Ethiopia: Re-framing the Post Meles Zenawi Political Discourse

By Ali Belew
Dec. 31, 2012

A couple of months ago, a group of longtime friends spent a three day weekend at Raytown, Pennsylvania, a picturesque resort town whose landscape reminds us of our Ethiopian homeland. One night, while we were all gathered by the fire place in this wooded area, one person took it on himself to solicit our reaction to the death of Meles. The parameter for the discussion was fairly limited: we would limit our opinion to a few minutes; there will not be questions and exchanges. We did not want to politics to intrude into our vacation time.

We took turns expressing our reaction. Many people applauded the Prime Minister’s leadership skill citing Ethiopia’s success in maintaining uninterrupted and sustained economic growth. Many others also condemned his dictatorial rule citing the lack of democratic space and the state’s infringement on human rights and free elections. Almost all of us lamented his death and expressed sadness at a promising life cut short, and sympathy for his family. No one rejoiced his death; no one gloated; no one said that Ethiopia would be better for it.

I was surprised both by the diversity of opinion regarding Prime Minster Meles’ rule and the tone of the language used to express our feelings for his death. When my turn came, I said, I understand both the negative and the positive statements made and added, on balance, the Prime Minster has done more good than bad to the country and history would be a lot kinder to him for this. In my view, Meles would be one of the greatest leaders Ethiopia ever had, which generated some applause from a few of my friends. I know this judgment is better left to posterity. I am comparing him to Mengistu, Haile Selassie, Lej Eyasu, Zewditu, Menelik, Yohannes and Theodros, etc.
I can’t claim our group is representative of Ethiopia or the diaspora for that matter although we are quite a mix of people with varying background and interest. In the current political lexicon, we can be considered mostly Amharas although many would find this term unacceptable and may even resent it. However the sentiment expressed that night can be generalized to be reflective of the mood of the Country and the diaspora.

This is the first time in over 80 years that a ruler of Ethiopia had died while still holding the reign of power. Haile Selassie died in prison having been forced out of his throne and strangled to death by Mengistu’s henchmen. The country, gripped in a frenzy of revolutionary fervor, did not mourn a leader who had introduced a degree of modernity to an ancient empire. Mengistu was overthrown, but is now living in a foreign land rewriting history and spreading falsehood.

The death of Meles is thus a new experience to Ethiopia. That is probably why both his illness and death were shrouded in mystery, an understandable confusion considering the lack of collective historical experience in this respect.

Now Meles has passed away leaving a legacy the like of which the county has never known, both the ruling party and the opposition groups seem to have no clue as to how to handle the vacuum created by his death.

The EPRDF or TPLF, its political epicenter remains a formidable organization that no opposition can challenge. Despite its remarkable success in the battlefields and running a state, its experience in managing a transition of this magnitude is limited. True it has managed the rifts in its ranks in its formative years much more intelligently than EPRP did for example. It has also survived the more recent serious rift within its ranks with Meles consolidating power. The 1998 split is said to have seriously weakened the narrow Tigrai nationalism. As easy as it seems from outside, political transition is both tricky and dangerous notwithstanding the seeming lack of concern by Sebhat Nega and Berket Simeon and other officials. Had it been easy, this shrewd organization would not have made a fool of itself in its handling of the Prime Minister’s absence from power for two months prior to his death. The transition to the next Prime Minster is fraught with all sorts of dangers that could destabilize the system. In the short run, Hailemariam Desalegne will hold the office without the actual power since it takes time and skill to yield effective authority. Without prejudicing the ability of the new prime minster, he has a long way to go to align his authority with the power centers of the country, the political parties, the military and security apparatus. By all accounts the Prime Minister is a descent fellow of faith un-accustomed to the byzantine leftist politics and intrigues.

