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22 Years On: The Caravan Still Rolls On

By Destaw Andargie (Dr.)
It will soon be twenty-two years since TPLF seized power in Ethiopia. Over these long and torturous years, TPLF faced no serious external challenge whatsoever. It has been in absolute command. Its rule has never come under threat. Even during its worst internal crisis back in 2001, the issue was all about which faction would emerge the winner. It was still all about TPLF- the sole star in the political theatre. Indeed, despite dubious and useless rumors about infighting within TPLF, all objective indications suggest that TPLF will continue to dictate the country for the foreseeable future. The demise of its longtime leader notwithstanding, TPLF is as assured of its hegemony as ever. After 22 years of absolute domination, many are only hoping (against hope) for TPLF to commit suicide. The extent to which people are moved by the deceptive rumors that TPLF is fracturing proves nothing but the prevailing level of defeatism.[1] After all these years and everything that has happened; all the talk from the opposition camp (as with citizens) is still about what the TPLF does and does not, as if action was the natural monopoly of the TPLF. After twenty-two years, we still continue to talk about how divisive and tyrannical TPLF is. Obviously, such defeatist talks neither make news nor change anything. Yet, we continue down that path either because blaming TPLF for everything (including our own weaknesses) has transformed into a sort of addiction or just because it makes us feel somewhat good about ourselves for it relieves us from asking ourselves tougher questions. We seem to enjoy blaming TPLF for everything, and never to ask ourselves.[2] And, of course, TPLF loves that, for talk is cheap and will never alter the status quo.

After twenty-two long years, we have no political group with any realistic chance of knocking TPLF down now or at any point in the foreseeable future. The grim reality is that it is not obvious if the opposition is in a better shape now than it was ten or twenty years ago or will be in a better shape after ten or twenty years. So much is the magnitude of the opposition’s failure. This is a truly remarkable achievement for TPLF-one that any dictatorship would dream of. What remains to ask is this: why has TPLF been so successful? If TPLF is such a tiny minority with deeply unpopular political agenda, how do we fathom its extraordinary success? Where are the overwhelming majority of Ethiopians-those who claim to hold a burning love and patriotism for their mother land? What attributes does TPLF possess that the opposition does not? These are simple but momentous questions anyone who really cares about Ethiopian politics must ask. In what follows, I will engage these questions and put forward my views. My views may sound harsh on the opposition, but I have long been convinced that TPLF may not be more responsible for our troubles than we are. TPLF is doing what it is supposed to do, while the same cannot be said about the opposition. Importantly, blaming TPLF has never solved, and will never solve anything. If we really care and want to see change in Ethiopian politics, it is an imperative for us to ask what we can do, for neither TPLF nor anybody else in the world will do the job for us. Why? Because change is fundamentally against their interest. Quite the contrary, TPLF and global powers will do everything they can to preserve the status quo. It is entirely up to those who crave change to bring about change; as it has always been the case throughout history. Now, let me turn to my first question: why has TPLF been so successful? And what lessons for the opposition?

Success is NOT given, it’s earned!

Unarguably, it is not the law of nature, a stroke of luck or mythical destiny that put TPLF at the helm. It is down to verifiable universal attributes of success that TPLF possesses (and the opposition sorely lacks). It is high time for the political opposition to come to terms with reality. The harsh reality is that TPLF has superior standing and vitality than probably any political group in Ethiopia. Whatever else TPLF leaders are, they have proven to have a clear political project; that they work around the clock and thus are masterly in executing their project; that they are apt in making their case; that they are highly organized, disciplined and tenacious (almost 40 years old, still as rock solid as ever); pragmatically confident; cunning and skillful (which unfortunately matter immensely in the game of real politics); and crucially, that they are unwaveringly committed to the cause they fought for! Whether their cause is good or bad is an entirely different question, but they have a cause and they fought and continue to fight for it. It would be an exercise in futility to try to find these attributes in the opposition camp.

