Where is Ambassador Seyoum Mesfin the ex-guerrilla fighter who, as a Prime Minister, was reported to have made authoritarianism respectable – died in a Belgian hospital in 2012. Although political pundits thought in Meles’s absence Ethiopia would plunge into crisis immediately, his successors managed to stave off social unrest until protest rallies started to emerge in the Oromia region following the unveiling of the Addis Abeba Master Plan in April 2014. Months of sustained protests resulted in hundreds of deaths and even more people being imprisoned. However, the draconian measures did little to slow the protests.
The EPRDF government eventually backed off from its aggressive actions against protestors and shelved its ambitious master plan, but it was too late. The protest had picked up steam and expanded to several other regions, including the Amhara region. Protestors demanded rights, representation, and economic justice. Tellingly, these protests erupted a few months after EPRDF claimed to have won 100% of the 2015 elections and only months after President Obama praised the government as being
The TPLF-led EPRDF government could not sustain its political power. In the backdrop of a fierce intra-party scuffle, in April 2018, Abiy Ahmed, son of an Amhara mother and an Oromo-Muslim father, and a member of the OPDO, ascended to power. With his promise of leading Ethiopia through transition to democracy, Abiy immediately began introducing a plethora of reforms, including inviting home all opposition parties and appointing some prominent public figures to key positions within his government. These and many other earlier reforms won him almost universal support from Ethiopians and the international community. In 2019 he won the Nobel Peace Prize for brokering a peace-deal with neighboring Eritrea, ending a two-decade long stalemate, following the 1998 border war between the two countries that claimed more than a hundred thousand lives.
From then on ethnicity became a determinant factor and dominant political currency in the Ethiopian politics, bringing with it, in the words of the late Donald Levine of University of Chicago, an “epidemic of ethnic and regional hostilities”. In addition to changing the way the country organized itself politically, EPRDF also sought to reframe the very foundation of what it means to be an Ethiopian and how Ethiopia itself came to be. Not unexpectedly, EPRDF targeted schools and educational institutions in particular as spaces where new narratives of Ethiopian history could be inculcated, so much so that Ethiopian universities became flashpoints of ethnic conflicts among students. Walleligne’s abstract, and as he himself admitted in his writing, incomplete, idea found a home in the curriculum.
With this entrenchment of a “new” history of Ethiopia and a generation educated in the new curriculum and the alienation of “pan-Ethiopianism” from the Ethiopian body politic, it seemed that the “old Ethiopia” had died and been buried. But, as the 2005 Ethiopian election showed, a pan-Ethiopian party called the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) almost clinched power in major cities and rural areas if it had not been suppressed and finally expelled from Ethiopian political landscape. In fact, it was that election that gave the close to two decades-long ethnic politics championed by EPRDF, a real challenge and, more importantly, sowed the earliest seeds of the revival of pan-Ethiopian politics.