Analysis: Ethiopia: The slow death of a civilian government and the rise of a military might


Addis Abeba, Jan. 24/2017 – To the media’s keen observation, the immediate cause that triggered Ethiopia’s recent nose-dive into the unknown began when, on November 12, 2015, the residents of Ginchi, a small town some 80 Kms South West of the Capital Addis Abeba, took to the streets demanding authorities in Oromia regional state, the largest and most populated regional states to which Ginchi is a part, to halt a move to give a football pitch to private investors.

What followed was a year-long incessant public protest against the ruling EPRDF at a scale never seen in its quarter-century rule. It was unprecedented in many ways than few, but something that the government thought would be easily put down using brutal interventions both by the region’s and the federal’s security apparatus. That was until the hitherto region-wide protests, dubbed #OromoProtests, were joined, nine months later, by yet another unparalleled anti-government protest in the north, home to the Amhara regional state, the second largest regional state in the federated Ethiopia, and was dubbed #AmharaProtests.

Following these protests, which by then have shaken almost two-thirds of the country and have claimed the lives of hundreds of Ethiopians, in mid-August 2016, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn announced that he had given an order to the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) to intervene in Amhara regional state to control the spiraling anti-government protests.  In his announcement, Prime Minister Hailemariam asserted that the government would use “its full forces to bring the rule of law” into the region.

As one catastrophic event continued to lead to another, a ministerial cabinet meeting of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (FDRE), chaired by Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, declared a state of emergency throughout the country effective as of Oct. 08, 2016.

The state of emergency was declared as an immediate remedy to control intensified anti-government protests particularly in Oromia regional state that followed a mass death of civilians at the annual Irreecha festival on Sunday, Oct. 2nd.  (A hysteric stampede was caused as a result of security officers’ act of firing live ammunition and rubber bullets into the air, as well as teargas bombs in the middle of major parts of a gathering of millions.)

By all reviews so far, the declaration of the six months state of emergency is nothing short of a free pass to the ever militarized security apparatus of the regime to brutally put down increasing dissent by the public.

Already, the “full force” that Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn referred to in mid-August was in full display for nine months in most parts of the country, making one fact crystal clear – the civilian government led by a grand coalition of four parties and five smaller proxies, has continued to heavily rely on its military and intelligence might to engage with the public.

This is further aggravated by none other than the sheer fact that the last 26 years have been marred by a systematic gradual deterioration (and in most instances) demise of independent institutions (both state and non-state in nature) that were initially incorporated into the body politics of the country in the advent of EPRDF as a governing coalition.

The slow, tragic death of a multi-party parliamentary system

In the general elections held in May 2015, the fifth since EPRDF assumed power in 1991, the incumbent and its affiliates have unashamedly won all the 547 parliament seats, putting the final nail on the coffin of a prospect of a multi-party parliamentary system. In the preceding election, held five years earlier, the Parliament had a single representation from the opposition. A closer look at the opposition’s presence in the national parliament over the years demonstrates a country in regress.

In the first election after the passing of the Constitution in 1995, the EPRDF and its affiliates had managed to win 471 seats while 75 seats were gone to opposition parties mostly from peripheral regions such as Somali, Gambela, Benishagul-Gumuz, and Harari as well as a people who ran independently.  In the next election in 2000, which registered a 90% voter turnout, according to the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) , EPRDF had increased its seats in the Parliament by 10 to 481 while members from several opposition parties took 53 seats. Thirteen seats went to independents.

In the highly contested, yet much disputed 2005 election, which was marred by allegations of vote rigging that followed deadly riots, (and which is considered, rightly, as the turning point in Ethiopia’s contemporary political moment) official results put EPRDF’s win at 327 seats, while the two major opposition parties, the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) and United Ethiopian Democratic Forces (UEDF) won 161 seats collectively, the largest share of opposition seats in the country’s history.

