Ethiopia experienced two political crises in the second half of the 20th century, one in 1974 and another in 1991. The 1991 crisis was believed to have brought democracy to the country, which suffered for years under autocratic and dictatorial rule. Right after the fall of the military regime, a transitional government was established to lead the process of making Ethiopia into a democratic state. The term of the transitional government came to end when the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) was declared the winner of the May 1995 elections.[1] The EPRDF consisted of four political parties, namely Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPFL), Amhara Democratic Party (ADP), Oromo Democratic Party (ODP) and Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM). ADP and ODP were originally known as Amhara National Democratic Movement and Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation, respectively.  The transitional process was dominated by the EPRDF, and other prominent political parties, such as the Oromo Liberation Front, did not take part in the election because of the dissatisfaction with the EPRDF.[2]

In 1995, Ethiopia was declared a federal state under the Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, with nine regional states and two city administrations.[3] Most of the states are divided along ethnic lines, and as such Ethiopia can be considered an example of ethnic federalism. However, the political sphere was dominated by the ethnic groups within the EPRDF coalition.[4] Even within the EPRDF, there was friction regarding power-sharing, as TPLF was dominating the coalition.[5] On top of this, the EPRDF’s promise of democratising Ethiopia and guaranteeing the human rights entrenched in the constitution were not fully realised under the rule of the EPRDF.[6]

Grievances and resentment towards the EPRDF kept growing, which finally led to unprecedented protests in 2015.[7] Although the government tried to bring an end to the protests by declaring a state of emergency and at the same time promising to undertake deep reforms, it did not succeed.[8] The protest, which started in Oromia Regional State, swiftly spread to other parts of the country and became a nationwide movement. This finally led to the resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn[9] and coming to power of Abiy Ahmed in 2018.[10]

Abiy Ahmed began his term with a reform agenda rooted in medemer, meaning synergy, with a vision of transforming Ethiopia’s political, social and economic landscape.[11] Abiy took rapid measures in terms of releasing political prisoners, widening the civic space, upholding press freedom and moving to reconcile Ethiopia and Eretria.[12] Despite these changes, Ethiopia has been grappling with socioeconomic and political problems. For instance, in 2018, Ethiopia ranked top for internally displaced persons globally, with a figure of 2.9 million.[13] The transition happening since 2018 is not a full-fledged transition because EPRDF continues to be in power, despite changing its name to the Prosperity Party. The TPLF left the collation and other regional parties joined the Prosperity Party.

Historical Context

Ethiopia’s political problems were not born when the EPRDF came to power. They precede the adoption of the federal system. The problems are multifaceted and several ethnic, religious and political groups have different, perhaps antagonistic, perspectives on the history of the country and its ethnic relations. There are historical accounts that have contributed to ethnic tensions. The country’s long-standing socio-political and economic systems have shaped the problems the country is witnessing to date. For instance, for centuries Ethiopia was ruled by undemocratic ‘leaders’ who came to power not by public election but by claiming that they were elected by God to rule.[14] Hence, there was no separation between state and religion. In fact, Orthodox Christianity used to be the state religion until the Marxist-Leninist ideology was adopted in 1974.

In terms of the economy, the feudal system, in which peasants paid one-third (in some cases half) of their crop production to landlords, used to be the dominant system.[15] The grievances emerging from this exploitative system resulted in protests in several parts of the country—the notable ones being the Bale and Gojjam peasants’ rebellions. The unjust nature of the feudal system was one of the causes of the “Land to the Tiller” slogan that inspired the student movement of the 1960s. In terms of social relations and culture, not all ethnic groups were privileged to learn and work in their mother tongue until the 1991 transition. For example, historically, Amharic has been the dominant language and is still the only working language of the federal government.[16] Although Ethiopia is home to more than 85 ethnic groups and cultures, this diversity is not appreciated and they have not enjoyed equal protection. Hence, several groups resorted to military means of bringing the repressive system to an end. It is against this background that the rise of military groups in the 1960s and afterwards should be understood

Transitional Justice Mechanisms

Ethiopia embraced a multiparty political system in 1991, following the downfall of the military socialist regime. Several political parties participated in the election in 1995, but the opposition parties were not strong enough to challenge the rule of the EPRDF. Dissent voices were suppressed and the EPRFD remained the dominant political actor for years.[17]

Following the reforms of 2018, with a view to widening the political space and ensuring an inclusive transition, the government enacted Proclamation 1096/2018. The main targets of the proclamation were those who were prosecuted and convicted of, charged with and suspected of terrorism while they were exercising their political rights.[18] The government acknowledged that anti-terrorism laws were applied improperly and removed three organisations from its list of terrorist organisations.[19] As a result, members of these groups returned home to continue peaceful political resistance. They returned with their military wings, which were later integrated into the national military and police after reform training. However, the door for amnesty applications was open for only six months.[20]

