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Open Democracy: “Ethnic clashes” in Ethiopia: setting the record straight October 24, 2017

Posted by OromianEconomist in Horn of Africa Affairs, Human Rights, Uncategorized.
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Odaa Oromoooromianeconomist

 

“Ethnic clashes” in Ethiopia: setting the record straight

First there are the undisputed events. Then there are the media reactions, and these – apart from a few rare exceptions, among them some of Ethiopia’s private media – have been perplexing.

Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn at a ress conference in Addis Ababa, October 2016. Michael Kappeler/Press Association. All rights reserved.

In their intensity, scale and duration, the big demonstrations of 2015 and 2016 in the country’s most populous states (or regions), Oromya and Amhara, showed the level of rejection of the ruling power. After a respite attributable to the declaration of the state of emergency, they have recently flared up again in Oromya. Furthermore, the so-called “ethnic clashes” in Oromya and in the Somali Regional State suggest that the same ruling power is now coming apart.

Let us briefly recapitulate from the beginning:

– The population of the border zone between the two federal states of Oromya and Somali has long been mixed, with recurrent conflicts over resources, in particular between pastoralists for access to grazing land and water. Sometimes violent, these disputes were generally settled by traditional mechanisms of mediation.

– In 2004, a referendum was held in 420 municipalities (kebele) of this border zone, to decide which region they should belong to. 80% voted to be part of Oromya. However, this preference was never enacted on the ground.

– In 2007, the ONLF (Ogaden National Liberation Front), a secessionist movement that is the embodiment of Somali irredentism in Ethiopia, attacked an oilfield and killed 74 people, seven of them Chinese.

– The government then decided, as it were, to subcontract the struggle against the ONLF by setting up, training and equipping the only regional armed force in the whole federal state of Ethiopia, the Liyu Police. According to sources, this force now consists of between 25,000 and 45,000 men, as compared with the federal army’s slightly over 200,000.

– Gradually, the Liyu Police extended its field of action to the fight against Al Shabaab in Somalia, supporting the regular Ethiopian army that had been operating there since late 2006.

– International organisations have regularly denounced the multiple and serious human rights violations committed by the Liyu Police in its counterinsurgency actions.

– A few years earlier, Abdi Mohamoud Omar, better known as Abdi Illey, a former electrician turned minor security service officer in the region, had begun a lightning rise through the political ranks: Member of Parliament, head of the regional security services and, in 2010, President of the Region, all with the decisive support of local top brass.

– Shortly before his death in 2012, the country’s all-powerful premier Meles Zenawi seems to have realised his mistake. He considered dismissing Abdi Illey and bringing the force that had become his praetorian guard, the Liyu Police, back into line. It is not known whether in the end he was unwilling or unable to achieve this.

– In October 2015, Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn was planning the same move, but was forced to backpedal within just a few days. In explanation, he cited the force’s fundamental role in the fight against the ONLF. In reality, however, the pressure from Abdi Illey’s military backers in particular was too great, and he also made it clear that if he was dismissed, the Liyu Police would continue to obey him and him alone.

– In October 2016, the government justified its declaration of the state of emergency by the need to end protest in Oromya and Amhara state. The task of implementing the measure was assigned to a “Command Post” that was de facto under the control of the heads of the army and the security services. In reality, the country’s entire administration was “militarised”. In particular, authority over all the armed structures of each of the country’s nine states (regional police, security, militias, etc.), shifted from their governments to the Command Post and therefore – at least on paper – to the Liyu Police as well.

– Two months later, i.e. while the state of emergency was in full swing, the Liyu Police carried out its first significant raid in Oromya, and such raids proliferated in the months that followed. Hundreds were killed. According to the Oromo government spokesman, Adissu Arega, “overall, some 416,807 Oromo have been displaced this year alone in a series of attacks by the Somali region’s Special Police Force” (Associated Press, 17/09/2017) – it is not clear whether the year in question refers to the western or Ethiopian calendar (the period between 10 September 2016 and 2017). The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies stated (30/09/2017) that the  ethnic clashes have led to the displacement of more than 45,000 households (225,000 people)”, though without specifying the period concerned. In any case, it is the largest forced population displacement since the one that followed the end of the war with Eritrea (1998-2000).

– For a long time, the Oromo government spokesman remained vague about the perpetrators of these raids, describing them simply as “armed men”, which can mean anyone in an area where carrying a weapon is common. He claimed that their objective is twofold: plunder and at least symbolic annexation, since they raise the Somali flag in place of the Oromo flag (Addis Standard, 14/09/2017).

– The tension escalated after the arrest by the Liyu Police and subsequent murder of two Oromo officials (denied by the Somali government spokesman) followed, perhaps in direct response, by a massacre of 18 to 32 people (depending on the sources), the large majority of them Somali, in Awaday in Oromya. Ethnic cleansing was unleashed, essentially in Oromya since, according to the federal government spokesman, 70,000 Oromos and 392 Somalis have been “displaced”, once again with no clear identification of the period involved (The Reporter, 7/10/2017)

– Interviews with “displaced” Oromos confirm that their departure was mostly forced by Somali officials: Liyu Police, Somali militias, local authorities. Some even report that their Somali neighbours tried their best to protect them. On the other hand, there is no reliable information on what role, if any, their Oromo counterparts may have played in the expulsion of Somalis from Oromya.

– On either side, the Somali and Oromo spokesmen are engaged in a war of words, but the leaders of the two states remain silent. On the Somali side, there are claims of “mass killings and torching of villages” by members of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF, a long-standing armed secessionist movement, described as “terrorist” by Addis-Abeba) “in coordination with officials of the Oromo regional state”, the latter having “direct links” with the former (Voice of America, 12/09/17). But no proof has been forthcoming. On the Oromo side, the finger was eventually pointed directly at the Liyu Police and the Somali militia, but the Somali authorities are never implicated (Associated Press, 14/09/2017).

“Border disputes”

In response to these indisputably documented events, the media reactions – apart from a few rare exceptions, among them some of Ethiopia’s private media – have been perplexing. First, a long absence of information. Then a one sentence summary: “the events triggering the recent violence between Oromo and Somali remain unclear” (Africa News, 7/10/2017). Overall, these events are presented as a resurgence of ordinary “clashes”, as “tribal border conflict”, “fighting between two ethnic groups”, “interethnic violence”, motivated by a long tradition of “territorial competition which often leads to disputes and conflicts over resources, including wells and grazing land” (BBC, 18/09/2017), in short just another revival of the old conflicts typical of border zones.

As if, one fine morning, for no particular reason, a few overexcited Oromos had decided to turn on their Somali neighbours, and vice versa, to act out an ancient and unresolved “ethnic conflict”.  This account of things has one essential outcome: these events are attributed to ancestral tribal urges, responsibility for them to unstable locals, and the regional or federal authorities are ultimately exonerated from all responsibility other than their failure to contain the violence. And though the role of the Liyu Police in the raids and expulsions is sometimes mentioned, nobody points out the obvious: they can only act on the orders of the Somali authorities, and therefore of Abdi Illey in person.

