The Implications of High Level Defections from the Ethiopian Air Force
By Sokore Waqo | Janurary 4, 2015
The recent defection of Ethiopian Air Force crew with MI-35 helicopter has sent shockwaves to the corridors of power in Addis Ababa. The ruling elites are increasingly displaying pugnacious behavior. They lashed out at the pilot, labeling him a “traitor”. And they lambasted Ethiopia’s enemies (which the Defense Ministry statement referred to as Shabiya’s agents and mercenaries) for conspiring to destabilize the country and presumably being involved in the defection covertly. Adding to the setback TPLF had already suffered, unconfirmed reports on another round of defection of four pilots from the Ethiopian Air Force to neighboring Kenya were circulating in the last few days. It is believed that similar waves of defections are even more rampant in the Army. In fact, these waves of defections are telling signs that TPLF’s reliance on coercive institutions to continue its grip on power is reaching its limits. Professor Messay Kebede, a notable scholar and commentator on Ethiopian politics, had written a compelling prognosis few weeks ago explaining this “slippery ground of TPLF’s power strategy”. Thus, the essence of Messay’s prognosis is that with increasing reliance on coercion as a power strategy, TPLF only hastens its inevitable fall from power for this could possibly trigger resistance against the regime both from within the government and from the resentful members of the public.
In my view, there are chiefly three frontiers that explain TPLF’s ability to hold on state power virtually alone since May 1991. These are tight control over coercive state institutions, trading on democracy building and lately claiming to advance economic development under the rubric of a “developmental state”.
Command and control of coercive state institutions as a solid power strategy
The first has always been the major and most effective weapon in TPLF’s power strategy. It seems to me that TPLF leaders have always been very transparent about their reliance on coercion as a method of statecraft or governance. To be sure, in TPLF’s loose political coalition – so-called EPRDF – political weight is a function of the havoc one had wreaked during the insurgency years with the Dergue regime rather than a function of building constituencies that could win an election. Consequently, key positions in coercive state institutions and public resources were selectively handed to TPLF core members who are believed to have paid more “sacrifice” in blood and sweat in removing the Dergue dictatorship. So to speak, all the Rawlsian primary goods – liberties, opportunities and income and wealth – are unfairly distributed to the high ranking officers in the coercive state institutions. Thus, the military or other security organs of the state are the entry points for those who intend to become career politicians or wealthy business men. Indeed, the military profession as an entry point to politics and business has always been the legacy in historic Ethiopia except that TPLF intensified this practice with an ethnic twist.
The fault lines of reliance on command and control of coercive institutions
The strategy of populating senior positions in coercive state institutions with loyal cadres from the insurgency years might have been effective so far in serving TPLF’s political ambitions. But there are growing signs of its fault lines recently. The supposedly loyal members of the coercive state institutions, specifically the middle and low ranking officers, are increasingly dissatisfied with the soaring cost of living and maladministration in their institutions in particular, and worsening political and economic conditions in the country in general. For this reason, some of them are electing to defect risking their lives. A case in point is the crew of the MI-35 helicopter who defected to Eritrea last week. Members of the crew were from different ethnic backgrounds, including from Tigray. To the dismay of TPLF leaders, the crew members put aside their ethnic differences and acted in unison to land the helicopter in Eritrea. Now loyalty based on primordial relationship is being put under severe test. This is really what enraged the TPLF leaders than loss of the MI-35 gunship to their arch-rival regime in Asmara because TPLF benefits from fomenting ethnic tensions and creating animosity among the staff in the security institutions. Hereafter, who is going to be a trusted functionary of TPLF to the last minute even from the staff in the security institutions? Now, therefore, TPLF leaders cannot be sure enough if the officers they have assigned in coercive state institutions would stand with them when the political storm of the oppressed Ethiopians surface violently.