1. Clarity of purpose

As secretive and sophisticated TPLF leaders are, they are also unabashed in declaring what they believe in (however obscene that may be), what they stand for, what they plan to do, and they do it; action being their other admirable quality. For anyone who cares, TPLF’s political agenda, strategy, tactics, and almost everything else, were known even before they came to the helm of power. That is why accusations that TPLF is deconstructionist, or hates this of that people, or is divisive, or is anti-free media, and the like become annoyingly boring-something that neither makes news nor solves anything. It makes no news because that is what they told us they would do from the very beginning. Look at the following statements:

The country will have to be a federation …We can no longer have Amhara domination…

EPRP…have become just another version of the Derg. They favour Amhara domination. We don’t think we can cooperate with them…We are often very unhappy with the Amhara chauvinist line we hear on…the Voice of America…It sometimes sounds more like the “Voice of the Amhara” than the Voice of America…

These are statements of the late Meles Zenawi, made in his conversation with Paul Heinz, the American intelligence officer back in 1990. They reveal how they were prepared to deal with what they call Amhara dominated Ethiopia. It reveals their apprehension of any media that they have no control over (hence the VOA) and of any political party whose birth they have not midwifed. TPLF has never concealed its deconstructionist political agenda. Its hegemonic strategy has never been disguised. When it masterminded the creation of the other ‘coalition’ members (so-called PDOs-), one after another, simply to give the appearance (at least to the outside world) of an ethnically balanced representation, it was obvious that they would not be equal partners. While the created can never claim equality with its creator, TPLF made it clear from the very beginning that there would be no room for rival political groups, and that its doors are completely shut against the idea of national reconciliation. Standing in 1990, you could tell almost everything they would do for the next twenty-two years and beyond. As the above statements indicate, TPLF had a clear political project, and they have been executing just that. They never promised to protect Ethiopia’s territorial integrity; they never professed love for the mother land; they never promised to respect and protect individual freedoms, and you cannot break what you haven’t promised. What is rather remarkable is that they know their path; they know themselves; they know their ‘enemies’; and they have time-tested skill in dealing with every conceivable threat. Clarity of purpose is the first recipe for success; whether the purpose is wicked or noble is, again, a different question altogether-that falls in the realm of ethics, not of politics.

Clueless opposition

When it comes to the political oppositions, the trouble begins with identifying who is who. That is compounded by the sheer number of groups who calls themselves opposition parties. We know that there are close to a hundred political groups. Sadly, however, that is almost all we know. We do not know what precisely their political programs are; how their programs are different from one another; what irreconcilable differences prevent them from working together; or why they continue down the beaten path.  Importantly, that most of these groups do not do anything worthy of note means you cannot help questioning their relevance. In short, the gravest tragedy in Ethiopian current politics is not TPLF being evil; it is rather the opposition being virtually useless. You cannot blame TPLF for that. Blaming TPLF for the inexcusable weakness of the opposition doesn’t explain, let alone solve anything. Otherwise, what is TPLF supposed to do? Help dig its grave by letting the opposition thrive?

At a risk of overgeneralization, we may divide the opposition into three broad categories: diaspora-based opposition; armed opposition; and so-called ‘legal-opposition’. Of the three, I believe we can safely discount the first group. There is no single evidence in history of a foreign-based political group redeeming a nation from tyranny (it is useful to note history sometimes). In politics, as in any game, one needs to be on the turf in order to be a playing. Once you leave the field, the best you can be is a supporter. It is obvious therefore that diaspora forces, including what we may call ‘diaspora rebels’ who wage war on TPLF from their comforts will almost certainly not achieve anything. What is interesting is rather the breathtaking audacity and moral contempt involved in sitting in one’s comfort overseas and telling poor people back home to rise up against oppressors. The second group seems to exist only in name. With the exception of those that hold secessionist agenda, there really has been no evidence of any viable armed struggle over the last 22 years. The aim here is not to engage the question of whether lasting peace and democracy can be attained through armed struggle; it is rather to underscore the fact that none of the several armed groups that claim to be operating in the country has done anything worthy of note. You cannot blame TPLF for this either.

