The TPLF/EPRDF’s Political Journey and Current Challenges By Abel A. Asfaw
Many Ethiopians welcomed the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) when it ousted the military junta led by Mengistu Hailemariam and assumed power in 1991 hoping that the new regime would bring democracy, rule of law and more importantly much needed peace that was evidently not present during much of the Derg era. The military dictatorship run a country that was ruined by civil war resulting in a weak economy and a fragile state in which people where fed up with the ongoing war with separatist movements of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) and the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in the northern part of the country while tens of thousands of Ethiopians were massacred in major cities all over the country when the Derg unleashed a reign of terror against the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party(EPRP) members calling it “Red Terror”.
Young Ethiopians from all walks of life were forced to join the military to fight in the never ending bitter war with secessionists in the north. The nation was in desperate need for peace and stability above all else after seventeen years of iron rule characterized by war and terror. The EPRP, the major opposition to the Derg at the time, was weakened by the regime’s ruthless actions and infighting leaving the rebels the only organized and armed alternative Ethiopians have to overthrow the Mengistu regime. Consequently, the TPLF and EPLF enjoyed massive support from the people as well as western aid as they struggled to advance and control the country. The two rebel groups that started as guerrilla movements seventeen and thirty years ago respectively, emerged as the victors eventually and the EPLF took over Eritrea while the TPLF controlled the rest of the country. In 1993, Eritrea was separated from Ethiopia and became an independent state under the EPLF led by Isaias Afewerki.
The TPLF had to find a way that appeals to the vast majority of Ethiopians besides its Tigrayan origin, which accounts for only six percent of the total population. Therefore, in 1989 a coalition consisting of the TPLF and the Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (EPDM) – that later was forced by the TPLF to change its name to Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM) was formed under the name the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). Although EPDM was founded by former EPRP members that came from various ethnics groups in the country, it was not in harmony with the identity politics the TPLF was so adamant about thus it was forced to become an ethnic party claiming to represent the Amhara. As the coalition forces advanced towards Addis Ababa, one other ethnic based political party was created namely the Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organization (OPDO), which consisted of captured Derg officers, just before the rebels controlled the nation’s capital. Finally, the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM) was incorporated into the coalition after the EPRDF controlled Addis Ababa. These are puppet organizations that have no meaningful power and are used by the TPLF to run the country in the direction it desires as well as a deception tactic to convey the message that each ethnicity in the country is administered by representatives that belong to that specific ethnic group and that each political organization in the EPRDF has an equal status in the governance of the country. This, of course, is far away from the reality on the ground as the TPLF has an absolute control over all government and even some non-government institutions in the country including the army, security apparatus, police, court system, election board and even religious institutions in order to extend its rule.
The first few years under the new regime led a considerable number of Ethiopians to believe a positive change is taking place in their country although some well informed people were skeptical if not utterly opposed the front because its views and understanding of the Ethiopian state, that was anti-Ethiopian in nature, were propagated in its radio programs during the struggle against the Derg. Nonetheless, the EPRDF took some radical steps to change how the country was governed. For instance, it declared free market economy, allowed a relatively free press and introduced a new constitution that gave the people the power to elect its chosen leaders in a national election that will be held every five years.
The TPLF/EPRDF organized a transitional government while it controlled all government institutions already revealing that the transitional government is just a formality to gain international support until it solidifies its grip on power. Political oppositions, concerned individuals and groups, intellectuals and religious leaders did not have a say in the process. It was all a well orchestrated drama. The ruling party claimed to have won two consecutive national elections that were held after the transitional government period was over in 1995 and 2000 respectively. Ordinary Ethiopians were not interested in politics as much therefore the regime was able stay in power without any serious threat of public anger over rigged elections.
Then, the historic 2005 national election came. The ruling party underestimated the opposition and opened up the political space in a way that has never been attempted before. It allowed live televised debates, political opponents were relatively free to organize themselves and communicate their objectives to the public, journalists and bloggers were able to express their views without fear. All these contributed in increasing the political awareness of ordinary Ethiopians especially the youth. The major opposition at the time was the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) or Kinijit as it is popularly known in Amharic. Its leaders were highly educated, experienced and above all patriotic individuals who were able to win the hearts and minds of millions of Ethiopians. They clearly out-smarted their opponents at the televised debates using their in-depth knowledge and articulation on key issues such as national security, democracy, economic development, foreign policy, urban and rural development and so on. Ethiopians believed that the right leaders the country has been waiting for years have finally arrived. This was evident when millions of Kinjit supporters gathered at Meskel Square in support of the party just before Election Day. As a result, Kinijit convincingly and decisively won the 2005 national election in a landslide.
