AfricaOpinionTopic of the Month

Ethiopia: The dawn of another ‘structural opening’

Ezekiel Gebissa, Special to Addis Standard

Since the creation of the modern Ethiopian state a little more than a century ago, the polity has failed to achieve three objectives: peaceful political transition, democracy, and national unity.  The efforts to achieve all three have always been characterized by violence. Some Ethiopian and expatriate intellectuals posit that the repeated failures are because the models of change that have been adopted did not take account of Ethiopian realities. Indeed, indigenous assets and resources are rich in models of desirable political change that can obviate another failure and violent political transition.

But it is important to review how and when Ethiopia failed to achieve these three objectives in the first place.

 Political transition

Political transitions in Ethiopia have always been effected through violence.  In the early 20th century, power was transferred from Lij Iyasu to Haile Sellassie by a palace coup; in 1974 Mengistu Haile Mariam overthrew Emperor Haile Sellassie by a popular uprising; and in 1991 Mengistu Haile Mariam lost power to Meles Zenawi through a triumph of guerilla forces.

In addition there were unsuccessful transitions such as attempted assassinations (on Emperor Haile Sellassie by Negash Bezabih in 1951, Takkele Wolde Hawariat in 1942, 1946 and 1969; on Mengistu in 1975 and many more times since); mutinies (Abba Wuqaw in 1928, Gugsa Wole in 1930, Belay Zeleke in 1943, Negale in 1973, and Nacfa in 1988, to mention but a few); purges (Aman Andom in 1974, Tafari Benti in 1976, Atnafu Abate in 1977); and abortive coups d’etat (in 1960 against the imperial regime of Haile Sellassie, and in 1989 against the regime of the military Derg).

 Derailed Democracy

With regard to democracy or citizen participation in politics and development, Ethiopia has had what the renowned scholar on Ethiopia the late Donald Levine calls a “structural opening” or opportunities for transformative political change. These opportunities were: the abortive coup of December 1960; the ferment of 1974; the regime change of 1991; the Ethio-Eritrean war of 1998; and the May 2005 national election. All of these moments were opportunities for democratic change. Instead they were turned into “missed opportunities” that led to an escalating valorization of murder and violence as the sole means to effect social change.

 National unity

National unity is a goal that has also spilled a lot of blood in the history of modern Ethiopia. From conquest to assimilation to demand to tow the official line, the efforts to forge national unity have meted out untold violence on the people of the periphery. As the political scientist John Markakis argues in his 2011 book ‘Ethiopia: the last two frontiers’ all of the efforts failed because the elite at the center refused to share power in any meaningful way with the periphery, the physical lowland border lands and the politically excluded highland periphery, notably the Oromo inhabited areas, and the economically un-integrated lowland periphery among the Anuak, the Surma,  the Somali and the Afar.

The specter of violence

Unfortunately, the specter of yet another violent political transition has now returned. The historical pattern and factors that in the past have led to a violent transition seem to be converging. These are economic crisis epitomized by severe drought/famine, discontent and instability, and a government that is suddenly responsive to public demands.

In Ethiopia’s recent past, economic crises epitomized by famine have always presaged a fall of a regime.  The near successful coup d’etat of 1960 was preceded by a famine in 1959.  The 1974 fall of Emperor Haile Sellassie was precipitated by dire economic times that resulted from the global energy crisis of 1973 and the Wello famine of the same year.  The collapse of the Derg regime was occasioned by a persistent negative economic growth, the impact of which was compounded by the 1984-85 famine which affected eight million people and killed about a million.

When confronted with an apparently insurmountable crisis, each regime became less arrogant and more responsive to public concerns.  In 1974, when severe economic conditions fueled popular unrest and persistent strikes by students, teachers and cabbies occasioned a sense of chaos in the capital, the Haile Sellassie government responded by reducing gasoline prices, dropping price controls on basic essentials, and raising military pay.  Prime Minister Aklilu Habte Wold took the unprecedented but courageous step of resigning. His successor Endalkachew Mekonnen, promised broad reform measures.  The effort yielded a breathing space for the ailing regime, but did not stop the slide into oblivion.

In 1990, when the Derg regime was in tatters after a long period of a stagnant economy and a series of major military defeats, Mengistu announced the end of socialism in Ethiopia, the replacement of the exclusive Worker’s Party of Ethiopia with the relatively more open Ethiopian Democratic Unity Party, and the demise of the command economy.  Political prisoners were released. Some individuals even felt courageous enough to publicly criticize Mengistu and his policies, including one that demanded his resignation.  The reforms had obvious effects in rural areas where the Derg’s peasant villages were dismantled, land redistributed, and the orders of party cadres and government functionaries were disobeyed by the emboldened public. Mengistu continued tinkering with his ideology and government, for example, replacing hardliners with liberal officials. Alas! No amount of reform was sufficient to save the regime.