The Opposition:

Much of the domestic opposition in Ethiopia is decimated by EPRP’s repressive measures and by its own scandal ridden coalitions. The 2005 elections showed the promise of competitive elections in Ethiopia. Although the opposition scored impressive victories, it also showed that that it lacked coherent strategy and unified post-election posture. The forged unity was more for winning parliamentary seats than forming a governing coalition. When the opposition faced a real crisis after the election, with the government annulling some of its hard-won seats, the opposition failed to respond in a way that showed that it grasped the problem it faced and its impact for its political future. It ignited an urban rebellion that proved disastrous and resulted in the current disarray.
The government learning from its mistake tried to address the public discontent with policies that foster more economic growth in areas which were previously neglected. This was combined with a systematic repression of the opposition groups that left them crippled and un-able to compete in any meaningful way with the omniscient EPRDF parties.

The opposition, divided as it is, has not really responded in a meaningful way to the death of Meles. Individuals such as Seye Abraham and Birtukan have spoken with empathy and thoughtfulness mourning the death of a worthy adversary, but expressing hope for a more inclusive political environment. A group of political opposition groups has also put out a statement that calls for a national convention to bring about political reconciliation. National Convention and National Reconciliation appear as slogans all the time when there is a political impasse, but they can’t be road maps to the future. One may recall there was a similar slogan when EPRDF triumphantly marched into Addis 20 years ago. The rest of the opposition of course consists of individuals who write in the opposition media. These range from the most strident who express jubilation to those who are enormously conflicted about death. These individuals express their sorrow at the death of a fellow human being regardless of his attributes while castigating his rule and legacy.

Many others see some opportunities and may want to take the high road in exploiting it. This is a developing event, but we don’t know the direction it will follow. Of course what happens next depends much on what the ruling party does than on the opposition. But the opposition can also play a more positive role that can encourage changes conducive to more ordered political debate in Ethiopia.

Clash of Narrative – Suggestion for a revision

Much of the conflict that animates Ethiopians is not a more recent phenomenon. It started when EPRDF took power.
The Opposition’s Narrative: TPLF, which is the power behind the EPRDF coalition is an organization dedicated to transforming Ethiopia in a way that we will never recognize it. It wants to weaken central power by divulging it into ethnic states. Each ethnic entity has the right to secede from the Union leaving Ethiopia in a permanent state of conflict. This allows TPLF to rule the country indefinitely exploiting the resource rich south and developing its Tigrai state through direct resource transfer. If this ethnic federation arrangement does not work, says this narrative, the goal of TPLF is to maintain independent Tigrai separate from the rest of Ethiopia, using the intervening period to build its infrastructure and industry.

This narrative claims the TPLF’s leadership, especially Meles does not have emotional affinity to Ethiopia. The more strident view expressed by well educated people in and outside the country even goes as far to say Meles hates Ethiopia. They claim Ethiopia is the only country in the World ruled by a man who hates it. There is similar narrative about Obama that the right wing opinion makers in this country also push. Example for this is given citing Meles statement on the national flag, his praise of the people of Trigrai as indestructible, etc. The fallacy of this argument lies in the fact that if one loves Tigrai, one would have to love Ethiopia less or loving Ethiopia means loving other ethnic groups less. We know the world does not work that way.

If you follow the premise of the narrative to its logical end, then everything that happened in Ethiopia ever since TPLF came to Ethiopia has only contributed to the weakening of the country. TPLF is conveniently blamed for the breakaway of Eritrean and Ethiopia’s land locked status. Ethiopia is now at war within itself, economic progress has not happened, but if it did, it is only to benefit TPLF or EPRDF cadres and Tigrai. The Diaspoa opposition even postulates EPRF did not win power in an armed struggle, but was handed power by Herman Cohn and the U.S Government . Even the Renaissance Dam that is being built to harness the Nile River is to swindle the people of their hard earned money and expand the regime’s political legitimacy. In effect, this narrative does not allow you to acknowledge the impressive victory the country has scored in the past two decades. It does not acknowledge the period of peace and stability (marred briefly by the bloody war with Eritrea) that has brought far reaching changes; there is no room even for a grudging respect to the country’s regional and international standing.

