The Fall of the TPLF and the Realignment of Political Forces in Ethiopia
Professor Guluma Gemeda
7 June 2018
Since the fall of the Dergin 1991, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), as organizer and leader of the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), has dominated Ethiopian politics. The junior members of the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF)—the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM), the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO) and the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ (SNNP)—have remained TPLF’s loyal partners. Together with Tigrayan agents who were installed at key government organizations such as the army, the security, immigration and foreign affairs, the junior partners implemented the policies primarily designed and directed by the TPLF. Other allies who were recruited from various ethnic groups also assisted in running the system. Initially, the presence of the TPLF agents was obvious at all levels of government bureaucracy. Gradually, as their dominance became routine, the agents occupied key but invisible positions behind the scene in government bureaucracy. In this manner, the TPLF domination continued securely for 27 years.
On the other hand, although highly fragmented and never agreeing on the same agenda, the opposition struggled to topple the TPLF from power. For a generation, an assortment of opposition groups, organized in and outside of Ethiopia, condemned the TPLF and the ruling EPRDF coalition partners. But due to their divergent programs, opposition parties had hard time to create common political platform to effectively challenge the TPLF. The opposition to the TPLF included the remnants of the Derg regime, hardline Ethiopian nationalists and various ethno-nationalist groups who both supported and opposed the ruling party’s policy of ethnic federalism. Given their contradictory objectives on various issues, they were unable to end the EPRDF regime. The TPLF easily castigated them either as chauvinists or as narrow nationalists. Manipulating the global war on terrorism, the regime also branded some of them as terrorists.
In the meantime, using a developmentalist economic policy, the TPLF regime received generous financial resources from the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the Chinese government. Powerful Western democracies—the United States, Canada, and the European Union—also provided financial and diplomatic support. Utilizing such support, the TPLF regime orchestrated a double-digit economic growth narrative, which, at least on paper, impressed foreign allies and donor agencies. The economic growth narrative, however, concealed, at least from the outside world, the corruption, continued poverty, terrible political repression and massive human rights violations. While the regime boasted double-digit growth, millions of citizens depended on food aid. As the TPLF elite and allied partners became very rich within a short time, many farmers were evicted from their lands and internally displaced. Struggling business people who were unaffiliated with the TPLF lacked credit and became bankrupt. Thousands of youth leaving schools were unemployed because they refused to join the ruling EPRDF party or jobs were not available for them. Yet, the fragmentation of the opposition groups and foreign diplomatic and financial support helped the TPLF to consolidate its power, and temporarily marginalize all opposition groups.
Ultimately, political arrogance, repression and corruption galvanized the youth and all citizens who were cheated and mistreated by the TPLF. The Qeerroo, the Oromo Youth Movement, took the lead in mobilizing protests in the Oromia Regional State. Qeerroo‘s courageous acts since 2014 paralyzed the regime and forced it to impose two states of emergencies. The Qeerroo-led protests became resilient and led to the resignation of Prime Minister Haile Mariam Desalegn and the appointment of Dr. Abiy Ahmed on April 2, 2018.
While still committed to stabilizing the EPRDF regime and responding to the latest crises, the new prime minister is promising some reforms. Since he came to power, he has visited different regions and delivered speeches which were positively received by many people. He has released some political prisoners and has indicated his willingness to negotiate with the opposition groups. In the meantime, observing the opening of some opportunities, a few political organizations have started responding to his call for dialogue. TPLF supporters seem to be nervous and have started grumbling about the prime minister’s approaches. But, if this trend continues, a new political realignment is likely to emerge.
The political situation is fluid and the TPLF is still firmly in power. Second, the multiplicity of actors and the layers of deep-seated historical contradictions make any assessment of the situation unreliable. Third, although many hope that the new prime minister will turn the corners, given the complex nature of Ethiopian politics, the situation could turn deadly any time. With these caveats, it is, however, possible to speculate the possible realignment of forces in the coming months.
