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The National Interest: Ethiopia Opens a Pandora’s Box of Ethnic Tensions October 13, 2016

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Odaa OromooOromianEconomist

The seizure of large tracts of land is a process of re-concentration and of the marginalization and disempowerment of Ethiopia’s (non-Tigray) ethnic groups.

The EPRDF’s governing ideology, “revolutionary democracy”—a curious concoction of Marxist, Maoist, and ethno-regionalist thought—demands Soviet-style submission to the Tigray-dominated state. It calls for communal collective participation and democratic centralism. Through gim gima, nationally publicized government evaluation sessions, the regime weeds out dissidents and indoctrinates citizens. Following the regime’s violent clampdown during the disputed 2005 elections, the EPRDF published a booklet entitled Democracy and Democratic Unity that it used nationwidegim gima to explain away its brutal response. The booklet gave Ethiopians a “clear choice between dependency and anti-democracy forces” (i.e. opposition parties) and “revolutionary democracy (peace and developmentalism).” Rather than participants in a liberal order, then, Ethiopian citizens are mobilizing apparatchiks for the vanguard party. And since 1991 they have been subject to the diktats of one ethnic (minority) group. Resistance has been met with imprisonment, or worse.


Ethiopia Opens a Pandora’s Box of Ethnic Tensions

At the heart of the protests is the fundamental question of how to build a modern nation-state on the back of ethnic fault lines that have been exploited over centuries.

Since November 2015, Ethiopia has been beset by an unprecedented wave of protests. They began as a rebuke to a government plan to expand the municipal boundaries of the capital, Addis Ababa, into Oromia Region. They have since expanded to the neighboring Amhara Region, underscoring decades of grievances against ethnic marginalization and authoritarian rule by the governing Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). The regime has responded aggressively. Human Rights Watch reports upwards of five hundred people have been so far killed in what the United States has decried as an “excessive use of force.” Tens of thousands more have been detained. An unexplained fire on September 3 in Kilinto prison in which hundreds of political prisoners are housed killed at least twenty-three. Rather than backing down, however, the protesters are gathering steam. The unrest has opened a pandora’s box of institutional and ideological contradictions that strike at the heart of contemporary Ethiopian statehood. Understanding these issues is essential for an understanding of the unrest now gripping the country.

“You cannot remove the ethnic issue from Ethiopian politics,” Eskinder Nega, a now-imprisoned Ethiopian journalist and democracy activist, told me in 2010. At the time I was an overeager doctoral student living in Addis Ababa and researching Chinese investments in the country. I had been introduced to Eskinder by a university professor, and he was kind enough to indulge (and endure) the inquisitive pepperings of a graduate student. Ethiopia is made up of nine dominant ethnic groups and approximately eighty others. Historically, the Amhara people—of which Eskinder is a member—were the country’s governing force. Emperor Haile Selassie, Emperor Menilek (1889–1913) before him, and Mengistu Haile Mariam’s Derg regime (1974–89) after him were all Amhara. Each sought to establish a unified Ethiopia with Amharic as the official language and the Amhara culture as the foundation of Ethiopian identity. All other identities were to be eliminated—either by way of assimilation, or by force. In this the Derg was especially merciless. It perceived ethnic diversity as a threat to state unity; through its Red Terror campaign, it brutally slaughtered over five hundred thousand people—all, in its eyes, enemies of the Amhara state. The policies of the Derg were especially damaging to the population of Tigray, a tiny region in the northernmost part of Ethiopia along the border with Eritrea. Today, the Tigray make up a mere six percent of the population. Government brutality, lack of economic opportunity, and prohibitions on labor migration left the Tigray ethnically and economically isolated.

