The Twilight of Non-Violent Change in Ethiopia and the Slippery Ground of TPLF’s Power Strategy By Messay Kebede

November 17th, 2014 Print Print Email Email

The rationale for the TPLF’s current stepping up of repression, obviously triggered by the coming elections, is hard to comprehend. Ranging from constant harassments and severe beatings to torture and long-term imprisonments, the repression particularly targets journalists and young leaders of opposition parties. The fear of losing the elections is usually advanced as the main explanation for the heightened repression. This explanation presupposes that the TFLF is ready to abide by the verdict of the ballot boxes and step down if the majority is against it. Nothing is more remote than the TPLF peacefully handing power over to the opposition subsequent to an electoral defeat.

Let us therefore reformulate the explanation: The TPLF is not so much afraid of electoral defeat, which it has no intention of respecting, as of the implications of elections. It has been said again and again: elections have consequences, even when they are not democratic. In the case of Ethiopia, the possibility of protests and riots cannot be excluded, given the widespread unpopularity of the ruling party. Indeed, if the TPLF refuses to recognize the results of elections or engages in last minutes maneuvering to rig the results, it is sure to have, as shown in the 2005 elections, riots in its hands, especially in urban areas.

To squash the uprisings, the TPLF will have to engage in open and bloody confrontations with rioters in urban streets. It is this kind of confrontation that the TPLF wants to avoid at all costs because it exposes its true nature to the world, especially to Western governments whose support is dependent on Western public opinion. Moreover, this kind of open and wide confrontation seriously undermines, in the eyes of Ethiopians themselves, the legitimacy that the regime claims to have. Nothing unmasks more a democratic façade than a regime compelled to hunt down protesters in the streets the day after an election.

Hence the decision to heighten repression in order to escort the coming elections with an atmosphere of fear designed either to force some challenging parties to opt out of the competition or to cripple them enough so that they cease to appear as possible alternatives to the existing ruling elite. In addition to the general purpose of intimidating voters, fear has two functions: it paralyzes competing parties and deprives the country of credible alternatives, thus compelling voters to vote out of desperation. When voting is without alternative, what choice do people have but to renew the existing ruling party? Short of banning parties altogether, one way of maintaining legitimacy for the status quo is by preventing the rise of opposition parties showing some potential through a systematic repression.

The paradox, however, is that the more repression is successful, the greater becomes the likelihood of violent protests and riots. By both discouraging opposition parties and inculcating in the minds of people the futility of elections, repression removes any hope for a peaceful and democratic change. What is more, it convinces many people of the necessity of armed struggle and violent uprising to dislodge a regime increasingly perceived as dictatorial. In other words, the more the TPLF shows its utter unwillingness to tolerate the rise of challenging parties, the more it pushes the country toward violent confrontations. Be it noted that the reason why the TPLF is not banning rival political parties––which would be a more consistent move given its utterly undemocratic nature––is not only that such a decision will be ill received by Western governments, but also because the semblance of democratic competition keeps the mind of people away from the idea of violent and armed uprisings. So long as people believe that there is a possibility of changing government policy through electoral means, they will hang on to the hope, however remote the possibility may be.

That is why I ask the question: if repression only strengthens the probability of violent uprisings, then how is one to explain that the TPLF finds it feasible? After all, the assumption that the leaders of the TPLF are unaware of the danger of continued repression is hardly credible. My conjecture is that, though aware of the consequences of continued repression, the leaders of the TPLF have persuaded themselves that repression gives them the time they need to rally the support of the Ethiopian people.

The question is then to know why TPLF leaders believe that buying time is for them a way out. The answer lies in the economic policy of the regime, which policy is presumed to require time to show concrete results. Once ordinary people start to feel the tangible benefits of the policy, they will willingly support the government, thereby removing the need for repressive means. What must be understood, according to these leaders, is that to launch Ethiopia into a sustained and rapid economic growth, deep structural changes are necessary. Unfortunately, such changes cannot but be disruptive, even negatively affecting the conditions of life of ordinary people. Such downsides, though temporary, cause frustration and unpopularity, which opposition parties use to galvanize the people against the government and the ruling party. As a true reformist party, the TPLF, so its leaders believe, is vulnerable to attacks by demagogues, populists, and revengeful parties.

