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Trends and Patterns in Contemporary Ethiopian Politics

 Ghelawdewos Araia, PhD  December 13, 2017

Time and again I addressed and seriously underscored the significance of Ethiopian unity, because from day one since the ascendance of the EPRDF to power, I sensed a political program that could possibly undermine the unity of the Ethiopian people and subsequently the fragmentation of the Ethiopian nation-state. This concern of mine, shared by multitude of Ethiopians, was expressly stated in my debut book published twenty-two years ago, and it goes as follows:

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.1

Now, I have lived to witness my own prediction haunting me as a nightmare when especially I encountered a preponderant ethno-nationalism, coupled by ethnic hatred that virtually encapsulated the overarching and common Ethiopian identity. Sadly, in the last two and half decades, Ethiopians have begun identifying themselves as Oromo, Amhara, and/or Tigray instead of calling themselves ‘Ethiopian’. Diaspora Ethiopians have forgotten their common Ethiopian identity, and willingly forged ethnic enclaves; the Oromo in Minnesota, for instance, have founded not only a miniature Oromo nation but they also have practically divorced themselves from the larger Ethiopian society. Similarly, Amhara and Tigray Diaspora Ethiopians who belong to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church have gone separate ways and found their respective churches led by politically oriented clergy.

As indicated above, thus, contrary to the general trend of history in which human societies evolve from a lower to a higher socioeconomic and socio-psychological gradations, it looks that Ethiopians have reversed the historical route and ended up in sectarian and narrow entities, and as a result they became narrow minded.  This kind of degeneration engenders negative consequences of ethno-nationalism and manifests the worst type of bias and hate against people. It is therefore not surprising that Ethiopians in the Diaspora and to some extent Ethiopians in Ethiopia, inoculated with the virus of hate, employ toxic activities such as burning Ethiopian flag, burning public properties2 and attacking Tigrawot (Tigrayans) that have nothing to do with the TPLF/EPRDF. Similar frenzy attacks had been unleashed against the Amhara in the early 1990s when the EPRDF-led transitional government of Ethiopia (TGE) was established; subsequently, the Amhara that were residing in the “Oromo territory” were told to leave and go back to “their country”, when in fact all Ethiopia is their country. Moreover, narrow-minded ethno-nationalists, perceive Amharic as their enemy and as a result they don’t want to communicate in Amharic nor want to use the Geez alphabets to express their ideas.

I have been following and studying ethno-nationalist trends and patterns in the context of contemporary Ethiopian politics and have come to conclude that the present generation of Ethiopians have become less enlightened and more myopic compared to the generation of the 1960s and 1970s. I recall the golden age of Ethiopian politics when Ethiopian students, under the banner of USUAA (University Students Union of Addis Ababa) promoted an all-encompassing Ethiopian politics and ideology against the regime in power; they were mainly interested in the liberation of oppressed nationalities; the equality of women; land to the tiller; and the end of poverty in Ethiopia. These were the major mottos and agendas that were marshaled by the Ethiopian Student Movement (ESM) and that were mainly intended to overhaul Ethiopia in general and uplift Ethiopians from poverty in particular. In more general terms, the ESM is the epitome of an advanced detachment and politically highly conscious student body dedicated to the welfare of the Ethiopian people and the advancement of Ethiopia in the economic sphere.

To the enlightened students mentioned above, ethnic divide and ethnic politics were out of question; on the contrary, beyond Ethiopian nationalism, the militant students upheld the universal concept of internationalism. They were advocates not only for Ethiopia but also for other African countries like Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Angola, and Guinea Bissau that were not independent yet; they also stood for the people of Vietnam who were struggling for freedom against American intervention, and for all other oppressed peoples around the world. I still have a vivid memory of USUAA-sponsored rallies, such as the anti US-conducted war in Vietnam at Arat Kilo; in that rally, in due course of burning the effigy of President Nixon, one student by the name Tsegaye Gebremedhin (Debteraw) almost burned himself; and in the same rally, one student from Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) by the name Elias read a memo in solidarity and support of the Zimbabwe guerrilla fighters.