The current changes will likely lead to the emergence of three major contending groups which are now either on the side of the government or with the opposition.
- The TPLF Camp:
After 27 years in power, the PLF is ideologically defeated. Its leaders have terribly mismanaged the tactical and ideological advantages they enjoyed when they came to power in 1991. Instead of expanding and consolidating their position by forming fair alliances and sharing power with collaborators from other ethnic groups, the TPLF elite abused their partners and oppressed the people. Their corruption, repression and the desire for absolute control of power have antagonized the people. The much-trumpeted double-digit economic growth under the TPLF rule aroused ambitions but failed to satisfy the peoples’ needs. The mass protests over the last four years have clearly exposed the deep-seated weaknesses of the TPLF regime. The Oromo Qeerrooand the masses of the Ethiopian people have learned how to challenge a repressive political system. Now, they are not frightened or intimidated by arbitrary arrests, tortures or exile. The regime’s tight security system is broken. Clearly, the TPLF cannot re-impose its rule or stay in power without making deep reforms.
Yet, the TPLF still holds extensive power. Its agents retain key positions in the army, security and other branches of the federal government. The TPLF elite possesses illegally amassed wealth. They can use this political and economic capital to negotiate for better protection in the immediate future. First, while protecting their interests through the existing power structures, they can continue to test the political system by threatening to secede or negotiate a rapprochement with Eritrea. Second, as they lose the support of ANDM and the OPDO, they may try to recruit new coalition partners from the elites of other ethnic groups. For example, they may recruit loyalists from the Somali, Afar, Benishangul-Gumez and Gambela ethnic groups. Third, although it may seem a fantasy, some observers even suspect, the TPLF could entertain the idea of a ‘Greater Tigray’ that involves expansion along the peripheries of the Ethiopian highlands in the east and west. None of these plans is, however, feasible. However, after the resolution of the border conflict, a closer relationship with Eritrea is possible, and recruitment of new allies is also likely, although strategically less helpful. The third scenario is unlikely. But each case could be used as a negotiating tactic. For the moment, they have not yet exhausted all possibilities within the existing power structure and have not given up on Dr. Abiy Ahmed. That is why some senior members of the TPLF were seen restraining the Tigrayan youth who are becoming nervous by the weakening of the TPLF influence. As observed at the Mekele meeting last week, the old guards are still advocating regaining the lost public trust rather than rebelling against the new Prime Minister for attempting to take some actions that they do not approve. TPLF rebellion may happen only if the leaders believed that he has gone too far.
- The Ethiopianist camp:
This includes political groups with wide-ranging programs who only agree on the preservation of Ethiopian unity. On one side, it includes ethnic-based organizations such the ANDM, OPDO, and Oromo Democratic Front (ODF)—whose leaders are currently in Finfinnee (Addis Ababa) for negotiation with the government. On the other hand, there are several hardline Ethiopian nationalists such as Ginbot-7 Patriotic group and the Semayawi (Blue) party. The ethnic-based parties support Ethiopian unity, in addition to their commitment to protecting the rights of their respective ethnic groups. They also support the current constitution and the federal structure already established by the TPLF/EPRDF regime. They envisage a reformed, multiethnic federal Ethiopia where ethnic identities are protected and respected. Both Dr. Abiy Ahmed and Lemma Megersa support this kind of Ethiopian unity.
But the hardliner Ethiopianist groups want significant changes to the current constitution and the elimination of ethnic-based federalism. They consider the regional states as ‘kilil’/ enclosures, and a form of apartheid. Particularly, they want the removal of article 39 from the EPRDF constitution because they fear it makes it easier for the secession. Instead, they want the reestablishment of the provincial administrative units of the old regime. To promote a unitary state, they also want to ban ethnic-based political organizations, advocate for the use of Amharic as the only official language, and Ethiopic/Geez fidelfor writing in all languages, and the banning of qubee. Their favored slogan is: one country, one official language, and one flag.
