Can Ethiopia’s Political Conflicts Be Resolved Peacefully?

Written by Mohammed A

The collapse of peace talks between the Ethiopian regime and the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) last month begs the question; can Ethiopia’s mounting political problems be resolved, peacefully, through negotiation?

Zenawi’s successor, Hailemariam Desalegn, declared that he would not deviate from the path charted by the “Great Leader” dispelling any notion that the ruling party would open up the political process following the death of its longest-serving leader.

By so doing Desalegn has in effect become Meles redux. He did not stop there: Desalegn added that he would never tire of glorifying his former boss. In fact, in his first address to the rubber-stamp parliament last month, he went to the extent of copying Zenawi, at times, word for word. The new premier issued threat after threats against a sundry of opponents using the very favorite metaphors of his mentor such as “cutting limbs” and “being burned by getting too close to the fire.” Zenawi would laugh in his graves, as he did not do much when alive, seeing his reincarnation under the name of Desalegn.

That is why it’s instructive to talk about the party’s style of negotiation to provide background to the ill-fated Ogaden talks—until the real Desalegn, if there ever was such a man, emerges and the poor guy becomes his own man, which may never be the case.

Annihilation or Negotiation?

Every organization is stamped at inception with a genetic code that forms its culture. A good deal of EPRDF’s, Ethiopia’s ruling party, behaviors have their roots in the formative stages of the TPLF, the dominant group in the four-party coalition. The earliest memory of TPLF negotiating with another group was with the Tigrean Liberation Front (TLF) – a rebel outfit that preceded it. Fighters of the TLF were invited to a dinner to celebrate the inking of a merger agreement. After receiving an entertainment appropriate for the occasion, the guests were invited to pass the night by getting to know their assigned minders. When the night dawned into day, all the guests were slaughtered, remarkably in cold-blood and while sound asleep.

With the TLF out of the way, TPLF’s wrath turned to the monarchist Ethiopian Democratic Union and the leftist Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary party (EPRP). The two were asked to leave Tigray from where they carried out oppressions against the military junta, known as the Dergue. Fighting the same enemy and ascribing to the same Marxist ideology, the EPRP in particular sought accommodation from and collaboration with TPLF. The TPLF did not outright rule out any negotiations. When the negotiations led nowhere, TPLF attacked in full force, driving the two out of Tigray.

From Rebel to a Dominant-Party Government

The first time the EPRDF formally went to the negotiating table was at the Rome talks of 1990. With the TPLF emboldened by an overwhelming military victory against the Dergue at the battle of Shire and the Dergue not yet sobered of its intoxication with the humongous military might still under its disposal, no progress was and could be made.

The last time the EPRDF went to the negotiation table as a rebel was at the London meeting of May 1991. The London conference, organized by UK under the leadership of US Assistant Secretary of State Herman Cohen, a week before the TPLF moved into Ethiopia’s capital, collapsed before it even started when the EPRDF unilaterally moved into the capital and subsequently formed a transitional government. As a prelude to the Addis Ababa conference of June 1991, the TPLF held back-door negotiations with some of its opponents, mainly the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), to hammer out the principles that would govern the transition. These informal talks broke down at many points due to TPLF’s intransigence and it’s disinclination to show any flexibility on its desire to monopolize state power.

But because public euphoria was great, the opposing parties somehow swallowed their pride to accept a degrading low position of playing second fiddle in the interest of giving their constituents, who were too eager for peace, respite from endless conflicts that went on for generations. When these parties insisted on respecting and acting by the minimum spirits contained in the agreements signed, one of which was free and fair elections, they were eliminated one after another. Their supporters were brutally hunted down and eliminated. To this day, Ethiopian jails are over flooded with those accused of being associated with OLF. Some of these prisoners have been in detention for as long as the TPLF ruled the country.

The Ethio-Eritrean War: The Price of Failed Negotiations

The war was not only unexpected but also an instance of EPRDF’s failure to solve minor border differences with a former comrades in arms. Granted, the Eritrean ruling party was (and is) known for its stubbornly militaristic stances, The fact is good-faith negotiation could have prevented the death of 120,000, who perished fighting over a worthless piece of land whose main produce is grass for stray animals, dirt that swallows all human construction, and stones unfit for building. With the war disastrously concluded, the two warring sides accepted international arbitration. Yet again Meles’ TPLF refused to comply with the decision of the arbitrators. Thanks to this stubborn distaste for compromise, the two poor countries are forced to maintain over-sized armies and engage in proxy wars that continue to destabilize the region.

