At the conclusion of weeks of marathon meetings, many regional political watchers expected Ethiopia’s ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), to come up with a clear way out of swelling protests engulfing two of the country’s largest regional states, Oromia and Amhara, home to two-thirds of the East African state’s population of nearly 100 million, and bloody crackdowns by the security forces. Having, for over a year, blamed the crisis on a coterie of internal opposition or shadowy outlawed resistance operating from abroad, it finally came to an inevitable and yet familiar diagnosis, which can be summed up as: “We have come to meet the enemy, and the enemy is us.”
What in the ruling party is ailing the country? It calls its malady by many names: Rent-seeking, corruption, and abuse of power, to cite just a few. Its remedy? A renewal of the ruling party. It paraded on national TV one octogenarian leader after another vowing to cleanse the party off these scourges.
Never mind that this is not a new diagnosis. Its previous leader, the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi whose ghosts continue to hold sway over the country, had intoned, shortly before his death in 2012, that rampant corruption represented an existential threat to his legacy. Never mind that the current Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn whose originality in vision is a poorly rehearsed copying of his predecessor, repeated the same in 2014 during an address to the rubber-stamp parliament where the ruling party enjoys a 100 percent majority. Never mind that the party has been claiming that it was undergoing renewal and fighting corruption. And never mind if people are protesting wanting to see the same ruling party renewed.
Which raises the question: Did the EPRDF really meet its real enemy? Are the remedies proposed sufficient to contain Ethiopia’s growing crisis and prolong the ruling party’s quarter-century stranglehold on state power? These are questions worth asking.
That such a malady, call it corruption or abuse of power, poses a mortal threat to a party in power in a one-party state for so long does not come as a surprise. Since the soul-searching is prompted by growing popular protests, what is rather surprising is that EPRDF came to this prognosis without bothering to ask the protesters themselves why they keep protesting braving live bullets and massive arrests.
In theory, the ruling party is a coalition of four parties—the Tigrean Liberation Front (TPLF), the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM), the Oromo People’s Democratic organization (OPDO), and the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM)—each supposedly representing the ethnic group and regional state of their names. In reality, however, like Orwell’s Animal Farm story, TPLF is more equal than all the others. In fact, TPLF manufactured these parties as a smokescreen to hide its outsize influence. Unlike a father-child relationship, the child in the EPRDF never fully grows up, always needing the domineering parent to handpick its top leaders.
This dominance is maintained in two ways: the carrot and the stick. The carrot: As a price for their loyalty to Tigrean dominance, the leaders and top cadres of the subservient parties are made to share from the spoils and accumulate personal wealth…meaning they are made to be corrupt and abuse their power for self-enrichment. The more corrupt a PDO member, the more loyal to the existing order. Moreover, the big shots in the PDOs owed their meteoric rise in the power hierarchy, not to their smarts or qualifications, but to their usefulness to the TPLF, an honor which the latter could bestow or withdraw at whim. Those staying out of the loot-fest are kept under close surveillance and rot in their positions while those playing by the rules rise in the ranks. The lion’s share of the loot of course goes to the Tigrean kleptocracy, whose mastery of the craft puts the Italian mafia to shame.
In return, leaders or top cadres of the subservient parties are expected to keep the discontent of the people they are made to represent at bay with hollow promises. If the people managed to stir breaking all its chains, including the one-to-five security structure modeled after former East Germany’s Staasi, as is the case during the past ten months, off goes the top leaders or cadres of the subservient parties escorted by TPLF’s Rapid Reaction units who dabble as bodyguards to calm the situation—making all promises under the sun. From these encounters with the lived lives of the populace, especially in periods of heightened tensions and raw nerves like the current one, some among the PDO officialdom come to sympathize with the people as to internalize some of their grievances. Human that they are, however irreversibly they have sold their souls to the devil, they could not forever hide from the truth. When they came back to their handlers at the center, they are confronted with the stark choice of whether to paint the same rosy pictures that their Tigrean masters like to hear or risk their demise by speaking truth to power. If however one were carried away by the emotions as to cause raucous about the lopsided division of the spoils between the parties or their powerlessness in tackling the people’s grievances, even in secret, the consequences are harsh and fast. First, they will be accused of being members or supporters of outlawed groups. If they fail to be persuaded by this, then follows the threat of being paraded before the judiciary, which has distinguished itself for its vindictiveness, not to mention the abysmally outrageous miscarriage of justice. Second, presented with irrefutable evidence of corruption, meticulously documented, preserved and compiled by the Tigrean-dominated federal police and intelligence services snooping on everyone, thanks to Chinese know-how and western technology donated as reward for their partnership in the war on terror, EPRDF’s kangaroo courts actually look like serious judicial organs handling guilty verdicts.
If the evidences or witnesses are somehow found wanting, no problem: Internal security operatives can simply place calls to the head judges, who owe their appointment to their fidelity not to the law which they swore to uphold but to those who actually wield power in the country, the Tigrean oligarchy, and all will be settled in no time. If all the theatrics of the chamber falter, there is always the expansive clauses of the anti-terror law from which no one ever accused with walked away not being found guilty.
Third, if communities rise up against increasing repression as people in Oromia and Amhara are actually doing currently, the army, whose top brass is predominantly Tigrean, is trigger-ready.
TPLF’s catch-22 runs as follows: Close all access to quick wealth, condoning off all the feeder roads, TPLF loses the loyalty of the top leaders and cadres of the PDOs. Lose the PDOs, and TPLF loses control of the regional states. Loose the regional states, and it has to rely on the army and security forces, which brings them back to square one, the status quo. Allow regional states to be represented by individuals drawing their mandate and legitimacy from the people concerned, and Tigrean domination goes out the window.
TPLF could as easily get rid of all the fat cats among the PDOs and replace them with brand new ones—as it has done so many times in its reign. The result is however the same: They simply trade a full hyena with one who is mighty hungry, as the locals would say. Even if they succeeded with cleansing the “deplorables” in the PDOs, which is next to impossible, little can they do with the fattest cats of them all, the High Dons which happen to be in the TPLF itself, bringing the patronage system a full circle.
To keep absolute power to his person and thwart any challenge to his position, Mr. Zenawi, Ethiopia’s late strongman, ensured that there arose no serious contenders, even from the TPLF, let alone from the PDOs. Consequently, TPLF as well as the PDOs are teeming with warring factions. That is why the current Prime Minister, who was installed as a compromise candidate lacking the charisma and real personal and institutional power of his mentor to challenge any of the factional interests, is found at one time threatening to weed out corruption and at another time issuing stern security action against protesters.
What this means is that, EPRDF’s and Hailemariam’s so-called war against corruption is nothing but empty bluster. The war on corruption is analogous to putting bandage on a gushing wound so as to buy some precious time until the protests ran out of steam and EPRDF reasserted its control over society. Unfortunately for EPRDF, Ethiopia’s growing crisis is impervious to a war of words. Neither will war against the people in the name of combating a legion of enemies, real or perceived and internal or external, any longer do. The choices of Ethiopia’s ruling party are growing increasingly limited: Either reform or deform. It cannot tackle corruption because corruption is the price of minority dominance and the price of buying the loyalty of the top leaders and cadres of the PDOs. Without a complete overhaul and a change in paradigm, EPRDF cannot prevent the roof from collapsing on itself.
Do not get me wrong: Many of the protesters don’t mind seeing a reformed EPRDF and an end to the corruption spree. And for all they care, EPRD can march to its grave. As they are not shedding their blood and tears to reform an unreformable ruling party rotten to the core but rather to see a reformed political system that makes the twin evils of corruption and repression, by EPRDF or its replacements, things of the past.