However, the Ethiopian authorities have adopted precisely the same position. First, months of deafening silence. Then, at the end of April, news of the signature of an agreement between Oromya President Lemma Megersa and Abdi Illey, “to bring an end to the hostilities stemmed from the recent border disputes” (Ethiopian Herald, 21/04/2017), hostilities to which no high-ranking official had previously referred. Lemma’s declaration on this occasion – “it is unacceptable to fuel unrest in the pretext of border dispute” – can be interpreted as a veiled criticism of the Somali authorities. Abdi Illey denied all direct responsibility, likewise turning it back on “those who instigate violence in these two states”. We know what became of this agreement.

It was not until 16 September, by which time the “displaced” could be counted in tens – and even hundreds – of thousands, and the dead in hundreds, that a leading political figure took a position on the events. Given the gravity of the situation, it was expected that the Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, would prove energetic and lay down the law. In fact, his words were vague, timorous and sounded like a confession of impotence. At “a meeting with community elders, tribal and religious leaders” of the two states concerned, in other words without their respective leaders, he began by refraining from a precise assessment of the crisis, despite the fact that he should undoubtedly be familiar with all its ins and outs. He couldn’t do differently: this deliberate omission was his only way to avoid recognising that the situation had moved beyond his control.

According to agency reports (Africa News and Fana, 17-18/09/2017), he stuck to the story that a “boundary dispute arose between the regional states”, resulting in “clashes” between “feuding parties”. At no point would any member of the government say anything more explicit. In his speech to Parliament on 9 October, President of the Republic Mulatu Teshome again spoke of “rabble-rousers who have triggered violence in both regions” (Walta, 9/10/17). Even Lemma Megersa would reduce the “conflict” to the “criminal activities of some individuals” (Walta, 18/09/2017).

“Organized groups”

Sole slim exception: government spokesman Negeri Lencho’s acknowledgement that those “displaced” from the Somali region had not been driven out by the Somali people, but by “some organized groups” (The Reporter, 7/10/2017). For his part, the Oromo government spokesman implicated only the Liyu Police, never the Somali authorities, let alone Abdi Illey.

True, Hailemariam announced that the government would send federal police to patrol the main roads, “the deployment of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission to investigate rights violation in the conflict” and humanitarian aid for “displaced persons”. He added that he would do everything to “disarm weapons in the area of the conflict” and that “security forces of both regional states will withdraw from the conflict areas”, thereby equating the Somali region’s seasoned military force with Oromya’s simple regional police force. However, the essence of the message sounded like a cry for help addressed to “civil society”: “the Premier called on all stakeholders to assist the government’s efforts to resolve the boundary dispute” (Fana, 18/09/2017). In short, the federal authority, at least in public, exonerated the main instigator and actor of this unprecedented crisis – the Somali authorities – and assigned responsibility equally to unspecified Oromo and Somali actors.

Except when the Somali spokesman went a step too far, just three days after Hailemariam, this time in the presence of the Presidents of both regions, had declared that “the ongoing efforts to fully stop the border conflict need to be further consolidated” (Walta, 5/10/2017). Speaking on behalf of the “regional state” and the “traditional leaders”, the spokesman wrote, under the headline “Oromo People’s War on Ethiopian Somalis”, that  “Oromo is going forcibly for land expansion and creating relationship to neighboring sea ports such as Somaliland and Somalia for importing heavy weapons for federal government destruction which Somali region become the only existing barrier confronted”. He continued: “Ethiopian Somalis opposed Oromo illegal upraising and re-establishing cruel Derg regime and also violating federal system and the supremacy of constitution. This illegal upraising was aimed to collapse current federal government”.[1] The government responded that “the statement violates the federal government’s direction” and threatens the  “sustainable peace and security of the nation” (Addis Standard, 8/10/2017). Ultimately, according to a recent story in The Reporter (07/10/2017), “Somali-Oromya conflict persists”.

Ethno-nationalism

To understand why, two factors need to be highlighted. The first, to put it succinctly, is that ethno-nationalism is intensifying to the point of detonation, triggering centrifugal forces in the federal system of power. Like it or not, the regional authorities are increasingly asserting their autonomy vis-à-vis the federal centre – Addis Ababa – where the Tigrayan elite has long played a disproportionate role and kept them too long under its control.

As a result, this federal centre is disintegrating. [2] Not only is emancipation supported by numerous Oromos and Amharas, as well as others, but many want to go much further. It is no accident that the slogan that dominated their protests in 2015-16, and again this year, is “Down Woyane!”, a Tigrinya word that has come to refer to Tigrayan power.

This ethno-nationalism is particularly strong in Oromya. The region was subjugated by force, then quasi colonised, in the last era of Ethiopian feudalism. The ethnic Oromo party, the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO), was for a long time swallowed up by the TPLF (Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front), to the point that it was not until 2015 that it was able to elect its own leaders without external pressure. Finally, the top-down, authoritarian mode of development has gone down particularly badly here. As Ethiopia’s richest region, Oromya has been heavily affected by the brutal eviction of small farmers, with derisory compensation, to make way for investors (“land grabbing”).

Within this general context, the Somali state has followed the same trajectory, but with its own characteristics and objectives. No other state has seen anything like the rise of Abdi Illey and the Liyu Police: none of them is led by such an all-powerful figure, supported by this kind of regional armed force. It was a development that faced opposition from the federal authority, but in vain since the latter was overmatched, as events have shown: the support of part of the military top brass, especially within the command responsible for Somalian operations and at the head of the military security service – at daggers drawn with its civilian counterpart – and probably also the support of part of the TPLF.

Three factors are at work. First, Abdi Illey and the Liyu Police have become irreplaceable in the overcoming of any armed dissidence  – the ONLF is now only a shadow of its former self – and in the war against Al Shabab in Somalia itself. It is equally indispensable in the iron grip it maintains over the Somali state: not a hint of protest is tolerated there. Irreplaceable, but also a threat: Abdi Illey makes no secret of the fact that the Liyu Police answers to him and him alone, and that its destiny is indissociably bound up with his own.

Next, the business links between the leading clans and this military group are as profitable as they are interwoven, entailing above all the smuggling of khat, technology products such as mobile phones or household electric appliances, arms, and even basic food products. And finally, they are now coupled with a shared political goal.

The Somali authority justifies itself by claiming to be “the only existing barrier” against those who, “violating federal system and the supremacy of constitution”,seek “to collapse current federal government”. The first target here is obviously the Oromo authority: overtaken by “narrow nationalism” and ultimately in sympathy with the OLF, it is claimed to seek nothing less than “federal government destruction”.

Flawed federal system

By posing as the keeper of the flame, Abdi Illey gains the support of anyone opposed to reform of the federal system. The flaws of the federal system have been at the heart of the protests that have been raging for three years, in particular among the Oromos and Amharas. To redress them is deemed inevitable and urgent by the reformist section of the leadership, even within the TPLF. Opposition to reform, Abdi Illey’s support, comes first from the military group mentioned above, essentially Tigrayan, unlike moderately or unequivocally reformist senior officers, including army chief Samora Yunus and head of the civilian security services Getachew Assefa, both pillars of Tigrayan power.  However, this support probably also encompasses a fringe of the Tigrayan ruling elite, which is ready to fight – by force if necessary – for the status quo, i.e. the reestablishment of a highly centralised authority de factounder Tigrayan dominance.

