Ethiopia's crisis – Open Democracy

by Zelalem

lead Oct.2,2016.Members of the Oromya Regional Special Police with protesters in Bishoftu, in the Oromia region of Ethiopia. STR/Press Association. All rights reserved.Almost exactly a year ago, Ethiopia entered its worst
crisis since the arrival of the regime in 1991. Last month, a state of
emergency was proclaimed. These two events have generated a flood of commentary
and analysis. A few key points, sometimes underplayed if not ignored, are worth
closer attention.

“Mengist yelem!” – “Authority has disappeared!”

People waited in vain for the government to react
other than by brute force alone to the opposition it was facing and the resulting
chaos. The unrest in Oromya, Ethiopia’s most populous state with 35% of the
country’s total population, began on November 12, 2015; the uprising in part of
the Amhara Region, the second largest by population (27%), on July 12, 2016.

For 11 long months the government was content to quell
protest and to release information in dribs and drabs, the epitome of one-sided
doublespeak. A handful of cryptic press releases repeated the same platitudes ad nauseam. When in June 2016 the ruling
power finally realized the severity of the crisis, launching a series of
internal deliberations, these took place in total secrecy. This
pseudo-communication destroyed its credibility and in turn lent credence to the
sole alternative source of information, the diaspora, which itself is often
hyperbolic to the point of implausibility. On both sides, the space available
for information that exhibits even a degree of measure, not to say simple
rationality, is shrinking alarmingly.[1]
On both sides, the space available for information
that exhibits even a degree of measure, not to say simple rationality, is
shrinking alarmingly.

People have stopped taking notice of anything the
ruling power says, seeing it as incapable of handling the situation. In short,
trust has gone. “It is not even able to listen… It has lost its
collective ability to reach the collective mindset of the governed”
The general view is that Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn  “always
promises but never delivers

Both in central government and in the regional
authorities, or between one and the other, authority has dramatically deflated.
A multitude of anecdotes confirm that it is being ignored – officials simply
turn their backs – or even mocked, right up to the highest levels. The man in
the street could only conclude: “Mengist
yelem !”
– “Authority has
. This perception, initially confined to the cities, is
increasingly reaching into the rural areas as they open up more and more.

An even more serious indictment is spreading. The
government’s primary role is to maintain law and order, and it has proved
incapable of doing so; worse still, the violence of repression is further fueling
discontent. In the end, rather than fulfilling its first duty, the ruling power
has become the principal cause of revolt. In the
end, rather than fulfilling its first duty, the ruling power has become the
principal cause of revolt.

“Meles left with the password”

Why this impotence and loss of credibility?

Meles Zenawi, the all-powerful Prime Minister who died suddenly in August 2012,
the system of power was like a pyramid. Meles sat enthroned at the summit, and
below him, every tier – executive or legislative, political or economic,
national or regional, even local – was simply a transmission belt from the top.
Party and State were inextricably intertwined. This profoundly centralized and
vertical system, intensifying over the years, hung on him alone.

For most observers, the smooth succession from Meles
Zenawi to Hailemariam Desalegn proved the robustness of the regime and the
reliability of its institutions. However, Hailemariam lacks what it takes to
“fill the boots” of his predecessor. Most of his authority comes not from his
own resources but has been handed down to him through a constellation of powers
– baronies one might call them – characterized not just by their diversity, but
also by the rivalry, or even conflict, between them. In short, Ethiopia is left
with a system of power tailored for a strongman and filled accordingly, but
which now lacks a strongman. “Meles left with the password”, the joke goes.  

succession couldn’t be a change of personnel only. The whole power system too
needed reshaping, and this is in full swing. Hence the misfires in response to
the crisis.

People used
to say that Ethiopia was like a plane on autopilot, controlled by the Meles software
(“Meles legacy”). To pursue the
metaphor in current circumstances, the more turbulence the plane encounters,
the more ineffective the software has proved to be. It is noteworthy that constant
references to that legacy have practically disappeared from official rhetoric.
So the software has been disconnected, but no pilot – whether individual or
collective – has been able to take over the controls.

