Preventing civil war and state failure in Ethiopia

(Tesfai Hailu)

Opposition groups prone to taking orders from Minnesota and Washington D.C. are once again counting their chicken before they hatch; typically blowing their own horns; yet again announcing the demise of the regime; re-writing EPRDF’s obituary, and at the same time sternly warning the ruling party to hand over power to  God knows whom.

Not too fast, dear latter-day freedom fighters terrifyingly armed to the teeth with laptops, video cameras and radio shortwaves. How soon could you forget that – just a little over 12 years ago – the country was on this very same road?

Indeed, following the 2005 election, the then main opposition leader, the late Hailu Shawel, apparently told diehard supporters in the U.S. that he could easily dispatch a legion of unarmed young people to march to Arat Kilo, and take over Menelik Palace with “only 10,000 deaths” earmarked for the overt mission.

And, although that evidently ended up being more of a political fantasy than a strategic goal, thank heavens people didn’t have to lose their precious lives to quench anyone’s power thirst. What happened afterwards is a recent history to which many of us are living witnesses.

To be fair to Kinjit Party leaders of the time, at least their claim to power was based on a contested election result they alleged should’ve gone their way. In contrast, what’s currently at play, in part, appears to be a reaction of some overly ambitious political hopefuls who claim to have the mandate from “the people” for instant power taking.

The problem, however, is that no one has witnessed “the people” giving their voice to these self-proclaimed public representatives.

There of course are some political leaders and fulltime professional “activists” who conveniently consider protests that – under the mantra of standing up for democracy – subject their fellow citizens to random act of violence; promote ethno-phobia by targeting an “ethnic other” and arbitrarily destroy public as well as private properties tantamount to that of the people’s voice. In contrast, there’s no shortage of citizens who abhor such an act; want nothing to do with this kind of self-destructive conduct, hence crave to see law and order in full force.

Thus, this necessitates careful assessment of a peaceful way out of this political quagmire (certainly above and beyond the scope of this opinion piece, and worth examining further) so as to curve the insanity of sacrificing lives callously; destroying the limited resources available recklessly, thereby exposing the country to historical and contemporary enemies. After all, even a small project with lesser impact on individual or community lives carries out risk assessment before embarking on implementation.

The Risks

The internal and external risk factors identified below should serve as a grave warning for Ethiopians – particularly those who are looking for a quick fix – in pursuit of solving decades and centuries old political and socioeconomic problems.

First, what should be abundantly clear is that wrestling away political power through bullets as supposed to ballots is never going to be a walk in the park. To be sure, if push comes to shove, EPRDF has more than enough firepower at its disposal to protect itself and its constituents. And this is not fear-mongering, but rather an irrefutable fact. When I make this same argument in social media discourse, there are those who try to remind me, “the Dergue too had the biggest army in Sub-Saharan Africa, but you know what happened”.

And, my response to that is, who in his/her right mind wants to return to that era of hundreds of thousands of lives lost; infrastructure and economic resources ruined; arrested development and progress brought to a standstill?! For someone like me who lived through the Dergue’s reign, that simply is too painful to even travel back in memory lane.

Second, there is no unity to speak of in the country in general and among political groups in particular. A famous public protest theme in some English-speaking countries goes, “A people, united will never be defeated!” which, in reverse, means a people, divided will always be defeated. No doubt special political interests have been working overtime and spending sleepless nights to create an “us against them” alliance, but only the politically immature would believe that a unity based on the “enemy of my enemy” short-term interest would last long.

It really doesn’t take a prophet to foresee that the country will be divided into factions led by clan heads, and fall apart. The Greatest Prophet and Son of God, Jesus Christ, also warned 2000 years ago, “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand” (Matthew 12:25, NKJV).

Third, selfish demagogues who – from the safety of their western adopted countries and cities of refuge – are counting on the conscription of naïve souls willing to put their lives in the line of fire to be used for human wave attacks so that the power hungry exiles – who are aging; tired of waiting and beginning to lose hope – could return to the country as politicians of the Ahmed Chalabi type, advisors, power brokers, media moguls and the new Robber barons on the block. (It’s worth noting here that Chalabi – who died of heart attack in 2015 – didn’t live to see the reign of peace in Iraq never mind the fruition of the democracy and development he promised to deliver to Iraqis.)

