The history of this country is one of eternal recurrence. The ‘national question” re-emerges where it has always been, with varying degrees of visibility: at the heart of Ethiopian political life.
Ethiopia’s TPLF ruling party celebrates 40th anniversary, February, 2015. Demotix/ Gwendolyn Meyer. All rights reserved.The so called “dominante party” steamroller has flattened everything in its way. The opposition held one seat in the outgoing parliament. It will not hold a single one in the parliament elected on May 24, 2015. And of the 1,987 seats in the regional parliaments, only threewill have escaped the ruling party. In the light of these figures, the multi-party state that the regime claims to have established remains a distant mirage.
The first factor in this sweeping triumph is the first-past-the-post electoral system. Under a proportional system, with 9% of the votes, the opposition could have counted on some fifty MPs.
Vigorous economic growth also played a hefty role. Even if the official figures are exaggerated, annual growth has probably been running at around 6% to 7% for the last decade. The infrastructure boom is astonishing, as is the proliferation of schools and health centres, the widening of access to drinking water and, more generally, a net reduction in the percentage of people in poverty, although the number of those below the national poverty line remains stable, currently at around one quarter of the population.
Now with more than 7 million members, one in five Ethiopians aged between 20 and 65 is a member of the EPRDF. The so-called “one to five” system was created to build a “development army”. The idea is that each “model farmer” – obviously a party member – should bring five peasant neighbours in his wake. However, this “army” has also become a multi-tentacled tool to enlist and to control the whole population.
Finally, the opposition is virtually non-existent. The National Electoral Board, making sovereign decisions based on murky criteria, inter alia, about the eligibility of candidates, contributed to this, and even more so an increasingly constricted political sphere. However, the opposition is also a victim of its own divisions and the inconsistency of its programmes. This weakness arises, amongst other things, from the extreme difficulty of building a political force with the goal of acceding to power not through the gun but through the ballot box, when there is no evidence that the ruling power would accept the result, and in a country where power has historically always been acquired by force.
In consequence, these elections were – as expected – no more than a ritual performance and, as such, failed to play one of their essential roles: to bring to the fore during the campaign – explicitly and clearly – problems that have been becoming ever more acute, in particular since the death of the omnipotent Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in 2012.
In the absence of a real opposition and a vigorous civil society, they can only be tackled within thede facto single party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). The question is, does it want to and is it able to tackle them? Time presses. Each of the party’s four components – Tigrean People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), Amhara National Democratic Mouvement (ANDM), Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation (OPDO), Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SPDM) – will be holding their congresses in August, the EPRDF as a whole in September.
Sebhat Nega, patriarch of the TPLF since its foundation, no longer holds any official position within the Front. In reality, he continues to play a decisive role, along with a handful of former senior figures from the “old guard”. In spring of last year, after a trial of strength with the Front’s current leadership, which has changed since 2010, following a rejuvenation campaign decided by and begun under Meles Zenawi, this group was the first to sound the alarm after visiting Tigray to hear what the people had to say. With a frankness that he is one of the few to allow himself to express, he delivers his assessment: “the people is not satisfied, it has a lot of grievances.” Sebhat begins by identifying three: “corruption, bad governance and lack of accountability.” These may be the headline criticisms, but the censure goes much further.
The developmental state
Petty corruption has become systemic. It is standard practice amongst local authorities and officials – almost all party members – and arouses powerful resentments. Inflation also weighs heavily, quantitatively affecting farmers more than the urban populations, since more than half of the former are net purchasers of food, unable to produce enough for their needs. “Inflation is worse than prison”, is a common refrain. True, it has fallen, but prices have nonetheless doubled over the last four years. In any case, it is probably not the countryside that is likely to be the arena for inflation-fuelled “food riots”, given the ascendancy of the new class of “rich” peasants, many of whom are now supporting the regime.
In the cities, on the other hand, the possibility of such riots is one of the regime’s obsessive fears, especially with the explosion in youth unemployment, even amongst recent graduates. Recently, it has taken on a particularly tragic form: the clandestine migration of tens of thousands of boat people via the Mediterranean, but also – with much less media coverage – via the Red Sea to the Arabian Peninsula.
