By René Lefort | for Open Democracy,
The Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF), the strongest component of the ruling coalition, from the middle of 2014 has faced the highest level of Tigrean popular discontent since its inception 40 years ago. That came first. Now the unrest in the most populated region of Ethiopia has sent to the regime as a whole the most shattering warning shot since its arrival in power in 1991.
Despite Tigray’s marginality in terms of geography, population – 6% of Ethiopians – and its economy, the TPLF had the strength to impose its hegemony after its victory over the Derg military-socialist junta in 1991. This dominance has recently declined, but it remains the driving force of the coalition between the four ethnic forces constituting the near-single party – the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) – with the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM), the Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation (OPDO) and the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM).
It is also the only party that the population sees as its authentic and legitimate representative. However, since the spring of 2014, it has been shaken by a rising tide of popular discontent. “Give us back our TPLF!” cry the Tigrayans, a Front that is righteous, disinterested, devoted as it was during the armed struggle, ready to listen and to serve, but now accused of having succumbed to an unholy trinity: corruption, bad governance, unaccountability.
“We have acted as if it was pointless to listen to people because we are building roads and opening schools”, admits one former TPLF leader off the record. It is the “old guard”, sidelined during the second half of the reign of the omnipotent Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who died in 2012, which sounded the alarm and then led the charge. Meles had promoted a new generation of leaders – the “Melesites”. Some young party members, mostly ambitious intellectuals, enraged by the degeneration of the Front, rushed into the breach opened up by the old timers. If it doesn’t regain its old strength, they are convinced, it will not be able to maintain its influence, and the Tigrayans would be exposed to a quasi existential risk of ceasing even to be masters in their own house, thereby losing the main asset of a 40 year struggle. Their goal: to revitalise the Front through “democratisation” and thereby regain popular support. Their target: the existing leadership, which they see as populated with incompetent “yes-men”.
However, the most disturbing warning signal came from Oromya, the region that accounts for 37% of the total population and is the economic heart of the country. Since mid-November, its northern half at least has been in a ferment of dissent. Demonstrations were followed by riots so intense and extensive as to be described as a “slide into a security crisis”: the authorities lost control of entire areas abandoned or deserted by the security forces. Half the high schools and universities had to close their doors. In their wake, as always happens in a power vacuum, came looters and vandals. While official government figures continue to strain credulity, other sources report more than a hundred dead. Two months on, things have only partially returned to normal.
The trigger was an ordinary land expropriation in favour of private investors in a small town a hundred or so kilometres west of Addis Ababa. However, the focal point of the grievances was the so-called Master Plan for the expansion of Addis Ababa. The city has its own administrative government, but is located far inside Oromya. This territory was conquered by the Northeners at the end of the nineteenth century, and has grown by eating into the surrounding areas, still a trauma for many Oromo. The Plan covered an area 20 times larger than the existing capital, and would impact millions of Oromo. It possessed all the deficiencies of large development operations in Ethiopia: opacity and confusion, with documents of uncertain status released in dribs and drabs, thus a lack of clarity even about the respective roles of Addis Ababa municipality and the Oromya authorities in the area concerned; a centralising, top-down approach, with no consultation of the people. Oromo opinion once again rose up against what it perceives as a further drive to truncate its territory, exacerbated by a swathe of ruthless land grabbing, like that already experienced by tens of thousands of Oromo farmers around the capital or elsewhere, to the benefit of investors, whether foreign or Ethiopian, Oromo or otherwise.
The authorities began by reacting reflexively in their usual way: if it moves, hit it. To show their peaceful intentions, the demonstrators raised crossed arms or sat with bowed heads. The security forces’ disproportionate violence fuelled the protests. “Killing is not an answer to our grievances”, was the cry. For the first time on this scale, protest extended outside the “intellectual” milieu – students and teachers – to encompass not just high school and even primary school pupils, but even the lower classes, including simple farmers, who constitute three quarters of the population.
