Ethiopia’s crisis: Things fall apart: Will the center hold?

(René Lefort)

Almost exactly a year ago, Ethiopia entered its worst crisis since the arrival of the regime in 1991. Last month, a state of emergency was proclaimed. These two events have generated a flood of commentary and analysis. A few key points, sometimes underplayed if not ignored, are worth closer attention.

“Mengist yelem!” – “Authority has disappeared!”

People waited in vain for the government to react other than by brute force alone to the opposition it was facing and the resulting chaos. The unrest in Oromya, Ethiopia’s most populous state with 35% of the country’s total population, began on November 12, 2015; the uprising in part of the Amhara Region, the second largest by population (27%), on July 12, 2016.

For 11 long months the government was content to quell protest and to release information in dribs and drabs, the epitome of one-sided doublespeak. A handful of cryptic press releases repeated the same platitudes ad nauseam. When in June 2016 the ruling power finally realized the severity of the crisis, launching a series of internal deliberations, these took place in total secrecy. This pseudo-communication destroyed its credibility and in turn lent credence to the sole alternative source of information, the diaspora, which itself is often hyperbolic to the point of implausibility. On both sides, the space available for information that exhibits even a degree of measure, not to say simple rationality, is shrinking alarmingly.[1] On both sides, the space available for information that exhibits even a degree of measure, not to say simple rationality, is shrinking alarmingly.

People have stopped taking notice of anything the ruling power says, seeing it as incapable of handling the situation. In short, trust has gone. “It is not even able to listen… It has lost its collective ability to reach the collective mindset of the governed”.[2] The general view is that Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn “always promises but never delivers”.

Both in central government and in the regional authorities, or between one and the other, authority has dramatically deflated. A multitude of anecdotes confirm that it is being ignored – officials simply turn their backs – or even mocked, right up to the highest levels. The man in the street could only conclude: “Mengist yelem !” – “Authority has disappeared!”. This perception, initially confined to the cities, is increasingly reaching into the rural areas as they open up more and more.

An even more serious indictment is spreading. The government’s primary role is to maintain law and order, and it has proved incapable of doing so; worse still, the violence of repression is further fueling discontent. In the end, rather than fulfilling its first duty, the ruling power has become the principal cause of revolt. In the end, rather than fulfilling its first duty, the ruling power has become the principal cause of revolt.

“Meles left with the password”

Why this impotence and loss of credibility?

Under Meles Zenawi, the all-powerful Prime Minister who died suddenly in August 2012, the system of power was like a pyramid. Meles sat enthroned at the summit, and below him, every tier – executive or legislative, political or economic, national or regional, even local – was simply a transmission belt from the top. Party and State were inextricably intertwined. This profoundly centralized and vertical system, intensifying over the years, hung on him alone.

For most observers, the smooth succession from Meles Zenawi to Hailemariam Desalegn proved the robustness of the regime and the reliability of its institutions. However, Hailemariam lacks what it takes to “fill the boots” of his predecessor. Most of his authority comes not from his own resources but has been handed down to him through a constellation of powers – baronies one might call them – characterized not just by their diversity, but also by the rivalry, or even conflict, between them. In short, Ethiopia is left with a system of power tailored for a strongman and filled accordingly, but which now lacks a strongman. “Meles left with the password”, the joke goes.

The succession couldn’t be a change of personnel only. The whole power system too needed reshaping, and this is in full swing. Hence the misfires in response to the crisis.

People used to say that Ethiopia was like a plane on autopilot, controlled by the Meles software (“Meles legacy”). To pursue the metaphor in current circumstances, the more turbulence the plane encounters, the more ineffective the software has proved to be. It is noteworthy that constant references to that legacy have practically disappeared from official rhetoric. So the software has been disconnected, but no pilot – whether individual or collective – has been able to take over the controls.

Three big sources of the crisis

The weakening of central authority – Addis Ababa – has thus released centrifugal – regional – forces that had been steadily stifled in Meles Zenawi’s iron grip. The first source of the current crisis is the trial of strength between central authority and the peripheral powers that it originally created – a sort of bid for emancipation from the father – as well as between the peripheral powers.

At stake is the sharing of powers and resources, notably between the regions and Addis Ababa, where Tigrayans are perceived to be overrepresented, wrongly in their view, quite obviously according to all the other ethnicities.

