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Ethiopia Should Manage Internal Political Crisis and Deflect External Threats

Ghelawdewos Araia, PhD                                           January 18, 2016

This article is intended to address the current political crisis surrounding Oromo outbursts in Ethiopia by providing a general pattern of political science theory in regards to crisis management.

The present Oromo protestation is instigated by the so-called “Addis Ababa-Oromia Integrated Master Plan” because protestors perceived the Master Plan as ‘land grab’ from the Oromia region. To the best of my knowledge, there is no such thing as ‘land grab’ unless there is a hidden agenda of the Addis Ababa City Administration to systematically expand the Addis Ababa Zone by incorporating Oromia adjacent lands.

 Instead of ‘land grab’, however, the protestors or the opposition forces and even the disgruntled elements could have made sense had they argued that the Master Plan could have a far reaching impact on Oromo farmers who leave in the adjacent areas. In other words, one could easily surmise or conjecture (and this could make sense in the context of logic) that the Master Plan could displace Oromo residents and destabilize their livelihood. 

Irrespective of the perception of Oromo protestors, however, the EPRDF Government has exhibited two major weaknesses: 1) lack of transparency: the Government should have clearly and openly explained the nature and characteristics of the Integrated Master Plan; 2) lack of peaceful resolution to the crisis: Once the people (mostly youth) in the Oromia region began protesting, the Government should have immediately taken the necessary measures toward dialogue with the protestors instead of resorting to the use of force to quell the demonstrations.

No one could verify with certainty the number of people killed in the Oromo protests, but external media outlets, including the BBC, have reported that a 140 people were killed by police. The Ethiopian Government, on the other hand claims that only 22 people were killed. The victims, of course, are not just statistics; they are Ethiopian citizens who are entitled to all rights, including the sanctity of life.

As I will discuss and extrapolate the management of political crisis below, the Ethiopian Government should seriously consider the peaceful resolution of the problems and contradictions long before they go out of hand, and it would not be too late for the Government to initiate mini-conferences dialogue in the Oromia region even after the demonstrations have subsided and some isolated disturbances have tapered off. The January 13, 2016 initiative by the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO), one of the four constituents parts of the ruling EPRDF party, and its decision to discontinue the Master Plan, for instance, is a good gesture of crisis management, although it is a little too late.

How Ethiopia Can Manage Political Crisis: 

1) First and foremost, in an effort to maintain peace, stability, and order, Ethiopia should adopt a proactive policy of crisis prevention and/or mitigation, that is, long before the crisis erupts or trying to minimizing its effects after it bursts. This policy applies to political and social crises as well as to natural calamities.

2) Ethiopia should establish conflict and conflict-resolution institutions, not only as government organizations or academic institutes but also at grassroots levels in all Ethiopian communities. This initiative can be supplemented by traditional conflict resolution institutions.    

3) Ethiopia should utilize the democratic process as a tool for conflict resolutions. Only democratic societies have been successful in either preventing or mitigating crises, but in the event of an outburst or people’s uprising, democratic nations can handle political crisis effectively and efficiently. However, the main problem is that democracy has not taken root in Ethiopia yet!

4) Ethiopia, thus, should allow a broad range of democratic rights to its citizens not only for minimizing political crisis, but also for nurturing participatory democratic culture in which citizens, without the assistance of the Government, will promote and foster the tools of conflict resolution as mediation, negotiation, dialogue, and reconciliation.1     

On top of what I have suggested above, the public generally expects the Government to maintain peace and order (and this is the quintessential task of all governments) and as we say in political science, a normative-analytical approach is generally applied by policymakers in managing political crises. In other words, “the ability of governments to discern and solve different types of crisis situation is a topic of long-standing interests.”2

Moreover, as many research studies and journals have published on the management of crisis, “current horizons in disaster and related studies need to be broadened to incorporate a political-administrative perspective on crises and crisis management,”3 and as I have pointed out earlier, “in times of crisis, citizens look at their leaders, presidents and mayors, local politicians and elected administrators, public managers, and top civil servants. We expect these policy makers to avert or at least minimize the damage of the crisis at hand. They should lead us of the crisis; they must explain what went wrong and convince us that it will not happen again.”4