EPRDF’s Narrative

EPRDF also has its own ideological blinders. It is blind to the emotional toll that ethnic political arrangement has created to many urbanized intellectuals who see themselves as Ethiopians first and Amhara, Oromo, etc., second. It sees its opposition mainly as Amhara chauvinists who are raging mad that the Ethiopia they ruled with iron fist lording it over other ethnic groups is replaced with a country that celebrates everyone as equal and provides them with the opportunity to grow their culture and economy. If EPRDF was to follow this logic, the situation in Ethiopia would lead to the political and economic ascendancy of Oromo, with which the regime seems uncomfortable for now. But here, EPRDF’s narrative and ideological world comes in conflict with itself and it has not found a way out of it. While the Amhara “chauvinism” was, for better or worse, dealt a serious blow in the last 40 years, one wonders now if it is not being replaced by Tirgrai chauvinism. That is to show that EPRDF’s narrative is as much in crisis as the Opposition’s narrative.

It is time to rethink these clashing narratives because conditions have changed on the ground. The reality is much more complex than these world views can explain. The TPLF leadership that once entertained the idea of separate Tigrai has now allowed it to be much more integrated with the rest of the country and sees its success in the success of the rest of the country. Individuals who were considered hardened Tigrai nationalists like Seye have broken off from the party and joined opposition groups. Intellectuals like Berhanu Nega who warned against alienating TPLF leadership are now associated with a group that advocates communal boycott of Tigrai owned business and the only Ethiopian flag carrier, the Ethiopian Air Lines.

The Facts on the Ground:

1 Economics:
I was in Ethiopia recently and saw a county that has made strides on different fronts. The changes are astonishing. I saw a country on the move, a hectic, chaotic place, and restless young people who are building a foundation for a country to take off. In my view, the foundations of Ethiopia’s economic progress are the following.
1. A sustained period of political stability and the regime’s intelligence in the economic sphere. Maybe Dr. Stieglitz is right – Meles had an unusual aptitude for economics. He also had the vision and the leadership qualities to make it work.
2. Generous international assistance and the country’s capacity to utilize it
3. Single-minded focus on building the country’s infrastructure (roads, power plants, airports)
4. Remittances – the 2 + million plus Ethiopians living outside the country seem to contribute to the building boom and are a source of livelihood for millions of Ethiopians
5. Sheik Alamoud’s investments.
6. Tremendous improvement in the healthcare of the people.

This we can’t deny. Whether we like the government or not, we have to acknowledge the fact that the country has made enormous progress in education, healthcare, reversing the deforestation of the country. In fact we should celebrate our roads, hydroelectric dams, massive building projects in Addis and everywhere as are our national treasure that no one would take away. They are here to stay and they are good for the future of the country.
Critics say that there is unacceptable level of wealth transfer from the center to Tigrai. There is also the valid criticism that business linked to the ruling parties and mostly TPLF have an unfair advantage in the market place. The TPLF affiliated endowment groups have become huge conglomerates that no one can compete with. Access to bank capital also favors the endowment groups and the politically connected individuals, mostly Tigraways, but Amharas, Gurage, and Oromos. Corruption is rife. All of these can distort the functioning of the market and slow economic growth. It also has bred enormous animosity within many people which could destroy the very fabric of the unity of the people. I think these are valid criticisms that a responsible opposition could raise and struggle to change.

The Constitution:

Ethiopia has now experimented with constitutional government for many years. The constitution, despite its shortcomings has served the country very well. Even the opposition, before it fractured accepted the main tenets of the constitution when it participated in the elections. Many serious intellectuals and opposition members have issue with article 39 of the constitution which enshrines “Every Nation, Nationality and People in Ethiopia has an unconditional right to Self-determination, including the right to secession.” Although no one has so far attempted to exercise this right, the very existence of this clause in the constitution is seen as subversive to the country’s unity and strength and many patriotic individuals are vehemently opposed to it. This will remain a point of contention for a long time to come.

