Striking a Grand Elite Bargain on the Terms of Our Coexistence: The Fierce Urgency of Now

(Abdissa Zerai (PhD)


From ancient philosopher kings, such as the Biblical King Solomon, up to contemporary influential scholars, writers, speakers and activists, a lot has been said about the importance of time and timing. In fact the concept has become ingrained in popular imaginations to the extent that the proverb “a stitch in time saves nine” is now almost a cliché.

Emphasizing the significance of time and timing, the renowned civil rights’ icon, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.once said the following: “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there “is” such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”

It has been a little over two months since a more-than-three years of public protest and outrage, largely spearheaded by the “Qeerroos” (youth) eventually gave birth to Dr. Abiy’s premiership. Dr. Abiy’s meteoric rise to the pinnacle of political power is unique in the EPRDF’s recent memory for a number of reasons. In the parlance of the revolutionary democrats, Dr. Abiy was not remotely considered to be among the Front’s standard bearers.

In the lead up to the EPRDF’s central committee meeting convened to name a successor of former PM Hailemariam, as a critical member of what has now famously been dubbed as “Team Lemma,” his political rhetoric was seen by EPRDF’s core as an outlier and a dangerous departure from their mainstream ideological dogma, resulting in his being labeled as a populist power monger.

In fact, he was seen by EPRDF’s core as the proverbial “prodigal son” unfit for the nation’s highest executive office. On the other hand, Dr. Abiy’s and/or “Team Lemma’s” new political narratives unexpectedly caught fire and resonated with the populace, generating an overwhelming support from a cross-section of society as well as from the most unlikely places, such as individuals, groups and parties – inside and outside the country – that are sharply opposed to the EPRDF. By act of providence or by sheer political genius, or both, he was eventually able to beat the odds and become Ethiopia’s new Prime Minister.

His victory has thrown the EPRDF into the world of the unknown while it has engendered a renewed sense of hope and optimism among the disenfranchised masses as well as cautious optimism among the opposition.

In his short tenure as Prime Minister, he has crisscrossed the country and made numerous mesmerizing speeches, held town hall meetings with a cross-section of society, set thousands of prisoners free, traveled to neighboring countries and negotiated with his counterparts the release of thousands of Ethiopian nationals languishing in their prison cells, held meetings with Ethiopian community members residing in these countries, etc. And as a result, some fellow citizens were even tempted to give him a nickname “The Modern Day Moses of Ethiopia.”

For a relatively obscure revolutionary democrat who has operated under the radar for more than two decades in the EPRDF, by any measure, this is not a small feat. As he basks in the limelight of unprecedented public support for averting (at least temporarily) the impending civil war and our collective march to the abyss, both the regime’s supporters and detractors seem to be equally struggling with respect to what to make of him, as he eludes being an easily identifiable political cookie-cutter.

For many observers, his public persona and his perfunctory pronouncements so far appear to represent the polarities of unity and division (at least within the EPRDF), change and continuity, novelty and familiarity, liberal and revolutionary, pan-Ethiopianist and ethno-nationalist, and the list goes on.

However, whether such fluidity and plasticity is a sign of his repudiation of and departure from Manichaeism, which has for long bedeviled our body politic, and his desire to embrace a new orientation befitting the exigencies of the time – in other words, if it is a ‘come-to-Jesus-moment,’ or something else, is yet to be seen.

While commending the hitherto encouraging achievements of the new administration, there are certain outstanding issues that should be addressed with the sense of urgency in order to avoid the relapse of political chaos (which could potentially be far worse than what we have seen so far) and set the nation’s political trajectory in the right direction.

The positive accomplishments of the new administration we have seen so far are largely episodic that have largely depended on the Prime Minister’s personal gravitas and political brinkmanship, and not institutionally engineered outcomes as such.

However, as our recent political crisis is fundamentally systemic and structural in nature, it cannot effectively be deal without coming up with a new thinking that would serve as a basis for designing and putting in place appropriate institutional mechanisms that could effectively address our enduring socio-political challenges.

Time is of essence and unless the new administration soon turns its focus on structural issues, I am afraid that the reality is going to catch up soon and the honeymoon could be short-lived.

In this piece, I will attempt to outline what is needed to be done and in what order, and point out potential ramifications of not doing so.

