Ethiopia: ‘Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it’

Analyzing the call for the transitional government through history lens


November 2021 marks a year since the war in northern Ethiopia ignited. The war began when the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) forces attacked the northern command of the Ethiopia National Defense Force (ENDF) in Tigray region. Until July 2021, the conflict was mostly contained in Tigray region. After the federal government announced a unilateral ceasefire and withdrew from Tigray region, TPLF forces started to capture different areas of Afar and Amhara regions. According to TPLF spokesperson, its forces will continue fighting to break the blockade reportedly enforced by the federal forces. 

The international community calls for all conflicting parties to a ceasefire and come to the negotiation table to resolve their difference. While TPLF, among other pre-condition, demands national dialogue, including other stakeholders. Other opposition parties that either boycotted the sixth general election or did not manage to register as a party under the new electoral regulations are calling for the establishment of a transitional government. For instance, on 25 June 2021, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the Oromo Federalist Congress party announced the formation of the Oromia National Regional State Transitional Government. However, there is no evidence that these two parties control any specific area on the ground in Oromia or other regions, which can be considered as the seat of the Oromia National Regional State Transitional Government.

A transitional government was last established in Ethiopia when TPLF led Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) controlled Addis Ababa in May 1991. This article analyzes the possible outcome of the suggested transitional government through the lens of the 1991 transitional government outcome. The following sections will demonstrate how the 1991 transitional government was established and managed to reinstate ethnic-based federalism. Then we will put forward possible outcomes of this suggested transitional government in Ethiopia.

Brief Historical Background

The Derg regime overthrew the last Solomonic monarch, Emperor Haile Selassie I, on 12 September 1974. By 1977 there were armed conflicts against the Derg regime in 10 out of 14 provinces. Most of these armed groups against the government were organized based on ethnicity and demanded secessions. In the south and south-east, there were OLF and the Western Somali Liberation Front (WSLF, which later split and became The Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF)). In the north, there were Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) and Eritrean’s People Liberation Front in Eritrea (EPLF) and TPLF, and the Ethiopian people’s Revolutionary Party’s (EHAPA) army wing in Tigray province. There was Afar Liberation Front (ALF) in Afar. There were armed groups in Sidamo, Bale, Gurage, Gamo Gofa, Illibabur, and Keffa provinces. Out of these areas, intense clashes were recorded in the northern part of the country, where ELF, EPLF, TPLF, and EHAPA forces clashed with the government.

In June 1988, the Soviet Union stopped its military support to Ethiopia and asked the Derg regime to find a peaceful solution with EPLF. By that time, EPLF started to support TPLF and OLF. This, in turn, helped TPLF to control the whole Tigray region by 25 February 1989.

TPLF established EPRDF in 1989 as a coalition of ethnic-based opposition movements to throw the Derg regime. It was led by TPLF and included Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (EPDM) and the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO). Former members of EHAPA founded EPDM, and OPDO members were former Oromo soldiers of the Derg regime captured by TPLF. Between 1989-90 EPRDF controlled more territories in the north with the help of EPLF.

In May 1991, EPLF and EPRDF launched a massive assault against the Derg regime. Seeing the defeat of its military and the advances of both EPLF and EPRDF’s territory occupation, Mengistu fled to Zimbabwe on 21 May 1991. Hoping for a peace agreement, the US government organized a conference in late May 1991 in London. For this conference, US invited leaders of TPLF, EPLF, OLF, and representatives of the weak Derg regime. However, the US’s attempt to establish a coalition government was unsuccessful. Instead, EPLF, EPRDF, and OLF signed an agreement to establish a transitional government with the assistance of the US government. On 24  May 1991, EPLF controlled Asmara, and four days later, on 28 May 1991, EPRDF troops controlled the capital Addis Ababa without any resistance from the Derg regime.

The 1991 Transitional Government of Ethiopia

On July 1-5, 1991, a National Conference on Peace and Democracy was held in Addis Ababa. Twenty groups, primarily national liberation movements that waged war against the Derg regime, attended the conference. While groups who opposed TPLF like EHAPA and the All-Ethiopia Socialist Movement (MEISON) were excluded from the conference.

The national conference adopted the Addis Ababa Charter as the country’s interim constitution on 22 July 1991. The Charter established the Transitional Government of Ethiopia (TGE). TGE was tasked to supervise the drafting of the constitution, which will be ratified by a newly elected National Assembly. The TGE comprised the Council of Representatives and the Council of Ministers. The Council of Representatives consists of 87 members composed of national liberation movements, other political organizations, and prominent people. Accordingly, 32 representatives were from EPRDF, 12 from OLF, and the rest were representatives of small liberation fronts and prominent people.

