By E Abraham,
Anger, which has been bottled up and fermenting for the past 25 years in Ethiopia, has finally exploded and overflown in to the streets of almost every corner of the country. Ominously to the current minority TPLF government, such expressions of anger have so far been more tenacious than sporadic and more random than organized. One can hardly plan anger. The more reason why it has taken many a regional ‘political analyst’ and ‘stake holder’ alike by a complete surprise.
Around a year ago, I presented a layman’s overview of current affairs in aspects of Ethiopian politics. Aspects revolving around the ethnic based federal model of governance deliberately instated by the TPLF and its sustainability, the prime-ministership of Haile Mariam Desalegn and other related issues. The following featured at the conclusion of that observation.
“Time will tell whether the TPLF is right or wrong in supposedly believing that the threat to its unbridled power in Ethiopia would be coming not from the ‘opposition’ groups or outside forces but from the members of the EPRDF coalition it created itself. Even if those fears were to hold, it could hit closer to home than the TPLF has been barricading for.
However, it won’t be farfetched to suspect that TPLF’s troubles are far more serious and much more diverse than just balance of power issues and none of the scheming and advanced planning would prepare the TPLF for the absolute nightmare that could be unfolding in the coming few months and years. And it is also safe to assume that in every possible scenario, the TPLF would be caught unaware and with its pants down. A sitting duck- the TPLF is.”
That was then, end of August, 2015. And sure enough–within three months, in November, 2015– the ‘absolute nightmare’ unfolded in the form of the Oromo protests that is still ongoing across the Oromia region.
The Oromo protests were ignited by the government’s intentions of implementing the so called Addis Ababa Master Plan which was widely perceived to be an encroachment by the TPLF led government on to land owned by Oromos who live in the outskirts of the capital. Thanks to the protests, that plan has now been shelved indefinitely whereas the demands of the protests have outgrown their initial cause in to becoming a call for real autonomy in the Oromia region and have at times gone as far as demanding a change of government.
What was troubling at the outset of the Oromo protests was the apparent silence and indifference of the other equally dissatisfied ethnic groups of Ethiopia or at least the perception that they didn’t look particularly excited by or supportive of the Oromo’s unprecedented uprising in every corner of Oromia against the TPLF led government. That disinterest was mostly veiled by professed apprehensions about the unity of Ethiopia when it actually was a reluctance to accept the possibility of an Oromo led revolution for change in Ethiopia.
Consequently, the political elite wasted valuable time splitting hairs as to the effectiveness of the method of the protests and over the wisdom of joining the Oromo’s struggle for justice.
There is no doubt that, given time and momentum, the Oromo are capable of bringing about change in Ethiopia on their own. However, it is the fear of many that if that were allowed to happen, the Oromo would eventually become the new rulers of Ethiopia and the rest of the population may end up regretting the missed opportunities of joining the struggle at an earlier phase.
That was more or less what happened when the TPLF took up arms 40 odd years ago while the rest of the country looked indifferently or were busy fighting one another. Once the TPLF (with the support of the EPLF) had become a formidable force then it started to shape the future agenda of the country to suit its own interests. When it finally succeeded in overthrowing the Mengistu government and took over power, it was fait accompli for all the other Ethiopians and the rest, as they say, is history.
The Amhara, who were by and large harshly criticized for such indifference to the plight of their protesting Oromo brethren for the most part of the past ten months, shocked the regime by eventually joining the protests around mid-2016. It didn’t take more than the reviving of an old grievance, as old as the current government, to get things underway when the question of Wolqait was used as a war-cry.
The Amhara protests that erupted in Gondar (sparked by a shootout between TPLF security forces and the leaders of a committee that is working to reclaim Wolqayit), quickly spread to the region’s capital Bahir Dar, then Debre Markos and many other localities in the Amhara region, and is still continuing with varying degree of intensity.
Particularly, those areas bordering the Sudan and the Tigray region—TPLF’s home base–saw the most violent outbreaks and were the hardest hit in terms of casualties. The protesters’ initial demand to reopen the case for the return of Wolqait (where Azeb Mesfin, the wife of former PM Meles Zenawi hails from) to the Amhara region from its current administrative region of Tigray might have served as a trigger. But the protests have since turned in to a call for an end to TPLF’s dominance and most importantly, they have been expressing solidarity with the Oromo protests–Ethiopian protests or ‘Rainbow Spring’ in the offing.
