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Twofold crisis in Ethiopia: the elites and the street

Ultimately, the only route to its successful end is regulation through institutional mechanisms, which means elections, whether early or within the normal electoral cycle.

lead Abiy Ahmed and Lemma Megersa, in November 2017. Wikicommons/Odaw. Some rights reserved.According to the dominant assessment, the crisis in Ethiopia reflects the absolute antagonism between two well-defined blocks. A fight between “Ethiopia’s political and business elites (that) have decided to make their last stand to protect their wealth and power by using a military” apparatus, and “a revolution from below based on the political activism of millions of people who are determined to deploy nonviolent methods to overthrow a tyrannical totalitarian regime.

In this view, the first block is clinging to the status quo. “Take their power away, they will become nobody overnight.” Its centre of gravity is “the” Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), perceived as a homogeneous and unified force. While Tigrayans account for only 6% of the population, the Front maintains its pre-eminence in the leadership of the military and security forces answerable to federal authority. It is a very big player in the “modern” – i.e. non-agricultural – economy, through its control over public and para-public companies. It has long been the dominant component of the four ethnic parties in the ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).

This ascendancy was clear with respect to the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM), but in decline for the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM) and even more so for the Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organisation (OPDO). It also attracts apparatchiks from all over, including ANDM and OPDO. Without saying it overtly, they too have an interest in the maintenance of the status quo, even when this runs counter to some of their party’s positions. Nevertheless, this block has made – or at least offered – gestures of opening up that were unthinkable a few months ago, and promises more.

Nevertheless, this block has made – or at least offered – gestures of opening up that were unthinkable a few months ago, and promises more. It has released more than 6000 political prisoners, including key leaders of the legal opposition. OPDO  has “invited opposition party members based in Ethiopia and overseas to work together with the goal of realizing a democratic system,” i.e. even the most radical fringe of the diaspora. ANDM has made a similar gesture. Never before have the official news channels of Oromia and of the Amhara region, as well as the private media, enjoyed such a degree of freedom of expression.

For its detractors, however, the proclamation of a second state of emergency, on February 16, is evidence that this block still favours force as the tool of getting its way. In response to mass protest, they say, it has simply yielded some tactical ground, which it will subsequently recover, while ultimately keeping hold of the essential.

How the opposing camp is seen

The opposing camp is seen as the proponent of radical change. Its strike force is the street and the sequence of demonstrations that have been under way for almost four years, even more in Oromia than in the Amhara region, headed by the “Qeerroo”, a term that means “unmarried young male” in the Oromo language. Parts of OPDO and of ANDM have joined forces with this current, under pressure from the unprecedented movement of mass protest. One of the rising stars, the President of Oromia, Lemma Megersa, has gone so far as to declare that “if we failed to deliver using existing legal and institutional mechanisms, I and all of us here will join you in the protests.” Another player, of course, is the legal opposition, but its leaders are ageing and worn out by decades of futile struggle. It is also weakened by its fragmentation, disorganization, woolliness, and disunity over objectives.

This camp is unanimous in its pursuit of one primary, specific and concrete goal: to put an end to “Tigrayan hegemony”, summed up in its battle cry of: “down Woyane!”, in reference to the Tigrayan elite. However, it is much less explicit and clear about what to put in their place. In fact, like the ruling power itself, this opposition is enamoured of catchall slogans: “reforms”, “opening up”, “democratisation”, “transparency”, “accountability”, to which everyone can attach their own content.  Like the ruling power itself, this opposition is enamoured of catchall slogans: “reforms”, “opening up”, “democratisation”, “transparency”, “accountability”, to which everyone can attach their own content. 

This assessment is too simplistic to reflect the complexity and indeterminacy of the situation. In fact, there are two crises, not just one. Obviously interconnected, their origins, the players involved, and the objectives sought, are different: one crisis intrinsic to the ruling power, illustrated by the storm whirling around the apex of the leading coalition; and one crisis arising from external opposition to the broader system of power by some of those excluded from it, spearheaded by the Qeerroo.

Elitist conceptions of power

Underpinning everything is the elitist conception and practice of power. It is encoded in the genes of Ethiopian policy and Ethiopian culture alike, at least in the country’s Abyssinian cradle.