Girma Seifu had been the only opposition member in the 2010 Parliament representing his party, Unity for Justice and Democracy Party (UJD). Girma finds it difficult to recognize the parliament “back then or even before” as a properly functioning institution. “You got to see heated debates sometimes but that was attributed to the [few] opposition [party members] who had seats. For members of EPRDF, however, the parliament was a place where it threw its inconsequential members just to raise their hands and agree on whatever is said by the high priests of the party,” Girma tells Addis Standard. “The senior members, those with real power, ran the government. Some were in the parliament of course, but some were not,” he said during an interview. Whatever is decided at the party headquarters is poured down to the Parliamentarians and “they accept without blinking an eye.” One hardly sees the checking and supervision of the government’s actions that is expected from them, according to him.

Ezekiel Gebissa, a Professor of History and African Studies at Kettering University in Flint, Michigan, agrees. “It would be a misnomer to suppose that there was ever a functioning parliamentary system in Ethiopia. Since 1995, elections have been held and governments have been formed every five years. However, the formal government structure has not functioned independently of the party structure. The government is simply the party’s instrument of control,” he told Addis Standard.  “The actual governing structure is the party structure. The federal arrangement was only a scheme used to feign power decentralization and deny responsibility for when things go awry.”

According to him, the EPRDF coalition members, created by the TPLF during its advance on Addis Abeba, are ostensibly the governing party in their respective regions. “But they were never independent of the Executive Committee of the EPRDF which is in turn closely controlled by the TPLF cabal.”

Discourse on a deathbed: From non-existent opposition to suffocating political space

One of the glaring aspects of political reality in today’s Ethiopia is one that is often exploited by the EPRDF: absence of a well-organized opposition bloc that can offer an alternative policy to the discontented public. While several parties are incubated, from time to time, more often than not, their very existence is known to the public during election years. In the 2015 election, for example, 47 Political parties, including the incumbent, have participated by fielding a total number of 1828 candidates.

Some go as far as pointing their fingers at the opposition bloc’s own mismanagement of its problems as the root cause of its failure. The oppositions are not only fragmented, they say, but also spend much of their time and energy on inter-party squabbles.

For Ezekiel, this “is a tortured argument” because “as a matter of historical fact, the failure of state-building in Ethiopia has always been the refusal of the ruling elite to share power with competing forces. Just as its predecessors, the EPRDF has refused to share power in any meaningful way with the representatives of the disenfranchised.”

To make his point clear Ezekiel states as an example the year 1991, when members of the TPLF and Oromo Liberation Front, OLF, came out triumphant against the militarist Derg and vowed to construct a decentralized federal state together.  But once securely ensconced in power, the TPLF felt no need to share power and ousted the OLF, which eventually ended up designated as a terrorist organization by Ethiopia’s parliament.

For Girma the prime responsibility for the country’s lack of well-organized opposition bloc lies within the regime itself, which, “with its irrational laws that it passes as it sees fit hampers the growth of any dissent in the country.”  “Take [the national electoral board] for example; as it happened to my party [during the run up to the 2015 election], one day you wake up from your sleep and you find out that your party is taken over by a bunch of rascals, and the NEBE, without having any mandate whatsoever decides the party is theirs, not yours,” he says.

As the government continues to jail, to force into exile and intimidate “the best and the brightest in politics, it is weakening not only the opposition but also the discourse itself. Thus, with no outlet or means of expressing their dissent, the people choose the last resort, public demonstration.”

The series of restrictive laws that were adopted by the parliament, argues Ezekiel, have made it impossible for opposition parties to form, recruit members, and organize. And, according to him, the EPRDF makes no secret that it must continue to rule without opposition on the basis of the following reasons: it takes longer than one election cycle to bear fruit; it is the only guarantor of Ethiopia’s unity and stability; it is the only defense against genocidal civil war, and it has the right to rule indefinitely because it has removed a brutal dictatorship. “It is only the government that can open up or close off the political space. No one else can be culpable of decimating the political opposition and civil society institutions. It is axiomatic.”

