May 21, 2013

Which Way Ethiopia: Revolution, Civil War, or National Reconciliation? By Messay Kebede, PhD

Messay Kebede, PhD
Since the death of Prime Minister Meles, the political situation of Ethiopia has entered a phase of uncertainty with no clear momentum toward stabilization. Despite predictions of the imminent collapse of the EPRDF, either under the pressure of a popular uprising or splits within its ranks, the political situation shows no sign of heightened challenge to the regime. In fact, it remains a mystery that no political upheavals of any importance occurred following the death of Meles, who was after all the center and the driving force of the whole system. On the other hand, however, notwithstanding an orderly succession, the uncertainty has not been removed and symptoms of unresolved internal conflicts transpire occasionally. Above all, the extent to which the new prime minister is really in charge being anything but assured, the vacillation of the system lingers, given that the entire government was designed to function under the leadership of a strong and unchallenged prime minister.

One thing is sure: the uncertainty cannot go on indefinitely and nothing can be done to improve the political climate and the economic conditions of the country without some reforms. This is to say that change is inevitable and that it will come sooner or later. The question is: which direction is the change likely to take? For my part, I have no desire to play the game of predictions. Instead, I want to present some possible scenarios and invite political leaders and activists who care about Ethiopia to reflect on them so as to be ready for various eventualities instead of being fixated on the outcome that they long for.

Given the amplifying state of frustration of the county, the only way of avoiding ominous developments is not only that the prime minister really exercises power, but that he uses this power to correct some of the glaring derailments of Meles, especially by easing the repressive policy adopted by him. Meles effected the reversal of democratization because he could count on the complete obedience of the repressive machine of the state. Haile Mariam does not have the same control and cannot have it without further empowering the very men who command the repressive apparatuses. In other words, failure to promote reform is for Haile Mariam to give more power to the TPLF instead of reducing it. By contrast, the political choice of easing repression, better still, of initiating reforms reduces the importance of the repressive forces and creates momentum toward the gathering of the popular support and legitimacy that Haile Mariam needs to prevail over Meles’s old clique.

The dilemma of the prime minister is thus clear enough: in order to assert himself, he has to correct Meles’s policy, but in so doing he runs the risk of antagonizing the TPLF and hence of losing his position altogether. Conversely, if he upholds the policy of his predecessor, he simply feeds on the image of a puppet of the TPLF, which image underlines his irrelevance, thereby instigating his removal. Surely, since the longer the policy of Meles continues, the more repressive the state must become, the TPLF will be better off to do the job on its own than to use the cumbersome mediation of a puppet. The dilemma shows that Haile Mariam’s best bet is to go in the direction of easing repression, which at least promises the prospect of him becoming his own man.

The huge unknown is whether Haile Mariam has the right political ambition to want to stand by himself and the political skill to outmaneuver the TPLF and other challengers. I must admit that I have no a ready answer for this question. I also confess my pessimism, even though I recognize that more time is needed before one makes a final judgment. True, I am encouraged by his open condemnation of the displacement of the Amhara settlers, but remain skeptical because of the lack of any practical follow-up to correct the injustice. Moreover, the appalling dismissal of the appeals of Eskinder Nega, Andualem Arage, and other political prisoners by the higher court did nothing to reduce my skepticism. To sum up my position, in light of the time needed for consolidation, I say that Haile Mariam still deserves the benefit of the doubt even if the performances of his government are not, so far, promising.

In case Haile Mariam remains submerged by the TPLF, the scenario of an increasingly repressive government that could only further aggrieve the Ethiopian masses presents itself. My contention is that unless the TPLF takes the rightful place of being a party among others within the coalition of the EPRDF, it cannot maintain the hegemonic role it has played so far without pushing repression to a point far exceeding that of Meles. By force of habit and because of his political shrewdness, Meles was able to rise as the unquestioned leader of the EPRDF. After successive purges of all those who could threaten him, none among the remaining leaders of the TPLF has the stature or even the capacity to command the same authority. Various competitors both within the TPLF and the EPRDF are likely to emerge with the consequence that only through increased repression can one of them prevail.

Needless to say, the pursuit and continuation of the hegemony of the TPLF can only exasperate popular frustration and multiply opposition. Though arrogance inspires the TPLF to think that repression is enough to protect its supremacy, the history of all countries teaches us that a time comes when people rise and confront what repressive them, regardless of the apparent strength of the repressive state. Ethiopia is not going to be an exception to the rule. Hence, my belief that the continuation of the hegemony of the TPLF will inevitably lead to an uprising. The burning question is: will the uprising take the form of a revolution or of an outright civil war?

All those Ethiopians who still hope that Ethiopia will be galvanized by the Arab spring have in mind an uprising leading to revolution, which would essentially consist in the overthrow of the TPLF state and the dismantling of its repressive apparatuses. This outcome appears even more likely in light of the fact that Ethiopia has already gone through a similar process in 1974. For many activists, revolution is the best prospect for Ethiopia and its people, with the hope that this time the mistakes of the 70s will not be committed and the revolution will establish a democratic state.

Here I hasten to express my reservation, which originates from the simple observation that the situation in 1974 was quite different from what Ethiopia is facing today. Indeed, if a reference to the Arab spring is of some use, I will say that what lies ahead is a development that is similar neither to Egypt nor Tunisia. The model we should refer to is that of Libya or, even more correctly, that of Syria. In other words, the likely outcome of a total uprising in Ethiopia is civil war rather than revolution.