Unexpectedly,the hardliners are quite energized by the latest turn of events. Suddenly, the speeches of Dr. Aby Ahmed and Lemma Mergesa have provided them with the hope that Ethiopia, which they believed was bleeding since the TPLF took power and was on the verge of a precipice in the last few months, is now saved. They hailed Lemma Megersa’s speech at Bahr Dar in early November 2017, in which he declared “Ethiopia is an addiction” that the people cannot take it out of their system. They also admire Dr. Abiy Ahmed’s inaugural and subsequent speeches because he suggested defending Ethiopian unity as his political priority. For this reason, the hardline Ethiopianist camp is now rallying behind the prime minister hoping that he would implement what he has indicated in his speeches since he came to power on April 2, 2018.
It is not, however, clear to what extent the new prime minister is willing to or even able to realize Ethiopian unity. That he is talking about Ethiopian unity does not mean that he will be able to dismantle the current federal structure. Some of the hard-liners’ dreams are totally out of context. In fact, by pushing for an extreme unitary state, the hardliners could jeopardize any chance of democratizing Ethiopia. Instead of coalescing into a unified group, the Ethiopinist camp, may itself splinter into many groups.
- The Oromo Nationalist Camp:
This group is anchored on the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). Established in the mid-1970s with political program for the independence of Oromia, the OLF is the longest surviving dissident organization in the Horn of Africa. Its military exploits are limited. Indeed, it faced major military and political setbacks since its inception. The OLF fought the Derg and joined the TPLF to form the Transitional Government of Ethiopian in 1991. But it left the government a year later when the snap regional elections failed because of the continued TPLF harassment and violence against OLF supporters. Over 20 thousand supporters and armed combatants of the OLF were imprisoned at the time.
During the last 27 years, the OLF tried to reorganize itself and continue the struggle. But it was beset by periodic internal dissensions and changing geo-political conditions in the Horn of Africa. Despite such challenges, the OLF has survived and succeeded to capture the spirit and imaginations of the Oromo people. Even at its weakest moments, it has been able to win substantial victories. After leaving the Transitional Government, the OLF was able to influence the implementation of some of its programs set up while working with government briefly. After it left the government and while thousands of its members were in prison, the OLF continued to influence the implementation of qubee for schools in Oromia. The inclusion of article 39 in the Ethiopian constitution was also made possible because of the OLF, because without supporting such article, the OPDO lacked any legitimacy with Oromo people at the time. Recently, the powerful Qeerromovement was inspired by the OLF, and the protesters used its flag at various rallies as a sign of resistance. Irrespective of its military capabilities, the OLF is an icon for the Oromo people. It cannot be suppressed militarily because it is both an idea and a symbol of Oromo resistance. Thus, even when it is banned and branded as a terrorist organization by the TPLF, the OLF remained strong because it has broad-based mass support among the Oromo people. With or without official recognition by the government, the OLF will remain a potent political force after the fall of the TPLF.
It is also possible that, after the Ethiopinist leaning Oromo nationalist groups clear off the field, the remaining OLF factions may coalesce and form a more united organization. It is also likely that the OLF will remain a rallying point for other nationalist organizations that may not join either the TPLF or the Ethiopianist camp. Thus, any political arrangement in Ethiopia that does not include the OLF is bound to fail.
Given such realignment of forces, what would be the outcome of the post-TPLF Ethiopia? Obviously, it will be extremely messy and complicated. The autocratic and conspiratorial nature of the Ethiopian political culture will not make it easier even for good intentioned politicians with experience. This time, however, it may not be violent because one would hope, everyone has learned from the tragedies of the past. But peace is not guaranteed. The dream of reestablishing a unitary state may live on, but such a state may not come back. The post TPLF political space will be contested by the three major groups identified above and others. This will be discussed in another article in the future.