Three big
sources of the crisis

weakening of central authority – Addis Ababa – has thus released centrifugal –
regional – forces that had been steadily stifled in Meles Zenawi’s iron grip. The
first source of the current crisis is the trial of strength between central
authority and the peripheral powers that it originally created – a sort of bid
for emancipation from the father – as well as between the peripheral powers.

At stake is
the sharing of powers and resources, notably between the regions and Addis
Ababa, where Tigrayans are perceived to be overrepresented, wrongly in their
view, quite obviously according to all the other ethnicities.

In other
words, what is at stake is the place that should be assigned to the “people’s fundamental freedoms and rights”
enshrined in the constitution, collective rights. How can the country make the
transition from a bogus and ethnically weighted federalism to real decentralization,
which would bring about a more authentic and ethnically fairer federalism, or
even confederalism? The immemorial “national question” remains as acute as ever:
what will the name Ethiopia come to refer to? In other words, why should and
how can an Ethiopian state exist, and on what basis? What
will the name Ethiopia come to refer to?

This question
has deep historical roots. From the mid-nineteenth century onwards, the
economic centre of gravity shifted from the North – Abyssinia – towards the
Centre. But power always remained Abyssinian. At stake in the current crisis is
a historic break that would also shift power to the Centre, i.e. to Oromya.
Despite their internal divisions, this claim unites the vast majority of Oromo,
justified by their numbers and their major contribution to the economy. It is
generally agreed that a genuine application of the constitution would be
sufficient for this claim to be satisfied.

For the Amhara,
whose elite dominated Abyssinian power for more than a century, the challenge
is to revamp their identity. They have to say farewell to their historical
ascendancy and accept that their place in the Ethiopian state should reflect their
numerical and economic importance, no more, no less. In other words, the only
way out of the undoubted ostracism they suffer is not to re-establish the
former status quo. The assertion of “Amhara-ness” – legitimate as it is –
cannot become a cover for the aspiration for a return to an “Ethiopianness” based
around Amhara, with the other ethnicities in a lesser role. This metamorphosis
is under way, but not yet complete. Nonetheless, many Oromo and even more Tigrayans
deny that anything has changed, convinced that this elite has not abandoned its
chauvinism” and “revanchism”, and that the federal system
that they defend tooth and nail could therefore never satisfy its deeply
cherished ambition. The only way out of the undoubted ostracism [the
Amhara] suffer is not to re-establish the former status quo.

ethno-nationalisms have become inflamed and even paranoid. Today, “all the
politics is revolving around ethnicity
a former senior TPLF official told me, and in a previous remark: “what I see now dominantly… is the
proliferation of racial or ethnic hatred
It is focused on the Tigrayans, not only because of the major role of the
Tigrayan Peoples’s Liberation Front (TPLF), but because both Oromo and Amhara equate
Tigrayan silence in the face of repression with approval. “The preliminary rhetoric of ethnic cleansing is already here”, opines
one social scientist, a man familiar with the grass roots of the country.

The second source of the crisis relates to what might
be called “democratic aspiration”. In
this respect, Ethiopia’s leaders are right to talk about the price of success.  Economic growth has brought the emergence of
a new middle class, not just urban but also in the countryside, which has seen
the rapid enrichment of an upper tier of farmers. In parallel, education has
dramatically expanded. This upper tier has opened up to the outside world, in
particular through social media. However, the aspiration for “individual
rights” runs up against a system of power which, everywhere in Ethiopia, from
the summit of the state to the lowliest levels of authority, from the capital
to the smallest village, shares the same defects: authoritarianism, stifling
control, infantilization.