This exodus raises a crucial question: nobody in the leading circles disputes that the “developmental state” should remain in charge of key sectors and rigorous economic planning. However, funding is becoming more and more problematic. Loan repayments, in particular to private banks, will soon start to become a burden. The deficit in the trade and services balance accounts for almost a fifth of GDP, external debt – though still moderate – has risen to almost half of GDP. The estimates for future growth are expected to diminish.
The early outlines of the next five-year Growth and Transformation Plan suggest a more “liberal” economic strategy. The idea is that the private sector, largely from abroad, will set up “sweatshops”, bringing local investors in its wake and thereby absorbing mass unemployment. However, this assumes that foreign capital will flood in, and even more that local capital will follow: this is the only way to generate a dense network of small and medium-sized enterprises, the main potential source of jobs.
However, domestic capital continues to neglect industry in favour of services, where risks are lower and profits higher. The real challenge, therefore, is to find a good balance between continuing necessary public intervention and increasing the entrepreneurial autonomy essential to a market economy. This is a vital issue for the ruling party: the main credit to the regime is coming from the high levels of growth. “As long as the state will deliver, its legitimacy will be kept”, is the refrain that emanates from the business community and experts in international institutions.
In a 180° turnaround from its previous laudatory positions, The Economistconcluded a highly critical article as follows: “Endless red tape and restrictions on finance deter investors… Only further reforms can sustain the goals of economic growth and political stability… (But) Ethiopia is stuck.”
Reform versus deadlock: that is the heart of the economic problem. First in the dock is the EPRDF. It has turned the entire state and its components into a satellite. Front and state have merged. Civil servants who are not party members are few and far between. As a result, the agenda of the Front and its hierarchy takes precedence over that of the state, party obedience hinders the free exercise of professional competence. The complaints about this issue are constant. Yet the smarter public management required by a more advanced economy demands that administrative managers should have freedom in their analyses and proposals. In the private sector, the obligation to meet the growing demands of the party, which include “voluntary contributions” andbaksheesh, are less and less tolerated. While the multinationals have access to the topmost political echelons, small entrepreneurs are in the hands of small-time local operators. Finally, there is the weight of history: centuries of authoritarianism, an implacable sense of hierarchy, a ruling power that has always been the fulcrum of the economy, government membership or high connections that have always offered the opportunity for lucrative rewards. In short, the legacy of a “mediaeval culture”, as the historian Haggai Erlich calls it.
Reform is on the TPLF agenda, but with no direct priority in the economic sphere. “There is a gap between the demand of the people and the supply brought by the Party, the government, and all of their services”, asserts Sebhat Nega. Indeed, “the Front is staggering… Its political soul is not lost, but it is at least too weak”. “Massification” – the transition in party membership from 400,000 to 7 million in ten years – has taken place in the absence of “a very disciplinary political education”, as was the rule during the armed struggle: it has thrown open the doors to “power mongers and rent seekers”, the expression used for those who take venal advantage of their position.
The TPLF has become a “machinery which has lost its capacity of producing people who are qualified, competent and committed to the cause of the people”. And this machinery is also – at least partially – pursuing its own course: “it is not deeply organized so it doesn’t fully control its people, it isn’t strictly followed.” Consequence: “the Front must be revived and purified.” It needs to be repoliticised in order to recapture the militant purity of the glorious era of armed struggle. Sebhat Nega calls for a second campaign of “renewal” (“Tehadso”), lasting “three or four years”. According to him, the first “renewal” focused on the political line after the 2001 TPLF’s internal crisis, with the elimination of key figures from its leadership, followed by the purge of thousands of mid-level cadres. The second would concern only people and organization. To make an ecclesiastical parallel: the dogma is irreproachable, the rules impeccable, but there are too many lost sheep…
The first goal is for the Front once again “to internalize the problems, their causes and the issues”. So everyone must be “free to speak his mind without any fear” at all levels, not only internal but also external: “zero defence between the party and the people.” This freedom must also apply in the famous sessions of gimgema (criticism and self-criticism), one of the Front’s political and functional keystones. They have drifted, and need to recapture their original purity, which includes opening them up without fear or taboo to the people, before whom local officials will need to account for their actions.
But nobody, even the Front’s most “reformist” members, is calling for this process of democratisation to challenge the party’s “democratic centralism”. Open debate about everything, fine, but the decision-making process must remain the prerogative of the leadership, which can then draw on all the discussion in reaching its conclusions.
