Ethiopia : A country in the grip of a threefold transition

(René Lefort)

* It may be that, in Ethiopia, history is so powerful that the past permeates the present, and it repeats itself. In this case, what we see today is simply another interregnum between two powerful men.

“Can you tell me who is in charge in the government?”, asks Tamrat Gebregiorgis, publisher of the reference weekly Addis Fortune, at the latest of the regular press conferences held by Prime Minister Hailmariam Dessalegn. He replies by first underlining the efforts being made to remedy a few small defects like corruption, then rounds off with a joke: the answer is probably in your “gossip columns”.

The effrontery of the question was staggering. It would have been inconceivable during the reign of previous Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who died in August 2012. It would also have been groundless: he held sole sway at the summit of the Party/State pyramid. On the tier below, the key figures of the TPLF (Tigrean People’s Liberation Front) were in command, including the immense public and semi-public sector of the “modern” economy. The other three components of the de facto single party, the EPRDF (Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front), were largely satellites of the Front. Finally, with its six million members, the tentacles of the EPRDF extended right down to the basic five-person household unit.

While the colossal body of the pyramid is more or less intact and still performs its main functions, its single apex has exploded into multiple centres of power, of unequal weight, none of which has achieved critical mass. While it would be an overstatement to speak of paralysis, the party’s pinnacle is at least “in a disarray”[1]. Or rather the country is in the grip of a threefold transition.  The first, unexpected unforeseen transition, is Meles’ succession. Meles decided and launched the second: the “veterans” passing the reins to the next generation. The third will be inescapable: the state economy is no longer adequate for driving growth; the private sector needs the scope to take up the slack.


The first transition is manifest in Ethiopia’s “collective leadership”. Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn’s legitimacy is largely indirect – due to his selection as number two by Meles – since his personal legitimacy is deeply flawed. He hails from Woleyta, one of the southern marches of the old Abyssinian empire, peopled by those formerly called “barria”, a term which means both Black and slave, and his political base is here, and therefore narrow. He is not a Copt, like all his predecessors, but belongs to a small offshoot of Pentecostalism considered heretical even by other Pentecostals.[2] Aware of these handicaps, Hailemariam, “a frontman without teeth”[3], restricts himself to seeking consensus.

By contrast with Meles’ ukases, there has been a return to collective decision-making, one of the main markers of the TPLF in its heroic era. The debates can be heated, their echoes sometimes overflowing even into the public sphere. They begin in the top echelons of the EPRDF’s four parties, and are then taken up in one of the multiple committees that Hailemariam has formed around him. In the absence of consensus, decisions are postponed indefinitely. If consensus is reached, it is supposed to apply to everyone, in accordance with the immutable principle of “democratic centralism” and the society’s legendary sense of hierarchy. However, depending on the degree of adherence, decisions may either be implemented right down to the smallest administrative echelon, be partially implemented, or sink without trace beneath the weight of specific antagonisms.

This decision-making process, inevitably lengthy, often messy or incomplete, must also remain within strict boundaries: the so-called “Meles legacy”. As the single common referent, it is the cement that holds this collective leadership together. However, while it has enabled it to remain – relatively – functional, it has also frozen it: no one quits the roadmap designed by Meles, despite the generated need for movement brought about by fast-changing conditions.

In addition, in traditional Abyssinian culture, a decision must be long-considered. Having always acted in accordance with their position on a particular rung of the ladder of power, most of the leaders find themselves floundering in a horizontal decision-making process. They have to learn efficiently how to make a collective leadership work. Last but not least, no one wants to put their head above the parapet. None of the leaders feels strong enough to veer off the roadmap for fear of all the others joining forces to put him out of the game. Finally, while the power struggle has not yet been overtly launched, everyone is jostling for position, either as a player contender or as a member of the winner’s camp. The state is like a ship that has lost its captain, with no one in the crew able or willing yet to take his place, which continues to advance but with an increasingly stuttering engine, and along an unchanging course. This cannot last.

