surpassing the previous military junta it replaced.
After the OLF was forced out of the coalition, the TPLF governments’ political base became increasingly narrower. Thus in order to retain exclusive control of the state power, TPLF reverted to the use of excessive force and its rule became increasingly arbitrary, violent and brutal.
Why mediation failed: the mediators
The Eritrean Government (EPLF)
The EPLF, TPLF and OLF all fought against the military junta. When the military junta was forced down, the EPLF declared independency and created the Eritrean government. TPLF and OLF, with many small parties, formed the coalition government of Ethiopia. So the three forces had some common experiences including a common understanding and recognition of the right of the oppressed people for self-determination. Therefore, EPLF of Eritrea was the right body to mediate the conflict in question.
Unfortunately, people change opinions/interests and shift sides as time goes. The EPLF had two factors to consider. One was to ensure that the military junta and those forces opposing the Eritrean independency not make a comeback. The other thing was to secure access to resources in Ethiopia. To achieve these, it was necessary to support the dominant part in Ethiopia that promotes the above Eritrean interests, directly or indirectly. Owing to the contextual power relationship, that party was happened to be the TPLF. Therefore, the EPLF fought along with the TPLF and helped the TPLF establish “law and order” in the country. For the TPLF, key military and intelligence service were provided by the EPLF. Thus the EPLF as a mediator was far to be impartial. However because of the fact that the EPLF was the only force in the area in close contact with both stakeholders, with a good knowledge of both parties to the conflict, it was right to have the EPLF as a mediator. Thus, the EPLF was the both the wrong and right mediator at the same time.
Being the only world super power of the time and having persistent interest in the region, the US was and is the right body to mediate the conflict in question. However there were three points that influenced the attitude of the US towards the Oromia-Ethiopian conflict. In the first place, it was the US who installed the TPLF into power. And it seemed unrealistic to expect the US to exert full pressure on the TPLF. The second factor was that, in the eye of the US mediators, the OLF was not strong alternative force- despite its popularity in the region. US needed a force that will secure its interest in the region with minimum input. And also the democratic tradition of the Oromo may make it difficult for the OLF to abandon its national commitment and rather serve the US interest wholeheartedly.
Furthermore OLF was portrayed, by pro-centrist, as an agent for true decentralization of power. The US mediators feared this perceived OLF position as a threat to US interest in the region. This is because they believed that US interest in the region –including the Middle East is best respected only if there is strong pro-US government in Ethiopia. However, installing a minority regime- that operates against the will of the populace may serve US interest only in the short term.
Commenting on the US policy in the region (2) says that south of Aswan, Aswan is a dam on the Nile in Egypt, American authority remains fragile, its policies confused and its influence more of symbolic than real. Therefore, all went to the negotiation table thinking how to resolve the conflict whilst maintaining their respective interests in the region at most. Thus the concern for self interest, from both the mediators and the stakeholders’ sides, influenced not only the outcome of the mediation but also the implementation of the negotiated settlements.
The OLF boosting of its popular support from among Oromos- the majority in that empire, hoped to achieve a landslide victory, especially in Oromia. On the other hand, the OLF made mistakes by under estimating the war making machinery and desire of the TPLF. Also mediators were given more than necessary power.
The TPLF, being threatened by the popular support the OLF enjoyed among the Oromos, and knowing how far the mediators would go in resolving the conflict, took the law solely into its hand. The solution according to TPLF was bullet first and then ballot- after removing the opposition candidates.
Thus, all went their way leaving the assignment undone. And that
has given a new
life to an old conflict.
Today, after nearly 17 years, the country is still at war with itself. Unknown to the rest of the world, Ethiopia is waging war on its citizens in Ogaden. Human rights suppression is reaching an unprecedented scale in Oromia. TPLF has violated the sovereignty of Somalia with the sole objective of controlling and containing Oromo movement. Part of the Ethiopian territory is also used as a bribe to appease the Sudan government so that TPLF military will use that nation’s territory to monitor Oromo movement. That was why land was snatched from poor Ethiopian farmers and given away. This could not be done by government that claim to represent the nation, but by a foreign mercenary that is in power to serve not the nation and its people but the interest of its own power.
1. Markakis, John (1998) Resources Conflict in the Horn of Africa. International Peace Research Institute, Oslo. Saga publications.
2.Collins, Robert O (1999) Nile Conflict. Policy Brief 11-2: Smoothing the water. University of California. Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation.