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The Origins of the Ethiopian Revolution and Contemporary Ethnic Federalism (Part I)
By Faisal Roble  
Sept. 10, 2010

"The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed."
Steve Biko


This paper was written for a conference that the author participated in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The paper glances at the origins and mechanics of the Ethiopian Social change and the emergent Ethnic federation which the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Party (EPRDF) instituted in 1990.  The current debate on how to proceed and forge ahead with a society where lasting equality and freedom of nationalities and ethnic groups are respected is rooted in the 1960s and 1970s Ethiopian intellectual debates that were carried both inside and outside the county.

One may wonder how much relevance Ethiopia’s movements that were active some 50 years ago may have for contemporary political debate in Ethiopia and the regions as well. Without reverting to the comforts of cliché that “history is about the past to guide us to the future,” those intellectual debates left an undying imprint in our minds and have significant bearings on how we frame current political questions as well as solutions.

Ethiopian intellectuals were more visible at American and European universities in the late 1960s and early 1970s, debating and conducting heated discourse about the need for political change in their home country and what course of action is the best to achieve that goal.  Some of the most noted debates were conducted within the premises of the University of California at Berkeley, where the now deceased Dr. Senney Like was educated; in Europe, it was within the comfort zone of Sorbonne University, the seat of the late Dr. Hailu Fidda, that featured a significant debate among the Ethiopians at the time. Then there was the Algiers school of cadres, more militant activists, whose impact is as important as those highly educated and Das Capital - reading scholars.  Most of the leaders of these movements as well as the youth that they had inspired at home died either during the red terror of Mengistu Haile Mariam, or in the rugged terrains of Asimba mountains in Tigray region.  A case in point: both Drs. Fidda (Oromo) and Like (Tigre) have been killed during the red terror of Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, and a large number of Tigrian cadres, alongside with Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Army (EPRA) soldiers died in Asimba while fighting Dergi soldiers. 

On the eastern front of the country, the once more powerful Western Somali Liberation Front and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) were also in serious armed conflicts with Ethiopia’s standing army. In passing, this author, with other 12 high-school youngsters, who were inspired by the revolutionary thinking at the time, left Jigjiga on February 26, 1976 and travelled to Qabri Baxar in Lughaya, on the Gulf of Aden, Somalia, to join the first 100 members of the armed group of WSLF.  I will share more of this story at a later date.

Just like the Diaspora based intellectual movements elsewhere, Ethiopian intellectuals, who could not or did not see much of a home to return to, decided in the early 1970s to wage a sustained political struggle both inside and outside the country.  Nonetheless, the struggle of this generation had positive impacts on the country’s future political discourse.  Testimony to the impacts that said political movements had in Ethiopia include the promulgation of the 1974 law “land to the tillers,” the resolution of the Eritrean national question, the inclusion of Article 39 in the present Ethiopian Federal Constitution which guarantees nationalities the right to self determination, including the right to secede.  This article in particular is the basis for renewed peace accord between the Ethiopian government and the United Western Somali Liberation Front (UWSLF).  These impressive achievements came about through a concerted and sustained struggle led by multi-national groups for over 50 years. 


The genesis of Contemporary Ethiopian intellectual movements can be found in the defeat of Italian invasion by the patriotic forces, just as have the Somali nationalist movements of the 1940s followed the 20 year-old war of resistance waged by Sayid Mohammed Abdulle Hassan. Radical elites in Ethiopia have utilized their most recent past history, i.e. the triumph over Italy for two purposes: (1) to bolster patriotic feelings, and (2) to emphasize the cross-ethnic/religious coalition that helped defeat the invaders.  By interpreting the history surrounding the war against Italy in this fashion helped strength the patriotic feelings of the intelligentsia and establish a patriotic fervor of mythological proportions.

No sooner did Ethiopians defeat Italy in the aftermath of WWII than emerge the first seeds of political dissent seeking to challenge Emperor Haile Sellasie’s feudalistic absolute power. A case in point is the Ethiopian Youth Movement, headed by a veterinary surgeon and a poet.  Then afterwards, several regional or nationalist revolts followed suit.  Two prominent examples of regional resistance to authority in Addis Ababa in the 1940s are the Wayanes (Tigray) revolt in the north, and the Somali Geri uprising that lasted between 1948 and 1957, culminating in the public hanging of seven of the leaders of the later revolt in Jigjiga’s town square. Despite mass revolts in both regions, the emperor’s relatively formidable forces plus substantial help Ethiopia’s forces received from the British Royal Air Force, which was at the time based in Aden, Yemen, crashed the spirits of these indigenous popular resistances.  Parallel to these revolts were a serious of unsuccessful palace coups in 1947, 1948 and 1951 only to be crushed by the emperor’s Imperial Body Guard. Then, there was the Somali Al-NasruAlahi led revolt in the 1950s, followed by the revolt of Garaad Makhtal Dahir of the late 1950s and early 1960s which has taken a mythical proportion across many generations.  The challenge which Garaad Makhtal Dahir’s revolt posed against Addis Ababa indeed centered and shaped more than any other force the question of nationalities in Ethiopia’s intellectual discourse.  It was after Makhtal’s revolt that the rest of Ethiopian intellectuals started paying serious attention to central Ethiopia’s domination over many periphery nationalities.

It was not until the attempted coup of 1961, lead by the Naway brothers-Girmame and Colonel Mengistu Naway-that political movements posed any meaningful challenge to the central government of emperor Haile Selassies.  Leaders of what is often referred to as the Neway coup were overly concerned about the “country’s backwardness, poverty and stagnation.”  They further declared that “the reasons of the country’s backwardness as being the results of a “few self-centered persons, instead of working for the common interest, have chosen to indulge in selfishness and nepotism.”  In particular, Mr. Girmame Neway, who was the first modern mayor of Jigjiga, is believed to have advocated a populist message - to reinvest taxes in the very regions that they are collected from, received warm reception from the Somalis.  His proposal to the Imperial court – to bring meaningful development into the Somali region - sat well with Somalis of all stripes.   

Repression and Exile of Radicals

Soon after Girmame Naway, a graduate of Colombia University, who at the time of the coup was the administrator of Jigjiga, was killed while escaping to Somalia, radical elites both in Addis Ababa University and in Europe as well as in North America decidedly leaped into a more serious political discourse.  The three intractable issues of how to prioritize party tasks, land to the tillers and the national question captured the centerpiece of all future political debates.  The government of Haile Sellasie, however, responded with more repressions and killings of student leaders.  It was the 1969 University repression and the killing of some well known radical activists (Tilahun Gizaw, a Tigre, was killed on December of the same year) that convinced leaders of the student movement that the time has come to carry the struggle to the next level – Establishment of a Political party.

In response to the above-mentioned repressions, many of the leaders escaped to Somalia, Sudan. But most importantly, several more visible leaders of the Movement successfully hijacked planes in three different occasions.  In all cases, the hijackers were granted asylum in Algeria, where they established one of the most radical groups hereafter called the Algiers Group. 

The last and fourth unsuccessful attempt to hijack a plane resulted in the death of some luminary leaders including the “irrepressible” Wallelign Mekonen, a champion of the national question of self-determination including session, and six other comrades.  Wallelign was the first ever in the history of Ethiopia who publicly articulated the significance of the nationality issue in the body politic of the country.  To a large crowd at Addis Ababa University, he retorted that Ethiopia is a prison of many nations and nationalities including “Oromos, Tigres, Gurages and, however much you may not like it, there is the Somali question.”  Many consider this speech, particularly the last comment, as the watershed and defying moment in the history of the Ethiopian intellectual movement.  It also marked the degree to which the movement’s vision for Ethiopia differed from that one held by the emperor and his old guard.

Infrastructure of the Movement

No movement or political organization could be effective without instruments of communication with its members as well as with the society at large.  It is through organs of media, either in print or in air waves, where revolutionary messages are delivered.  In the Ethiopian case, there were only two venues open to achieve this goal.  One was through foreign-based intellectual publications. Periodicals such as Challenge, Combat, land Tenure News Letter (University of Wisconsin), Struggle, Tegilachin (Struggle in English) were some of the effective and widely circulation publications.  All these periodical periodicals were legal in America and Europe but were banned in Ethiopia. 

There were also numerous local underground publications.  The most powerful included Democracia (EPRP), Lab Ader (Proliteriate EPRP) Sefiw Hizbi Dimsi (Voice of the Masses – MEISON) and ELEAMA, a publication of the underground labor movement. Most of these publications were circulated throughout Ethiopia as well as throughout the world where there was an Ethiopian Exilee community. (This author, with other folks from Harar, Gursum and Addis Ababa, used to read Combat, Democracia and Struggle in Mogadishu at a house located in Hawlwadaag neighborhood.)  One can argue that one of the greatest achievements of the movement was its ability to harness the talents of its elites to critically think and pass on ideas to the society at large. 

The gains in these political voices lie in that by far they succeeded to unite all the armed movements, such as Tigray Poeples Liberation Front (TPLF), Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), Western Somali Liberation Front (WSLF), Ethiopian Poeples Revolutionary Party (EPRP) in their world outlook, especially around the question of nations and nationalities.

Emergence of Political Parties and their Ideological Conflicts in the Diaspora

In addition to the group that safely landed in Algeria, several other prominent leaders of the movement at the University fled to America and Europe. Once safe in exile, to their dismay, they found out that the movement did not make the long awaited transition from student movement to a political movement guided by a political party.  They also found out that radical intellectuals-mainly in Europe and in North America-who were older and more educated than the radicals back home - failed to make a serious and timely analysis of the concrete conditions that the country was facing at the time.  Hailu Fidda, an Oromo intellectual, was one of the few leaders in Europe who understood such a need and wanted to seize the opportunity.  In 1968, during the 8th Ethiopian Student Union in Europe (ESUE), in Hamburg, Germany, Hailu Fidda, a resident of France at the time, held a secret meeting with some key participants to press them with the need to form a political party.  Here, Mr. Fidda planted the seeds for a future political party that later on came to be known as the All Ethiopian Socialist Movement (MEISON).

In the Algiers front, by 1970, radical exilees came to the conclusion that the time for political debate was over.  According to Tadese Kiflu, during its years of studying political issues of local and global significance (from 1967 – 1970), the Algiers group succeeded to achieve three goals: First, it synthesized and decided on an Ethiopian suited version of political Marxist exegesis. Second, it equally succeeded to condense political theories to a few formulas that can easily be applied to the Ethiopian condition. Third, it established a framework of an ideological consensus that brought several groups together under the umbrella of what came to be known as the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Party (EPRP).  Berhane Maskal (Tigre), a former university radical and a member of a group that successfully hijacked a plane to Algeria emerged as the leader of the EPRP.  Under Berhane Maskal, EPRP gained wide acceptance among radical groups in North America and inside Ethiopia, while MEISON had most of its membership in Western Europe.  The question that future historians would evaluate would be whether these groups were in haste to declare political party formation without adequate ground work being readied in the home front.

Ideological Conflicts of the Parties

MEISON and EPRP, although they shared a lot of common beliefs about the future of Ethiopia, were divided and ultimately violently clashed based on three fundamental issues:

1.         The correct analysis of the political conditions: MEISON espoused to the theory that the primary task of the revolutionary elite, both as an individual and as a party, was to educate and raise the political consciousness of the masses and ready them for the “revolution.”  In short, they wanted a gradual revolution. On the other hand, EPRP believed that the immediate task of the radical intellectual was to create an organization capable of guiding and leading the revolution that has already started.  In short, whereas MEISON felt that the conditions were not ripe for an all out struggle, EPRP maintained that the revolution was already under way and radical intellectuals were in a critical period to participate or be left out.  In practice, while EPRP believed that joining the ongoing nationalist struggle (such as the ones lead by the Western Somali Liberation Front – WSLF- the Oromo Liberation Front – OLF- the Tigry Liberation Front – TPLF) was part and parcel of the overall revolutionary obligations, MEISON opposed any kind of armed struggle. 

2.        Organizational Task:  Another related difference between EPRP and MEISON was on the immediate organizational task to be embarked on.  Such a difference involved whether to commence an armed struggle or not. MEISON believed that an armed struggle was the wrong prescription and instead recommended mass education and mobilization.  EPRP, although acknowledging the need to do political work and social mobilization, argued that this could be done most effectively while perusing the armed struggle that has already started in the countryside, especially in the southern regions such as the Somali, Oromo or Sidamo regions.  One of the radicals, Senney Like, who later on became a notorious Fiddist, as MEISON members who closely worked with the Dergi after the 1974 revolution were known, summed up the differences between the two positions in the metaphorical question of “Bole or Bale?”  The implication was that those who had opposed the commencement of armed struggle return back to Ethiopia through “Bole,” the Airport in Addis Ababa.  Those who opted for armed struggle will sneak in the back to rural Ethiopia via Bale, where Somali and Oromo nationalist struggles were being waged at the time. In this connection, EPRP appealed for help to the Somali government and was so accorded.  The first group to start an armed struggle, Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Organization (Army) released their first communiqué from Mogadishu.  MEISON became to the Dergi what the 1970s Public Relations Office (PRO) was to Barre’s government.

3.         National Question:  The third and most contentious issue was the issue of nationalities and the question of self –determination.  In an article under a pen name, Tilahun Takale, an article believed to be a pen name for Berhane Maskal who was the leader of the Algiers group, persuasively argued that Ethiopia was undoubtedly a “prison of nations” and as such must be dismantled through the implementation of the rights of nations to self-determination, including and up to secession and independence.  The Somali question was at the forefront in the agenda for whom the EPRP program advocated self-determination including secession.  The MEISON party opposed this position, but advocated the resolution of the nationality problem through a system of regional autonomy, whether it is the Somali question or the Oromo question.  Meanwhile, Tigre, Somali and Oromo groups strongly supported the concept of “self determination.”

The Cost of Conflict

It was difficult for Ethiopia’s radical movement to avoid division among its ranks.  The issues mentioned above appealed to the emotions and level of maturity of the youth leading the movement at the time.  However, once two distinct parties emerged, members stayed within their respective party to which they belonged.  The most regrettable part about the history of Ethiopia’s radical movements took place after the Dergi usurped power in the February 1974 revolution.  Hailu Fidda’s MEISON party decided to achieve its main political objective short of taking power, notably the mobilization of the masses, by working with the Dergi.  Leaders of MEISON also decided to work with the Dergi based on the belief that the Dergi, which was a committee representing all the different division of the national army, was the only organized body in the political scene of the country.

The theoretical difference between MEISON and EPRP was translated into a violent action.  MEISON was armed by the Dergi and patrolled the street of Ethiopia’s major cities.  EPRP also decided to wage an armed struggle both in the urban and rural areas of the country.  By 1978-79, the war between these former comrades has claimed the life of thousands of High School kids, University students, and intellectuals who were suspected of either working for or sympathizing with the clandestine organization of EPRP. The number of death in the leadership of the EPRP is enormous. Suffice it to say that Berhane Maskal, the erstwhile leader of EPRP and most of the party’s Central Committee, including Tasfaye Dabasiey (Tigre), were killed.  Equally painful about this chapter of the history of the radical movements in Ethiopia is that once the Dergi liquidated the EPRP, it turned on against MEISON leaders and took the life of the entire leadership including Hailu Fidda and Sanney Like.  The division within the radical elite class and its devastating impact on the life of the intelligentsia is said to be the single most important weakness of the movement.

But the success story is also noteworthy. The Ethiopian radical movement succeeded to create multi-national, multi-religious political movements grounded on mature political and organizational skills.  In the 1980s, most of the country’s High School activists, almost all the Students in the university, all the organizations representing the organized labor, Taxi drivers, employees in the service industry, a good portion of the elites in the army, and many members of the society at large either sympathized with either nationalist groups or the EPRP.  Owing to the Dergi’s red-terror, EPRP has been decimated as a party with the same stroke that the Dergi destroyed Ethiopia’s fabric. However, the political road map and the mature and high level political consciousness inherited from this period heavily weighs today on the country’s thinkers and the struggle for making the rights of nationalities a permanent feature of the country’s governance.

The EPRDF Revolution and the Remaking of Ethiopia

The defeat of the Dergi in 1991 and the long march of the forces of Tigray Liberation Front (TPLF) from the harsh terrain of Asimba to the streets of Addis Ababa brought the debate on the Ethiopian political discourse from the periphery to the center.  What has been debated hitherto in California, France or Algeries was now being implemented by the top echelon of EPRDF, and that has changed Ethiopia for good. Nothing more than the ethnic base federal system of the country expresses the political heritage of the past revolutionary effort and the debt paid to the revolution.