Hundreds of political prisoners were released and prisons known for torture were shut down.[21] Moreover, the government invited exiled individuals and organisations to return in order to broaden the political spectrum. To enhance the participation of the diaspora in the transition, Prime Minister Abiy and other government officials paid several visits to and held discussions with Ethiopians living in Europe and North America.[22]


 After 2018, Ethiopia pursued prosecutions of individuals suspected of committing gross human rights violations and grand corruption. The largest category of accused is security forces and intelligence personnel suspected of extrajudicial killings, torture, rape, arbitrary arrest and incommunicado detention of individuals, mostly members of opposition political parties.[23] For instance, the attorney general charged former Somali Regional State President Abdi Muhamud Omer and other security and military officers for inciting violence that claimed the lives of hundreds of people.[24] The violence occurred along ethnic and religious lines and resulted in the displacement of millions of people from the region and the destruction of property.[25]

Another category of accused is high public officials, mostly leaders of the largest military-run industrial conglomerate, the Metals and Engineering Corporation (METEC), who are suspected of committing grand corruption.[26] The suspects include former METEC Director-General Kinfe Dagnew and 63 former military and intelligence officials.[27] Thus, prosecutions are part of the government’s efforts to end impunity and ensure accountability.

Reconciliation Commission

Reconciliation is another transitional justice measure the government put in place to deal with past injustices, conflict and human rights violations. The House of Peoples Representatives enacted Proclamation 1102/2018 to establish the Ethiopian Reconciliation Commission. The objective of the commission is “to maintain peace justice, national unity and consensus and also Reconciliation among Ethiopian Peoples.”[28] According to the proclamation, reconciliation refers to “establishing values of forgiveness for the past, lasting love, solidarity and mutual understanding by identifying reasons of conflict, animosity that are [sic] occurred due to conflicts, misapprehension, developed disagreement and revenge.”[29]

The commission was established to serve as a platform for the victims of gross human rights abuses to be heard and perpetrators to disclose their actions.[30] It is expected to identify and ascertain the nature, causes and dimensions of the repeated gross violation of human rights to fully respect and implement basic human rights recognised under the constitution and international and continental agreements that Ethiopia ratified.[31] Although the commission is independent in performing its activities, it is accountable to the prime minister.[32]

The members of the commission are people from different ethnic, religious and professional backgrounds. Some of the prominent figures among the 41 individuals appointed by the HPR as members of the Reconciliation Commission include: Solomon Ayele Dersso, the chairperson of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights; Yetnebersh Nigussie, a lawyer and disability rights activist; Berhanu Nega, opposition political party leader; Cardinal Berhane Eyesus, the head of the Ethiopian Catholic Church; and Haji Omar Idris, President of the Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council.[33]

The commission established its administrative units and announced a three-year plan in April 2020.[34] It also set up a website where people can not only follow its activities but also submit complaints and information related to its mandate.[35] The commission has been holding consultation meetings with concerned stakeholders.

Public Apology

Prime Minister Abiy admitted in the parliament that the government used torture and other unlawful techniques on suspects, acknowledging that such techniques amounted to terrorism by the state.[36] In addition to acknowledging state-sponsored human rights violations, he offered an apology and promised to institute guarantees of non-repetition.[37]

Legal Reform

Another obstacle to the democratic process in Ethiopia was the legal system, particularly repressive and restrictive laws. Understanding this problem, the Office of the Attorney General established the Advisory Council for Law and Justice Reform to advise the Ethiopian government in its pursuit of a comprehensive reform of the legal and justice system.[38] Progress has been made in amending laws that were repressive or restrictive in how they were crafted or applied. For instance, the highly criticised Anti-Terrorism Proclamation 652/2009 was replaced by Prevention and Suppression of Terrorism Crimes Proclamation 1176/2020. Under Proclamation 652/2009, among other things, there was a vaguely worded provision that punished acts relating to “encouragement of terrorism.”[39] Under the new law, this has been replaced with the more precise word “incitement.”[40] The same is true for the Organisations of Civil Societies Proclamation 1113/2019, which repealed the Charities and Societies Proclamation 621/2009

New Developments and Challenges

Despite the reforms and progress made so far, there are some challenges to the process of transitioning to democratic rule. The first is political tension between the federal government and the Tigray Regional State government. This tension started manifesting vividly when the TPLF refused the merger of the EPRDF coalition to establish the Prosperity Party.[41] The friction continued when Tigray Regional State established its own regional Election Board and conducted elections despite the federal government’s decision to postpone elections due to COVID-19.[42] In November 2020, a military confrontation began between the two, leading to the deaths of hundreds and displacement of thousands of people.[43] What makes this worse is the involvement of the Amhara Regional State Liyu Hail (special force) and militia on the side of the National Defense Force, which has undermined the already fragile relationship between the two regions.[44]