The three conditions that have preceded the downfall of the imperial and military regimes once again appear to be gathering momentum on the current Ethiopian political scene. The Oromo protests of 2014 and 2015-16 have exposed the reality that the regime’s hold on power has always been tenuous. In Oromia, the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization’s (OPDO) structure is completely broken at the district level with no prospect of reorganizing itself and reasserting control. The protests have also exposed that the economy is in a more difficult state without a continuous infusion of direct foreign assistance. The financial sector is in such a terrible shape that the lack of credit and liquidity for private banks is threatening to take the economy down. And the number of people that need food aid today, according to the UN and USAID, could reach over 20 million. The level of discontent in the country is terrifyingly high.

Confronted by the grim reality, the regime has suddenly become responsive to public demands. The omniscient government that, only a few months ago, was arrogantly telling everybody what to think now appears to be in retreat. Uncharacteristically for an Ethiopian government, it has taken responsibility for its incompetence in delivering services, issued tepid apologies for its use of lethal force against peaceful protestors and announced intentions to rescind its land-grabbing schemes altogether.

It is too little too late. No amount of public contrition or magnanimous gestures such as reduction of gasoline prices will be sufficient to help the government regain its footing and legitimacy. The problem now is the government itself.

Another ‘structural opening’?    

The Oromo protests have now offered Ethiopia another ‘structural opening’ for a nonviolent transition. Ethiopians should not once again miss this opportunity as a people to embark on a genuine path of democratization, sustainable development, lasting peace, and respect for human rights. But in order to seize this opportunity Ethiopians should, first and foremost, accurately acknowledge the problem as the country faces it today. The main problem that needs to be addressed is one that is identified by John Markakis. At this stage, Markakis says:

At the end of the first decade of the 21st century, the incumbent regime in [Addis Abeba] is engaged in the same battles that exhausted its predecessors, impoverished the country, and blasted peoples’ hopes for peace, democracy and an escape from dire poverty. One of the last frontiers Ethiopia’s rulers have to cross is to redress the imbalance of power that marginalizes the majority of its people and is the cause of endless strife that holds them in bondage. The failure to cross this “last frontier’ makes it impossible to forge a system of government based on consensus and legitimacy, and to complete the process of nation-state building with political integration.

Ethiopians should also reject the option of borrowing foreign models of social change and start looking inward for workable models in the indigenous systems of Ethiopia’s peoples.  Ethiopia’s prominent political figure and academician, Leencho Lata, in his book, Horn of Africa as Common Homeland, has called for implementation of innovative solutions based on the knowledge and practices of grassroots communities to resolve problems and avoid uncritical embrace of transplanted democratic forms.

Ethiopia needs renewal and there is an opportunity for constructing a new, democratic Ethiopia. As it stands now the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has lost credibility, legitimacy and the capacity to cross the political frontiers that have made national integration impossible.  Crossing this political frontier requires meeting Ethiopia’s marginalized periphery where they are because the new democratic Ethiopia should be free of cultural, political and economic domination of one group of people by another.

When a structural opening occurred for renewal in 1974, Donald Levine offered a social scientists’ view of a new Ethiopia in his book, Greater Ethiopia, which expressed his wishes to see a multinational country that has synthesized the socio-cultural systems of the country’s two major ethno linguistic communities, the Amhara and the Oromo. Levine’s portrait shows the individualistic, hierarchical, competitive Amharas with a highly flexible society, confronting the solidaristic (or cooperative), egalitarian, socially-accommodating Oromos. His was an idea rooted in Hegelian dialectics in which the Oromo, the majority within the country, are viewed as (unfortunately) constituting the antithesis of the Amhara thesis. Regardless, his analysis shows the “hierarchical individualist” Amhara and the “egalitarian solidaristic” Oromo resolving their differences at a higher level of creative incorporation that produces Ethiopia as a culture area.

I raise Levine’s ‘Greater Ethiopia’ synthesis not because I am oblivious to the academic rancor his idea of Ethiopia as a single culture area has generated since the book’s publication. What I am interested in is his idea of resolving political differences in Ethiopia at a higher level of social consciousness. This might well obviate another episode of violent transition.

ED’s Note: Ezekiel Gebissa is a Professor of History and African Studies at Kettering University in Flint, Michigan. He can be reached at

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