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Ethiopia on the Precipice: The Regime’s Armor Has Been Pierced



As Feyisa Lilesa crossed the finish line to win silver for Ethiopia in the men’s marathon on Sunday, he crossed his arms above his head in solidarity with the protests currently rocking his home country. This is only the most visible act on world stage of the anti-government movement gaining steam in Ethiopia and one that has kept Lilesa from returning home after the Rio Olympic games for fear of official retaliation.


Lilesa’s ethnic group and the largest in Ethiopia, the Oromo, have been protesting for more than a year against the government. Attempts to contain them with police has backfired. On August 6 thousands took to the streets in defiance of a government ban and threats of crackdown. In an unprecedented event, Amhara protesters—members of the country’s second biggest ethnic group—joined the protests shattering the regime’s divide-and-rule tactics.

For the first time in a quarter century Ethiopia’s ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), feels threatened and the backlash has been harsh. In two days of anti-government protests, the security forces killed 105, pushing the death toll from the nine-month old unrest to more than 600.

To assuage the condemnation, EPRDF points to its record in toppling Mengistu Hailemariam’s military junta known as the Dergue in 1991, introducing a federal constitution in 1994, and registering double-digit economic growth since 2001. Opponents respond that it has been 25 years since the Dergue was deposed; federalism and the constitution exist only on paper; and the fruits of the country’s much-touted economic growth go only to regime cronies.

“Maintaining total stranglehold on such a vast and diverse country is proving untenable, especially by a group constituting a mere 6 percent of the population.”

While the constitution is supposed to confer autonomy to states, it’s in name only. During civil unrest, the army wrests policing duties from the local police, whose sympathy to the protesters is unmistakable. The army’s takeover of civilian administration, particularly in the Oromia and Amhara regions—home to two-thirds of the country’s population—speaks to the severity of the situation.

But despite brutal crack downs, the protests are gaining momentum.

The demands of the protesters are far from radical: They are simply asking the ruling party to make good on the constitution’s promise of self-government; end Tigrean domination of the county’s political and economic life; and open up the political space to allow the opposition, civil society, and the media to freely operate.

This requires decoupling the National Election Board from the ruling party, without which it will continue to rule forever—with a margin of 98-100 percent that even Stalin would envy. Opponents have no recourse to the courts as the courts are not independent.

If all fails, the regime can always rely on the military and security forces, whose top brass is systematically dominated by Tigreans. Maintaining total stranglehold on such a vast and diverse country is proving untenable, especially by a group constituting a mere 6 percent of the population.

The Protesters have already poked gaping holes in the regime’s armor: they laid bare Tigrean domination by showing that it is the Tigrean Liberation Front (TPLF) that rules the country and the regions. For instance, while the rank and file in both the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO) and the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM), which supposedly govern the restive Oromia and Amhara regional states, respectively, favor reform, TPLF continues to forestall any attempt at reform by hand picking their top leaderships.

“After Lelisa’s display of solidarity at the Rio Olympics the protests could no longer be dismissed as the handiwork of a handful of extremist saboteurs in the diaspora.”

Moreover, EPRDF’s claim that it built roads, bridges, and dams and placed Ethiopia on the global economic map is also running out of potency. Even when not contesting the rate at which the economy grew, protesters wonder if such statistics, even if true, gave EPRDF the license to kill, maim, and jail dissenters. Some even go as far as comparing Tigrean dominance to Italy’s occupation of the country from 1936 to 1941, which underscores the huge gulf that has opened between the rulers and the ruled.

Surprisingly, Ethiopia’s regime is not seeing that it has hit a dead end, perhaps blinded by past successes at suppressing numerous challenges to its tight hold on power.

One thing is for sure: It is sensing that it is losing the media war. After Lelisa’s display of solidarity for the protests at the Rio Olympics, after winning a silver for his country in a marathon, it could not longer dismiss the troubles as the handiwork of what it likes to call a handful extremist saboteurs in the diaspora. That is why it is going out of its way to state and restate that it is and has been holding discussions with the public, a claim which its western backers readily highlight to undermine calls for policy change. The fact is that the government’s notion of dialogue does not entail listening but rather insisting that everyone fall in line with its position.