To say that there is no region in Ethiopia today that doesn’t have a beef with the current TPLF led government is not an overstatement. The method and intensity with which each region is voicing its discontent ranges from peaceful street protests, to house sit-ins, to product and services boycott, to sporadic violent eruptions involving deaths and injuries to the more serious insurgency where armed opposition rebel groups are waging guerrilla style warfare to topple the government (Tigray, Afar, Somali and Gambella are included in this latter group).
A recent report by Human Rights Watch states that 400 people have been shot dead and thousands injured by government forces and tens of thousands more have been arrested or disappeared since the start of the Oromo protests. This is a report from June, 2016 and doesn’t include either the number of casualties since or those from the Amhara protests. The Oromia region has gone under total army control and the same arrangement is underway in the Amhara region.
To put the magnitude of the crisis in Ethiopia in to perspective, the ongoing problem with drought where around 10 million people are still in need of urgent food aid to survive is no longer getting a mention in the news. The drought, described by some as the worst in Ethiopia in the last 50 years is not news, let alone headline news, anymore.
The government is bogged down defending itself from the continuing rebellions that it is unable to adequately focus on the relief efforts; threatening to risk the lives of those affected by the drought. The international donor community is already complaining about the increasing difficulty of reaching those in desperate need of urgent attention due to the worsening security situation.
Just to make a dire situation worse, there was an ill-advised attempt by the TPLF to try and divert attention from its internal woes by starting a fresh war with Eritrea this past June. That adventurous move was met with such a swift and decisive blow from Eritrea that the normally motor-mouth TPLF couldn’t utter more than a few words about the incidence. There were no documentaries, no POWs to parade… nothing. So, as quickly, the TPLF got back to its reality and to facing the music.
Many Ethiopians, including those who are actively supporting the people’s struggle for change believe that the protests on their own may take considerable time and sacrifices before eventually succeeding in helping get rid of the current TPLF/EPRDF government in Ethiopia.
The fact that there is no evidence of any ownership of the ongoing protests by established political parties and the apparent absence of sustained planning and direction from an organized leadership tend to reinforce those assertions. Most importantly, the deafening silence of the international mainstream media (welcome to my world, says Eritrea) until their recent ‘outing’ by the brave Oromo athlete Feyisa Lilesa during the Rio Olympics may be indicative of the golden glove with which the TPLF is being handled by the West and the more reason why it could be that much harder to get rid of. [Just to get some idea, a google search for arguably the most recognizable Ethiopian athlete Haile Gebrselassie returns 386,000 results whereas a search for Feyisa Lilesa returns almost three times of that at 937,000.]
The international community led by the US, which theoretically should play a game changing role considering its rhetoric about justice, human rights and democracy; paradoxically appears to want to keep the TPLF in power–at whatever cost. Apart from the characteristically boring lip-service in expressing “concern” and in urging both the aggrieved and the aggressor for restraint, the overall message seems clear that the TPLF would be given every opportunity to get out of this latest trouble. It appears that, it would be allowed to do whatever it takes to ‘sort out the mess’ by quashing the protests and it would be given ample time by turning a blind eye and providing a media blackout if necessary. The assumption is that they still haven’t given up on it—or a suitable alternative is not yet ready? — as their best bet in looking after their interest in the horn of Africa region.
A recent US Congressional Subcommittee hearing entitled Eritrea: A Neglected Regional Threat, for example, appears to have come out of nowhere. Nothing unusual, one might say, as it may just be another one of those parodies by the US to vilify and bully Eritrea. And that may very well be the case, except its timing may also suggest an additional tacit signal to Eritrea that ‘Big Brother is watching’.
That Eritrea is being watched for reasons entirely to do with the current security situation in Ethiopia. It could be taken as an early warning to Eritrea to never dare contemplate intervening in Ethiopia. Or a ‘friendly reminder’ along the lines of: ‘if you don’t resist the urge to get involved in supporting the popular movement for change in Ethiopia, we shall ramp up some “outstanding issues” and keep you busy. Most importantly yet, it could be a message directed at those in both Eritrea and Ethiopia, who might have been looking up to or even nudging the Eritrean government to do something. Whether such a message would have the desired effect on Eritrea is a totally different ball game altogether.
Change in Ethiopia could come quicker and for lesser a price if the people in the capital Addis Ababa joined the protests sooner. But to be realistic at this moment in time, the demographic reshuffling the TPLF has been contriving in the capital for the last 10 years, following the 2005 elections, appears to be paying dividends.