In other words, what is at stake is the place that should be assigned to the “people’s fundamental freedoms and rights” enshrined in the constitution, collective rights. How can the country make the transition from a bogus and ethnically weighted federalism to real decentralization, which would bring about a more authentic and ethnically fairer federalism, or even confederalism? The immemorial “national question” remains as acute as ever: what will the name Ethiopia come to refer to? In other words, why should and how can an Ethiopian state exist, and on what basis? What will the name Ethiopia come to refer to?

This question has deep historical roots. From the mid-nineteenth century onwards, the economic centre of gravity shifted from the North – Abyssinia – towards the Centre. But power always remained Abyssinian. At stake in the current crisis is a historic break that would also shift power to the Centre, i.e. to Oromya. Despite their internal divisions, this claim unites the vast majority of Oromo, justified by their numbers and their major contribution to the economy. It is generally agreed that a genuine application of the constitution would be sufficient for this claim to be satisfied.

For the Amhara, whose elite dominated Abyssinian power for more than a century, the challenge is to revamp their identity. They have to say farewell to their historical ascendancy and accept that their place in the Ethiopian state should reflect their numerical and economic importance, no more, no less. In other words, the only way out of the undoubted ostracism they suffer is not to re-establish the former status quo. The assertion of “Amhara-ness” – legitimate as it is – cannot become a cover for the aspiration for a return to an “Ethiopianness” based around Amhara, with the other ethnicities in a lesser role. This metamorphosis is under way, but not yet complete. Nonetheless, many Oromo and even more Tigrayans deny that anything has changed, convinced that this elite has not abandoned its “chauvinism” and “revanchism”, and that the federal system that they defend tooth and nail could therefore never satisfy its deeply cherished ambition. The only way out of the undoubted ostracism [the Amhara] suffer is not to re-establish the former status quo.

These ethno-nationalisms have become inflamed and even paranoid. Today, “all the politics is revolving around ethnicity”, a former senior TPLF official told me, and in a previous remark: “what I see now dominantly… is the proliferation of racial or ethnic hatred”.[3]It is focused on the Tigrayans, not only because of the major role of the Tigrayan Peoples’s Liberation Front (TPLF), but because both Oromo and Amhara equate Tigrayan silence in the face of repression with approval. “The preliminary rhetoric of ethnic cleansing is already here”, opines one social scientist, a man familiar with the grass roots of the country.

The second source of the crisis relates to what might be called “democratic aspiration”. In this respect, Ethiopia’s leaders are right to talk about the price of success. Economic growth has brought the emergence of a new middle class, not just urban but also in the countryside, which has seen the rapid enrichment of an upper tier of farmers. In parallel, education has dramatically expanded. This upper tier has opened up to the outside world, in particular through social media. However, the aspiration for “individual rights” runs up against a system of power which, everywhere in Ethiopia, from the summit of the state to the lowliest levels of authority, from the capital to the smallest village, shares the same defects: authoritarianism, stifling control, infantilization.

Finally, the third source of the crisis relates to collateral damage from super-rapid growth. Such damage is inevitable, but has been exacerbated by the type and methods of development pursued. First, forced imposition through ultra-centralized and secretive decision-making, and brutal execution. “Land grabbing”, and more generally almost instant evictions with absurd levels of compensation, are commonplace. Second, the overwhelming role of the ruling power through the “developmental state” has produced an ever more powerful and arrogant oligarchy embedded in the Party-State. The stakes in the crisis are not only political: they directly concern the mobilization, distribution and therefore the accumulation of resources in the hands of the ruling power, and hence the division of the cake between central and peripheral authorities and/or oligarchies, but also between these oligarchies and the population in general.

The present crisis is particularly acute because these three factors reinforce each other. The demonstrators chant “we want justice” and “we want freedom”, but also “Oromya is not for sale” and “we want self rule” or, in Gondar, the historic capital of the Amhara, “respect for Amhara-ness”.[4] “The preliminary rhetoric of ethnic cleansing is already here.”

“Alarmists” and “complacents”

In this poisonous climate, the vigour and scale of the protest accentuated the “crisis of leadership”.[5] It was the first factor responsible for the government’s paralysis, as confirmed by one participant in the last meeting of the Central Committee of the TPLF, in early October. He ascribes it first of all to pure and simple “power struggles”, leading to a tussle that is all the more confused in that these conflicts run through every regional party, the relations between those parties, and between those parties and the centre, while on the same time the centre originates from the peripheries: the supreme decision-making body is the Executive Committee of the EPRDF (Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front), composed equally of representatives of the TPLF, ANDM (Amhara National Democratic Movement), OPDO (Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation) and SPDM (Southern People’s Democratic Movement).