This sense of vulnerability explains why the late Meles has been so vocal against neoliberalism and in favor of the authoritarian and interventionist alternative of the developmental state. In the name of democracy, the liberal model destabilizes those ruling parties committed to real reforms by forcing them to compete against demagoguing political parties. Referring to Meles’s critique of liberal democracy, Tsehai Alemayehu writes: “electoral democracy is prone to frequent changes in government and hence to instability in the policy environment.” The solution is a democratic system monitored by “a dominant party or dominant coalition democracy” Put otherwise, yes to multipartism, but with the proviso that opposition parties are not allowed to become a menace to the dominant ruling party.

To understand the high vulnerability of ruling parties committed to structural changes, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that such changes must give full priority to big infrastructural projects. Speaking of the ideology inspiring the Ethiopian ruling elite, Daniel Teferra writes: “there has to be massive investment in modern infrastructure, such as, power plants, good roads, etc. Furthermore, the theory believes that to justify investment, all the infrastructural projects have to be carried out simultaneously.” Since Ethiopia cannot afford to finance the projects, the required “massive investment . . . has to be borrowed from outside sources.”

The priority given to grand projects and structural changes inevitably works at the expense of the much needed but ranked secondary policy of improvement of the conditions of life of the working people and the elimination of poverty. It can even be directly hurtful by causing displacements, as in the case of the lease of vast lands for export purposes necessitated by the need to pay off external debts. All these downsides are unavoidable consequences of the effort to lay down the infrastructures for a real and sustainable economic takeoff. Unfortunately, they are politically poisonous for the ruling party, which then has no choice but to put a lid, in the name of progress and the common good, on the activities of opposition parties.

This justification of repression, that is, the belief that electoral changes would halt progress by empowering demagogues, populists, and revanchists is hardly new. It is a revamp of the Soviet style advocacy of the postponement of democracy until the working people reach a certain level of economic satisfaction and political awareness. Unlike the Soviet style formula, however, the version of Meles does not go to the extent of banning opposition political parties; it allows them to operate but under restricted conditions that practically blocks their ability to become serious contenders. The existing party must be the dominant party, not the only party. In addition to being indispensable to obtain generous Western investments, the existence of opposition parties is a safety valve necessary to reduce social tensions by opening outlets for a peaceful venting of grievances. Without this mechanism, the dislocations and hardships accompanying the implementation of structural changes would cause riots and undermine the smooth functioning of the developmental state.

So analyzed, it is almost impossible not to see the stumbling block of this program of political endurance, namely, the undeniable fact that the regime is devoid of the very means necessary to bring about economic progress with tangible benefits for the working people. What the TPLF needs is not more time, but urgent corrections and reforms, which it seems utterly unable to undertake. My aim here is not to discuss whether the path of grandiose projects is feasible or not for economic growth and development; rather, it is point out the grave deficiencies blocking the implementation of the economic program and hence undermining the goal of the political survival of the TPLF.

Since the development strategy prioritizes big projects over the immediate concerns of the people, it does little to reduce the pressure of unemployment, especially on the young. Nor does it alleviate the rising rate of inflation, the consequence of which is that people have the distinct impression of a downward slide in their ability to satisfy their most urgent needs. Such drawbacks cannot but aggravate the frustration of people and put them in a state of virtual uprising that no governmental propaganda can overcome. This is to say that the whole system is at the mercy of an incident that can spread like bushfire.

More time would not reduce the problem for the simple reason that the regime produces incompetence at an alarming degree. For the economic program to work, it requires a devoted and professional cadre at all levels of the implementation. But the fulfillment of this condition is all the more questionable in light of the politicization of the entire educational system and the unabated deterioration of the quality of education, not to mention the massive exodus of educated and trained people. Such an educational system can only produce incompetent and self-serving people who advance their own interests through corruption and embezzlement, which seriously hamper the economic program. By the very fact that the system rejects the merit-based selective effect of free market and free political competition, it encourages a form of recruitment that proliferates clientelism, mostly of ethnic nature, and with it inefficiency, wastage, and unaccountability. To the extent that political patronage extends immunity, these behaviors find no means for correction and become endemic to the point of reaching absolute dysfunctionality. In short, there appears a huge contradiction between the economic program and the human component that is supposed to materialize the program, leaving no other choice than a complete reliance of the regime on repression.

In default of an efficient and inclusive system, there goes away the ability of the country to pay off its debts. Since the fight against poverty has been postponed in favor of big projects, both clientelism and the inevitable proliferation of corruption and embezzlement concentrate wealth in the hands of the co-opted few. Without a sustained growth of internal consumption and an export sector able to compete in international markets, the economic machine cannot yield enough revenues to settle the increasing debts of the country. As Seid Hassan and his co-writers stated in a recently posted article, “for a developing and landlocked country like Ethiopia which is trapped in a quagmire of mega projects while at the same time facing low capital formation due to its low productivity, low income and low savings. . . . relying on weak export sector . . . ., the expected foreign exchange earnings capacity of the economy” cannot take the country out of “the vicious circles of debt.”