Finally, the third source of the crisis relates to
collateral damage from super-rapid growth. Such damage is inevitable, but has
been exacerbated by the type and methods of development pursued. First, forced
imposition through ultra-centralized and secretive decision-making, and brutal
execution. “Land grabbing”, and more generally almost instant evictions with
absurd levels of compensation, are commonplace. Second, the overwhelming role
of the ruling power through the “developmental state” has produced an ever more
powerful and arrogant oligarchy embedded in the Party-State. The stakes in the
crisis are not only political: they directly concern the mobilization, distribution and
therefore the accumulation of resources in the hands of the ruling power, and hence
the division of the cake between central and peripheral authorities and/or oligarchies,
but also between these oligarchies and the population in general.

The present crisis is particularly acute because these
three factors reinforce each other. The demonstrators chant “we want justice” and “we want freedom”, but also “Oromya is not for sale” and “we want self rule” or, in Gondar, the
historic capital of the Amhara, “respect for
.[4] The preliminary
rhetoric of ethnic cleansing is already here.

“Alarmists” and

In this poisonous climate, the vigour and scale of the
protest accentuated the “crisis of leadership”.[5]
It was the first factor responsible for the government’s paralysis, as
confirmed by one participant in the last meeting of the Central Committee of
the TPLF, in early October. He ascribes it first of all to pure and simple “power struggles, leading to a tussle that is all the more confused in that these
conflicts run through every regional party, the relations between those parties,
and between those parties and the centre, while on the same time the centre
originates from the peripheries:  the
supreme decision-making body is the Executive Committee of the EPRDF
(Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front), composed equally of representatives of the TPLF, ANDM
(Amhara National Democratic Movement), OPDO (Oromo People’s Democratic
Organisation) and SPDM (Southern People’s Democratic Movement).

These conflicts are first of all personal in nature,
based on local affinities, religious solidarities, family connections, not to
mention business interests. However, the crisis triggered a new and crucial
division, between “alarmists” and “complacents”, the former advocating a rapid shift
from the status quo, the latter seeing neither its necessity nor its urgency.

The “old guard” is the backbone of the “alarmists”. It
consists of the survivors of the founding group of the TPLF, including the
heads of the army and the security services, Samora Yunus and Getachew Assefa,
plus some old comrades in arms such as Berket Simon, guiding light of the ANDM.
They became involved in politics in the early 1970s, within the student protest
movement against Haile Selassie. Their long journey together gives them an
experience, a maturity, and a cohesion greater than that of any current within
the EPRDF. Concentrated in the centre, in Addis Ababa, most of them were
sidelined from official positions as Meles imposed generational change. Returning
in force behind the scenes after his death, they are the strongest backers of Hailemariam

They ascribe the crisis to the breaking of the bonds
between “the people” and the party. In their view, those most responsible are
the regional parties, starting with their new leaders. The urgent priority is
to restore those bonds and to reinforce central power, to compensate for the failures
of the regional authorities. Everywhere in
Ethiopia… shares the same defects: authoritarianism, stifling control,

Hailemariam expressed the anxiety of this group when
he said that the issues facing the regime are a matter of “life or death”,[6]
and that Ethiopia is “sliding
towards ethnic conflict similar to that in neighbouring countries
Abay Tsehaye, said to be the most
political head of the TPLF, raised the specter of a genocide even worse than Rwanda’s.[8]
Bereket Simon warned the leadership of his party that the country was sliding
towards the abyss. In vain.

In contrast, Debretsion Gebremichael, member of the Politburo
of the TPLF and until recently Deputy Prime Minister, one of the foremost of
the second generation of leaders, retorted that there had simply been a few,
geographically limited “disturbances”,
that they did not reflect the overall situation in the country, that “there is no mobilization against Tigrayans anywhere”.
And even, dogmatically: “It is not
possible to have people to people
[i.e. ethnic] conflict in Ethiopia”.[9]

The “complacents” are usually described as “technocrats” and “careerists”. They are considered to be “apparatchiks”, lacking any political fibre, owing their position
and the privileges and advantages – often undeserved – that they enjoy,
entirely to it.