This multipolarity at the top leads to contradictory behaviours. On the one hand, key actors can obtain a degree of autonomy,  if not more. An embryonic pluralism is emerging. This is particularly true of local executives in the federal system’s eleven entities, who have achieved genuine elbow room; of certain MPs in the quasi de facto single party (the Parliament has one opposition member amongst its 547 members) who go so far as to lambast key members of the government[4]; of certain ministers, journalists, and even of the opposition who, for the first time in nine years, has sometimes obtained the right to demonstrate. Finally, never before has the rate of infrastructure development been so high, even at a local level, as if the authorities were trying to outbid Meles: to prove that they can achieve even more than under his rule.

At the same time, however, the regime continues to tighten its grip, as if to belie any hesitancy at the top. Leaders and activists in the opposition movements are regularly imprisoned. Three journalists and six bloggers were arrested a few days before John Kerry’s recent visit, then accused of links with “terrorist” organisations[5]. The six were very marginal in the blogosphere and had been inactive for months. Above all, the crushing of the demonstrations by Oromo students, often joined by a section of the population, has demonstrated that brute force remains a common tool of government. It was the harshest crackdown since the contested elections of 2005.[6] The protesters were initially demanding the withdrawal of the “Master Plan” for Addis Ababa – one of the Federation’s eleven entities – which would expand the city twentyfold, encroaching on Oromya territory.[7]

Their claims subsequently grew to encompass the permanent grievances of the majority of Oromos. Demonstrations turned into riots. The police opened fire and instituted a manhunt, killing dozens and wounding hundreds.[8] In both cases, the possibility that the security services were acting autonomously is very credible. Finally, controls over the basic administrative unit, the municipality (kebele), have been further ratcheted up. At least in the Tigray and Amhara regions, a member of the executive cabinet of the next level up – the district (woreda) – is now permanently assigned to the kebele to monitor and report on the activities of local authorities. He is now the “boss” of the kebele.

These contradictions also suggest, according to one observer, that the government continues to oscillate between arrogance and panic.[9] The pursuit of large and impressive infrastructure projects, including the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, set to be Africa’s biggest dam; the mounting investment – 5 billion dollars, around 12% of GDP – in the sugar industry; the development of Chinese, Indian and Turkish investment, especially in clothing; the existence of strong – though declining – growth; Ethiopia’s depiction by the international media as the future “African Lion”[10]; the central role that the international community ascribes to Addis Ababa in regional conflicts –  these are all sources of pride to the leadership.

However, as the urban population complains, “you can’t eat roads or rails, and you can’t sleep on them”. By general agreement, discontent in the cities have never been so high. Inflation has slashed by at least one third the purchasing power of the most numerous salaried workers, i.e. state employees and employees of public and semipublic companies, who represent two thirds of the modern economy (excluding traditional agriculture)[11]. Systematic day-to-day corruption has become a brutal reality.

The country is also experiencing rising ethnic tensions and a growing focus on ethnic identity. More than two thirds of the population – those below the age of 25 – have grown up in a federal system which identifies them as Oromo, Amhara… first.  This federalism is perverted by the imbalance of power of all kinds in favour of leaders from Tigray (6% of the population). It is a groundswell with no apparent end. For example, tens of thousands of Amharas, who have settled for decades in the southern and western lowlands, in particular Beni Shangul, have been violently expelled since 2012 [12]. The opposition speaks of “ethnic cleansing”.  At least in Ambo, demonstrators have destroyed property belonging to Tigreans. Although open Muslim fever has subsided, the underlying question – the autonomy from government of organisations representing Islam – remains unchanged. When the political space is impermeable, the inevitable internal conflicts can only overflow into the ethnic and/or religious sphere.

Between two and two and a half million young people are coming onto the labour market each year. The massive expansion of higher education – 30 universities – accompanied by a dramatic drop in quality, has embittered many graduates deprived of professional openings. In the countryside, demographic growth is forcing young people either to leave in search of casual work in the city or, in most cases, to try to emigrate legally or illegally, primarily towards the Middle East. Young people, whether urban or rural, are the only social group that the authorities, at all levels, are unable to bring under control. They fear them.

Veteran handover?