As the regime finds itself stuck in an impasse of its own making and increasingly unable to veer even slightly from its standard talking points, the ranks of the protesters keeps swelling. The average protester views the regime’s verbal assaults against this or that enemy as a blatant refusal to accept any responsibility for mounting tensions in the country, not to mention an insult to his/her intelligence.

Defections from the security forces could grow from trickle into torrents.

The pitfalls of clinging on to power for so long are showing. In fact, one feels as if EPRDF is speaking a totally new language of its own unintelligible to the public. The government believes that the protesters are duped by diaspora social media activists. The protesters believe what Marara Gudina, chairman of the only legally operating Oromo opposition party in Ethiopia, once said about the ruling party: EPRDF has a big mouth to speak but has no ears to hear. Under such a situation, a correct remedy is to progressively adopt a higher viewpoint, which in turn requires a genuine intellectual, moral, and affective conversion. Unfortunately, EPRDF is in no mood for any such genuine conversions or conversations.

Rather than stepping out of its paradigm, a feat recently achieved by General Tsadkan, former chief of staff of the Ethiopian army, EPRDF is simply digging in and rather boxing itself. The protesters on the other hand have proven highly resilient. Barred by bullets to venture on to the streets, frustrated protesters at many localities have torched regime symbols.

Anti-government work stoppages, strikes, boycotts, and sabotages in the urban areas and hit and run attacks in the countryside may multiply. Defections from the security forces could grow from trickle into torrents. Passive resistance among members of the security forces of Amhara and Oromo origin could coalesce into the nuclei of future guerrilla units. Production, especially agricultural production, could plummet. As the chaos worsens, moderate voices could be discredited and replaced by hardline elements. In short, continued instability will reduce to dust everything the regime claims to have built over the years. Worse still, continuing repression risks destroying whatever remained of the social fabric that holds society together.

As Ethiopia’s three giant elephants—the Amhara, Oromo, and Tigraway—rehearse a dangerous dance on the precipice, it is worth remembering that the last time the three battled each other, in what is known in history as the Era of the Princes, the country suffered decades of turmoil followed by foreign invasions. This time around, the invasions could be preceded by deadly incursions by nefarious non-state actors.

As the specter of prolonged instability looms large in Ethiopia’s front mirror, the US and its European allies, the ruling party’s foreign backers, kept churning out hollow statements of concern. Rather than pressing EPRDF to seek a peaceful political way out of a growing crisis, they kept bankrolling it. Their rationale: Their leverage is limited and the EPRDF may totally shun the west and turn its face to China. False bravado aside, EPRDF cannot afford losing the life-support extended to it by its global benefactors. Should Ethiopia, home to 100 million, falter, the floodgates to hell will open up in the Horn of Africa, already a vortex of instability.

The time of reckoning has arrived for Ethiopia’s rulers and its western allies. As evident from an op-Ed by Tom Malowniski, the state department’s top official on Africa, the US seems to have finally mustered the courage to advise its ally, the EPRDF, that business as usual is a recipe for disaster. If Malowniski and his bosses are serious about their reading that the challenges Ethiopia is facing are of a critical nature, needing changes in paradigm on the part of Ethiopia’s ruling party, Lelisa’s uncommon courage will not be all in vain. As an Ethiopia that has solved the Oromo problem and dealt with its acute democracy and human rights deficits will be a stronger Ethiopia. If not, Ethiopia could very well go the way of its failed and failing neighbors.








    • If this is the kind of nonsense discussion Ethiopians are capable of God save the innocent people of Ethiopia !

  2. Have you seen a report under the title “ዶ/ር ሼክስፒር ፈይሳ… ከአትሌት ፈይሳ ሌሊሳ ጋር ተነጋገረ!”? If you have not, it is available on Ethiopian Media Forum (www.ethioforum.org) amharic section. It’s a short report loaded with outragious story and claims. I recommend that you see it.

    What’s intereting is a comment on the report which I have copied and pasted below.

    “To begin with, Shakespear F. is not a doctor. The last time I checked his C.V., he has a J.D. which is a three-year bachelor of laws degree.

    A practicing lawyer with J.D. never adds a doctor label to his name to avoid the confusion with a post J.D. masters and then doctoral degree in the field.