They will only be able to conceal and perpetuate those
benefits as long as the Party remains a bunker. Any opening up, any movement
towards a little good governance, transparency, and accountability, would be
the end of them. They are also haunted by the implacable rule of “winner takes
all” that has accompanied every previous regime change. However, their attitude
is ambivalent. On the one hand, they are tooth and nail defenders of the
EPRDF’s monopoly of power, and therefore equally implicated in the repression. The ‘complacents’ will only be able to conceal and
perpetuate those benefits as long as the Party remains a bunker.

On the other hand, they ascribe responsibility for the
crisis to excessive central power, claiming that it hinders regional authority.
In order to reverse this imbalance, and thereby strengthen their own positions,
they are taking advantage of the outbreaks of ethno-nationalisms, notably by
attempting to exploit the corresponding popular demands to their own advantage,
up to and including the serious slide into anti-Tigrayan sentiment.

The fate of Ethiopia would be determined by
its periphery

In Oromya, at least part of the OPDO, right up to
leadership level, encouraged the opposition to the Addis Ababa Master Plan, the
scheme to extend the capital’s administrative scope into adjacent areas of Oromya,
which triggered near universal unrest across the whole State.

The same actors then did everything they could to
prevent Oromya being placed under military command from Addis Ababa and then,
having failed, to put a stop to it. At least locally, the authorities –
necessarily members of OPDO – and the militias – under their sole control –
went so far as to lend the protesters a hand.

This ethno-nationalist outbreak contributed to the
appointment of Lemma Megersa and Workneh Gebeyehu to the leadership of the OPDO,
after the forced resignation of numbers one and two Muktar Kedir and Aster
Mamo, who were seen as puppets of Addis Ababa. The new duo are long-time
members of the security services, but are said to be protégés of Abadula
Gemadah, the OPDO’s only strongman, hence formerly sidelined by Meles Zenawi.
The main thing is that the OPDO was able to assert its autonomy by electing
leaders without external pressure or diktat.

In the Amhara region, it is equally unquestionable
that the big initial demonstrations, though officially banned, were held with
the support or tacit approval of part of the ANDM. At least at local level, the
authorities and the security forces allowed “ethnic cleansing” against Tigrayans
to take place, prompting 8000 to flee to Tigray.[10]
Gedu Andergatchew, ANDM strongman, who is accused of having at least turned a
blind eye, is still in place.

Even in Tigray, the regional authorities – “TPLF
Mekele” – are playing the nationalist card. Abay Woldu, President of the region
and Chairman of the TPLF, went so far as to declare that the integrity of
Tigray was non negotiable, in a clear allusion to Tigray’s retention of the Wolkait
area, whose restoration is demanded by some Amhara, and despite Addis Ababa’s
call for the Amhara and Tigrayan governments to negotiate this long standing

This firmness played a big part in the shift in at
least part of Tigrayan opinion, expressed with rare vehemence by some circles.
They vilified the “TPLF Mekele”, despised for its lack of education and
impotence. They placed all their hopes in the Tigrayan old guard, “TPLF Addis”.
According to them, only this old guard could bring about the democratization
essential to the survival of the regime and, in the long term, the Tigrayan minority’s
control over its own affairs. The same old guard, they now complain, has doubly
betrayed the Tigrayan people: by evolving into an oligarchy that neglects the
latter’s economic aspirations; and by turning its back on their national

On the first point, they rightly emphasize that Tigray
still lags behind in terms of development. But at the same time Tigrayan businessmen
are said to earn exorbitant profits from undeserved privileges. In fact, the
paradox is only apparent: there is so little potential in Tigray that they
invest elsewhere.

