Characterizing the Ethiopian National Defence Forces (ENDF) as “Tigrean army” is a commonplace among the diaspora opposition. The exact composition of top-level commanders is unknown, as the military is secretive about everything. Anecdotal information suggest the dominance of the armed struggle veterans in the command structure of the army.

Yet, that doesn’t stop some from misrepresenting the composition of the entire active military personnel, which is 29%Amhara, 24%Oromo, 22% from the south (SNNP) and 18% from Tigray. Especially, the Agazi division of ENDF which was dispatched following the 2005 post-election crisis, is claimed to be entirely Tigrean. That claim was incessantly promoted by Jawar Mohammed, director of Oromia Media Network, in the past months in connection with the protests in Oromia.

Photo - Jawar Mohammed facebook post
Jawar Mohammed facebook post on Dec. 11, 2015 [Credit: HornAffairs associate Nebyu Kahssay] Note: HornAffairs visited the area and learned the post was fictional.

However, that appears to contradict to what Jawar Mohammed himself wrote in 2011, shortly after the Arab spring. At that time, he wrote:

It is common to refer to the current Ethiopian military as the TPLF army. This is factually incorrect because members of the military come from all corners of the country and Tigreans make up no more than 10%.

The scary image about the “Agazi” division that was involved in quashing the 2005 protests needs to be reexamined. This division is described as a Tigrean only unit or sometimes as being full of mercenaries. Anecdotal evidence shows that there are several non-Tigrean Ethiopians within the rank and file of the division including the command.  

Read below excerpts from Jawar Mohammed’s 2011 article titled “Nonviolent Struggle: Ethiopian Exceptionalism?”

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(Jawar Mohammed)

The long oppressed citizens of Tunisia and Egypt have freed themselves. Libyans are almost there. Bahraini, Yemeni, Algerians, and Moroccans are in the middle of a fierce struggle. Our neighbors, Djiboutians have also risen up. In Ethiopia, debate is raging over whether the current wave of people’s uprising should, could or would reach Meles Zenawi?  While the successes in the Arab world have a visibly energizing effect, skepticism is still dominating the discourse in much of sub-Saharan Africa.

Fortunately, in the last month, most of the misconceptions about nonviolent resistance have been debunked. Thanks to the tantalizing nonviolent discipline demonstrated by the Egyptian protesters, the cultural determinism school of thought, which long declared Arab and African societies as incompatible with ‘civilized’ politics have been practically refuted.  The growing successes of civilian movements against the brutal regimes in Libya, Yemen, and Bahrain have disproved the belief that nonviolent resistance works only against soft-authoritarians who value human life.

Skeptics are using “Ethiopian Exceptionalism” to argue that nonviolent strategies would not work in Ethiopia. Three of the most repeated arguments are: ethnic fragmentation, composition of the military and low Internet penetration. These arguments have strong factual bases and do not warrant outright dismissal. However, Ethiopia having a different condition from Egypt or Tunisia does not necessarily prevent waging a successful nonviolent resistance. It just requires a strategy specifically tailored for the exceptional realities in Ethiopia.

Composition of Military

The Egyptian army was showered with praises for its neutrality, and rightly so. However, too much credit is given to the “professionalism” of the army than other factors such as the role of the United States and most importantly the strategy organizers deployed to restrain the military. By emphasizing the ‘professionalism’ of the army, the planners made a tactical choice long before the confrontation. Once repeated by analysts and pundits alike, the army was systematically put under moral pressure to protect its image.

The primary duty of every military is to protect the government of the day. The degree of its loyalty could be different depending on connections with the ruler. A lot has been said about the loyalty of the Ethiopian military to the system. Much of the discourse focuses on the top commanders’ ethnic identification with Meles. It is true that Meles has assigned Tigreans to most of the key command positions. And the primary rationale for this is a cold strategic calculation rather than favoritism (see my article on Tigrean Nationalism).

Unfortunately, the opposition has been attacking the strength of this strategy. They attack the military because they seem to have resigned to the assumption that all those officers are loyal to Meles. This was exactly what the strategy was designed to achieve. This strategy must change now. Correcting factual errors and myths about the composition and internal dynamics of the military is crucial. It is common to refer to the current Ethiopian military as the TPLF army. This is factually incorrect because members of the military come from all corners of the country and Tigreans make up no more than 10%.

Most of the soldiers below the rank of colonel were not part of the rebel movement. As such, they have little ideological or personal connection with the rulers. The majority of the TPLF’s rebel soldiers were demobilized early on to engage in business activities and some were purged while many others have retired.

The scary image about the “Agazi” division that was involved in quashing the 2005 protests needs to be reexamined. This division is described as a Tigrean only unit or sometimes as being full of mercenaries. Anecdotal evidence shows that there are several non-Tigrean Ethiopians within the rank and file of the division including the command.  Most dictators have ‘presidential’ guards composed of elite soldiers who have proved their loyalty; this is certainly the case for Agazi. Most of the misinformation is provided by the regime to create a terrifying image of the military and a hostile situation between the army and the people. Critics of the system have further exaggerated, the ‘otherness’ and cruelty of this division, which further terrifies the public.

Despite its role in strengthening loyalty, ethnic composition of the military does not make it more effective against nonviolent resistance. The apartheid system in South Africa had almost an entirely white military. But it did not save the system from crumbling under the weight of people’s power. Nonviolent strategies avoid the regime’s strong pillars and target its weakest links—what Gene Sharp calls Achilles’ heels. Instead of taking the military head on, South African strategists organized a nationwide boycott of white businesses. There was nothing the security and military could do, besides harassing and arresting the key organizers. As months went by, the economic costs were unbearable even to the most racist businessmen. Thus, the cost of repression against the Black community was systematically transferred to the White community that was previously ambivalent or supported the regime.  When the going got tough, the White South Africans turned up the heat on the regime, and the resulting crisis brought down the government.   The hardliner P. W. Botha was replaced by a moderate F.W. De Klerk, opening the door for ‘pacted’ (bargained) transition.

The Ethiopian National Defense Force is combat tested and is relatively in good shape but lacks experience in dealing with civilians. It has been expanding officer’s colleges and also increased production of its own light weaponry. But due to poor infrastructure and outdated vehicles, its tactical mobilization is rated poor. Yet there are several units stationed in barracks within close proximity of the capital.  Thanks to Meles’ deeply anti-military sentiment (due to fear of a coup) the morale of the soldiers is low. They draw a small salary from the regime and the rising cost of living has made it difficult, particularly for long serving career officers.  Due to perceived ethnic favoritism, mutinies and high profile defections have been taking place. The regime has responded by purging or ‘grounding’ almost all Oromo and Amhara senior officers and replacing them with Tigrean loyalists. This strategy might have prevented potential coups but makes the regime extremely vulnerable to nonviolent strategies. Since the majority of the soldiers feel marginalized, they identity with the grievances of the people, likely to turn on the system on the first sign of weakness on the part of the regime.

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