The question is then how do people who are opposed to Article 39 struggle against. Do they oppose the Ethiopian constitution altogether and attempt to change it? How does one struggle against a government when one has fundamental opposition to the constitution?

It is imperative on the opposition to have an honest and consistent opinion vis-à-vis the Ethiopian constitution. Do they accept this and try to make amendments to the constitution? Does this mean that they struggle to come to power through elections? Alternatively do they reject the constitution which means reject the very legitimacy of the government and try to overthrow it by other means which includes armed struggle?
The constitution is a fact on the ground. This means, a responsible opposition which strives for peaceful transfer of power, no matter how hard it is and how long it takes, has to work within the current constitutional arrangement. Any other alternative, when there are so many desperate political groups, who are superficially united by their opposition to the regime, but are by no means unified in their vision and governance of the Country after the current regime, would lead to political instability from which no one would benefit.

3. Ethnic Federalism:
Whether one likes it or not, this is the most transformative change that has taken place in Ethiopia. Ethnic Federalism has now deep roots in Ethiopia. It has its discontents and in some cases, has led to violent clashes between communities. We may argue that it has taken the lead off simmering communal conflicts that were suppressed under the previous governments. That is why we see so many conflicts. For many Oromos, this arrangement falls far short of their maximalist goal of separation from rest of Ethiopia, but it offers them a chance to have their legitimate share of resources and power in the country. At this time, many Oromos in the opposition don’t see it that way. They have formed tactical alliance with the opposition, but I am not sure the maximalist ideology is weakend. It would raise its head again if EPRDF is seen to be weak. There is no threat more dangerous to the stability of Ethiopia than the Oromo question. The question is then would the Ethnic Federalism arrangement be able to blunt the maximalist tendencies of the Oromo movements? Is the Oromo dissatisfaction more because EPRDF is not implementing the policy seriously allowing the Oromos to have their share of political power? Whether or not Ethnic Federalism will stay the reality on the ground will be determined by the

4. Freedom of the Press, Speech, etc.

No one would argue Freedom of the Press and Speech exists in Ethiopia as we have come to understand these rights. For a country not used to these rights, there was a tremendous opening by the government, but a demonstrated lack of professionalism on the part of the media early on. There was abuse of these rights initially. One can’t forget the sensational and malicious stories printed on many newspapers and magazines in the early periods of EPRDF rule. I recently heard an interview in Sheger Radio that was really revealing. Dr. Kifle Wodajo, who apparently struggled more than any other person to enshrine these rights in the Constitution, was also the person who fell victim to it.

Talk of an irony.

Governments are generally afraid of the damage that a free press can do to their stability. EPRDF was no exception. It saw the potential damage to national unity and economic progress this could create and reacted harshly. I understand this reaction. I see governments everywhere, even the ones that have longer history of press freedom, do it. The question now is has EPRDF gone too far in suppressing press freedom snuffing out even responsible publication. I believe it has. This is especially true in the post 2005 period. Just to mention a few, Addis Neger, Awramba, etc in recent times. This opposition papers have to also be responsible and play a positive role to the expansion of a democratic space. It is not enough to say the government is the only one responsible for it. The opposition media has responsibility to it. The arrest of Eskender Nega is also an act of intimidation designed to stifle political opposition.

5. The Terrorism Law:

EPRDF emerged from the most recent election as the strongest organization in the country with a higher degree of legitimacy. Right when it became the strongest organization in its history, it also became the most repressive. Now, I think EPRDF believes that the only way to achieve sustained economic growth is through a strong one party rule unencumbered by a political opposition. The imperative for growth has trumped the need for democracy, political freedom and the right to organize, and sustain political parties. The public disgust with the political opposition in the aftermath of the 2005 election seemed to have reinforced EPRDF’s conviction that if Ethiopia is to become a modern country with strong industrial and agricultural base, a visionary one party state just like China is an imperative. Given EPRDF’s ideological predilection, this swing to the left should come as no surprise.