Meles Zenawi’s legacy
Should this democratisation be extended – even timidly – to civil society? For Sebhat, the Front needs first to be successfully updated in order to deprive the present “destructive opposition” – as it is commonly called – of its critiques when they are justified, and thereby make room for the emergence of a “loyal opposition”. However, others go further. If they are not given some elbow room, opponents will only be tempted by armed extremism, religious or ethnic, or seek to encourage popular uprisings, thereby compromising the country’s long-term stability. An external stimulus is needed to prevent the EPRDF stagnating again. 
The second objective is to purge the Front of its “rent seekers” and “power mongers”, at all levels. “The party machinery has to be rebuilt”, explains Sebhat Nega, “but through a political process, not an administrative one.” To achieve this, he simply points to the upcoming congresses, where the “agendas should circulate at the grassroots level”. Then the central committee and finally the executive council will need to “assign people with clear duties” and impose “responsibility and accountability, at all levels, from the bottom to the top”. But young and devoted members of the Front are more explicit: the purge must include members of the current leadership. Their view is that these leaders have completely failed, that their eradication is a necessary condition if the Front is to recover its popularity.
Few, however, are bold enough to break a near taboo: questioning the dark side of Meles Zenawi’s legacy. It is after the 2001 crisis that the Front gradually mutated into a “machinery”. Meles held it in an iron grip. Meles and Meles alone devised and relentlessly imposed what became the country’s intellectual orthodoxy, preventing the emergence of any independent thinking. He transformed the Front into a multi-tentacled channel for the communication of orders from above – penetrating the remotest hamlet – and into an organ of control of the population. Some of his most ardent admirers go so far as to concede that he appointed too many “yes-men” to key positions. In return for blind discipline and total commitment, its members progressively came to see the party as an escalator to greater powers and material benefits, by legal but increasingly by illegal means. After its designer, builder and principal – if not sole – beneficiary died, without a leader of his stature emerging, this decapitated, depoliticised and devitalised pyramid lacks the indispensable internal strength to play its role as the near-single party.
In consequence, hidden failings of this system have come to light. The most striking is the dislocation of the leadership. Since the TPLF, the pillar of the EPRDF and by far the most robust and legitimate of the EPRDF’s components, is “staggering”, a chain reaction has begun. In the other components, where again the real “bosses” are not always – indeed rarely – those who hold the highest positions. In the government, despite its facade of unity. In the army and security services, which run their show pretty much as they like. At national level, where centrifugal forces are increasingly evident. And above all between the four components of the EPRDF, whose cohesion is cracking.
When questioned about this, Sebhat Nega responds soothingly. He can’t ignore the fact that if the TPLF “staggers”, the whole EPRDF edifice inevitably totters. But he refrains from giving an opinion on the state of the ANDM and OPDO. However, he denies a thrust from the “chauvinists” in the ANDM – a code word for “vengeful” Amharas accused of having never truly accepted the loss of their supremacy – and the “narrow nationalists” in the OPDO – another coded term stigmatising Oromos who want much more autonomy for Oromya. He emphasises the work done by these two parties to counter these tendencies, in particular through their general mobilisation for several weeks last autumn.
The ‘Tigrean perspective’
Sometimes saying out loud what is whispered within the TPLF behind locked and bolted doors,Tigray On Line, run by members of the Tigrean diaspora, who are strong supporters of the Front, is one of the few foreign-based websites on Ethiopian politics that is accessible in Ethiopia itself. One of its most recent postings opens with an entirely typical reading of what Tigrean intellectuals call “the Tigrean perspective” on history. Briefly put, this perspective is that, from the reign of Menelik (1889-1913) onwards, Tigray was deliberately divided, weakened, marginalised, in a word disempowered and impoverished, to perpetuate what they call “the domination and oppression of the Amhara/Shoan ruling class”.
However, the article goes on to acknowledge the current primacy of the Tigreans, a primacy fiercely denied by the authorities. The regime “is being accused of having an army with mostly Tigrean generals, a bureaucracy dominated by Tigreans, topmost political positions occupied by Tigreans, and the economy “suffocated” by Tigrean investment”. But since the vanquishers of the Derg military junta were essentially a Tigrean force, “historical processes may by themselves create the situation which may be hard to avoid. This imbalance requires time and patience and a slow and steady political process to correct.” But is this imbalance diminishing, increasing or remaining static?