These conflicts are first of all personal in nature, based on local affinities, religious solidarities, family connections, not to mention business interests. However, the crisis triggered a new and crucial division, between “alarmists” and “complacents”, the former advocating a rapid shift from the status quo, the latter seeing neither its necessity nor its urgency.

The “old guard” is the backbone of the “alarmists”. It consists of the survivors of the founding group of the TPLF, including the heads of the army and the security services, Samora Yunus and Getachew Assefa, plus some old comrades in arms such as Berket Simon, guiding light of the ANDM. They became involved in politics in the early 1970s, within the student protest movement against Haile Selassie. Their long journey together gives them an experience, a maturity, and a cohesion greater than that of any current within the EPRDF. Concentrated in the centre, in Addis Ababa, most of them were sidelined from official positions as Meles imposed generational change. Returning in force behind the scenes after his death, they are the strongest backers of Hailemariam Dessalegn

They ascribe the crisis to the breaking of the bonds between “the people” and the party. In their view, those most responsible are the regional parties, starting with their new leaders. The urgent priority is to restore those bonds and to reinforce central power, to compensate for the failures of the regional authorities. Everywhere in Ethiopia… shares the same defects: authoritarianism, stifling control, infantilization.

Hailemariam expressed the anxiety of this group when he said that the issues facing the regime are a matter of “life or death”,[6] and that Ethiopia is “sliding towards ethnic conflict similar to that in neighbouring countries”.[7] Abay Tsehaye, said to be the most political head of the TPLF, raised the specter of a genocide even worse than Rwanda’s.[8] Bereket Simon warned the leadership of his party that the country was sliding towards the abyss. In vain.

In contrast, Debretsion Gebremichael, member of the Politburo of the TPLF and until recently Deputy Prime Minister, one of the foremost of the second generation of leaders, retorted that there had simply been a few, geographically limited “disturbances”, that they did not reflect the overall situation in the country, that “there is no mobilization against Tigrayans anywhere”. And even, dogmatically: “It is not possible to have people to people [i.e. ethnic] conflict in Ethiopia”.[9]

The “complacents” are usually described as “technocrats” and “careerists”. They are considered to be “apparatchiks”, lacking any political fibre, owing their position and the privileges and advantages – often undeserved – that they enjoy, entirely to it.

They will only be able to conceal and perpetuate those benefits as long as the Party remains a bunker. Any opening up, any movement towards a little good governance, transparency, and accountability, would be the end of them. They are also haunted by the implacable rule of “winner takes all” that has accompanied every previous regime change. However, their attitude is ambivalent. On the one hand, they are tooth and nail defenders of the EPRDF’s monopoly of power, and therefore equally implicated in the repression. The ‘complacents’ will only be able to conceal and perpetuate those benefits as long as the Party remains a bunker.

On the other hand, they ascribe responsibility for the crisis to excessive central power, claiming that it hinders regional authority. In order to reverse this imbalance, and thereby strengthen their own positions, they are taking advantage of the outbreaks of ethno-nationalisms, notably by attempting to exploit the corresponding popular demands to their own advantage, up to and including the serious slide into anti-Tigrayan sentiment.

“The fate of Ethiopia would be determined by its periphery”

In Oromya, at least part of the OPDO, right up to leadership level, encouraged the opposition to the Addis Ababa Master Plan, the scheme to extend the capital’s administrative scope into adjacent areas of Oromya, which triggered near universal unrest across the whole State.

The same actors then did everything they could to prevent Oromya being placed under military command from Addis Ababa and then, having failed, to put a stop to it. At least locally, the authorities – necessarily members of OPDO – and the militias – under their sole control – went so far as to lend the protesters a hand.

This ethno-nationalist outbreak contributed to the appointment of Lemma Megersa and Workneh Gebeyehu to the leadership of the OPDO, after the forced resignation of numbers one and two Muktar Kedir and Aster Mamo, who were seen as puppets of Addis Ababa. The new duo are long-time members of the security services, but are said to be protégés of Abadula Gemadah, the OPDO’s only strongman, hence formerly sidelined by Meles Zenawi. The main thing is that the OPDO was able to assert its autonomy by electing leaders without external pressure or diktat.

