Opinion – Who is in control in Ethiopia?

By Leenco Lata

Who is presently in control in Ethiopia? This is a strange question coming from a person who never minces his words when criticizing the EPRDF for installing an authoritarian order in Ethiopia, in which the top official is unquestionably in control. It is also strange to pose the question about a country where who is in control has never really been an issue at all. Emperor Haile Selassie, Colonel Mengistu Hailemariam and Meles Zenawi were fully in control in their day and in their distinct ways. Who is in control was never in doubt during the time of these previous rulers.

It is only after Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn became Ethiopia’s highest executive official that such a question started surfacing. In fact, questioning if he is really in control or not was aired from the outset of his tenure and has dogged his administration ever since. And I am one of those who dismissed the notion that PM Hailemariam is not really in control because according to the Constitution he is Ethiopia’s highest executive official who would ultimately be held accountable for any official wrongdoing as long as he remains in that position.


I am now increasingly inclined to question this earlier stand due to particularly a recent development. The Prime Minister appeared before Parliament on 10 March 2016 and apologized for the deaths and destructions that had occurred during the preceding months in Oromia Regional State. He deserves to be commended for having the courage and humility to offer a public apology on behalf of his government. Such an action is truly unprecedented in Ethiopia’s history and should be wholeheartedly welcomed.

Those of us who welcomed this public expression of apology held our breaths and waited for what should automatically follow: the withdrawal of special security forces from the areas where protests were taking place; the release of those illegally detained peaceful protesters; and compensating the relatives of those killed for peacefully demanding their constitutional rights.

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When none of these followed the Prime Minister’s public expression of apology, we were left puzzled, disappointed and increasingly forced to question if he is really in control. The pronouncements of particularly the highest government official should carry some weight. Such public proclamations serve as the keynote influencing the behaviors and actions of all subordinate bodies and personnel. Subordinates are duty-bound to fall in line with the signal of their highest official.

Unfortunately, subsequent to Prime Minister Hailemariam’s apology, the direct opposite of what was expected happened. Instead of releasing the peaceful protesters already in detention, even more were arrested. The special security forces remained spread out through towns and villages and continued to intimidate, humiliate and persecute members of society. The words of Ethiopia’s highest executive official and the deeds of his subordinates stood at loggerheads as the result.

There are those who conclude from this that the Prime Minister was merely being glib when he offered his apology. But the apology was aired during a solemn parliamentary session thus militating against this stand. There are others who contend that he was simply hoodwinking society by his apology. This is also implausible because of the widely well-known religious nature of the Prime Minister, which renders it unlikely for him to behave in a duplicitous manner.

No matter what positions observers take, one thing is indisputable. The mismatch between the words of the Prime Minister and the deeds of his subordinates has a potentially devastating implication for the society they are ruling. Members of society are likely to be utterly confused by the contradictory signals reaching them from various levels of the government. They can correctly conclude that they have been exonerated of any wrongdoing by the Prime Minister’s apology. On the other hand, the actions of the security forces are meant to force members of society to draw the direct opposite conclusion. The upshot is the society’s inability to distinguish what is expected of it and what is not.

Furthermore, there are indications that PM Hailemariam Desalegn’s government itself is confused. The meeting he held with his erstwhile colleague academics, on 15 March, is one of them. It appears that encouraging academics to participate in politics was one of the objectives of this encounter. However, there are already University Professors and lecturers, such as Prof. Beyene Petros and Dr. Marara Gudina, leading opposition political party members. And most conscious Ethiopians are aware how the activities of those scholar-politicians are severely hamstrung by the government’s heavy-handedness. What else is needed to encourage more scholars to join the fray than stopping the policy of frustrating those already participating in politics?

The Prime Minister’s next meeting was with elected Gada leaders from the southern tip of the Oromia regional state. Much can be said about the implication of this meeting. Focusing on the contrast between two electoral systems and the kinds of legitimacy resulting from them is very informative. The traditional Oromo leaders were elected through a highly competitive electoral process marked with intensive and protracted societal vetting such that only the best and the brightest get elected. That these traditional leaders lack political power, however, is obvious since they command no police force, nor do they have other trappings of state power at their disposal. Their influence, prestige and legitimacy rest strictly on their moral authority and the confidence of their electors. If granting them audience was meant to recognize and tap into their influence, legitimacy and societal confidence, the Prime Minister deserves our applause for doing so.