Regarding the “national betrayal”, these critics highlight
the old guard’s loyalty to its Marxist past, claiming that they remain “internationalist”, “cosmopolitan”, and “universalist
out of political ambition and material interest. Addis Ababa offers positions
and advantages that Tigray, poor and small as it is, would be hard put to
provide. The more the balance between centre and periphery shifts towards the centre,
the more attractive these positions and advantages become. In short, the view
is that the old guard has yielded to a centuries-old tradition of Ethiopian
history: letting itself be “assimilated
by the centre and prioritizing the latter’s interests over those of the
periphery. As the historian Haggai Erlich has written, “a central position” in Addis Ababa has always been preferable to
remaining a “chief in a remote province”.[11]
The more the balance between centre and periphery
shifts towards the centre, the more attractive these positions and advantages

In consequence, these Tigrayans feel they have no
other choice than to take charge of their own destiny and count only on
themselves, i.e. something like building a “fortress Tigray”. It is up to the
new generation to take over from the old, which has given up, even if this
means embracing the “narrow nationalism”
of which its critics accuse it. This goes as far as to see a re-emergence of
the hope of reunifying Tigrayans on both sides of the Ethiopia/Eritrea border
into a single nation state.

In this view, the other regions’ demands for self-rule
should therefore be heard. Central government should be content with “regulating”,  “balancing”,
moderating”, “arbitrating”, “coordinating”,
etc. That it should be headed by an Oromo prime minister would be in the
natural order of things, since Ormoya has the largest population, and would help
to calm feelings in the region. In short, one Tigrayan intellectual has joked, a
new Age of the Princes would be established, but one in which the Princes did
not fight amongst themselves,[12]
more seriously going on to express the wish that, for the first time in
history, “the fate of Ethiopia would be
determined by its periphery

State of

The indignation aroused by the carnage in Bishoftu
during the traditional Oromo annual festival (October 2),[13]
the widespread destruction that followed the call for “five days of rage” in response, made the ruling power’s paralysis even
more untenable. At the same time, the series of internal consultations within
the EPRDF was coming to an end. The package of measures announced on October 9
reflects the shakiness of the snatched compromise. However acute their lack of
mutual trust, the political currents and/or the ethnic components of the EPRDF had
to arrive at an agreement: they knew that they had “to work together or else to sink together”.

The state of emergency was proclaimed in order “to deal
with anti-peace elements that… are jeopardising the peace and security of the
Commentators see it as evidence that the regime was “overwhelmed”. But it adds little, whether to the existing
legislative arsenal,[15]
or to the operational capacities of the security forces since, in practice,
they have never seen themselves as severely restricted by the law.

The first
objective is to instil fear and uncertainty, especially as several provisions
are so vague that they can be interpreted in almost any way. They are now in
everyone’s mind. For example, for the first time, long-standing informants have
cancelled interviews because of the potential risk. The
first objective is to instil fear and uncertainty.

The second
objective is to give the military the legal sanction that army chief Samora
Yunus was demanding as a condition of continuing to maintain internal order.

this proclamation also demonstrates that the centre has won a round in its
trial of strength with the peripheries. The state of emergency places all the
forces of order under the authority of a federal Command Post, with Hailemariam
Dessalegn at its head and the Minister of Defense as its secretary. They thus
control the mono-ethnic Special Regional Police in each state, who with 80,000
members far outnumber the Federal Police (around 40,000), and even more so the Army
Special Force (the famous Agazi red berets, around 4000). The 500,000 or so militiamen
also come under their authority. That is why the proclamation encountered
ferocious opposition within the OPDO and ANDM.

however, the state of emergency is a show of strength. Not only to try to
reassure increasingly nervous foreign investors,[16]
but above all to convince the population of the regime’s determination to
recover total control of the entire country by any means – the obsession of any
Ethiopian ruling power worthy of the name – and, at the same time, to make its
promise of reforms credible. Otherwise, it would have been perceived as a capitulation.
Sebhat Nega, patriarch of the TPLF, explained that the purpose of the state of
emergency was “to create a situation to
make us able to reform”