Fourth, corrupt, weak-kneed and delusional self-serving politicians in the ruling party who are willing to pledge allegiance to any contending power, even to pretenders to the throne, in the hope of preserving their political positions and/or wealth they have accumulated, thus are prepared to close a deal with the devil.

Fifth, the way things are now, it’d be fair to assume that the state has no capable public relations and communication medium, which leaves the impression that the government is “fiddling while Rome burns”. It really is boringly unbearable to watch EBC’s business as usual primetime broadcasting of how many hectares of farmland has been cultivated; tons of grain produced; young men and women entrepreneurs have taken advantage of government’s investment policy to make a fortune; how pleased citizens are with public funded development programs … same old, same old. Makes one wonder, have these people ever heard the definition of insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result”?!

Meanwhile, news agencies and social media run by opponents and detractors within and outside the country are having a bonanza of transmitting “fake news”; multiplying the unfortunate death of one person (notwithstanding still is too many) by a hundred or more; fabricating or misattributing provocative statements to a public official in order to incite hate and resentment as well as spreading all kinds of rumors and conspiracy theories unabated.

Sixth, the numerous cases of internal conflicts that ended up developing into never-ending civil wars in Africa and beyond. Neighboring country Somalia, for example, has become “shorthand for how the lack of a strong central government makes states collapse into unlivable chaos”, and a haven for warlords, pirates in sea and terrorists on land.

A United Nations’ humanitarian aid official in Yemen is quoted as saying, “the civilian death toll in the two-year conflict has reached 10,000, with 40,000 others wounded”. The BBC also highlighted:

 “… 3 million [Yemenis] are displaced, creating one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises … More than 20 million people, including 11 million children, are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance. Some 17 million people do not know where their next meal is coming from and 7 million are totally dependent on food assistance. Severe acute malnutrition is threatening the lives of almost 400,000 children.

At least 14.8 million are without basic healthcare. Only 45% of the 3,500 health facilities are fully functioning. They have struggled to cope with the world’s largest cholera outbreak, which has resulted in more than 913,000 suspected cases and 2,196 deaths since April 2017. Two million Yemenis are currently internally displaced due to the conflict and 188,000 others have fled to neighbouring countries.”

Al Jazeera appropriately gave its May 30, 2017 news analysis on Libya the title, “Libya Today: From Arab Spring to failed state”. In it, the leading Arab news media takes stock of how the once oil rich North African country has turned to a political, economic and security nightmare. Not only has Libya become a living hell for its citizens, but also a shameful slave trade center for blacks in 21st. century Africa.

In the Middle East – a decade and half after Saddam Hussein’s downfall – Iraq is still “ravaged by cycles of warfare, a growing refugee crisis, crippling sectarianism, and the violent spread of the self-styled Islamic State extremist movement”.

When it comes to the conflict in Syria that started as a peaceful protest against the torture of 15 school children, a study conducted by the World Bank titled, “The Toll of War: The Economic and Social Consequences of the Conflict in Syria” laments:

“… The conflict has inflicted significant damage to the Syrian Arab Republic’s physical capital stock (7 percent housing stock destroyed and 20 percent partially damaged), led to large numbers of casualties and forced displacement (between 400,000 and 470,000 estimated deaths and more than half of Syria’s 2010 population forcibly displaced), while depressing and disrupting economic activity. From 2011 until the end of 2016, the cumulative losses in gross domestic product (GDP) have been estimated at $226 billion, about four times the Syrian GDP in 2010.”

While the countries mentioned above are bleeding to death, there are old and new groups and countries with vested interests at close and distant proximity adding fuel to the fire by providing military training, ammunition as well as immoral support. In Somalia’s case, there was Al-Qaida and now ISIS using the country or what is left of it as their backyard for training and a launching pad for terrorist activities.

Iran and Saudi Arabia are waging their proxy conflict in Yemen for “geopolitical, economic and sectarian influence, which is referred by some as “Iran–Saudi Arabia Cold War”.

The UAE and Qatar, “which both played pivotal roles in the Libyan uprising as sponsors of anti-Qaddafi rebels, have emerged as rivals in this grander geopolitical struggle” are accused of waging a proxy war in Libya. “The UAE, along with Russia and Egypt, backs the Tobruk-based government; Qatar, along with Turkey and Sudan, supports the Islamist-led government in Tripoli”.

The crumbling of Iraq came as a dream come true for archenemy Iran which – along with other Middle Eastern and Western countries – is prolonging the sectarian war by supporting a faction for 15 years and counting, and with no end in sight.