Furthermore, in the wake of the fateful 2005 election, the EPRDF has taken measures that would stiffen the rules of procedure in the parliament, thereby limiting the discursive space even within the EPRDF-dominated parliament in which a member of the Parliament is not urged to make his or her points for not more than three minutes. This was followed by a series of legislations constraining freedoms that are instrumental for the construction of a democratic system. Among them, the most infamous ones were the Freedom of Mass Media and Access to Information Proclamation (Proclamation N0. 590/2008), the Anti-terrorism Proclamation (Proclamation No. 652/2009), and the Charities and Societies Proclamation (Proclamation No. 621.2009).

As the government’s intolerance of dissent became crystal clear, self-censorship has become the new normal among journalists and other writers who could otherwise contribute to the flourishing of critical discourse. This was further degraded by the blocking of several websites (perceived to be in opposition to the regime in power), and jamming of other press/media outlets, including those based outside of the country.

Civil societies that were engaged in the cultivation of a democratic culture and the promotion of human rights were also forced to change either their focal areas or left out to play a negligent role on issues essential to the country’s political health. Institutions like Inter Africa Group, a civil society which played a pivotal role in organizing debates on various issues in the run-up to the 2005 election, have receded from the public eyes and seem to be lingering in oblivion.

Despite that, however, “the news of the death of civil society institutions in Ethiopia is premature,” argues Ezekiel. “They have gone under, but not dead,” so if the government is courageous enough to allow civil society institutions to operate freely and within the confines of a reasonable regulatory framework, they will flourish again. The problem is, “the government knows these institutions can be effective” thus “it wants to reduce them to an instrument of coercion and control to perpetuate itself in power.”

But Ezekiel still sees hope in indigenous institutions which can somehow play the role of civil societies, for instance, in terms of conflict resolution which work “to resolve conflicts at the local level or even step in to govern for a while. In the Oromia region, the Abba Gadaa institutions could play the role of mediation to resolve the impasse or even serve as a caretaker in situations where a civil administration has collapsed.”

Damning reports, government dismissals

One such institution that is deeply affected by the Charities and Societies Proclamation is the Human Rights Council (HRCO). Founded in 1991, the Council vows to work towards building a democratic system, promote rule of law and due process, and encourage and conduct human rights monitoring.

“In earlier times, the HRCO used to issue frequent reports on various human right issues often confronting the regime for its misdeeds,” says Girma. “But now they don’t have the same capacity they had once; because of EPRDF’s restrictive rules they can’t raise enough funding, the result of which is a debilitated capacity to move around the country and see what is going on first hand.” But the pressure doesn’t end there; as of late, the council has fallen under the spell of government forces. In the months of July and August 2016, the Council has reported that four of its members were detained in Oromia and Amhara regions, measures that it believes were related to the members’ monitoring and documentation of the crackdown against the protests in these regions. Among them was Tesfa Burayu, Chairperson of the council’s West Ethiopian Regional office, who was detained at his home in Nekemte, Oromia.

In its report, Respect the people’s Right to Demonstrate! Stop the Violence by State Security Forces!” , focusing in North Gonder zone of the Amhara Regional state, and which was on Sep 06 2016, the Council urged the government to stop the violence against protesters and condemned the violence by security forces, including killings, and arbitrary detention of citizens for exercising their constitutional rights.

But the government has always reacted in the same manner for reports like this; it often undermines the level of severity, it denies any wrong doing on its part and it even blames “outside forces,” “those who hate to see Ethiopia’s growth” and “neoliberal ideologues” for being behind damning reports. It also has its version of a similar institution, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, EHRC, which is often used to directly counteract against reports by other independent institutions.

However, unlike the report EHRC, HRCO’s report was widely distributed by a group of other civil society organizations including the East and Horn of African Human Rights Defenders Project, the Association for Human Rights in Ethiopia (AHRE), Amnesty International, the Ethiopia Human Rights Project (EHRP), Front Line Defenders, and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH). Unfortunately, most of these institutions are now allowed to open offices in Ethiopia.  