With the above student legacy, the golden age of politics were carried on after the 1974 revolution broke out. At least in the formative period of the revolution, EPRP and MEISONE exchanged debates on major political issues via their respective publications, Goh and Tsedey, and Ethiopians as a whole assumed the emergence of a new democratic Ethiopia. Tragically, contrary to the wishes and ambitions of Ethiopians, when the Derg military regime consolidated power it effectively terminated the political culture of the golden age by prioritizing the gun to suppress the people and by declaring the so-called Red Terror against the EPRP, the youth, and other progressive forces; adding fuel to fire, the EPRP and MEISONE began killing each other and the political trends and patterns of the 1960s and 1970s were gone forever. Although these two prominent political parties made major tactical and strategic mistakes in conducting fratricidal and pitched battles in urban Ethiopia, there is no doubt that they were infiltrated by foreign agents who wanted Ethiopia to fail.

Ethiopia was ruled by the most sadistic and brutal regime in its history from 1974 to 1991, that is, until the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) ended the Mengistu Hailemariam-led government and captured state power. Ethiopians, once again, hoped for a new democratic Ethiopia after the monstrous regime was avoided. At any rate, with the coming of the EPRDF there were some semblance of peace and gradually but surely the new government began to implement development programs but it never allowed democracy to flourish. As far as I am concerned the absence of democracy for the last twenty six years in Ethiopia is viscerally disturbing, and it is for this apparent reason that I have dedicated seven chapters on democracy in my book Ethiopia: Democracy, Devolution of Power, and the Developmental State (2013).

Some people argue that democracy is not necessarily a precondition to development, and they further reason that there are countries that were transformed under tyrannical regimes. However, although this line of argument is logically sound, it does inadvertently conceal not only the significance of democracy but also justifies dictatorships and tyrannical political systems. On top of this, the argument, more or less, dismisses the possibility of the synergetic connection of democracy and development and that both can also in fact operate in tandem.

Once the EPRDF firmly saddled on the state power machine, it was determined to govern Ethiopia all by itself without the participation of contending other parties, let alone share power with representatives of the legally registered opposition parties. There is no doubt that the EPRDF permitted well-meaning pre-election debates, but soon after the election is over it becomes fait accompli that the EPRDF is the winner; in fact, the ruling party systematically alienated the opposition several times. In the 2010 election, for instance, there was only one opposition representative in the parliament with 547 seats, and in the 2015 election, the EPRDF stunned the world by its ridiculous declaration that it had won all seats in the parliament. This action of the EPRDF, of course, was a national disgrace for Ethiopia and a major hurdle for the establishment of democratic institutions in the country.

In the past quarter of a century, thus, given the pattern of governance EPRDF-style, the regime in power forged a huge bureaucracy at the center (the federal government) and the periphery (the nine regional states) and infused it with patronage politics; only loyal EPRDF members and supporters were to benefit from the stakes and spoils of the political system; and professionals and intellectuals who were independent in their thinking and were critical of the regime were deliberately avoided; and although the EPRDF condemned so-called Kiray Sebsabinet, a confusing and wrong Amharic term to mean ‘privilege seeking’, and attributed it to corrupt officials within its ranks and the larger Ethiopian society, it is the ruling party itself that actually employed spoils as mentioned above and openly gave offices and privileges to its supporters.

However, despite undemocratic governance and patron-client politics of the EPRDF, the ruling party achieved major development implementations in infrastructure such as the construction of roads, railways, and dams; the expansion of schools all over Ethiopia and the founding of 35 universities; the expansion of primary health care in the rural areas; the construction of public housing  and establishment of factories and industrial parks; and last but not least the strengthening and upgrading of the Ethiopian defense by an up-to-date and state-of-the-art technology.

While the trends and patterns in Ethiopian politics can be summarized by the main features of this essay discussed above, it would however be incomplete without critically examining the most recent party meetings of the EPRDF, particularly that of the TPLF, to which I now turn.                 

The four parties that make up the EPRDF, namely the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO), Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM), and Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM), have conducted an overall organizational evaluation, criticism and self-criticism, and assessment of the present Ethiopian situation.  The OPDO, ANDM, and SEPDM conferences, in a similar vein to that of the TPLF Mekelle conference were aimed at launching, at least theoretically, structural change within their respective parties, but it looks that this wishful agenda, if seen from prior repeated EPRDF promises (pattern of behavior), is an Achilles Heel that could not be healed. I think the EPRDF is stuck in an intractable modus operandi and consequently unable to manage its own internal crisis, let alone bring fundamental and/or structural changes. And short of complete overhaul of the EPRDF and the political system it presides over, Ethiopia could encounter a major setback and the development programs scored thus far could be derailed, retarded or stalled.