Let’s turn to the last group. This group deserves emphasis not because it is better organized, more effective, or less disoriented, but because it is still on the turf. But, again, this is not a monolithic group. There are numerous opposition groups who claim to be in peaceful straggle, and you cannot do justice lamping those brave but numerically minority individuals, such as Prof. Mesfin Woldemariam, Andualem Aragie, and many other nameless Ethiopians on the one hand and those who confuse pacifism with docility on the other. With the exception of those brave citizens, who peacefully fight tyranny mainly at individual levels (unfortunately), what TLPF calls the ‘legal oppositions’ does not pose any threat to TPLF. It is allowed to operate because and only in so far as it is not a threat. Many of them just roll over as TPLF dictates them to. If a political party cannot call rallies or hold meetings (things which are absolutely legal) because authorities are unhappy, then it is not clear what the struggle is. If you abide by your opponent’s will rather than by the law, then you cannot claim to be in a struggle. Embracing nonviolent struggle requires as much, if not greater, courage as armed struggle. Both require engaging your opponent, and hence involve sacrifice; the mode of engagement being the difference. Taking part in meaningless elections every five years in one thing; engaging TPLF is quite another. The first serves the will and interest of the TPLF, the second does the contrary. TPLF has clear purpose and interest in holding shame elections periodically. What is not so obvious is the goal of the opposition in taking part in the theater, knowing full well that votes do not count. If fact, the surest thing after election 2005 is that votes do not count as long as TPLF is power. One can debate on whether elections 2005 was TPLF’s near fatal miscalculation or a disingenuous scheme by TPLF, designed to lull the opposition (and donors) into believing that there was freedom of choice, and cunningly decimate independent voices through an array of legal and extralegal means. But there is no debate that TPLF will never allow that to happen again. TPLF knows it, the opposition knows it, and everyone else knows it. If so, why would the opposition take part in a nonsense election drama?

2. Determination                                     

It takes extraordinary courage and determination to take on one of the most militarized regimes in the history of Africa that enjoyed the backing of a superpower. In a hierarchical society, such as ours, the determination of any group is largely a function of the determination of its leadership. Whatever else you think about TPLF leadership, you cannot question their determination. There is no greater test of character than to engage a multiple times mightier enemy. They led from the front their ill-equipped and ill fed army and steered it to one of the most dramatic military victories in history. You have to respect TPLF leadership on that! That is what leadership means. That is radically different from waging ‘all-inclusive war’ from the comforts of home overseas, as some part-time ‘diaspora rebels’ appear to do. It is completely dissimilar from ‘bravely confronting TPLF delegates’ in the streets of Washington, D.C., or elsewhere.

Dubious and utterly irrelevant stories, such as those relating to Meles’s supposed cowardice and how he retreated from his bank robbery mission during his rebel days or how he never participated in a battle may sound appealing. These senseless stories are appealing probably because they make us feel somewhat good about ourselves-one of those strange human behaviors of seeking psychological comfort by trying to belittle one’s opponent. Hate him or love him, few people have left such an extraordinary mark on Ethiopian politics as Meles Zenawi. You cannot dispute that he lived for a cause and executed his plan until his last breath. A bright student as he was, he could have achieved personal successes without risking anything. However, he decided otherwise. Meles was probably the only leader in history who ruled a country he profoundly hated. You cannot have a worse ruler. One can legitimately despise him on that. Yet, you have to respect his determination for what he believed in. Such characterization more or less applies to the rest of TPLF leadership.

The floating opposition

People have a natural tendency to crave change. It is no surprise, therefore, if everyone (but the TPLF and beneficiaries of the status quo) would wish to see political change in Ethiopia. Yet, that is entirely different from being willing to help bring the desired change. Freedom is never cheap; it comes at a price. It has always been that way. All relative freedoms people enjoy today, without exception, came about through the struggle of the oppressed, not of the magnanimity of oppressors. TPLF people paid heavy price to win their freedom. Of course, it does not always have to be TPLF’s way. Eskindir Nega, easily one of the brightest Ethiopian journalists since Be’alu Girma, and many others are paying the price for freedom in a nobler way. Yet, one has to pay a price.  The vexing question now is this: does the political opposition have the will to do what it takes for freedom in our country? Are you and I, as citizens, who probably brag about our steadfast patriotism, prepared to do what it takes for freedom?