As an External War Ends, Internal War Begins

After the conclusion of the Ethio-Eritrean war, the Central Committee of the TPLF sat down for a three-month long evaluation. The Committee was split on the future direction of the country and the manner in which the execution of the war plan was abruptly halted. Siye Abraha, formerly minister of defense, and a few others, who also had the backing of the majority of members, faulted Meles for prematurely curtailing Ethiopia’s lightening advance inside uncontested Eritrean territory and finishing the objective of the oppression: Getting rid of Isaias and recovering the port city of Assab for landlocked Ethiopia.

Meles waited until his ranks swelled. When it did, he stunned everyone by swiftly expelling his opponents from the very party they helped build. Overnight, he achieved total dominion over the party. In an act of vengeance, he threw Siye and his brothers into jail accusing them of corruption under an nonexistent law. In all of these dealings, Meles did not seek compromise but total annihilation of the other faction.

After the war, the only opposition left in the system was a few Southern groups, particularly from the Hadiya zone where the regime faced the most serious opposition. Back and forth negotiations were conducted to resolve differences—having to do with EPRDF’s failure to abide by the very laws it made. The opposition won local elections but was prevented from governing. TPLF’s refusal to play by its own rules eventually drove about 50,000 Hadiyas into exile.

Following the disputed 2005 elections, the EPRDF sat down with opposition groups at the urging of the European Union. The negotiations failed to forestall the killing of over 291 protesters. After a series of failed negotiations, EPRDF herded Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) negotiators into the Kaliti prison under exaggerated and outrageous charges of treason and crimes against humanity, including the intent to commit genocide. EPRDF made promises it had no intention to keep and only to break them when the circumstances turned in its favor. One such promise was Meles’ announcement to talk to OLF without any preconditions, a promise as short-lived as the threat that inspired it. The negotiations to seek the release of jailed CUD leaders served as the last straw in liquidating the so called “loyal” opposition.

Somalia: Another Foreign Adventure

EPRDF’S “victory” against its internal enemies soured relations with its American and European benefactors. It was on the heels of this that the EPRDF turned its gaze to an external enemy: The Islamic Courts Union (ICU). The 2006 invasion of Somalia was another example of failed negotiations and an adventure meant to repair strained relations with Western donors. The invasion of Somalia also had a domestic calculation. The EPRDF was worried that the reemergence of Somalia would serve as a staging ground for its opponents, mainly OLF and ONLF. Being one of the architects of the Somalia mess, there was no Somalia group from whom Meles did not have someone on his payroll. Somalia was his plaything. However, the ICU emerged out of Zenawi’s radar like CUD did at home during the 2005 elections. EPRDF’S negotiating strategy with the ICU was a mirror image of its domestic negotiation strategy: to exaggerate the threat and present it an existential danger to the country, propose total submission and threaten annihilation if that was rejected or a compromise plan was tabled.

A Parliament Cleansed of Opposition

The few members of opposition in the parliament made a big fuss about the Somalia invasion. They wanted to be formally briefed about the conduct of the war, to review war expenses, war casualties, and above all question the mission of the war. The ruling party was too annoyed by these questions that it decided to create a parliament without any opposition.

Come the 2010 election, the ruling party filled all but one of the 547 seats with its members. The disastrous election took place only a few months after the EPRDF negotiated and agreed with Hailu Shawel and Lidatu Ayalew, under the auspices of the European Union and US diplomats, to hold “spotless free and fair elections.” A picture that showed a towering Hailu Shawel bowing to the diminutive Zenawi represented the culmination of humiliating the opposition in the name of negotiation. The agreement was hailed as a turning point. Parties and personalities that stayed out were derided as spoilers. However, as he did time and again, EPRDF failed to abide by any of the terms of the agreement. Shawel would later lament on a VOA interview that he was profoundly angry, not for being defeated but for being so blatantly fooled.

Organizations Take on the Personality of their Leaders

EPRDF does sit down for negotiations–when and if it wanted to. But the outcome of the negotiation was often predetermined, always in its favor. Besides, for the ruling EPRDF total victory is not enough. The total elimination of the other party is the goal. Nothing short of that goal is acceptable. When it was not in a position to dictate the terms, EPRDF would refuse to negotiate. Then suddenly it makes gestures for negotiations, directly or through malleable intermediaries. But by this time its military or security forces are already ordered into action and have already decimated the opponent.

