If the current “collective” leadership of the EPRDF under Hailemariam Dessalegn fails to address Ethiopia’s manifold crisis, the chances are the TPLF senior leadership would disrupt his tenure soon. It may launch a radical overhaul of the EPRDF itself, the Civil Service and the Military. But if the TPLF leadership itself seems to be lacking and divided to take matters into its own hands. The military may do so- with or without its civilian counterparts. Our senior analyst, Derese G Kassa (PhD)* explains  current political leadership deadlock in Ethiopia.

Many conflate discussing the role of the military in Africa as approving of dictatorships or an overreach by a “state within a state”.  But truth be told countries like Nigeria, Egypt, Ethiopia and South Africa stand out as regional powers in Africa, partly because of the size and organization of their military.  The more formal, modern and organized a state’s monopoly of violence is the more national armies have influence on politics in Africa.

Of course, military dictatorships and strong men rule were destructive in that they usurped people’s power and undermined democratic processes and institutions. But it is also true that the countries that have strong, national and professional armies have managed to curb horizontal strife, and guarantee order and stability.   Where there is little or no monopoly of violence; we witnessed the proliferation of failed states in the continent. Building back such states from the ashes has also become such a formidable challenge. Somalia is a case in point here.

Given this cardinal role of national defense forces, one has to re-visit the role of national defense forces beyond their security relevance. In a democratic order, they could be institutions of national pride and strength that protect, and enhance constitutional democracies.

A professional, and rights conscious officer corps means tendencies of repression and power abuses by rogue civilian regimes could be checked. It means temptations to relapse to authoritarianism and strong men rule could be resisted. They could also help in the effort to ward off patronage, corruption and despotism that many elected officials indulge in Africa.

In Ethiopia, the opening salvo for a modern republic came from a military coup de e’tat by General Mengistu Neway and his brother Girmame Neway. The Neway brothers who aspired to install a republic where the monarchy had symbolic role only. It failed. Ten years later came the mutiny of soldiers in Negele Borana. And following the outbreak of the Ethiopian Revolution, the army moved in to fill the vacuum left by the Lij Endalkachew’s Cabinet. The Derg itself was an amorphous entity that had officers from every political dispensation. There were loyalists of the Haile Sellasie regime. There were officers who advocated for a western style liberal democratic architecture but did not gain traction at all. Many were left leaning officers who felt the Army should midwife the election of the “government of the masses” and head back to its barracks. Still others felt they could learn a thing or two about Marxism Leninism and “convert” themselves to be avowed “socialists”, charged with the “historic responsibility” of leading the workers’ revolution in Ethiopia. It was this camp of Mengistu Hailemariam that undermined and systematically eliminated all other voices and forces to consolidate power and emerge as a military dictatorship.

In the late 80s, when the Ethiopian civil war was raging in the North, senior military officers like Gens. Fanta Belay and Demissie Bulto took the lead to oust Mengistu from power and usher in a broad based political transition. They attempted a coup in 1989 that failed. But it went into the annals of history as yet another incident where men in uniform beckoned to the call of change. However, the battle hardened rebel forces of the TPLF and the EPLF made it to Asmara and Addis Ababa in May 1991 reconstituting the core of the national army.

Post- Meles (2012) Ethiopia is yet on another crossroads. The Ethiopian military and its current senior officer corps have remarkable limitations when it comes to training in military science and strategic leadership. However, the military commands a huge state budget and is active in continental peace keeping missions, not least Somalia. It has signed bilateral security and defense cooperation agreements with big powers.

Very recently, we are witnessing a new trend where the senior leadership of the Army is becoming more vocal and critical in its appraisal of post-Meles Ethiopia. Consider the latest public speeches and commentaries of Gen. Samora Yunus, the Chief of Staff of Ethiopian Defense Forces. Following Samora’s controversial comments about paralysis and lack of political commitment (on behalf of the civilian leadership of the EPRDF), came criticisms by Gen. Abebe Tekle Haimanot, the former Commander of the Ethiopian Air Force. Gen. Abebe has now become a regular fixture when it comes to articulating some of the structural challenges of the EPRDF regime.