Numerous websites that say out loud what is being said in private in certain TPLF circles call for this approach. They claim that the protests are being surreptitiously stage-managed by foreign countries – headed by Egypt and Eritrea – who want “Ethiopia to break up into fiefdoms”. They argue, for example, that “the state of emergency should have been kept for a few more years”. “Unless the government in Ethiopia makes a major policy change towards domestic security, things will get worst and the integrity of Ethiopia will be in danger.”[3] The proliferation of gestures of friendship made by the Somali authorities to the Tigrayan population is obviously no coincidence.

This state of affairs explains why Abdi Illey retains a sufficiently free hand to advance his own pawns, including his pursuit of the ancestral goal of Somali expansionism. In so doing, he serves the aspirations of his supporters, who do not shy away from worst-case political scenarios. Weakening the new Oromo leadership, markedly more nationalist and therefore autonomous than its predecessors, by showing that it is unable to protect its population. Proving that the federal authority is incapable of containing protest and, beyond this, maintaining law and order. With the implication that law and order must be reinstated at any price, and the subtext that if the government does not do it, others will have to do it in their place.

However, the attempt to discredit the Oromo leadership seems to be coming back to bite its promoters. According to reports, chants of “Lemma Megersa is our president!” were heard at the most recent demonstrations in Oromya, though this has not been confirmed. In any case, the slogan “Down Woyane!” continues to dominate.

In the eyes of the demonstrators or Oromo’s “displaced persons”, there is no doubt that behind the Somali authorities and the Liyu Police, it is the TPLF that is pulling the strings (Le Monde, 13/10/17). In this view, the manoeuvre is yet another version of the so-called “triangulation” operations the Front uses to set the Oromo against the Somali, in order to defuse the tension between itself and the Oromo. Oromo opposition websites have always advanced this thesis: Abdi Illey and the Liyu Police are TPLF creations, toeing the TPLF line to the letter; the leadership of the Liyu Police includes numerous Tigrayan officers.

The reality is more complex. First “the” TPLF no longer exists as a homogeneous organisation: Tigrayan domination within the EPRDF has eroded, the military and security command has become more independent of political authority, and is moreover deeply divided. Abdi Illey has a hold over the federal authority and the military and security apparatus because his armed support is irreplaceable and answerable only to him. Reciprocally, those forces, including the group closest to him, have a hold over him, because the Liyu Police could not operate without the support, at least material, they provide. Neither is subordinate to the other. They are bound together by a convergence of political, military and material interests, and reciprocal support.

The most powerful wave of protests since its instatement (the demonstrations of 2015-16 in Oromya and the Amhara Region) threw the ruling power into disarray for months. However, it eventually found the necessary inner resources to respond, albeit after months of internal prevarications and rifts, and albeit by largely handing over control to the military and security forces.

But the state of emergency would seem to have brought no more than a respite: after a marked reduction in the intensity and scale of protest, it has just resumed on a large scale, as evidenced by the wave of demonstrations in Oromya since 10 October. More significant still: “Local officials and police officers either joined the protests or were submerged by it.”[4] And while a consultation process was undertaken with the opposition, its scope is unknown and its outcomes so far unseen.

In response to an “ethnic conflict” which, in reality, is nothing less than armed aggression by one federation state within another, triggering ethnic cleansing on an unprecedented scale, the federal authority initially remained silent. When it finally took a stance, it was so far from reality that it was little more than an admission of its powerlessness to play one of its fundamental roles: to impose a minimum of respect for the constitution on one of the federal states, at least by preventing its aggression.

Why? The federal government executes the decisions of the Executive Committee of the EPRDF, where the four major ethnic parties – Oromo, Amhara, South, Tigrayan – have equal representation. It is hard to believe that a majority of the Executive Committee wouldn’t be aware of the danger and wouldn’t like to bring Abdi Illey back into line. The most plausible explanation is that even if it has the will, it no longer has the means, because it has had to give way to at least a part of the military and security apparatus that opposes such a move.

Power shifts

It was known that the power balance between the politicians and the military/security apparatus had shifted in favour of the latter, in particular with the declaration of the state of emergency. There were questions about whether ethnic nationalism had also penetrated the ranks of the military/security forces and hence undermined their cohesion. There is now reason to wonder not only about their degree of autonomy and ethnic cohesion but also the scale of their divisions, and even their internal conflicts over how to respond to the many-sided crisis that Ethiopia faces. In these circumstances, can the regime still count on the use of force as the ultimate guarantor of its survival?

Behind an appearance of normality, based on the continuing day-to-day operation of the state apparatus, there lurks a question: are the political and executive federal institutions simply in a deep slumber, or already plunged in an irreversible coma?

The more the four major ethnic parties that form the dominant coalition play their own cards, the emptier the shared pot becomes, and the greater the fragmentation of the federal authority responsible for supranational interests.

The OPDO is looking at the possibility of the resignation of some of its senior officials after its strongman, Abadula Gemeda, stood down from his post of Speaker of the House of Representatives, on the grounds that “my peoples and party were disrespected” (AFP, 14/10/2017). If he doesn’t go back on his protest gesture, with almost no precedent in the recent Ethiopian history, this bluntly means: the leading coalition being incapable of fulfilling the legitimate aspirations of the Oromo, to the point that Oromya’s elementary right to be protected is flouted, why continue to support this impotent structure by remaining one of its key figures? But taking into account the very role of the Speaker, this gesture is more symbolic than consequential. From what is known, Abadula remains a member of OPDO’s Central Committee, so de facto its bigwig.

But if the OPDO were to formally distance itself by the resignation of some top officials from key posts, as internally discussed, what would remain of the coalition’s legitimacy if a nation that accounts for more than a third of the country’s total population were no longer represented?

In these circumstances, the Amhara party, the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM), could be a key player. Amid the multiple faultlines that divide both the EPRDF and each of its components, three clusters can be identified: OPDO, ANDM, and an alliance of the “peripheries”, i.e. TPLF and the South, which are attempting to win over other peripheral nations. Historically, there has been a longstanding rivalry between Amhara and Tigrayans, but – as fellow Abyssinians sharing the same culture and Coptic religion – they would bury the hatchet when they perceived an Oromo threat. Will this alliance continue, or will ANDM join forces with OPDO? And if so, at what price?

Four scenarios

At least four scenarios merit consideration. The EPRDF is in the midst of preparations for its next Congress, set for March 2018. The first possibility is that it reaches an agreement on a way out of the crisis that is sufficiently substantive, credible, innovative and unifying to defuse at least the most radical opposition and to rally the various ethnic governing elites. Its primary focus will need to be a response to the eternal “national question”, or rather the “nationalities question”.

To this end, the only road to success is for the ANDM and OPDO to join forces, acquire allies among Tigrayans and Southerners in the upper levels of the EPRDF, perhaps also take advantage of their majority in the Parliament, and begin to establish a remodelled federal system consistent with the spirit and the letter of the constitution.

To do so, they could capitalize on two strengths. First, the unprecedented size and scale of the popular protest. Second, even the most activist of the younger generation have at least until now largely proved their non-violence and that they are not lured with a call to arms like the revolutionaries of the 70’s and 80’s, while they could have plenty of reasons and opportunities to do so.

