Jawar Mohammed

Ethiopia: EPRDF’s Graduation to Absolute Dictatorship

By Jawar S. Mohammed*

The changes- the demotion and promotion of the political figures – that has taken place within member parties and the EPRDF might appear a normal course of government constitution after “election” to the novice of Ethiopian politics.  But this change is a critical leap in the intra-EPRDF politics and power dynamics.  I can fairly generalize that the reshuffle marks the climax of the familiar tactical maneuvers by Meles to eliminate an actual and potential threat to his power.

TPLF used to have a semblance of pluralism.   Its Central Committee members were generally considered somewhat independent minded and capable of challenging an individual members decision.   Rumors had it that there were once king-makers inside the party circle.  The mainstream conception of the national politics was single party (be it TPLF or EPRDF) dominance.

Whatever the past might have been, EPRDF has now moved from a one party dominated coalition to a one man party especially after the current reshuffle.  Professor Medhane Tadesse accurately described the phenomenon as follows.

“The coming of what we call ‘new guys’ can only hasten this process [reinforcing Meles’ strong grip on power] rather than change or alter it because Meles is going to sell his ideas not to his old friends, but to new guys from different parts of the country without any history of struggle, any constituency by themselves”[i](emphasis mine)

Although subordinates to Meles, the veterans members of EPRDF such as  Abay Tsehaye,Sibhat Nega  Abadula Gemeda , Adisu Legese, and Tefera Walwa were able to build their own power base and clientele cadres . That essentially gave them a relative power to pose potential threats to the ‘big brother’. The 2001 TPLF incidence that ended with the purger of Seeye and others and the role played by these veterans was a good evidence for that.   But the guys who replaced them (not necessarily younger) are not only new to the power play, but also are unknown within their parent parties. It was just few years ago Meles handpicked the likes of Alamayo Atomsa, Demeke Mekonin, Tewdros Adhanom and Muktar Kedir, personally mentored them and now made them his lieutenants. These men did not follow the regular process of rising through the ranks of their party but they owe their promotion solely to Meles.  As such, they are little known to the party members, and have almost no support base within their party.

A brief look at the changes that took place within each member party reinforces this assessment.

TPLF– Meles owes his ascendance and consolidation of power within the TPLF to the various and timely tactful elimination of potential competitors.  In the 1980’s, he got rid of a founding military leader, Aregawi Berhe.   In 2001, he eliminated the post war Tigrean hero, Seeye Abreha and purged out his closest allies. Credible sources also show Arkebe Equbay, arguably the only TPLF leader whose hard work (as a mayor of Finfinne) earned him a genuine admiration and support from the multi-ethnic urban dwellers, was demoted for similar reasons.   Apparently the more Arkebe became popular, the more he was despised by Meles and his loyal cadres. Therefore, even though most TPLF members wished Arkebe to replace Meles, everyone knew his demotion was coming. And it eventually came when he was assigned to some obscure post as an “advisor” and got striped of his EC membership.( Girma Biru faced the similar fate in OPDO)

The second strategic goal of “reshuffle” inside the TPLF was the need to adjust to the shift in opinion within the Tigrean community.  Meles has long realized that his support from Tigrean nationalists and elites have gotten thinner by the day. Three reasons could be mentioned for this;

    • Meles Zenawi’s questioned loyalty to Tigray given his allegedly Eritrean blood coupled with errantly suspicious actions has long begun to chip away at his support base within Tigrean nationalists.

    • The business elites he helped become rich no longer see him as an asset. They have accumulated enough wealth and their objective at this point is to protect what they have acquired. But it is clear that the longer Meles stay in power, the more enemies he is having.  As his sudden downfall could lead to a loss of what they accumulated. For that reason, the business elites have began to view Meles as a greater liability to their interest.

    • The intellectual elites fear the increasing concentration of power on one man’s hand in an ethnic minority regime could expose the system to a sudden crush, in turn exposing the Tigrean people to a serious backlash.

