Editorial: Ethiopia in the Crosshairs of the Military: Unmasking the narrative of counter revolution


From the Editorial

Addis Abeba, March 29/2018 – Following the fall of the Soviet Union and the totalitarian political systems it spawned, a new brand of authoritarian governments emerged around the globe. In their edited volume, Constitutions in Authoritarian Regimes, Tom Ginsburg and Alberto Simpser point out that the new “constitutional autocrats” rule by enacting new constitutions or revising existing ones.  The new autocrats are better adapted to the era of global media, economic interdependence and information technology and adept at concentrating power in their hands by eliminating any checks on their authority and crushing any opposition. Unlike dictators who sustained their governments using brute force, these “constitutionalist autocrats” rely more on the law than on violence. In the era in which Western liberal democracy was promoted around the world, new rules for the “political game” were established by instituting rule by law as opposed to the rule of law.

This type of constitutional authoritarianism emerged in Ethiopia under the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)-dominated regime of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). In the past decade, EPRDF’s rule by law has created legislation that have led to the incarceration of millions (Anti-terrorism Law), utter destruction of civil and political associations (Charities Law) and the silencing of free expression (Press Law). Power was concentrated by “winning” consecutive national elections (Electoral Law) and eliminating organized group that might legally contest power (Political Party Registration Law). Using this set of “constitutional measures,” the moral imperative of the supremacy of the rule of law, that even the ruler is under the law, has been desecrated and the entire apparatus of lawmaking and law enforcement has been used to protect and maintain personalist power.

The latest iteration of EPRDF’s rule by law is the use of the state of emergency (SoE) provision of the Ethiopian constitution to suppress citizens’ democratic rights to assemble, to demonstrate peacefully, and to petition their government. After three years of continuous protests in the Oromia, Amhara and Southern regional states, the government rolled out another “constitutional gimmick,” described as the imperative of defending the constitutional order, to maintain the regime of muzzling, stifling and incarcerating opponents or presumed opponents for the second time in a year. Within the context of the SoE, some in the private media, otherwise known as TPLF’s mouthpiece, have started to advance a new narrative that aims to dismantle the protests and the opposition from within power structure, specifically that which is coming from the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO).

State of Emergency as a weapon

All constitutions, both ancient and modern, provide for emergency rule. The rationale for making specific constitutional provisions is to guard against accidental rise of dictatorship as a result of external aggression or internal disturbances. Carefully crafted and properly enforced, the law can be gainfully invoked to declare a SoE in order to deal with emergency situations such as a natural disaster or a large security disturbance. The goal is to restore order and return to normalcy as soon as possible.

Looked at from any angle, there was no objective situation that necessitated the second SoE in Ethiopia, declared on February 16, 2018. Three of the constitutionally-defined conditions for a SoE–external aggression, natural disaster or an epidemic—were verifiably nonexistent. The regime’s rationale that there was a threat to the constitutional order was not supported by facts on the ground. In the absence of conditions that warrant suspension of the constitution, the declaration of emergency rule that is currently in force cannot be considered constitutional; it is a political act wrapped in constitutional cloak to accomplish a political purpose.

It took a while for the political act to unfold. Since December 2017, the EPRDF and its coalition parties have been holding a dizzying number of conferences and issuing a plethora of press releases. On December 31, 2017, the Executive Committee of the EPRDF issued a press release in which it acknowledged that the simmering unrest in the country has brought back the specter of disintegration. The statement declared that among “the reasons that exposed the country to danger, the main one is the mistakes committed by the top leadership of the EPRDF, especially the executive committee. … The top leadership has agreed that it is responsible for the mistakes committed and the damage inflicted that resulted in the death, displacement and great suffering.” Except for identifying poor leadership as culpable for everything that went wrong in the country, the statement made no mention of accountability for the thousands of death, displacement of millions and danger of disintegration of the country.

The absence of accountability in the EPRDF Executive Committee Statement was an indication that the regime was determined to take back control of the party structures and stop the apparent drift of the members of ruling coalition away from the core. The statement posits that “the [executive] committee reached an agreement that senior officials are responsible for the ongoing public grievances.” It also condemned the “interaction or linkages that are not based on principles are dangerous for each national party and the respective people that they govern,” in an apparent reference to amicable relations the OPDO established with the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM). The Executive Committee statement made it clear that the party leadership will “get rid of any partnership that is not based on principles in any national party or state” and “obliterate the activities of those who move to satisfy their parasitical needs by [sic] the name of one or other nationality and party.” In hindsight, it is now clear that EPRDF leaders agreed to impose a state of emergency at the executive committee meeting in order to stop the gradual slippage of power from the hands of the TPLF.  As the state of emergency was unfolded, new narratives of counterrevolution were unfurled.