In three articles and an interview, Abebe outlined that: a) democratization has hit the reverse gear since the 2005 elections, b) the state bureaucracy and party roles and assignments have fused, c) corruption has become endemic- a sign of the political crisis of the regime, and that d) Ethiopia’s geo-political interests could only be safeguarded if the regime resolves the “Eritrea Question”. Gen. Abebe also underscored the role and the need for “democratization” in the country while insisting on vigilance and resolve in the neighborhood.

Granted, these are not groundbreaking insights and ideas. Many civilians, human rights activists, and leaders of the opposition have paid a significant price for just airing these same concerns that Gen. Abebe did. But the fact that an old TPLF hand with significant influence and sway in the Army and the current corps of EPRDF leadership broached these matters is noteworthy. Secondly, this “in-house” debate is occurring on a platform which is decidedly about the body politic called Ethiopia. In other words, the issues raised and the way they were framed went beyond the confines of ethno-nationalism. Ethiopia’s Officer Corps is breaking its silence about the political prospect of the State. And every time this happened in Ethiopia, serious consequences follow. 

How consequential? First, if history is to be any guide to us, the army showed interest and became vocal in Ethiopian politics at critical junctures when the civilian leadership is in crisis. Hailemariam Dessalegn’s government is no exception. Despite modest growth and urban development, the majority of Ethiopians languish in dire poverty. Youth unemployment is in double digit numbers. Unlike past eras, the wealth and income inequality between the political elite and ordinary citizens is glaring. There is massive public discontent about the economic predicament of the nation. There also are widespread protests by the Oromo denouncing the expansion of Addis Ababa and the displacement of Oromo peasants from their land in the environs of Addis. Needless to state the marathon protest of Ethiopian Muslims demanding non- interference in their religious affair and rallying for the unconditional release of their representatives from prison. In short, Hailemariam’s government is engulfed with three major problems i.e. economic duress, massive public discontent and internal party crisis.  Over the past four years, his government was busy managing crisis after crisis. 

The military brass does read these tea leaves. It should not therefore surprise us if the legendary knives get out to deal with him. I am of the opinion that Haile Mariam’s political epitaph is being written as we speak. But there are two other compelling reasons that would incentivize the current military establishment. The top echelon of the military establishment has amassed wealth and has vested economic and business interests throughout the country. Crisis or breakdown of the political order therefore mean all these assets and ventures would be in jeopardy. Second, the military establishment is now the front guard for maintaining both the economic and political dominance of the Tigrayan elite at this juncture.

Given this set of circumstances and incentives; one could entertain the following scenarios. If the current “collective” leadership of the EPRDF under Hailemariam Dessalegn fails to address Ethiopia’s manifold crisis, the chances are the TPLF senior leadership would disrupt his tenure soon. It may launch a radical overhaul of the EPRDF itself, the Civil Service and the Military. But if the TPLF leadership itself seems to be lacking and divided to take matters into its own hands. The military may do so- with or without its civilian counterparts.

We are yet to see who the lead actors of “change” would be both within the ranks of the TPLF and the military for such a post-Hailemariam order.  The essence of such “change” and what it means for the politics of the country and the Horn is not yet clear. Whether the current top military leaders (such as the Chief of Staff) survive such an overhaul or get purged also remains to be seen.  Even more consequential would be the role of veteran TPLF hands both in the military and outside who were purged following the Ethio-Eritrean war.  In other words, the battle for the helm of the military is part of the jockeying to steer the political wing of the TPLF too. So there are a lot of moving parts when it comes to these current intra-party as well as party-military bouts of the TPLF. But one thing remains clear. The writing is on the wall. Hailemariam Dessalegn’s political career seems to be stuck between two unpleasant, near-future choices-a coup de grâce or a coup d’etat.

*Derese G. Kassa (PhD) is an urban sociologist and Assistant Professor of Sociology at IONA college in NY and also founder of Wazema Radio. He is a vocal commentator on Ethiopian affairs.