Through the outrageously nepotistic and preferential treatments involved in the release of city land, in the allocations of newly constructed public housing and through privileged access to business and investment licences etc…; the current population of the capital has been made to be more TPLF friendly than the one from before the 2005 elections.
There may also be additional tighter security provisions in the capital owing to the fact that it is host to international organizations such as the AU, ECA and others with the attendant presence of greater number of foreign missions. Few people are therefore holding their breath for Addis to join the protests any time soon. On the other hand, it would be interesting to see what students—especially University students–could bring to the table once the school season starts in Addis Ababa.
One doesn’t necessarily have to be a political analyst to make assessments based on the way the minority TPLF government in Ethiopia is trying to manage the current crisis. It continues to make the people angrier with its killings and detentions of protesters, its thoughtless press briefings and some stupid actions such as donning the puppet PM a bizarre white jacket to a regional meeting in Mogadishu, while the Ethiopian people are wearing black (a long standing custom) to mourn those protesters killed by government security forces.
One also doesn’t need to listen to what the TPLF ‘big wigs’ and the other chaperons in the EPRDF have to say in their current local media blitz. Just watch their body language–that is the giveaway. The depth of the ‘blip’ they have found themselves in is palpable. Their performance, instead of inspiring confidence, comes across as pure exhibition of resignation and hopelessness. In market and investment terms, it has a ‘sale-and-get-the-hell-out’ tone to it. They are essentially begging the people to give them a second chance (or is it a tenth!), another day to live; to then continue on their stupidity and their killing spree.
Compared to the TPLF guys, those representing the other coalition partners appear to be seriously shaken. The incriminations, purges, and arrests are widely expected to be starting fairly soon. Subsequent to the extensive ‘day-night’ meetings of the central committee of the EPRDF, the TPLF once again is rumoured to be plotting–in the name of ‘reforms’ and ‘renewal’–to go for the heads of the leadership of the ANDM and OPDO, which it determined to be not decisive enough in quashing the uprisings in their respective regions. In the eyes of the TPLF, they would have failed in their primary duty of protecting it from the wrath of their respective ‘constituency’.
To make it look like a fair exercise, the TPLF may also lay off some from its own ranks. It shouldn’t be surprising for example if they got rid of FM Tedros Adhanom for lack of commitment–who is already known to be on an extended job-hunting expedition on the international market. It shouldn’t also sound crazy to suggest that they may sacrifice Azeb Mesfin in absentia (who is rumoured to be overseas), to make a point about their anti-corruption rhetoric. The whole point of this latest manoeuvring would be to pave the way for getting rid of those rank and file members of the ANDM and OPDO who are suspected to be sympathizing with the people of their respective regions or those who might have shown some courage in standing up for their ‘constituent’s’ rights against the wish of the TPLF. In other words, they would be removed and punished for having the courage to perform their constitutional duty and would be replaced by other TPLF loyalist-opportunists.
While waiting for the hapless TPLF to try and ‘sort out its mess’; the US in the meantime, may also be rehearsing a script from the ‘book’ it used to stage-manage the departure of Hosni Mubarak of Egypt.
According to that script, one would try and defend a ‘friendly dictator’ and ‘defender of the West’s interest’ until such time that it was no longer defensible. Only when it becomes obvious that the government was unsalvageable that the US would revert to ‘plan B’, which is to work towards a soft landing and smoother transfer of power with as minimum violence and bloodshed as possible (bring in the army?……a couple of Berkeley or Harvard Fellows?).
It is a completely different approach to the one the West took towards Libya for example. And at this stage, many agree that Ethiopia appears to be treated more like Egypt than Libya. The persistent agitation and civil disobedience that was successfully undertaken by the Egyptian youth at Tahrir square is still missing in Ethiopia’s case. The question of whether the ‘book’ would come with a separate script to account for the role of the different armed opposition groups currently fighting the TPLF could also offer an additional dimension unique to Ethiopia.
One way or another, change in Ethiopia is increasingly becoming inevitable because the vast majority of the people are very angry at the minority TPLF government. It is only a matter of when. And no, the TPLF is not a ‘sitting cat’ with nine lives either. It is still a duck, sitting, badly bruised and quacking. It is just waiting for that final knock-out blow—not a clue as to where that would be coming from.