Under the influence of the radical student movement, the revolution of 1974 that led to the fall of the Emperor simply modified its expression, but not its essence. Social organization, in which imperial absolutism and its successive hierarchized variants, right down to the individual level, ultimately derived from divine will, gave way to an organization dominated by a new elite whose legitimacy was rooted in knowledge.

Theocracy, the landed aristocracy and the clergy were succeeded by a sort of “aristocracy of the knowledgeable”, which could be described as an “intellocracy”. Hence “the normative union of knowledge with power”, whose role it is “to rescue the society from barbarism and ignorance”: “power must become tutorship.[1]

In this fundamentally undemocratic conception, “the people” is reified. Because of its “backwardness”, it is destined to be an object rather than a subject of history. “Due to poor education and illiteracy the Ethiopian public is too underdeveloped to make a well reasoned, informed decision, and so Revolutionary Democracy[2] is the political bridge by which the ‘enlightened leaders’” can lead the people to democracy,” explained the recently resigned Prime Minister, Hailemariam Dessalegn. A fundamental postulate is that the absolute nature of power at its apex is immanent and intangible.

But well beyond the circles of government, the vast majority of Ethiopian elites, be they political, economic, social, or cultural, subscribe to the same vision. Even a new opposition figurehead, the recently amnestied Oromo Bekele Gerba, whose democratic refinement and convictions are recognized by all, seems to subscribe to this conception when he promises that the future lies in the hands of the Qeerroo but, he specifies, “the good Qeerroo, the educated one.

Membership of this intellocracy confers a social legitimacy so great that anyone aspiring to the highest positions must get their hands on a PhD, however dubious its source, and celebrate the accomplishment with much pomp and circumstance. How many countries are there where the name of a political figure is generally preceded or followed in the press with the abbreviation (Dr.) or (PhD), where applicable? Or where, just after the appointment of the new Oromo Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, the press and national media began by highlighting his myriad qualifications, and the extent to which “he is devoted and committed to education”? Conversely, to point out a political figure’s lack of qualifications, to describe them as a “drop out” from education, is the ultimate denigration.

At the other end of the social scale, this segregation is widely internalized. For the vast majority of the population, 80% small farmers, society can only work if it is governed by an unshakeable hierarchy. So a fundamental postulate is that the absolute nature of power at its apex is immanent and intangible. This is the only way that it can play its fundamental role: to maintain the peace of the realm and law and order, the primary condition of peasant survival.

Oligarchy ‘deep renewal’

The current ruling system continues to operate within this elitist mould, headed by what elsewhere would be called a “caste” or “the establishment”. It was totalitarian in the etymological sense, in that it extended well beyond the political sphere alone. In particular, there was no boundary between institutional position, family position, and business position: the ruling class also became an oligarchic class.

Meles Zenawi pushed this to the extreme, becoming an unchallenged embodiment of personal power. With his sudden death, the elitist structure he had established has collapsed. If it has been done chaotically, that structure nevertheless had no choice but to seek to rebuild itself. Otherwise the group of leaders/oligarchs knew that it would entirely lose its position and, in consequence, its assets.

In recent months, this attempt at reconstruction has entered a phase of acute crisis. The leadership tried to respond to its failure of legitimacy by launching a “deep renewal”. A succession of meetings was held by the four ethnic components of the governing coalition with the official aim of examining the progress and results of this process. The meetings were longer lasting – more than a year – and more bitter than ever before, so were expected to yield a roadmap out of the crisis. They churned out the same leitmotif: each of these meetings brought greater “consensus”, but its content hasn’t been disclosed.

However, nothing in the official releases suggested a meaningful inflection in the main components of the political line. They churned out the same leitmotif: each of these meetings brought greater “consensus”, but its content hasn’t been disclosed. In particular, there is nothing to suggest that “revolutionary democracy”, “democratic centralism” and the “developmental state”, the three pillars of the elitist – hence authoritarian – exercise of power, have even been questioned. And recently, the old line that the cause of the crisis is foreign conspiracy has been wheeled out, both “Arab”, hatched by Egypt with Eritrea as its proxy, and Western, led by “neoliberal” forces seeking to force Ethiopia to de-nationalize its economy.