Consensus on the Terms of Our Coexistence

From my perspective, the first order of priority the new administration should urgently embark on is the creation of an inclusive platform where a grand elite bargain could be struck among the various elites on the terms of our coexistence as a society.

There is no doubt that ethno-linguistically and culturally diverse society as ours faces serious challenges of peaceful coexistence. When the unflattering historical relations among the constituent groups, poverty and backwardness, and inequality among individuals and groups are added to the mix, the challenge can be overwhelming and daunting.

In such complex environment, the primary duty of politics ought to be the devising of a viable mechanism that can mediate divergent interests in ways that can minimize conflict and promote peaceful coexistence. In modern society, the terms of our coexistence are often codified in a constitution and regulated by the attendant institutions, and ours cannot be an exception.

However, in our case, the challenge is that the constitution is the outcome of an armed struggle rather than the result of a broad-based democratic bargaining. As a result, it has become a point of contention rather than a point of consensus for the last two plus decades.

For ethno-nationalists or self-proclaimed revolutionaries, the constitutional codification of ethnicity as the primary variable for access to power and resources is seen as a panacea, whereas for those in the unity camp or liberals who believe that citizenship ought to be the unit of analysis for regulating access to power and resources, it is the major source of all our ills.

From the perspective of those in the unity camp, although the recognition of the cultures and languages of the various constituent ethnolinguistic groups is a legitimate measure, it should not be used as a basis for structuring the federal system and for regulating access to power and resources, since such a step could result in the institutionalization of discrimination and exclusion. They cite numerous examples where ethnic groups residing in regions other than the regions designated for their own ethnic groups have been evicted and expelled at whim in violation of the citizens’ rights to live in places of their choosing, to own property, and to make a living.

The revolutionaries dismiss such an argument on the grounds that although the constitution stipulates the constituent ethnic group/s that ‘own’ a particular regional state, it also recognizes the rights of other ethnic groups to live, own property, and make a living in such regional states if they so wish, and they attribute the act of such evictions/expulsions to the behaviors of certain parochial members of the constituent group/s and deny that it has anything to do with the federal structure per se.

What is missing in both sides of the argument is a nuanced articulation of the contradictions between ethno-nationalist and liberal conceptions of ownership with particular reference to land, to which I will now turn.

Nationalist conception of land

A political theorist Jacob Levy (2000) contends that contemporary normative theorists of nationalism and ethnicity typically conceptualize nationhood and ethnicity as primarily cultural. That is, they have to do with ways of life, with languages spoken and tales told and values embodied and worth recognized (Levy, 2000, p. 197).

According to Levy (2000), from the perspective of such normative theories, nationhood and ethnicity are not understood as political matters; nor are they thought to concern material goods in any important way.

In contrast to such normative conceptualizations of nationalism and ethnicity, Levy (2000) advances the following argument:

…nationalism and indigenous ethnic politics cannot be well understood without reference to at least one material good: land. Nationalist and indigenous movements conflict… with liberal societies about the control and possession of land but also about its social meaning, the kind of good that it is. Culturalist accounts of ethnicity may be more easily reconcilable with liberalism…; but a liberal political theory which is concerned to mitigate or minimize ethnic conflicts must develop a framework for thinking about disputes over land (Levy, 2000, p. 197).

According to him (2000), many ethnic conflicts, nationalist movements, and claims made by indigenous minorities are centrally about land. This is not to deny that they are also about language, religion, a sense of identity, or a way of life; but they are often about how those things relate to possession of, or power over, particular pieces of land (Levy, 2000, p. 203). Levy (2000) adds that nationalism celebrates a people’s history and culture, but it also celebrates their land. Moreover, it celebrates the link between the two (Levy, 2000, p. 203).

What is more, Levy (2000) further contends that:

Nationalism thinks about…homeland in certain recurrent ways. It elides [ignores] the distinction between sovereignty and ownership; all of the land belongs to this people, from whom it cannot be taken away. Nationalism typically conceptualizes land as place, not property. This piece of land is part of the patrimony of this nation. Perhaps it is of particular historical or religious importance. Perhaps the beauty of this spot is a cause for national pride, or perhaps this kind of terrain is taken to embody something about the nation….Even when the particular piece of land has no such distinctiveness, however, it remains national soil. A people is in some way particularly well-suited to this piece of land. It is where one’s ancestors are buried, an important and recurring image (Levy, 2000, p. 204).

