Over the past three months, Ethiopia has experienced violent internal unrest in the Amhara, Oromia and Somali regions, each of which has a different reason for protesting. These protests are a continuation in a pattern of unrest caused by endemic ethnic tension and separatist movements. Potential instability in Ethiopia is concerning because it is a major U.S. ally in the Horn of Africa and one of the largest economies on the continent. However, because the protests remain regional and show no real signs of coming together, and the U.S. remains staunchly allied with the Ethiopian government, we do not see this unrest as a threat to the regime.

    • Ethiopia’s current protests are rooted in centuries-old ethnic tensions, which resulted from the expansionist efforts of past Ethiopian emperors and European influencers. Modern-day Ethiopia is an amalgamation of different ethnic groups, religions and semi-autonomous regions, and these differences are entrenched by geographic barriers.
    • The two largest ethnic groups, the Amhara and Oromia, are rebelling against the Tigrayan ethnic group that controls the government and the military, despite being only the fourth largest group in the country. Also, the Somali ethnic group claim they are unfairly targeted by the Ethiopian government and are campaigning for an independent state.
    • Ethiopia has historically been dependent on the patronage of a larger power — a role which the United States now occupies. Their shared interests and mutual dependency means that the Ethiopian government is supported by the Americans and thus capable of quelling any attempts at revolution.


This week’s Deep Dive is a follow-up on one of the items listed on our recently introduced Mid-Term Taskings related to unrest in Ethiopia. Waves of violent internal unrest throughout the country have swelled over the past three months. Three separate conflicts are currently playing out. However, our assessment is that they do not appear capable of deposing the current government due to a lack of cohesion among the protesting groups and U.S. interests in maintaining stability in Ethiopia, which has led the U.S. to support Ethiopia’s government.

Why Ethiopia Is Significant

Ethiopia is one of the most important countries in Africa in terms of size, military and location. With 99.4 million people, Ethiopia is the second largest African country by population. Its military ranks as the third most powerful, according to the Global Firepower Index, and its GDP is the eighth highest, according to the International Monetary Fund. The country has also enjoyed rapid growth over the past 10 years, averaging an annual growth rate of 10.66 percent, which makes it a leader among emerging economies.

Ethiopia’s location in East Africa is very strategic for several reasons. Firstly, the headwaters of the Nile River, a vital source of freshwater in the region, are located in Ethiopia. Addis Ababa can, in theory, unilaterally control the flow of water through the Nile River. This poses a huge strategic risk to Egypt and Sudan, which depend heavily on the river for freshwater. Currently, Ethiopia is in the process of constructing the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the river, which has stirred controversy in Egypt and Sudan. Negotiations over the dam and its impact will be vital for Egypt’s stability and economy.

Second, Ethiopia lies in close proximity to the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. While landlocked, Ethiopia has access to these waterways through ports located in neighboring countries. These bodies of water serve as key trade routes to the East African coast, South Asia and the Mediterranean. Today, these waterways hold particular importance because they allow oil to be shipped from the Persian Gulf to the West.

Third, Ethiopia is a predominantly Christian country in a region dominated by Islam. The Kingdom of Aksum, which preceded modern-day Ethiopia, adopted Christianity in the fourth century and was one of the first areas to do so. The natural geographic barriers surrounding this kingdom allowed Christianity to thrive despite the introduction of Islam in the seventh and eighth centuries and the subsequent rise of successive Muslim empires.

Due to the strategic values listed above, the stability of Ethiopia is key to maintaining stability in other parts of East Africa and to U.S. strategy against Islamist jihadists in the Horn of Africa.

Understanding the Domestic Unrest

Ethiopia’s political administration is divided into nine regions and two administrative cities (one of which is the capital, Addis Ababa). Three of these regions – Amhara, Oromia and Somali – are experiencing massive violent unrest and clashes between local communities and national government security forces. The official reasons media report for the unrest are the change in administrative boundaries in Amhara, Addis Ababa’s plans for industrial zoning expansion that threaten farmers in Oromia and Islamist terrorist threats in Somali.


However, the real reasons for unrest are far more deeply rooted in ethnic tensions that go back centuries. These three regions are home to the three largest ethnic groups in Ethiopia. The most recent census (from 2007) reported that the Oromo ethnic group accounts for 34.5 percent of the national population, the Amhara ethnic group accounts for 27 percent and the Somali ethnic group accounts for 6.2 percent. The government and the military, however, are controlled not by any of these groups, but by the Tigray, the fourth largest ethnic group in the country, including 6.1 percent of the population.

Each region with unrest has a fundamentally distinct history and, therefore, a different relationship with Addis Ababa. While there may be overlapping demands among the protesting regions – more autonomy, an end to government violence – the root cause of the conflicts in the Amhara, Oromia and Somali regions are not directly linked to one another, nor are their protest activities unified or coordinated. So Ethiopia’s government is not just facing one challenge. It is facing three separate challenges. And to understand the nature of each, it is necessary to look closer at the geography of each region and the long history of these conflicts.


Ethiopia’s northern and central highlands, which include the Amhara and Tigray regions, are the historic core and power center of Ethiopia. The region is one of the most hospitable to habitation in the country and where Christianity first took hold.

The Kingdom of Aksum (100-940) was the first modern power to dominate the area. Its authority extended primarily to Tigray, Eritrea and parts of Amhara. The Amhara and Tigray people trace their roots back to a common ancestor, but separated into different groups around the Middle Ages. With the expansion of Islam throughout the rest of the region, the Christian Aksum became very isolated. The kingdom’s power declined, followed by a period of disorder and unrest. Then, two major dynasties – the Zagwe (900-1270) and Solomonic (1270-1974) – rooted in the Amhara region and dominated political power.

The Amhara region lost its hold on power when the military government took over in 1974. Close cooperation between the Tigray and Oromo groups in the late 1980s and early 1990s meant the Amhara did not have any major role in the transitional government or the current government. The current protests in this region largely criticize the Tigray monopoly over the government and its abuse of power. Protesters in this region have also targeted prominent Tigray residents by burning or vandalizing commercial venues and banks belonging to Tigray people.


Oromia is the country’s largest region by land. The Oromo people are the largest ethnic group, however, there are about 10 subgroups that comprise the Oromo. The region is noted for being one of the last major areas incorporated into the Ethiopian Empire. The Oromo people have inhabited the southern tip of present-day Ethiopia since at least the 10th century. Trade-inspired migration in the 16th and 17th centuries prompted the group to expand into the central and western areas of Ethiopia.

The Oromo expansion resulted in clashes with Somali/Ogaden and Amhara people. Parallel to the Oromo expansion was the Somali/Ogaden expansion west and the Abyssinian-Adal War (1529–1543), which brought parts of Ethiopia under the rule of a Muslim sultanate. Clashes between the Oromo and Somali/Ogaden erupted over territory, as competition for fertile soil and other resources grew. This contact also led a portion of the Oromo people to convert to Islam. Moving further north also brought the Oromo people into contact with the Christian Amhara in central Ethiopia. This meeting of the groups was marked by periods of both war and peace with the Oromo in northern Ethiopia being absorbed into Christian Amhara society.

The Oromo people’s political system resembled an independent, loose confederation. The people followed a social and political stratification system of their own invention, called Gadaa. This system works by assigning roles to different age groups and is described as being similar to the Greek polis structure. The system also includes the election of officials for non-renewable terms in office. This style of governance differed greatly from the emperor structure observed in Amhara.

The Oromo people view themselves as victims of centuries-old oppression because they were conquered by the Ethiopian Empire led by Emperor Menelik II. The Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) was created in 1973 and stemmed from the discontent over this continued sense of marginalization at the hands of the government. The most recent wave of anti-government protests in Oromo date back to November 2015, as the national government tried to expand its authority into Oromo territory. This was seen as another example of the government subjugating the Oromo people.


The Ethiopian region of Somali is essentially a semi-autonomous state, separated from the rest of the country by geographical and ethnic barriers. Located to the east of Ethiopia’s Great Rift Valley, the lowland desert climate of the Somali region is more like its neighbor Somalia than Ethiopia’s highlands. Also like its neighbor, the people of the Somali region are ethnically Somali and adhere to Islam. The Somali people were introduced to Islam shortly after the hijrah (the Prophet Muhammad’s journey from Mecca to Medina) in 622 and began building mosques and practicing the religion in the seventh century despite the predominance of Christianity in areas like Amhara.


Ethnic and cultural differences entrenched by geographical divides have fomented centuries of mutual suspicion and distrust between the Somalis and the rest of Ethiopia. Until 1897, when Emperor Menelik II conquered the region – historically called Ogadenia by its people – Somali was ruled by a series of sultans, floating in and out of control of Somalia. After being conquered by Ethiopia, the Somali people remained relatively removed from Ethiopian politics. However, when the British granted Somalia its independence in the 1960s, the Ethiopian region of Somali was not included. The Somali people believed that their territory was mistakenly given to Ethiopia by the British, and their dislike of the Ethiopian government began to intensify.