The straw that broke the camel’s back
The Master Plan was simply the straw that broke the camel’s back, the culmination of a much wider and more long-standing conflict. This is evidenced by the protesters’ targets: people and property with links – however tenuous – to the authorities, regional and federal. The officials, despite their being almost all Oromo; their symbols, their facilities (offices, cars, prisons, even medical centres and unemployment support agencies); companies owned by foreigners, non Oromo, and even by Oromo, if they have been imposed despite the peoples wishes.
Even local “model farmers” were targeted, a group who receive special government support to “modernise” their farms, on condition that they then show their fellow peasants the path to follow. Too often, they are selected by nepotism, with the result that an informal alliance has formed between local government and a new class of “kulaks”, accused of exploiting this patronage for underhand purposes, via renting or share cropping on land held by poorer farmers who have fallen into a spiral of debt. Worse still: in some places neighbours were killed, their houses burned, simply for being non Oromo.
The target of unrest in Oromya was not just the unholy trinity, as in Tigray, though it is even more devastating there, but also harassment by the security apparatus, with its thousands of political prisoners, often held for years without trial. “There is no democracy, there is no justice”, complained some demonstrators. The centralisation of power, in contradiction with authentic federalism, is exacerbated by the general perception of Tigrean hegemony and the marginalisation and dispossession of Oromya.
“We want genuine self-rule”, ran one of the slogans. The attendant centralisation of development, and its relative liberalisation, initiated at the start of the 2000s, favours an “entrepreneurial” economic elite, covering a range of beneficiaries stretching from the big foreign investor to the rich peasant or Ethiopian businessman, whether Oromo or not. The ascendancy of this elite is consubstantial with the high positions it almost automatically occupies in the ruling party. Its behaviour is seen as predatory, primarily in respect of land.
“Oromya is not for sale”, demonstrators chanted. Their political opposition thus coincides with, and is reinforced by, an economic and cultural conflict around the resource that is the most precious, and quasi sacred, to the vast majority, land — which still acts as the cement of the social contract. Between this majority and this heterogeneous elite, but also within a peasantry that had previously remained largely homogeneous since the agrarian reform of 1975, class antagonisms have deepened. Moreover, plans in an increasingly sensitive sphere — the economy — could harden them.
First, there is the hidden aspect of the economy. Mystery surrounds the real situation of whole sectors controlled, directly or indirectly, by the state, i.e. two thirds of the economy outside traditional agriculture, their profitability, and above all their indebtedness, the key to their recent growth. One suspects that the alarmist rhetoric around the urgent need for a change of direction owes much to this black hole.
Moreover, the current version of the leading public impulse for economic growth — the “developmental state” — is coming to the end of the line. Its objective was to accomplish a shift from agriculture to industry. However, shares of the economy held by the industrial and manufacturing sectors remain at a similar level as at the end of Haile Selassie’s reign: respectively 11% and 5% of GDP then, 13% and 5% today.
Growth on a downward path
“The 10-years perspective is a transition where manufacturing will lead the economy”, asserts Arkebe Oqubay, mastermind of this transformation. Without it, there is no chance of absorbing the 2 to 2.5 million young people arriving on the labour market every year, of becoming competitive by increasing productivity, thereby reducing a growing trade deficit and turning round an increasingly negative balance of payments — the possibility of a foreign exchange crunch is increasingly raised  — and ultimately no chance of maintaining a high growth rate, the core of the regime’s legitimacy. For him, the worst scenario would be the combination of an economic slowdown with bad governance and assertions of nationalist feeling.
This growth rate is on a downward path, officially declining from 12% per annum in 2005 to 8% today. The World Bank suggests that this fall is likely to continue. Public investment, the driver of growth, has reached its ceiling at a third of GDP. Further growth therefore demands a massive inflow of private capital, mainly from abroad, bringing jobs and higher productivity, and carrying local capital in its wake, initially in subcontracting activities. However, “many of the foreign investors in Ethiopia fail because the environment is difficult”, Arkebe judges. “Ethiopia lags behind Sub-Saharan African peers in most reform dimensions”. Hence the intention to introduce greater ‘liberalisation’ in order to give business an attractive, stable and predictable framework, and even to open up new sectors such as banking to foreigners.