The political movements of ethnic groups and/or indigenous peoples are about land more than any other issue – about the right to prevent or at least benefit from development on their traditional lands, about the restoration of lands from which they have been dispossessed, and about securing against future losses (Levy, 2000, p. 205).

Liberal conception of land

According to Levy (2000):

Liberalism has a very different image of what land is. Land is, in general, fungible [or exchangeable] with other goods. It is alienable- it can be bought, sold, used as collateral for credit, leased, rented, and so on. It is divisible, both in space and in the rights that accrue to it; a plot of land might be divided in half, or its subsurface mineral rights might be owned separately from the surface, and so on. It circulates, as money and other goods circulate; sometimes it is held by one person, sometimes by another. Sometimes it is put to one use, sometimes to another. A piece of land can generally be exchanged for another piece, if not necessarily one of the same size, or exchanged for cash. Moreover, there is no necessary tie between particular persons and particular places….Land, in short, is property, not place (Levy, 2000, p. 206-7).

And such decoupling of people and land makes mobility an unproblematic exercise in liberal societies.

Michael Walzer (1990) has characterized liberal society as importantly marked by four mobilities. These are geographic, social, political, and marital (Walzer, 1990). Of these, two- geographic and social- are closely related to the flexibility of land. The ability to sell the piece of land on which one currently lives and go elsewhere and buy a new one has always been tightly related to geographic mobility in liberal societies. Since by social mobility Walzer means not only changes in income but also changes in the way income is earned from one generation to the next, the fungibility of land with other goods has made a tremendous difference here as well (Levy, 2000, p. 208).

Thus, a free, democratic, commercial society is thought of as more than simply a state that respected rights of various kinds. It is a society of a particular kind, one characterized by mobility, the rise and fall of elites based on achievement, and a certain fluidity (Levy, 2000, p. 209). Thus, the liberal and nationalist/indigenous conceptions of land have conflicted in a number of ways over the years, and as a result, liberals and nationalists often tend to talk past each other on the issue of land (Levy, 2000, p. 210).

It seems that both the Ethiopian constitution and the Ethiopian elites have not yet addressed adequately the tension between these liberal and nationalist conceptions of land. At a theoretical and rhetorical level, for example, both seem to share the view about the free mobility of citizens across regional state lines and decide where they should live, exercise their right to own property, make a living, and etc.

But on the substantive and practical level, this view has often been challenged in a big way, as the continued evictions and expulsions of citizens indicate. These evictions and expulsions of citizens from regional states are carried out on the grounds that they (the victims) do not belong to the titular groups that ostensibly ‘own’ these regional states. How does one explain such a conundrum?

Making sense

As is well-known, the liberal conception of mobility is predicated on a predominantly urban-based industrial society. Such a society is composed of laborers, professionals, business people, industrialists, etc., whose livelihood does not depend on land.

In an environment of competition, they freely move from one place to another in search of a better opportunity. They go wherever life takes them and in their new destination, they can own property, they can rent it, they can buy and sell it, they can pass it onto a third-party, and so on, as long as they have the economic means, Thus, in an urban-based industrial society, citizens and land are significantly decoupled.

On the other hand, in a rural-based agrarian society like ours where more than eighty percept of the population lives in the countryside, the overwhelming majority of citizens’ livelihood depends on land. What defines them is not mobility; it is holding onto their land. For them, mobility is a luxury as they lack requisite skills, training, knowledge, etc., that are marketable.

As a result, many of them often live and die without traveling beyond thirty to forty kilometers radius from their abode. With the ever-increasing population, soil fertility challenge and the conditions of climate change, there is an increasing tendency of jealously guarding the rural land against perceived “encroaches” who happen to be ethnic “Others.”

There is a tendency on the part of many Ethiopian elites and ordinary citizens to attribute such a phenomenon to a single variable, i.e., ethnolinguistic based federal structure. It is true that the existing federal structure might have exacerbated the situation; but reducing it to one-dimensional explanation does not do justice to such a complex phenomenon. In order to substantiate my argument, I would like to demonstrate how mobility-associated problem is different in urban and rural contexts.

Most of the evictions and expulsions carried out in different regional states (unless in an exceptional situation) are, for example, based in rural areas. However, with all its constraints (such as holding a political office), citizens’ mobility in urban areas, i.e., cities across regional states is relatively healthy. In other words, the eviction and expulsion of citizens based on ethnic identity is almost non-existent in cities across the regional states.