In the Amhara region, it is equally unquestionable that the big initial demonstrations, though officially banned, were held with the support or tacit approval of part of the ANDM. At least at local level, the authorities and the security forces allowed “ethnic cleansing” against Tigrayans to take place, prompting 8000 to flee to Tigray.[10] Gedu Andergatchew, ANDM strongman, who is accused of having at least turned a blind eye, is still in place.

Even in Tigray, the regional authorities – “TPLF Mekele” – are playing the nationalist card. Abay Woldu, President of the region and Chairman of the TPLF, went so far as to declare that the integrity of Tigray was non negotiable, in a clear allusion to Tigray’s retention of the Wolkait area, whose restoration is demanded by some Amhara, and despite Addis Ababa’s call for the Amhara and Tigrayan governments to negotiate this long standing issue.

This firmness played a big part in the shift in at least part of Tigrayan opinion, expressed with rare vehemence by some circles. They vilified the “TPLF Mekele”, despised for its lack of education and impotence. They placed all their hopes in the Tigrayan old guard, “TPLF Addis”. According to them, only this old guard could bring about the democratization essential to the survival of the regime and, in the long term, the Tigrayan minority’s control over its own affairs. The same old guard, they now complain, has doubly betrayed the Tigrayan people: by evolving into an oligarchy that neglects the latter’s economic aspirations; and by turning its back on their national interests.

On the first point, they rightly emphasize that Tigray still lags behind in terms of development. But at the same time Tigrayan businessmen are said to earn exorbitant profits from undeserved privileges. In fact, the paradox is only apparent: there is so little potential in Tigray that they invest elsewhere.

Regarding the “national betrayal”, these critics highlight the old guard’s loyalty to its Marxist past, claiming that they remain “internationalist”, “cosmopolitan”, and “universalist” out of political ambition and material interest. Addis Ababa offers positions and advantages that Tigray, poor and small as it is, would be hard put to provide. The more the balance between centre and periphery shifts towards the centre, the more attractive these positions and advantages become. In short, the view is that the old guard has yielded to a centuries-old tradition of Ethiopian history: letting itself be “assimilated” by the centre and prioritizing the latter’s interests over those of the periphery. As the historian Haggai Erlich has written, “a central position” in Addis Ababa has always been preferable to remaining a “chief in a remote province”.[11] The more the balance between centre and periphery shifts towards the centre, the more attractive these positions and advantages become.

In consequence, these Tigrayans feel they have no other choice than to take charge of their own destiny and count only on themselves, i.e. something like building a “fortress Tigray”. It is up to the new generation to take over from the old, which has given up, even if this means embracing the “narrow nationalism” of which its critics accuse it. This goes as far as to see a re-emergence of the hope of reunifying Tigrayans on both sides of the Ethiopia/Eritrea border into a single nation state.

In this view, the other regions’ demands for self-rule should therefore be heard. Central government should be content with “regulating”, “balancing”, “moderating”, “arbitrating”, “coordinating”, etc. That it should be headed by an Oromo prime minister would be in the natural order of things, since Ormoya has the largest population, and would help to calm feelings in the region. In short, one Tigrayan intellectual has joked, a new Age of the Princes would be established, but one in which the Princes did not fight amongst themselves,[12]more seriously going on to express the wish that, for the first time in history, “the fate of Ethiopia would be determined by its periphery”.

State of emergency

The indignation aroused by the carnage in Bishoftu during the traditional Oromo annual festival (October 2),[13] the widespread destruction that followed the call for “five days of rage” in response, made the ruling power’s paralysis even more untenable. At the same time, the series of internal consultations within the EPRDF was coming to an end. The package of measures announced on October 9 reflects the shakiness of the snatched compromise. However acute their lack of mutual trust, the political currents and/or the ethnic components of the EPRDF had to arrive at an agreement: they knew that they had “to work together or else to sink together”.

The state of emergency was proclaimed in order “to deal with anti-peace elements that… are jeopardising the peace and security of the country”.[14] Commentators see it as evidence that the regime was “overwhelmed”. But it adds little, whether to the existing legislative arsenal,[15] or to the operational capacities of the security forces since, in practice, they have never seen themselves as severely restricted by the law.

