Ethiopia after its electoral drama: second “renewal” imminent ? – Open Democracy

by Zelalem

Ethiopia's TPLF ruling party celebrates 40th anniversary. Ethiopia’s TPLF ruling party celebrates 40th anniversary, February, 2015. Demotix/ Gwendolyn Meyer. All rights reserved.The so called “dominante party” steamroller has
flattened everything in its way. The opposition held one seat in the outgoing
parliament. It will not hold a single one in the parliament elected on May 24,
2015. And of the 1,987 seats in the regional parliaments, only
will have escaped the ruling party. In the light of these figures,
the multi-party state that the regime claims to have established remains a distant

The first factor in this sweeping
triumph is the first-past-the-post electoral system. Under a proportional
system, with 9% of the votes, the opposition could have counted on some fifty

Vigorous economic growth also played
a hefty role. Even if the official figures are exaggerated, annual growth has
probably been running at around 6% to 7% for the last decade. The
infrastructure boom is astonishing, as is the proliferation of schools and health
centres, the widening of access to drinking water and, more generally, a net
reduction in the percentage of people in poverty, although the number of those below
the national poverty line remains stable, currently at around one quarter
of the population.

Now with more than 7 million
members, one in five Ethiopians aged between 20 and 65 is a member of the
EPRDF. The so-called “one to five”
system was created to build a “development
. The idea is that each “model farmer
– obviously a party member – should bring five peasant neighbours in his
wake.  However, this “army” has also become a multi-tentacled
tool to enlist and to control the whole population.

Finally, the opposition is
virtually non-existent. The National Electoral Board, making sovereign
decisions based on murky criteria, inter
about the eligibility of candidates, contributed to this, and even
more so an increasingly constricted political sphere. However, the opposition
is also a victim of its own divisions and the inconsistency of its programmes.
This weakness arises, amongst other things, from the extreme difficulty of
building a political force with the goal of acceding to power not through the
gun but through the ballot box, when there is no evidence that the ruling power
would accept the result, and in a country where power has historically always
been acquired by force.

In consequence, these elections were
– as expected – no more than a ritual performance and, as such, failed to play
one of their essential roles: to bring to the fore during the campaign –
explicitly and clearly – problems that have been becoming ever more acute, in
particular since the death of the omnipotent Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in

In the absence of a real
opposition and a vigorous civil society, they can only be tackled within the de facto single party, the Ethiopian
People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). The question is, does it want
to and is it able to tackle them? Time presses. Each of the party’s four
components – Tigrean People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), Amhara National
Democratic Mouvement (ANDM), Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation (OPDO),
Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SPDM) – will be holding their congresses
in August, the EPRDF as a whole in September.

Sebhat Nega, patriarch of the
TPLF since its foundation, no longer holds any official position within the
Front. In reality, he continues to play a decisive role, along with a handful
of former senior figures from the “old guard”. In spring of last year, after a
trial of strength with the Front’s current leadership, which has changed since
2010, following a rejuvenation campaign decided by and begun under Meles
Zenawi, this group was the first to sound the alarm after visiting Tigray to hear
what the people had to say. With a frankness that he is one of the few to allow
himself to express, he delivers his assessment: “the people is not satisfied, it has a lot of grievances.”[1] Sebhat
begins by identifying three: “corruption,
bad governance and lack of accountability.”
These may be the headline criticisms,
but the censure goes much further.

The developmental state

Petty corruption has become
systemic. It is standard practice amongst local authorities and officials –
almost all party members – and arouses powerful resentments. Inflation also
weighs heavily, quantitatively affecting farmers more than the urban
populations, since more than half of the former are net purchasers of food,
unable to produce enough for their needs. “Inflation
is worse than prison
”, is a common refrain. True, it has fallen, but prices
have nonetheless doubled over the last four years. In any case, it is probably
not the countryside that is likely to be the arena for inflation-fuelled “food
riots”, given the ascendancy of the new class of “rich” peasants, many of whom are
now supporting the regime.

In the cities, on the other
hand, the possibility of such riots is one of the regime’s obsessive fears, especially
with the explosion in youth unemployment, even amongst recent graduates. Recently,
it has taken on a particularly tragic form: the clandestine migration of tens
of thousands of boat people via the Mediterranean, but also – with much less
media coverage – via the Red Sea to the Arabian Peninsula.