      Thus almost all sectors of the Tigrean elites might have more than enough reasons to try to remove and replace him with their own – a leadership changes not necessarily a regime change per se.  The presence of popular figures such Arkebe could unify the various factions as well.

      That is why I believe that Meles has reached a level where he cannot trust any of the ‘true’ Tigreans. Therefore, he is filling the organization’s rank by those with split loyalties (again, rumor has it that more than half of the newly selected TPLF politburo members have “some Eritrean blood”). For this Tigreans who long felt they become strangers in their own organization, this is like adding insult to the injury.

      Perhaps another related development is Azeb Mesfin’s fast and continuous climb on the ladder of power. Besides Meles, she is the only TPLF member whose ascendance to power has increased without interruption. First, she was promoted to the Central Committee of the TPLF over  strong objections by senior leaders. Then, she was elected to the parliament, and soon she ousted the organizations seemingly godfather, Sebhat Nega, taking over EFFORT, the conglomerate of TPLF  business enterprises. Amid surprises and continued anger, now she is brought on to the politburo both in TPLF and EPRDF, making her technically and practically the second person in command.

      Where is this going? There is a strong speculation that, unable to find anyone whom he can fully trust to replace him as a stand-in puppet, Meles might have decided to keep the power in the family. What would  more terrifying is  the unlikely yet possible case where she might be groomed for succession.  That would be a frightening development.

      ANDM – It’s all about shutting down the Amhara threat. Remember, for the first 15 years, unlike the OPDO, ANDM was the favored puppet organization and was safe from Meles’ suspicion. Prior to 2005, there was no organized Amhara force that could have infiltrated ANDM to turn it against Meles (like what OLF used to do with OPDO). Once Kinjit came out and now with Ginbot-7, things changed and ANDM has been receiving heavy assault. All its military officers purged and now the civilians with strong cadre of loyalists are taken out.

      In ANDM, there were four leaders with strong power base (Adisu Legese, Tefera Walwa, Hilawi Yosef and Bereket Simon). Now the first three are all but out. Of course, Bereket (an Eritrean by birth but an Amhara by choice) isn’t one of them. Therefore, it’s now safe to say that ANDM has been effectively dismantled and for some time, it will not pose a threat to Meles. Testament to this is that the organization  has be become so weekend and fractured, it could not even protest loosing the second place within EPRDF.

      – It’s about breaking up an emerging power. Meles is very conscious about the fact that there is an obvious resentment within the OPDO for being chastised and dominated by TPLF. And every one of them could be tempted to take him down granted they garner enough power. But one can only have real power if he has enough patronage to build loyal base. Preventing such scenario through creation of competing factions, denying any leader from remaining in the same position long enough and promoting unpopular and ineffective leaders, was the main game at play.

      In 2005, in order to avoid fighting the Amhara and Oromo at the same time, Meles opened up OPDO to Oromo intelligentsia for the first time. To make sure this won’t stir trouble and tip balance away from him, he put his most trusted man, Abadula Gemeda, in charge. Since there was really no reason to suspect him, unlike his predecessors, Abadula was given a relative autonomy to run Oromia as he wished.

      Abadula, perhaps the most disliked of OPDO leaders at that time, had to try to gain some support from the public. His relative autonomy and the influx of young educated technocrats were helpful. Hence, Abadula produced a relatively impressive performance and his popularity began to rise. Of course Meles hates any subordinate who is popular.  And so he brought up a decade old corruption charge and publicly humiliated Abadula. That’s not all. Meles also suspected that Abadula has been able to reconcile the various factions within OPDO, and hence was able to broaden his political base. Abadula, as former chief of military, is also suspected of having strong loyalists within the security and army apparatus. He could be dangerous. Therefore, Meles decided to bring him down ( an all of OPDO strong men such us, Girma Biru, Suleyman Dedefo, Shiferaw Jarso, Jamal Abasso).   Meles of course did not replace him with any one of the well established figures.