If this were to fail, even leading lights of the EPRDF have been predicting for years where the country might be headed: towards a Yugoslavian scenario. That’s the second scenario.

However, a third scenario is possible, arising from a relative balance of forces: none of the elements in place – the civil opposition or the regime as a whole, the federal centre or the centrifugal ethnic forces, the “reformists” or the “hardliners” – would be strong or determined enough to get the upper hand. The power system would continue to stumble along, the country would more or less hold together, and thus the key problems would remain if not deepen.

Unless – fourth scenario – the military decided that it could and should take responsibility for countering the remodelling of the federal system, the risk of a Yugoslavian outcome, or the decay of the regime. Which raises another question: the military as a whole, or one of its factions?


[1] https://www.facebook.com/idi.s.osman/posts/1587956397936631

[2] See for example R. Lefort, Ethiopia’s crisis. Things fall apart: will the centre hold? 19 November 2016, https://www.opendemocracy.net/ren-lefort/ethiopia-s-crisis

[3] http://www.tigraionline.com/articles/oromo-demo-ethiopia-1017.html

[4]https://www.facebook.com/danielberhane.ethiopia/posts/10155967606239880

 

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Labsiin Yeroo Atattamaa Haala Itoophiyaa Keessa Jiru Fooyyeessuu Hin Danda’u April 16, 2017

Posted by OromianEconomist in #OromoProtests.
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 Renee Lefort: Labsiin Yeroo Atattamaa Haala Itoophiyaa Keessa Jiru Fooyyeessuu Hin Danda’u


Renee Lefort: Labsiin Yeroo Atattamaa Haala Itoophiyaa Keessa Jiru Fooyyeessuu Hin Danda'u

Renee Lefort: Labsiin Yeroo Atattamaa Haala Itoophiyaa Keessa Jiru Fooyyeessuu Hin Danda’u

Mormiin Oromiyaatti bara 2015 jalqabame gara oggaa tokkoo oliitii biyyaatti raasaa ture booda mootummaan Itoophiyaa Onkoloolssa 9, 2016 labsii yeroo attattamaa ji’a jaha turu labse. Dhiheenya kana immoo ji’a afuriin dheeresse.

Mootummaan jeequmsa ka’ee tasgabeesuu fi nagaha hawwaasaa eegsisuudha murtii kana irra gahuu dubbatus, dhaabbileen mirga dhala namaatii falmanii fi beektoonni baayyen mirga lammiilee ukkaamsuuf itti fayyadamaa jira jedhan.

Labsiin kun fooyyee fideeraa laata? Fundura biyyatiitti bu’aa buuse qabaa? Kana irratti fi walumaagalaa haala siyaasa fi diinagdee biyyattii irratti yaada hayyoonni biyya allaa oggoota dheeraa dha qorannoo geggeessaa turan kennan kunooti.

Gabaasa guutuu kana cuqaasuun dhaggeeffadhaa

OMN: Ezekeil Gebissa In Conversation With Rene Lefort On His Latest Article On Political Crisis In Ethiopia December 14, 2016

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Odaa OromooOromianEconomistpicture-from-omn-ezekeil-gebissa-in-conversation-with-rene-lefort-on-his-latest-article-on-political-crisis-in-ethiopia

 

 

Ethiopia’s crisis:Things fall apart: will the centre hold? #OromoProtests November 22, 2016

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Ethiopia’s crisis

Things fall apart: will the centre hold?

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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”.[2] 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 disappeared!”. 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?

Under 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.  

The 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

The 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.

These 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”.[3] 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 Amhara-ness”.[4]The preliminary rhetoric of ethnic cleansing is already here.

“Alarmists” and “complacents”

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 Dessalegn

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, infantilization.

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”.[7] 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 issue.

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 interests.

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 become.

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 emergency

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 country”.[14]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.

However, 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.

Essentially, 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”.[17]

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”

Interviews 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 Ethiopia!” 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.

However, 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”.[20] 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 engagement”, 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: “more 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]

Anticipating 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.

These 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”.[24] 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 Post: “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.

The EPRDF 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”.

To 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?

The EPRDF 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 “intellocracy”.

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 rage”.[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, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/ethiopia/2016-11-07/twitter-hurting-ethiopia

[2] 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.

[3] Interview, Addis Ababa, October 2016 and Addis Standard, September 28, 2016, http://addisstandard.com/ethiopias-gradual-journey-verge-crisis/

[4] Tigray On Line, July 31 2016, http://hornaffairs.com/en/2016/07/31/ethiopia-massive-protest-gondar/

[5] See René Lefort, Open Democracy, July 4, 2014, https://www.opendemocracy.net/ren%c3%a9-lefort/ethiopia-leadership-in-disarray

[6] Walta, August 30, 2015, http://www.waltainfo.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=20802:eprdf-determines-to-cease-talking-but-deliver-good-governanace&catid=71:editors-pick&Itemid=396

[7] BBC, August 3, 2016, http://www.bbc.com/news/live/world-africa-36883387

[8] Ethiomedia, September 10, 2016, http://www.ethiomedia.com/1016notes/7451.html

[9] AlMariam, September 25, 2016, http://almariam.com/2016/09/25/disinformation-in-t-tplf-land-of-living-lies-pinocchio-preaches-truth-against-perception-in-ethiopia/

[10] Tigray Online, October 10, 2016, http://www.tigraionline.com/articles/tigraians-victims-inamara.html

[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.

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

[13] Human Rigths Watch has published the most exhaustive narrative of this event but with some omissions, which put its balance into question. https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/10/08/qa-recent-events-and-deaths-irreecha-festival-ethiopia

[14] Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation, October 9, 2016, cited by http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/10/ethiopia-declares-state-emergency-protests-161009110506730.html

[15] Addis Standard, November 2, 2016, http://addisstandard.com/why-ethiopias-freewheeling-regime-does-need-a-state-of-emergency/

[16] See for example Washington Post, November 2, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/africa/investors-shy-away-from-ethiopia-in-the-wake-of-violent-protests/2016/11/01/2d998788-9cae-11e6-b552-b1f85e484086_story.html

[17] Interview, Addis Ababa, October 2016.

[18] Ethiopian News Agency, October 11, 2016, http://www.ena.gov.et/en/index.php/politics/item/2082-pm-reaffirms-government-s-commitment-to-democratization

[19] Unless otherwise stated, the quotations that follow are taken from these interviews.

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

[21] Ethiopian News Agency, October 11, 2016, http://www.ena.gov.et/en/index.php/politics/item/2082-pm-reaffirms-government-s-commitment-to-democratization.

[22] Walta, November 7, 2016, http://www.waltainfo.com/index.php/news/detail/25576

[23] AFP, October 11, 2016, http://en.rfi.fr/wire/20161011-ethiopia-pm-seeks-reform-electoral-system-after-protests

[24] Washington Post, October 11, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/ethiopia-meets-protests-with-bullets/2016/10/11/0f54aa02-8f14-11e6-9c52-0b10449e33c4_story.html

[25] Walta, November 5, 2016, http://www.waltainfo.com/index.php/news/editors_pick/detail?cid=25549

[26] See for example Washington Post, November 2, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/africa/investors-shy-away-from-ethiopia-in-the-wake-of-violent-protests/2016/11/01/2d998788-9cae-11e6-b552-b1f85e484086_story.html

Open Democracy: The ‘Ethiopian Spring’: “Killing is not an answer to our grievances. #OromoProtests September 10, 2016

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The ‘Ethiopian Spring’: “Killing is not an answer to our grievances”


There is every sign that Ethiopia is plunging into a crisis whose scale, intensity, and multiple and interdependent drivers are unprecedented since the founding of the regime in 1991.