Another challenge is growing ethnic tension resulting in the deaths of innocent people and internal displacement. For instance, in 2020, many people were killed in interethnic conflicts in places like Metekel[45] and Gura Ferda.[46] This is not to mention the ethnic conflict that occurred in Somali Regional State and resulted in the displacement of more than one million people.[47] Thus, the trajectory of the transition is not linear and several factors may enhance or hinder its progress. Internal issues as well as the geopolitics of the Horn of Africa have implications for the prospect of transitional justice in Ethiopia. The postponed election will be conducted in 2021. As of now, the political situation in Ethiopia is volatile.


[1] Terrence Lyons, ‘Closing the Transition: the May 1995 Elections in Ethiopia,’ 34 Journal of Modern African Studies (1996) at 121. EPRDF was a coalition of four major political parties from Oromia, Tigray, Amhara and Southern Nation and Nationalities Regional States.

[2] Ibid., 126.

[3] Article 47 of the FDRE Constitution.

[4]  Endalcachew Bayeh, ‘Single-Party Dominance In Ethiopia: FPTP Electoral System and Parliamentary Government System as Contributing Factors,’ 20(4) RUDN Journal of Political Science (2018) at 506.

[5] Erwin Van Veen, ‘Ethiopia’s political settlement and the organization of security’ (2016) at 20, https://www.clingendael.org/sites/default/files/pdf/power_politics_and_security_in_ethiopia.pdf (accessed 3 December 2020).

[6] Amnesty International, Ethiopia: 25 Years of Human Rights Violations (2016), https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/AFR2541782016ENGLISH.pdf (accessed 3 December 2020).

[7] Awol Allo, ‘Protests, Terrorism, and Development: On Ethiopia’s Perpetual State of Emergency,’ 19(1) Yale Human Rights and Development Law Journal (2017) at 170-175. See also Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, Country Report: Popular Mobilisation in Ethiopia: An Investigation of Activity from November 2015 to May 2017 (2017).

[8] Allo Supra n 7 at 175. See also Zemelak Ayitenew Ayele, ‘Corruption in Ethiopia: A Merely Technical Problem or a Major Constitutional Crisis?’ (2017).

[9] Paul Schemm, ‘Ethiopia’s prime minister resigns amid political turmoil,’ Washington Post, 15 February 2018.

[10] ‘Abiy Ahmed sworn in as Ethiopia’s prime minister,’ AlJazeera News (2 April 2018), https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/04/abiye-ahmed-sworn-ethiopia-prime-minister-180402082621161.html (accessed 1 December 2020).

[11] Sara Mokaddem, ‘Abiy Ahmed’s “Medemer” reforms: Can it ensure sustainable growth for Ethiopia and what are the challenges facing the new government?’ (2019), https://www.policycenter.ma/sites/default/files/Policy%20brief%20Sara%20Mokaddem%20Anglais.pdf (accessed 1 December 2020).

[12] Aly Verjee and Payton Knopf, ‘A Year of Change in Ethiopia’ (2 April 2019), https://www.usip.org/publications/2019/04/year-change-ethiopia (accessed 2 December 2020).

[13] Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre Global Report on Internal Displacement (2019) 6 (1 December 2020).

[14] For instance, the title of the Last Emperor was Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah Haile Selassie I Elect of God, Emperor of Ethiopia, and this was included in the laws codified in the 1960s, such as the Civil Code and the Penal Code.

[15] John M. Cohen, ‘Peasants and Feudalism in Africa: The Case of Ethiopia,’ 8(1) Canadian Journal of African Studies (1974) at 155-157.

[16] Article 5(2) of the constitution.

[17] Human Rights Watch, Suppressing Dissent: Human Rights Abuses and Political Repression in Ethiopia’s Oromia Region (2005).

[18] Article 4(2) of Proclamation 1096/2018.

[19] These are Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), and Patriot Ginbot 7. Hamza Mohamed, ‘Ethiopia removes OLF, ONLF and Ginbot 7 from terror list,’ Aljazeera News (5 July 2018), https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/7/5/ethiopia-removes-olf-onlf-and-ginbot-7-from-terror-list.

[20] Article 7(4) of Proclamation 1096/2018.

[21] Sella Oneko, ‘Ethiopia releases high profile political prisoners’ (2018), https://www.dw.com/en/ethiopia-releases-high-profile-political-prisoners/a-42590273 (accessed 3 December 2020). See also Elias Meseret, ‘Ethiopia closes notorious prison as internet service returns,’ AP News (6 April 2018), https://us.search.yahoo.com/search?fr=yhs-invalid&p=Ethiopia+closes+notorious+prison+as+internet+service+returns.