Citizens can still own property, engage in business activities, earn wages for their labor, take professional jobs and make a living. Relatively speaking, there is a decoupling of people and land in the urban context. Here, we can see the applicability, albeit with a qualification, of the liberal concept of land and free mobility.

In the rural context, however, the phenomenon appears to be quite different. Here, the liberal view of land and free mobility does not seem to hold ground; instead it is the nationalist view that appears to be having a field day in the rural context.

The takeaway from the preceding discussion is that in order to fully translate the liberal view of land and the attendant free mobility of citizens, we need to bring about industrial transformation and urbanization, and thereby create an urban-industrial society. However, this does not happen overnight regardless of how much we desire it. This means that as we strive to industrialize as speedy as humanly possible, we should recognize that we will still continue to be a largely rural-based agrarian society for sometime to come.

In the meantime, we need to find a way to contain the deleterious effects of the nationalist’s view of land and mobility. The first step to this end is to recognize and appreciate the problem and be willing and prepared to make some concessions or to find a way to somehow accommodate their concerns.

In order to do so, there should be informed and dispassionate appraisal of the challenge that is devoid of bravado and jingoism. With a long-term view and broader national interest in sight, elites drawn from a cross-section of society should enter a grand elite bargain in a give-and-take process creating a win-win situation that would eventually promote a peaceful coexistence as a society.

The grand elite bargain I have talked about so far is only related to the material side of the argument. However, the material side of the argument, though critical, is still incomplete without due regard to the political side of the argument. I have argued somewhere in this piece that citizens’ evictions and expulsions on the grounds of ethnic identity (unless in exceptional situations) is almost non-existent in the urban context across the regional states as opposed to the rural context.

This being the case, however, still the political rights of ethnic “Others” living in cities under the regional states ostensibly “owned” by a designated titular group is highly constrained. In practical terms, although they pay taxes as any other constituent members, often times they are not entitled to hold political office; they can vote but they cannot themselves stand as a candidate for a political position.

Furthermore, citizens with mixed ethnic backgrounds are often left in a-no-man’s land unless they choose one part of themselves. Even when such a choice happens, they suffer discrimination on the grounds that they are not ‘pure’ or ‘authentic’ sons or daughters of ‘the soil.’ Such a situation creates the sense of first class and second class citizens. This kind of bifurcation of citizens into those with full political rights and those with incomplete and partial political rights is indefensible in a democracy.

Thus, this political dimension of citizenship should also to be part and parcel of the envisaged grand elite bargain among the elites. These bargains presuppose the revisiting of the existing constitution in view of making pertinent amendments that might even go as far as making the reorganization of some of the current regional states.

Given the fact that the Prime Minister is from the EPRDF and presides over a divided ruling coalition, facilitating a process for grand elite bargain that would lead to the amendment of the constitution can be a challenging endeavor at best and suicidal at worst. However, since the sociopolitical climate the country is in is not an ordinary one, it requires an extraordinary measure.

With a sufficient dose of concerted and sustained positive pressure from elites and with a commitment to supporting the new administration, the new leadership could be persuaded to come on board. If a genuine democratic transition is to occur, it should be noted that securing such grand elite bargain ought to be a crucial first step.

The current discourse

Currently, there is much talk about widening democratic space, reforming the electoral commission and the judicial system, revising or doing away with various draconian laws (such as antiterrorism law, mass media law, charities & societies law, etc.) that constrain the proper functioning of the political opposition, the media and civil society organizations, etc. There is talk about granting the opposition an unfettered access to their constituents so that they can interact with them and introduce their political programs.

If such reforms are put in place, the argument goes, the next election would be democratic and the outcome of the election would be legitimate. And such legitimacy would be crucial in restoring peace and strengthening democratization.

However, as important as these proposed reforms are, they cannot get us to the ‘promised land’ unless they are preceded by constitutional amendments that take into account the objects of the grand elite bargain I have discussed earlier.

Without fixing such critical structural problems through constitutional amendment and thereby create elite consensus, the election could be democratic but its outcome would be illiberal. What is meant here is that the election process could be democratic but the voting would end up being along ethnic cleavages as the political parties are predominantly ethnic-based.

According to Horowitz (1985),

“…societies that are deeply riven along a preponderant ethnic cleavage…tend to throw up party systems that exacerbate ethnic conflict. By appealing to electorates in ethnic terms, by making ethnic demands on government, and by bolstering the influence of ethnically chauvinist elements within each group, parties that begin by merely mirroring ethnic divisions help to deepen and extend them” (Horowitz, 1985, p. 291).

