A road map to resolving Ethiopia’s political crisis(Gen. Tsadkan G/tensae)

Editor’s note: Recently, the former Chief of Staff, General Tsadkan Gebretensae, presented a paper on Ethiopia’s current political affairs. The paper presented in HornAffairs Amharic, entitled “the political conditions of our country and recommendations”, triggered debates on social media and elsewhere on the world wide web. Two of those responses in English were published here and here.

Upon readers’ request, HornAffairs commissioned the translation of an abridged version of Gen. Tsadkan’s paper. Please note that the author did not verify the translated text.


(Tsadkan Gebretensae, Lt. General)

Contemporary Political Situations in Ethiopia

I believe Ethiopia’s current political conditions are unstable. Government’s own pronouncements indicate this. The presence of pervasive mal-administration, rent seeking, extensive mis-management of public resources, and the failure of mega projects, on which the country had put much hope are exposing the nation to serious crisis. On top of this, different people from different corners of the country – in Amhara, Oromia, SNNP, and Tigray regions) are raising their demands – such as economic inequality, questions of identity, injustice, bad governance – and are pleading the government to solve their problems peacefully…….

The society’s interest to involve in and consciousness about political participation have grown markedly. In short, the public wants the widening of the political space. At least it wants the full implementation of the rights enshrined in the constitution. Despite this, the government is routinely producing laws and regulations that restrict the full exercise of the rights recognized by the constitution; and further narrows down the political space. This is one of the major factors for the creation of the current political situations in Ethiopia.

There are two mutually reinforcing reasons for the limited implementation of the democratic and human rights and the subsequent narrowing down of the democratic space. The first is the nature of the political system, and the second factor is the heavy-handed intervention of the government in the economy. The two feeding each other have created a situation where the position of the executive is excessively stronger vis-a-vis the other organs of the government; and this has created an opportunity for the executive to control the public and take political and economic measures as it pleases. The principle of transparency and accountability are disappearing all together. The public has become subordinate to the executive, in contrast to what the rule supposes it to be. The unrestrained economic and political power and muscle of the ruling party and the government is the root cause of the various problems the government is in now. Let’s look at each of the factors separately.

The political System

The fuzzy boundary between the ruling party and the government is the chief embodiment of the problems that emanate from the political system. A political  party known for its famous principle of political centralism is single-handedly controlling the legislative; which means every member of the party, regardless of her personal political beliefs and convictions, is bound to behave and act in accordance to the decisions of the party.

Based on this formula, a party that dominates the legislative will immediately control all the different commissions answerable to the legislative. A parliament that is supposed to be a platform for diverse and multiple political dialogues will be reduced to a mouthpiece of a single party. Consequently, the legislative, contrary to the interest of major state structures, will be in a position to arrange and perform activities in manners fulfilling the interest of the party; and instead of controlling and checking the executive, its role will be cosmetic so that it would appear attractive to the party.

In due course, the check and balance system among the party, the state, and the government will be eroded and the executive would be left unbridled to do things as it pleases and wishes. This is a situation where our country is in now. The incumbent party, EPRDF, claims the above situation to be the result of the popular support it garnered and the acceptance of its programs and policies by the public.

Even though EPRDF is not obliged to campaign for the opposition parties to get them elected, as it is unlikely for the party to do, it must work together with the opposition forces to engender a situation where the full implementation of the democratic and  human rights could be realized.

For this reason, it should get rid of restrictive laws and practices and ensure that everyone, including itself, could be treated equally in the political space. The administration of the public under the duress of the security forces, which is imposed on the people, should be lifted and problems preventing the political parties from doing their business should be solved. The ruling party must campaign like the other parties on the basis of equality and each of the parties should let us see that they respect and accept public verdict and electoral results.

Conversely, the current political situation in Ethiopia seems inimical to the peaceful relay of political power from one part to the other, and one would cast doubt on the political system due to the strict political space evident in the country. Thus, it is creating a crisis-ridden political atmosphere where we find ourselves in.