Power struggle

Ultimately, therefore, all the available information points to the fact that the main cause of the breakdown in the governing coalition is a power struggle.  The leaderships have been heavily criticized, have performed their acts of contrition and undergone purges and promotions, culminating in a big first: the election of a new EPRDF Chairman and Prime Minister, the young and ambitious Abiy Ahmed. The major feature of this event, stressed by all observers and greeted in some places with popular jubilation, is that he is Oromo.

What is mainly at stake in the crisis at the top is a new redistribution of powers and resources within the coalition and along ethnic lines: the ethnic elites that see themselves as disadvantaged in relation to the Tigrayan elite have fought to establish a more equitable sharing of the political and economic cake. Does the election of Abiy Ahmed mark the beginning of the end of this leadership crisis, the start of a return to working order?

Does the election of Abiy Ahmed mark the beginning of the end of this leadership crisis, the start of a return to working order? The battle has been interminable, long in the balance, riddled with byzantine manoeuvres. It would seem that the TPLF fought to the bitter end to stop Abiy winning. One reliable observer of the political scene, close to TPLF, sums up the process in three stark words: “it was chaos.

All the pundits were predicting that TPLF would once again be the “kingmaker” in this election, which opposed four parties of equal size. The TPLF put forward no candidate, so would hold the casting vote for one of the three candidates, each of whom was assumed to have the support of his respective party. In a clear sign of its political decline, the TPLF failed. This election confirms a fundamental turning point in the regime. The pattern in the EPRDF leadership has changed dramatically, with an alliance between OPDO and ANDM gaining the upper hand over the TPLF, though no one can predict the strength of this alliance or how long it is likely to last.

In addition, the TPLF is facing increased defiance in Tigray itself, on the part of the population in general, intellectuals, and even its own officials. They accuse their leadership of being unable to push through the kind of development in Tigray that has been enjoyed by other regions like Oromia or Amhara, and at the same time of being riddled with corruption.

The other parties come out of it no better. The SEPDM vote was split between its own chairman and OPDO’s. Some ANDM votes probably went to the SEPDM candidate. The inner divisions inside these parties have become deeper. More and more ordinary members, but also mid-level officials, turned a blind eye to or even supported the popular protests, even within the administration and the regional security forces.

Second state of emergency

The circumstances of the proclamation of the second state of emergency are symptomatic of these dissensions. Even though the conditions under which it has been decided remain obscure and disputed, it would seem to have been approved by the EPRDF Executive Committee, then by the Council of Ministers, where ANDM and OPDO are strongly represented.

If Defense Minister Siraj Fegessa is to be believed, “the (ruling EPRDF coalition’s) committee were unanimous in their decision.” ANDM then remained silent. Kassahun Gofi, head of publicity for OPDO, declared that “as a party, we support the State of Emergency.[3] Attempting to keep everyone happy, Abiy Ahmed abstained in Parliament. Dozens of OPDO and ANDM parliamentarians simply refrained from voting, while 88 – essentially from OPDO – voted against.

The leaderships of these two parties have an ambivalent and divided attitude to the popular protest movement. Nobody controls it, certainly not they. Its target is the positions and advantages unfairly acquired by the establishment, and OPDO has certainly not been a back marker in this race for illicit privileges. To take just two recent examples, the “home strike” at the end of February led to “hundreds of arrests” in Gondar, where the mayor declared that the state of emergency demanded “zero tolerance”.[4] Following the demonstrations in Nekemte, in Oromia, Addisu Arega, head of the Oromia communication bureau, “urged the youth to refrain from violence and listen to elders to keep the peace in the city.[5] Moreover, there is always the risk that demonstrations might degenerate into ethnic clashes.

In addition to the divisions between the four components of the governing coalition, there are varying degrees of dissension within each of them. And finally, nothing is known about the remote periphery’s involvement in these crises, the lowlands of Afar, Somali, Beni Shangul, Gambella, although they account for around 10% of the population.

Abiy Ahmed

As well as the explosions of joy in Oromia in particular, congratulations and promises of support have come from all quarters, including websites close to the TPLF. “The Ethiopian people are largely happy with the results as the major changes they expect from their leaders could finally come true through Dr. Abiy Ahmed.”