Ethiopian PM, Hailemariam Desalegn attends African Summit in Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa January 2016. (AP Photo/Mulugeta Ayene). All rights reserved.

The Ethiopian leadership remains in denial. The long meetings of its ruling bodies have culminated in a report on 15 years of national “rebirth”, in which it awards itself good marks, while acknowledging the existence of a few problems here and there.

Nonetheless, the odd warning signal may be heard – though very seldom – in counterpoint to the general complacency. Hailemariam Desalegn, prime minister and chairman of what is essentially the single party, has gone so far as to warn that the issues facing the regime are a matter of “life or death”,[1]and that Ethiopia is “sliding towards ethnic conflict similar to that in neighbouring countries”.[2]

Well, these neighbouring countries include Somalia, epitome of the ‘failed state’, and Sudan, which has split in two and where civil war is raging in the new Southern State. In this, unusually, he is in agreement with Merera Gudina, head of one of the main opposition parties still permitted to operate, whospeaks of the probability of “civil war […] if the government continues to repress”.[3] There is every sign that Ethiopia is plunging into a crisis whose scale, intensity, and multiple and interdependent drivers are unprecedented since the founding of the regime in 1991, although the impossibility of field research precludes any in-depth and conclusive assessment.

The first, very discreet signs of this crisis appeared in the spring of 2014 in a part of the country where they were probably least expected: in Tigray, where the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), pillar of the quadri-ethnic party ruling coalition – the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) – seemed both unopposed and unopposable.

Yet the Tigreans loudly and clearly accused “their” Front of neglecting them by only looking after its own interests or, as Hailemariam Desalegn expressed it, of using “public authority for personal gain at all levels”.[4]

The crisis erupted into the open a few weeks later in Oromya, with additional grievances. In the most populous of the nine states and two municipalities that make up federal Ethiopia, a state that is also the country’s economic powerhouse, students took to the streets to protest against the Addis Ababa Master Plan. Their suspicion was that this would inevitably lead to a transfer of sovereignty from the Oromo region to central government and be accompanied by “land grabbing”, the expulsion and dispossession of the local peasant farmers. Protests resumed in November 2015 and continue today at a larger scale that now includes the general population and almost the whole of Oromo State.

Turning up the heat

The heat was turned up a further notch in mid-July with the advent of protests in the historic heart of Amhara State. Together, Amhara and Oromo account for almost two-thirds of the country’s total population. The diversity of the ways of life that characterizes Oromo – farmers and pastoralists, of its religions – Orthodox Christian, Muslim, Protestant, animist, together with its very loose traditional structures, prompts Merera Gudina to emphasisethe chronic division between Oromo political forces”.[5] By contrast, the homogeneity of the Amhara population – in its vast majority small farmers and Christian Orthodox – fosters unity, while its mobilisation is favoured by its sense of hierarchy and discipline. Finally, the parallel protests by Oromo and Amhara, with largely shared reasons and objectives, breaks with their historical antagonism: the dispossession and subsequent exploitation of the Oromo by an Amhara – and Tigrean – elite from the late nineteenth century onwards, embedded their relations in a system that the Oromo have described as colonial.

The toughest demonstrations that the regime had faced followed the contested elections of 2005. They were essentially confined to Addis Ababa, with the young unemployed playing a major role. In all, they lasted only a few days, in two surges. They came in response to a call from established political forces for a very clear outcome – respect for the verdict of the ballot box. The regime reacted in unison with violent repression – killing almost 200 and arresting tens of thousands – immediately followed by a large-scale strategy of political reconquest through the expansion of the quasi-single party and a rallying of the elites. The protests very quickly died down, and the opposition forces collapsed.

This time, the protests affect the country’s two main states. Despite the repression – hundreds killed, thousands arrested – it has been going on for nine months, with varying degrees of intensity. The attempts at dissuasion through fear have not been enough[6] – at least for the moment – to demobilize the protesters, as evidenced by new forms of protest such as the recent “dead city” operations in the Amhara region[7] and the just launched boycott campaign in Oromya.

This time, a whole generation of young people is in the forefront of the protests – the 15-29 age group represents more than a quarter of the population – starting with, but not confined to, all those who have benefited from mass education, who have carried their elders with them. This time, their anger derives from widespread discontent, focusing on three areas.

First, they are fed up not just with the regime’s authoritarianism, but more so with the way it is exercised: supervision and control that are stifling, intrusive and infantilising, imposed everywhere, all the time, on everyone, by a Party that has swallowed up the State. The second focus is the implementation of a federalism that is in theory equitable, but in reality profoundly unbalanced. Tigray, representing 6% of the population, was the epicentre of the rebellion, which threw out Mengistu Haile Mariam’s military-socialist junta in 1991, the Derg. It was headed by the Tigrean student elite that founded the TPLF. This historical role justified its initial primacy.

Twenty-five years on, however, this elite remains vastly overrepresented at the apex of political power, the army, the security services. In addition, through public and para-public companies, it controls two thirds of the modern economy, excluding traditional agriculture.In the specific Ethiopian case… a tentacular and increasingly voracious and arrogant oligarchy… has ultimately filtered down to village level.

The third focus of discontent is the backlashes of the “developmental state”. This system centralises revenues at the summit of power, which supremely decides on its optimal use for development across the country. This strategy has been decisive in the exceptional economic growth of the last decade – probably around 6% to 7% per year – and in the expansion of education and health services alike. However, the centralisation it entails is evidently incompatible with authentic federalism. Moreover, in the specific Ethiopian case, the fact that the functions of political leadership, economic decision-making and the management of public and para-public enterprises are concentrated in the hands of the same people at the summit of the party-state, free of any control and political counterweight, has led to the creation of a tentacular and increasingly voracious and arrogant oligarchy, which has ultimately filtered down to village level.

These flaws have had a cumulative and mutually reinforcing impact. In Oromya in particular, the implementation of development projects dictated from above and often controlled by nonindigenous oligarchs, has frequently been marked by authoritarianism, spoliation and ethnic favouritism. In the case of “land grabbing”, there are multiple instances of land being brutally appropriated and embezzlement of the compensation owed to evicted farmers. The triggering factor for the protests in Amhara region was the authorities’ refusal to tackle the dispute arising from the incorporation into Tigray of the Wolkait region – a thin strip of land in the north that was part of the imperial province of Amhara – imposed after 1991 without public consultation of any kind, together with the transfer of western areas to Sudan, a process conducted in total secrecy.

“Thief!”

The demonstrators’ slogans and targets speak for themselves. They have attacked prisons to free the inmates. They have ransacked public properties, not just offices, vehicles, etc., but also health centres, unemployment offices and cooperatives, places they see as existing more to control the population than to perform their purported functions.They have ransacked public properties…  they see as existing more to control the population than to perform their purported functions.