The Economic Situation

The second issue under discussion is our economic system. The current Ethiopian economic state of affairs is the extension of a historically feeble citizens’ control over their government; and a distinct political culture wherein the government in general and the executive in particular is free to do things as it wants and pleases with no one to check and question it…..

The greater portion of government expenditure is acquired from foreign sources (Aid, Debt, or FGI). In addition to this, money collected from state-owned enterprises, and other internal sources of revenue are additional sources of government finance. This illustrates the fact that the government has and enjoys a wide range of economic freedom.

The government is the major employer in country; and that the executive is in charge of biggest projects. The executive have the political-economy leverage to make one poor or rich. And the government has a significant economic power over its citizens…..

Thus, one has to behave and act in ways that pleases the executive if he/she wants to survive and thrive. In other words, one needs to be submissive to the demands of the political elite.

For this reason, being or at least appearing to be member and supporter of the party is a ‘lucrative’ business approach for most economic actors. For this reason, the reign of a party and a government that can take major decisions on both economic and political fronts without limits is unfolding in Ethiopia. In such political and economic conditions, behaviors of clientalism, rent seeking and mal-administration are like norms. And the subsequent nurturing of insecurity and submissiveness among some sections of the society would surprises no one…..

It is not convenient to discuss on this paper the economic/development discourses available and to debate as to which of the available theories are most convenient to our country. But I want to state that I don’t believe the neo-liberal political economy thought is a viable option for our country….

The most interesting question about government intervention in the economy as part of its role is the manner it acts in the economy and the resultant costs incurred in the process. This means the government’s developmental role should be measured against the inclusiveness or not of the process, and the democratic and undemocratic nature of the public participation.

Moreover, the government intervention should be evaluated based on whether it promotes equity or jeopardizes the interest of the majority in the expense of the few well-to-do groups. Moreover, the development matrix should been seen from whether it promotes the power of the executive; and thus lay fertile ground for corruption and rent seeking and foment political crisis for the nation or the other way round.

These are the basic questions we need to address while talking about the relation between the government and the market. I believe the current government’s role in the economy is leading us to a point where we would sustain the highest cost……

Generally speaking, currently, Ethiopia is in an atmosphere where the trust of the public on the government is deteriorating, the social capital is declining, hatred is mounting, fear of mutual killings is baking, insecurity is heightening. As a result internal unity is loosening, the execution capacity of the bureaucracy is weakening, the public has become desperate, public voices are silenced by bullet, and the public confidence on whether the problems of bad governance and other issues are to be solved and within the reach of the government  or not remains at limbo.

How Did We Get Here?

One needs to look back at the political trajectory of our country to fully understand the current political situations we are in and chart our own way out of it. During the EPRDF-led armed struggle and until a few years later democratic and popular rule was the overriding behavior of the government. However, there were still undemocratic behaviors during these times. The constitution endorsed by the public was, nevertheless, illustrative of the democratic nature of the government.

The fact that the party that had once stood against a tyrannical government to usher in revolutionary changes and fought under situations that requires unparalleled scarification may provoke one to ask how it could become undemocratic at the end of the day. Regarding this, I believe, a party which is fundamentally democratic in nature but has within it undemocratic grains and elements could mutate in to undemocratic sort over time because of the political decision it takes and political activities it involves in. The political challenges that the party inevitably faces on its way and the decisions taken to mitigate them could gradually displace it from its original track. What has happened to EPRDF is the case in point……

After EPRDF taken over power, there have been major political events that could have contributed to building democracy if handled democratically but were handled otherwise; and ultimately jeopardized the democratic building process of the country. In the process, when the party began leading the government the undemocratic tendencies in it started to grow. There were number of factors that contributed to the creation of such political dynamics. Mainly, three major events challenged the democratic character of EPRDF. The way these challenges had gotten resolution have not only intensified the undemocratic aspect of the party but also institutionalized undemocratic rule in the country.