In such a context, democratic election merely serves as a legitimizing instrument for the institutionalization of societal divisions rather than the mediation of such divisions (I will address in detail the issue of ethnic-based party system and democratic stability in my next piece).

What would happen if Ethiopia enters the next election without striking a grand elite bargain on critical structural issues? In such a scenario, I would argue that the following situations could potentially transpire: state capture or economic nationalism, irredentism, ‘ethnic minorities’ revolt, and theKuomintang phenomenon.’ In the following section, I will briefly discuss each one of them.

Photo - Round table discussion clipart
Photo – Round table discussion clipart

State capture or economic nationalism

As we know, the recent public protest that has rocked the nation and eventually gave birth to the change in premiership was largely spearheaded by the ‘Qeerroos’ precipitated by a real or perceived sense of economic and political marginalization of ethnic Oromos. Team Lemma not only echoed the ‘Qeerroos’’ plight but also rearticulated it as a trans-ethnic plight in the language of ‘Ethiopiawinet.’

The rhetoric of ‘Ethiopiawinet’ resonated well across the ethnic divide, generating an overwhelming public support for Team Lemma. Ironically, an issue that was ostensibly particularistic at the start has later become a universal and unifying issue, saving the OPDO/Team Lemma in the process.

Now with Dr. Abiy as Prime Minister and Lemma as chief administrator of the Oromia regional government, and with their progressive rhetoric that appeals to a cross-section of the society, the Oromos and the rest of ordinary Ethiopians are hoping for the best. The question is ‘how would things be both during and in the aftermath of the upcoming election?’

Since political parties in Ethiopia are predominantly ethnic-based, their electorate is particularistic, and the parties ought to appeal to the interests of their respective constituencies. And the interests of the various ethnic constituencies are not necessarily compatible. It is at this juncture that the discourse of ‘Ethiopiawinet’ would come to be juxtaposed with Oromo nationalism.

As the Oromo parties’ social base is the Oromo constituency, Team Lemma will have difficulty of selling both ‘Ethiopiawinet’ and Oromo nationalism to its Oromo constituency in the midst of Oromo nationalist parties. In order to avoid being rendered irrelevant, Team Lemma would have to tow along the Oromo nationalist line regardless of its desire to amplify ‘Ethiopiawinet’ discourse.

As Horowitz (1985) argues, an ethnic party is identified with the cause of the ethnic group it represents. And what justifies its existence is uniting, fighting for, welding together and working for the protection of the ethnic group on behalf of which it purportedly speaks (Horowitz, 1985, p. 296). Thus, it is my contention that Oromo nationalism will have a field day on the election day.

The Oromo elites see the current moment at the moment of arrival after several decades of political wilderness. They intend to seize the opportunity and cannot afford to squander it. There are already signs that they are coalescing to create a unified front to advance and protect the interests of their ethnic constituency.

As numbers are crucial in electoral democracy, the Oromo elite will have a plurality if not a majority in the Federal parliament and could end up occupying key federal institutions. This will give them an important decision-making power.

Since there is a widely shared sense of historical marginalization among the Oromos, there is no doubt that there will be expectations from the constituency for making up for such historical disadvantages. One way of attempting to fulfill such an expectation is by using state institutions for the express purpose of advancing particularistic interests. In other words, it would be through state capture.

Another way of responding to such an expectation is through the promotion of economic nationalism where the regional government would advance a policy of controlling resources and businesses within its borders by ethnic kinsmen. There is no doubt that both mechanisms will have serious ramifications. But as Horowitz (1985) contends, “…an ethnic party embraces ethnic demands as a matter of course, even when these have far-reaching consequences for other groups” (Horowitz, 1985, p. 296).


Under this heading, I will be using the term ‘irredentism’ loosely. In the sense used here, irredentism refers to the retrieval of ethnic kinsmen and territory. In post-Derg Ethiopia, if there is a group that has felt a collective sense of loss, identity crisis, and victimhood, it is the Amharas.

