How Abiy Ahmed Betrayed Oromia and Endangered Ethiopia
A former government official recounts how the prime minister’s failed reform agenda paved the way for war in Tigray.
By Milkessa M. Gemechu
The war in Ethiopia has been devastating. However, when the West looks at Ethiopia these days, the public generally sees only the war in Tigray, a relatively small region where 6 percent of the country’s population lives. Some specialists add the neighboring Amhara and Afar regions to their accounts. These views ignore the bulk of the population—Oromia and the wider south—where critical events are taking place that will have a major impact on the country. Without this background, the West will remain blind to what is required to make a transition to peace, stability, democracy, and real prosperity in the whole of Ethiopia.
As a former senior leader in Ethiopia’s Oromia state, I had a front row seat to the process that has since led to conflicts across the country. Indeed, the seeds of the crisis in northern Ethiopia first germinated in Oromia. Only by understanding why and how the war in Tigray started will it be possible to find a lasting path to peace. By tracing the origins of the conflict to Oromia—where Abiy Ahmed was once very popular and is now deeply unpopular—it becomes clear how contentious political differences led to the hostilities in Tigray and beyond.
I served Abiy’s government in different senior positions in the Oromia regional state from November 2017 to June 2020. I was the vice president of Oromia State University and a member of the central committee of Oromia’s ruling party, the Oromo Democratic Party, which is a member party of the now-defunct Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition. I was a university instructor when I joined Team Lemma, named for the reformist former president of Oromia, Lemma Megersa, who was once Abiy’s boss and close comrade. I was also an active participant and among the leaders of Qeerroo, the nonviolent youth movement whose resistance brought about Ethiopia’s leadership change in 2018, catapulting Abiy to power.
I grew up in student activism, fighting against injustice and for democracy. From 2001 to 2017, I organized protests against the oppressive EPRDF government as a high school and university student. I was arrested and tortured by federal security agents in the city of Dire Dawa in 2012. I was also imprisoned in Ethiopia’s notorious Maekelawi prison in the same year due to my activism. My journey from academia to politics, from anti-government protester to government leader, and from an Abiy ally to an Abiy critic, has given me a unique perspective to analyze the crisis in Ethiopia.
The complex crisis in Ethiopia has largely been presented in the Western press through the narrow lens of a civil war in the northern part of the country. Both the international community and mainstream media have portrayed the country’s problems as emanating from a dispute centered in Tigray. Until the recent announcement of the military alliance between the Tigray Defense Forces and Oromo Liberation Army, the existence of deep problems in other parts of Ethiopia was largely ignored.
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