As the economic expectations falter, the dependence of the regime on repressive violence increases. This is the stage reached by the TPLF right now: an all-out repression must not only be maintained, but it must also be the more tightened the more the promised economic benefits prove elusive. The one possibility that could stop this rapid slide into total repression would be to undertake reforms. But this is a path that is entirely closed, as shown by the fiasco of the short lived anti-corruption campaign. Those who are in control seem unwilling or unable to critically review some of Meles’s options. Nor does the regime possess the qualified personnel necessary to undertake a course correction. Moreover, the whole system is too corrupt and too trapped in its failings to be able to renew itself.

Again, only the path of increased and systematic repression is left. The purpose is no longer to buy time for economic growth, since the failure of expectations has plunged the country into a virtual state of uprising, but merely to survive politically, to retain state power by any means. This survival goal rests solely on one article of faith, namely, that repression will be enough to keep the people subdued. Accordingly, all attention must be given to the strengthening and expansion of the repressive forces. Notably, the major purpose of the economy must be to provide the financial means to strengthen the repressive power and satisfy its large staff, including the numerous members of the coalition of parties, the EPRDF, whose main function is to exercise a tight control over the entire society. In so thinking, the leaders of the TPLF forget that the road of total repression digs their own grave: the strengthening of repression can only sound the knell of peaceful struggle in Ethiopia, thereby making violent uprisings inevitable. Repression may work when it yields some tangible results, not when it is all stick without any carrot.

  1. Addisu
    | #1

    Ethiopia progress becoming focal talking point world wide.

    If I had to cast my vote today, for sure like millions and millions of Ethiopians I will also cast my vote to EPRDF. After witnessing the economic progress and the double digit annual economic growth from year to year did not only impressed us (Ethiopians) but such economic advancement also becoming the talking point world wide, included president Obama’s last month speech from the white house on Ethiopia by saying I quote “ETHIOPIA IS ONE OF THE FEW FASTEST GROWING ECONOMY IN THE WORLD”.
    Who could have expected a civil war and mass starvation ravaged Ethiopia to become the 4th Africa’s biggest economy, and the 12 fastest growing economy in the world two decades ago ? ?

  2. Dawi
    | #2

    [[..As Seid Hassan and his co-writers stated in a recently posted article, “for a developing and landlocked country like Ethiopia which is trapped in a quagmire of mega projects while at the same time facing low capital formation due to its low productivity, low income and low savings. . . . relying on weak export sector . . . ., the expected foreign exchange earnings capacity of the economy” cannot take the country out of “the vicious circles of debt.”

    One major indicator of debt sustainability of a country is a credit rating and Ethiopia's credit ratings, its first ever, done by S&P and others rates her B and B+ (stable) a fairly good position that led to expectation of a successful bond issuance and lower borrowing costs. It compares to Kenya and Ghana. What more do you want?

    I don't know why Prof. Messay is ignoring or putting down the economic success of the country in his write up? The huge progress in textile and leather sector with the coming of Turkish and Chinese giants; we are on the verge of becoming the future of textile & leather factory destination of the continent. Tons of employment is being created there and in industrial transformation centers as well. We already know about roads, other mega dams, rail etc. If not # 1, it is one of the fastest in Africa.

    If truth be told this pluses should favor EPRDF in the election without discounting all the other problems the Prof. mentioned.

    There are even areas of efficiency in Ethiopia. Surprise! Surprise!

    “Africa’s Illiberal State Builders” talked that the PM office being staffed with "the best and the brightest"; the following was written as case in point.

    "..In Ethiopia, the TPLF dominated coalition.... overall developmentalist strategy of Meles Zenawi through leading by ......
    maintain dazzling economic success – gross national income went from US$120 per capita in 2002 to US$390 in 2010 – and deliver public services to the masses: state-owned enterprises and domination of the financial sector, as well as extensive opportunities for local patronage
    through powerful regional development organizations, all operate autonomously, but work towards both the implicit and explicit goals of the Growth and Transformation Plan.."

    Without a doubt the mega project GERD has united Ethiopians. It is on its way of putting Ethiopia as a regional power player; while at it, it has helped the saving rate of Ethiopians shot up from 6% of GDP to 17% not to mention Egypt being compelled to turn around & work cooperatively for its own benefit.