Color Revolution as a threat

On March 9, Siraj Fegessa, Ethiopia’s Defense Minister and Secretary of the Command Post Secretariat, provided a status report on the state of emergency in which he made a startling statement that revealed the very intention of the SoE. Without citing any evidence, he stated that the anti-government protests “are taking the form of the color revolution” which anti-peace forces were using to take over power by force. The minster indicated that “in some places, particularly in the Oromia region, the Command Post has witnessed attempts to snatch away weapons from security forces with the intention of seizing power. Debretsion Gebremichael, TPLF’s newly elected chairman and deputy administrator of the Tigray region, also chimed in during a presser he gave in which he implicated “foreign forces” trying to mount “a color revolution” in Ethiopia.

Comparing the popular movement demanding change of government in Ethiopia with “color revolutions” that occurred in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan in the early 2000s is quite strange. These revolutions are universally lauded as positive developments that ushered in democratic change peacefully. Even if good is bad in EPRDF’s world, officials were arguing that the objective conditions in the country weren’t conducive for launching a color revolution and denying that the popular protest movement in the country was organized by external forces. The outgoing Prime Minster Hailemariam Desalegn posited that the EPRDF “can no longer continue blaming external forces for the unrest in the country. The popular protest is an indigenous movement born of grievances within the country.” It seems that the charge of externally-incited “color revolution” by two highly placed decision-makers is an intriguing departure from the sentiments expressed in earlier official pronouncements.

It is plausible that the regime thought to impress on the visiting American Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that the unrest in Ethiopia was a dangerous disruptive force that will have severe consequences if decisive measures were not taken swiftly. Another plausible rationale for the evocation of “color revolution” is to use the specter of anarchy to counter the almost universal rejection of the SoE by independent institutions in Ethiopia, such as the largest and oldest protestant church in Ethiopia and the Union of Abba Gadaa Council, the traditional Oromo legislative body, and the Oromo qeerroo who greeted SoE by an economic boycott and the stay-at-home strike of February 12-15, 2018.

From an analytical point of view, the popular protests in Ethiopia do not resemble the color revolutions in Eastern Europe whose aim was to protect the ballot box and to ensure an electoral change of government. The movements subsided once elected reformists were put in office. The Oromo protests and the other expressions of discontent in Ethiopia demand a systemic change, not just change of leadership through elections.

Unlike the color revolutions in Eastern Europe, which received diplomatic and financial support from Western international democracy organizations, the Oromo protests received little or no democracy promotion support from Western sources. Except for such rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, none of the democracy foundations in the West bothered to even give news coverage to the the protests as they unfolded in Ethiopia for more than three years.

The evocation of the color revolution by Ethiopian officials in relation to the protests is a strategic move designed to externalize the demand for change and present to Western powers an image of the qeerroo (the Oromo youth) and to some extent the faannoo (Amhara youth) as dupes of Ethiopia’s traditional enemies who are bent on destroying the country’s sovereignty and integrity. Though the analogy is quite far-fetched, the specter of color revolutions is mean to present the EPRDF is the only patriotic force that stands between a unified Ethiopia and the forces that are out to destroy it. The presentation of the Oromo protests in particular as a color revolution was an excuse to crackdown on the wide spread opposition against the regime.

State capture

No sooner had the defense minister conjured up the specter of “color revolution” than the danger of “state capture” started to fill the TPLF-funded or affiliated media. The private media known to serve as the regime’s mouthpiece became abuzz with the “imminent danger of state capture,” a transnational conspiracy designed to takeover the state from within in collusion with outside forces intent on wresting Ethiopia’s growth under the leadership of the incumbent regime. In a piece titled, “The Menace of State Capture in the Current Ethiopian Politics” (Horn Affairs, March 7, 2018), Ezana Ze Axum asserted that “the state capturing effort targeted at replacing the democratic constitutional federalism (i.e., the state) by extractive political and economic system using parasitic political and economic networks and silent coup strategy.” In the program, Journalists’ Round Table, the Zami Radio Station presented “evidence” that state capture is already underway and urged the government to root out the fifth column within it and arrest the takeover process. The round table “journalists” discussed “state capture” at length. The core of the message can be summarized as follows:

In Ethiopia state capture is taking place engineered by a clandestine network within the state and party structures in collusion with external forces. In Oromia region, the legitimate demands of the people for good governance, justice and rights are captured. This is effected by agents of state captors who are placed in high positions in the state structure.  Because these agents are also party leaders, the actual capture of the state is easy to implement.

This is not a comfortable situation. The EPRDF must understand the gravity and depth of the game and the fact that it has been infiltrated and immobilized by agents of state capture. We demand that it cleanses itself from them not just for its own sake but for the viability of the country. If it doesn’t, we will do the cleansing ourselves.