What this means is that conflicts and violent clashes will develop, not between a dictatorial state and everybody else, but between a majority and a dictatorial state identifying with the interests of a minority ethnic group. For one of the detrimental results of the ethnicization of the Ethiopian society and the creation of ethnic regions is the clear divide between ethnic groups and the subsequent subsumption of these groups to the privileges and special treatments of local elites. In a situation of wide uprising, the point is easily reached when it becomes difficult to distinguish between the elites and the ethnic groups, which is then a recipe for ethnic confrontations, that is, for civil war.

Though I never endorse the idea that similar conditions entail similar historical outcomes, it would be foolish to think that regularities in history do not operate in some degree. Among the Arab countries that went through a political turmoil, Syria is the one that comes close to the situation of Ethiopia under the TPLF. The bloody conflict in Syria is between the Alawi minority, which controls economic and military apparatuses, and a frustrated majority that is politically and economically marginalized by a dictatorial state serving the interests of the minority. The uprising against Assad and the state failed to be revolution and turned into a civil war because of the fear of the minority that the overthrow of Assad will mean the loss of its political and economic upper hand, not to mention the fear of physical victimization. Even if many in the minority resent the dictatorial rule of Assad, they prefer to stick with him to avoid the likelihood of revengeful treatments.

No one can honestly say that Ethiopia under the TPLF does not show a deepening rift between the majority and the minority ethnic group allegedly represented by the existing regime. Doubtless, some supporters of the regime will argue that the EPRDF is a coalition of different ethnic groups so that Ethiopia is not under a minority rule. But the image of the EPRDF as a coalition of equals fools no one anymore and members of the EPRDF know perfectly well that they are clients of the TPLF, not to say hired mercenaries. The TPLF federation is a smoke screen: not only the major economic assets and the governments of ethnic regions are controlled by the TPLF, but most importantly, the repressive apparatuses, including the higher echelons of the army, are entirely dominated by officers of Tigrean origin.

One condition for a popular uprising to avoid a descent into a civil war is when the army is either paralyzed by divisions or stays neutral. This precipitates the fall of the regime and hence precludes the transformation of revolution into civil war. This was clearly the case in Egypt and Tunisia. But when the army supports the regime against the people in order to perpetuate ethnic domination, the fight is prolonged with the risk of turning into a civil war. In the case of Ethiopia, to maintain that the army will remain neutral if an uprising occurs is little credible. In the 1974 revolution, the regime was overthrown easily because the army did not support it. It was a multiethnic army and as such was not committed to the defense of any particular ethnic group. What Ethiopia has now is not so much a national as an ethnic army, which is then most likely to defend the ruling ethnic elite, thereby pushing the uprising toward a civil war.

While agreeing that the worst outcome would be the beginning of a civil war, most Ethiopians comfort themselves by believing that it is very unlikely. But who said that the worst scenario is unlikely to happen? Accordingly, what we need is realism, that is, a clear and unbiased assessment of the situation so that we can work toward making the worst scenario improbable. Stated otherwise, we should develop a policy of prevention, which is none other than the framing of a government of national reconciliation. Such a government requires crucial concessions from those who control power as well as from those who oppose them. When a country is beset with political problems that are deep and potentially liable to degenerate into armed confrontations, the solution cannot come from the organization of democratic elections. The latter require some degree of consensus and a minimum of impartial arbitration that are inexistent in ethnically polarized countries.

As shown by elections since 2005, the minimum conditions for a democratically elected government do not exist in Ethiopia and are not likely to appear any time soon. The ruling party will do everything to win, including the use of violence and fraudulent manipulations of votes; the opposition will continue to complain without any notable change. Let us admit it, in countries deeply polarized by ethnic or religious issues, where therefore the rule of the minority abiding by the verdict of the majority is not recognized, elections are just powerless to bring about political change.

This does not mean that democratic elections should be abandoned altogether. It simply means that a transitional period, during which mutual confidence, consensus, and healing can be worked out, is necessary. The purpose of a government of national reconciliation is to create the conditions for the establishment of a political system emanating from democratic elections. As a precondition for democracy, such a government is not itself ruled by democratic principles. Rather, its ruling principle is pragmatism: it takes measures from the sole perspective of reconstructing national harmony and consensus, without being disturbed by questions of principles and morality. Its main goal is the provision of incentives for political opponents to come together and establish consensus on some basic issues.

Such reconciliation is based on the premise that a civil war would benefit nobody. From this shared agreement follows the need to take decisive actions to avoid what everybody wants to avoid, the whole purpose being to reach a working mechanism assuring a win-win solution for everybody. Concessions from all competing parties are the ingredients driving the whole process. As such, the process abhors extremisms of all kinds so as to bring about the rule of moderation. Just as the ruling party agrees to share power with the opponents, so too the opponents give up all political vendetta and victimization. This is an important provision: since what prevents members of the ruling party from playing by the rule of democracy is the fear of reprisal against their person and their economic assets, offering an amnesty and a guarantee against economic dispossession is alone liable to institute confidence and reciprocity. For those who argue, in the name of justice, that crimes must be exposed and punished, my answer is that forgiveness and amnesty are morally justified if they allow us to reach the greater good of reconciliation, national unity, and peace.

Some such process of transition could be undertaken under the leadership of Prime Minister Haile Mariam. His weak political position, combined with the lack of extremism and the fact that he represents a minority ethnic group that can serve as a buffer between larger competing groups, gives him a strategic political role. It is to this go-between role that he owes his position as prime minister. To complete his mediating role, which is then his calling, he must now call upon the opposition and place himself between the EPRDF and the opposition and promote the idea of a government of national reconciliation. In so doing, he turns his strategic importance into the legitimacy of a nation-builder.

May wisdom fall on all Ethiopians!


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