I have read and listened to many attempts to explain the imposition of a state of emergency at this crucial juncture of deep political turbulences in Ethiopia. The difficulty of explaining the imposition is that it occurs in conjunction with a declared policy of reform by the ruling clique. After a long self-assessment triggered by continuous popular protests, notably in the Oromo and Amhara regions, the ruling clique conceded the need for reforms, even if it did not go so far as to blame the whole system for the failures. Quite understandably, many observers and activists were baffled by the conjunction of promises of reform with the proclamation of a state of emergency.
Does the conjunction mean that the promised reforms are anything but serious, obvious as it is they do not go together with a state of emergency? As tempting as this last assumption may be, it does not cover the complexity of the situation. The TPLF has to contend with the popular protests; they represent a force that it can neither ignore nor simply crush. As the freeing of political prisoners shows, the TPLF must find some means to appease the pressure of popular unrests, which have also the frustrating implication of worrying donor countries.
Should we then attribute the combination of promises of reform with a state of emergency to the ongoing struggle between hardliners and reformists within the TPLF, the latter trying to introduce some reforms and the former countering them by the imposition of a state of emergency? The downside of this assumption is its inability to explain how the same government could simultaneously adopt a contradictory policy of this magnitude. One way out would be to concede that an undeclared coup d’état has occurred in the country. But nothing of what we see so far resembles a coup. For one thing, no radical reshuffle has affected the ruling circles, with the exception of the announced resignation of a prime minister whose known powerlessness makes the departure uneventful. For another, it is in the nature of putschists to announce openly and with great fanfare their rise to power by sidelining the old clique.
There is a possible third explanation, the very one that the ruling clique advocates. It asserts the commitment of the EPRDF to necessary reforms, but argues that the maintenance of law and order is essential to implement them. Hence the rational of the state of emergence: it is not so much to squash democratic rights as to restore the order needed for peaceful reforms, especially by going against extremists and troublemakers. Needless to say, this justification of the state of emergency is laughable in view of the fact that the regime has done nothing to open the political space, notably by engaging seriously opposition groups. Moreover, the attempt to sell its commitment to reform while retaining the dignitaries who are responsible for the failures of the regime smacks of hypocrisy and deceptive scheme.
To make sense of the association of velleity of reforms with the state of emergency, it is important that we ask the question of knowing what exactly the TPLF and its satellite parties are mostly afraid of. Undoubtedly, they fear the perseverance and amplification of popular unrests. Let us make sure that our answer is the appropriate one. It is not that the unrests and the demands for reforms can by themselves overthrow the TPLF; rather, the fear has to do with the negative impacts that they have on supporters, party members, and repressive apparatuses (police, security, army, etc.). The sight of the TPLF accepting some demands under popular pressure is quite unsettling for supporters and party members. They know that the acceptance of reforms under pressure can only encourage more protests and demands. As Tocqueville said, “the most dangerous time for a bad government is usually when it begins to reform.” Moreover, the need to contain continuous protests, often by the use of force, has the noteworthy effect of wearing down repressive forces. The outcome of all this is demoralization, loss of faith, divisions, desertions, which are the ingredients leading to the inevitable decomposition of state power. Indeed, mass protests on the one hand and divisions and loss of determination on the other announce the gathering of revolutionary storms. They are those very criteria that define a revolutionary situation. To quote Lenin, “it is only when the ‘lower classes’ do not want to live in the old way and the ‘upper classes’ cannot carry on in the old way that the revolution can triumph.”
The imposition of the state of emergency does not mean that the TPLF does not understand the necessity of reforms. It does, but what it does not like is that the path of reform inevitably leads to the loss of its hegemonic position. Hence the decision to have it both ways: appease the masses by some minor concessions while strengthening the grip of the repressive apparatus. In this way, the protests will gradually recede and supporters and repressive forces will regain confidence and their usual zeal to protect the system. In other words, under pain of losing the control of power, the TPLF sees no other solution than the adoption of a carrot and stick policy.
Whether the policy would bring the expected outcome is a question not hard to answer. The lessons of history tell us that the recourse to increased repression, other than giving more time, never removes the inevitable fall of an unpopular government. The gain of more time simply hardens the opposition, making the reaching of an agreed compromise impossible. However, the recourse to enhanced repression makes one thing absolutely clear: the rejection of the constitution of a government of national reconciliation, as advocated by many leaders of opposition parties, activists, and some donor countries. It also dismisses for good Rene Lefort’s call for an early election that would become free and fair under the supervision of “a supreme authority . . . , emanating from all the main stakeholders, whether government, opposition or civil society, in Ethiopia or abroad.” (See http://ethioforum.org/crisis-in-ethiopia-elections-and-fast-by-rene-lefort/). Also supported by General Tsadkan Gebretensae, a former Chief of Staff of the Ethiopian Defense Forces, the proposal overlooks that the TPLF knows that a free and fair general election would be its political suicide.
There is only one way to avoid a general conflagration in Ethiopia: it is for the TPLF to effect real reforms, which it cannot do without including opposition parties (the inclusion can take various forms). In becoming a means to needed reforms rather than opposing them, the TPLF can go a long way in assuming a new legitimacy and securing a promising political future. Unfortunately, this evolutionary path is blocked by the availability of the secession of Tigray if the Ethiopian situation becomes utterly inimical to the hegemonic rule of the TPLF. The message of the TPLF to Ethiopian peoples is thus clear enough: either you accept my rule or else the quagmire of civil wars await you! In other words, the thinking that the TPLF must undertake some reforms if it wants to survive overlooks the option of secession. With this option in mind, one perfectly understands why enhanced repression sprinkled with some reforms is the last recourse before the final decision, unless . . . .