The first objective is to instil fear and uncertainty, especially as several provisions are so vague that they can be interpreted in almost any way. They are now in everyone’s mind. For example, for the first time, long-standing informants have cancelled interviews because of the potential risk. The first objective is to instil fear and uncertainty.

The second objective is to give the military the legal sanction that army chief Samora Yunus was demanding as a condition of continuing to maintain internal order.

However, this proclamation also demonstrates that the centre has won a round in its trial of strength with the peripheries. The state of emergency places all the forces of order under the authority of a federal Command Post, with Hailemariam Dessalegn at its head and the Minister of Defense as its secretary. They thus control the mono-ethnic Special Regional Police in each state, who with 80,000 members far outnumber the Federal Police (around 40,000), and even more so the Army Special Force (the famous Agazi red berets, around 4000). The 500,000 or so militiamen also come under their authority. That is why the proclamation encountered ferocious opposition within the OPDO and ANDM.

Essentially, however, the state of emergency is a show of strength. Not only to try to reassure increasingly nervous foreign investors,[16]but above all to convince the population of the regime’s determination to recover total control of the entire country by any means – the obsession of any Ethiopian ruling power worthy of the name – and, at the same time, to make its promise of reforms credible. Otherwise, it would have been perceived as a capitulation. Sebhat Nega, patriarch of the TPLF, explained that the purpose of the state of emergency was “to create a situation to make us able to reform”.[17]

Ultimately, the aim of the compromise reached within the party was to drive a wedge between the “violent, extremist and armed struggle” – to be repressed through the state of emergency – and the “democratic peaceful engagement” expressed by so many demonstrators – holding out a hand via reform.[18]

“Leadership has miserably failed”

Interviews with senior officials cast light on the analysis that the leadership as a whole finally agreed upon. Emollient though it may be, they are all now sticking by it and keeping their previous disagreements to themselves.[19]

The analysis goes as follows: the spirit and letter of the constitution are perfect, as are therefore the federal structure, the format of the institutions, the political line. The latter is not “based on ideology but on the natural laws of development”, as it previously was on Marxist “science”. “Show me a developing country anywhere in the world which has a political strategy and guidelines as well articulated as Ethiopia!” This perfection has accomplished “miracles”. The current crisis is simply “the price of our successes”. It was preceded and will be followed by others, because it is nothing more than a stage, unremarkable and inevitable, on the path that will undoubtedly culminate in the nation catching up with developed countries in the next few decades.

However, this stage, like any other, requires “adjustments”, especially as the society – richer, more educated, more mature – has become a “demanding society”. The young in particular, the spearhead of protest, are making demands that are socio-economic rather than political. The regime is facing “challenges” for having failed to make these adjustments in time.

The main problem is deficiencies in implementation. In sum, things have gone off the rails because of human failings. Yielding to corruption, bad governance, lack of accountability, etc., “leadership at various levels of the government structure has miserably failed to fully and timely[sic] address the demands made and the questions raised by the people”.[20] The response to the crisis must therefore take two forms. First a massive purge at all levels of the Party, regional governments, the administration. Then, “to delineate” – the new watchword – the Party from the government, from the Assemblies, from justice, etc. in order to develop a system of checks and balances, since the self-correcting mechanisms within the Party have proved inadequate. The essential thing is “to discuss… with all stakeholders”in all possible and imaginable “debating platforms”, “assemblies”, “fora”, but with no specific goal or timetable, and under the sole authority of the EPRDF.

For youth employment, a “Mobile Youth Fund” funded to the tune of 500 million dollars – some 4% of the annual budget – will be created, though the details are vague and it will take several years before its effects are felt. Above all, it is part of a largely endogenous strategy of industrialization, focused on Small and Medium Enterprises (SME) on the edge of the rural areas, whereas heated debate continues within the leadership with those who advocate prioritizing foreign investment in “Industrial Parks”.