These reforms will also need to tackle another blind spot. Moving from archaic agriculture to a competitive manufacturing sector requires an army of skilled professionals with free rein to apply their knowledge. Ethiopia’s 34 universities hold almost 700,000 students and have issued more than 500,000 degrees in the last five years alone. However, this increase in quantity has been accomplished to the detriment of quality. Above all, the centuries-old codes of power, whatever the domain, remain largely in place: implacable hierarchy, top-down administration, blind obedience. They are even reinforced by the near obligation of party membership in the public sector: party loyalty takes precedence over public service. The professional capacities of this new class of “intellectuals” are therefore held in check.
This lost potential hinders economic growth. Moreover, the gap between this “Internet generation” and the excessively authoritarian, fossilised and infantilising practice of power, at every level, is generating growing frustration.
While some of the new generation are satisfied with the advantages – legal and illegal – associated with their positions, others want to make their voices heard.
Haile Selassie created an intellectual elite to run a state machinery subordinate to his rule alone. Held in subjection, it rebelled, especially when — as today — graduate unemployment exploded. By contrast with the past, however, even the most anti-establishment of the present generation are not looking for a change of regime, but primarily for a role commensurate with their qualifications, and then, for some, a genuine application of the constitution, primarily with regard to federalism, particularly in Oromya.
Drought and war
Finally, there are two other challenges. After an exceptional drought, almost 20 million Ethiopians are in need of emergency or long-term food aid. The authorities have responded vigorously, especially as they are haunted by the correlation between the overthrow of Haile Selassie and then the Derg and the famines that preceded them. But they themselves acknowledge failures in the distribution of aid and that the worst is yet to come.
An end to the state of phony peace with Eritrea is a growing demand in Tigray. Previously, they wanted it so that investors would finally come and rescue the region from its economic stagnation. Now it is demanded on the grounds that the military facilities that Asmara is providing to the Saudi-led coalition show that Eritrea is a bridgehead for an “Arab-Muslim encirclement”. For example, one pro-TPLF website writes:
“Ethiopia is surrounded by (Arab) strategic enemies… working to disintegrate and dismantle Ethiopia… Most of the Arab countries think Ethiopia is the gate of Africa, if they can convert the Ethiopian Christians to the Muslim faith, they can control Africa and its resources.” “As the end justifies the means, Ethiopia has to use everything at its disposal to take a swift military action against Eritrea; get rid of its hostile government; annex Assab”.
What is not known is how far the leadership of the Front is listening to this demand.
Faced with these challenges, sticking to the “Meles line”, as the ruling power has up to now, i.e. maintaining the status quo, has become untenable. However, the structure of power that he left behind is vacillating in its readiness to tackle this. Two power systems are in conflict with each other, though both managed by almost the same people.
Two institutions have never played their statutory role: the legal system and the legislative assemblies. With the rise of Meles Zenawi in the early 2000s, the others became empty shells: the TPLF itself, the three other components of the EPRDF, the cabinet, the regional governments. They were reduced to mere communication channels for orders delivered from the top. Pyramidal and interpersonal, this structure of authority had little regard for institutions. Simultaneously, a constellation of mini-fiefs formed, each at the node of a network built on relationships of different kinds — family, friendship, and fundamentally regional and/or sub-regional, as well as business — all beneficiaries of the “developmental state”. After victory over the Derg, the revolutionary elite used its positions in the party-state to monopolise the management of public and para-public companies, and then to launch itself into the private sector on the back of public contracts. Thus was born an oligarchical constellation formed inside the highest party-state circles, with one foot in these circles, the other in business. These practices spread like lightning down to the lowest levels, hence the sharpness of the tensions generated by corruption, bad governance and unaccountability. But with one fundamental difference compared to essentially predatory regimes: it continued to deliver. Even though the official growth rate is undoubtedly overstated, and its social distribution problematic, progress is unquestionable. With peace and security – until recently – it has been the basis of the regime’s legitimacy.