Also, as I have stated above, the Ethiopian Government needs to be proactive and prevent political crisis before the country plunges into a quagmire of political crisis because there is a huge difference between alertness and devotion on the one hand and unpreparedness and negligence on the other. “When emerging vulnerabilities are adequately assessed and addressed some potentially devastating contingencies simply do not happen. Misperception and negligence, however, allow crisis to occur. When policy makers respond well to a crisis, the damage is limited. When you [they] fail, the crisis impact increases. In extreme cases, crisis management makes the difference between life and death.”5

Ethiopia under the EPRDF may have not been a complete failure in dealing with internal political crises, but it definitely demonstrated lethargy toward the crisis and took a snail-type action in dealing with Oromo protestors. This is quite astounding, because a country that devoted itself in the Somali and South Sudan civil wars for mediation and peaceful resolution to the conflicts was unable to mitigate its own political crisis.

The more delayed actions by the seating government could mean a dangerous encounter for Ethiopia in which the country can slide into a nation-wide crisis. Moreover, the internal or domestic political crisis cannot be analyzed without external threats, although these intriguing endogamous and exogamous phenomena may not intersect in a given situation or exhibit inter-linkage in one form or another.  In some instances, however, both internal political crisis and external threats could reinforce each other and agents of the latter could deliberately exacerbate the manifestations (for our present discussion, the Oromo protestations) of the former.

Historically, Ethiopia has always been threatened by outside forces. It was the historian Diodorus Siculus (90 BCE-30 BCE), who, long time ago, said, ‘Ethiopia have had many enemies who wanted to conquer her, but none of them was successful’.  Diodorus’ prophetic assertion could be mesmerizing and give some solace and pride to patriotic Ethiopians, but it is imperative that Ethiopians never lose sight of their deadly enemies and lay back and relax; on the contrary, they should remain vigilant and alert at all times.

What Ethiopia should do to deflect external threats:

Some Ethiopians are of the opinion that Ethiopia can easily deflect or thwart external threats and this assumption is mostly predicated on Ethiopia’s relative military might and robust security apparatus. One observer, for instance, says, “For many experts following events in the Horn of Africa and the fight against terrorism, Ethiopia stands out as having been exceptionally successful.”6    

Ethiopia may have been doing well in averting the threat of terrorism, but this could not permanently guarantee the country from the perils engendered by external forces. For one thing, the Horn of Africa is prone to conflicts and major wars; and for another, Ethiopia was the only country in Africa that was not colonized but it nonetheless shared the brunt of European colonial domination and imperialist hegemony, and as a result Ethiopia’s modern history was determined by the geopolitical policies of the colonial regimes. The country was thus surrounded by French Djibouti, British Sudan and Kenya, and Italian Eritrea; and of all the encirclements, it was Eritrea’s artificial demarcation that effectively blocked the country and made it landlocked (see map below).

Following the martyrdom of Emperor Yohannes in 1889, the Italian occupying forces that were kept at bay on the Red Sea by the Ras Alula Ethiopian forces moved from Massawa to Asmara and established their incipient primogeniture colony. At this stage, the Italian colonial territory in Eritrea was a mere triangle that linked Masawa, Asmara, and Segenieti (56 km from Asmara) and they officially proclaimed their colony in 1890. However, in light of Ethiopian patriotism and the determination of Ethiopians to fight and vanquish colonial forces, the Italians came up with a new strategy of expanding and encapsulating Ethiopia. In 1994, thus, they expanded and incorporated huge tracts of lands in the Barka/Tessenai area while at the same time they effectively controlled the Red Sea maritime territory between Ras Kassar and Ras Dumera, in which the important ports of Massawa and Assab are located.   

Now, a similar blockage of Ethiopia is taking place, but the political actors are different and among the new political actors, the chief actors are Saudi Arabia and Qatar, but the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is also very much part of the grand Arab geostrategic plan to monitor and if possible to control the Middle East between the Gulf of Persia and the Red Sea. They may be able to control the South Eastern Red Sea bordering Yemen but they could find a platform haven in the South Western Red Sea, thanks in large measure to the cooperation of Eritrea and for letting the mini-hegemon Arabs to use the Port of Assab. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are heavily involved in the Yemeni civil war and for logistical and strategic reasons, Assab is an ideal location to conduct their military operations, because it is a mere 12 miles between the southern end tip of Eritrea and Yemen and they could easily have a military upper-hand especially in the Taize area of Yemen (see map above).