Opinions, whether they reflect reality or not, greatly differ in this regard. Nonetheless, according to this view, Tigreans everywhere, in every sector, are and remain victims of nothing less than a “war of hate”. They are “harassed”and “they have in fact become the most marginalised… as they have always been”. Worse still: this hatred comes “even many times from the non-Tigrean members and sympathizers of the EPRDF”. In summary, writes another commentator from the same website, “the fight all in the Ethiopian politics… is between those who fabricate lies to bring the old system and stay on top of the majority of Ethiopians” – in other words: the “chauvinists” or more broadly the Amhara – “and those who want to build a just and equitable society”. In clear terms,this quote asserts that Ethiopian politics continue to be dominated by the age-old conflict between Amhara and Tigreans.
For its part, the ANDM, or at least its mid-level cadres, often express a symmetrical resentment. They are no longer ready to tolerate bearing their Amhara identity like a cross, in other words being pilloried because they are descendants of the ethnic group whose leaders dominated Ethiopia for a century. They frequently employ the same language as used by the Tigrean militants during their armed struggle, claiming to have become “second class citizens”. Many are bitter towards their leadership, in which the overrepresentation of natives of North Wollo, on the periphery of the Amhara region, is a further source of diminished legitimacy. They accuse it of selling out the rights and interests of their nation.
In OPDO, the charges are equally harsh. They essentially revolve around the central authority’s annexation – real or imagined – of whole chunks of Oromya. This is a reference to the Addis Ababa Masterplan, perceived as having been launched as a fait accompli, under which the capital will extend into Oromya territory. The central authorities will also play a major role in the future “industrial parks”, numerous in this region. In the background hovers the trauma of the conquest of much of Oromya by Menelik’s armies. Here again, the leadership of the OPDO is accused of lacking determination.
The regime constantly proclaims that its most striking success, perhaps even greater than the economic successes, is to have established harmonious relations between the different “nations, nationalities and peoples” of Ethiopia, through the introduction of federalism. These relations are being severely tested. A cohesion enforced by Meles’ ascendancy is giving way to divisions brought about by the advancement of regional powers and interests, one of the primary drivers of which is a polarisation based on identity – ethno-nationalism – which can reach irrational dimensions. What is really at stake is the EPRDF’s capacity to construct a federalism that is genuinely accepted by its four components, to broker agreement on a division of powers and resources which would be perceived as equitable. The history of this country is decidedly one of eternal recurrence. The “national question” re-emerges where it has always been, with varying degrees of visibility: at the heart of Ethiopian political life.
The national question recurs
This is the backdrop to the project for a second “renewal”. It cannot be ruled out that the purpose of the reform sought by part of the TPLF is also to strengthen its hand as much as possible in preparation for this federal shakeup. A TPLF with a “strong organization” and “high political maturity” – Tigrean activists acknowledge – is the ultimate guarantee of the survival of the federal system, i.e. of the survival of the Tigrean minority’s equal rights in relation to the other, more populous nations.
Amharas and Oromos respectively represent 27% and 35% of the population, together around 62%, as compared with 6% for Tigreans. But the federal system, at least as perceived by the TPLF, is based on the rule: one nation, one vote, whatever the size of population. Moreover, the ANDM and OPDO approach this restructuring with a serious handicap. Never, since their creation under the aegis of the TPLF in the late 1980s, have they been able to claim to be genuinely representative of their nations, whether because they lacked the capacity to do so or were prevented. Their current share of real power – political, economic, military and security-related – is limited. Finally, the OPDO is riddled with profiteer networks whose power and secrecy undermine its formal political order.
And then, will they want – and be able – to engage in this second “renewal”? The names that come up most often as potential leaders of such a movement are those of the TPLF’s “old guard”; Arkebe Oqubay, also a member of the Front, adviser to the Prime Minister, very active in opening up Ethiopia to foreign capital; Redwan Hussein, number three in the Southern Movement, Minister at the Government Communication Affairs Office; and of course Haile Mariam Dessalegn, who is purported to be a committed reformist. As a southerner, his constituency is the weakest of the four. However, the tensions between the three others make him – prime minister by default though he may be – paradoxically strong. He could play a major role as go-between.