Truth be told, it is not a question of the opposition falling short of being as clever as TPLF. It is a question whether the opposition really has the will in the first place. It is a question of will. It is a question of sincerity. It is an ethical question. It is one thing to sit in comfort overseas and agitate the helpless youth in Addis Ababa to rise up (like those in Egypt or elsewhere); quite another to be part of the change. A realistic (call it pessimistic) assessment of facts suggests that change is a far cry in Ethiopian politics. The reason is that those of us who want change do not have the guts to be part of the change we crave. We don’t have faith in our own agency. We just seem happy fantasizing someone from somewhere somehow someday to do the job for us. Typical candidates may be the desperately poor youth in the impoverished districts of Addis Ababa, whom we wait to rise up and topple TPLF.  But we also, ridiculously, hope for foreign powers, especially US, to somehow help TPLF’s downfall.

3. Action and self-reliance

Ultimately, any political group has to prove its worth through what it does. Action starts from a determination to carry your own cross. You have to prove your clarity of purpose, determination, and resilience in the face of adversity to win others’ support. TPLF proved that by weathering grave natural and human adversities. Not only the group, but the entire population was near decimation from an unforgiving famine. They faced relentless military assault by the biggest military government in the country’s history. Yet, they persevered, and ultimately won. When you do that, friends and foes alike will have no option but to have respect for you. TPLF did not hold countless rallies in front of the state department. It was their discipline and tenacity that won them over the attention of the world powers. Foreign intelligence agents crossed treacherous mountains to meet TPLF leadership in their hideouts. Action speaks louder!

The defeatist opposition and the illusion of external salvation

It seems that the political opposition does not only lack faith in itself. Many of them seem to have no faith in the Ethiopian public. When CUD leaders were released from prison, they didn’t have time for the people that voted for them. They scrambled their ways to get out of the country. We are at a time when people come to the US to form political party that would liberate Ethiopian from tyranny. Many in the opposition look for external salvation. Many seem to dream of a day when the international community, especially the United States, get tired of TPLF and tell the latter to change course. Rest assured, that will never happen. One can decry US support for TPLF or how the Obama administration failed Africa as if putting Africa in order is the US’s business.  One can dance forever in front to the State Department. But the game will remain the same simply because TPLF is more vital to Washington than any other force! It is as simple as that. It just can’t be otherwise. TPLF is not only willing but also more capable of serving Washington’s interest than any other group. There is a symbiotic relationship between Washington and TPLF, and that is not going to change just because TPLF is unkind to you. There has never been any single instance in history that Washington or any other power supported political change in a foreign country just out of altruistic concern for human rights and democracy. There is no reason why there could be exception in Ethiopia. In practice, democracy has never really been a factor for any nation’s foreign policy. The United States is no exception. The US has never had problems working with some of the most ruthless and despotic dictatorships as long as its interests are served. In fact, TPLF is not near as illiberal as some the Washington’s closest allies, such as the Saudi Arabia. Crucially, if not TPLF, whom is the US supposed to support?


TPLF rules probably because it deserves to. It has proved its worth through the facts stated above: clarity of purpose, determination, and action. If the opposition wants to be taken seriously, it has to do the same. That requires asking tough questions. If we want change, we have to ask ourselves, not TPLF. For one, TPLF is doing just fine; it is the opposition that is ridden with problems. More importantly, whatever happens in the TPLF camp does not and cannot translate into a change for the better. If we wish to see positive change, then there is no way that the job could be done by TPLF or any other agent. It is an imperative for those who want change to do the job themselves. This may require, of course, going beyond politics and unravel our cultural ethos, our devotion and love of country, our cooperative spirit, and even our morality (sincerity), among others.
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[1]Such rumors are deceptive because even if there was infighting, it does not in any way signal the end of TPLF’s rule; and it is useless because what happens within TPLF would not change the country’s political situation for the better.

[2] Even members of the previous regime’s army blame TPLF, rather than themselves, for dissolving the army and throwing them like trash, after their military defeat, although it is not obvious how an army that proved to be incapable of even defending itself would expect to be taken seriously.

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