The second transition – the handover of the controls by the “veterans” to the next generation – is more formal than real. At the very least, “the out-going are not really out, the in-coming are not really in”.[13]  It has happened in government, at the head of the four parties and the eleven regions.  However, drawing on its experience and its reputation among the militants, the old guard continues to hold the reins. Nine advisors in the Prime Minister’s office also have the rank of minister and therefore take de facto precedence over their equivalents in government. All belong to the “old guard”: Bereket Simon, Abay Tsehaye, Kassu Ilala and Kuma Demeksa for policy, Newaye Christos Gebreab (economy), Fassil Nahom (legal adviser), Tsegaye Berhe (security), Andras Eshete (diaspora), Arkebe Okubay (investment). Six are Tigrean speaking native of Tigray or Eritrea, Bereket Simon grew up in the Amhara region but is of Tigrean origine, Kassu Ilala is a Gurage Southerner, Kuma Demeksa is Oromo. Bereket Simon, Abay Tsehay, Tewodros Hagos, member of the politburo of the TPLF, and Hailemariam, would appear to form the leading foursome.

It is the very old guard of the TPLF that has caused the latest upheavals within the TPLF. Only scraps are known. Sebhat Nega, patriarch of the Front, gives a very watered-down version.[14]  He made an eleven-day tour of Tigray, organised “by the Region and the Front” and accompanied, it would seem, by Seyoum Mesfin and Abbay Tsehaye, two of the seven founders of the TPLF, plus Tsegaye Berhe, a former chief of Tigray. They held “eight meetings with the population in the cities” and “several formal and informal meetings”, including with cadres of the Front, the police, etc. The meetings apparently highlighted positive points: “expansion of the areas of irrigation, natural resources conservation, peace”, but also “some weaknesses”, such as in “governance” and “certain symptoms of corruption”. The Front’s cadres purportedly reached “more or less” the same assessments.

In fact, the rift became overt at one of the last high-level meetings, probably the Central Committee. A position paper drafted by the four vigourously attacked the leadership of the Front, notably highlighting the growing discontent of the population and the rise in youth unemployment. It demanded that these problems should be examined. This condemnation was rejected, at least by the Front’s regional wing led by its Chairman and the regional President, Abay Woldu, who refused to follow up on a further investigation. In the end, the “veterans” only got their way by threatening to make their paper public.

Tigreans are famed for their outspokenness, and the delegation’s tour was sometimes marked by vigorous attacks. The main grievance: you have forgotten us, you are no longer interested in us, all you think about is getting rich. The four, who were also there, as an observer put it, “to measure their political capital”,[15] sought to dissociate themselves from the current leadership. In vain: you are one, came the retort. Watch this space.

The TPLF has lost its supremacy within the EPRDF, the other three parties have gained autonomy, but it remains the keystone. Nonetheless, other tensions are appearing. In addition to the rift described above, there are institutionally antagonistic aims between its leaders in Tigray and in Addis: Debretsion Gebremichael and Tedros Adhanom, Minister of Foreign Affairs, a “cross-over figure” popular with the urban middle classes. The former wish to be lords in their own domain; for the latter, the route to power is further centralisation.

The ANDM (Amhara National Democratic Movement) seems the most united and disciplined group in the coalition. Demeke Mekonnen, a Muslim from Wollo, is its chairman and one of the three deputy prime ministers, but here too the veterans Bereket Simon and Addissu Leguesse have their hands on the levers. The OPDO (Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation), though supposed to represent the largest ethnic group, is riddled with corruption and divisions, including the immemorial split between the Protestants of Wollega and the Muslims of Arsi. The SPDM (Southern People’s Democratic Movement), Hailemariam’s party, continues on its merry way but without much impact.

This waning of political power is also reflected in the growing autonomy of the army and security services.[16]  They have become a state within the state, answerable only to themselves and linked with just a few lead figures in the TPLF.[17]  The army in particular has built a military-industrial empire. It is the primary subcontractor for the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam by the Italian firm Salini Costruttori. Finally, the army outweighs all other authorities in all matters in which it is involved, for example in Ogaden and Somalia.[18]  For the first time, politics has by and large lost control of the gun. The army seems willing to remain in the shadows, but could become the “kingmaker” if the leadership became bogged down in crisis. “A stone rolls down a hill under its own momentum as long as the road remains smooth”, observes a well placed source.[19]  But what could stop it?