However, as expected, the ruling ethnic junta was not willing to accept the will of the Ethiopian people and step down. Instead, it rigged the election and declared itself as the victor using state-owned media. This in turn angered millions of Kinjit supporters and forced them to go out on the streets all over the country and protest the result. Meles Zenawi, ordered the army to use live ammunition over the protesters and over two hundred peaceful demonstrators were killed by security forces. This has been confirmed by a committee that was organized by the late PM himself to carry out an investigation over the use of excessive force by security forces during the public demonstration. Tens of thousands of Kinjit supporters were hunted down and jailed in which inhumane treatment and torture awaited them. The regime also rounded up all of the top leadership of Kinijit to kill the momentum for change. The hope of peaceful transition of power and instituting democracy was dashed and instead fear, terror and uncertainty reigned in the country. Even though Kinijit was not able to achieve its final objective which was to take over power and democratize the country in time, it was successful in showing the international community the brutal nature of the TPLF/EPRDF and revealing that there is no democracy in the country but only what political scientists call pseudo-democracy in which the ruling party calls itself democratic without allowing any meaningful opposition activity and free and fair election.
The next two general elections held in 2010 and 2015 were just a formality mainly to sustain western diplomatic and financial support. The ruling party won 99.6% in the former and it went on to improve its result to a 100% in the latter one. The idea of a 100% election victory was so absurd that even Susan Rice, US National Security Advisor to Obama, burst out laughing at a press conference when a journalist asked her if the president thinks it was a democratic election. Since the 2005 general election, the ruling party has intensified its repression over political parties especially on those that advocate Ethiopian nationalism, journalists, bloggers and practically anyone considered to be a threat to its power. The dictatorial regime introduced Ethiopia’s Anti-Terrorism Proclamation in August 2009 that is used as a tool to silence any political dissent against the ruling party in the name of fighting terrorism. A number of rights groups have condemned this law saying that it is utilized to stifle opposition voice including journalists, bloggers and activists instead of its stated purpose. The Unity for Democracy and Justice Party (UDJ) and the All Ethiopian Unity Party (AEUP) were both dismantled by the Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE), which is another institution to attack opposition parties, in January 2015 saying that the leadership of both parties was illegal. However, it is clear that these parties were dismantled because they were advocating Ethiopian nationalism which the TPLF/EPRDF is determined to eliminate from its inception, actively engaging the public, well organized with strong and effective leadership and had massive support from Ethiopians which painted a target at their back eventually leading to their demise.
This in a nutshell was the political landscape of Ethiopia since the ruling ethnic junta took over the country from the military dictatorship in 1991. It seems that the peaceful struggle at home has reached a dead end with several members of various opposition parties that follow a non violent form of struggle joining armed groups. The root cause of all the problems in Ethiopia is the TPLF/EPRDF’s complete inability to allow any meaningful democratic change in the country and this emanates from the ruling party’s politics of ethnic identity that views any opposition directed at the regime as enemy. The ethnic division in the country purposely instigated by the ruling ethnic junta for the past twenty fours has seriously threatened the unity and territorial integrity of the country. Rising cost of living that is going from bad to worse every year is making the lives of ordinary Ethiopians harder by the day. The rampant corruption is destroying the country causing an unimaginable difference in wealth between the rich and the poor. All these are factors that can lead to a public uprising leading to unintended consequences.
The key to avert imminent danger in the country is still in the hands of the ruling party. All what is needed is a genuine will to organize a national reconciliation process that includes all stakeholders to find a common ground and arrange to hold a free and fair election. This is the ideal alternative to solve the extremely complicated problem our country is facing. However, if the regime decides to keep the status quo, there will be, without a doubt, a third revolution in our country’s history. Therefore, the question that will shape Ethiopia’s political future is that will the TPLF/EPRDF choose fire or water? This will be answered in the actions of the ruling party in the near future.
Abel A. Asfaw, Toronto, September, 2015