Back in November, 2015, Andrew Korybko, writing for Global Research, observes the expansion of Saudi Arabia and the GCC to Eritrea and discusses the geopolitical implications for Ethiopia in some detail. The writer, while recognizing Ethiopia as “Africa’s next and upcoming power” discusses ‘Bab el Mandeb and the War in Yemen’ in which he makes the following interesting analysis:

The Saudi’s and their lackeys have succeed in blockading the Yemeni coast and conquering Aden, thus returning most of the unipolar world’s control over their lost ‘real estate’ in this ultra-strategic region but capitalizing on their unofficial casus belli to make sure that they can indefinitely retain control there, the GCC decided to ‘jump the pond’ to the Horn of Africa, hence its interactions with Eritrea and the contracting of Amara’s [sic Asmara’s] ‘services’. In a sense, Eritrea is envisioned as being the Gulf’s “back-up Yemen”, a friendly territory under the proxy influence from which punitive measures can be launched against the people of Yemen if they ever to succeed in once more nearly liberating the entirety of their country.7          

Now, going back to our theme, ‘what Ethiopia can do to deflect external threats’, I propose and underscore in this paper that foreign Ethiopian enemies could be kept at bay insofar Ethiopian patriotism (which at present is challenged) is regenerated; and in order to revive Ethiopian patriotism, the history of modern Ethiopia is sine qua for Ethiopians to reminisce the experience of their forefathers and look back and learn from that great tradition of selflessness. In this regard, Ethiopians have a rich history and could simply recap the exemplary roles played by their former leaders. For instance, Emperor Tewodros confronted the British at Mekdela and committed altruistic suicide; The Italians were kept at bay in 1885 and 1887 by the Ras Alula-led Ethiopian forces, or confronted and destroyed by Emperor Yohannes; and more so annihilated by Emperor Meneilk at Adwa in 1896.

The present generation of Ethiopians should re-visit the proud history of patriotism of their country and the sense of Ethiopian identity that their forefathers upheld as a banner to unite their country and mobilize the people against foreign enemies. It is insofar Ethiopians foster patriotism (which is now challenged and compromised) by practically engaging a pan-Ethiopian agenda that transcends ethno-nationalism and ethnocentric values that, the external threats could be diffused because a pan-Ethiopian united front, in turn, enables Ethiopians to defend their country and deflect external threats.  

It logically follows, thus, that Ethiopia should revise the parameters and section of the constitution that encourages separatism (e.g. Article 39 of the Constitution). The EPRDF’s agenda of self-determination of nationalities including up to secession may have been well-intentioned, but the policymakers of the EPRDF leaders were unable to foresee the negative implications of the policies of ‘self-determination and its attendant ‘divorce’ from the Ethiopian body politic. The above argument had already been entertained in my debut book, Ethiopia: The Political Economy of Transition (1995) when the transitional government of Ethiopia (TGE), a precursor to the present regime, was formed, and this is how I put it then:

The TGE’s policy of Kilil and self-determination is commendable, but the consequence of fragmentation as a result of new wave of ethnic political consciousness, and the inability of some minority nationalities to become economically and politically viable, would ultimately preoccupy Ethiopians to otherwise unforeseen problem 8

The ‘new wave of ethnic political consciousness’ amongst Ethiopian communities that I foresaw two decades ago has now engulfed Ethiopians as nightmarish divisive politics, and it is especially Diaspora Ethiopians that have become the victims of ethno-nationalism by their own volition, so to speak.

Furthermore, in my new book, Ethiopia: Democracy, Devolution of Power, and the Developmental State, I have critically examined the nuances surrounding ethnic politics and ethnic-based demarcation of regional states by creating three scenarios:

·        However dogmatic and flawed the EPRDF program of self-determination could be, it was meant to genuinely redress the minority rights of Ethiopia.

·        The EPRDF policy of ethnically demarcated regions for Ethiopia could inadvertently undermine the unity of the Ethiopian people and result in the disintegration of Ethiopia.