A lesson or two for the junior partners of TPLF and the opposition
There is a lesson to be learnt by the junior partners of TPLF’s government in particular and the opposition in general. For the junior partners, they have a clear opportunity presenting itself to them. That TPLF’s last frontier to continue exercising grip on power – the skewed arrangement of balance of power in the coercive state institutions – is on a downward spiral. If the junior partners can seize the momentum, there is likelihood to cut back TPLF’s dominance in the coercive state institutions thereby facilitating the conditions for “equal partnership” in the loose coalition I have passingly mentioned above.
Again, for the junior partners, seizing the momentum is now or never for two reasons. First, if the junior partners fail to sense this opportunity, TPLF core leaders will get time to regroup like wolves and redesign a framework for perpetual subduing of the junior partners. Second, with the increasing use of naked power to silence regime opponents and growing dissatisfaction of Ethiopians due to the prevalent chronic political and economic problems in the country, TPLF may trigger a widespread political storm that could hasten its fall from grace. With the demise of TPLF, undoubtedly the junior partners would also be swept under the rug.
For the garden-variety regime opponents, it is time to stop wholesale assignment of blame on the Tigreans for the ills created by the TPLF regime on the unfounded ground that TPLF’s social/political base is Tigray. TPLF is an organization that plies its trade through coercion; it is reluctant to build constituencies and base its political survival on adequate representation of the interests of its constituents. For this reason alone, it is not fair to assume that TPLF has the political support of all Tigreans. Besides, at a time when the members of the coercive state institutions are defecting in opposition to regime’s rogue actions from all ethnic backgrounds, it doesn’t make any sense at all to single out those from Tigray. When opportunities avail themselves they are equally resistant to TPLF’s authoritarian rule. To be specific, Abreha Desta’s courageous struggle against TPLF tyranny, despite many odds and his suffering at the Maikelawi prison, is a testament to this very assertion. After all, on what moral/political ground can we reproach the Tigreans while the so-called silent majority in the rest of the country has apparently acquiesced to the authoritarian rule of TPLF?
The faltering of democracy building as a legitimation strategy
The second ground of legitimation for TPLF’s government – democracy building – has already faltered. TPLF enacted a constitution in 1995, established a “Federal Democratic Republic”, incorporated all kinds of individual rights and freedoms as well as collective rights into the constitution, stipulated that sovereignty lies not in the government but the Ethiopian people hinting that government is based on the consent of the people, etc.
In its practice in the last twenty years, however, TPLF adequately demonstrated that it has no intention to abide by the rules and standards stipulated in its own constitution. The sovereignty of Ethiopian people has been denied as TPLF refused to sanction free and fair elections. The second republic, that was presumed to be federal and based on the self-government of the diverse ethno-cultural communities, did not come close to a true “Federal Democratic Republic” since TPLF was determined to exercise totalitarian power over the whole country as a matter of fact. The much-admired individual and collective rights stipulated in the constitution remained hollow promises for they were reluctantly breached rather than being observed for political expediency. Institutions that were established by the constitution, to serve as custodians of these rights and put a limit on governmental overreach, were either structurally flawed from the beginning or starved of revenue and competent personnel. The regular courts (at federal and regions) lack institutional independence from the state and party structure of TPLF, and cannot, therefore, be relied on by citizens as the last bulwark for ensuring their rights. The Ombudsman and the Human Rights Commission are run not by independents but apologists of the TPLF regime. The House of Federation, which is established to protect the fundamental rights of citizens and curb unconstitutional excesses of power by the government through constitutional interpretation, lacks the essential characters of a constitutional court, and therefore, practically unable to carry out its functions. As a result of all these anomalies, democracy building under TPLF has lost any credibility.