    Having said that, let us not forget that in the 1960' Korea & the other tigers couldn't compete with Japan and so they were exporting human hair (wig)and have come a long way. I will say we have more going for us today in the economic front.

  3. Amare
    | #3

    The author is this article must be daydreaming when writes such outlandish self deceptive propaganda. Because the best way to challenge and defeat the ruling party is not to misrepresent facts via propaganda article such as this one but to convince the mass with better alternative idea.

  4. Ewenetu Yewta
    | #4

    Ato Addisu, you are right the economic development you measure with you pocket is unprecedented one. The big Q is what did you do so magical to enrich yourself? May be you just belong to small group of people who just happen to be lucky for being born of the “golden” people. Just simply putting it, The rest of us (the gentile of Ethiopia) do not see the benefits of growth you are bragging about. if you are Addisu the son of Legesse, it is no wonder that you wrote the above.

  5. Ewenetu Yewta
    | #5

    I also would like to thank the good Prof. for the wonderful article. The analysis you gave above depicts the situation in Ethiopia accurately. I have to say that you write better than you speak.

  6. Yonas
    | #6

    Thank you Dr. Messay for sharing your thoughts/imaginations. You said “As the economic expectations falter,…” Which economy are you talking about? The economy is growing and people’s life is changing steadily but surely. Of course, there are so many areas where you can accuse the government, but when it comes to the economy, man you are in the wrong world. This makes your argument very silly to the least.

  7. Getanehe Mekuria
    | #7

    @ Addisu,

    Thank you for telling the facts and the truth as is. The last thing we Ethiopians need is some pessimist and negative people spoil our unprecedented progress and advancement for their own hidden political agenda.

  8. Getaw
    | #8

    Listen woyane apologists. Unfortunately, the PM Hailemariam Desalgne does not agree with you when you talk of economic growth. He kindly advised college graduates to get job in cobble stone industry. The growing pocket book of woyane and Tigres do not represent the Ethiopian population, even that comes from stealing tax payers money. Talk about economic growth, 70% of the youth unemployed. Shameless hodam!

  9. Ermias(Abule)
    | #9

    ማክሰኞ ከቀኑ 9 ሰአት ላይ ኮቸሬ ከሚባል አካባቢ የመጡ የአንድ ቤተሰብ አባላት የሆኑ 4 ሰዎች ዲላ ሪፈራል ሆስፒታል መግባታቸውን ተከትሎ፣ በሆስፒታሉ ውስጥ ከፍተኛ ድንጋጤ ተፈጥሮ እንደነበር ምንጮች ገልጸዋል። ድንጋጤው የተፈጠረው ሰዎቹ በኢቦላ በሽታ ተይዘዋል በሚል እምነት ነው። ዛሬ ረቡዕ ደግሞ 4ቱም ሰዎች መሞታቸውን የደረሰን መረጃ ያመለክታል። የመንግስት ባለስልጣናት ሰዎቹ በኢቦላ ሳይሆን በምግብ መመረዝ መሞታቸውን በመግለጽ የሆስፒታሉ ሰራተኞች እንዲረጋጉ መክረዋል። . በጉዳዩ ዙሪያ የሆስፒታሉን ባለስልጣናት ለማነጋገር በተደጋጋሚ ሞክርም አልተሳካም። መንግስት የኢቦላ በሽታ በአገሪቱ አለመታየቱን በተደጋጋሚ መግለጹ ይታወቃል። English translation Health official orders the burning of Ebola patients in western Ethiopia, secret letter posted on sites including http://WWW.ETHIOPIANREVIEW.COM reveals


  10. Girum
    | #10

    Thanks Dr Messay for a well elaborated view – Very hard to believe that people like Yonas, Dawi, Adissu #1 are more than satisfied with the barbaric TPLF way of ruling the nation – coercion, lies, deception and robbery. These guys are busy telling us ‘…its okay even if your fundamental rights are subjugated, be pateint because we are building a dam.. grand… renaissance bla bla dam – will be middle class by 2025 (European or Ethiopian ?? kk). No one denies that the TPLF entourage has built an empire richer than any one imagines, at the expense of the masses. The ordinary citizens of Ethiopia are well aware and conscious about whats going on there. There shall come a time when each and every robber be accounted for – or, maybe they will be saved by the ‘demobilized TPLF armed ‘civilians’… Time shall tell

    | #11

    Addisu, #1

    do you know what “schleimer” means, and also what it means,
    ክበልዑዋ ዝደለዩ ኣባጉምባሕስ ጅግራ ይብልዋ……..!? ህዝባ ጠቄመታ ዘይረኽብሉ ዕብየት ኤኮኖሚ ትርጉሙ እንታይ….!? ናይ ባዕዳውያን ባንኪታት ንኽሓብጡ መእንታን….! ብዛዕባ ናይ ህዝቢ ኢትዮጵያ ማይን መብራህቲን ኣገልግሎትከ ተዛረበ’ዶ “ምስክርካ”…………!?