The first major political episode was the way the problem between EPRDF and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) was dealt with; the second major event was the approach taken to solve the intra-party crisis of Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF); and the third one was the post-2005 election crisis and the way it was concluded.

In the aftermath of the demise of the Dergue regime, a transitional charter was proclaimed based on the agreement of EPRDF and OLF. And a transitional government was installed based on the consent of the two parties. After a while, disagreement erupted between the contracting parties which result in the withdrawal of OLF from the coalition government; and was followed by clashes between the two parties.

Leaving aside the judgment as to which party was responsible to the problem to history, this historic political event has deprived us of the opportunity to build a democratic system based on a strong inter- party check and balance and principle of accountability. Thus, it was a political turning point in our country’s path towards democratic political system. Even though OLF had its own problems and limitations, it was an authentic reflection of the Oromo people’s interests and aspiration at the time.

In addition, OLF was a party established on its own way with political values, and cultures, and organizational structure distinct from those of EPRDF’s. It had the will and the capacity to challenge its counterpart. However, it was not a kind of party with the political capacity to administer the country independently or without a partner. Had we acknowledged this fact, we could have had the opportunity to establish a political system where there is a healthy check and balance system and a control mechanism over the executive branch of the government. Apparently, the course of events could not have been flawless or without problems, but what have happened during this time had played big role in jeopardizing the constitutional and democratic prospects of the nation.

Shortly after the ratification of the constitution and the formation of a government through election, while deliberations on the type of relations between the party and the government were underway, Eritrea invaded our country. This event has brought to a broad day light and to a new height the nascent intra-party differences in EPRDF in general and TPLF in particular. The party split that emerged within TPLF, subsequent to the Ethio-Eritrea war, in 2000/01 and the way it was dealt with is a major political episode that left unfading scar on the democratization process of our nation.

I would like to leave to history the details of the agendas and questions on which side was right. Notwithstanding this, the measures taken under the pretext of the survival of the party by transgressing organizational rules and principles were those that throw our intra-party democratic life in to heel. The main issue is not about personalities – the heavy weight, political champions of the party members – who left the party at the time. The point here is rather the fact that those persons were expelled from the party not based on the rules of the party but under duress and using security apparatus, which is not part and parcel of the party per se.

At once, the legislative was summoned to pass laws designed to detain and keep in prison  a few persons perceived by some as threat. Some were thrown to jail even after bail was secured from a court of law.

People who had scarified their entire life for the lofty struggle and served in senior party and government posts were left in prison to languish or sidelined to starve. When and if a party by any reason possible violates its own rules and principles, no one would be able to stop it from further degeneration. Therefore, considering the fate of those individuals I mention above, and when a party cannot settle internal differences based on democratic principles, and where members of a party can’t defend their rights based on laws, to wish that the party would deliver democratic rule to the majority of the people is farfetched.

This crisis has instilled fear among the rest of the party members and the larger society. The undemocratic measures of the party over those senior comrades have conveyed a clear message that it would have little regard for the rest low rank cadres and other government and party officials. Maintaining social relations with the expelled comrades was already considered a crime. Those people who raise questions over the nature of the decisions taken against the senior comrades and the whole state of affairs developing within the society were subjected to serious warnings. Such warnings were not limited to the confines of TPLF. In particular, OPDO and SEPDM were the next targets of the undemocratic measures. Holding a different view became a sin in the party. Fear and opportunism, which emanates from the fear and other interests, spread within the party like a wild fire.

After that time, the collective leadership, a successful party discipline that played significant role in maintaining party democracy, was gradually replaced by one-man rule. Senor Comrades who held important position in the party and were with a degree of integrity and self-confidence, have been expelled or compelled to leave the party on their own. In my view, the episode killed the democratic culture of the party, shrunk the political space, and highly contributed to the current political conditions of our country.