Why developmental state is not the answer for TPLF’s legitimacy crisis
The third ground on which TPLF claims to have legitimacy to rule has to do with economic development. TPLF emphatically claims that it has the recipe for Ethiopia’s rapid and sustainable economic development far better than neo-liberal economic policies advanced by the opposition due to suitability and relevance of its “developmental state” policy to Ethiopia’s peculiar economic problems. Accordingly, it has issued reports of progress claiming Ethiopia’s economy has grown by 11% in the last decade as a result of implementing the policies of a “developmental state” where the state plays a pivotal role in the economy. However, there are many reasons not to trust such an extremely exaggerated claim by TPLF and its external allies. First and foremost, the benefits of the said rapid economic growth have not meaningfully trickled down to the majority of the Ethiopian citizens so far. Second, youth unemployment is still rampant. Third, food insecurity is still a permanent feature of the Ethiopian agrarian economy. Fourth, income and wealth inequality, which was reversed by the Dergue regime’s sweeping measures of ‘land to the tiller’ in the rural areas and redistribution of urban land and extra houses, is roaring back as a fundamental feature of Ethiopia’s political economy. Fifth, rampant corruption and embezzlement of public funds due to nonexistence of oversight mechanisms and institutions is facilitating capital flight in billions of dollars from Ethiopia annually. Finally, TPLF government institutions lack technocratic elites and efficient bureaucracy which are vital for successfully carrying out the mega development projects sponsored by a developmental state.
Allow me to allude to a side issue to explain my last point by taking one recent example – the Interview. I am not talking about the film by Sony Pictures allegedly hacked by North Koreans. I am referring to the interview an Egyptian television station (Nile TV International) recently conducted with the Ethiopian Speaker of the Parliament. It is not my intention to go through all the content of the interview. My intention is to only raise two points that were striking to me and illustrative of the ineptness of TPLF government functionaries. One has to do with Speaker Aba Dula’s choice of words to describe the relationship between Egypt and Ethiopia since ancient times. He said, “the Fer’on pyramid was Aksumite kingdom”. This assertion is “nonsense upon stilts” to borrow a famous phrase used by Jeremy Bentham (leading British philosopher and jurist of the early 19th century) in his critique of natural rights. If the Speaker meant the Egyptian pyramids were built by the Aksumite kingdom, this is not going to sink well with the Egyptians who are very proud of their ancient civilization. This is not going to be a “public diplomacy” envisaged by TPLF either, but an insult to the intelligence of the Egyptian people.
The second has to do with the apology issued by the Speaker to the Egyptian media for the coincidence of the Egyptian revolution and the initiation of the Grand Renaissance Dam on the Nile. If you claim the case to be a happenstance by coincidence, there is no logic necessitating apology. But if the apology is one for starting the very construction of the dam, then the Speaker is explaining the latest position of the Ethiopian government (as a high ranking official) on the controversy over the construction of the dam. Otherwise, the Ethiopian government must take further measures showing the Speaker’s comments do not represent the position of the government on the matter. Hence, one of the measures could be impeaching the Speaker for incompetence.
Inept officials are inimical to developmental state policy
Imagine now how inept officials like the Speaker (I suspect the Speaker is not alone in the wilderness of inertness in TPLF’s government) could be antithetical to the creeds of a developmental state – efficiency, effectiveness, technocracy, competitiveness, prudence and decisiveness. Filling the government with such inert people turns the claimed “developmental state” into anti-developmental primitive political entity. I believe TPLF is deliberately doing this for political reasons (to maintain its supremacy in the EPRDF) although assignment of officials based on loyalty rather than competence could hurt its professed economic policies of a “developmental state”. One may ask whether this is a good trade off. This being as it may, Aba Dula’s recent interview with an Egyptian media gave us an opportunity to see the contradiction between wanting loyalty in the political sphere and desiring competence in the economic sphere. Now let’s contrast the leadership qualities of Ras Gobena and Aba Dula vis-à-vis both of whom critique is often hurled for lack of agency, political vision, and by extension, incompetence.