Ultimately, the
aim of the compromise reached within the party was to drive a wedge between the
violent, extremist and armed struggle
– to be repressed through the state of emergency – and the “democratic peaceful engagement
expressed by so many demonstrators – holding out a hand via reform.[18]

Leadership has miserably failed”

with senior officials cast light on the analysis that the leadership as a whole
finally agreed upon. Emollient though it may be, they are all now sticking by
it and keeping their previous disagreements to themselves.[19]

The analysis
goes as follows: the spirit and letter of the constitution are perfect, as are therefore
the federal structure, the format of the institutions, the political line. The
latter is not “based on ideology but on
the natural laws of development
”, as it previously was on Marxist “science”.
Show me a developing country anywhere in
the world which has a political strategy and guidelines as well articulated as
” This perfection has accomplished “miracles”. The current crisis is simply “the price of our successes”. It was preceded and will be followed
by others, because it is nothing more than a stage, unremarkable and
inevitable, on the path that will undoubtedly culminate in the nation catching
up with developed countries in the next few decades.

this stage, like any other, requires “adjustments”,
especially as the society – richer, more educated, more mature – has become a “demanding society”. The young in
particular, the spearhead of protest, are making demands that are
socio-economic rather than political. The regime is facing “challenges” for having failed to make
these adjustments in time.

The main
problem is deficiencies in implementation.  In sum, things have gone off the rails because
of human failings. Yielding to corruption, bad governance, lack of
accountability, etc., “leadership at
various levels of the government structure has miserably failed to fully and
timely[sic] address the demands made and the questions raised by the people
The response to the crisis must therefore take two forms. First a massive purge
at all levels of the Party, regional governments, the administration. Then, “to delineate” – the new watchword – the
Party from the government, from the Assemblies, from justice, etc. in order to
develop a system of checks and balances, since the self-correcting mechanisms
within the Party have proved inadequate. The essential thing is “to discusswith all stakeholders” in all possible and imaginable “debating platforms”, “assemblies”, “fora”, but with no specific goal or timetable, and under the sole
authority of the EPRDF.

For youth employment, a “Mobile Youth Fund” funded to
the tune of 500 million dollars – some 4% of the annual budget – will be
created, though the details are vague and it will take several years before its
effects are felt. Above all, it is part of a largely endogenous strategy of industrialization,
focused on Small and Medium Enterprises (SME) on the edge of the rural areas, whereas
heated debate continues within the leadership with those who advocate prioritizing
foreign investment in “Industrial Parks”.

Angela Merkel and Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn at the national palace in Addis Ababa, Oct. 11, 2016. The German Chancellor visited Ethiopia to discuss the country’s newly declared state of emergency. Mulugeta Ayene/Press Association. All rights reserved. In strictly
political terms, “our democratization process is still nascent. It is
moving in the right direction, but it has not yet come up with inclusive
”, stated the PM.[21] Electoral
law will be reformed to introduce an element of proportional representation
into majority rule. However, the next elections are in 2020, and the dozens of
opposition MPs present before the 2005 elections could do almost nothing to temper
the authoritarianism of the regime. The essential thing is “to discusswith all stakeholders” in all possible and imaginable “debating platforms”, “assemblies”, “fora”, but with no specific goal or timetable, and under the sole
authority of the EPRDF. A promise reiterated year after year, without
impact. One of the essential causes of the crisis, its federal dimension, is
covered in a single short sentence in the 15 pages of President Mulatu’s speech:
should be done for the effective implementation of the federal system
”. In
any case, “Ethiopia is an idol… and
exemplary for the world for peaceful
[interethnic] coexistence”, declares the State Minister for Federal Affairs.[22]

the worst

What emerges
from all the interviews with nonofficial contacts is that the expectation of a
symbolic gesture, one that would be significant and have immediate impact,
proving that the regime had grasped the essence of the crisis and wishes sincerely
to address it, has not been met.