Years of repression ultimately gave way to resentment of the Amhara and, by extension, the state. It also gave rise to what Ethiopian historian Gebru Tareke calls “dissent nationalism,” and the emergence of ethno-nationalist groups like the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). For the TPLF, the state was an oppressive and colonizing force from which the country’s ethnicities had to be liberated. In 1975 the group waged what amounted to a secessionist struggle: its 1976 manifesto established “the first task of the national struggle will be the establishment of an independent democratic republic of Tigray.” When in 1989 the TPLF, then already under the direction of Meles Zenawi, successfully overthrew the Derg and in 1991 merged with three other political factions to form the EPRDF, Ethiopia was subdivided into nine mostly ethnic regions, each with the right to independent lawmaking, executive, and judicial powers. Enshrined in Article 39.3 of the constitution is the right of all ethnicities to “self-government.” Ethnic communities ostensibly inherited Ethiopia. The catch, of course, is that the EPRDF believes the only mechanism capable of ensuring sovereignty for each of the country’s ethnicities is the EPRDF itself. Relations between the central government and the regions have over the years become so centralized, and local authority so emasculated, that the de jurepremise of the modern Ethiopian state—ethnic federalism—is meaningless. Contemporary Ethiopia is a shining example of the ancient dictum, repeated throughout the ages, dīvide et īmpera—divide and rule. Further complicating the narrative is the fact that the EPRDF—in which the TPLF remains the dominant force—has never fully surrendered its vision of an independent Tigray. The 1976 manifesto has never been revised.

In this way, decades of Amhara control have given way to decades of Tigray control. The presidential office, the parliament, central government ministries and agencies—including public enterprises—and financial institutions have since 1991 all been controlled by the TPLF. So too the military. 99 percent of Ethiopian National Defense Force officers are from Tigray; 97 percent are from the same village. Only the prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, is not Tigray: he is Wolayta, an ethnic group that forms the majority of the population in the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s Region (SNNPR). His historically close ties to Meles, first while President of SNNPR, then Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, have, however, effectively rendered him Tigray by association.

The EPRDF’s governing ideology, “revolutionary democracy”—a curious concoction of Marxist, Maoist, and ethno-regionalist thought—demands Soviet-style submission to the Tigray-dominated state. It calls for communal collective participation and democratic centralism. Through gim gima, nationally publicized government evaluation sessions, the regime weeds out dissidents and indoctrinates citizens. Following the regime’s violent clampdown during the disputed 2005 elections, the EPRDF published a booklet entitled Democracy and Democratic Unity that it used nationwidegim gima to explain away its brutal response. The booklet gave Ethiopians a “clear choice between dependency and anti-democracy forces” (i.e. opposition parties) and “revolutionary democracy (peace and developmentalism).” Rather than participants in a liberal order, then, Ethiopian citizens are mobilizing apparatchiks for the vanguard party. And since 1991 they have been subject to the diktats of one ethnic (minority) group. Resistance has been met with imprisonment, or worse. If, as William Davidson writes, today’s protests “seem to be taking on a worrying ethnic tinge,” that is because they have been ethnic from the start. Politics in Ethiopia is inherently ethnic.

Of the EPRDF’s most beloved methods of centralizing control is through the centralization of land—land grabbing—which has become a rallying point in the current turmoil. While it is foreign firms in Ethiopia who are generally accused of expropriating land, the blame in fact lies with the EPRDF. A 2009 government regulation gives the EPRDF full control over all aspects of land investments over five thousand hectares (approximately 12,350 acres), including the right to expropriate land from the country’s regions and transfer it to investors. Under Ethiopian law all revenues, taxes, and associated infrastructure resulting from the investments now accrue to the EPRDF. Previously, real estate transactions had been handled by each of the country’s nine regional governments. As Chatham House, a London-based think tank, notes, “it is the state that stands to reap the most significant gains.” But the factors underpinning the government’s land grabs extend beyond simple economics: they are also a means for the TPLF-dominated EPRDF to realize some version of an independent Tigray. The seizure of large tracts of land is a process of re-concentration and of the marginalization and disempowerment of Ethiopia’s (non-Tigray) ethnic groups. Theoretically at least, it is intended to forge greater dependence on the central state and to render it increasingly difficult for rebel groups to emerge and operate in lowland areas. Most projects are concentrated in Benishangul-Gumuz, Gambella, SNNPR, and northern Amhara—remote regions of the country where government processes of assimilation and integration are ongoing. By commandeering the land, the EPRDF hopes to speed them up.