[22] Hannah Giorgis, ‘Abiy Ahmed Meets the Ethiopian Diaspora,’ The Atlantic, 4 August 2018.

[23] ‘Ethiopia: Arrest of dozens of security officials a first step towards accountability,’ Amnesty International News (12 November 2018), https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2018/11/ethiopia-arrest-of-dozens-of-security-officials-a-first-step-towards-accountability/. See also, United States Department of State, Ethiopia 2019 Human Rights Report, https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/ETHIOPIA-2019-HUMAN-RIGHTS-REPORT.pdf (accessed 3 December 2020).

[24] Mahlet Fasil, ‘Ethiopia Charges Ex-Somali Region President, 46 Others With Inciting Violence,’ Addis Standard News (30 January 2019).

[25] Tobias Hagmann and Mustafe Mohamed Abdi, ‘Inter-ethnic violence in Ethiopia’s Somali Regional State, 2017–2018’ (2020), https://www.lse.ac.uk/ideas/Assets/Documents/Conflict-Research-Programme/crp-memos/Inter-ethnic-conflicts-SRS-Final-April-2020.pdf (accessed 4 December 2020).

[26] Morris Kiruga, ‘Ethiopia arrests government officials over corruption,’ Africa Report (18 April 2019). See also Seid Hassan, ‘Corruption, state capture, and the effectiveness of anticorruption agency in post-communist Ethiopia,’ Economic and Political Studies (2019) at 14-15.

[27] ‘Ethiopia Arrests Ex-Head of Army Firm as Crackdown Targets Security Services,’ VOA News (13 November 2018).

[28] Article 5 of Proclamation 1102/2018.

[29] Article 2(3) of Proclamation 1102/2018.

[30] Preamble of Proclamation 1102/2018, para 3.

[31] Preamble of Proclamation 1102/2018, para 2.

[32] Articles 3(4) and Article 13 of Proclamation 1102/2018.

[33] ‘Ethiopia named members of National Reconciliation Commission,’ Borkena News (5 February 2019), https://borkena.com/2019/02/05/ethiopia-named-members-of-national-reconciliation-commission/ (accessed 4 December 2020).

[34] ‘The Ethiopian Reconciliation Commission Announces a Three-Year Plan,’ Ezega News (30 April 2020), https://www.ezega.com/News/NewsDetails/7075/Ethiopian-Reconciliation-Commission-Announces-Three-Year-Plan (accessed 4 December 2020).

[35] See the official website of the Ethiopian Reconciliation Commission: https://www.ethiopianrc.org/.

[36] Human Rights Watch, World Report: Events of 2018 (2019) at 214.

[37] Awol Kassim Allo, ‘Torture, state terrorism and Ethiopia’s transformation,’ Aljazeera Opinion (23 Jun 2018), https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2018/6/23/torture-state-terrorism-and-ethiopias-transformation/.

[38] The Advisory Council for Law and Justice Reform was established by Directive 1/2018 of the Office of the Attorney General.

[39] Article 6 of Proclamation 652/2009.

[40] Article 10 of Proclamation 1176/2020.

[41] Abdur Rahman Alfa Shaban, ‘Tigray bloc rejects “unlawful” merger of Ethiopia ruling coalition,’ Africa News (21 November 2019), https://www.africanews.com/2019/11/21/tigray-bloc-rejects-unlawful-merger-of-ethiopia-ruling-coalition//.

[42] Simon Marks and Abdi Latif Dahir, ‘Ethiopian Region Holds Local Elections in Defiance of Prime Minister,’ New York Times, 10 September 2020.

[43] Giulia Paravicini and Dawit Endeshaw, ‘Ethiopia sends army into Tigray region, heavy fighting reported,’ Reuters (4 November 2020), https://www.reuters.com/article/us-ethiopia-conflict-idUSKBN27K0ZS.

[44] ‘Factbox: The forces fighting in Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict,’ Reuters (13 November 2020), https://www.reuters.com/article/us-ethiopia-conflict-military-factbox/factbox-the-forces-fighting-in-ethiopias-tigray-conflict-idUSKBN27T14J.

[45] ‘12 killed in latest attack in western Ethiopia,’ News24 (13 October 2020), https://www.news24.com/news24/africa/news/12-killed-in-latest-attack-in-western-ethiopia-20201013.

[46] ‘Bench Sheko Gura Farda massacre:at least 31 innocent civilians killed,’ Borkena News (23 October 2020), https://borkena.com/2020/10/23/gura-farda-bench-sheko-massacreat-least-31-innocent-civilians-killed/.

[47] Allo, Supra n 37.

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