    በነገራችን ላይ ከ30 አመታት በፊት “ታላቁ” ርሃብ በተለይም የትግራይን ህዝብ ከራያ ጀምሮ እስከ ገዳረፍ ድረስ ባረገፈበት ጊዜ ህወሓት መአት ገንዘብና እህልም ጭምር ከመላው አለም ስለደረው ነበረው:: ግን በቦታው የነበሩ እንደሚነግሩን ገንዘቡና የደረሰውም እህል ተሽጦ, የነበረው ገንዝብና በሽያጭ የተገኘውም ጭምር ተጠቃሎ ባንዶች በውጭው አለም ባንኮች ዘንዳ የግል የባንክ አካውንታቸው ውስጥ ስለወሸቁት የህዝብ ሂይወት አልዳነም:: ስለሆነም የሃገር እድገትና የህዝብም ተጠቃሚነት እስካልተያያዙ ጊዜ ድረስ ስለ እድገት ማውራቱ, እኔም ተጠቃሚ ነኝ የሚለውን መለእክት ብቻ ነው የሚያስተጋባው:: የለም ለህዝብም ሃሳቢ ነኝ ባይ ከሆንክ ደግሞ አንድ ሁለት መንደሮች ውስጥ ይሄና ይሄ ተሰርቷል ብለህ ሳይሆን መቶ ሚልዮን ኢትዮጵያውያን ያድጉና ይሻሻሉ ዘንዳ ስለተደረገው ተግባራት አስመልክተን………………….!

  12. Temelkach Observer
    | #12

    @ Mr. Adisu
    Please do not waste your precious time trying to be rational or tell what “it is”, those who are blinded by hate and extremist political views will not see nor hear the rational or good in others but repeat their own negative irrational blubber.

  13. Dawi
    | #13

    Gerum said:

    [[..These guys are busy telling us ‘…its okay even if your fundamental rights are subjugated, be pateint because we are building a dam.. grand… renaissance bla bla dam..]]

    At least I am not saying don’t talk about human right issues or any of the drawbacks of the regime but when you attack their obvious economic advantage your overall credibility falls down.

    Don’t be holier than the pope when you talk about the economics of the country particularly, when Fitch, Moody’s or S & P comes up with international rating of the country of a B+ why pull up an “F” rating out of your hat? For what? It is just ridiculous because everyone knows you don’t have the resources that takes to do such kind of work.

  14. ማሞ
    | #14

    እኔ ተማሪ እያለው የዛሬ አስራ አምስት ዓመት ሁለተኛ ደረጃ ትምህርት ቤት ለማግኘት የስድስት ሰዓት የእግር መንገድ መጓዝ ያስፈልግ ነበር።አሁን በዚሁ ቀበሌ በሠላሳ ደቂቃ የእግር ጉዞ ሦስት ሁለተኛ ደረጃ ትምህርትቤት አለ።በስድስት ሰዓት ጉዞ ዩኒቨርቲ አለ።ታዲያ ይሄ እመርታ አይደለም። ሳያዩ የሚያምኑ ብፁሀን ናቸዉ እያዩ የማያምኑ ግን ግብዞች ናቸው

  15. Girma Feyisa
    | #15

    Please Ethiopians let us wake up & eradicate the overwhelming minority , apartheid regime of woyane.
    Example of cheap & barbaric actions of nazi woyanes:
    In Tigrai region kids attend classes up to 12th grade , while in the rest of the country only up to 10th grade
    On the personal identification cards , which kebeles /cities / issue , the ethnicity of the I.d. holder is written . The secret behind this action is a Tigrian to get special preferencial treatment whenever & wherever he /dshe shows id card in Ethiopia.

    Under the pretext of privatization , numerous public /government/ owne companies were sold by woyanes & their puppets. Except Meles & few woyanes no body knows the where about of the money generated from the sales.

    Primitive woyanes think like old days of king yohannes. 21st century sytem of democracy is unknown to them . For nazi woyanes leadership
    Can be effectiv through divide & rule along ethnic & religious lines.

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