With the dawn of a new political dispensation in 1991, and the resultant adoption of ethnolinguistic based federal system, the Amharas began to enter the realm of nightmare. For a group that had never seen itself in Ethnic terms and that had never seen itself as having a confined territory, coming to terms with the new reality was not an easy task. Even the government seems to have recognized the complexity of putting the Amharas in one box with an ethnic label when one sees the party (the Amhara National Democratic Movement – ANDM) it came up with for the Amharas, for ANDM is often accused of being constituted by what one would call ‘miscellaneous entities.’ Thanks to the EPRDF, now the Amharas not only have cultivated a collective identity but also have sent in motion Amhara nationalism.

Come the next election, I suspect that the Amhara nationalists will be having a field day. In such a scenario, the Amhara nationalists primary goal would likely be to push for the retrieval or reclaiming of territories they believe have been unfairly incorporated into neighboring states.

What is more, as millions of the Amhara nationals reside in other regional states, the nationalists would take upon themselves the responsibility of protecting their kinsmen by projecting power beyond the territory of their designated regional state. In such a scenario, I fear that we are going to see serious head-on collisions in a not distant future.

Ethnic minorities’ revolt

In this piece, the phase ‘ethnic minorities’ is used to refer to the five regional states which are commonly known as ‘Tadagi Kililoch’ (developing regions/states) administered by ‘allied parties.’

Since 1991, these regional states have systematically been excluded from being a part of the EPRDF structure but have been expected to render unequivocal support to ‘Uncle Sam.’ In other words, they are not of EPRDF but they must be for EPRDF. They are not as such part of the policy making process at the federal level but they have the duty of carrying out the policies enacted by the EPRDF.

Under the guise of helping them stand on their feet, the federally assigned political ‘babysitters’ practically ran the regions behind the scene. The whole situation is reminiscent of what was infamously called the ‘native administration’ instituted by the British in Africa during the colonial era. As these are resource rich regions, they have been used for the purpose of resource extraction as well as for political servitude. After more than two decades of ‘self-administration,’ there is little to celebrate in these regions in terms of developmental gains.

As a result, there is already a simmering anger and resentment among residents of these regional states. If there will be a perceived sense of a continued ethnic domination and a sense of business as usual as far as their inequities are concerned, there is likely going to be revolt, non-cooperation, warlordism, decentralized despotism, a complete breakdown of law and order, and even a threat of invoking (at least rhetorically) article 39 (which provides for ethnic self-determination up to secession), and thereby making the regions ungovernable.

The ‘Kuomintang’ phenomenon

Kuomintang (aka KMT), often translated as the Nationalist Party of China, was founded by Sun-Yat sen and Song Jiaoren in 1912, shortly after Xinhai Revolution 1911, with the express purpose of overthrowing the Qing dynasty and establishing the Republic of China. It remained the ruling party in mainland China until 1949. The guiding ideology of the party was known as the Three Principles of the People: nationalism, democracy and the people’s livelihood, as advocated by Sun Yat-sen (Tan, 2008, p. 8).

As Tan (2008) notes, from the perspective of Sun Yat-Sen, the requirement of the first principle, nationalism, was the unification of all of China under a Nationalist leader and the termination of imperialism in China. The requirement of the second principle–democracy–was one party control by the Kuomintang with some minor party participation tolerated. The requirement of the third principle–the people’s livelihood–was redistribution of land and the reform of tax, rent and loan. The Three Principles were finally adopted as the official philosophy of the Kuomintang in 1924 (Tan, 2008, p. 8).

As a part of fulfilling the first of its three principles, the Kuomintang launched the Northern Expedition, during which it attacked and suppressed the left and Communists in violation of its expressed policy of collaboration with the Chinese Communist Party. Following the Northern Expedition, it decided to reassess the implementation of the party’s Three Principles, most significantly, the implementation of the requirements of the third principle, and made a conscious choice to make the landowner/gentry its power base as opposed to the peasantry; and this was seen by the Communists and the peasantry as a betrayal of the guiding ideology of the party, eroding its legitimacy.

Under the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek, the Kuomintang also made a conscious decision to preserve the traditional Chinese social and economic order and to limit the political revolution. According to Yates (1983), as an imperative of his traditional Chinese philosophy and Confucian values, Chiang placed great value on loyalty. As a result, the hierarchy of the Kuomintang became populated by men of great loyalty rather than men of dedication and competence. The ruling circle was generally military men and the inner circle was members of the Whampoa clique. The Kuomintang by its actions routinely demonstrated that it had a poor grasp of reality (Yates, 1983, p. 38).