Another set of Oromo leaders were elected on the basis of the official electoral system and are currently exercising uncontested political power in Oromia. I am of course referring to OPDO parliamentarians occupying every single seat both at the Regional legislature (the Caffee) and the Federal Parliament. Unlike those elected through the traditional electoral system, however, these ones lack moral authority, legitimacy and societal confidence. The peaceful protests that have been rocking Oromia for five continuous months now is evidence that the Oromo society has no confidence whatsoever in these supposedly elected OPDO officials.

The contrast between the stature of these two sets of elected Oromo leaders leads to a very simple lesson. Only an electoral system that leads to the election of only the best and the brightest can do away with the deficiency of legitimacy presently dogging OPDO officials. And this does not appear promising unless the playing field is leveled thus enabling fair and free electoral competition. This has been the demand of the opposition parties ever since the EPRDF ascended to power.

The Prime Minister made a striking remark during his discussion with the academics. He identified the absence of democracy within the country’s political organizations as the critical obstacle to democratic practices in Ethiopia. That he did not exempt even the EPRDF from this shortcoming is quite refreshing. He deserves to be commended for his frankness and honesty. I hope we, members of the opposition parties, would follow his precedent and critically assess if we are also practicing democracy within our respective organizations or not. I could not agree more with the Prime Minister’s observation. An internally undemocratic political organization cannot practice democracy in the external sphere.

However, democracy within the EPRDF deserves a special focus because of its dominance and the leading role it has been playing for now close to a quarter of a century. There could be various causes for the lack of democracy within the EPRDF: for example the history of its formation during the insurgency; and its cultural and ideological underpinnings. These are obstacles that cannot be summarily and easily resolved. But there is one step that the EPRDF leaders can plausibly take with immediacy having far-reaching implications for internal democracy. And that concerns representation.

It is well-known that the EPRDF is composed of Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF), the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM), the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO), and the Southern Ethiopian Peoples’ Democratic Movement (SEPDM). They have all been very busy recruiting members from their respective constituencies for close to 25 years now. As the result, it is plausible to expect the number of their members becoming steadily proportional to the respective populations of these constituencies.

Nevertheless, these four organizations continue to send an equal number of delegates to the Executive Committee of the EPRDF. This has one significance and undeniable implication: According to a very rough calculation, the vote of one TPLF member carries the same weight as that of 3 members of SEPDM, that of 4 members of ANDM and that of 6 members of the OPDO. This form of representation has one indisputable implication. It violates the fundamental democratic principle of “one person, one vote.”

Let me state one fact as clearly as possible: My intension is not to advocate the rights of OPDO members or of the other EPRDF member organizations. I have a couple of aims for bringing up this issue. First, members of any organization who do not recognize and struggle against their own unjust treatment cannot be expected to defend the rights of their constituency. If OPDO members, for reasons I fail to fathom, are satisfied that 6 of them carry the same weight as a single TPLF member that is their business. Second, it is evident that OPDO members have a dilemma. Their organization was originally formed in order to capture Oromo backing for the EPRDF. At the same time, it is also expected to serve as the instrument for limiting Oromo role in Ethiopia’s political and economic life. It is this contradictory mission of the OPDO that is wreaking havoc in Oromia and nothing else.

Let me conclude by paying tribute to two individuals for their courageous and public warning to EPRDF leaders to uphold democracy. The historian, Dr Gebru Tareke, during an interview with an Australian radio station, forthrightly stated that unless the EPRDF leaders change their approach to democracy, they are likely to undo all their positive contributions. The former Commander of the Ethiopian Air force also offered a similar warning to EPRDF leaders in an article published by a local newspaper. I lift my hat to both of them because authoritarianism and federation make a highly combustible mixture.

There are many societies that have successfully practiced democracy without federation. But all those who attempted to institute a federal system without democracy ended in disaster. Mentioning the experiences of the former USSR and Yugoslavia suffices. Unless a democratic reform is implemented, and soon, that the same fate awaits Ethiopia as well appears self-evident to me. If I am being overly alarmist, it is because I am convinced that it is better to sound the clarion call now before the country crosses the point of no return.

ED’s Note: Leenco Lata, an author and academician, is one of the persons that laid the cornerstones of Ethiopia’s multi-national federation and currently President of the Oromo Democratic Front (ODF). He can be reached at

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