This exodus raises a crucial
question: nobody in the leading circles disputes that the “developmental state” should remain in charge of key sectors and
rigorous economic planning. However, funding is becoming more and more problematic.
Loan repayments, in particular to private banks, will soon start to become a
burden. The deficit in the trade and services balance accounts for almost a
fifth of GDP, external debt – though still moderate – has risen to almost half
of GDP. The estimates for future growth are expected to diminish.[2]

The early outlines of the next five-year
Growth and Transformation Plan suggest a more “liberal” economic strategy. The
idea is that the private sector, largely from abroad, will set up “sweatshops”,
bringing local investors in its wake and thereby absorbing mass unemployment.
However, this assumes that foreign capital will flood in,[3] and even
more that local capital will follow: this is the only way to generate a dense
network of small and medium-sized enterprises, the main potential source of

However, domestic capital
continues to neglect industry in favour of services, where risks are lower and
profits higher. The real challenge, therefore, is to find a good balance
between continuing necessary public intervention and increasing the
entrepreneurial autonomy essential to a market economy. This is a vital issue for
the ruling party: the main credit to the regime is coming from the high levels
of growth. “As long as the state will
deliver, its legitimacy will be kept
”, is the refrain that emanates from
the business community and experts in international institutions.

Ethiopia stuck

In a 180° turnaround from its
previous laudatory positions, The
concluded a highly critical article as follows:[4]Endless red tape and restrictions on finance
deter investors… Only further reforms can sustain the goals of economic growth
and political stability… (
Ethiopia is stuck

Reform versus deadlock: that is
the heart of the economic problem. First in the dock is the EPRDF. It has
turned the entire state and its components into a satellite. Front and state
have merged. Civil servants who are not party members are few and far between.
As a result, the agenda of the Front and its hierarchy takes precedence over
that of the state, party obedience hinders the free exercise of professional
competence. The complaints about this issue are constant. Yet the smarter
public management required by a more advanced economy demands that
administrative managers should have freedom in their analyses and proposals. In
the private sector, the obligation to meet the growing demands of the party,
which include “voluntary contributions” and baksheesh,
are less and less tolerated. While the multinationals have access to the
topmost political echelons, small entrepreneurs are in the hands of small-time
local operators. Finally, there is the weight of history: centuries of
authoritarianism, an implacable sense of hierarchy, a ruling power that has
always been the fulcrum of the economy, government membership or high connections
that have always offered the opportunity for lucrative rewards. In short, the
legacy of a “mediaeval culture”, as
the historian Haggai Erlich calls it.

Reform is on the TPLF agenda,
but with no direct priority in the economic sphere. “There is a gap between the demand of the people and the supply brought
by the Party, the government, and all of their services
”, asserts Sebhat
Nega. Indeed, “the Front is staggering…
Its political soul is not lost, but it is at least too weak”
. “Massification” – the transition in party
membership from 400,000 to 7 million in ten years – has taken place in
the absence of “a very disciplinary
political education
”, as was the rule during the armed struggle: it has
thrown open the doors to “power mongers
and rent seekers
”, the expression used for those who take venal advantage
of their position.

The TPLF has become a “machinery which has lost its capacity of producing
people who are qualified, competent and committed to the cause of the people
And this machinery is also – at least partially – pursuing its own course: “it is not deeply organized so it doesn’t fully control its people, it isn’t
strictly followed.”
Consequence: “the
Front must be revived and purified
.” It needs to be repoliticised in order
to recapture the militant purity of the glorious era of armed struggle. Sebhat
Nega calls for a second campaign of “renewal
(“Tehadso”), lasting “three or four years”. According to him,
the first “renewal” focused on the
political line after the 2001 TPLF’s internal crisis, with the elimination of
key figures from its leadership, followed by the purge of thousands of
mid-level cadres. The second would concern only people and organization. To
make an ecclesiastical parallel: the dogma is irreproachable, the rules
impeccable, but there are too many lost sheep…

The first goal is for the Front
once again “to internalize the problems, their causes and the issues”. So everyone
must be “free to speak his mind without
any fear”
at all levels, not only internal but also external: “zero defence between the party and the
This freedom must also apply in the famous sessions of gimgema (criticism and self-criticism),
one of the Front’s political and functional keystones. They have drifted, and
need to recapture their original purity, which includes opening them up without
fear or taboo to the people, before whom local officials will need to account
for their actions.

But nobody, even the Front’s
most “reformist” members, is calling for this process of democratisation to
challenge the party’s “democratic centralism”. Open debate about everything,
fine, but the decision-making process must remain the prerogative of the leadership,
which can then draw on all the discussion in reaching its conclusions.