The current group perpetrating unrest in the Somali region is the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF). This group dates back to 1997 when the leader of Somalia, Mohamed Siad Barre, trained and financed a Somali militia to seize Ogadenia from Ethiopia and reunite it with Somalia. Ultimately, the Ethiopian army was able to keep control of Somali with Cuban and Soviet support. After this failure, a splinter group broke off to form the ONLF in 1981.

The ONLF is, at its core, a separatist rebel group made up of members of the predominately Muslim Ogaden ethnic group. Though there are some in the Somali region who wish to reunite with Somalia, the ONLF is pushing for an independent state they refer to as Ogadenia. The ONLF believes that the Somali region does not have any influence in the Ethiopian government and has openly taken on a political as well as military role in the region. It has clashed with Ethiopian forces intermittently since 1984.

The current clashes in the Somali region are a continuation of this historical pattern. The ONLF claims it is trying to defend its people from the brutality of the Ethiopian military. Meanwhile, the Ethiopian government uses the presence of al-Shabaab in Somalia as justification to act against ONLF, despite the fact that both the ONLF and al-Shabaab have repeatedly denied they are linked and there is no definitive proof that they are.

What These Groups Have in Common

The thing that ties all these conflicts together is geography. Ethiopia is home to the most defined section of the East Africa rift system. The Great Rift essentially slices the country diagonally in half from the Afar region southwest to the tip of Lake Turkana along the border with Kenya. Along either side of the rift valley are highlands and mountains. The rift creates a large range of elevation throughout the country, which produces multiple distinct climates and has led different groups to become isolated throughout the country’s history.

Prior to the late 19th century, Ethiopia consisted of local rulers and kingdoms competing against each other for power. A series of strong emperors – Tewodros II, Yohannes IV and Menelik II – conquered and established control over individual sections of the country in a piecemeal fashion. But the historical and geographical divisions are still present, and to understand Ethiopia today, it is necessary to understand the deep history of the Amhara, the Oromo and the Somali people.

Ethiopia Needs Allies

A series of strong emperors and leaders were able to create a unified political entity. In part because of its geography, present-day Ethiopia remained predominantly Christian, while its surrounds did not. Ethiopia is one of the few places in sub-Saharan Africa that extra-regional powers failed to colonize during the Scramble for Africa. But Ethiopia and its government could not have survived the ethnic divisions without the patronage of major geopolitical powers.

For example, during the first Italo-Ethiopian War (1895-1896), Addis Ababa was able to fend off Italian efforts to force the country into being an Italian protectorate thanks to support from Russia. Addis Ababa did not fare so well in the second Italo-Ethiopian War (1935-1936) which resulted in Italy occupying the country without challenge until World War II. However, an alliance with Britain helped Ethiopia expel the Italians. At the time, Britain occupied virtually all of Ethiopia’s neighboring countries. Exiled Emperor Haile Selassie arranged a partnership with the British to liberate Ethiopia in exchange for allowing British influence until the end of WWII.

During the Cold War, the country’s Marxist military government (known as the Derg, which ruled from 1974-1987) was propped up by the Soviet Union. The president, Maj. Mengistu Haile Mariam, allied Ethiopia with the Cubans and Soviets, who provided military and financial support to the Derg. In turn, Ethiopia was one of the Soviet Union’s most important allies in Africa. And today, in a post-Cold War world, the Ethiopian government relies on the backing of the United States.

Ethiopia is by no means unique from this point of view. Many countries can only exist with the support of a great power patron. What makes Ethiopia unique in sub-Saharan Africa is that its government has centralized enough power that the country can be a useful ally to outside powers without necessarily having to give up independence of action. Still, time and again over the last 130 years, the Ethiopian government showed it needed the backing of a world power to solidify its rule over the country.

Government Failures and Patterns of Power

Ethiopia is a weak nation-state divided by various ethnic groups and identities. The result of these conflicting forces has been a predilection towards political instability. For our purposes, it is important to understand how power has been lost before to understand whether it will be maintained now. The two most prominent examples of this are the fall of the emperor system to military rule and the fall of the military dictatorship to the modern “elected” government.

Emperor Haile Selassie ruled for over 40 years and was generally held in high esteem for the bulk of his rule (1930-1974). However, his regime engaged in authoritarian behavior and violence. Growing resentment over the treatment of the people, the spread of Marxism-Leninism to Africa, sudden and rapid inflation due to the 1973 oil crisis and the devastating famine from 1972 to 1974 led to a popular uprising. Furthermore, the government failed to keep the military under its control. Multiple groups from all branches of the armed forces formed the Derg to depose Haile Selassie and take control of the government.

As head of the Derg, Mengistu faced challenges from the people early in his rule. Unhappy with the government, the stirrings of revolt began. Mengistu responded by unleashing a submission campaign – known today as the “Red Terror” – to wipe out resistance. The campaign lasted for two years and left as many as 500,000 dead.

In 1987, another series of droughts and famine swept across Ethiopia. Small, ethnically based militias began rebelling in Ethiopia’s provinces, and opposition groups made several coup attempts. But the Derg had the backing of the Soviets and Cubans – alone, none of these various groups were able to take down Mengistu. Seeing the need to unite, several groups – the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, the Amhara National Democratic Movement and the Oromian Liberation Front – merged together to create the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). Around this time, the Soviets were in decline and withdrew their support for the Derg in 1990 as Moscow needed to turn its attention to more pressing matters. This left Mengistu vulnerable. The EPRDF marched on Addis Ababa in May 1991, and Mengistu fled to Zimbabwe.

Both cases reveal some key trends that seem to go hand-in-hand. Famine tends to be a tipping point for the people’s tolerance of the government. Protest movements will emerge as a response to oppressive regimes and will take opportunities (like a transition of power) to challenge the regime. The governments do not last long in the absence of strong support from an extra-regional power. And, to be successful, unity is needed among those seeking to assume power – be it the military or regional armed groups.

Conclusion: The Fate of the Current Government

Against this backdrop, we can evaluate the staying power of the current government. In short, the current round of protests does not appear to threaten the national government at this time. Though some of the necessary elements to depose a government exist, not all the necessary factors are present. Most important, the country enjoys the backing of the world’s great power, the United States, and Washington has a strong interest in ensuring that Ethiopia does not descend into chaos.

The current government is monopolized by the Tigrayan Peoples’ Liberation Front, a minority group that jostled itself into a position of power during the Transitional Government of Ethiopia in 1991. The vast majority of the country oppose this monopolization of power and the violent, totalitarian approach to governance. Some opposition groups, like the ONLF, are even well armed. Most worrisome is the growing drought and accompanying famine, which has been plaguing the country for over a year. This famine has the potential to reach the magnitude of those associated with the fall of Haile Selassie and Mengistu but has yet to do so, in large part due to continued outside aid.

However, the presence of strong economic growth, the lack of unity among the protesting groups and the continued backing of the United States will help the government stay in power. Unity between opposition groups may be possible, as two political parties – the Patriotic Ginbot 7 and the Oromo Democratic Front – have reportedly decided to form a political alliance. However, this is at an early stage.

The cornerstone to the Ethiopian government’s staying power is continued backing from the United States. Ethiopia is a strong U.S. ally in the Horn of Africa, and Washington’s need to maintain this relationship is not going to disappear any time soon. The U.S. started building up its presence in the Horn of Africa after embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were attacked in 1998 and the USS Cole was bombed in Yemen in 2000. Addis Ababa provides valuable intelligence in the region and played a crucial role in the December 2006 ground invasion of Somalia after Mogadishu fell into al-Qaida’s hands.

The U.S. currently wants to invest in the security of the Horn of Africa. The East Africa Response Force returned to Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti (the largest U.S. base in Africa) in April 2014. Additionally, on July 1, 2015, it was announced the U.S. 3rd Special Forces Group would shift back to Africa operations after finishing the surge in Afghanistan. Deployments started around fall 2015 and there are plans underway to add new facilities to the U.S. special operations compound at Camp Lemonnier.

The United States’ core interest in the Horn of Africa is primarily security-related, including containing jihadist threats from al-Shabaab and preventing instability in Sudan, South Sudan and Somalia from spreading further across the region. Washington does not have the resources to be everywhere and do everything all at once. Therefore, it relies on regional allies to do the heavy lifting, especially in security operations. Ethiopia, along with Kenya, has allowed the U.S. to take a more hands-off approach to the conflicts in the Horn of Africa while still protecting its security interests.

The U.S. government has remained rather silent over the media reports of violence and power abuse in Ethiopia. It cannot openly support repressive regimes, but this certainly doesn’t mean it will criticize them. Washington has a need for Ethiopia to remain stable with a cooperative government to continue to meet its security imperatives in the region. In return, Washington will continue to provide support and aid to the government. So long as this relationship remains in place – which it will for the foreseeable future – and opposition groups remain divided, the Ethiopian government is very unlikely to fall.