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Is Ethiopia Unraveling?

Ethiopian protesters running away from tear gas fired by regime forces

Is Ethiopia Unraveling?

By Yohannes Woldemariam | Huffington Post

Reports have been streaming in about high level defections from Ethiopia. There has also been news about the submission of resignation by Mr. Abadula Gemeda , a one time war prisoner in Eritrea, who rose through the ranks to become the speaker in the lower house of the Ethiopian parliament. Mr. Gemeda is an ethnic Oromo (the largest single ethnic group in Ethiopia), and is reportedly outraged with the regime’s handling of the ethnic conflict between the Somali and Oromo regions. There are also reports that he may have been nursing deeper grievances for a longer period. The lack of media freedom in Ethiopia makes it difficult to understand what drove him to this decision. It remains to be seen how this will play out both for his political future and for the country.

Ethiopia is a state with more than eighty ethnic groups reorganized by the TPLF (the Tigray People’s Liberation Front) into nine ethnically based Kilils (regions). The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) is an acronym for four former rebel armies but the military and political core of the EPRDF is dominated by the TPLF. With the passage of time, other groups of the coalition are less docile, which has become worrisome for the TPLF.

The current conflict between the Somali and Oromo regions has become a test for the EPRDF experiment of ethnic federalism. Suspicion that the TPLF favors the Somalis against the Oromo in the current conflict is rampant in social media. Some suggest that the Somali region’s paramilitary force responsible for many of the killings is a TPLF proxy. The reluctance of the TPLF controlled federal army to intervene and pacify the situation fuels these suspicions. The country has also been experiencing other sustained ethnic protests and insurrections raising fears of total anarchy. The much publicized economic growth has done little to narrow down inequality due to the deep culture of corruption and graft in the country.

Mr. Gemeda was loyal to the late Ethiopian Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, who passed away in 2012. His support was especially crucial for Meles during the decisive 2001 power struggle within the TPLF. Mr. Gemeda has also served the TPLF regime as a buffer and in marginalizing perceived and real militant Oromo nationalists, for which he was rewarded with a meteoric rise to power within the EPRDF hierarchy. Gemeda’s current post, as a speaker of the House of Representatives, which is largely a ceremonial post, has however exposed his political paralysis in the face of the regional conflict of the Somali and Oromo regions.

Speculations are rife that this untenable situation may have pushed him to quit his position. It is also possible that he may have sensed a sinking ship in the TPLF led EPRDF that he no longer wants to be identified with. Before serving as the Speaker of the House, he served as the Defense Minister and then as president of the Oromia region. As president of the Oromia region, he cultivated quite a following among the youth which threatened the center. Noticing this, the late Machiavellian Meles Zenawi engineered the high sounding Speaker of the House position for him. His possible rift with the beleaguered and reportedly divided TPLF strongmen indicates a possible unprecedented threat hovering over the stability of the country. It is also possible that he may have simply perceived a political opportunity to enhance his position, in the context of the division among TPLF officials and the sustained political assertiveness in Oromia.

Significant Recent Defections

Mr. Baye Tadesse Teferi, an unknown, was Prime Minister’s Hailemariam Desalegn’s head of protocol until he defected last month after traveling with the PM to New York, as part of the delegation to the 72nd gathering of the United Nations General Assembly. In an interview with the Amharic Service of the Voice of America, Baye claimed that some security officials have tried to associate him with protests in the restive Amhara region due to his Amahra ethnicity. He also claimed that he was experiencing pressure from officials of the regime who wanted to enter the PM’s office, without the knowledge of the PM. If true, this indicates a deep division and distrust within the highest circles of power.

And before the ink was dry on the Baye story, an Ethiopian diaspora media outlet Ethsat reported that Brigadier General Melaku Shiferaw, who served with the military intelligence of the regime’s defense forces as well as a military attache in a number of African countries has also defected.

The General came to the United States last month with a delegation led by Foreign Minister Wokineh Gebeyehu to attend the Global Coalition to [d]efeat ISIS, a coalition of 72 countries for a security partnership spearheaded by the U.S.


To be sure, defections are not new for Ethiopia but in the current fragile context of the country, one might be tempted to say that something unusual is happening. Observers are asking whether these are signs of fissures in the regime’s foundations. Is the end really near? If so, what does that mean for Ethiopia as a country? Defections may vary in terms of motives. It is not always clear, if the reason behind these defections is patriotism or opportunism. All defectors condemn the regime in their statements and give the impression that their defections were motivated by higher purposes of concern for the country.