One good thing that came out from the conferences, particularly from the OPDO conference, is the emergence of new and young leadership like Lemma Megerssa, who have embraced Ethiopian patriotic nationalism. Lemma, the current president of the Oromia Regional State, told Ethiopians in no uncertain terms at the Oromo-Amhara peoples meeting in Bahir Dar, “Ethiopiawinet is addictive” although he used the inappropriate and wrong word of ‘hashish’ in lieu of ‘addiction’. I was delighted to hear those words and I said to myself, “Ethiopian nationalism, after all, is a powerful and unique ethos and will not easily succumb to the present vogue of ethno-nationalism and sectarian politics.” Nevertheless, whether Ethiopian nationalism will eventually triumph over ethnic enclave entrapments or is going to be emasculated by the latter remains to be seen.

In the manifesto of the TPLF fighters (Tegadelti) that was made available for public consumption after their August 2017 meeting, the emphasis and leitmotif was Ethiopian nationalism; in fact, the memo clearly states that “anti-Ethiopia elements must be combated”, and this newly reconstituted Ethiopian agenda gives some solace vis-à-vis an Ethiopia that is beset by ethnic politics that could possibly drive the great Ethiopian nation toward fragmentation, unless it is dealt with properly now; I mean now, without delay!

If the EPRDF indeed is going to redeem pan-Ethiopian nationalism and identity, it must seriously consider the present mono-ethnic regional states and put instead as an option multiethnic administrative units without completely altering the federal system. Federalism as such is not a problem; in fact, federalism is a good system but what matters is how the federal system is arranged. In substantiating the above idea, in one of my articles published in 2016, I reasoned as follows:

I strongly believe that my recommendation of a transition from a mono-ethnic regional states to multi-ethnic and multicultural regional states without disturbing the idea and practice of the federal system is not only viable and a guarantee to Ethiopian unity, but it could also forge a higher form of national consciousness that would altogether transcend the current sectarian clannish and/or ethnocentric ideology. The paradigm shift will also serve as a vehicle to emancipate the Ethiopian psychology from the shackles of ethnic politics in general and liberate (or systematically emasculate) the relatively obdurate, immutable, and invidious Ethiopian elements from their toxic activity, inherent bias and subjectivity, as well as existential absurdity.3     

In brief what the above two paragraphs entail is the significance and seriousness of what Ethiopia represents as a nation and what it means to the collective psyche of Ethiopians; in other words, it means all Ethiopians, irrespective of their ethnic origins, should be entitled to live, work, worship, sojourn, and own property in all regional states. In this regard, Ethiopia can learn from the Nigerian federal experiment in which multiethnic linguistic groups reside in all thirty six states that makes up Nigeria. On top of this, the EPRDF should altogether eliminate the word ‘secession’ from its lexicon and rewrite article 39 of the Ethiopian constitution.

Finally, I like to discuss the content and essence of the TPLF/EPRDF Central Committee (CC) memorandum put out by the organization following its 35-day closed meeting in Mekelle. Although the TPLF’s newly formed CC leadership does not in any way manifest change, and on the contrary it signals to Ethiopians that it is business as usual and same people representing same old class interests are still in place, credit must be given to the TPLF for admitting its mistakes and for dissecting its drawbacks. The CC of the TPLF, for instance, states that “recently the party has entered into a whirlpool and has shown weakness in not providing sufficient answers to people’s demands…and because the party’s strategic leadership was incapacitated, the organization became part of the problem, instead of becoming part of the solution.”

Furthermore, the following extract from the CC memo is the most powerful and compelling self-criticism the TPLF has ever made in its entire history: “The leadership lacks theoretical and practical unity; it is immersed in anti-democratic practices and ideas; a leadership that does not furnish leadership surrounding mission and principle; instead of prioritizing the people and principles, it promoted instead its own honor and interests; at a time when its advocacy for the people was being eroded, the party moved from being servant to the people to servicing itself; instead of sticking with people oriented successful structural changes, it began quenching with summary changes, and started rewarding itself by false reports; as a result, the leadership was transferred to a dependent ruling class.”