Meles Zenawi’s legacy

Should this democratisation be
extended – even timidly – to civil society? For Sebhat, the Front needs first
to be successfully updated in order to deprive the present “destructive opposition” – as it is
commonly called – of its critiques when they are justified, and thereby make
room for the emergence of a “loyal
”. However, others go further. If they are not given some elbow
room, opponents will only be tempted by armed extremism, religious or ethnic,
or seek to encourage popular uprisings, thereby compromising the country’s
long-term stability. An external stimulus is needed to prevent the EPRDF
stagnating again. [5]

The second objective is to purge
the Front of its “rent seekers” and “power mongers”, at all levels. “The party machinery has to be rebuilt”,
explains Sebhat Nega, “but through a
political process, not an administrative one.”
To achieve this, he simply
points to the upcoming congresses, where the “agendas should circulate at the grassroots level”. Then the
central committee and finally the executive council will need to “assign people with clear duties” and
impose “responsibility and
accountability, at all levels, from the bottom to the top
”. But young and
devoted members of the Front are more explicit: the purge must include members
of the current leadership. Their view is that these leaders have completely
failed, that their eradication is a necessary condition if the Front is to recover
its popularity.

Few, however, are bold enough to
break a near taboo: questioning the dark side of Meles Zenawi’s legacy. It is after
the 2001 crisis that the Front gradually mutated into a “machinery”. Meles held it in an iron grip. Meles and Meles alone
devised and relentlessly imposed what became the country’s intellectual
orthodoxy, preventing the emergence of any independent thinking. He transformed
the Front into a multi-tentacled channel for the communication of orders from
above – penetrating the remotest hamlet – and into an organ of control of the
population. Some of his most ardent admirers go so far as to concede that he
appointed too many “yes-men” to key positions. In return for blind discipline
and total commitment, its members progressively came to see the party as an
escalator to greater powers and material benefits, by legal but increasingly by
illegal means. After its designer, builder and principal – if not sole –
beneficiary died, without a leader of his stature emerging, this decapitated,
depoliticised and devitalised pyramid lacks the indispensable internal strength
to play its role as the near-single party.

In consequence, hidden failings
of this system have come to light. The most striking is the dislocation of the
leadership. Since the TPLF, the pillar of the EPRDF and by far the most robust
and legitimate of the EPRDF’s components, is “staggering”, a chain reaction has begun. In the other components,
where again the real “bosses” are not always – indeed rarely – those who hold the
highest positions. In the government, despite its facade of unity. In the army
and security services, which run their show pretty much as they like. At
national level, where centrifugal forces are increasingly evident. And above
all between the four components of the EPRDF, whose cohesion is cracking.

When questioned about this,
Sebhat Nega responds soothingly. He can’t ignore the fact that if the TPLF “staggers”, the whole EPRDF edifice inevitably
totters. But he refrains from giving an opinion on the state of the ANDM and
OPDO. However, he denies a thrust from the “chauvinists”
in the ANDM – a code word for “vengeful” Amharas accused of having never truly
accepted the loss of their supremacy – and the “narrow nationalists” in the OPDO – another coded term stigmatising Oromos
who want much more autonomy for Oromya. He emphasises the work done by these
two parties to counter these tendencies, in particular through their general
mobilisation for several weeks last autumn.

The ‘Tigrean perspective’

Sometimes saying out loud what
is whispered within the TPLF behind locked and bolted doors, Tigray On Line, run by members of the
Tigrean diaspora, who are strong supporters of the Front, is one of the few
foreign-based websites on Ethiopian politics that is accessible in Ethiopia
itself. One of its most recent postings opens with an entirely typical reading
of what Tigrean intellectuals call “the
Tigrean perspective
” on history. Briefly
put, this perspective is that, from the reign of Menelik (1889-1913) onwards,
Tigray was deliberately divided, weakened, marginalised, in a word disempowered
and impoverished, to perpetuate what they call “the domination and oppression of the Amhara/Shoan ruling class”.

However, the article goes on to
acknowledge the current primacy of the Tigreans, a primacy fiercely denied by
the authorities. The regime “is being
accused of having
an army with mostly
Tigrean generals, a bureaucracy dominated by Tigreans, topmost political
positions occupied by Tigreans, and the economy “suffocated” by Tigrean
. But since the vanquishers of the Derg military junta were
essentially a Tigrean force, “historical
processes may by themselves create the situation which may be hard to avoid.
This imbalance requires time and patience and a slow and steady political
process to correct.”
But is this imbalance diminishing, increasing or remaining

Opinions, whether they reflect
reality or not, greatly differ in this regard. Nonetheless, according to this
view, Tigreans everywhere, in every sector, are and remain victims of nothing
less than a “war of hate”. They are “harassed” and “they have in fact become the most marginalisedas they have always been”. Worse
still: this hatred comes “even many times
from the non-Tigrean members and sympathizers of the EPRDF”
. In
summary, writes another commentator from the same website, “the fight all in the Ethiopian politics… is
between those who fabricate lies to bring the old system and stay on top of the
majority of Ethiopians”
– in other words: the “chauvinists” or more broadly the Amhara – “and those who want to build a just and equitable society”. In clear
terms, this quote asserts that Ethiopian politics continue to be dominated by
the age-old conflict between Amhara and Tigreans.