Not the elections of May 2015 which, barring the unexpected, are set to be a formality, even if they panic the authorities. The society is so firmly locked down that it offers not the slightest crack through which the opposition could slip into the electoral game, especially as it is so small, so divided, so inconsistent and lacking a figure capable of leading it into battle. The EPRDF has decided to reappoint Hailemariam prime minister after the elections, which suits his putative successors entirely. They gain time to refurbish their arms by giving way to a figure whom nobody, rightly or wrongly, sees as a serious contender.

« They are all the ingredients for a spontaneous upsurge: living conditions have become unbearable in the towns », says a wise observer.[20] This would be a much bigger deal. Falling purchasing power, especially in the cities, and rising unemployment, are generating acute discontent. It could be exacerbated by the “ethnicisation” of attitudes. The opposition parties lack the ability to capitalise on and therefore channel such a trend. The new middle class does not seem ready to adopt the same driving role as in the “Arab springs”. It remains haunted by past violence and prefers to retain its modest gains rather than risk losing everything. The authorities would stop at nothing to nip this potential explosion in the bud. However, its repercussions could create strong tensions within the ruling power, and even trigger a crisis.

In the short or medium term, it is relations with Eritrea that could open up the widest breach, first within the TPLF, and then the EPRDF. Issayas Afeworki is in very poor health. Possible scenarios following his death range from the emergence of a new “failed state” in the Horn of Africa, with half a million kalashnikovs in the hands of six million inhabitants, to an army takeover.

Whatever happens, there would be new questions about relations with the country’s northern neighbour-enemy. They remain a source of deep division within the TPLF. An “accommodationist” wing, dominated by leaders of Eritrean origin, would like to return to the coexistence that prevailed before the 1998-2000 war, with cooperation and each remaining master in its own country. A “hawkish” wing would like Ethiopia to go as far as establishing a foothold in Assab. In 2001, Meles imposed his views on a TPLF at the time more divided than ever,[21]  but ultimately this schism has not been resolved. Eritrea, has been the source of every great crack in Ethiopian power for more than half a century…    

The economy

The main obstacle to the third transition – a tangible economic shift, is that the leadership remains virtually unanimous in seeing no need for it. The chosen pathway – a “developmental state”, i.e. overwhelmingly public investment, combined more recently with the cooptation of big foreign firms by the local oligarchies – is seen as in need of only a little tweaking. It is still persuaded this strategy will maintain a strong growth, the essential foundation of its legitimacy.

However, international experts predict that this model will run out of steam, and that future growth rates will come into line with the average for sub-Saharan Africa.[22] “The public investment rate of Ethiopia is the third highest in the world, while the private investment rate is the sixth lowest.”[23] The private sector is being “crowded out”, in particular by a “credit crunch” [24]. The trade deficit stands at a fifth of GDP. Most important of all, the working age population is rising by 3.5% a year, one of the highest rates in Africa. Only a structural transformation of the economy, driven by industry rather than agriculture, could absorb this influx of labour. The manufacturing sector in particular should play a key role, but it is currently capped at 4% of GDP. [25]

Yet these warnings continue to fall on deaf ears. The preliminary draft for the next five-year plan for 2016-21 is practically identical to the current plan. Obsessed by the need to exercise control over the private sector, infatuated with what might be called the “cult of the tractor” which requires development to be big and at the cutting edge of technology, the authorities continue to stifle small local private entrepreneurs, the only forces capable of creating a dense, labour-intensive network.

The history of the TPLF demonstrates that divergences and even divisions do not necessarily lead to crisis. It is legendary for its readiness to debate interminably until a consensus is finally carved out. Similarly, the mysterious alchemy whereby it reconciles its extreme ideological rigidity with a degree of pragmatism has often saved it from disaster, albeit at the last moment with one foot already over the precipice.

However, it faces two possible scenarios, which could in fact be combined. In one, the multipolarity of power becomes formalised – the federal system takes real shape. Each region acquires very extensive autonomy, with possibly a strongman at its head. The first gains in this regard would in any case be difficult to put into reverse. The role of Addis Ababa would be reduced to bringing their regional representatives together within balanced structures to decide exclusively on supra-regional, i.e. national, issues.