A crumbling pyramid
When Meles Zenawi died suddenly in August 2012, this pyramid crumbled. It left a system of power that was diffuse — disseminated between multiple centres, whether individual or institutional, and riven with ferocious personal rivalries — and lacking direction. A common front was maintained to settle the succession in terms of individuals, notably with the appointment of Haile Mariam Dessalegn as Prime Minister.
Nevertheless, although their workings remain riddled by these personal networks, “now, institutions start to matter”, stresses one well-informed observer: thus, the Executive Committee of the EPRDF, cabinet, starting with the Prime Minister is increasingly assertive, and regional governments follow on through a centrifugal effect. The security forces and army, however, remain a bastion apart, and interrelations between all these power centres are still vague and unstable. The reconstruction of a solid and consensual system is still on the agenda. At the same time, the situation it faces on all fronts is becoming increasingly problematic. Too many officials remain too rigid, arrogant and disconnected to see the urgency of the situation; too unstable and fragmented. The leadership can hardly agree on the changes needed, let alone implement them.
Questioned about the existence of a “wider consensus within the ruling party” on greater economic openness, Arkebe Oqubay replied evasively: “I cannot say 100%.” The opposition is of three kinds: the Ethiopian economic elite is highly disparate, divided between the most powerful groups who hope to be able to piggyback on the influx of foreign investors, and small businesses which consider themselves too weak to withstand international competition. An old “socialistic” ideological current persists. And finally, the nationalistic strain remains strong: no Ethiopian leadership has ever allowed a foreign presence, of whatever kind, to acquire sufficient influence as to potentially escape its control. Yet a massive influx of foreign investors inevitably requires compromises that will one way or another dent that sovereignty.
Moreover, this greater economic openness is likely to exacerbate the antagonisms described above, by fuelling bad governance and corruption, which exploded with the ‘liberal’ turn of the early 2000s. And the reforms currently under way or on the drawing board are purely technical. Indispensable as it is, an alteration in the ‘culture of power’ is not a priority in the economy.
Gimgema – ግምገማ
According to the official media, the combat against the unholy trinity is in full sway. The last TPLF Congress and its Central Committee saw a swathe of criticism and self-criticism, reviving one of the Font’s strongest traditions – the “gimgema” – which had become stripped of its original function in recent years. However, this merely resulted in a compromise between ‘reformists’ and ‘conservatives’, between ‘urgentists’ and ‘wait and seers’. In accordance with the traditional practice of ‘democratic centralism’, the Central Committee overruled the Congress. Two “reformers” joined the Executive Committee, the remaining “Melesites” stayed, including the chairman, Abay Woldu, who was the focus of the critiques. They will be closely monitored by newcomers to the Central Committee. The reforms were approved, but they had already been formulated in virtually the same terms at the previous congress.
Nonetheless, gimgema spread throughout Tigray. The leaders are touring the state, holding public meetings. Local officials are required to account for their behaviour to the inhabitants. In these people’s courts, judgement is rapid, the defence insignificant. Hundreds of low and medium ranking officials have been sacked, thousands warned. But we have no way of knowing whether the authorities took into account the voices of the participants before immediately appointing their replacements, or whether — as usual — they simply named them and left it to the people to formally endorse them.
In contrast, it doesn’t appear that the same purge is taking place elsewhere, or at least not with the same intensity, except in Addis Ababa. Not that the unholy trinity is any less rampant, quite the contrary. But the reformist drive emanating from part of the TPLF and a few influential individual allies in the other parties, is having little impact outside, when it is not met with concealed opposition. ANDM and particularly OPDO, already so fragile when the TPLF launched its reforms and its purges, do not seem capable of handling the shock of such a challenge. The ANDM Congress was a quiet affair, OPDO’s was virtually a non-event. The same leadership teams were reappointed with no significant changes.
Above all, the exercise is limited in its very conception. The idea is that the party-state should correct itself, without any intervention by an external and independent body. The only involvement eagerly sought is that of the “public”, a fetish word, meaning de facto a fluctuating collection of individuals, by definition unorganised and unstructured. Nothing can or should undermine the monolithism of the ruling power.