Similarly, it’s a public secret as to which countries are promoting political, ethnic and religious conflict, and drooling over the prospect of a civil war in Ethiopia. There of course is Horn of Africa’s failed soft power aspirant Eritrea’s Issaias Afeworki who undoubtedly wishes to see the disintegration of his former county before going to his grave.

Similarly, not only is Egypt – which despicably feels entitled to an exclusive access to Nile water – secretly providing support to enemies of the Ethiopian state, but also openly trying to flex its diplomatic muscle with the objective of testing the water to see how far it can go.

That’s not all, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar have reportedly opened bases in Eritrea under the pretext of obtaining access to the war in Yemen. But independent analysts suspect that there’s more to this than meets the eye. Katheon, an international think thank that specializes “in the geopolitical, geostrategic and political analysis of world events” points out:

“… contrary to the conventional assessment that this is about Yemen, the argument can be made that it’s also just as much about Ethiopia as well. Unbeknownst to many, Qatar is the “ox driving the cart” in this case, and whether they like it or not, the rest of the GCC states will be reluctantly forced to follow its destabilizing lead if Doha decides to throw Ethiopia into chaos.”

Mitigating the risk to prevent a potential civil and proxy war

Risk mitigation, also called risk reduction, is defined as “a systematic reduction in the extent of exposure to a risk and/or the likelihood of its occurrence”. The loss of precious lives; the displacement of individuals and families from their homes and communities; the mistrust and sense of insecurity created between ethnic groups; the socioeconomic harm currently experienced in the country is a tip of the iceberg and just a preview of what is to come if preventative measures are not taken by all stakeholders with the objective of mitigating the risk of war.

The Government:

What current events have proven beyond any shadow of doubt and the Ethiopian government seems to already have come to terms with is the fact that the status quo is simply not working. And internal political reform or policy adjustment – no matter how “deep” – or cabinet / bureaucracy shuffle is not going to cut it. Rather, what’s very much needed is:

a) A fundamental change towards genuine representative democracy. On that note, for instance, it’s long overdue for EPRDF to concede that no single party is entitled to control the House of People’s Representatives as that could be an outcome of a rigged election at worst or a level playing field tilted to favor the ruling party at best.

Thus, EPRDF has to commit to, and make every effort to building a genuine representative democracy. And this starts with forming a truly independent electoral board; providing campaign fund and equitable media access to opposition parties; holding a free and fair election, and being prepared to gracefully accept the people’s verdict.

A political reform of this nature is not only in the best interest of opposition parties and voters, but also the ruling party which doesn’t have to go to a negotiation table as a bee with a damaged wing if things fall apart. But rather as still a strong political player to reckon with, yet ready to give up power if that is in the country’s best interest and happens to be what the people want, which of course should be determined in the next election that is due in two years’ time.

b) Attitudinal change towards opposition parties and leaders has to occur. Painting all political opponents with the same brush of “anti-peace forces, remnants of last regime”, etc. has to stop as it’s clearly a disservice to the country and people. Rather, legally registered opposition parties ought to be viewed as alternative parties with differing political ideology and public policy. And let the electorate decide which party’s platform it favors.

c) Up until recently, the problem with EPRDF was that its politicians appeared to be total party conformists who wouldn’t even address their constituents’ concerns and interests. However, lately, some are going to the opposite extreme of antagonizing their own party. And – as a step in the right direction as this Ethiopian version of glasnost may seem – it wouldn’t be a good idea in the end.

For one thing, it gives the impression that there is a split in the party, which adversaries exaggeratedly try to feast on and manipulate. For another, it will have the domino effect as disparaging one’s party becomes opportunely fashionable, and others follow suit which ultimately could lead to party disintegration, and make governing or orderly transfer of power difficult, if not impossible.

Fact is, even in mature and open parliamentary democracies, there is such a thing called cabinet solidarity and a party line to adhere to with an official whip – whose task is “ensuring party discipline; participation in voting strictly as directed by the leadership and party decisions are carried out” – keeping an eye on parliamentary caucus, for instance.