What came next was the 2005 election – when the government wanted to display democratic character to the world and the people at home. The election was held after extensive inter-party debates; and the opposition amassed huge public vote never seen before. Especially, they had won all seats of the Addis Ababa city administration. In contrast, it was an unexpected blow to EPRDF, and it panicked. However, the opposition did not seem to have a common and clear political strategy.

The opposition claimed that they have won the national election and demonstrated their interest to take all. I am not sure about the real numbers, but had they been willing to accept the results that were accepted by the EPRDF, the current Ethiopian politics would have been different than it is now…..

The consequent racist propaganda row by KINIJIT (CUD) is an unforgettable post-election political event worth mentioning. It was further expanded by clandestine organized anti-Tigrean propaganda campaign. They did not disavow it adequately. And EPRDF capitalized on the situation and used it to panic the public. As a result, the public was made to see political developments from the distorted perspectives provided by the politicians. At least, people of Tigrayan origin were alarmed. This helped anti-democratic forces to hide in and solidify their trenches.

In such situations, EPRDF contained the resistance from the opposition by killing hundreds of people and throwing the opposition figures into jail. In the process, two messages became clear. The first was that political power would not be easily handed over because someone claimed to have won an election. The second message was that it is not easy for the incumbent to share power with or transfer it to a winner through peaceful and democratic way; and that the use of the security apparatus as a last resort to maintain its grip to power and to wipe out any contender was evident. The EPRDF-led government has once again ascertained that the support and manipulation of the security apparatus is the ultimate guarantee to its power longevity than even the support of the general public. This situation expanded the horizon of opportunism and fear that once were inside the confines of the party to the general public.

As a result, we happen to find ourselves in a situation where the above factors are at mutual reinforcement, and the constitution orchestrated and ratified by the incumbent is disregarded; and where the production of restrictive laws and manipulation of the security apparatus remain to be instruments of power. In my view, dictators do not install oppressive systems on purpose through official political decisions. Similarly, what we are witnessing now under this government is the oppression of the people through self-declared popular vanguard of EPRDF, and a vivid act of rule by fear and oppression.

Nevertheless, for the fact that the people’s patience have reached a saturation point and can no longer shoulder the burden of executive mal-practices, compounded with the high unemployment rate, high living costs, and lack of a sense of direction for their problems from the part of the public, the government has delved in to a serious political crisis after the most hailed electoral victory of one hundred percent. The situation has even compelled the government to admit the existence of problems.

In light of the political conditions described above, I will try to draw three scenarios that could unfold in Ethiopia.

Possible Scenarios

The first scenario: The pressures from public uprisings, perhaps coupled with the intervention and pressures from foreign forces, could overwhelm the government and lead to the collapse of the state and anarchy. Even though the probability of this scenario is small, it should be taken as a probable scenario and precautionary measures should be taken to prevent it. The probability of this scenario is by no means zero. The recent protests carried out in Oromia region had created serious burden on the state structures, especially on the regional government’s structure. It is not hard to imagine the problems that would have been created on the central government, had the protest continued intensifying in time and space, accompanied by uprisings in other sections of the country.

Second scenario: The second scenario is to remain in the current crisis for an extended time. This scenario is the most probable scenario. Under this scenario, the incumbent may undergo holistic or partial changes, giving technical and administrative definition to the problems of bad governance and corruption that the part has admitted and trying to address the problems within that framework, dismissing some unfortunate officials, so as to buy some time to extricate itself from the crisis.

Since this scenario is the naturally attractive option for the incumbent party to gravitate to, the likelihood of the scenario is high. However, this alternative will never deliver a lasting solution to the problem except that it would only contain the pain until it erupts once more in the near future. And this scenario would only give time for the problem to gradually foster and the avenues of peaceful resolution of the problems to get narrower over time. Ultimately, it would create a conducive ground for those who want to resolve the matter in a very destructive manner. While this path is easier and readily available for the ruling party to adopt, the unrest it will eventually bring in will cost the country dearly. It would wipe out all the achievements registered so far. This scenario would not only take the country backwards, it is also impossible to predict the political order that will rise from the ashes.