According to
them, the regime is relying first on repression, and on reforms only as a “footnote”. Merera Gudina, a
long-standing leader of the opposition, sums up the general sentiment: “too little, too late”.[23]
Nothing has been done to reach out to either the main opposition forces, even the
legal opposition, nor the civil society or the media, quite the contrary. This
could be envisaged only after the end of the state of emergency, Hailemariam is
said to have told one figure from the international community.

interlocutors share the dark pessimism of an editorial in the Washington Post: “the state of emergency will bottle up the pressures
even more, increasing the likelihood they will explode anew… It won’t work
According to this view, the chances of a genuine opening up on the part of the
regime are so small that there is a high probability that the worst will
happen: a threat to the very survival of the country, the only question being when
this dislocation would occur. Washington
: “the
state of emergency … It won’t work

While the official media bang on about the “strong commitment” of the leadership “to make its promise of deep reform a reality”,[25]
interviews with top officials provide hints of the form and scope of reform, which
remain consistent with the official analysis of the crisis. 

Focus on “service delivery”

There is no
urgency: change will be “an ongoing
endless process”
. The first specific deadline is in seven months, in June
2017, to report back on the purge and examine a document currently in
preparation, on what the EPRDF should become in the next ten years.

In this
view, the crisis is not systemic. So neither the constitution, nor the
institutions, nor the political line will be touched. How could the latter be
challenged since it obeys universal “laws”?
For that reason, regardless of all the promised “discussions”, no convincing reasons are given for the much touted
opening up to entail any restructuring of the political arena.

alone, as sectarian as ever, has understood and applies these “laws”, whereas the opposition parties
oppose or reject them. The EPRDF alone has the near monopoly of skills needed
to implement them, skills that the other parties lack. In short, the opposition
is still not “constructive”. If the
regime needs to become more inclusive, it is essentially in material terms, by
sharing the cake more fairly through improvements in “service delivery”.

do this, it is necessary and sufficient to put an end to individual erring through
the self-reform of the EPRDF, i.e. reform by and for the Party itself. To
achieve the famous “delineation”, MPs,
judges, ministers, civil servants, etc. would split themselves in two,
remaining obedient to the Party but putting their mission first. Why would they
do this, given that they never have before? “Because they have become aware of the crisis”, is the explanation. So
responding to the crisis requires no systemic reshaping through the
establishment of independent counterforces. A U-turn in individual behaviour
will be enough. Why would they do this, given that
they never have before?

sticks to the same age-old paradigm. Since Ethiopia is still at a precapitalist
stage, the intelligentsia is the only social group capable of setting the path
to follow and leading the way. The EPRDF contains its best elements. Ethnic
identities continue to be society’s main structuring factor. The EPRDF alone
represents them. As one senior official confirmed, it is not until the country enters
a capitalist stage that pluralism will imposed itself: with the emergence of
social classes, each will construct its own political party to express its
interests. What the EPRDF is still seeking is not simultaneous development AND
democracy, but development THEN democracy.

In this
respect, the arrival of technocrats – brandishing the indispensable PhD and
with no major party position – was widely interpreted as evidence of a new
openness in the cabinet reshuffle. Yet it perpetuates the monopoly rule of the

The paradox
of the strongman

The consensus reached on October 9 is fragile and
hence precarious. Nothing proves that the “reformers” have won the long-term
game, though they have scored a point. Deep down, they do not share the
same views. They lack a standout personality to
act as a leader.

They have a clear view of where they want to go, which
is to apply the constitution to the letter, but over a very long timescale and
with no precise and concerted idea of the steps needed to get there. As for
their rank-and-file adherents, they make no secret of still embracing the same
paradox: we need reforms, but we need a new strongman to manage and impose
them, for fear that they will otherwise lead to chaos. We
need reforms, but we need a new strongman to manage and impose them.