Violent attacks carried out by Ethiopian protesters on Dutch, Israeli, Indian and Belgian-owned farms in Amhara in early September therefore did not target foreign interests in the country per se, but EPRDF efforts to strip Ethiopians of land and identity. Foreign firms were the unfortunate middlemen.

For the better part of the last quarter century the EPRDF has attempted to whitewash its ethnic ambitions with its economic development agenda. Ethiopia is at the heart of the “Africa rising” narrative and has succeeded in lifting millions out of extreme poverty, cutting child mortality rates, and overseeing an impressive decline in HIV/AIDS-related deaths by 50 percent. Some argue that rather than ethnic tensions, the protests reflect mounting frustrations with an uneven distribution of the economic pie. This is undoubtedly part of the story. Yet as unrest engulfs places like the Amhara capital, Bahir Dar, and Adama, Oromia’s most vibrant city, which have benefitted from economic growth, it is clear that economic grievances are secondary. When in 2010 Eskinder told me, regrettably, that Ethiopia has become “the world’s star backslider,” he did not mean this economically. He meant in terms of governance and in terms of statehood. “Meles’ rule,” he said, “is not only that of the party but of the ethnicity. Meles’ relatives, friends, et cetera are putting pressure on him not to give up control because he would be giving up the control of the entire Tigray people.” This rings true of the TPLF today.

This is what makes the Ethiopian unrest so significant—and potentially dangerous. At the heart of the protests is the fundamental question of how to build a modern nation state on the back of ethnic fault lines that have been exploited over centuries. Through its formula of ethnic federalism and revolutionary democracy the EPRDF has merely succeeded in repeating the errors of its predecessors through different means. In many respects the state-building question has gone unresolved; Ethiopia’s crisis is largely an existential one. In the coming weeks Hailemariam Desalegn will likely attempt peace by announcing a redistribution of government investments. Most—if not all—political and economic power will remain vested in the TPLF. While this may quell the protests for a time, without genuine attention to the country’s conflicting institutional and ideological challenges—central to which is the dominance of the TPLF and the Tigray—the situation is likely to get worse before it gets better. All that is at stake, is everything.

Aleksandra W. Gadzala is an independent political-risk consultant based out of Boca Raton, FL and an Africa contributor with Oxford Analytica. She holds a PhD in Politics from the University of Oxford.

The Economist: The downside of authoritarian development: Ethiopia cracks down on protest: Once a darling of investors and development economists, repressive Ethiopia is sliding towards chaos October 13, 2016

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Odaa OromooOromianEconomist




The downside of authoritarian development
Ethiopia cracks down on protest

Once a darling of investors and development economists, repressive Ethiopia is sliding towards chaos

The Economist, Oct 15th 2016


IT WAS meant to have been a time for celebration. When on October 5th the Ethiopian government unveiled the country’s new $3.4 billion railway line connecting the capital, Addis Ababa, to Djibouti, on the Red Sea, it was intended to be a shiny advertisement for the government’s ambitious strategy for development and infrastructure: state-led, Chinese-backed, with a large dollop of public cash. But instead foreign dignitaries found themselves in a country on edge.

Just three days earlier, a stampede at a religious festival in Bishoftu, a town south of the capital, had resulted in at least 52 deaths. Mass protests followed. Opposition leaders blamed the fatalities on federal security forces that arrived to police anti-government demonstrations accompanying the event. Some called the incident a “massacre”, claiming far higher numbers of dead than officials admitted. Unrest billowed across the country.
On October 8th, a week after the tragedy at Bishoftu, the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) announced a six-month state of emergency, the first of its kind since the former rebel movement seized power in 1991. The trigger was not clear: violent clashes between police and armed gangs, and attacks on foreign-owned companies, had been flaring across the country for several days (and have occurred sporadically for months) but seemed to have plateaued by the weekend. On October 4th an American woman was killed while travelling outside the capital. Protesters have blockaded several roads leading in and out.
One factor in the government’s decision was a spate of attacks on holiday lodges at Lake Langano, and on Turkish textile factories in Sebeta, both in the restive Oromia region south of the capital, on October 5th. The attackers were well-organised and armed, some of them reportedly mounted on motorbikes. These acts, officials suggest, were the final straw.