After the start of World War II, the wartime conditions magnified the Kuomintang’s weaknesses. During this period, Chaos and negligence were descriptive terms used even by sympathetic observers. Chiang was often under pressure by liberals, intellectuals and allies to reform his government. Although a number of reforms and shake-ups were announced, they only resulted in the shuffling of the inner circle into different jobs.

As the situation in China deteriorated and the Kuomintang became more reactionary, with their Tai Li Blue Shirts stifling dissent and brutalizing intellectuals, they often seemed no better than Nazis. When competent personnel were assigned to important positions, they usually found they did not have authority compatible with responsibility (Yates, 1983, p. 39).

Due to protracted corruption and gross mismanagement at high levels, the Chinese economy receded into a state of hyper-inflation. This devastated the Chinese middle class and resulted in increased corruption on a wider scale. But the Nationalist effort was dealt a decisive blow by the Communists in late 1948 and early 1949 at the battle front. Chiang resigned the presidency after this battle but retained his posi­tions as KMT chairman and commander in chief of the Nationalist armed force.

His successor, Li Tsung-jen (1890-1969), tried to negotiate peace with the Communists. With complete victory in his grasp, Mao refused to negotiate. Chiang now realized that Taiwan was his last hope. In the meantime, he decided to move China’s gold reserve, to transfer the Nationalist troops, and to divert American aid to Taiwan (Yates, 1983, p. 24). After overseeing these transfers, Chiang and his son, Chiang Ching-kuo, flew to Taipei in December 1949, never to set foot on the Chinese mainland again (Myers & Lin, 2007, pp. 2-3).

After its relocation to Taiwan, the KMT reinvented itself by not only building a new party that has endured for five decades, but also by building a new polity on Taiwan that created economic prosperity and China’s first democracy (Myers & Lin, 2007, p. 1).

The connection

When one looks at the KMT’s political history, one cannot afford to not see striking similarities with the TPLF’s political history, specially its post-Derg political history. With all the changes going on both within the EPRDF and the nation as a whole, if the TPLF finds its fortunes diminishing and its control at the federal level waning, there is a likelihood that it may decide to take the Kuomintang’s road by retreating to its base in Tigray with the view to consolidating itself in order to defend its constituency and its interests. However, as to how far it can politically reinvent itself like the Kuomintang and become a success story is difficult to tell at this stage given the odds (geopolitical as well as domestic) stacked against it.


At present, Ethiopia can be likened to an expectant mother who is looking forward to delivering a baby. The woman’s delivery of a healthy baby depends, to a large extend, on the necessary care and attention given to her at this crucial juncture.

Likewise, whether the current ‘political pregnancy’ is going to bear the desired fruit depends on the nature of the measures we take now. It is in this spirit that I was motivated to share my thoughts in this piece. I am neither a prophet nor a fortune-teller but a humble academic and political observer attempting to make sense of my observations. And it is my sincere hope that the arguments I have tried to advance (with all its imperfections) in this piece may catch some fire and motivate intellectuals and elites of goodwill to rise up to the challenges our nation faces today and help steer our political ‘ship’ in the right direction before it is too late.

Finally, I would like to conclude this piece by repeating a part of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s statements I began the piece with: “….This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action,” and let’s recognize the fierce urgency of now and respond accordingly.

May the good Lord help us!



Horowitz, Donald L. (1985). Ethnic Groups in Conflict. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Levy, Jacob T. (2000). The Multiculturalism of Fear. Oxford: The University of Oxford Press.

Myers, Ramon H. & Hsiao-ting Lin (2007). Breaking with the Past: The Kuomintang Central Reform Committee on Taiwan, 1950-52. Stanford, California: Hoover Institution Press

Tan, Netina. (2008). Party Organization, Cohesion and Resilience: Explaining the Rise and Fall of the Kuomintang (KMT) Party in Taiwan.[PDF]. Paper prepared for CPSA Conference, and can be found at:

Walzer, Michael. (1990). The Communitarian Critique of Liberalism, Political Theory 18, 6-23.

Yates, Walter H. (1983). Chiang Kai-Shek, the United States, and the Fall of the Kuomintang Regime. Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania: U.S. Army War College.


* The writer, Abdissa Zerai (PhD), is a visiting faculty member at the University of New Mexico, USA; and former head of the School of Journalism & Communication at Addis Ababa University. He can be reached at [email protected]

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