The above two scenarios are the same except for their life span. As they will unfold on their own, there is no much to say except on how to prevent them.

Third scenario:

Embarking on a peaceful, systemic, consciously led change process.

The people of Tigray

The Tigray people always consider itself as the foundation of the Ethiopian state and as the leading actor in  both the failures and achievements the state have seen during its long  history. Our discussion of the problems and the solutions of Ethiopia must be viewed from this historical perception that passed down from generation to generation……

This government is the result of unimaginable sacrifices of the Tigray people and other peoples of Ethiopia. Therefore, the role of the Tigray people in making this system work for the public interest would be high until now and in the future…..

There are signs of resentment toward the Tigray people in central parts of the country. It is rumored as being privileged by the current system. But the reality on the ground is different that…….

What should be the role and share of the Tigray people within the current Ethiopian state? Is the Tigray people supposed to be guardian and defender of a political order, which prolongs its rule with the aid of security forces, as it becomes increasingly isolated from and loathed by the public? What should be the political standing of the Tigray people at the current political conditions? Should the Tigray people be seen as privileged and defenders of a political order that violated the constitutional rights of the rest of the peoples? or as one who fights in the frontline for equality, equity, unity, and justice? Or is there any other option? We need to ask such questions and set out for answers….

In my perception, the Tigray people must stand on the side of justice and equality and must fight for the advancement of inclusive economic development and fair utilization of the benefit of development. It must exert its efforts for institutionalization of a broad based and deeper democratic order and for the full implementation of the system in the country. The interest of the Tigray people could only be well served when and if the full implementation of the democratic and human rights is materialized. Other than this, I would say that Tigrayans should not defend laws and directives that undermine constitutional rights for the sake of prolonging the power of a few political elite who are from Tigray by historical happenstance. Therefore, the only viable option and surety for the Tigray people is protecting the constitution that is both the result of the struggle of the Tigray people and other Ethiopians and the guarantor of the wellbeing of everyone…..

There was no mystery that made the people of Afar, Benshangul, Gambela, Oromo, and the Amhara fight along the Tigray people against the Dergue regime. It was because they witnessed not only in words but in actions that people the causes of the struggle the Tigray people, under its vanguard party TPLF, was also in their interest. That was also why the Tigray people have carried out a courageous struggle no one can comprehend. It was not because the Tigray people were uniquely brave, nor was the Dergue soldiers were cowards, that ultimately result in the victory of the first and demise of the latter. They were also heroes. It was rather because of the determination and resolve of the TPLF soldiers, and purposelessness of the Dergue soldiers that tilted the victory toward the first. Because of Dergue’s nature, their internal strength began to be torn in to pieces. Evidently, it is difficult to assume a political system based on undemocratic and extractive institutions could produce a military with internally strong and coherent stature. This principle works for any political system that does not intend to put public interest above its ruling elite.

The Role of the Defense Forces

Two years after EPRDF assumed state power an international symposium on the making of the new Ethiopian constitution has been conducted from May 24-28/1993 in Addis Ababa. A cohort of international scholars attended it. I had been one of those invited to present a paper, mine was on the organization of the would-be defense force of the Ethiopian state. Even though that paper was my personal view, I had had an extensive discussion with Meles Zenawi on the issue. Even though the paper did not pass formal organizational procedures of endorsement, it is plausible to argue that the paper reflected EPRDF’s position and embodies the party’s fundamental principles on the organization of the defense force. Some of the core ideas incorporated in the paper was even put in to use in the later times. A few significant suggestions were provided to the paper during the symposium.