The government is rattled by the prospect of capital flight. An American-owned flower farm recently pulled out, and it fears others may follow. After almost a week of silence, the state-of-emergency law was a belated attempt to reassure foreign investors, who have hitherto been impressed by the economy’s rapid growth, that the government has security under control.

A calm of sorts now prevails. On October 10th parliament, which since last year’s elections has been entirely populated by members of the EPRDF and its allies, heard details of the decree, which it is expected to formally approve. The bill provides for sweeping powers of arrest and a draconian ban on free assembly and expression. The prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, was confident enough to attend to diplomatic pleasantries. Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, arrived in the capital the following day to talk about refugee flows from the region. Mobile internet access, which the government blocked in order to disrupt the protests, flickers occasionally and feebly back to life. The hustle and bustle of Addis Ababa continue as before, though an uneasy silence has settled across towns like Bahir Dar in the Amhara region where strikes have emptied the streets for weeks. In Addis Ababa, at least, a mood of resignation has taken hold. Better dictatorship than civil war, residents shrug.

Still, the future is troubling. Over 500 people have been killed since last November, and tens of thousands have been detained. What began nearly a year ago as an isolated incidence of popular mobilisation among the Oromo people, who make up at least a third of the population and opposed a since-shelved plan to expand Addis Ababa into their farmland, has spread. It is now a nationwide revolt against the authoritarianism of the EPRDF and the perceived favouritism shown to a capital whose breakneck development appears to be leaving the rest of the country behind.
The young are frustrated. They feel that growth has yet to bring the broader prosperity promised by the government in return for their political obedience. Thanks in large part to foreign aid, expansive public spending supported by Chinese loans and an uptick (from a very low base) in foreign investment, Ethiopia was Africa’s fastest growing economy in 2015—a remarkable feat for a still largely agrarian country. But the expectations of an increasingly educated population have grown even faster. Despite big strides, a third of Ethiopians, who now number nearly 100m, still live on less than $1.90 a day.

The Oromos are not the only ones with grievances. Many others have been driven off their land to make way for commercial farms and factories. And the Amharans, who have historically been Ethiopia’s dominant ethnic group, resent the leadership of the much smaller Tigrayan group (who make up around 6% of the population) at the heart of the ruling EPRDF. The comparative quiescence of Addis Ababa’s citizens has further fuelled resentment. Angry farmers in parts of the country have been choking the movement of goods towards the city. The opposition calls for political prisoners (who are reckoned to number in the thousands) to be freed, but the government is in no mood to oblige. However, on October 10th the president promised to introduce some form of proportional representation in elections, which would allow all groups a share of power.

Tinkering is unlikely to be enough. The EPRDF has weathered storms before. Civil strife after disputed elections in 2005 resulted in at least 193 deaths and many thousands of arrests. This time Ethiopians are calling just as fiercely for regime change, and not just reform. Ethiopia, until recently a darling of Western donors and security hawks alike, is edging closer to the brink.

Correction (October 13th): The original version of this article said that parliament had rubber-stamped the state-of-emergency law; it had not. This has been corrected.

This article appeared in the Print Edition with the headline: The downside of authoritarian development
From the print edition: Middle East and Africa


Lelisa’s Message: #OromoProtests October 13, 2016

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Odaa OromooOromianEconomist

Lelisa’s Message

A wave of protest in Ethiopia highlights the country’s history of exploitation and dispossession.

Geeska Afrika

This summer, when marathon runner Feyisa Lelisacrossed the Rio finish line with his hands crossed above his head, he expressed his solidarity with a protest movement in Ethiopia’s Oromia regional state.

The marathoner’s gesture comes from a nonviolent resistance movement that has organized demonstrations across Oromia — which includes the capital city, Addis Ababa — for the eight months leading up to the Rio Olympics. It also mourns the more than eight hundred Oromo citizens murdered by government security forces.