Some compare this scenario with the regime of the “The era of the Princes”, at the turn of the 18th-19th century. However, this system is only sustainable if it is balanced, in other words all “nations, nationalities and peoples”, and particularly their elites, feel properly represented. But, neither OPDO, nor ANDM, the essentially single parties in the two largest nations, can lay claim to such representativeness, having in particular never been accepted by these elites. The TPLF remains convinced, rightly, that the latter retain considerable influence with the population.

Conversely, it may be that, in Ethiopia, ‘history’ is so powerful that the past permeates the present, and it repeats itself. In this case, what we see today is simply another interregnum between two powerful men. The previous ones were lengthy: a decade between Menelik and Ras Makonnen, the future Haile Selassie; some two decades between Meles Zenawi’s arrival in the top circle of the TPLF and his emergence as sole number one.

Interregnums ripen very slowly. Time must be left to do its work. Observers expect nothing before – at best – the next congress of the parties, probably next autumn, which could bring the very first clues to the outcome of this interregnum. To paraphrase a famous verse by Victor Hugo,[26] clever is he who discerns who could emerge as the Napoleon of tomorrow in the Bonaparte of today.
Foot notes:
[1] Interview, 21/05/2014, Addis Ababa.
[2] Jorg Haustein, PentecoStudies, 12.2 (2013), Equinox, p. 183.
[3] Interview, 24/04/14.
[4] This happened twice to Debretsion Gebremichael, head of telecoms and Chairman of the Board of the Electric Power Corporation, two sectors that have rarely worked so badly. But he is also, amongst other things, Vice President of the TPLF, one of the three deputy prime ministers, responsible for the economics “cluster”, and one of the senior officials of the security services. See The Reporter, 18/05/2013 and 08/02/2014.
[5] Bloomberg, 08/05/2014.
[6] The death count was around 200.
[7] Think Africa Press, 29/04/2014.
[8] BBC, 05/02/14, Human Rights Watch, 06/05/2014 and the account of two Peace Corps volunteers in Ambo,
[9] Interview, 13/05/14, Addis Ababa.
[10] Ethiopia : An African Lion?, BBC, 31/10/2012.
[11] Interview with the chief economist of a large international organisation, 22/05/14, Addis Ababa.
[12] Even the Human Rights Council of Ethiopia, a government-created body, confirmed these facts.
[13] Daniel Berhane, Horn, 20/02/13.
[14] Interview, 23/05/2014, Addis Ababa.
[15] Interview, 14/05/2014.
[16] “The post Meles era has revealed a gulf between the non TPLF politicians, like Hailemariam, and the TPLF-led security apparatus”.Talking Peace in the Ogaden, Tobias Hagmann, Rift Valley Institute/Nairobi Forum, 2014.
[17] There is still no way of explaining Hailemariam’s dual denial to Samora Yunus, head of the army, about the withdrawal of the army from Somalia then its noninclusion in the African force (AMISOM).
[18] “Senior military officials have… a strong influence on any future agreement (with the Ogaden National Liberation Front) and regional political reconfiguration”, Tobias Hagmann.
[19] Interview, 21/05/2014.
[20] Interview, 23/05/14.
[21] The 2001 TPLF crisis, its most serious ever, led to the expulsion of its “leftist” wing, sole power for Meles and an economic U-turn supposed to bring Ethiopia into the global market.
[22] Bloomberg, 18/10/13.
[23] Guang Zhe Chen, World Bank Country Director for Ethiopia, Press Release, 18/06/13.
[24] See for example IMF Country Report No. 13/308, October 2013.
[25] The Reporter, 08/03/14.
[26] Victor Hugo, Les feuilles d’automne.

*Originally published on Open Democracy website, on July 4, 2014, titled Ethiopia : a leadership in disarray, authored by René Lefort, who has been writing about sub-saharan Africa since the 1970s and has reported on the region for Le Monde, Le Monde diplomatique, Libération, Le Nouvel Observateur. He is also the author of“Ethiopia. An heretical revolution?” (1982, Zed books).

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