In strictly political terms, “our democratization process is still nascent. It is moving in the right direction, but it has not yet come up with inclusive engagement”, stated the PM.[21]Electoral law will be reformed to introduce an element of proportional representation into majority rule. However, the next elections are in 2020, and the dozens of opposition MPs present before the 2005 elections could do almost nothing to temper the authoritarianism of the regime. The essential thing is “to discuss… with all stakeholders” in all possible and imaginable “debating platforms”, “assemblies”, “fora”, but with no specific goal or timetable, and under the sole authority of the EPRDF. A promise reiterated year after year, without impact. One of the essential causes of the crisis, its federal dimension, is covered in a single short sentence in the 15 pages of President Mulatu’s speech: “more should be done for the effective implementation of the federal system”. In any case, “Ethiopia is an idol… and exemplary for the world for peaceful [interethnic] coexistence”, declares the State Minister for Federal Affairs.[22]

Anticipating the worst

What emerges from all the interviews with nonofficial contacts is that the expectation of a symbolic gesture, one that would be significant and have immediate impact, proving that the regime had grasped the essence of the crisis and wishes sincerely to address it, has not been met.

According to them, the regime is relying first on repression, and on reforms only as a “footnote”. Merera Gudina, a long-standing leader of the opposition, sums up the general sentiment: “too little, too late”.[23] Nothing has been done to reach out to either the main opposition forces, even the legal opposition, nor the civil society or the media, quite the contrary. This could be envisaged only after the end of the state of emergency, Hailemariam is said to have told one figure from the international community.

These interlocutors share the dark pessimism of an editorial in the Washington Post: “the state of emergency will bottle up the pressures even more, increasing the likelihood they will explode anew… It won’t work”.[24] According to this view, the chances of a genuine opening up on the part of the regime are so small that there is a high probability that the worst will happen: a threat to the very survival of the country, the only question being when this dislocation would occur. Washington Post: “the state of emergency … It won’t work”

While the official media bang on about the “strong commitment” of the leadership “to make its promise of deep reform a reality”,[25]interviews with top officials provide hints of the form and scope of reform, which remain consistent with the official analysis of the crisis.

Focus on “service delivery”

There is no urgency: change will be “an ongoing endless process”. The first specific deadline is in seven months, in June 2017, to report back on the purge and examine a document currently in preparation, on what the EPRDF should become in the next ten years.

In this view, the crisis is not systemic. So neither the constitution, nor the institutions, nor the political line will be touched. How could the latter be challenged since it obeys universal “laws”? For that reason, regardless of all the promised “discussions”, no convincing reasons are given for the much touted opening up to entail any restructuring of the political arena.

The EPRDF alone, as sectarian as ever, has understood and applies these “laws”, whereas the opposition parties oppose or reject them. The EPRDF alone has the near monopoly of skills needed to implement them, skills that the other parties lack. In short, the opposition is still not “constructive”. If the regime needs to become more inclusive, it is essentially in material terms, by sharing the cake more fairly through improvements in “service delivery”.

To do this, it is necessary and sufficient to put an end to individual erring through the self-reform of the EPRDF, i.e. reform by and for the Party itself. To achieve the famous “delineation”, MPs, judges, ministers, civil servants, etc. would split themselves in two, remaining obedient to the Party but putting their mission first. Why would they do this, given that they never have before? “Because they have become aware of the crisis”, is the explanation. So responding to the crisis requires no systemic reshaping through the establishment of independent counterforces. A U-turn in individual behaviour will be enough. Why would they do this, given that they never have before?

The EPRDF sticks to the same age-old paradigm. Since Ethiopia is still at a precapitalist stage, the intelligentsia is the only social group capable of setting the path to follow and leading the way. The EPRDF contains its best elements. Ethnic identities continue to be society’s main structuring factor. The EPRDF alone represents them. As one senior official confirmed, it is not until the country enters a capitalist stage that pluralism will imposed itself: with the emergence of social classes, each will construct its own political party to express its interests. What the EPRDF is still seeking is not simultaneous development AND democracy, but development THEN democracy.

In this respect, the arrival of technocrats – brandishing the indispensable PhD and with no major party position – was widely interpreted as evidence of a new openness in the cabinet reshuffle. Yet it perpetuates the monopoly rule of the “intellocracy”.

The paradox of the strongman

The consensus reached on October 9 is fragile and hence precarious. Nothing proves that the “reformers” have won the long-term game, though they have scored a point. Deep down, they do not share the same views. They lack a standout personality to act as a leader.

They have a clear view of where they want to go, which is to apply the constitution to the letter, but over a very long timescale and with no precise and concerted idea of the steps needed to get there. As for their rank-and-file adherents, they make no secret of still embracing the same paradox: we need reforms, but we need a new strongman to manage and impose them, for fear that they will otherwise lead to chaos. We need reforms, but we need a new strongman to manage and impose them.