Conceptually and factually, the regime’s evocation of the danger of state capture is inaccurate. In the proper sense, the state in Ethiopia is indeed captured by the TPLF-dominated EPRDF which runs the state machinery to promote private interest. It uses the party structure, the national armed forces, the security and intelligence agencies, the institutions of the judiciary, the country’s resources as if they are the private property of the EPRDF. To be sure, the Oromo protests erupted because the government evicts poor farmers from their land in order to lease it out to wealthy investors. Strangely, the same government that has allowed and appropriated the state that manipulates policy formation to benefit members of the ruling elite, and a class powerful business persons it created, accuses others of infiltrating the government in preparation to orchestrate state capture.

The purpose of the propaganda of “state capture” is to narratives for counter revolution against popular demands for change and Western pressure for reform.  Through these publications and broadcasts the Ethiopian military appears to communicate its intentions. Its message is unmistakable. First, it asserts that the party and government structures are infiltrated by agents of state capture. It levels charges that policies have changed, reforms are blocked, important state resources are threatened, law enforcement has been compromised and the country’s survival is in question. Second, it posits that only the national military and security apparatus has remained unaffected by the state captors’ onslaught and proposes that these institutions have the solemn obligation of saving the “constitutional order” and even the country from disintegration. Third, it warns the political class that have time to get their act together and remove the agents of state capture from among themselves. If they prove incapable, the security apparatus of the state is ready to act to discharge its “constitutional duty” of protecting the “constitutional order.”

This kind of drastic measure, they insist, is necessary because the country is headed in the direction taken by countries of the Middle East after the “Arab Spring” of 2011. They suggest that the governments of Syria and Libya were captured by state capture forces from within and through external aggression respectively. I recently aired documentary on Fana Television was replete with such anecdotes and clips conveniently edited from RT. In both cases, the United States is implicated as the culprit that engineered the state capture. As anomalous sounding as it is, the Ethiopian regime appears ready to dispense with its foremost supporter and ally, criticizing the imposition of a state of emergency and cutting off some aid to the regime to save its power.

All this indicates the regime is ready to do anything to cling to power even if that portends costly bloodshed. It is ready to dispense with old friends and allies if that means its power is preserved. The military-security apparatus is already in charge in Ethiopia. Because coercion is its profession, this body seems to mistake power for strength.

The tactic of relying on brute force to maintain political power has been defeated everywhere it has been tried for millennia. Political power is a mandate to rule with the consent of the ruled. The warrior’s charisma, to use Max Weber’s description, cannot be used as the source of legitimacy in the present world. It seems the regime has lost its power of imagination, apparently buried with the late Meles Zenawi who, in the words of Rene Lefort, “took the password with him” to the grave. Bereft of the fertile mind of the deceased ruler, albeit for insidious purposes, the regime seems to limp from crisis to crisis. Without imagination, it has decided to resort to the one thing it knows best to keep power: the deployment of brute force.

Accordingly, security forces have set out to suppress the people’s demand and emasculate the OPDO organization. Federal forces have arrested a number of Oromo police officials, mayors, and high-profile administrators including the deputy commander of the riot squad of the Oromia regional police. In the weeks that followed, indiscriminate mass incarceration, detention of Oromia government officials at various levels and killing of innocent people continued.

On March 10, 2018, security forces shot and killed 13 civilians and injured 12  in Moyale, a town located at the border with Kenya. Immediately after the killings about ten thousand of people from Moyale crossed over to the Kenyan side, where they remain. The spokesperson of the Oromia’s Justice Bureau publicly doubted that the statement of the spokesperson of the Command Post that the massacre was a mistake. He was picked up on his way to work, handcuffed in front of his colleagues and hauled away escorted by a contingent of security forces. The Moyale killing of civilians seems to have been contrived to send a message to the government’s Western backers that the SoE is needed to combat cross-border terrorists. The opposite happened. The refugees from Moyale made Ethiopia’s domestic affairs an international concern.

Power matters

Studies show that constitutional provisions of states of emergency, even when they are carefully crafted with numerous limitations, tend to reinforce rulers’ propensities to abuse human and democratic rights. A number of factors make rulers violate these rights. What studies have found consistently as the principal cause is the fact that political leaders become willing to repress these rights because they have the opportunity to act on that willingness.  The most pervasive factor that increases leaders’ willingness to repress is a threat to the leaders’ rule, real or perceived. The more serious the threat, the more willing leaders become apt to use repression. As rational actors, political leaders violate rights because they see these actions as the most effective means to achieve their chief end, which is to stay in power.

It is clear that there is no rationale for the second SOE. The regime itself is not (and cannot be) the constitutional order. What is clear is that its power is threatened by the powerful nonviolent resistance movement. In the absence of any constitutionally-defined objective condition that warrants declaration of a SoE, the regime chose to resort to projecting power to protect private interests than promote the greater good. The SoE is a way to flex military prowess because power matters to those wielding it than human life and the viability of the state. It might help the imposition of forced silence but not a return to the status quo ante. We have seen this drama before.  If this same regime wants to see its new government, under a new prime minister, pull back the country from the intentions of the military, lifting the current SoE should become the first order of business. The color revolution and state capture mantra will wither away in no time. AS



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