Is it an accident that none of the leaders of ANDM and OPDO is mentioned? Do they believe themselves sufficiently strong to launch their parties into a root and branch reform process while maintaining control, in other words to lift the lid off the pot without getting burnt by the steam? Otherwise, what modus vivendi might develop within the EPRDF between a TPLF in genuine mutation, and an ANDM and OPDO clinging to the status quo?
Then there is the position of the army and the security services. To find out where they stand would mean piercing the enigma at the heart of an already enigmatic universe. The most plausible hypothesis is that they would favour this reform agenda. Amongst the few certainties in this sphere: army chief Samora Yunus refused to intervene in Meles Zenawi’s succession process, and Getachew Assefa, head of the security services, has proved that he is ready to take a stand against corruption.
As is often the case, these institutions have a ringside seat from which to spot the cracks. There is no doubt that if the regime were to falter, they would step forward. However, it appears that they would only wish to act as a last resort. They would seem to feel that they have enough to do, with – amongst other factors – the threat of Islamism, the interventions in Somalia and South Sudan, the cold war with Eritrea, to welcome the establishment of a power sufficiently coherent and robust to tackle political issues initially by political means.
Amidst all these “machineries”, will the “reformers” be able to muster the critical mass needed to succeed, against the combined forces of those with entrenched advantages to defend, whether political, economic or administrative – though the three generally go together? The hard-core of “reformers” consists of an alliance between TPLF founders and an ardent “new guard”. The latter look to the “old guard” to lead this reform successfully. It is the only group it trusts. It is resolved to support it with all its strength. But will it find sufficient backing amongst the mass of mid-level cadres?? This hard-core is calling for a return to disinterested activism, for the renunciation of personal advantage, in return for the moral satisfaction of “serving the people”. Will this be persuasive?
The new middle class
The attitude of a group that has become a key player in Ethiopia’s political game could be decisive: the new middle class. It is everywhere on the rise. In the countryside, it is represented by the peasant elite, the “model farmers”, the local officials, the big shopkeepers. In town, this class is first of all represented in the administration, but it is also present in public and semipublic companies, and in the service segment, in particular the private sector. Yet its attitude to the EPRDF is ambivalent, even schizophrenic.
On the one hand, it knows that it is indebted to the party. First for peace and security, at a time when the memory of the two bloody decades (1970-1990) remains traumatic. Then, for a strong economic environment. It knows that its membership of the Front – to which the vast majority of the new middle class belongs, voluntarily or by necessity – brings it benefits in recruitment, in promotion, in support, even in hard cash. It wants to maintain those advantages, and with them the general order that underpins them. However, there is another side to the coin. Public service salaries remain meagre, and are further curtailed by taxes and “voluntary contributions”. This new group is the first to perceive that discontent with the regime is steadily rising, as is the thirst for change that goes with it, and that – unless it is stemmed – it could lead to the worst. However, at least at this stage, the most common middle-class demand is not primarily for the exercise of democratic rights, starting with freedom of opinion and expression. Rather, its slogan could be: let us do our work, let us go about our business! It fluctuates between satisfaction and frustration, the desire for and fear of change.
All these unknowns, at least as much as the rise in popular discontent, contribute to the vague but palpable disquiet in the ranks of the EPRDF. There is a general sense of having embarked upon a period of high tension whose outcome remains uncertain. The alternative presented by the “reformers” is between movement and inaction, in other words a weak consensus in the upcoming congresses and the symbolic roll of a few heads, and with it an inevitable escalation of the difficulties until a breaking point is reached. “The survival of the TPLF is at stake”, some Tigreans go so far as to say. If this is true of the Front, it is even more so for the ANDM and OPDO. Sebhat Nega is not prepared to go so far: “The party is weakened, but still alive”, he asserts. And when asked for his prognosis, he sinks into his armchair in a long drawn-out silence, takes a slow drag of his nth cigarette of the day and, with eyes half-closed and a discreet smile on his lips, answers: “I am optimistic”.
René Lefort has been writing about sub-saharan Africa since the 1970s and has reported on the region for Le Monde, Le Monde diplomatique, Libération, Le Nouvel Observateur. He is the author of“Ethiopia. An heretical revolution?” (1982, Zed books).