    Millions of lawyers in the U.S., Canada, Australia, etc. have J.D. but never call themselves doctors or enjoy the undeserving label added to their names by somebody else. Instead, they write esq. after their names signifying that they are lawyers. For example: Dugga Kure, Esq.
    What’s strange about Shakespear F. is he shamellesly uses the doctor label to confuse unsuspecting Ethiopians; maybe Latinos and few blacks too. He does not tell some (like the Ethiopian Media Forum guy) who call him with the “doctor” label that it is wrong. I suspect he has found the entire “doctor” thing a nice marketing gimmick. Lately, he appeared to have humbled himself and dropped the “doctor” label (at least when he talked in a public gathering in Toronto last year), but it certainly is not the case.

    The other thing about Shakespear F. is his habit of jumping on widely publicized cases as if he is on top of them. Take ex co-pilot H. Medhin’s case. Right after the hijack, it was reported that Shakespear is on his way to Switzerland to represent H. Medhin in court. But for some of us familiar with the law and the legal profession, it was clear from the start that he cannot represent him because he was not licensed to practice in Switzerland. We were sure that he can’t even see him while in detention let alone represent him before Swiss judges. Shakespear had nothing to say on the case after that report since he has was not involved. As in the present, the report on H. Medhin’s case added the “doctor” label to Shakespear’s name.

    Now, the same Shakespear is saying that he can represent Llesa in Brazil. What a wimp? No Wonder Lilesa got a hunch about Shakespear and gave him a luckwarm response to his overture. In fact, Lilesa did not want to talk to Shakespear at length becaue any statement he makes (if known to the wider public the way Shakespear talks now) can be used against him in determing his eligability for asylum or protection. Lilesa is not protected by prvilileged communication from the information Shakespear might release unless he retains him as his lawyer.

    Lilesa has already talked to journalists (available on Youtube) which is not likely to help his application. In any case, he should not talk to anybody before he gets lawyers. Not Shakespear, but Brazilian lawyers with speciality in immigration and refugee issues. He needs lawyers for an interview with UNHCR officers (if there are any in Brazil) for immigrating to the U.S. or anywhere else or if he decides to stay in Brazil.

    One misleading statement from Shakespear is that Brazil is bound by treaty not to return Lilesa to Ethiopia. That’s is wrong and raises Lilesa’s expectations too high. The fact that Lilesa is an Oromo and some Oromos are in uprising and are being killed and arrested by the governemt is not enough to grant him asylum. What has happened to him personally while in Ethiopia is the central question. Apart from the sign signifying his support to the uprising, has anything happened to him in the hands of government operatives? The fact that his family is doing fine, that he was being paid a salary by the government, that he was traing for Olympics without problem, that he was given a passport and exit visa to travel freely undermines his claim for asylum. Showing somekind of persecution by the government before he left the country is necessary. On top of that, the government is making promise nothing will happen to him if he returns. In his situation, one can only hope if he gets “a protected person” status owing to his gesture of solidarity during the maraton. The effect is more or less the same with getting asylum and he might end up in the U.S.

    As mentioned above, the Ethiopian government has made a statement suggesting that Lilesa does not need asylum or protection. A hero’s welcome awaiting Lilisa and nobody in his family is killed or arrested is to defeat his claim. But, Shakespear’s talk that the Ethiopian security might convice Brazilian authorities to send Lilesa home if we do not act before them is simply alarmist. Brazil is not Yemen (recall A. Tsege’s case) and Ethiopia’s power to sway Brazilian authorites is next to nothing. Before the UNHCR or Brazilian government , Lilesa will get a fair hearing and ruling.

    I don’t think the Ethiopian government cares if Lilesa gets asylum or protection anywhere in the world. It has made a statemet and moved on. In fact, it will be best if he settles somewhere, sponsor his wife and children, send money to the rest of his family and relatives. There are so many athelets in the country who want to keep on doing the good job and keep the nation’s flag up high.

    One final thing. Shakespear did not defeat lawyers in the M. Zenawi et al. case. Reports on the case confirm that M. Zenawi et al. did not want to pursue the case; if they did, it would have given undue publicity to Dawit W. They killed the case at a discovery stage. If Shakespear has proof to the contrary, tell him to publish it.

    Would the diploma police (now head of ESAT) do something about Shakespear F.? I don’t think so.

    Good luck to Lilesa.

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