They have gone after local party bosses and their possessions – the lowest layer of the oligarchy – targeting government representatives as much as the despoilers. They have burned businesses owned by national and foreign investors (farms, factories, hotels, etc.) because they symbolise an external stranglehold over Oromya and the Amhara region. “Oromya is not for sale” was one favourite slogan. In short, the demonstrators are targeting both the persons and property of those they see as having obtained position and/or wealth at their expense, through the patronage of the ruling power. “Thief!” is one of the most oft repeated slogans.

In Oromya, the conviction of having remained second-class citizens in a system dominated by a “northist” minority, and in the Amhara region of having become second-class and of feeling permanentlyhumiliated and marginalized[8] because a part of the Amhara elite was dominant in the imperial era, is less and less tolerated. The assertion of ethnic identity and the demand for the full rights associated with it are at the heart of the demonstrations. “We want genuine self rule”, cry the Oromo, “We are Amhara”, declare the crowds in the historical capital Gondar, or in Bahir Dar, the new capital. However, these claims are also taking a very worrying turn. In Oromo, demonstrators have gone after Amhara and Tigreans, as well as their properties. Tigreans have been targeted in the Amhara region. However, distortions of every kind in the propaganda war make the reality difficult to grasp. In particular, were the rioters targeting arrivistes more than Tigreans, or vice versa? Anyway, Tigreans are even beginning to leave certain areas, notably in a “mass exodusfrom Gondar.[9] Some go so far as to speak of “ethnic cleansing”.

There are pressing calls for these practices to cease, both on social media and from the legal opposition. But as Beyene Petros, one of its leaders, explains:we’re just watching… people are coming out spontaneously… political parties are bypassed”.[10] By contrast with 2005, this popular protest is largely independent of the legal opposition, and even the illegal opposition groups, such as the Oromo Liberation Front, the oldest and most radical of the Oromo “nationalist movements”, and Ginbot 7, heir to one of the big opposition parties of 2005 and considered a pan-Ethiopian movement.There is no secret central command orchestrating events.

There is no secret central command orchestrating events, although there is no doubt that informal clandestine networks, with links to the diaspora, are contributing to basic coordination and the exchange of information. “These protests are at the level of an intifada”, claims Merera Gudina,[11] or rather at the level of what could be called an “Ethiopian Spring” reminiscent of the “Arab Springs”.

‘Arab plot’

In addressing this situation, the ruling power clings stubbornly to a binary, reductive and simplistic analysis. True, it quickly shelved the Master Plan, an entirely unprecedented turnaround. It also reaffirmed the self-critique that emerged from the congresses of summer 2015: beyond the immense benefits that it has brought – peace and development – its action has been marred by failures and deficiencies, notably with regard to corruption, bad governance, unaccountability and youth unemployment. The narrative is that these are the only failings that the “public” condemns, which makes them “legitimate”. It has undertaken to correct them and “to discuss with the people” in order to tackle them more effectively.

So the legitimacy of these “public” claims is accepted. But those who demand more are supposedly driven by a “destructive agenda” manipulated by “destructive”, “anti-peace”, “anti-development elements”, “bandits”, or even “evil forces” and “terrorist groups”, “extremist Diaspora members who have negotiated their country’s chaos for money”, which are puppets of “foreign actors” or “invaders”, starting with Eritrea. It is they who are “hijacking” peaceful demonstrations and turning them into illegal and violent protests. Websites close to the TPLF, among the few accessible in Ethiopia, are more explicit: according to them, the wave of protest is simply the outcome of an Arab plot, led by Egypt, in which Asmara, the OLF and Ginbot 7 are mere “foot soldiers”. Their real purpose? “To destabilise” Ethiopia, repeats the government, “the total disintegration of Ethiopia as a country”, according to these websites.[12]

To attribute the crisis to external, foreign conspiracy is unjustifiable. Eritrea, still in an on/off state of war with Ethiopia, and Egypt, deeply alarmed by the construction of a colossal dam on the Nile, would undoubtedly welcome a weakening of Ethiopia. It may even be that they are trying to fan the flames. But they do not have the means to light the fire and keep it burning. And the ruling power’s claim that they have been able to do so is itself an admission of weakness: for them to succeed, the regime must already have been resting on weak foundations.

This externalisation also exempts the government from having to consider the grievances at the heart of the protests, going far beyond a few personal failings and deficiencies in implementation. Externalisation is also used to justify repression as the only possible response: there can be no compromise with the enemies of the motherland. It would therefore be pointless to move beyond the use of force and engage in the political sphere, as it did in 2005. Above all, however, the government rejects this option because a political response to the protesters’ demands would require it to question its whole political structure and policy.

‘Intellocracy’

The TPLF is a child of the student movement of the end of Haile Selassie’s reign, radically Marxist and above all Leninist. From its creation, it adopted the movement’s analysis of Ethiopian society. The peasantry – still 80% of the population today – backward and illiterate, the working class tiny and in any case ‘trade-unionist’, the ‘national’ bourgeoisie equally small and anyway indecisive, assigned an irreplaceable role to “revolutionary intellectuals”, as Lenin defined them. They are the only ones able to develop the path that would bring Ethiopia progress and well-being, and therefore the only ones with the legitimacy to impose it on Ethiopians, willingly or by force if necessary.[13]

This conviction remains. Just a few years ago, Hailemariam Desalegn explained: “due to poor education and illiteracy, the Ethiopian public is too underdeveloped to make a well reasoned, informed decision”; so the “enlightened leaders” have “to lead the people”.[14] At the other extreme, every local official is convinced that his position places him within the circle of “enlightened leaders” and that he has the right and duty to assume all the authority associated with that role.

This messianic vision creates an unbridgeable divide between a handful of ‘knowers’, an ‘intellocracy’, which alone has the legitimacy and the capacity to exercise power, and all the others, the ‘ignorant’, in other words the people, reified and bound to obey in its own interests, whatever it may think. It justifies a totalising ascendancy in every sphere, exercised through an age-old hierarchy on which the Leninist formula “democratic centralism” confers a modern and revolutionary dimension. Or, in this particular case, “revolutionary elitism” or “elitist centralism”.[15] Of course, the outcome has been exactly the same: centralising excess and denial of democracy, culminating with the installation of a “strong man” at the apex of a pyramid of power. Meles Zenawi, the prime minister until his death in 2012, would become the acknowledged fulfiller of this role, drawing on immense rhetorical skills backed by an exceptional intelligence.

In this binary vision, the political spectrum is inevitably polarised at two extremes. The ruling power is the sole promoter of peace and development. Those who oppose or merely question it are assigned to the “anti-peace”, “anti-development”, “anti-federalist” camp, as “chauvinists” or “narrow nationalists”, threatening the Ethiopian state and the integrity of the country. Although masked in the early days of the TPLF by the collective operation of the leadership, this conception of ruling, monopolistic and exclusive to the point of extreme sectarianism, is in essence undemocratic. It legitimises the use of force whenever those in power deem it appropriate.

