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

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.”[1] The solution is a democratic system monitored by “a dominant party or dominant coalition democracy”[2] 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.”[3] Since Ethiopia cannot afford to finance the projects, the required “massive investment . . .  has to be borrowed from outside sources.”[4]

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.”[5]

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] Tsehai Alemayehu, “The Ethiopian Developmental State: Requirements and Perquisites,” Journal of Business & Economics Research, vol.7, no. 8 (2009), p. 13.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Daniel Teferra, “Ethiopia: International Borrowing and Its Consequences,”

[4] Ibid.

[5] Seid Hassan, Minga Negash, Tesfaye T. Lemma and Abu Girma Moges, “Is Ethiopia’s Sovereign Debt Sustainable?