Regardless of the sincerity of Abiy’s reformist statements, however, he primarily owes his mandate to the leadership of the EPRDF, and is therefore in a sense its representative. Some therefore say that he is obliged to keep faith with the Front’s political line. “Abiy Ahmed wants to continue on the successful development this government has embarked upon” and only “to address the shortfalls we have faced all along.The new Prime Minister will execute the agenda of the Party… He is an embodiment of the principles” of the Party, recalled Getachew Reda, a member of the TPLF politburo.

But there is nothing to say that this agenda has been settled on, let alone that it would be “reformist” in the sense understood by the opposition and the protesters.

The EPRDF’s endless communiqué about the last parliamentary session remains verbose and vague, with no specific information on the key points around which opposition has crystallized, such as the state of emergency, the abolition of the most repressive laws, the release of all political prisoners, the return of the military to their barracks. Yet OPDO supported the communiqué.

Similarly, while Abiy’s coronation speech was well-received, while it was more personal and emotional than usual, while the opposition figure Merera Gudina judged itmuch more civilized” than those of his predecessors, while it placed greater emphasis on the “unity” of Ethiopia, it remained fundamentally rhetorical and in continuity with the existing political line. To sum up, “we have laid the foundations for a durable and all-inclusive constitutional order” or built “a new democratic order”, and the goal is now to “speed up the work we have begun” in order to make this order “mature”, by “filling the gaps” and “tackling the deficiencies” and “shortcomings”.

On the points that have attracted the most interest, Abiy Ahmed simply reaffirms more vigorously positions that have already been presented. Towards the diaspora, in general very hostile to the regime: “we will welcome with open arms… those who want to bring your knowledge and experiences”. Towards the opposition: “to allow opposition parties to operate freely and create a conducive and fair and level playing field”. Finally, “the government needs to respect the law. It is also its obligation to ensure that the law is respected. An allusion – the only one – to the burning question of the state of emergency?

All these ambiguities obviously affect how much room for manoeuver Abiy has. Rather than enjoying a clear mandate that would give him a strong political footing, he is likely to have to play things by ear, handicapped by the recurrent conflicts between the different factions that could continue to divide the leadership, including determined opponents who have no intention of burying the hatchet.

Rather than possessing a roadmap corresponding to the intentions that he affirms – or are expected from him – there are significant forces which would rather see continuity take precedence over profound changes, let alone those the legal opposition is clamouring for, and in particular the Qeerroo.

The Qeerroo

So who are the Qeerroo? In the absence of field research, the answers are hypothetical and contradictory. According to some, they are a new social group, of a kind never seen before, the product of downward social mobility associated with urbanisation. The emerging middle class… seems to be holding back … It is probably afraid that major disorder may deprive it of the small gains it has achieved.

Essentially, inhabitants of cities and towns (the urban population has quadrupled in 30 years), who have broken from the peasant economy and the traditional values of the previous generation, largely undereducated (though secondary school enrolment has also quadrupled over the same period, the quality of education has not kept pace) and therefore underemployed and frustrated, and, by contrast with the parochialism of the previous generation, open to ideas and images of the world thanks to their mobile phones and increasingly the web.

They are the ones igniting the street, whereas the emerging middle class – usually at the forefront in democratisation movements – seems to be holding back, especially in Addis Ababa, where it is the most concentrated. It is probably afraid that major disorder may deprive it of the small gains it has achieved and result in confrontations as bloody as under the Derg dictatorship. According to others, the Qeerroo’s social base is much broader. They represent the whole of the younger generation, urban and rural, educated and uneducated, working and unemployed. In this view, their cohesion and motivation are also explained by the persistence of the traditional Oromo system of governance, the Gadaa, which assigns a fundamental role to consensus and free and open debate in decision-making, in other words the opposite of the country’s dominant mode of governance.

Whichever is the case, the authoritarianism and condescension of the regime, and their own professional exclusion, have left the Qeerroo angry and with a sense of being harassed, despised and ignored. In any case, their target is the very core of the age-old system of power: its elitism, its tutorship, its hierarchical structure.