·        In due course of the formation of the regional states, the EPRDF would reconsider its previous policy and would opt for a strong center instead in order to facilitate the political and economic interests of the ‘new class’ and administer the regions by remote control or, in order to promote development via the developmental state while at the same time create opportunities for the regional states… The EPRDF would like to preside over the affairs of Ethiopia via scenarios one and two, but also wants to hang on to power by solidifying its foundations at the center.9

It is pretty much clear that elements of the three scenarios strongly illustrate the current political affairs and the Oromo protestations in Ethiopia. Ethnic affiliation, though quite organic and natural in cementing the values and traditions as well as sentiments of ethnic groups around the world, it is nonetheless too backward and becomes a major hurdle to unity and development especially in the era of globalization where the existence of the state that represent a whole unified nation has become questionable, let alone tribal affiliations that don’t fit into the general international trend of global political economy that demands world-wide or regional trade integration.

Out of the current political mess, hopefully, an all-Ethiopia unifying political group could emerge and if the latter is realized, its first task should be to carefully assess and diagnose the internal and external threats that could very well undermine the unity of Ethiopia. This hypothetical organization or pan-Ethiopian organizations that apparently would emerge out of the ashes, should investigate the suspicious “terrorist” acts like the bombing of Dilla University, followed by Harar and Jimma. They should also investigate the case of Qimant in Gondar; why it is necessary for the Qimant to divorce from the Amhara Regional State, when in fact the Qimant are indistinguishable from other Amharas, and who is behind the “Qimant initiative” to attack and destroy Tigrayan-owned businesses? The patriotic pan-Ethiopian leaders should also investigate some writings by some Diaspora Ethiopian intellectuals (and pseudo-intellectuals) that deliberately foster ethnic politics and call for the unity of Oromo and Amhara against Woyane (or Tigrayans); investigate further the fabrication of a story that “Tigrayan troops are attacking Oromo protestors.” The Regional States have their own police and Ethiopia has a federal police and a national army and there is no such thing as ‘Tigrayan troops’. The patriotic pan-Ethiopian leadership should also investigate the video clip on Wolkait, in which a sizable population of the area were gathered and in which two speakers repeatedly emphasized that “the people of Wolkait are Amhara and not Tigrayan”, and paradoxically, just behind the stage on which the speakers stood are displayed the current Ethiopian flag and the flag of the Regional State of Tigray.

Finally, I believe the EPRDF Government has an historical responsibility to effectively manage the internal political crisis and deflect external threats. If the Government could not shoulder such responsibility, however, the Ethiopian people as a whole and the pan-Ethiopian patriots in particular must shoulder the historic task of saving Ethiopia from the twin challenges of internal and external threats.

What are the attributes of a pan-Ethiopian patriotism? ‘Pan’ literally means “all” and a pan-Ethiopian organization should necessarily embrace all Ethiopians irrespective of their ethnicity, language, traditions, and religious affiliations. Pan-Ethiopian patriotism transcends all narrow ethnic affiliations and interests and promotes an all-inclusive Ethiopian agenda first while at the same time respects the self-determination (short of secession) of all Ethiopian nationalities. A group that fosters ethnic politics and divisiveness among Ethiopians but carries the name of ‘Ethiopian’ is neither pan-Ethiopian nor patriotic.


1.     For further discussion on democracy and political culture, see Ghelawdewos Araia, Ethiopia: Democracy, Devolution of Power, and the Developmental State, Institute of Development and Education for Africa (IDEA), 2013. All first five chapters are important for this discussion, but Chapter 6 especially is relevant to the central thesis of this article.

2.     Alexander Kouzmin, Alan M. G. Jarman, “Policy Advice as Crisis: A Political Redefinition of Crisis,” Oxford International Studies Review

3.     Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, Vol. 7, Issue 2 (Oxford)

4.     Arjen Boin et al, The Politics of Crisis Management: Public Leadership Under Pressure, Cambridge University Press

5.     Arjen Boin et all, Ibid

6.     Mehari Tadelle Maru, Horn of Africa Affairs, August 1, 2015

7.     Andrew Korybko, “Saudi Arabia and the GCC are Expanding to Eritrea. Geopolitical Implications for Ethiopia,” Global Research, November 18, 2015

8.     Ghelawdewos Araia, Ethiopia: The Political Economy of Transition, University Press of America, 1995, p. 166

9.     Ghelawdewos Araia, Ethiopia: Devolution of Power, and the Developmental State, p. 82

All Rights Reserved. Copyright © Institute of Development and Education for Africa (IDEA), 2016. Dr. Ghelawdewos Araia can be contacted for educational and constructive feedback via dr.garaia@africanidea.org