The reactions to the events in Oromya reveal shock and confusion. First, in the intensity of the repression, with thousands of arrests, including senior cadres from the Oromo legal opposition parties, journalists, intellectuals. Then in its desire to silence discordant media voices, including the two TV networks run by opponents in the diaspora, to the point that the security forces even wrecked satellite dishes.
And in the cacophony emanating from the leadership. At one extreme, denial of the obvious. “There is a fair power sharing system between the federal government and the regional states which has enabled the regions to decide by themselves on issues that are specific to them”, the government spokesman maintained. “We know the protests are based on false claims.” The protesters are demonised, driven by “the conspiracies of destructive forces… of evil forces”, of “anti-peace elements”, including opposition parties which are, for good measure, “the proxies of the Eritrean regime”, and “are now organizing armed gangs”.
At the other extreme, Abadulla Gemada, speaker of the House, a long-standing leader of OPDO but a man with the Prime Minister’s ear and one of the few leaders whose position in the traditional Oromo hierarchy attracts a certain popularity, declared in essence that the Oromos were smart enough not to let themselves be manipulated and to demonstrate for good reasons. Between the two extremes, a convoluted acknowledgement, even from the Prime Minister, that “the recent question raised by the people of Oromia is a legitimate one”, that the Master Plan should have been drawn up in consultation “with the people of Oromia”, but also that “merciless legitimate action against any force bent on destabilising the area” is required.
Finally, The Plan has been abandoned”. For Abay Tsehaye, one of top ideas men and a political adviser to the Prime Minister, the sole culprits are corrupt OPDO officials and shady businessmen who “created all the mess… to capitalize on chaos” so as “to preempt the good governance drive… using the Master Plan as a smokescreen”. So the whole problem comes down to black sheep who are manipulating Oromo to escape the punishment they deserve. Only part of the press dared to go further. For example, the Addis Standard, with a front page showing two raised crossed arms in red on a black background, carried the headline “Why is Ethiopia killing its people again?” subtitled “Oromo protests; not just about the ‘Master Plan’… Marking the next Ethiopian Political Chapter”.
Federalism and hyper-centralised reality
The regime is now paying the price for the accumulated mistakes of its ethnic policy. Both ANDM and OPDO were created by the TPLF. They have never broken free of its oversight, at least to the extent of being considered legitimate representatives by the Amhara and the Oromo, with the capacity to voice their aspirations and grievances at federal level. This original fault line undermines the whole federal construct. Federalism is at the heart of the constitution and institutions, but the reality is hyper-centralised, the primacy of the Tigryan elite, even if increasingly under stress, undeniable in the political, economic and even more so the military and security spheres.
The “national question” boomerangs back on those who claim to have settled it once and for all: constantly emphasising national identities and proclaiming that they now all have the right to assert themselves, equally and entirely; in reality, keeping them ranked and constrained. Meles Zenawi’s iron fist had contained this contradiction. It could not but break loose after his death. In the absence of strong and inclusive political structures to handle it, it inevitably overflowed into the street.
One of the most illuminating evidences of these accumulated mistakes is the vacuity of the OPDO. It won 100% on the seats during the May elections, but it proved incapable of maintaining law and order, incapable of channelling discontent: it disintegrated. Most of its top leadership further discredited themselves by adopting the government line. As for the rest of its officials, very many joined the protests, others quite simply faded away. Oromya lives under a de facto state of security/military siege directed from Addis Ababa.
A Copernican revolution?
Would simple reforms resolve all these profoundly interdependent pitfalls, or do they demand a complete overhaul of the regime? Surprisingly as it may seem, part of the TPLF and some high level officials beyond believe this is the case. They have in recent months undergone a Copernican revolution, breaking with everything they have thought and done since their beginnings, 40 years ago now, as with all Ethiopian leaders since the dawn of time: ruling by force.
