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Ethiopia’s Choice: Reform or Anarchism, By Owei Lakemfa

The country has been under emergency rule for most of the last two years, with the prisons and detention centres overflowing to the extent that the government has permitted the police and military to detain people in any “place assigned by the command post until the end of the state of emergency”.

P.TIME – Ethiopia, the heroic African country Europeans could not colonise, source of the Blue Nile whose waters gave humanity its civilisation and in whose bosom the African Union headquarters nestles, is faced with a choice – political reform or anarchism? This explains its on-going turbulence, which has consumed Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn Boshe. His February 15 resignation letter stands logic on its head. If after over two years of turbulence and violent protests, his government releases over six thousand political prisoners in order to ease tension and move towards some compromise with the swelling opposition, why should that be the time to resign? His assertion that: “Unrest and a political crisis have led to the loss of lives and displacement of many,” is stating the obvious, while his argument that his resignation is: “vital in the bid to carry out reforms that would lead to sustainable peace and democracy” falls flat in the face of logic.

Desalegn is not responsible for the violence and anybody with even a little understanding of Ethiopian politics knows that he is not the real power in the country. While Ethiopia has been militarised since the 1974 overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie, Desalegn has actually been an academic, not a fighter, nor was he part of the movement that forced President Mengistu Haile Mariam out of power on May 21, 1991. His emergence as prime minister was fortuitous. The real power lies with the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the main rebel group that had teamed up with the Eritrean Peoples’ Liberation Front (EPLF. With the later opting to leave Ethiopia and establish an independent State of Eritrea, the TPLF was left as the dominant power and all it has done is to build a ruling coalition with other major ethnic political parties – the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM), the Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organisation (OPDO) and the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM).

The TPLF is so dominant that it controls the entire life of the country, including the military, Ethiopia’s 547-strong parliament and the executive. Its strong leader, Legesse Zenawi Asres better known as Meles, a name he adopted in honor of executed student activist, Meles Tekle, led Ethiopia from 1991 until his sudden death in August 2012.

At Meles death, Desalegn was foreign minister and deputy prime minister, and was appointed to replace Meles. But in reality, he did not have the powers of his predecessor. Apart from not controlling the powerful military, he is a minority in every sense of the word within Ethiopian power, social and religious calculations; he is a Pentecostal Apostolic in a country wedded to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Desalegn is from the minority South; in fact his Welayta people constitute only 2.3 percent of the population, in a country whose politics is ethnic-based.

…the age-long structure of Ethiopia has changed; the Amhara used to control the political and administrative structures, the Tigray served in the military while the majority Oromo were on the sidelines, today the Tigray controls the military and government while the Amhara has joined the Oromo on the sidelines.

My reading is that Desalegn was forced to resign. The political calculations of the TPLF for this are still unclear. It could be to allow it have a stronger hold on power to deal with the political challenge from the two dominant ethnic groups – the restive Oromo, with about 40 percent of the population, and the Amhara, which led Ethiopia through emperors and the military for centuries until the defeat of the Mengistu government. On the other hand, it could be an attempt to review its strong arm tactics, which has led to the death of thousands of people, mainly during protests, and the detention of over 20,000 political prisoners.

Clearly, the ruling TPLF movement cannot continue its old rule without it leading to anarchism. Its repressive tactics and its attempts to build a credible national coalition have failed. The Tigray are just 6.1 percent of the Ethiopian population, in comparison to the Oromo and Amhara, who constitute about two-thirds. These two are today in a marriage of convenience, as the Oromo had always complained of colonisation by the Amhara. Actually, the age-long structure of Ethiopia has changed – the Amhara used to control the political and administrative structures, the Tigray served in the military, while the majority Oromo were on the sidelines. Today, the Tigray control the military and government, while the Amhara have joined the Oromo on the sidelines.

Since the Western Democracy Ethiopia claims it is practicing presupposes that the party with the majority votes forms the government, the question is why has the opposition being unable to win elections? There was actually a controversial one on May 15, 2005. In the elections, the opposition which swept all the 23 seats in the capital, Addis Ababa, was in a big lead. The day after, with many votes yet to be tallied, the two major opposition parties – the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) and the United Ethiopian Democratic Forces (UEDF) claimed that they had won 50 percent of the parliamentary seats. The ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition claimed it had won 317 of the 547 seats. That May 16, 2005 evening, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi declared a state of emergency, banning public gatherings, ordering the military into the streets and replacing the capital police with federal police. The electoral body, the National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) simultaneously stopped the tallying of votes. Eleven days later, the NEBE announced that the EPRDF had secured 209 seats and the opposition, 142. Finally, on September 5, four months after the elections, official figures had it that the ruling EPRDF won 327 seats, or 59 percent of the vote and the opposition parties, 174. In the protests over the elections, 199 people, including six policemen, were killed and 763 injured.
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Since then, the political space appeared to have been closed with the ruling coalition controlling 100 percent of the seats in the federal and regional parliaments. The country has been under emergency rule for most of the last two years, with the prisons and detention centres overflowing to the extent that the government has permitted the police and military to detain people in any “place assigned by the command post until the end of the state of emergency”.

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Ethiopia has had the calamity of having over 1.5 million people dying of famine. But the added tragedy is that the number of deaths have been significantly increased since the 1974 military coup. General Aman Mikael Andom, who replaced Emperor Haile Selassie on September 12, 1974, was executed two months later on November 17, while his successor, General Tafari Benti was killed on February 3, 1977. The Menghistu regime, which took over, saw tens of thousands killed in conflicts or by security forces. This culture has continued till this day. The rest of Africa needs to assist Ethiopia to change course and build a federation based on social justice. Otherwise, the country might slide into anarchism and even genocide.

Owei Lakemfa, former Secretary General of African Workers is a Human Rights activist, journalist and author.

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