Ras Gobena versus Aba Dula
Without denying the controversial legacy of Ras Gobena, it is fair to say that he relatively excels Speaker Aba Dula in many aspects including courage, diplomatic skills and characters of a competent statesman. Nonetheless, it is not uncommon to hear a charge pressed against Ras Gobena for his decisions and actions during the early expansion and consolidation of the modern Ethiopian state: that he had no wisdom to have his own political ambition – of founding the modern Ethiopian state as a co-equal with Menelik – but a mere vassal of the latter. Despite such criticism marshalled against Gobena by some ethno-liberationists and their disciples, some historical records reveal that Gobena was the most capable war general of his generation. For instance, Gobena was able to subdue the resistance in Gurage region after Menelik lost at a battlefield with Chaha tribe of the Gurage in October 1876 (see Bahru Zewde, The Aymallal Gurage in the Nineteenth Century: A Political History in SOCIETY & STATE IN ETHIOPIAN HISTORY: SELECTED ESSAYS, (2012) p.67). According to Bahru, Menelik “was defeated and a large number of Amhara captives were sold to Wallayta by the victors. Only one-third of Menilek’s men returned safely. Among those killed in the battle was Alaqa Zanab, author of the first chronicle of Emperor Tewodros”
In contrast, Gobena led a successful expedition against Qabena and Walane tribes of the Gurage region in July 1880 and quelled their rebellion. A noteworthy point here is that Menelik was advised by Gobena to pull back his forces after he had crossed the Awash River to confront the said Gurage tribes because Gobena didn’t want his partner to lose another battle in the region and anticipated what another loss would mean for their bigger political project at hand. Again, in the same Gurage region, Gobena defeated Hassan Enjamo, who was able to mobilize Gurages and other Muslims against the Shewan forces, in 1889 killing more than 3,000 of their men while losing his son (Merid) and 29 fighters. It can be safely said that Gobena’s capacity at organizing and leading war campaigns as well as his diplomatic skills in negotiating peaceful settlement with regional powers to bring their territories under the suzerainty of the emerging modern Ethiopian state at the time was unparalleled. Hence, Gobena’s hand in bringing the western territories from Wollega to Jimma and Beni Shangul to Gambella is reminiscent of a competent statesmanship.
However, the new Gobena of TPLF, the honorable Speaker of the Ethiopian Parliament, (if the criticism against Ras Gobena for vassalage holds) has shown no wherewithal of a statesman in his interview with the Egyptian media. He can only function as a statesman under the tutelage of TPLF in TPLF’s political empire. Well, Aba Dula’s pedigree also includes that of a war general like Ras Gobena, but TPLF has not been generous enough so far in publicizing his battlefield achievements. Until the shenanigan empire of TPLF discloses the former general’s military achievements, we are entitled to believe that Gobena excels as a warrior based on available historical records. Surprisingly enough, as one can glean from his online biography, the educational credentials he earned from China, the United States and the United Kingdom were not adequate to lift his veil of ignorance. In my view, the two Gobenas are incomparable: the earlier Gobena – a true statesman who cofounded modern Ethiopia with Menelik; the new Gobena – a remarkably inept messenger of TPLF. It is my contention that TPLF might have encouraged the Speaker to do the interview in English, a language, they know, he doesn’t have good command of, to expose his ineptness and to send a chilling message to his OPDO colleagues that the top position in Arat Kilo is beyond their reach because one of their own failed to effectively represent the government in external relations when given the opportunity. Now, we can connect the dots and surmise why Juneidi Saddo, another TPLF protégé, was discharged dishonorably from the government in November 2012. At least, he could have given a decent interview in English to an international media or effectively represent the government on international platforms thereby raising the hopes of rank and file OPDO members to start thinking one of their own could possibly take the chief executive position in the government or wreak havoc till their aspiration in this regard is given a serious consideration. Thus, it seems to me that TPLF got rid of him to nip in the bud any potent internal power struggle.
Having said all that about the ineptness of TPLF government officials and having discussed the reasons for which reliance on coercion or building a developmental state may no longer be effective power strategies for TPLF, I would like to wind my opinion of part I of this write-up by posing the following questions to be examined in detail in part II. What should be prioritized in our thoughts in the new year of 2015 to unshackle ourselves from the yoke of TPLF’s tyranny? Unless we are clear headed about what we want, what our priorities should be, how to bring together various groups with differing political interests to deal with the grave political and economic problems brought upon the Ethiopian people by the authoritarian rule of TPLF, the prospect of bringing real democracy and meaningful economic progress for all Ethiopians would be a daunting and far-fetched project.
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