A new middle class

However, a growing section of the population is no longer prepared to be stifled, undervalued and marginalised. A new middle class has emerged, essentially in the public sector, in services and – largely unrecognised – in the countryside, where a rump of recently enriched farmers has emerged. 700,000 young people are in university, 500,000 have obtained degrees in the last five years.[16] In a country of close to 100 million inhabitants, the number of mobile phone customers has reached 46 million, internet users 13.6 million,[17] compared respectively with fewer than a million and 30,000 ten years ago. Satellite dishes have sprouted on the roofs wherever electricity is present, breaking the public television monopoly. It is estimated that 4 million Ethiopians live abroad, but still maintain close relations with their native country. Millions of Ethiopians are suddenly connected to the world. More globally, the demands society now places on the regime are commensurate with the upheavals brought about by the development it has driven. In this sense, the regime’s very successes have come back to bite it.

Ethnic faultlines are also imprinted in the regime’s DNA. From the mid-1980s onwards, the TPLF carried its combat against the Derg from the regional to the national level. At least within the country’s two major “nations”, Oromo and Amhara, it thus had to find ethnic political movements to join it. But rather than forming partnerships, which would have entailed power-sharing, it imposed its grip on them. That is the original sin of federalism ‘Ethiopian style’.

Rather than reaching agreement with the spearhead of anti-Derg struggle in Oromya, the OLF, it created the Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation (OPDO), drawn from among its Oromo or simply Oromifa-speaking prisoners. This structure would be confined to the rank of ‘junior partner’, even more than the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM), the Amhara component of the EPRDF, although its initial nucleus had been an autonomous group. The new Oromo and Amhara elites that joined this structure did so more out of opportunism than by conviction, and in general at least without recognising their leaderships as legitimate representatives.

Federalism, which was supposed to achieve a harmonious balance in inter-ethnic relations, has in fact as practised led ultimately to their deterioration. It faced an insurmountable contradiction. On the one hand, it promoted new ethnic elites to political, administrative and economic functions; on the other, it continued to keep them subordinate, while sharpening ethnic identities. Large parts of these elites, and moreover large swathes of their nations, are no longer prepared to tolerate this.

Deepening faultlines

Ultimately, the exclusiveness and top-down approach are having a negative impact on the economy. In the first phase, the party’s control over the State and the modern sector encouraged the mobilisation and effective use of resources. At this time, the ‘developmental state’ proved its worth by delivering remarkable economic growth. It has to continue if the regime wishes to tout it as a pillar of its legitimacy.

However, this model is on the wane. The developmental state has gone off the rails, diverted by the oligarchical dynamic. The onus is on private investors, in particular foreign investors, to take over from public investment to drive structural transformation towards a globalised market economy. However, the governing power’s obsession with maintaining control is stifling those investors.

Finally, the party political discipline imposed on the technocracy smothers its professional capacities and its confidence. This is one of the primary sources of frustration. It also hampers the effective use of the resources essential for growth in an increasingly complex economy. Yet even at its current rate, that growth is unable to absorb the two to two and a half million young people entering the labour market each year, including new graduates, contributing to the anger that is now exploding in the streets.

In light of these contradictions, the fault lines are deepening. The discontent of the Tigreans has triggered the emergence of a ‘reforming’, pragmatic and politicised current inside the TPLF, which wants to rally them by making the Front work for them again. It advocates breaking with the “rule of force”, an immemorial feature of Ethiopian history.

It underlines that the only way to achieve long-term stability, beginning with peaceful changes of government, is through the step-by-step introduction of the “rule of law” by full and integral application of the constitution, notably the separation of powers, the exercise of fundamental liberties and an authentic federalism.[18] It would have to be “consociationalist”. The chief nations would be equally represented, with decisions taken by consensus, so each would possess an effective right of veto. The second “traditionalist” or “conservative” current rejects significant change and argues for continuity. Essentially, it takes the view that Ethiopia is not yet mature enough for democratic move, and still needs to kept under iron control. A website close to the TPLF argues:“the people are not ready yet in every aspect and meaning of the word (democracy). Any attempt to accelerate that process other than its natural course… can only lead to darker places”.[19]

Reflecting the intensity of this division, these websites are full of heated debate between those who show real understanding of the protests and those who utterly condemn them, between those arguing for immediate political openness and those calling first and foremost for the crushing of the unrest. However, they agree on one point: an unprecedentedly virulent condemnation of the leadership of the Front, which is deemed inept and incapable of handling the situation.

This political division has also reached the ranks of the ANDM and OPDO, but here the focus is on federalism.  The “ethno-nationalists” reject the asymmetries of the current federal system and are keen to assert their party’s autonomy from the TPLF. Their adversaries are considered too weak to fend for themselves and vitally in need of the TPLF’s support. So, the OPDO base has literally disintegrated. At its summit, there is overt opposition between Abadula Gemeda, who expresses understanding for the claims of protesters and is the only leader who enjoys real popularity, and Muktar Kedir, who is perceived as an insubstantial apparatchik imposed by the TPLF. The same applies to the problematic destiny of Gedu Andergatchew, President of the Amhara region, number two in the ANDM and the Movement’s real heavyweight in terms of popularity, and the official number one, Demeke Mekonnen, a much criticised figure who is nevertheless supported by the TPLF.

This ethnicisation of the political landscape is also apparent in the deterioration of relations between TPLF, ANDM and OPDO. Discussions with their rank and file members and a reading of their websites give an insight into their mutual mistrust.

In the TPLF, there is an iron belief that the “rotten chauvinists” and “revanchist”Amhara, controlled remotely by Ginbot 7, have “hijacked” the ANDM, are intent of restoring their former hegemony by “overtaking the position of TPLF in the Ethiopian politics” and are even once again forcing Tigreans “to defend our existence from extinction”.[20]

In the ANDM, there is a conviction that the TPLF wants to continue to make Amhara pay for the former dominance of some of their elite, to marginalize them and to dispossess them of ancestral lands.[21] For the ordinary OPDO party official, nothing has changed since the nineteenth century conquests: exploitation, oppression, marginalisation, or even quite baldly “genocide”. Hackneyed as it clearly is, the word is widely used, symptomatic of a paranoia that casts doubt on what remains of the unity at least at the base of the EPRDF.

These fractures were born since the initial formation of the ruling power. Meles Zenawi widened them, but succeeded in masking them by maintaining an iron grip over the tensions that they engendered. The present wave of protests has exacerbated them.  They are splitting, not to say cracking, the party, from its summit to its 7 million member base, which is torn between loyalty and discipline, the material advantages of membership, and the ever-growing swell of popular aspirations within it.

In Oromya, part of the OPDO pushed behind the scenes for overt opposition to the Master Plan. The regional police were unable to cope or adopt a prudent ‘wait and see’ strategy. Today, they are virtually out of the game, and the federal police and army have had to intervene. The OPDO has essentially been relieved of the government of Oromya, which is under military administration via a “Command Post” based in Addis Ababa and headed by Hailemariam Dessalegn.[22] In the Amhara region, at least the big initial demonstrations were held with the support or tacit approval of part of the ANDM, although officially forbidden. Out of their depth, the Amhara State authorities had to request army intervention. The region has been placed under military command.[23]

The growing number of leaks of documents and recordings of discussions at the highest level of government and the State-Party are testament to the fact that frontline leaders now have one foot in the government camp and one in the protesters’ camp. Villages and entire local areas are taking advantage of the dilution or even disappearance of public authority to set up embryonic forms of self-government. In places, the State-Party’s local structures have placed their organisations at the service of the protesters. Armed men, who can only be village militiamen in principle strictly under local government control, have fired in the air alongside demonstrators. They are necessarily involved in fatal ambushes on soldiers and attacks on military depots. Desertions and overt acts of insubordination are taking place.