Their actual absence from the ground gives the government in Ethiopia the unbridled opportunity to vehemently deny any of the reports produced by them. Take for example Ethiopia’s response to the report by the HRW released in mid-June 2016. The then chief spokesperson of the government, Getachew Reda, dismissed the report stating that an organization far removed from a presence on the ground has no mandate to issue an accurate account of the human rights situation in Oromia. He then argued the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, has issued its own report which recognized the death of only 173 people in Oromia and declared it “proportional”.

Partial police, politicized military

In theory, the police in Ethiopia, which includes the Ethiopian Federal Police Commission (EFPC), is constitutionally mandated, among others, to prevent and resolve conflicts, strengthen the federal system, uphold federal-regional relations in the country, and maintain good relations, peace and tolerance among different religions and beliefs.  The Regional Police Commissions, Community Police Offices throughout the country, and law enforcement apparatus established under Federal government bodies like the Ethiopian Revenue and Customs Authority (ERCA), the Federal Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (FEACC) and the Federal Prisons Administration Commission (FPA) are also constitutionally mandated to be politically impartial and loyal only to the country’s supreme law, the Constitution. The Federal Police Proclamation No. 720/2011, for instance, asserts that the commission shall “maintain and ensure peace and security of the public and the state by respecting and ensuring the observance of the Constitution.” However, in practice, like in all authoritarian countries around the world, their loyalty is to the political party in power.

The police, in Ethiopia, together with the army, are instruments of a government that always appears to be keen to resort to its prowess to resolve political crises of any kind as is manifested by Prime Minister Hailemariam’s recent claim that his government “has ample capacity” to subdue the rising tide. This stems from EPRDF’s origins. “TPLF, which is the architect of the entity we call now EPRDF is essentially a militaristic group to its bones,” says Girma. “The group has never walked past its history. It has never evolved into being a civilian party. Beneath the surface, it’s all guns and armors.”

Girma’s sentiments were shared by Ezekiel. “From its guerilla days, the TPLF had a party army whose commanders acted as diplomats, administrators, judges, and social workers,” Ezekiel says. After assuming power to reconstruct a state on the verge of collapse “the Front installed its military leaders and political commissars as ministries, ruling party’s officials, heads of business organizations and top leaders of the new national defense force. In this respect, the reconstructed state was essentially a military government whose political power depended entirely on the gun.” Even after the parliamentary system was put in place and elections were conducted to form a representative government, the military’s influence has always been enormous, Ezekiel asserted.  More often than not, “the military has been called in to deal with the opposition. The [ENDF] isn’t just a politicized military; it has been a militarized civilian government since the EPRDF’s accession to power. The military has always been politically connected. And its engagement in economic activities as an institution has made it economically powerful. The military has a stake in politics.”

Now, with a state of emergency to contain the widespread protests all over the country, the governing structure is in crisis, argues Ezekiel. “What remains intact is a politically connected, heavily armed and economically powerful military. [The government’s] institutional interests are in danger. It has to use force to protect them. But force will breed more instability and the use of more force. Another cycle of collapse and reconstruction, and a perpetually failing state.”

As Ethiopians look at what is to follow anxiously, the incumbent, spoiled by the respite brought by its excessive military deployment in the name of the state of emergency, is busy conducting what it called “deep reform” in order to address the grievances. It is also busy showcasing the boom in infrastructure; a topic the government always gave precedence to the people’s well-being.

But Girma (who was interviewed for this piece before the state of emergency was declared) likes to speak prudently about what to expect; “there is what I hope to happen, say in the next six months,” he said in September 2016, “which is the government would truly understand the severity of the problems it and the country are facing. I would like to see the government taking drastic measures up to declaring a transitional period in which all the stakeholders both inside and outside the country are invited to participate. The military can be part of this transition,” he said. However, “what I think would actually happen is far from this. It’s in EPRDF’s nature to falsely believe that it has managed the situation whenever protests subside. Buying time is what it strives for. But the protests are coming back again more ferociously.” Given how things evolved since then, Girma’s statement comes as an alarming forecast. AS

Graphic Design: Addis Standard

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