For its part, the ANDM, or at
least its mid-level cadres, often express a symmetrical resentment. They are no
longer ready to tolerate bearing their Amhara identity like a cross, in other
words being pilloried because they are descendants of the ethnic group whose
leaders dominated Ethiopia for a century. They frequently employ the same language
as used by the Tigrean militants during their armed struggle, claiming to have
become “second class citizens”. Many
are bitter towards their leadership, in which the overrepresentation of natives
of North Wollo, on the periphery of the Amhara region, is a further source of
diminished legitimacy. They accuse it of selling out the rights and interests
of their nation.

In OPDO, the charges are equally
harsh. They essentially revolve around the central authority’s annexation –
real or imagined – of whole chunks of Oromya. This is a reference to the Addis
Ababa Masterplan, perceived as having been launched as a fait accompli, under which the capital will extend into Oromya
territory. The central authorities will also play a major role in the future “industrial parks”, numerous in this
region. In the background hovers the trauma of the conquest of much of Oromya
by Menelik’s armies. Here again, the leadership of the OPDO is accused of
lacking determination.

The regime constantly proclaims
that its most striking success, perhaps even greater than the economic
successes, is to have established harmonious relations between the different “nations, nationalities and peoples” of
Ethiopia, through the introduction of federalism. These relations are being
severely tested. A cohesion enforced by Meles’ ascendancy is giving way to divisions
brought about by the advancement of regional powers and interests, one of the
primary drivers of which is a polarisation based on identity –
ethno-nationalism – which can reach irrational dimensions. What is really at
stake is the EPRDF’s capacity to construct a federalism that is genuinely accepted
by its four components, to broker agreement on a division of powers and
resources which would be perceived as equitable. The history of this country is
decidedly one of eternal recurrence. The “national question” re-emerges where
it has always been, with varying degrees of visibility: at the heart of
Ethiopian political life.

The national question recurs

This is the backdrop to the
project for a second “renewal”. It
cannot be ruled out that the purpose of the reform sought by part of the TPLF
is also to strengthen its hand as much as possible in preparation for this
federal shakeup. A TPLF with a “strong
and “high political
– Tigrean activists acknowledge – is the ultimate guarantee of
the survival of the federal system, i.e. of the survival of the Tigrean
minority’s equal rights in relation to the other, more populous nations.

Amharas and Oromos respectively
represent 27% and 35% of the population, together around 62%, as compared with
6% for Tigreans. But the federal system, at least as perceived by the TPLF, is
based on the rule: one nation, one vote, whatever the size of population.
Moreover, the ANDM and OPDO approach this restructuring with a serious
handicap. Never, since their creation under the aegis of the TPLF in the late
1980s, have they been able to claim to be genuinely representative of their
nations, whether because they lacked the capacity to do so or were prevented.
Their current share of real power – political, economic, military and
security-related – is limited. Finally, the OPDO is riddled with profiteer networks
whose power and secrecy undermine its formal political order.

And then, will they want – and
be able – to engage in this second “renewal”?
The names that come up most often as potential leaders of such a movement are
those of the TPLF’s “old guard”; Arkebe Oqubay, also a member of the Front,
adviser to the Prime Minister, very active in opening up Ethiopia to foreign
capital; Redwan Hussein, number three in the Southern Movement, Minister at the
Government Communication Affairs Office; and of course Haile Mariam Dessalegn, who
is purported to be a committed reformist. As a southerner, his constituency is
the weakest of the four. However, the tensions between the three others make
him – prime minister by default though he may be – paradoxically strong. He
could play a major role as go-between.

Is it an accident that none of
the leaders of ANDM and OPDO is mentioned? Do they believe themselves
sufficiently strong to launch their parties into a root and branch reform
process while maintaining control, in other words to lift the lid off the pot
without getting burnt by the steam? 
Otherwise, what modus vivendi
might develop within the EPRDF between a TPLF in genuine mutation, and an ANDM
and OPDO clinging to the status quo?