In the view of some well-informed observers, without being explicitly stated, the real novelty of their movement is that “their goal is not simply political. […] They want to create a new social, economic and moral universe.”[6] For others, they are pragmatic in their demands, which can be summed up in a simple slogan: full respect for the constitution.[7] In any case, their target is the very core of the age-old system of power: its elitism, its tutorship, its hierarchical structure.

Yet a large proportion of the legal opposition’s leaders and mid-level officials believe that these latter characteristics are essential to the effectiveness of the ruling system Ethiopia needs. Their aim is more to force the gates of a previously closed elite, than to promote the real equality between citizens laid down in the constitution. For the Qeerroo, therefore, this part of the legal opposition belongs to the rival camp.

For them, entire sections of OPDO fall within this category, especially as they are seen as equally authoritarian and equally mired in corruption.

Qeerroo demands

The Qeerroo thus responded cautiously to Abiy Ahmed’s election. They are prepared to give him a chance for the moment, basically because he has the backing of Lemma Megerssa, the only leader they fully trust.

The goal of the popular protests that led to the 1974 revolution, similar in scale to those of today, was to demolish the “feudal regime” and to replace it with a very vague “socialism”. However, they were motivated by two flagship measures: “land to the tillers!” and the settlement of the “question of nationalities”.

The Qeerroo are first of all demanding authentic self-rule for their region, i.e. a more equitable federalism. Because of this, they influence the power struggles within the governing elite and therefore interact with the crisis it is experiencing. Beyond this, however, they are not known to have a developed political program, in particular with regard to the “democratic” form that they would like to see this self-rule take.

Moreover, while it is credible that their movement has been able to develop some kind of network structure of local nodes, as an underground force its organization and cohesion are necessarily limited.

Finally, no one today is able to measure the level of support it receives from older generations, which in any case undoubtedly varies from one region to another, and according to age, social status, etc. Is it an avant-garde very much ahead of the curve of the broad movement of popular demands, or it is a faithful expression of that movement? Is it an avant-garde very much ahead of the curve of the broad movement of popular demands, or it is a faithful expression of that movement?

Even overwrought, embryonic, sketchy, unstructured, this mass movement provides the legal opposition with a providential opportunity to break out of its marginal role. It is making every effort to channel and structure it. If it succeeded, the political landscape would be totally changed.

However, for the whole establishment, both majority and opposition, the Qeerroo also represent an unpredictable threat, because no one knows where and how far it could lead.

No one knows

We do not know whether, in their most recent meetings, the leadership structures of the EPRDF were able to set a political course out of the crisis. Apart from its numerical weakness and its disorganization, the legal opposition is divided on the two key issues: greater or less federalism; economic liberalization, including land privatization, or the maintenance, even reinforcement, of statist development. No one knows the precise goals or the level of organization of the Qeerroo and therefore whether they would be able to form a representative entity with clear objectives.

The most radical opposition forces argue that, although Abiy’s election is a step in the right direction, the way out of the crisis demands rapid fundamental change. An “all-inclusive dialogue with all stakeholders” would trigger, structure and usher in a “democratic transition”. In particular, it would end the state of emergency, abolish the main repressive laws and send the military back to their barracks.[8]

These demands seem unrealistic given the current balance of power relations. Firstly, nothing in the EPRDF’s official positions, including those of OPDO and ANDM, suggested that it would sign up to these demands. Secondly, the general context is too fluid and chaotic, the respective strengths and objectives of the different political forces too uncertain, to construct a reform process on solid and consensual foundations.

In particular, like it or not, there is no force currently able to replace the EPRDF at the heart of the political process. The restoration of order within the EPRDF is therefore a prerequisite for any significant movement. There is no quick, black-and-white way out of the crisis, but only different shades of grey and step-by-step tweaks and adjustments.

Shades of grey

Although the legal opposition has adopted radical postures, in the short term it probably expects no more of Abiy Ahmed than a series of gestures that indicate that he is moving in the direction it would like.

The closure of the notorious Maekelawi prison, the restoration of the Internet, the re-release of notorious activists after their recent release and then re-arrest, are symptomatic of this approach.