On the opposition side, all the Oromo we spoke to emphasized the generational gap between the educated youth, broadly aged 16 to 25, spearhead of the protests notably in Oromya, and their elders. The latter are ambivalent. They feel a sincere empathy for the grievances and aspirations of the younger generation, but have reservations, even hostility, regarding the violent methods sometimes employed. In some cases they even physically opposed attempts at destruction during the “five days of rage”.[26] They remain traumatized by the Civil War under the previous regime, the Derg. Then they acquired military know-how that the young activists don’t have.

The latter also lack coordination and leadership. For all these reasons, a historian of armed popular uprisings in Ethiopia in the twentieth century has concluded that it is unlikely that the protests could become a significant guerrilla campaign, or that a sustained armed peasant upsurge – a “jacquerie” could occur.

As for the pockets of insurrection that have appeared in the Amhara region, they mainly affect areas where the authorities’ control has always been weak, even essentially formal.

Ethiopian history teaches that a regime only falls if its forces of repression, or at least part of them, turn against it. Today, apart from a few unconfirmed incidents, cohesion seems to be holding, say experts close to them. It might only break down if the EPRDF became divided to the point of being torn apart by centrifugal forces. However, the military command has always let it be known that it would intervene before this happened, as ultimate saviour of the regime. Under these circumstances, steady deterioration – a kind of rotting, seems a possible scenario.

Under these circumstances, steady deterioration – a kind of rotting, seems a possible scenario. Without any substantive resolution, the regime could re-establish law and order, as the first effects of the state of emergency seem to suggest. The reforms would not tackle the core problems. The ruling power would remain contested and delegitimized but, in the absence of an alternative, Ethiopians would toe the line. Investors would remain cautious, not to say skittish, affecting economic growth. But neither of the two opposing camps would gain the upper hand, any more than they would reach a constructive compromise. Ultimately, what might possibly occur is a classic scenario in Ethiopian history: the demise of one strongman, followed by a period of great disorder until a new strongman takes up the reins.


[1] See for example Foreign Affairs, November 7, 2016

[2] Unless otherwise specified, all quotations are taken from interviews conducted in October 2016 in Addis Ababa and Mekele, with people who, for obvious reasons, wished to remain anonymous.

[3] Interview, Addis Ababa, October 2016 and Addis Standard, September 28, 2016

[4] Tigray On Line, July 31 2016

[5] See René Lefort, Open Democracy, July 4, 2014

[6] Walta, August 30, 2015

[7] BBC, August 3, 2016

[8] Ethiomedia, September 10, 2016

[9] AlMariam, September 25, 2016

[10] Tigray Online, October 10, 2016

[11] Haggai Erlich, Ras Alula, Ras Seyum, Tigre and Ethiopia integrity, p. 364, Proceedings of the Eight International Conference on Ethiopia Studies, Vol. 1, Institute of Ethiopian Studies, Addis Ababa, Froebenius Institute, Goethe Universität, Frankfurt am Main, 1988.

[12] During the Age of the Princes (1769-1855), the Emperor’s power was purely nominal, and local warlords, in constant conflict, ruled the provinces.

[13] Human Rigths Watch has published the most exhaustive narrative of this event but with some omissions, which put its balance into question. 

[14] Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation, October 9, 2016, cited by Al Jazeera

[15] Addis Standard, November 2, 2016

[16] See for example Washington Post, November 2, 2016

[17] Interview, Addis Ababa, October 2016.

[18] Ethiopian News Agency, October 11, 2016

[19] Unless otherwise stated, the quotations that follow are taken from these interviews.

[20] Speech by President of the Republic Mulatu Teshome before both Houses, October 10, 2016.

[21] Ethiopian News Agency, October 11, 2016

[22] Walta, November 7, 2016,

[23] AFP, October 11, 2016,

[24] Washington Post, October 11, 2016

[25] Walta, November 5, 2016

[26] See for example Washington Post, November 2, 2016


About the author: René Lefort 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 the author of “Ethiopia. An heretical revolution?” (1982, Zed books).

This article was originally published on OpenDemocracy on November 19, 2016.

Content gathered and compiled from online and offline media by Hornaffairs staff based on relevance and interest to the Horn of Africa.

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