Is the TPLF Unintentionally Preparing the Ground for a Military Takeover? Messay Kebede

Readers may remember that I was recently involved in a dispute with Tecola Hagos over his article unjustly criticizing the conference on the Horn of Africa, organized by ESAT (see In addition to criticizing his assessment of the conference, my article disapproved his call for a military dictatorship. At the same time, I recognized the rationale that led Tecola to make such a baffling proposal. I noted that he had lost all hope in the possibility of the TPLF reforming itself, even as the necessity of reforms springs to mind in the face of mounting problems and challenges. Meles’s ways of dealing with the problems of Ethiopia have become irrelevant, since they have only aggravated the problems instead of solving them. Tecola’s call for a military coup is, therefore, the only viable solution once the necessity of reforms and the reluctance of the civilian leadership to make reforms are acknowledged. Needless to say, it is the only solution if and only if the goal is to keep power in the hands of a Tigrean military elite.

The more I reflected on Tecola’s rationale, the more it became clear that all what the TPLF leadership is doing is just an invitation for a military takeover. Not that the civil leadership of the ruling party expressly wants such an outcome, but because the retention of its hegemony demands that its methods of government as well as its thinking increasingly take the form of a military rule. The trouble, however, is that the civilian leadership cannot continue using military methods without having absolute control over the military. Absolute power cannot tolerate the existence of an autonomous force without ceasing to be absolute.

This is exactly what Rene Lefort, a long-time student of Ethiopia and one of the few scholars who have a first-hand knowledge of the country, notes with particular acuity when he speaks of “the growing autonomy of the army and security services. They have become a state within the state, answerable only to themselves and linked with just a few lead figures in the TPLF. The army in particular has built a military-industrial empire.” He adds, “for the first time, politics has by and large lost control of the gun.” (René Lefort, Ethiopia: a leadership in disarray, Open Democracy).

There is no doubt that a military-like regime is best effected by professional military men rather than by civilians, who can only be amateurs at the job. More importantly, I do not see how a military takeover can be avoided, given the fact that the regime cannot have two different and competing centers of power. The one must accept subordination, and it is hard to imagine how civilians would prevail in the present context of Ethiopia.

Here transpires the difference of TPFL’s notion of the development state from its classical meaning. The classical form, as exemplified by some East Asian countries, shows first well-established military regimes historically assuming a developmental role to counter the threat of communist insurgency through rapid economic development. The case of Ethiopia took a reverse direction, as a civilian party to which the military was subordinated first established a government that progressively evolved into a regime of a military type. True, one can point out a resemblance with the Chinese case, except that the Chinese government never lost the control of its military.  This is enough to cast doubt on the feasibility of the developmental state in Ethiopia.

One way by which the civilian leadership can prevent a military takeover is by democratizing the political system. In particular, the participation of opposition parties in the decision making process would diminish the importance of repressive forces and would give the state a form little appealing to military authoritarianism. But, as amply demonstrated by last week election’s, the TPLF is absolutely determined to exclude opposition forces from all participation. What the civilian leadership misses is that the exclusion of the opposition makes it even more dependent on repressive forces, which forces will not be long in realizing that they are the real power.

Let us go further. The ideology of the regime itself, namely, the developmental state, calls for a military type of power structure. Indeed, the ideology does no more than legitimize the idea of an authoritarian state. On the one hand, the ideology clearly requires the postponement of democracy as a necessary condition for economic growth, a position that is music to the ears of the military. On the other, the crucial economic role assigned to the state, not only legitimizes the economic empire controlled by the Ethiopian military, but it also  grants them the experience, expertise, in a word, the entitlement to run such a state. Stated otherwise, be it repression or economic guidance and implementation, the military would be much better than the civilian leadership, which on top of being amateurish, is constantly involved in internal disputes and struggles for power that endanger the whole system. The Ethiopian military thus emerges as the sole savior of the system.

The irony here is that, as the TPLF and the EPRDF celebrate their complete “victory” over the opposition, this same victory is also how they create conditions for the surrender of power to the military. In “crushing” the opposition through repression, the civilian leadership is actually furthering the militarization of the state. The weapons by which the TPLF prevails is also how it makes itself increasingly irrelevant. The option for a repressive policy can only generate more conflicts and threats of popular uprisings, the control of which gives more power and indispensability to the military and security forces.

I am not saying that a military coup is inevitable in Ethiopia: nothing is predetermined in societal evolution, given that the occurrence of a specific event requires the encounter of a host of conditions. I am just indicating a tendency, which precisely can turn into necessity if nothing is done to prevent it. In social as well in human life, doing nothing amounts to necessity for only then does the possible become inevitable.