It will maintain the popular hope that his election has aroused. However, the disregard of the institutions as defined in the constitution is at the heart of the crisis. Ultimately, the only route to its successful end is regulation through institutional mechanisms, which means that the only real possibility is elections, whether early or within the normal electoral cycle.[9] However, the disregard of the institutions as defined in the constitution is at the heart of the crisis.

Their first effect would be to structure the political space by forcing all the players to clearly define their goals for change in three key domains: federalism, economic development strategy, establishment of the rule of law. It would then be down to the electorate to decide on the respective strength of the different actors.

The outcome would be unchallengeable, because measured and legitimized by the ballot box. It would be reflected in pluralism within a new parliament, which would cease to be a rubberstamp for decisions reached by a quasi-single party executive, and would finally take on the primary role assigned to it in the constitution. Together, Oromia and the Amhara Region would have a majority of MPs. The changes for which the voters cast their ballots could be democratically decided here.

This scenario can only bear fruit if the elections take place on a political playing field that is at least more level, even if full “free and fair” elections are as yet too much to hope for. This will require an overhaul of the National Election Board to guarantee its independence and its authority to ensure equal opportunities for all the competitors, as well as the introduction of a good dose of proportional representation.

Letting time do its work

It is because an “all inclusive dialogue” would be limited to this handful of measures that it could be successful. After all, the electoral campaign of 2005 was actually “free and fair” until a few weeks before the vote. Yet the regime was already significantly authoritarian and had not undertaken the slightest legislative reform or an overhaul of the security services. The rules were not changed, but applied strictly or, if necessary, tacitly suspended.

The repressive laws subsequently adopted (anti-terrorism, press, civil society) would lose their arbitrary character if they ceased to be employed against all forms of opposition by a legal system under government control. Ditto for the state of emergency: the new government could order the security forces to turn a blind eye to its most outrageous provisions, and to use force proportionately only if the “constitutional order” were genuinely under threat.

However, this scenario can only succeed provided that the main actors of the twofold crisis, beginning with EPRDF and the Qeerroo, agree that it should be decided through the ballot box. Institutional rules would take precedence over the rule of force, whether originating in the street or in the “deep state”.

The question remains whether the upholders of the status quo would ultimately be willing to allow this card to be played and whether the Qeerroo would agree to let time do its work.

The famous blogger and founder of the Oromia Media Network, Jawar Mohammed, believed to be very influential among the Qeerroo, wrote on March 28: “we congratulate Dr. Abiy for his appointment...  The opportunity offers him a unique scenario to charter peaceful transition to democracy in Ethiopia.” Less than a fortnight later, he urged: “Qeerroo, time to fire up and get rid of this rotten mass killer regime!” Will they listen to him?

Ethiopian expats protest against their government which had declared on February 16, 2018 a six-month state of emergency,in front of the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany on February 22, 2018.NurPhoto/ Press Association. All rights reserved.

Notes and further references


[1] Messay Kebede: Marxism-Leninism and Ethnicity as the Two Stages of Ethiopian Elitism, October 2001;
From Marxism-Leninism to Ethnicity: the Sideslips of Ethiopian Elitism, Western Michigan University, 2001; Radicalism and Cultural Dislocation in Ethiopia, 1960-1974, University of Rochester Press, 2008.

[2] “Revolutionary Democracy” is the regime’s official doctrine.

[3] AFP, Ethiopia ruling party to pick new PM next week, 24/02/2018

[4] Ethiopian Observer, Hundreds arrested in Gondar for taking part in “illegal strike”, 24/02/2018

[5] Africa News, Ethiopians warned against intimidating MPs to vote against state of emergency, 27/02/18

[6] Personal communication from a diaspora activist Oromo intellectual.

[7] Personal communication from a diaspora activist Oromo intellectual with close contacts with local Qeerroo leaders.

[8] See for example here or the communiqués of Ginbot7, Oromo Democratic Front or Medrek.

[9] Merera Gudina, President of the main opposition party, Medrek, advocates this solution here.

About the author

René Lefort has been writing about sub-saharan Africa since the 1970s and has reported on the region for Le Monde, Le Monde diplomatique, Libération, Le Nouvel Observateur.

He is the author of "Ethiopia. An heretical revolution?" (1982, Zed books).


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