Then there is the position of
the army and the security services. To find out where they stand would mean
piercing the enigma at the heart of an already enigmatic universe. The most
plausible hypothesis is that they would favour this reform agenda. Amongst the
few certainties in this sphere: army chief Samora Yunus refused to intervene in
Meles Zenawi’s succession process, and Getachew Assefa, head of the security
services, has proved that he is ready to take a stand against corruption.

As is often the case, these
institutions have a ringside seat from which to spot the cracks. There is no
doubt that if the regime were to falter, they would step forward. However, it
appears that they would only wish to act as a last resort. They would seem to
feel that they have enough to do, with – amongst other factors – the threat of
Islamism, the interventions in Somalia and South Sudan, the cold war with
Eritrea, to welcome the establishment of a power sufficiently coherent and
robust to tackle political issues initially by political means.

Amidst all these “machineries”, will the “reformers” be able to muster the
critical mass needed to succeed, against the combined forces of those with
entrenched advantages to defend, whether political, economic or administrative
– though the three generally go together? The hard-core of “reformers” consists
of an alliance between TPLF founders and an ardent “new guard”. The latter look
to the “old guard” to lead this reform successfully. It is the only group it
trusts. It is resolved to support it with all its strength. But will it find
sufficient backing amongst the mass of mid-level cadres?? This hard-core is
calling for a return to disinterested activism, for the renunciation of
personal advantage, in return for the moral satisfaction of “serving the people”. Will this be

The new middle class

The attitude of a group that has
become a key player in Ethiopia’s political game could be decisive: the new
middle class. It is everywhere on the rise. In the countryside, it is
represented by the peasant elite, the “model
”, the local officials, the big shopkeepers. In town, this class is
first of all represented in the administration, but it is also present in
public and semipublic companies, and in the service segment, in particular the
private sector. Yet its attitude to the EPRDF is ambivalent, even

On the one hand, it knows that
it is indebted to the party. First for peace and security, at a time when the
memory of the two bloody decades (1970-1990) remains traumatic. Then, for a
strong economic environment. It knows that its membership of the Front – to
which the vast majority of the new middle class belongs, voluntarily or by
necessity – brings it benefits in recruitment, in promotion, in support, even
in hard cash. It wants to maintain those advantages, and with them the general
order that underpins them. However, there is another side to the coin. Public
service salaries remain meagre, and are further curtailed by taxes and
“voluntary contributions”. This new group is the first to perceive that
discontent with the regime is steadily rising, as is the thirst for change that
goes with it, and that – unless it is stemmed – it could lead to the worst. However,
at least at this stage, the most common middle-class demand is not primarily
for the exercise of democratic rights, starting with freedom of opinion and
expression. Rather, its slogan could be: let us do our work, let us go about
our business! It fluctuates between satisfaction and frustration, the desire
for and fear of change.

All these unknowns, at least as
much as the rise in popular discontent, contribute to the vague but palpable
disquiet in the ranks of the EPRDF. There is a general sense of having embarked
upon a period of high tension whose outcome remains uncertain. The alternative
presented by the “reformers” is between movement and inaction, in other words a
weak consensus in the upcoming congresses and the symbolic roll of a few heads,
and with it an inevitable escalation of the difficulties until a breaking point
is reached. “The survival of the TPLF is
at stake”
, some Tigreans go so
far as to say. If this is true of the Front, it is even more so for the ANDM
and OPDO. Sebhat Nega is not prepared to go so far: “The party is weakened, but still alive”, he asserts. And when asked
for his prognosis, he sinks into his armchair in a long drawn-out silence,
takes a slow drag of his nth cigarette of the day and, with eyes half-closed
and a discreet smile on his lips, answers: “I
am optimistic”

[1] Interview, 8 June 2015, Addis Ababa.

[2] 8,6% in 2015,
8.5% in 2016, compared with 10,3% last year

[3] Foreign Direct Investment reached a billion US dollars
in 2014, and should rise to 1.5 billion in 2015, making Ethiopia the eighth
biggest recipient in Africa in 2014 (Capital,
07/06/15). However, it receives less than 1% of Africa’s FDI, while accounting
for 8% of its population.

[4] The Economist, 11 February 2014. See also
the reaction in the blog

[5]In the long run, the waning influence of the opposition will lead not
only to apathy but their frustrated supporters may resort to other [illegal]
means of struggle… In the absence of a competent rival, the reigning party may
become complacent and insensitive
” (The
Ethiopian Herald
, the « official » English speaking daily
newspaper, 26/06/2015).

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