The issues of security sector reform, which was not known by then and have now become most acceptable thought today, and the major assumptions underpinned this philosophy, were part of the plan for building our defense force. Among the few ideas included in the paper the following issue worth reiterating here. It reads as follows;

“We must create a citizens’ army. We must create a military which is loyal to and a servant of the people and which cannot be misdirected to serve the interest of elite or of those who might abuse their power. We must create an army which belongs to the people.”

This direction was laid out when our revolutionary democratic mindset was unadulterated. What is the situation now?

The military of a nation like ours, where democracy is still transitional, where the economy is backward, and where the public is diverse in many respects, must be built in a way that is free from the influence of any ethnic group, political party, religious  or political interests. If the military is affiliated to one or the other group, it will not only be inimical to democratic system building but also would accelerate the collapse of the state. If the military intervenes and exerts influence on the economic, political, or social affairs of the country, it will have ramifications on the constitutional order…..


Our country is now at a crossroads. Unless we begin searching for peaceful resolutions to our current political crisis based on the constitutional framework and through democratic ways, we may soon reach a situation the existence of our country as a sovereign country is threatened.

Any effort aimed at extricating the nation from this political quagmire requires the full and unconditional implementation of all constitutional rights and the opening up of the political space so as all political actors could participate. Moreover, the public must be informed about the current political crisis of the country so as to enable its active political participation, be it individually or through civic organizations. In the process, a political system where the people can voice concerns and be part of the solution, and are informed about the functions and responsibilities of the government should be created. In line with this, the public should be given the right to assembly and be part of any political party that resonates with its views and be able to involve in any public matter that affects its lives. Through time, the public would be able to observe that problems and differences are settled peacefully and democratically; and this in turn would build trust between various political forces and the public. And this is primarily the duty of the government.

Finally, a free, fair, and democratic election that has the recognition of an independent international observer must be conducted regularly and based on the law of the land. And in this process, the public must be granted the right to cast its ballot to whichever party it likes and its verdict must be respected by every actor in the process. In the mean time, every actor should be ready to accept and respect the pubic verdict and ensure the smooth transfer of power.

A body consisting of representatives of various political parties must be erected to manage the political process until the next general election time. This body will be based on the agreement of the contracting parties and entrusted with the power of overseeing the implementation of the aforementioned political goals. This organ will be separate from the government. The government will continue carrying out its daily governmental functions, while this new structure will work out the political business dedicatedly until the next national election.

The above-proposed solutions require tangible actions that are well beyond rhetoric. This voluminous task needs expertise from different areas of discipline and a coherent plan of action for its implementation. This proposal is premised on the assumption that the ruling party would be the first and main actor in the search for solutions. And it presupposes that the ruling party will be to overcome its internal problems (for example, resistance from forces or groups within the party) by itself and become part of the solution.

The overall goal of the recommendations is creating a political environment where both the ruling party and the opposition will be able to fully implement the rights subsumed in the constitution. The political parties could decide through dialogue on measures that should be taken so as to create the required political environment. Having said this, we can indicate some of the legislations and institutions that need to be revised or need further consideration. For example, the electoral law, the regulations on demonstration, media law, electoral commission, human rights commission, and public media and party registration, etc. have considerable impact on the right to assembly, freedom of expression, public participation, and other similar issues. Therefore, those laws and structures require revision.

In the mean time, the security apparatus like any other executive organs will have to refrain from intervening in any political activities or affairs. The main job of this organ would be limited to defending national security and sovereignty of the state. Apart from this, the security organ would also have additional responsibility of protecting the political activity, on which the political forces have agreed up on, from any attacks of an armed group; and overseeing any attempt by anybody to stifle the public exercise of democratic rights (or its results) organized by both the government and the opposition political forces.


* The author Lt. General Tsadkan Gebretensae is former Chief of Staff of the Ethiopian National Defence Forces and senior military adviser to the government of South Sudan before the civil war. He can be reached at በ[email protected]

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