Implications of the Continued High Level Defections from Ethiopian Air Force

The Limits of Reliance on Coercive Institutions
DEFECTION. The limits of reliance and tight control over coercive state institutions

By Sokore Waqo,

THE recent defection of Ethiopian Air Force crew with MI-35 helicopter has sent shockwaves to the corridors of power in Addis Ababa.

The ruling elites are increasingly displaying pugnacious behavior. They lashed out at the pilot, labeling him a “traitor” and they lambasted Ethiopia’s enemies (which the Defense Ministry statement referred to as Shaebia’s agents and mercenaries) for conspiring to destabilize the country and presumably being involved in the defection covertly.

Adding to the setback TPLF had already suffered, unconfirmed reports on another round of defection of four pilots from the Ethiopian Air Force to neighboring Kenya were circulating in the last few days. It is believed that similar waves of defections are even more rampant in the Army. In fact, these waves of defections are telling signs that TPLF’s reliance on coercive institutions to continue its grip on power is reaching its limits.

Professor Messay Kebede, a notable scholar and commentator on Ethiopian politics, had written a compelling prognosis few weeks ago explaining this “slippery ground of TPLF’s power strategy”. Thus, the essence of Messay’s prognosis is that with increasing reliance on coercion as a power strategy, TPLF only hastens its inevitable fall from power for this could possibly trigger resistance against the regime both from within the government and from the resentful members of the public.

In my view, there are chiefly three frontiers that explain TPLF’s ability to hold on state power virtually alone since May 1991. These are tight control over coercive state institutions, trading on democracy building and lately claiming to advance economic development under the rubric of a “developmental state”.

1. Command and control of coercive state institutions as a solid power strategy

The first has always been the major and most effective weapon in TPLF’s power strategy. It seems to me that TPLF leaders have always been very transparent about their reliance on coercion as a method of statecraft or governance. To be sure, in TPLF’s loose political coalition – so-called EPRDF – political weight is a function of the havoc one had wreaked during the insurgency years with the Dergue regime rather than a function of building constituencies that could win an election.

Consequently, key positions in coercive state institutions and public resources were selectively handed to TPLF core members who are believed to have paid more “sacrifice” in blood and sweat in removing the Dergue dictatorship. So to speak, all the Rawlsian primary goods – liberties, opportunities and income and wealth – are unfairly distributed to the high ranking officers in the coercive state institutions.

Thus, the military or other security organs of the state are the entry points for those who intend to become career politicians or wealthy business men. Indeed, the military profession as an entry point to politics and business has always been the legacy in historic Ethiopia except that TPLF intensified this practice with an ethnic twist.

1.1. The fault lines of reliance on command and control of coercive institutions

The strategy of populating senior positions in coercive state institutions with loyal cadres from the insurgency years might have been effective so far in serving TPLF’s political ambitions. But there are growing signs of its fault lines recently. The supposedly loyal members of the coercive state institutions, specifically the middle and low ranking officers, are increasingly dissatisfied with the soaring cost of living and maladministration in their institutions in particular, and worsening political and economic conditions in the country in general. For this reason, some of them are electing to defect risking their lives.

A case in point is the crew of the MI-35 helicopter who defected to Eritrea last week. Members of the crew were from different ethnic backgrounds, including from Tigray. To the dismay of TPLF leaders, the crew members put aside their ethnic differences and acted in unison to land the helicopter in Eritrea. Now loyalty based on primordial relationship is being put under severe test. This is really what enraged the TPLF leaders than loss of the MI-35 gunship to their arch-rival regime in Asmara because TPLF benefits from fomenting ethnic tensions and creating animosity among the staff in the security institutions.

Hereafter, who is going to be a trusted functionary of TPLF to the last minute even from the staff in the security institutions? Now, therefore, TPLF leaders cannot be sure enough if the officers they have assigned in coercive state institutions would stand with them when the political storm of the oppressed Ethiopians surface violently.

1.2. A lesson or two for the junior partners of TPLF and the opposition

There is a lesson to be learnt by the junior partners of TPLF’s government in particular and the opposition in general. For the junior partners, they have a clear opportunity presenting itself to them. That TPLF’s last frontier to continue exercising grip on power – the skewed arrangement of balance of power in the coercive state institutions – is on a downward spiral. If the junior partners can seize the momentum, there is likelihood to cut back TPLF’s dominance in the coercive state institutions thereby facilitating the conditions for “equal partnership” in the loose coalition I have passingly mentioned above.

Again, for the junior partners, seizing the momentum is now or never for two reasons. First, if the junior partners fail to sense this opportunity, TPLF core leaders will get time to regroup like wolves and redesign a framework for perpetual subduing of the junior partners. Second, with the increasing use of naked power to silence regime opponents and growing dissatisfaction of Ethiopians due to the prevalent chronic political and economic problems in the country, TPLF may trigger a widespread political storm that could hasten its fall from grace. With the demise of TPLF, undoubtedly the junior partners would also be swept under the rug.

For the garden-variety regime opponents, it is time to stop wholesale assignment of blame on the Tigreans for the ills created by the TPLF regime on the unfounded ground that TPLF’s social/political base is Tigray. TPLF is an organization that plies its trade through coercion; it is reluctant to build constituencies and base its political survival on adequate representation of the interests of its constituents. For this reason alone, it is not fair to assume that TPLF has the political support of all Tigreans. Besides, at a time when the members of the coercive state institutions are defecting in opposition to regime’s rogue actions from all ethnic backgrounds, it doesn’t make any sense at all to single out those from Tigray. When opportunities avail themselves they are equally resistant to TPLF’s authoritarian rule. To be specific, Abreha Desta’s courageous struggle against TPLF tyranny, despite many odds and his suffering at the Maikelawi prison, is a testament to this very assertion. After all, on what moral/political ground can we reproach the Tigreans while the so-called silent majority in the rest of the country has apparently acquiesced to the authoritarian rule of TPLF?

2. The faltering of democracy building as a legitimation strategy

The second ground of legitimation for TPLF’s government – democracy building – has already faltered. TPLF enacted a constitution in 1995, established a “Federal Democratic Republic”, incorporated all kinds of individual rights and freedoms as well as collective rights into the constitution, stipulated that sovereignty lies not in the government but the Ethiopian people hinting that government is based on the consent of the people, etc.

In its practice in the last twenty years, however, TPLF adequately demonstrated that it has no intention to abide by the rules and standards stipulated in its own constitution. The sovereignty of Ethiopian people has been denied as TPLF refused to sanction free and fair elections.

The second republic, that was presumed to be federal and based on the self-government of the diverse ethno-cultural communities, did not come close to a true “Federal Democratic Republic” since TPLF was determined to exercise totalitarian power over the whole country as a matter of fact. The much-admired individual and collective rights stipulated in the constitution remained hollow promises for they were reluctantly breached rather than being observed for political expediency. Institutions that were established by the constitution, to serve as custodians of these rights and put a limit on governmental overreach, were either structurally flawed from the beginning or starved of revenue and competent personnel. The regular courts (at federal and regions) lack institutional independence from the state and party structure of TPLF, and cannot, therefore, be relied on by citizens as the last bulwark for ensuring their rights.

The Ombudsman and the Human Rights Commission are run not by independents but apologists of the TPLF regime. The House of Federation, which is established to protect the fundamental rights of citizens and curb unconstitutional excesses of power by the government through constitutional interpretation, lacks the essential characters of a constitutional court, and therefore, practically unable to carry out its functions. As a result of all these anomalies, democracy building under TPLF has lost any credibility.

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The writer, Sokore Waqo, can be reached at [email protected]