With a simple gesture, Lelisa highlighted the reality of life under a brutal dictatorship, where a few oligarchs have done well at the expense of the majority, who suffer from famine, rampant unemployment, land confiscation, personal insecurity, and the loss of basic human rights.

The Trigger

The Oromo protests began two years ago, when the Ethiopian government — led by the Tigrayan-majorityEthiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front(EPRDF) — unveiled its urban master plan, called the Integrated Development Plan for Ethiopian Renaissance.

The plan designated a total area of 1.1 million hectares of land — extending in a forty-to-one-hundred-kilometer radius around Addis Ababa — part of the planning region. This area included seventeen rural districts and three dozen cities in the Oromia regional state. In effect, the plan would increase Addis Ababa’s size twenty-fold.

When the plan was presented to the Oromia state for approval in February 2014, the regional government members opposed it, arguing that it violated the principle of federalism, the human rights provisions, and the transparency clause of the Ethiopian constitution. That April, students took to the streets decrying the planned displacement of Oromo farmers and residents on the affected land. Above all, the protesters demanded respect for the autonomy of the Oromia regional government in deciding local issues, including land transfers.

Government security forces responded by firing live ammunition and violently beating peaceful protesters. They killed seventy-eight, injured hundreds, and sent thousands to concentration camps in the humid Afar region. The action was so egregious that the protests garnered international attention.

The government has strongly denied any wrongdoing, even as images of dead bodies and injured protesters were widely broadcast across social media. The demonstrations subsided without resolving the problem that incited them in the first place — but not for long.

In the May 2015 national elections, the EPRDF claimed 100 percent of the country’s parliamentary seats. It interpreted its alleged victory as a mandate to accelerate development projects, including the Integrated Development Plan for Ethiopian Renaissance.

In November 2015, government officials arrived in Ginchi, a small town west of Addis Ababa, to lease out a school playground and sacred forest area to an investor. Students and residents protested, and the movement quickly spread to all corners of Oromia. What started as resistance to land seizure quickly transformed into a sustained opposition to the governing party’s stranglehold on the political landscape, to ethnic discrimination in allocating national resources, and to the incessant use of violence to resolve political differences.

Historical Injustice

The issue of land founds the protests’ demands. In Ethiopia, land serves multiple purposes. For smallholder farmers, land marks their identity, organizes their social lives, and provides their means of survival as individuals and as members of a household and a kin group. For elites, land supports the state machinery and serves as an instrument of social control.

The struggle for political power and economic control often takes the form of struggle for land control. Indeed, throughout Ethiopian history, whoever controlled land also controlled the economic base and the infrastructure of domination.

In the nineteenth century, the southward march of imperial Ethiopia in search of arable land and natural export commodities culminated in the conquest of several independent Oromo states and other entities. In the 1880s, Emperor Menelik II annexed their territories and assigned conquering soldiers as administrators. The new rulers and their retinues drew no salaries, instead living off the land they confiscated and the evicted tenants’ labor.

Oromo farmers would lose more land for the next century. After the end of Italian occupation in 1941, Emperor Haile Selassie transferred large tracts to private holders, including members of the royal family and the nobility, individuals with connections to the imperial court, and loyalists who claimed to have fought the fascists.

At the same time, the imperial regime promoted private investments to develop commercial agriculture. Well-connected officials acquired thousands of hectares to grow coffee for export. Foreign firms — such as the Dutch HVA and the British Mitchell Cotts — were given land to grow sugar and cotton in the fertile southern and southwestern areas. The evicted Oromo farmers became day laborers for the commercial companies or seasonal laborers for the new landlords. Many migrated to towns in search of opportunities.

In 1974, this unresolved issue occasioned the imperial government’s collapse. In February 1975, the Derg, the military junta that took power, nationalized rural land, allowing farmers equal access and use rights, prohibiting private ownership, and outlawing hired farm labor. To retain their rights, farmers had to meet numerous demands including joining farmer-operated cooperatives and peasant communes.