Losing authority

By contrast with 2005, when neither the federal nor regional governments lost control, today – at least at certain times and in certain places – they have lost authority over their own agents and even their monopoly on the use of force. Hailemariam Desalegn had to concede: “chaos” has broken out “in parts of Oromia and Amhara states”..[24] There has been a shift from demonstrations to riots, and then from riots to pockets of insurrection. Militiamen and farmers hold hundreds of thousands of weapons. The transition from unrest towards a scattered armed peasant revolt (a “jacquerie”), is a possibility.

The crisis is not only about a change of government, or even regime change. It is systemic, because it is rooted in the form in which contemporary power has been exercised since its bases were laid down in the middle of the nineteenth century. This has been theocratic, authoritarian, centralised, hierarchical, ethnically biased, monopolising the country’s resources.

“Intellocracy” has replaced theocratic feudalism, but other main traits have been more or less transposed in an updated form. The ruling power faces more or less the same demands as those it addressed to Haile Selassie’s regime forty years ago: rule of law; fair use of assets, beginning with land (“land to the tiller”, went the slogan; denunciation of “land grabbing’” now); the “national question”, in other words a balanced relationship between Ethiopia’s 80 “nations, nationalities and peoples”; and, at the crossroads of the land issue and the “national question”, the border conflicts between the states.They want to rule in the old way, and people are refusing to be ruled in the old way

They want to rule in the old way, and people are refusing to be ruled in the old way”, is Merera Gudina’s concise summing up.[25] What the protesters – and indeed the “reformists” – are demanding is huge: the shift from an imposed, exclusive and closed system, to an accepted, inclusive and open system. This would require a total reconstruction, an outcome that the successors of Haile Selassie, then of Mengistu, failed to bring about.

For the moment at least, this goal is well beyond the EPRDF’s capacities. Firstly, it is paralysed by its divisions. These range from personal conflicts to business rivalries, from old ethnic tensions to new political disagreements. Secondly, the Front would risk disintegration if the “reformists” tried to force through their views. Whatever side they are on, its leaders know that a split would be fatal to everyone. They are obliged to maintain unity, with the result that they seem for now condemned to immobility.

Opening up

The majority of the Front perceives opening up as a leap in the dark and a fatal threat to its positions and its interests.

Opening up to the opponents of the Front would have to go hand-in-hand with an internal opening up. It would inevitably threaten numerous unfairly acquired positions.

Until now, the rule of winner-takes-all has reigned. In the general perception, or at least ‘Abyssinian’ perception, authority is either absolute or moribund: if it accepts concessions, it implicitly acknowledges that its end is imminent. To open up would therefore trigger a sharing of power, which could culminate in total loss of power.

Opening up would also mean a historic shift. For centuries, power has been “northern”, Abyssinian. A fair representation of the different ethnic components is inconceivable without the Oromo, the largest ethnicity, playing a central role, a role moreover that they are demanding.

That would be an even more hazardous leap for the TPLF, abandoning its domination and betting that a genuinely democratic federalism would emerge. In other words, that nations or a coalition of nations much more populous than the Tigreans would not impose majority rule, threatening the preservation of what for the Front is non- negotiable: Tigreans remaining in charge of Tigray.Finally, power and enrichment go together.

Finally, power and enrichment go together. From the summit of the state-party to its most modest ranks, official positions and oligarchical rents are mutually reinforcing. This material dimension is an overwhelming reason to preserve the status quo. In particular, the vast majority of the Front’s members think that it is right that their commitment and obedience should be rewarded with direct or indirect favours.

To open up, but to whom, in what domain, and to what point? Everyone agrees that the protest movement has neither a recognised leadership nor a clear programme, which is its major weakness. Would it consider itself authentically represented by the legal opposition, enfeebled through repression and its own divisions, or by the more radical illegal opposition, whose real representativeness is impossible to assess? Would these very diverse forces agree on a sort of shared programme of demands?

Up to now they have always stumbled over two crucial points: whether to maintain public ownership of land – far and away the primary asset – or to privatise it; and whether to accentuate or to temper federalism. For the moment, the voices making themselves heard cover a very wide spectrum of demands, from the launch of a national dialogue through to the total and immediate overthrow of the EPRDF. And history tells us that in such circumstances the extremists quickly prevail over the moderates.But the word compromise has no direct translation in Amharic…

Yet short of plunging the country into chaos, there exists no credible alternative to the existing authority, except in the long term. Supposing the EPRDF were to decide “to rule in a new way”, it would only do so on condition that it remained in control of a very gradual and therefore very long process of change. Which of its adversaries would accept this? On one side or the other, all-or-nothing politics have so far been the rule. But an inclusive and open system cannot be created unless all the stakeholders, without exception, are ready for compromise, in other words ready to make reciprocal concessions in order to reach an agreement. But the word compromise has no direct translation in Amharic…

Worst case scenario

So every scenario remains possible, including the worst-case. The regime may decide to continue on the same trajectory, relying on repression and the acceleration of its recovery plan for the state-party. It could be that the machinery of repression will stifle the protest movement. This machinery is extensive and experienced. It is even possible that the army could decide to take matters into its own hands, if it thought that the political leadership was failing. Its effective head, Samora Yunus, has always said that “the army is always vigilant to safeguard the constitutional order.[26]

But will it be able to, especially if protest intensifies, and in particular if it takes root in the rural areas? From a leaked record of a meeting of army chiefs, it seems that some are uncertain about the physical capacity of the troops to hold firm on multiple fronts, and above all about the risks of insubordination, or even mutiny, resulting from the ethnic divisions in their ranks.[27]Killing is not an answer to our grievances

Even supposing that simple repression works, the probability is high that it would only offer the regime a period of respite before, sooner or later, a new – even more devastating – surge of unrest. To prevent this, it has just decided to put on the table the question of Wolkait and the relations between Addis Ababa and the Oromo lands around it, and above all to “sack and reshuffle party and government officials including Ministers” in the coming month, all through wide-ranging discussions “with the people”.[28]

But even the legal opposition judges these reforms to be “cosmetic”.[29] Up to now, these discussions have always consisted in a massive process of self-justification, with no genuine consultation of the people, which is unable – or does not dare – to make itself heard. Moreover, this promise is an old chestnut. The struggle against the dark triad of corruption, bad governance and unaccountability, on the agenda since the early 2000s, has had no impact. The campaign to “purify” the state-party of its black sheep, launched with much fanfare in the autumn of 2015, has been a damp squib. It touched only minor officials, while none of the senior figures – some are notorious for their corrupt practices – was affected, leading the population to conclude that the campaign was nothing but a smokescreen.

This triad of failings extends from top to bottom of the EPRDF. It is hard to see how the Party could put an end to them in response to what it sees as the main demand emanating from the people, without putting itself at high risk.

Killing is not an answer to our grievances”, cry the demonstrators. For the moment, however, no other genuine answers are to be heard or seen, unless basic common sense, not to mention democratic aspirations, were to prevail in the ruling power.


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