On the opposition side, all the Oromo we spoke to emphasized
the generational gap between the educated youth, broadly aged 16 to 25,
spearhead of the protests notably in Oromya, and their elders. The latter are
ambivalent. They feel a sincere empathy for the grievances and aspirations of
the younger generation, but have reservations, even hostility, regarding the
violent methods sometimes employed. In some cases they even physically opposed attempts
at destruction during the “five days of
.[26] They
remain traumatized by the Civil War under the previous regime, the Derg. Then they
acquired military know-how that the young activists don’t have.

The latter also lack coordination and leadership. For
all these reasons, a historian of armed popular uprisings in Ethiopia in the twentieth
century has concluded that it is unlikely that the protests could become a
significant guerrilla campaign, or that a sustained armed peasant upsurge – a
“jacquerie” could occur.

As for the pockets of insurrection that have appeared
in the Amhara region, they mainly affect areas where the authorities’ control
has always been weak, even essentially formal.

Ethiopian history teaches that a regime only falls if
its forces of repression, or at least part of them, turn against it. Today,
apart from a few unconfirmed incidents, cohesion seems to be holding, say experts
close to them. It might only break down if the EPRDF became divided to the
point of being torn apart by centrifugal forces. However, the military command
has always let it be known that it would intervene before this happened, as
ultimate saviour of the regime. Under these
circumstances, steady deterioration – a kind of rotting, seems a possible scenario.

Under these circumstances, steady deterioration – a
kind of rotting, seems a possible scenario. Without any substantive resolution,
the regime could re-establish law and order, as the first effects of the state
of emergency seem to suggest. The reforms would not tackle the core problems.
The ruling power would remain contested and delegitimized but, in the absence
of an alternative, Ethiopians would toe the line. Investors would remain
cautious, not to say skittish, affecting economic growth. But neither of the
two opposing camps would gain the upper hand, any more than they would reach a
constructive compromise. Ultimately, what might possibly occur is a classic
scenario in Ethiopian history: the demise of one strongman, followed by a
period of great disorder until a new strongman takes up the reins.

[1] See
for example Foreign Affairs, November
7, 2016,

Unless otherwise specified, all quotations are taken from interviews conducted
in October 2016 in Addis Ababa and Mekele, with people who, for obvious
reasons, wished to remain anonymous.

Interview, Addis Ababa, October 2016 and Addis
, September 28, 2016,

[4] Tigray On Line, July 31 2016,

[5] See
René Lefort, Open Democracy, July 4, 2014,

[6] Walta,
August 30, 2015,

[7] BBC, August
3, 2016,

[8] Ethiomedia, September 10, 2016,

[9] AlMariam, September 25, 2016,

[10] Tigray Online, October 10, 2016,

[11] Haggai
Erlich, Ras Alula, Ras Seyum, Tigre and Ethiopia integrity, p. 364, Proceedings of the Eight International
Conference on Ethiopia Studies
, Vol. 1, Institute of Ethiopian Studies,
Addis Ababa, Froebenius Institute, Goethe Universität, Frankfurt am Main, 1988.

During the Age of the Princes (1769-1855), the Emperor’s power was purely
nominal, and local warlords, in constant conflict, ruled the provinces.

Human Rigths Watch has published the most exhaustive narrative of this event
but with some omissions, which put its balance into question.

[14] Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation,
October 9, 2016, cited by

[15] Addis Standard, November 2, 2016,

[16] See
for example Washington Post, November
2, 2016,

Interview, Addis Ababa, October 2016.

[18] Ethiopian News Agency, October 11, 2016,

Unless otherwise stated, the quotations that follow are taken from these

Speech by President of the Republic Mulatu Teshome before both Houses, October
10, 2016.

[21] Ethiopian News Agency, October 11, 2016,

[22] Walta, November 7, 2016,

[23] AFP,
October 11, 2016,

[24] Washington Post, October 11, 2016,

[25] Walta, November 5, 2016,

[26] See
for example Washington Post, November
2, 2016,

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