In time, the Derg became the sole landlord, turning the cooperatives into its extractive arm and instrument of political control. The regime’s unending demand for surtaxes, fees, various charges, and recruits for the army rendered the gains of the revolution immaterial to the lives of the peasants.

Land to the Investor

The Derg fell in 1991 after almost two decades of struggle. The EPRDF, which largely consists of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), came to power. Its leaders argued that the land-ownership prohibition protected farmers against rapacious capitalist land-grabbers and affirmed state ownership in the 1995 constitution and several land administration proclamations.

This started to shift in 2002 when the late prime minister Meles Zenawi launched an antipoverty campaign. The program rested on increasing productivity in agriculture, which justified allocating land to private interests. At first, the government transferred small plots of land to domestic and foreign capitalists to grow flowers for export, but the practice grew: soon vast agricultural lands in Oromia and other states were being leased out.

In 2005, the EPRDF won highly controversial national elections. In the aftermath, the party leader declared that the country needed an activist government to ensure accelerated, sustained, and broad-based growth. In a surprise about-face, the land law that was supposed to protect rural owner-operators against wealthy capitalists instead facilitated land transfers to investors. The federal government replaced the law that recognized the regional states’ authority over land administration with one that granted that authority to the federal government. The regional states were forced to change their laws to conform to the federal proclamation.

Having passed the unconstitutional measure, the government opened farmlands for foreign and domestic capital owners with generous terms, minimum restrictions, and token capital requirements. Terry Allen sums up: “At a price ranging from cheap to stolen, investors lease vast tracts for as long as ninety-nine years and for as little as forty cents per acre per year.”

When the lease wasn’t cheap enough, corruption helped. One investor noted, “You get a bottle of Johnnie Walker, kneel down, clap three times, and make your offer of Johnnie Walker Whiskey.”

Investors flocked in. By 2011, about 3.6 million hectares of land had been awarded to foreign capitalists, and 4 million hectares more were still available.

To be sure, the federal government wasn’t supposed to get in the business of redistributing land. Under the cover of development, it used land with a view to short-term political goals rather than long-term economic processes. As a result, it fueled unbridled corruption that dispossessed millions and relegated them to destitution. Among the Oromo in particular, this meant not only lost property but also a breakdown in traditional social organization.

In 2015, these concerns converged around the Integrated Development Master Plan. Addis Ababa was originally built on the stolen ancestral land of the Oromo. As the city expanded, the surrounding people were evicted, and new settlers took over, changing the area’s demographic composition.

The new development plan evoked the Oromo’s bitter experiences of the predatory relationship between Addis Ababa and the surrounding area. The scale of the proposed plan and its potential to displace millions touched off the massive resistance that came to be known as the Oromo protests.

State Capture

The Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front — which played a central role in toppling the Derg in 1991 and now constitutes the major part of the EPRDF — hails from the northern part of Ethiopia. They initially argued that coercion, forced cultural assimilation, and political centralization cannot succeed as a state-building strategy.

To reconstruct the collapsed state, they devised a new constitution that instituted a federal arrangement among newly demarcated ethnic-based regional states. The approach recognized the unconditional right of every nationality in the country to self-determination, including secession. It was a novel response to the problem of national integration in light of the failure of past regimes.

However, TPLF leaders were never committed to either constitutional rule or their unique federal structure: neither would aid their political or economic interests. From the start of their rule, party leaders understood that the survival of Tigray depended on people migrating south and wealth migrating north. To enact this, the party had to dominate the political center. As John Young points out, the TPLF “did not seriously entertain the idea of building alliances with existing southern parties and instead drove them largely out of existence.”

After 1991, the TPLF-led coalition deployed various justifications for the one-party rule it envisaged, but never succeeded. It finally decided to simply make the institutions of the state subservient to the political will of a party. Elections were conducted, but only to confirm the ruling party in power and to ensure that its development programs were not disrupted by short electoral cycles.

The TPLF-dominated parliament passed draconian laws to consolidate its hold on power.