So, while compromising and consensus building is part and parcel of politics, a party shouldn’t keep feeding carrots to dissenting members. In particular, EPRDF should never appease politicians in its midst that are sabotaging government and endangering citizens’ lives by inflaming ethnic conflict and identity based attacks. In such a case, it’s imperative to use a stick instead, and face the consequences even if that means a ruling party member crossing the floor or (since it’s a one-party parliament) jumping the fence to join the opposition.

d) The other approach EPRDF criticized for is being quick to silence opponents so as to quash a potential uprising. Yet, lately, a government besieged by domestic and international criticism and a seemingly divided leadership has chosen to look the other way when civilians are targeted; citizens lose their lives; public and private properties go up in smoke. Sure enough, this has to stop once and for all if Ethiopia is to continue as a country.

e) The governmental Communication Affairs Office and public media have to be in touch with what citizens expect, which is finding out the truth no matter how unpleasant and painful it may be. In this day and age when millions of people can access social media for news and analysis, it’s not helpful to ignore news events or downplay politically charged incidents as that will only open the door for distorted news to spread like wildfire. For that reason, public funded media have to be on top of their games in disseminating news and information sharing.

The Opposition:

In this case, opposition refers to political party members who genuinely believe their political platform and public policy is superior, hence are convinced that they are better positioned to lead the country than the incumbent. To that end:

1) The ridiculous number of opposition parties in Ethiopia needs to be drastically reduced. After all, there is no that big of a political gap or a variety of ideology (as nearly all claim to subscribe to liberalism and some to social democracy) for parties not to come together. Rather, the problem evidently lies in the fact that everyone wants to be a leader or hold a key role in a given party, while there obviously are no enough positions to go around. So, the alternative becomes opening a new political shop.

This raises the concern, if politicians cannot create harmony and achieve unity while in opposition – where there’s no prestige or perks, at least not as much – how are they going to reach a consensus as government officials wherein so much group and personal interest is at stake?

To that end, the reasoning opposition party members and their supporters often give is that the ruling party is meddling in their internal matters, hence making party unity unattainable. May be so, but parties do all kinds of things to undermine their opponents. Thus, the onus is on each party to keep all internal and external threats at bay and emerge strong, thereby prove to the electorate that it’s up to the job of governing.

2) Opposition parties spend a great deal of time telling citizens on what’s wrong with EPRDF, its policies and practices, but rarely share how they will do things differently. But it’s incumbent on them to come up with a clear party platform in the political and socioeconomic sphere if they are going to be taken seriously as alternative to the ruling party.

3) Opposition politicians running for office tend to sprint either as if every race is a 100-meter run or assume that the final lap for the 10,000-meter run has been rung a lap or a couple of laps earlier. That’s to say, they are always in a rush to get to the finishing line, and it’s about time that they focus on building the capacity to win the race first and foremost.

4) While it’s common for political parties to promote or support a popular and populist agenda, that may not always be the right thing to do or in the best interest of the country. To use a recent incident as case in point, the spread of ethnic hatred and identity based attacks is something all responsible parties should denounce as unacceptable.

Yet, there are some who attempt to give a “root cause” to the xenophobic acts in the hope of scoring brownie points on the ruling party. But this could set a dangerous trend of conveniently tolerating ethnic scapegoating and strife, which will end up taking the country down the drain.


Peace, security and political stability in Ethiopia have always been under threat from within and outside the country. What makes the current situation particularly a grave concern, however, is the fact that the rules of geopolitical engagement have changed drastically. There are no longer two superpowers to pick and choose from; form an alliance with, and rely on for protecting the nation state. Consequently, as the Dergue used to claim, oil rich countries that are “drunk with petro dollar” and see themselves as regional powers are behaving badly like new bullies on the block.

This is not “the Russians are coming …” kind scare tactic, but rather a clear and present danger. To conclude by drawing a recent relevant example, the Arab League is trying to ironically accuse Ethiopia of “water piracy and terrorism”, and the Saudi King went a step further with his threat that “a force is needed to prevent water extortion”. But why this, why now? Besides the fact that Arab nations – which happen to be terrorizing and destroying each other – cannot claim the moral high ground to talk about a harm caused by an outsider, it’s been over six years since the Renaissance Dam was launched. So, it would be plausible to suspect that this is happening now because the Arabs are smelling political strife and ethnic division to take advantage of as they have done in Libya, Yemen and elsewhere.

Sure enough, Ethiopia cannot afford to have another civil war, which will open the door for countries in proxy war export trade to turn the country to a failed state. Thus, every Ethiopian has the duty and responsibility to be vigilant.

United we stand, divided we fall. And a people united will never be defeated, indeed.


Guest Author

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