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Troubled times in Ethiopia

Print edition : Jun 23, 2001 T+T-

Twenty-five years after a process of revolutionary transformation began in Ethiopia, the country is still grappling with the vestiges of its turbulent past.

IT is a little over a quarter of a century since a process of revolutionary transformation began in Ethiopia with the violent overthrow of the seemingly firmly entrenched regime of Emperor Haile Selaisse. The man who was known as Negusa Nagast (the King of Kings), a title and a pretension assumed by Ethiopian monarchs even when many of them were little more than pretenders or puppets of subordinate kings more powerful than themselves, is now just a memory, recently resurrected in a ceremonial re-burial.

The Derg ('Committee') which led the revolution of July 1974 and whose achievements and failures are yet to be dispassionately assessed, was in turn defeated 17 years later by the forces of the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and the much older Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF). On May 21, 1991, Haile Mengistu Mariam, the leader of the Derg, was enabled, although through the unlikely joint efforts of the United States and Zimbabwe, to go into political exile in Zimbabwe. A week later, on May 28, the victorious forces of the EPRDF moved into Addis Ababa, formally marking the end of the Derg regime.

Two years later, on May 24, 1993, Eritrea, which had been 'integrated' into Ethiopia during the imperial regime, attained independence following a referendum and formalised its de facto status as an independent state after the defeat of the Derg regime. However, the government in Addis Ababa had to face much opposition for its resolve to and role in facilitating that process. Indeed, one of the issues on which Ethiopian opinion across the political spectrum appears to be united is that the separation of Eritrea should never have happened since the Eritreans are 'our own people'. However, rather contradictorily, the people also cherish an unmitigated hostility to Eritrea and Eritreans, accusing them of all kinds of skulduggery - currency manipulation and economic sabotage, wanting to both dominate and ruin Ethiopia's economy, and so on.

May 28 is now annually observed as one of the four national days in Ethiopia. The day is supposed to mark the beginning of democratic accountability, a break from feudalism and dictatorship - the code words for the imperial regime and 'socialism' of the Derg. However, while the official celebrations of the anniversary this year were decidedly muted, the day was marked by several protests, more outside the country than inside where such protests are not exactly tolerated, against what the protesters characterise as 'the brutal dictatorship of the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front' (TPLF). Among the factors underlying these protests is the conviction that the TPLF leadership conspired with the EPLF, its comrade and ally in the struggle against Mengistu, and allowed Eritrea to become a free nation, undoing all that the imperial regime and even the Derg regime had done to 'integrate' Eritrea into Ethiopia, providing it with an access to the sea. Curiously, this nostalgia co-exists with an unconcealed triumphalism over the victory won by the Ethiopian armed forces against Eritrean aggression.

How has the EPRDF, the broad alliance of several region-based political movements and parties whose forces overthrew the Derg regime, in just about a decade come to be identified by its opponents as the TPLF, which was only one of the, even if the leading, components of the EPRDF? Perhaps the explanation is quite simple. The EPRDF as currently constituted comprises four political parties: The Oromo People's Democratic Organisation (OPDO), the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM), the Southern Ethiopia People's Democratic Front (SEPDF) and the TPLF. Numerically, insofar as representation in the House of People's Representatives, the lower House goes, the TPLF has the smallest number of seats - 40 in the EPRDF component of 481 out of the total parliamentary strength of 547. But the fact is that the TPLF component of the alliance, irrespective of its numerical strength in the House or in the Ministry, is more powerful and influential than the EPRDF as a whole. However, this is not the only instance where the sum of the parts is greater than the whole.

This perceived dominance of the TPLF in the EPRDF is simply the other side of the alienation of parties and leaders claiming to represent the two other major nationalities of Ethiopia, the Oromo and the Amhara, both numerically much larger than the Tigray (see box). Moreover, the EPRDF has been continuously in power for the last ten years, long enough for its democratic credentials to appear rather tattered. Indeed, although it won the two previous general elections (held in May 1975 and May 2000) securing an overwhelming majority on both occasions, the victory last year has been consistently disputed by the Opposition which even called for the nullification of the results. In about half of the constituencies, the Opposition parties did not even put up candidates, and this facilitated the victory of the EPRDF candidates. The Opposition parties which boycotted the 1995 elections participated in them five years later only because, as their leaders explain, boycotting two elections in succession would have invited the risk of the parties being de-registered.

According to their leaders, the Opposition parties, as they are currently constituted, are not in a position to mount a challenge to the government. Even Hailu Shalwel, president of the All Amhara People's Organisation (AAPO) and an articulate Opposition leader, pinned his faith only on the 'rethinking' that he said was currently on among Western countries, 'except the Italians' who he said remained among the staunchest supporters of the government. "I expect the international support which the regime enjoys to melt away," Hailu said. He admitted that his party fared poorly in the last elections (it has only one member in the House) because the polls were rigged. The same point was made by another Opposition leader belonging to the Ethiopian Democratic Party (EDP), which has two members in the House.

With its overwhelming majority in the House, the EPRDF faces no challenge to speak of in matters of legislation and government. Indeed, even when the Opposition parties were accusing the government of rigging the poll in 2000, the criticism was tempered by a grudging acknowledgement of the victories won against 'Eritrean aggression', although the fact that these were won under the political leadership of the EPRDF was never acknowledged.