      • He gave party power to no-man (Alamayo and Muktar – individuals with no base of loyal cadres of their own and only insignificant members of factions). These obscure new comers will need at least 5 years to build loyalist clientele of their own, by which time, he will remove them.

      • He split the position of Party Chief and State President (most probably Muktar) in order to make them compete rather than cooperate (The Kuma vs. Hassen Ali and Abadula vs. Juneydi situation).  Relative to his predecessors, Abadula was able to run the state more efficiently, partly due to the fact that, as party chief and state president, he controlled and commanded patronage both in the party structure and administrative bureaucracy.  The new set up means there will be two bosses, competing and undermining each other. The result being prevention of cohesiveness within the party and that’s what Meles want to see. Would it work? We have to wait and see.


      In general, it appears to me that the organizational discipline and cohesion that has wrought TPLF to where it is, is starting off its down ward spiral. The more power concentrates up top, the sooner the centre will rot.  I think Meles has overestimated the products of his two decades experiment.  If this trend continues and his promise to the people to leave office with termination of his current term is not serious, the country is in great danger.

      Let me wind with some speculations: either he won’t keep his promise – in which case he will continue and take the nation down with himself.  Nature makes sure deterioration and the idealism of youth would soon take its course. I do not have to mention an example of this as we have the fresh memory of Haile Silassie. Or he would leave if his faith in the product of his mentorship trumps reality.  In that case, either he would lose control and face the unpredictable consequence of betrayal or we would restart the polity of hereditary kingdom. The unlikely but best scenario from the given would be if he gets to be wise enough to have faith in his capable comrades,  and let those with proven track record —  the likes of Girma Biru and Arkebe Equbay — guide the ‘transition’.


      Side Notes:

      1) Where did all the women go?

      Out of 36 EPRDF Executive Committee members, only one is female. In Meles’ eye, only one out of 40 million Ethiopian women is qualified to be a leader — his wife Azeb Mesfin. What happened to the tens of thousands of women including those who propelled TPLF to power in the rebellion against Derge? We have heard of stories of hundreds of fighters, who distinguished themselves in the battlefield and in mobilizing the public, I doubt if Azeb Mesfin was one of them.  I can list tens of well educated and professionally competent women currently working in the government. Why are they kept away from power?

      The ruling party also collects millions of aid money in the name of women empowerment but after a promising beginning in the 1990’s, the role of women in the decision making process has significantly diminished over the last decade. Nowadays, whenever they are nominated to public office, they are assigned to the most irrelevant offices.  It’s not just the ruling party, in fact its opponents fair much worse in this regard. For instance, in the most recent election, women candidates for the opposition parties constituted a mere 4%. The ruling party claimed to be more progressive since some 28% its candidates were women. When it came to the real decision making power that number dwindled to a single woman – Azeb Mesfin.  Even she got where she is, not because of merit or gender justice but because of heredity and affiliation.  Sadly, the gender gap is widening in Ethiopian politics, and genuinely serious work needs to be done.

      Religious Diversity

      It could be shocking to some to learn that only 4 of the 36 EPRDF Executive Committee (EC) members are Muslims. (Even worse, there is just a single Muslim within ANDM’s EC and not even single one in TPLF’s).  Next to the Prime Minister, the EC is the most powerful decision making body, and its make up ( in terms of gender, religion, age etc) indicates the weight and  level of influence each sectors of the society has over the government of the day. As the composition of the opposition’s leadership is even worse, it’s fair to say that Ethiopian politics is far behind in addressing historical deficiencies of equitable political participation and power distribution.


      Related Stories:

      [i] http://www.voanews.com/english/news/africa/Analysts-Ethiopia-Prime-Minister-Consolidates-Power-in-Government-Reorganization-103123379.html


      Jawar Siraj Mohammed writes regular commentaries on Ethiopian politics. He can be reached at jawarmd@gmail.com.  You can also visit www.dhummuugaa.wordpress.com to access more of his articles or @ Jawar’s Corner on Opride.com.



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