One measure, approved by parliament in July 2008, added to the numerous restrictions placed on the Ethiopian press. For example, it made journalists and editors potential accomplices in acts of terrorism if they published statements that the government classified as an act of sedition.

In January 2009, a civil society organizations law prohibited foreign non-governmental organizations from engaging in any human rights or governance work, rendering most independent human rights work virtually impossible and making all NGO work that the government declared illegal punishable as a criminal offense.

An antiterrorism law passed in July 2009 granted broad powers to the police and enacted harsh criminal penalties for political protests and nonviolent dissent. Together, the laws gave absolute power to the government to accuse, convict, and punish anyone by executive order. As the result, thousands of journalists, human rights advocates, and political dissidents have been sent to infamous federal prisons in the outskirts of the capital. They languish there without trials or visitation rights, at the mercy of prison guards.

As a direct consequence, human rights violations became more flagrant. International rights groups and other organizations have documented the government’s extrajudicial executions of political opponents, its degrading treatment of prisoners, and its rejection of court orders to free dissidents. As a former defense minister of the incumbent regime noted, the vast majority of the inmates at one of the most notorious prisons belong to the Oromo ethnic group.

Once the Tigrayan-majority party fully captured the state, economic benefits began to flow to political and military elites in exchange for loyalty. Millionaires emerged overnight, and current and former officials now own massive skyscrapers. Apart from these nouveaux riches, the party itself owns businesses that amount to two-thirds of the economy. Meanwhile, ordinary citizens suffer from double-digit unemployment, insufficient housing, rising inflation, and economic insecurity.

State capture requires full control of the coercive apparatus. After theDerg’s national military force was dismantled, TPLF commanders and political commissars created a new non-political military to support the new democratic state rather than to act as the ruling party’s private army.

They organized a new Ethiopian Defense Force, which was smaller in size and broader in its rank-and-file’s ethnic composition. But the military command-and-control structure remained under TPLF control: more than 95 percent of the general staff and commanders come from Tigray. While the military is ostensibly apolitical, it remains highly connected to the political apparatus.

The military is also deeply involved in the private sector. Active and retired military officers own their own businesses. Furthermore, the EPRDF government has increased the military’s stake in the economy through the Metal and Engineering Corporation (MetEC).

Created in 2010, MetEC is supposed to ensure technology transfer across the country. According to its establishing proclamation, the company is directly accountable to the prime minister and operated by the ministry of defense. It participates in all sectors of the economy — manufacturing, construction, energy, and transportation — and produces weapons for the country’s defense forces, including armored vehicles, explosives, ammunition, big guns, light weapons, and personal weapons. The military has become an economically powerful actor.

The TPLF coalition built a political system that has no space for dissenting voices. The architecture of power relations that was meant to ensure the interest of a minority group has now produced an unbridgeable political chasm that is growing thanks to economic inequality, political instability, and personal insecurity. The shortsighted arrangement designed to ensure minority rule in perpetuity has now come back in the TPLF’s face like a boomerang.

Impending Danger

John Markakis concluded his latest book, Ethiopia: The Last Two Frontiers, with a warning for the EPRDF:

At the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, the incumbent regime in Addis Ababa is engaged in the same battles that exhausted its predecessors, impoverished the country, and blasted peoples’ hopes for peace, democracy, and an escape from dire poverty.

Indeed, previous governments were brought down because of their refusal to share power with the country’s diverse constituencies and interest groups.

To keep power, the incumbents have built a politically connected, heavily armed, and economically powerful military to protect its monopoly on political and economic power. Because the protesters threaten the party’s and its high-ranking officials’ interests, the military has used force with impunity, killing hundreds of innocent protesters who simply demand respect for their constitutionally guaranteed rights. But force will breed more instability and demand the use of more force.

The military has not succeeded in putting down the protests, and it’s hard to say whether they will.

But Ethiopia’s history shows that when structures fail, humans are capable of unimaginable cruelty not just for survival but in defense of their insatiable desire for comfort. Feyisa Lelissa gave the world fair warning.