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How Long Will the Center Hold?: National Security, the Economy and Elections

How Long Will the Center Hold?: National Security, the Economy and Elections

Elias Dawit 7-25-19

Although unfashionable in today’s political discourse to bring up the ideas of former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, it is hard to ignore his thinking on issues related to Ethiopia’s national security and economy. In a country of over 100 million people cohabitating together in a rough neighborhood of ethnic, religious, regional and political differences—and increasingly an enormous generational divide—national security, according to the former Prime Minister, is inexorably linked to the government’s economic policy; and they condition each other.

In simple terms, there is a primacy in national survival that drives an effective and professional national security institution, but Ethiopia’s national security was also a function of the country’s economy. Meles believed that national security was human security for the people of Ethiopia. The tools of the state to make people secure included the economy—because Ethiopia’s number one enemy was poverty.

In today’s Ethiopia, both national security and human security are being sacrificed at the altar of Western aid and future investment—particularly support from the U.S. and its allies, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In this arrangement, Ethiopia compromises its sovereignty and its pro-poor economic policies to accommodate the strategic and economic interests of external political actors.

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Perhaps it was necessary, then, to dismantle the country’s national security system to create the conditions for large-scale economic transformation to enrich external investors who can provide the inputs for regime stabilization. In other words, it was necessary to create the instability to justify repression without changing the prevailing narrative of political and economic reform. It was a transactional bargain between the Ethiopian government and its coalition of willing partners—the U.S., Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. The partners would politically support the Prime Minister’s government and he would create the conditions needed for external investors to profit from Ethiopia’s resources. How else can we explain the wholesale annihilation of a national security system with a global reputation of effectiveness?

The dismantling of the national security system took place at lightning speed and the vacuum was filled by the political actors embraced by the Prime Minister at the behest of the U.S. and its allies. For years, the U.S. had summarily dismissed the concerns of Ethiopia’s national security officials over three opposition groups in particular—the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), Patriotic Ginbot 7 and the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF)—as “paranoia.”

In fact, for decades the U.S. had continually engaged these groups, even ignoring the U.S. laws consistently broken by Patriotic Ginbot 7 when raising funds to violently overthrow a government recognized by the U.S. How could the U.S. government not understand that their engagement in Ethiopian politics would result in a zero-sum struggle for power? Or perhaps that was the goal all along?

Today Ethiopia’s national security system—once admired by its Western allies—has been neutered and rendered ineffective by the targeted removal of key officials, beginning with the former head of the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS), Getachew Assefa. In nothing less than an ethnic purge, the Prime Minister removed civil servants from NISS known to be Tigrayan, leaving the agency in the hands of less experienced staff. Later, it became clear that the Prime Minister was, in effect, dismantling the national security system.

At the same time, the regional states were creating parallel systems that merged with untrained militias. The results have been catastrophic, as demonstrated by the assassination of the Amhara Regional President by his own security chief, released from prison having been convicted of attempting a coup against former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.

Another example has had even more far-reaching consequences. The militias hosted by the Somali and Oromia regional governments under the regional security apparatus are responsible for the displacement of millions of people.

Ethiopia now hosts the largest number of internally displaced people in the world. The federal government operates under an undeclared state of emergency in three regions. Yet, in only a few instances have Ethiopia’s friends and allies, along with the international media, raised questions about the new “reformist” Prime Minister.

The political narrative of reform and good governance remains a dominant headline even when reporting deadly violence, displacement or executive decision-making by fiat. When one of these instances occur, and they are frequent, friends and allies offer rationalizations, justifications ad extenuating circumstances that are beyond the Prime Minister’s control.

In another country, he would be called an autocrat.

The ascendance of the new Prime Minister and his government was long in the works. The “soft coup” that took place was orchestrated by individuals in the (then) OPDO and (then) ANDM, sister parties of the EPRDF, assisted by external political actors with their own agendas for Ethiopia. These external political actors were led by the U.S., hoping to drive Ethiopia’s domestic and foreign policy in a direction more favorable to U.S. economic interests—in particular, to dislodge China’s footprint in the region and to bring President Isaias in from the cold. The U.S. was supported by two of its Middle Eastern allies, Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E., wishing to make money and expand its own influence in the Horn of Africa.  

Everything about the new Prime Minister’s first six months in office seemed to have been sketched out on the iPads of several key U.S. State Department officials. Noteworthy were: opening the prisons to release members of the opposition, including future assassin Brigadier General Asiminew; inviting opposition groups out of exile, including three violent organizations with ties to Eritrea (OLF, Ginbot 7, and ONLF); and announcing economic reforms to attract foreign investors with limitless resources, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE. To achieve these goals, it was necessary to not only remove the leadership of the TPLF from government institutions, but to make them an enemy of the people.

Although the U.S. historically has enjoyed a positive relationship with Ethiopia’s defense and security institutions based on the mutually defined interests of maintaining peace in the country and the region, the U.S. has always been uneasy, even queasy, about its relationship with the leadership of the TPLF. The U.S. could never accept the party’s rejection of the neo-liberal economic model and adoption of the developmental state. It ran counter to U.S. and other global economic interests. Moreover, the U.S. has doggedly tracked China’s economic engagement in Ethiopia and was becoming increasingly alarmed over China’s growing influence in Africa.

So, the TPLF had to go, clearly. They were out and now the new Prime Minister was in, joined by U.S. partners as insurance should the Prime Minister fall out of line. Uniting the Prime Minister, Patriotic Ginbot 7, the OLF and the ONLF was their antipathy towards the TPLF.  This political theatre would also buy time for external political actors to identify the likely winner in the impending power struggle.

In addition to writing speeches, advising the Prime Minister on what to wear and promoting photo opportunities with Eritrea’s President Isaias Afewerki and sometimes trees, the U.S. and its allies have devised a made-for-television political drama. In this political theater, the Prime Minister has pointed his finger at Getachew Assefa as the protagonist, or central character in the drama, as a symbol of the excesses of the TPLF. No matter that few people in the country knew the name of the Chief of the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS). With the opposition now advising the government and taking senior positions in the federal and regional government—including would-be assassin Brigadier General Asaiminew—it had to be demonstrated that these groups and individuals were wrongly identified as a “terrorist” by the country’s national security agency.

The campaign against Getachew began with a lot of noise. Ethiopia’s Attorney General announced charges against Getachew Assefa and an Antonov with 40 federal commandos was said to have been sent to Mekelle to issue the arrest warrant for Getachew. When the Attorney General failed to arrest Getachew, the noise stopped. Getachew, appointed head of security and elected to the executive committee by the party, is today overseeing the security of the one region in Ethiopia not experiencing the dystopian politics and insecurity of its neighbors.

Elsewhere throughout the country, however, the void left by the dismantling of Ethiopia’s security system is being filled by the narrow interests of the Prime Minister’s new partners—those individuals and groups formerly identified as threats to national security. The “addition” of these new partners has resulted in a thoroughly dysfunctional federal government in a new “era of the princes.” Regions are spiraling out of control as the power struggle among its elites intensifies

Qeerroo is essentially running large swaths of Oromia; almost three million people are displaced (the largest population in the world); Sidama is defying the federal government’s request to delay the referendum for breaking away from SNNPR; towns and villages in the Somali Region are being controlled by al-Shabab; the Amhara Region cannot stop its security head from assassinating the Regional President; and even the Addis Ababa city administration has had to bargain with the Qeerroo over government condominiums.

With the national security apparatus disintegrated, the ordinary Ethiopian may hope that the military can hold. However, the assassination of Chief of Staff General Saere by his own bodyguard, just a couple of months into the job having been assigned by the Defense Intelligence Agency, is not a good sign. How could the Defense Intelligence Agency make this kind of mistake? It doesn’t bode well for the country that the military—perhaps the last institution committed and equipped to protect the Constitution—cannot keep safe its Defense Chief of Staff. It raises questions about what the mid- and lower-ranking soldiers thinking? Can we still think the defense forces are disciplined and cohesive or has there been a shift into something more dangerous?

The situation created by inviting violent organizations back into the country to engage in politics has fueled the country’s tensions. The OLF has split into the OLF-SG led by Dawud Ibsa and has, presumably, disavowed violence. The Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), once the armed wing of the OLF, remains a separate armed faction. Many, however, are skeptical of Dawud’s change of heart given that just a few months ago the OLF/OLA had robbed 18 banks Wellega, located in Oromia. We also don’t know what to make of the OLF merger with Merara Gudina’s Oromo Federalist Congress.

What is clear, however, is the potential for explosion in a key region of the country’s governing power. The majority of Oromos in Oromia do not support the EPRDF and it seems reasonable to surmise that the OLF/OFC merger would win an election in 2020. What that means for the Prime Minister’s next moves before the 2020 elections is anyone’s guess.  He has been coy about whether he would delay the elections. With the delay in the census, the Prime Minister may be able to make the case to delay the elections. According to the Constitution, the census determines the boundaries of the constituencies.

Delaying the election may be the Prime Minister’s best bet to stay in power. For him, a presidential system offers him the best hope of maintaining his power.

Ginbot 7’s Berhanu Nega joins the Prime Minister in advocating for a presidential system—for basically the same reason. Berhanu has no strong ethnic base. He once believed that the Amhara region would support the Patriotic Ginbot 7, but the dream essentially died with the surge of Amhara ethno-nationalism. Berhanu, from the Gurage people, knows that he has no chance of building an ethnic constituency that can take him to, what he believes, his rightful place as Prime Minister. He is quick to point out that his newly formed party, the Ethiopia Citizens for Social Justice (ECSJ), is the only multiethnic party in the country.

By essentially dismantling the country’s national security apparatus, the Prime Minister has created the conditions of potential state collapse. Insecurity has caused a delay in the census. A delay in the census could give the government a reason to delay the elections. And a decision to delay the elections, could be catastrophic. As a side note, the irony of Birtukan Mekdesa’s glibness in responding to a question about the 2020 elections was breathtaking. She is quoted by Reuters saying that insecurity related to ethnic violence could force an election delay. “If the security of the country is not going to improve, we can’t tell voters to go and vote,” she told Reuters.

In a roundabout way, the Prime Minister may have succeeded in creating a pathway to power beyond 2020. If this is the case, then the U.S. and its allies will continue to give the Prime Minister all the support and recognition he needs to stay in power.

And what about the ONLF Gas and oil? The Ogaden region contains four trillion cubic feet of gas and oil deposits. China’s POLY-GCL Petroleum has been developing two gas fields there since 2013. The ONLF, then, becomes an important political actor in protecting the enormous economic assets of the Somali Region.


There are different narratives that try to explain Ethiopia’s many moving parts. There is not only a myriad of moving parts in a complex and fluid environment, but there are enormous gaps in our information. This is an attempt to connect the dots to get a fuller picture of recent events in Ethiopia that deviates from the prevailing explanations.

The purpose of this article is to try to present a different narrative that does not automatically and unquestionably cast the Prime Minister as a reformer and the TPLF as a spoiler. In addition, this narrative questions the role of the U.S. and its friends and allies in their unwavering support of the Prime Minister and a reformist agenda that seems to favor external investors at the expense of Ethiopia’s poor.

In sketching out this narrative, we began with the question of why the Prime Minister has dismantled his national security system. It is clear that it served one purpose—equating the TPLF, through the guise of Getachew Assefa, with widespread and systemic human rights abuses that have yet to be framed as prosecutorial charges.

We propose that the government, supported by its U.S. allies, needed to dismantle the national security system in order to weaken the regions and strengthen the central government—a death blow to democratic centrism. By weakening the regions, the Prime Minister has been able to impose an increasingly autocratic decision-making approach. The injection of disruption, represented by the three former terrorist groups—OLF, Ginbot 7 and ONLF—further marginalizes the TPLF and creates the conditions for the Prime Minister to break away from the EPRDF. Although the Prime Minister today holds office because of the party, his association will not give him the constituency he needs to win an election in Oromia. His only pathway to win in 2020 is a presidential system.

Without more information, this narrative is just as legitimate as any other being repeated by the Ethiopian government’s friends and allies—especially the U.S. government—along with the international media and the Ethiopian government itself.

The Ethiopian government and its friends and allies are playing a high stakes game with potentially catastrophic effects, not only in the country but in the volatile region of the Horn of Africa. If the Prime Minister’s endgame is to either maintain power by postponing elections or by a constitutional amendment to impose a presidential system, the center of this argument holds. If the U.S. is backing the Prime Minister despite his growing autocracy for an economic foothold in Ethiopia, the center of this argument holds. What will not hold, however, is Ethiopia.

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