The new map of Ethiopia that was promulgated in 1991 permanently divides the country into 13 main regions designated for Afars, Amharas, Oromos, Somalis and Tigreans, Southern Ethiopians and others. Harar and Dire Dawa are charter cities with special protection for minority groups. What can we make out of this new map which the Council of Representatives in Addis Ababa has adopted?

The easy answer for those who oppose the reapportionment of Ethiopia into ethnic based federal system has been to argue that Ethiopia is fatally broken up into mini-independent states. This thinking is based on a "conspiracy theory" that the EPRDF, a coalition dominated by the Tigrean Peoples' Liberation Front (TPLF), is collaborating with the EPLF to break Ethiopia into weaker and warring entities.

If you ask those who subscribe to this thesis why the EPRDF would do such a thing, the usual answer is simplistic: In order to ensure the independence of Eritrea, Ethiopia must be destroyed to a point of no threat to the former. But after 20 years of rule by EPRDF, reality on the ground did not bear such an alarmist thesis. Do supporters of this theory seriously believe that the EPRDF has so little interest in keeping Ethiopia together and so much to gain from ensuring the supremacy of Eritrea? Or is this just a means to mobilize the common folks?

There are profound issues which the conspiracy thinking masks. It is the debate between the interests of "centralists" versus "regionalists." Wallalaign Mekonen, the slain student leader, in a 1969 speech at Haile-Selassie I University said that "there is the Oromo nation... and whether you like it or not, there is the Somali nation in Ethiopia." Although the emergence of the debate in its modern form is as recent as this famous speech, the issues themselves ("centralism vs. regionalism") dates back to the formation of the modern Ethiopian state. With the establishment of Addis Ababa out of an unknown village called Finfine, Menelik, and later Haile-Selassie, created and empowered a new breed which was largely Amhara, but also drew on elite Tigreans, Christianized Oromos and others who make up the Shoa-based ruling elite. On the other hand, it is the silent majority such as Somalis, Tigreans, Oromos, Afars or poor Amharas that lends credence to the concept of the new map and ethnic federalism. People associate regionalism with local empowerment and social justice.

The essence of the struggle in Ethiopia is and will always be that of local control over resources, social justice and political openness. But this time around, the combination of two indigenous factors make issues hotly debated: There has been a sharp increase in the political awareness, culture and skills of the regionalists and the EPRDF has so far responded to them favorably in exchange for acceptance of its program.

If this reciprocal relationship is discomforting to the "centralists" then there is certainly a need for a coalition with a "centralist" orientation. A third view which seeks equilibrium of most of the interests of the country is not out of the question.  The "regionalists" and the "centralists" do not have to declare war on each other to resolve the "Ethiopian debate".

One need not subscribe to a "conspiracy theory" to understand what can and can’t break up Ethiopia. Lack of political discourse, refusal to compromise and rejection of any concessions to opposing parties can undoubtedly break up the country. Whether current EPRDF centralization policies give way to a genuine participatory democracy remains to be seen.

In the mean time, "centralists" need to focus their energy not on the merits or demerits of the conspiracy thinking, but on forming alliances with different groups to compete effectively with the EPRDF coalition.  Twenty years after the ethnic based map is promulgated, the opposition parties remain reluctant to reach out to ethnic groups, and have yet to appreciate the spirits of nationalities’ rights.

I have prepared these remarks mainly by drawing on my experience as a young boy growing up during the turbulent period of the Dergi in Ethiopia.  I also have heavily relied on Tedesse Kifle’s “The Generation,” and John Markakis book “National and Class Conflict in the Horn.”  Moreover, I have relied on my friend Hailu Gorgis, who was one of the leaders of the leaders of the revolution in Assimba, Tigray, and Hussein Haji Dahir, Senior Policy Researcher at the U.S. A. Congress who helped me unearth several key documents. I am, however, responsible for the contents and form of these remarks. In part II, I will assess how much of the goals of the Ethiopian revolution have trickled down to the Somali region.

Faisal Roble
Los Angeles, CA


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