The withering loyalty of these ex TPLF loyalists may not spell immediate doom for the regime but it is clear loyalty towards the center is declining and cynicism is growing. One is actually not even certain that there is a cohesive center anymore and nobody knows when or if we might see a sudden change.

There are indications that the more hard line and virulent ethno-nationalists within the TPLF such as the current defense minister Samora Younis and the TPLF chairman Abay Woldu, may be gaining ascendancy in the seemingly sinking EPRDF coalition ship. Due to its fanatical structure, the regime is more likely to resort to force even while enduring continuing defections and protests. The TPLF is not vested in the state organs like the parliament, the EPRDF coalition or the so called federal structure. These institutions were deliberately stunted and made to serve as a facade for real power which relies on kinship, patronage politics, the TPLF dominated military, and the security.

The regime’s combative approach in dealing with dissidents and protesters and without adherence to even minimum standards of human rights, is making a bad situation worse. Consequently, this is perpetuating the system of ethnic war that has existed for as long as the country’s historical existence. The German political philosopher, Max Weber, famously defined the state as ‘a human community that claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.’ Ethiopia along with many states in Africa, where intra-state wars are waged to legitimate sectarian claims by warring ethnicities – would not qualify as states in Weber’s definition.

As the challenge grows, one possibility is that the TPLF may close on itself and become even more hardened as it falls back to its political and security core. It is conceivable that the TPLF regime may discard the center and resort to plan B of establishing a separate Republic of Tigray. As a liberation movement, it is well known that the TPLF had entertained this notion.

What To Do?

Ethiopia would be a tough place to govern even for the most talented and well intention-ed daughters and sons of the country. There is really no magic bullet that anyone can prescribe. It is a complex country with over eighty ethnic groups and a hundred million people. But one thing that is needed is internal structural change to save the country from itself. No one ethnic group can or should be able to impose its will on all the others, in a country of such diverse clusters of peoples with separate ethnic, communal, and religious identities.

Ethiopia needs to chart its own future by drawing from diverse patterns of conflict resolution and restoring the centrality of respect for difference, tradition and for the wisdom of elders. The country needs to respect and tap into the elders whose voices have been drowned out by other imposed cultural patterns and loud ethnic entrepreneurs. Perhaps an Elders’ Council modeled on the Indigenous Peoples Council and composed of diverse ethnic representatives, representing all those who have a stake in peace need to be created to conduct dialogue. The UN at its best has nobly cultivated such models of sovereignty and autonomy and has empowered indigenous communities.

Saving Ethiopia is essential for peace in the Horn of Africa in general. To prevent a full blown South Sudan type scenario in Ethiopia, the big powers like the United States and China need to stop meddling and enabling a dictatorial regime. A recent revelation from the Snowden archives and authored by the investigative reporter, Mr. Nick Turse is troubling. Writing for the website

...the National Security Agency forged a relationship with the Ethiopian government that has expanded exponentially over the years. What began as one small facility soon grew into a network of clandestine eavesdropping outposts designed to listen in on the communications of Ethiopians and their neighbors across the Horn of Africa in the name of counterterrorism...

Ethiopian troops need to withdraw from Somalia and South Sudan. A country that doesn’t have peace within itself cannot give peace to others. A failed Ethiopia will not be of any use for China, the United States or any country. The lessons of South Sudan and Somalia in the immediate neighborhood should not be lost. Ethiopian intervention in Somalia has in fact helped the extremist Al-Shabab to thrive.

According to the Somali scholar, Professor Abdi Ismail Samatar:

Some of the toughest challengers of the Ethiopian war machine were segments of the UIC [Union of Islamic Courts] militia known as Al-Shabab. Their valour endeared them to many Somalis and this marked the birth of Al-Shabab as we know it today. Had the international community and particularly the West productively engaged the UIC, I am confident that al-Shabab would have remained an insignificant element of a bigger nationalist movement.

Prior to the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia, there was a grassroots effort led by the UIC, which was showing some promise of building stability in Somalia. The TPLF intervention in Somalia interrupted this delicate process and displaced over a million Somalis, while plunging Somalia into a deeper chronic conflict. Now, this is mutating and spilling over into the Somali region of Ethiopia and Oromia. It is difficult to imagine this scale of conflict occurring without tacit support from the TPLF as part of its divide and rule strategy.

After twenty six years of TPLF rule, Ethiopia is certainly at a crossroads. To continue as a country, a centralized unitary governing system is impractical for multi ethnic societies like Ethiopia; instead, a creative application of some form of genuine federalism mixed with a limited form of centralism may help to turn the tide away from the cycle of violence, deep corruption and possible disintegration. The less centralism the better.

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