One can see the terrorism law in this light. EPRDF is determined not to allow political opposition in the short run until Ethiopia’s economic growth achieves a level that can propel the country to a middle-income nation status.
As long as the economic growth continues and the Ethiopian people benefit from an expanding economy, the public may tolerate the lack of political freedom for a while. However, this is not easy to sustain. For one thing, EPRDF is not the Chinese Communist Party. While a corruption is rampant in CCP, in Ethiopia there is the wide-spread perception that equates the corruption to the ruling Ethnic group. Increase in prosperity raises relative expectations. When people feel that the economic growth brings disproportionate benefit to the other people, their resentment increases.

In Ethiopia this feeling is easy to manipulate.

This is to say, achieving Economic growth through a one party state may not be so feasible in Ethiopia. The current inflation rate by itself has a destabilizing effect. The fact that there is no opposition group in the country to exploit this situation, is not a justification to continue with the repressive measure and draconian terrorism laws that forestall the growth of a viable opposition. As enticing as it is, to say we will bring economic growth through a one party-rule, but will not be obliged to open up the political space, will not work for the ruling party. EPRDF will need to bring the political opposition to have a stake in the economic progress and for that to happen, and the opposition must have political to room to organize.

This is to say the terrorism law must be rescinded or applied only in cases of real threat to the country’s stability. The danger of relying on its limited applications only however is that uncertainty it engenders. No one will feel safe enough to oppose the government and escape the wide reach of the law.

How do we discuss these issues? 
Ethiopia faces a transition period that is fraught with dangers. The ruling party has no experience with political transition of this magnitude.
The Government:
1. The government must understand that it is incumbent on it to lead the transition in orderly fashion
2. In the short-term, the regime may feel the need to show there is a continuity of policy
3. In the long-run, the departure of a leader who had assumed so much power within government and in the party creates conditions for change and EPRDF must embrace it
4. It is incumbent on the regime to examine the closing of the political space and open it up for the sake of the political stability of the Country. Political liberalization does not necessarily result in political destabilization. The regime is powerful enough to engineer the smooth transition of the country where political competition exists. Meles’ personality may have made the current political reality workable, but there is no guarantee the next leader has all the attributes to make the system work as it is.
5. The regime must understand it is better to be proactive and bring out political changes, than to be forced to do so. The time to do the political reform is when you are at your strongest. No one benefits from a crisis resolution mode that is now unfolding in Syria, one of the strongest and most powerful states in the Middle East.

The Opposition:

Here, I am referring to the broad opposition within the country and diaspora including influential writers and intellectuals.
1. Many of the opposition figures especially the diaspora based, is hell bent on the fall of the regime without any consideration to the consequences of it. There is no political opposition now or in the foreseeable future that could take over the country and create a stable regime. The formation of a ruling coalition consisting of the opposition elements is not in the horizon yet.
2. Stop demonizing the regime as an evil entity. This is true of elements of the diaspora. Malicious publications designed to create communal strife and incite against the regime won’t do anyone any good.
3. Acknowledge that Ethiopia has enjoyed an unprecedented period of political stability and economic growth, which has lifted millions of Ethiopians out of poverty and given them a life of dignity.
4. Ethiopia’s transition to multi-party country takes a long time. It is not to be expected in the span of a couple of elections. It is through a long, arduous struggle that it can become a truly democratic country. We can’t use the yardstick of an ideal democracy to measure Ethiopia’s political progress.
5. Economic progress is good. It creates a class of people that will struggle for its rights and political empowerment. There is nothing wrong in praising the government’s success while criticizing the short coming. For example, the land-lease policy is an area the opposition could engage the country’s leadership positively.
6. The opposition must acknowledge that it has some responsibility in moderating its language and reframing and elevating the political discourse. Should Ethiopia descend into political chaos, the opposition can’t escape the blame.

This article is intended to develop a framework for political discourse going forward. I am sure there are voices like mine that have chosen to remain quiet and feel alienated by the current political discourse. Our voices should be heard.

Ali Belew can be contact at this email address: