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The Known Unknowns of Ethiopia’s Defense Forces in the Upcoming Election


By Elias Dawit   Feb 11, 2020


It seems almost certain that Ethiopia is heading towards a cataclysmic turn of events—and sooner rather than later. Tensions are rising on a daily basis as triple threats of ethnic and  religious conflict along with power struggles threaten to crack the foundation of the constitutional order and perhaps the integrity of the state itself.


Like boxers posturing in their corners, Ethiopia’s political actors have volubly expressed their vision of what the country should look like. The crowd of political parties, old and new, have used social and traditional media to express their ideas—albeit many times lacking in much detail and primarily oppositional.


The Prime Minster stands in his corner surrounded by a coterie of advisors from far flung corners of the world—Washington, D.C., Asmara, Riyadh and Dubai. His vision is shaped by a plethora of interests, his own and some external, far away from his predecessors’ revolutionary democracy.


Building on the boxer metaphor, there is an empty corner in the ring cloaked in mystery—the Ethiopian military. Should conflict escalate, what role will the Ethiopian Defense Forces play given all the uncertainty blanketing the country? Will the upcoming election, announced to take place in August, set off a chain of events where the military has to decide whose side it is on? And, depending upon its response, what will that mean for a post-election Ethiopia?


Increasingly it is beginning to look like Ethiopia’s upcoming election might be a flash point that could lead to implosion. For all of the political actors—domestic and foreign—the stakes are very high, and the process has many flaws.


The Prime Minister needs to legitimize his government and consolidate his power with this election—a government presently on shaky constitutional grounds with the dissolution of the EPRDF. After all, how can a parliamentary system credibly support a government composed of a political party that never existed during the last election?


For a number of opposition parties, this election represents the culmination of decades of struggle. The OLF, for example, has survived several generations of followers and a loss could mean permanent irrelevance. The same might be said about Ginbot 7—permanent irrelevance.


And for allies of the government, the election meets that minimum standard of the democratic reform that has become the currency of this new transactional partnership between the West and the Prime Minister.If the Prime Minister and his Prosperity Party lose, what are the implications for the grand plan being carried out in coordination with Washington, D.C. and its allies?


The stakes for everyone are incredibly high and the risks are even higher.


If conflict breaks out in one region and the army is called in to put down the resistance, how will the defense forces respond? Will Oromo generals give the orders to kill in Oromia?Will Amhara generals give the orders to kill in the Amhara region? Will soldiers follow these orders? What are the defense forces thinking?


Let’s look at one region--Oromia.


The Prime Minister and his new party have formidable challenges from the old school OLF and new comer Jawar Mohammed in his home base.


The OLF is held near and dear in the hearts of many Oromos. The OLF has a long history of articulating the grievances of the Oromo plurality and their marginalization throughout the country’s history. They have symbolized the political, economic and cultural aspirations of the Oromo people for decades and, with this election, political vindication is within its grasp.


For relative new comer Jawar Mohammed, his extraordinarily successful social media campaign that captured the imagination of Oromo youth makes him, in his mind, entitled to a place at the table—and not as a junior partner. Initially seen as an ally of the Prime Minister, Jawar has broken free of any ties he may have had and is now an opponent of Abiy Ahmed. Tension between the two Oromo leaders was so high several months ago, Jawar accused the Prime Minister of attempting to assassinate him when the federal police arrived at his house in the middle of the night demanding that his security detail be removed.


There are a number of scenarios that could play out in this highly polarized region. The optimum outcome would be, of course, an election perceived as free and fair and everyone plays by the rules. The winner takes power and the losers retreat to their corners to plan their campaigns five years from now.


In the event this doesn’t happen, however, can and will the military intervene to quell any violence that threatens the peace in a region, such as Oromia, and even the integrity of the Ethiopian state? What if this scenario is played out in more than one region?


Since 1991, the Ethiopian military has played a supporting role in Ethiopian politics—meaning that the military has stayed out of politics. Ethiopia’s defense forces have enjoyed a stellar reputation globally—lauded for its professionalism demonstrated in the many instances of serving in the U.N.’s peacekeeping forces. At home, the military enjoyed a positive reputation of a measured and disciplined national army—despite grumblings of Tigrayan domination in the top ranks.


This topic—the ethnicity of soldiers from command to rank and file—drove conversations in coffee shops for years. Today the topic is still on peoples’ minds but in a slightly different direction.


In September 2018, 13 generals in the defense forces were retired, preceded that year by Chief of Staff Samora Younis, a veteran of the TPLF. General Samora was succeeded by General Seare Mekonnen, another veteran of the TPLF. General Seare was murdered last June and was succeeded by Adem Mohammed, an ethnic Amhara and former head of the NISS.

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Since the ascendance of Aby Ahmed and his party, one can make a reasonable case that the military and security sectors are dominated at the top by Oromos.The Minister of Defense, Lemma Megersa, is an Oromo;the head of NISS, Demelash Gebremichael, is an Oromo; the Deputy Chief of Staff for the defense forces, General Birhanu Jula, is an Oromo;and the head of the newly formed Republican Guard, Brigadier General Birhanu Bekele, is an Oromo.

In the last month or so, the Prime Minister has promoted 60 officers to the rank of general—70% of whom are Oromo. This move was intended to ensure the Prime Minister’s control of the military. Oromos, however, are not homogeneous and, like Oromia, there are a myriad of differences that can divide should members of the military take sides.


Concerning the rank and file, the impression is that the military looks like Ethiopia—diverse, representing the nation, nationalities and peoples across Ethiopia.


Let’s add one more variable to this potentially volatile scenario. The significant rise of the regional militia introduces is yet another “known unknown.” Each region now is hosting sizeable numbers of armed militia under the command of regional authorities.


Indeed, until recently, the question asked about the defense forces was more directed at why it didn’t intervene in certain regional conflicts.


If violence breaks out in one or more region given the intensity and scale of ethnic tensions throughout the country, how would the defense forces respond? Can the military maintain its professionalism? Are there forces within the military that will use that kind of opportunity to make a play for power? Is the government firmly in control of defense? Will ethnicity trump the chain of command? Will the ethnic dominance at the top of the chain of command have an impact on the military’s response should conflict erupt? Will soldiers refuse to fire on civilians? Will soldiers take sides?


For 27 years, there was little question about the role of the military in the affairs of state. The EPRDF seemed to be in control of its defense forces and the top brass made sure to stay clear of overt politicization—soldiers were banned from party affiliation. But today’s Ethiopia is a country of many moving parts where facts on the ground shift in the blink of an eye. What is true today may not be true tomorrow.


Mao said that politics is war without bloodshed while war is politics with bloodshed. This year’s election will test how far politics will go and what will the military do in the event politics go too far.


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