This behavior of the Ethiopian government is not limited to political opponents. Civic associations were not immune to EPRDF’s heavy-handed tactics. Two cases demonstrate the length to which the government goes to discredit and annihilate its opponents, even benign ones. The Ethiopian Labor Federation is an old organization. Most of its members were employees of the state. During the late 1990s, a majority worked at mega state farms established by the previous Dergue regime. Following economic liberalization under Meles, the farms were sold to regime cronies at dirt-cheap prices. The sales contracts did not include any concern for the fate of the low-paid workers who had to be laid off en mass. When the labor federation picked up their cases with the government, some of its leaders were co-opted with bribes and intimidation and others were forced to into exile, including the federation’s president, Dawe Ibrahim . Afterwards, the federation lost its independence and became just another government agency answerable to the whims of the ruling party.

The fate of the Teachers Federation was altogether different. When pressed by the federation to take into account the views of teachers in making sweeping changes, the government responded by intimidating its leaders into silence. When this could not be secured, it created a rival organization and bestowed legal legitimacy on this creation of it. This, too, did not succeed in silencing teachers’ dissent. When all failed, the government stepped the ante by assassinating Assefa Maru, a leader of the federation, in broad daylight. This, too, failed to produce the intended result: intimidating dissenting teachers into submission.

The federation continued with its oppression even after being stripped of its registration. That is when the government finally threw its president, Dr. Taye Woldesemayat, into jail under tramped up charges of trying to bring down “the constitutional order” through a violent means. Dr. Taye fled into exile upon release from prison, like many critics of the government. The suppression of other civic organizations such as the free journalists association, the Macha and Tulama Association, and the Oromo Relief Association were even worse (EPRDF’s track record with the Oromo is a special case and will be dealt with in a forthcoming article).

EPRDF did not shed its behaviors with the passage of time. Its dealings with the leaders of Muslim protesters show otherwise. Once the government knew the group was a hard nut to crack, it sat down with it for negotiation. However, as soon as it learned that the group would not succumb to its intimidation, it threw its leaders into jail under bogus charges of spreading radicalism when what they did was lead a thoroughly disciplined non-violent movement the country has never witnessed heretofore.

Such is the record of the EPRDF-led Ethiopian government when it comes to peaceful resolution of political conflicts. Any opposition group who ever negotiated with the EPRDF and the government it led is either dead, in jail, or in exile or rendered impotent.

EPRDF’s negotiation with the key powers of the West and East was a totally different kind. When it had nothing to lose and everything to gain, it was quick to make agreements. What government would refuse free money to finance its ambitious projects in exchange for mere promises?

But even there, EPRDF was not always faithful in fulfilling its side of the bargain. For instance, the US and the EU have been, at least officially, pushing for respect for human rights, opening the political space, and loosening the nose around private press. But every passing year, the ropes were ever tightened.

EPRDF has always been like a two-year-old boy when it negotiated: It wanted to take everything and will never be satisfied until the other party was left with empty hands. It throws tantrums. It makes threats; Makes wild accusations. It distorts and disorients. It charms. Its leaders would shed tears. Then when the opportune moment presented itself, it unleashed its lethal weapons with a fury foreseeable from any of its prior words, acts, and charms.

Win-win negotiation was not EPRDF’s forte at all. Concepts like compromise, mutual accommodation, give and take, good faith, common strategic interests, the long-term, and fidelity to agreements made were alien to its vocabulary. The only time horizon relevant to it was the now and there. That is why there is no single incidence on record where EPRDF successfully negotiated and resolved outstanding differences with an opponent peacefully.

In conclusion, Zenawi’s successors, as did Zenawi, would negotiate with their opponents. But the negotiation is meant not to resolve outstanding differences but to liquidate the opponent. When pressed, the Ethiopian government may even make compromises. But this is only temporary, a gimmick to buy time. Once opponents loosen their guard thinking that the differences are dealt with, the Ethiopian government would nullify all agreements and re-establish its unrivalled dominance.

Pressing the Ethiopian government into the negotiation table is not enough. One needs sustained pressure to force it to stay talking. More importantly, one needs an even more potent pressure to force it to respect any agreements signed. One caveat is that one cannot rely on the goodwill, guarantees, and promises of foreign “well-wishers” to make the TPLF/ EPRDF abide by and live by its words.

Unless it knows full well that the alternative to refusing to negotiate or negating agreements is its ouster, negotiation with EPRDF is an exercise in futility. So long as its hold on the military and security apparatus is unchallenged, it knows full well that no foreign government has a vested strategic interest to go to the extent of actively seeking its ouster.



About the author

Mohammed A

Mohammed Ademo is a freelance journalist based in Washington, DC. He's the founder and editor of, an independent news website about Ethiopia.

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