“This strategic leadership weakness”, the TPLF additionally states, “had huge impact on the implementation of our economic goals. ‘We reached a point where we could not continue what we had begun to achieve numerous changes surrounding people’; the party has seen in depth that sometimes these achievements regressed; the party has also seen that there was a wide gap in organized leadership with respect to development forces. The party has clearly understood that it has sterilized the potential change championship of the youth, intellectuals, women, and other professional associations. It has made big contribution to the erosion of the trust people had on the organization. Moreover, the party also very well understood that ‘we ensnared ourselves into the trap made by the enemies of the federal system’, and as a result the TPLF exhibited weakness in jeopardizing the very existence of our country Ethiopia.”4          

More than self-criticism and internal party evaluation, the TPLF and the other three EPRDF organizations have made confessions to the Ethiopian people, and they also have promised changes, but the latter remains to be seen and the Ethiopian people could still be suspicious of the ruling party given the patterns of inconsistency in its policies and style of governance. However, Ethiopians could have some confidence vis-à-vis the successes in the foundational economy by the EPRDF. Furthermore, Ethiopians could have confidence and hope due to the fact that at long last the ruling party began to expressly state Ethiopian nationalism that was de-emphasized and undermined for the last twenty six years.

By way of concluding and offering some advice to the EPRDF, I like to recommend the following: 1) The EPRDF must carefully diagnose the trends and patterns shown by African leaders who were self-proclaimed permanent rulers and who brought so much damage to their respective countries. The ruling party should not follow their example and should rather prepare itself an exit strategy; 2) given the complex Ethiopian political landscape, the weakness of the opposition, and the predominance of ethnocentric politics and values, it would be advisable that the EPRDF stay in power but with the sole purpose of giving a chance to a new leadership (“young blood”) via peaceful transition; 3) at long last, the pan-Ethiopian agenda and Ethiopian nationalism must be revitalized in such a way not only to galvanize country-wide sentiments, but also to purposely mobilize the Ethiopian people against the enemies of Ethiopia and transcending all narrow ethno-nationalist proclivities and political programs; 4) the EPRDF must be transparent not only in its routine government operations but also with respect to some suspicious incidents that have afflicted the Ethiopian larger society for relatively long time. To this day, the Ethiopian people don’t know who conducted the bombardment of Tigray Hotel and Lalibela Hotel in Addis Ababa in the 1990s; they also don’t know who shot Minister and Ambassador Abdul Majid Hussien or murdered the Ethiopian priests in Arsi; conducted the massacre in Gambella; murdered Hajji Yusuf in Wollo; burned public property in Ambo (several times); attacked Tigrayans in Gondar; and the recent incidents of Woldia confrontation in which one person died and another incident in Adigrat in which also one student was killed. The government must be accountable for all these disreputable, dubious, and cynical activities and it should explain (not just announce on TV) the causes for the incidents; 5) the EPRDF should not revisit the Algiers Agreement and surrender Ethiopian territory and commit an egregious second historic mistake. If it does, it may very well hasten its downfall; 6) the EPRDF leadership and its officers down the hierarchy of the party must understand that development is not only material but it also includes intellectual and psychological, and for this apparent reason they must also give priority to freedom of the press, open debates, and evolution of democratic political culture without preconditions; 7) the EPRDF must give priority to youth preparedness and leadership; the youth are the future of Ethiopia, and as such they must be educated and oriented in a leadership academy so that Ethiopia enjoys smooth transference of power and political change. 

However, the seven recommendations mentioned above cannot be met unless and until the EPRDF is willing to allow a non-discriminatory platform in which all opposition (except some treasonous organizations) forces in Ethiopia and other organizations outside Ethiopia like the EPRP and MEISONE (if it is still existence) and other civic organizations participate in the making of new Ethiopia. This, in effect, is going to be the new national reconciliation that could nourish peaceful coexistence amongst various political parties and nationalities of Ethiopia and guarantee Ethiopians to continue endeavoring and realizing the transformation of their country for the better. That will be the day when Ethiopia rise as a strong leader nation in the African continent and herald the emergence of African Lions to the world!




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

2.    Ghelawdewos Araia, “Foreign Intervention, the Politics of Burning Public Property, and State Emergency Declaration in Ethiopia,” www.africanidea.org/Ethiopia_Foreign_Intervention.html

3.    Ghelawdewos Araia, “Beyond Ethnocentric Ideology and Paradigm Shift for a Greater Ethiopian Unity,” April 20, 2016


4.    TPLF/EPRDF, “TPLF/EPRDF Central Committee Position Stand” Hidar 21, 2010 (Ethiopian Calendar), December 1, 2017    


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