Systematic Oppression in Ethiopia

What is Systematic Oppression?

It is the systematic mistreatment of people solely because of their membership in a social identity group with the support and enforcement of the society and its institutions, such as the legal, educational, health care, government, media, and criminal justice systems.

Ethiopia is an empire that has historically relied on the systematic oppression of minority or marginalized groups.

Ethiopian emperors, most notably Menelik II and Haile Selassie, enforced cultural and linguistic assimilation to create a homogenous, unitary Ethiopian identity, establishing systems of oppression that persist in Ethiopia today.

History of Systematic Oppression in Ethiopia: The Decline of the Kingdom of Axum

Modern-day Ethiopia is predated by the Kingdom of Axum (current-day Eritrea, northern Ethiopia, parts of Eastern Sudan, and Southern Yemen), which became a regional trading power in the 2nd century CE. The Kingdom of Axum existed from approximately 100 to 940 CE.

Following the decline of the Kingdom of Axum, the Tigrayan people opposed the purported Solomonic legitimacy to the throne proposed by the newly emerged Amhara rulers.

In the 14th century, the publication of the book of the Kebre Negast (Glory of the

Kings), a collection of legends related to the birth of Menelik I, associated Ethiopia with the Judeo-Christian tradition and provided a basis for Ethiopian national unity through Semitic culture and the Amharic language.

Among the ruling elite, the Kebre Negast instilled a sense of entitlement and purpose to maintain the Ethiopian empire through a unitary state structure and cultural homogeneity.

History of Systematic Oppression in Ethiopia: Emperor Menelik II

Ethiopia is, by definition, an empire.

Its current borders result from the ambitions, initiative, and ruthlessness of Menelik II in the late 19th century. Menelik II conquered the lands and peoples within the borders of current-day Ethiopia.

Menelik II’s empire building project marginalized indigenous populations and local peoples in a feudal monarchy.

Menelik II was ruthless in forcing minority or marginalized groups to assimilate into a homogenous “Ethiopian” identity. According to some historians, Menelik’s forces cut off the genitalia of Tigrayan men and women in an effort to terrorize and make sure no resistance to his rule emerged. In Oromia, Menelik’s soldiers cut the tongues of those who spoke out against the Abyssinian invasion and mutilated hands and breasts to terrorize the population.

History of Systematic Oppression in Ethiopia: Emperor Haile Selassie

Haile Selassie further consolidated the gains of Menelik II through the use of violence and obstruction of the political, economic, and social development of certain ethnic groups.

The Oromo people and other minority nationalities suffered greatly at the hands of Haile Selassie’s leaders. Their culture, language, customs, and traditions were oppressed and subjugated.

Tigrayans remember Haile Selassie for allowing the British Royal Air Force to quell the first Woyane Rebellion by bombing the region and its civilians in 1943.

Further, many remember that in 1973, during the Wollo and Tigray famine, while millions of people died of starvation, Haile Selassie spent $35 million celebrating his 80th birthday.

A Switch from Systematic Oppression to Repression in Ethiopia - The Derg

Unlike Menelik II and Haile Selassie, the Derg military regime, which followed that of Haile Selassie, did not systematically target people based on their ethnicity, nationality or religion, but repressed all those who stood against the regime. Such repression led to much bloodshed during the Red Terror (1976 – 1978), which saw tens of thousands of brutal deaths in major cities across Ethiopia and current day Eritrea.

Tigrayans were once again targets during the Derg regime, as a consequence of the Derg’s war against Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Mengistu Haile Mariam, Chairman of the Derg, forced cultural assimilation in the name of ‘One Ethiopia’.

During a famine that affected one third of Ethiopia, he also used hunger as a weapon of war in Tigray, not allowing humanitarian aid to reach the region. The most lives were lost in Tigray and Wollo. Eritreans were also victims as the Derg inherited Haile Selassie’s war against the Eritrean liberation movements.

Systematic Oppression Under the EPRDF

The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a coalition of different regional political parties and representatives, developed a constitution for Ethiopia that intended to decentralize Ethiopia’s governance structure to overcome a feudal, imperial legacy and unitary state structure that undermined the rights of marginalized communities.

The EPRDF used federalism to create a system where oppressed groups would have a say in electing their local officials, maintaining their identity, culture, and languages without the intervention of the central government. Representation and self-determination were at the core of the constitution, but were not always followed through in practice.

The EPRDF is criticized for having repeatedly violated human rights during its rule. Most notably, the EPRDF is known for decades-long repression of political dissent, violating land rights of marginalized groups, attacks on peaceful protestors, lack of free speech, press, and academic freedom. For instance, in 2007 and 2008 as part of a conflict between the Ethiopian government and the Ethiopian Somali rebel movement, the Ethiopian federal army forcefully displaced Somalis in the Ogaden region, destroying their villages. Other human rights abuses included rape, civilian executions and mass detention.

The "Ethiopian" Identity

The aforementioned weakening of traditional regional rulers and centralization of the state greatly impacted marginalized populations. In particular, the Oromo and the Ogaden peoples in the south of Ethiopia were incorporated into the modern state of Ethiopia on unequal terms. As a result, they were forced to assimilate, occupy a lower status, and at times forgo their indigenous languages, culture, and religion.

The development of Ethiopia’s identity and image was built upon the forced assimilation and subjugation of marginalized and minority populations.

Current Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who came to power in 2018, and many of his supporters glorify Ethiopia’s dark past and venerate the emperors that carried out the appalling suppression of oppressed people within Ethiopia.

This period under Menelik II and later Haile Selassie, as stated by Abiy himself, is referred to as a period of “national glory.”

Systematic Oppression Under Abiy Ahmed

Following Abiy’s rise to power in 2018 as transitional Prime Minister, many had high hopes for the future of Ethiopia. His predecessor, Hailemariam Desalegn, released thousands of political prisoners in response to the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF)’s decision to implement reforms. Once in power, Abiy proceeded with more political reforms, which were short-lived.

Abiy also dismantled the EPRDF soon after coming to power to form a unitary party, known as Prosperity Party (PP). He promoted the ideology of “Medemer,” which means “coming together” in Amharic, pushing for a homogenous Ethiopian national identity that is comparable to the efforts of Haile Selassie and Menelik II to undermine the culture and identities of minority and marginalized ethnic groups across the country.

For many ethnic groups and nations, adhering to Abiy’s medemer-based unity is seen as a threat to the core principles of self-determination enshrined in the multinational federalist Ethiopian constitution.

The only way forward is to return to the international tenets of equity, human rights and self determination, which are essential for the foundation of governance free from systematic oppression.