The Charter gave “the right of nations, nationalities, and peoples to self-determination,” including the right to secede (Transitional Period Charter of Ethiopia, 1991, Article 2; see also Articles 6-13). It stated that “a new chapter in Ethiopian history in which freedom, equal rights and self-determination of all the peoples shall be the governing principles of political, economic and social life” (Ibid, Preamble). Thus, the Council of Representatives established new administrative boundaries based on ethnicity.

TPLF devised this concept. “The TPLF found its inspiration in Lenin’s approach to ‘the problem of the nationalities’ and in the Soviet model of ethnic federalism. Paradoxically, the system was failing in the Soviet Union just when it was being replicated in Ethiopia” (Ottaway, 1999, p. 67). Accordingly, TPLF led EPRDF and the other liberations movements supported the concept of ‘self-determination including the right to secede.’ Because the liberation movements like OLF and ONLF were struggling for a session of their respective ethnic group. Thus, based on this Charter, they were hoping to govern their respective ethnic group and region. However, OLF decided to boycott the 21 June 1992 regional election, citing intimidation and irregularities and launched an armed insurrection. ONLF managed to govern Somali region for a couple of years. However, due to a lack of regional autonomy, ONLF leaders wanted to hold a referendum on the self-determination of the region as per the constitution. Hence, the federal security forces intervened, arrested ONLF leaders, and closed their office. Since 1994 the rest of ONLF members have raised arms to fight the federal government.

In addition to OLF, 17 other political parties also boycotted the 1992 regional election[i]. This led the EPRDF candidates to stand alone for the election in most areas of the country. As a result, EPRDF won 1108 of 1147regional assembly seats. This election set a new political arena in the country by rewarding ethnically defined political parties.

Conclusion: Analyzing Current Developments Through Historical Lens

Since April 2018, the Ethiopian government has undertaken different activities that opened the political space for the democratization process. Still, there is a lot to be achieved to consolidate democracy in the country. Members of TPLF party are discontented about the small steps Abiy’s government took towards democracy. The group has taken different measures to sabotage the new political change as it removed them from the top seats of power. As a last resort to control the power, they have waged war against the federal government by attacking the military base in Tigray region.

TPLF’s and its supporters call for all stakeholders to participate in the negotiation as well as the newly established United Front of Ethiopian Federalist and Confederalist Forces (UFEFCF) in the US indicates that they are getting ready to establish a transitional government and initiate a referendum for a session of each region. UFEFCF consists of nine opposition parties. These are Afar Revolutionary Democratic Unity Front, Agew Democratic Movement, Benshangul People’s Liberation Movement, Gambela People’s Liberation Army, Global Qemant People Right and Justice Movement, Qemant Democratic Party, OLF, Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), Sidama National Liberation Front, Somali State Resistance, and TPLF. As the armed groups during the Derg regime, these parties’ objective is secession for their respective ethnic groups. Like the formation of EPRDF in 1989, TPLF established this UFEFCF in November 2021.

If TPLF and its affiliate like UFEFCF sit with the government for negotiation, there is a higher chance for the majority of the participants to vote for establishing a transitional government. As their name indicates, “Federalist and Confederalist,” their main objective is to implement article 39 (1) of the Ethiopian government. Article 39 (1)  gives every “Nation, Nationality, and People in Ethiopia… an unconditional right to self-determination, including the right to secession” (FDRE Constitution, 1995).

In the 1991 transitional government, TPLF led EPRDF, and its affiliates like OLF and ONLF voted for this article 39 (1). In the 1970s and 1980s, TPLF, OLF, and ONLF stated their objectives to establish their own states. We have recently heard representatives of TPLF stating their wish to establish an independent Tigray (See Debretsion Gebremichale, 15 November 2021). Hence, if the government decides to negotiate with all these parties, there is a high likelihood of invoking article 39 (1) by sidelining the government. This will further lead the country to a civil war than establishing sustainable peace.

If the government sits for negotiation, there needs to be a clear agenda for the negotiation and who should participate. Otherwise, history will repeat itself. This time there will be several ethnic-based sovereign states united to form a confederate state (God knows under what name) than ethnic-based regional states within one country Ethiopia.

[i] Some of the political parties which boycotted the elections are the All-Amhara People’s Organization (AAPO), the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Oromia (IFLO), the Gedeo People’s Democratic Organization (GPDO), the Ethiopian Democratic Action Group (EDAG) and the Ethiopian Democratic Alliance Group.

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