But then, as always, the unchallenged supremacy of the EPRDF and of the TPLF within the EPRDF is turning out to be its weakest point with the most serious challenge to the TPLF coming from within its own ranks. Hence the significance of the recent developments within the TPLF, beginning with the resignation of 12 dissident members of the TPLF Central Committee in March. Although two of the members subsequently withdrew the resignations, one of them apparently a 'false card' resignation meant as a ruse to flush out the dissidents, the issues raised by the dissidents are yet to be resolved.

The internal crisis which is yet to be resolved also coincided with one of the periodic outbursts of popular anger against the government when students in Addis Ababa and several other cities came out on the streets protesting against denial of academic and democratic freedoms in educational institutions. Although the students' agitation, which the government maintains was soon taken over by 'criminal elements', was crushed - over 40 persons were killed in Addis Ababa alone - the internal problems of the TPLF appear to be more intractable.

Other elements in the ongoing crisis were the assassination of Kinfe Gebremedhin, the country's security chief who was also a top-ranking leader of the TPLF, on May 12, by a serving officer of the country's armed forces and the arrest in May of Siye Abraha, former Defence Minister and one of the TPLF dissidents, along with some of his relatives, on charges of 'corruption'. A few days later, there were reports of 11 Army officers seeking political asylum in Kenya.

However, TPLF loyalists and supporters of the government blame the media for all talk of dissidence. According to Kinfe Abraham, a TPLF ideologue and senior adviser to the government, dissidence in the TPLF is nothing new. Such dissidence and splits only enable the party to purge itself of opportunistic elements and renew itself. The current divisions only reflected conflicting perspectives over the assessment of the TPLF in government over the past ten years and the direction it should take. Indeed, if one were to go by Kinfe's explanation, all the current troubles were being manipulated by unrestructured supporters of the old order - the monarchists and those who benefited under the Derg regime.

It is true that some individuals associated with the Derg regime are also to be found in the ranks of the organised political Opposition - to the extent it is organised - and 'non-political' civil society structures such as the AAPO, the EDP, the Ethiopian Human Rights Council, the Council of Alternative Forces of Peace and Democracy, the Coalition of Ethiopian Democratic Forces - the last one described by a political analyst as "the mirror of the EPRDF" - and similar structures. However, to see all opposition to the TPLF simply as driven by nostalgia for a past which can never come back is simply to miss the point and overlook the failures of the government.

The harshness of the measures taken against legitimate student protests, the arrest of leading academic figures and human rights activists, the campaign against the independent media, the Opposition parties and civil society organisations, the failure to explain to the public what exactly was going on in the TPLF which, even without the Opposition saying so, is not an issue of concern only to the TPLF and its members but, given the dominant position of the TPLF within the EPRDF and the government, affects the country as a whole were some of the significant events of Ethiopian politics in April-May. None of these has until now been satisfactorily explained. Those who raise these issues can hardly be dismissed as agents of the old regimes nostalgically hankering for a restoration.

THEN, there is the economy. To the extent one can make out, the EPRDF came to power on a platform of dismantling the elaborate structure of state control and patronage that extended to every aspect of the country's economy. However, state control of even the most marginal aspects of the economy remains as entrenched as ever. The disinvestment that has taken place, Opposition leaders say, has only meant the transfer of disinvested state assets to TPLF management and control.

Crucial in this context, in the predominantly agrarian economy of Ethiopia, is land. According to official figures, over 90 per cent of the population consists of subsistence farmers dependent on land. In implementing its proclaimed objective of 'Ethiopian socialism', the Derg regime progressively nationalised banks and other financial institutions, privately-owned industrial and commercial establishments and finally, all rural and urban land as part of a programme of land reform. A few analysts of these measures maintain that the nationalisation programme was working or at least would have worked had it only been well thought out and implemented with care. However, the majority of analysts however maintain that the nationalisation programme was a disaster, the appropriation of land in particular directly contributing to the famine of the mid-1980s, although the country had experienced devastating famines during the imperial regime too.

However, the fact is that the objective of 'Ethiopian socialism' was abandoned by the regime itself in the late 1980s, forced to take into account international developments in Eastern Europe and finally in the Soviet Union itself, although this did not save the regime. How is the issue addressed by the democratic government? The following passage from Article 40 of the Constitution, dealing with 'The Right to Property' speaks for itself: "The right to ownership of rural and urban land, as well as of all natural resources, is exclusively vested in the State and in the peoples of Ethiopia. Land is a common property of the Nations, Nationalities and Peoples of Ethiopia and shall not be subject to sale or to other means of exchange.

Ethiopian peasants have right to obtain land without payment and the protection against eviction from their possession. The implementation of this provision shall be specified by law.

Ethiopian pastoralists have the right to free land for grazing and cultivation as well as the right not to be displaced from their own lands. The implementation shall be specified by law.

Without prejudice to the right of Ethiopian Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples to the ownership of land, government shall ensure the right of private investors to the use of land on the basis of payment arrangements established by law.

It can be argued that these provisions give credence to the claim of the Opposition parties that the government, or at least the TPLF component of it, remains committed to 'state socialism' and so is no different from the Derg regime. One wishes that one had the opportunity to discuss some of these issues with leaders of the government and the ruling party. It was not possible, although not for lack of trying.