They underline that throughout the country’s history, all regime changes have come through armed conflict. “We want to leave future generations an Ethiopia that is not only prosperous, but also sustainably stable and peaceful”, they say. The only solution would be to let the institutions work as the constitution stipulates. In other words, deliberative assemblies that actually control the executive, from federal level down through the 17,000 municipalities; an independent legal system; a recognition of the positive role that the opposition parties and media could play. Sincere conversion or a pragmatic acceptance of reality? For their Tigrayan proponents, given the arch-minority status of the Tigreans, the clinching argument is that only genuine federalism could give them the vital long-term guarantee of remaining at least masters in their own homeland.
In the immediate, the management of the unrest in Oromya contradicts these intentions. However, the shock has been too sudden and too violent for the regime not to be out of its depth and to revert to its traditional repressive habits. But its history also shows that it only changes after a very long period of internal maturation. There is nothing to say that a period of deep reflection has not begun, albeit as ever behind double locked doors.
The obstacles are huge: the whole culture of power would be turned upside down, along two axes.
This culture is one of centralisation. But real federalism couldn’t be beyond reach. Oromya shows that it is becoming an absolute requirement. The foreign investment influx requires long term stability. Decentralisation is not conditional on the establishment of the ‘rule of law’ in every other sphere. In particular, oligarchical power could adapt to, and even prosper alongside genuine decentralisation. However, it would entail at least a full reconstruction of OPDO, and probably ANDM as well. Otherwise, it is to be feared that the inter-nation relationship would become even more critical, with young Oromo activists in particular deciding that the only choice is armed struggle because nothing could be achieved by political means.
It is also an authoritarian culture. Since the student movement of the 1970s, this authority has been vested in a small self-proclaimed vanguard elite, whose legitimacy is founded on the claim to supreme knowledge. It might adopt the argument of the early Soviet leadership: “We alone know what should be done to make you prosperous and happy, and so we have the right and the duty to do it if necessary by force and against your will.” In essence, therefore, this power is vertical and monolithic: any dissent could only come from misguided individuals or from ‘anti-peace’ and ‘anti-development’ elements. Criticism can be accepted only if levelled at failures in the execution of a policy, but not at the policy itself. That is precisely the limitation of the current campaign against the unholy trinity.
Rule of law?
This raises the question of what meaning these ‘reformers’ give to the ‘rule of law’: does it include the possibility that the country’s vital forces, whether driven by political, economic or social motives, including these new ‘intellectuals’, could organise themselves and make dissenting voices heard, not only about the form, but also about the substance of policy? This would require the end of monolithism, the acceptance of counter-forces, and therefore an end to the obsession with maintaining control over all organisations, whatever their nature.
It would also require an end to the wait for the supreme saviour, the ‘strong man’. Even within the TPLF, and even more so in the population of former Abyssinia, many are convinced that only such a figure could stabilise and preserve the structure of power, thus bring a lasting stability, as supposedly demonstrated throughout Ethiopian history.
Establishing the rule of law is above all about confronting oligarchical power. During a famous televised discussion about tackling the unholy trinity, attended by a gathering of the leadership and opened by a devastating report into the spread of its depredations right to the top of the party-state, Haile Mariam Dessalegn exclaimed: “Here, we talk, but once outside, we defend our different networks to ensure that they are not affected. That is the primary sickness!” A confession of the limitations of self-correction.
The abandonment of the Master Plan is an unprecedented decision, but one that even the legal opposition considers a first step on a very long journey. It is calling for a significant gesture of appeasement, such as the freeing of the recent detainees, as proof that the government is sincerely ready to enter into dialogue with all the stakeholders concerned who possess recognised status, and with respected figures, for a complete rethink. If it accepts, the opposition would have to concede that the process could only be gradual, extremely lengthy, that if the EPRDF agrees not to dictate its outcome, it will nevertheless insist on retaining control throughout the whole process, and that one line in the sand cannot for the moment be crossed: challenging federalism and the upper hand Tigreans hold over the security services and the army, which it sees for the time being as its ultimate shield.
“Where does all this lead us? To the beginning of the end? Let us hope not”, concludes a recent editorial in Addis Fortune. In the absence of a credible alternative authority, only the existing regime can decide whether it ultimately wishes to change, or is prepared to risk the worst.