The TPLF Ethiopia: Where Next?
By: Seyoum Hameso, PhD
March 21, 2004

After usurping power from a fleeing derg in May 1991, the Tigrean People's Liberation Front promised so many things very rare in contemporary Ethiopian history. Democracy, peace and national self-determination for national groups. These promises brought the unlikeliest of friends and partners to the transitional charter and a significant good will from the outside world.

Internally, the organisations that championed for political rights for their nations and peoples joined the transitional arrangement with the cautious optimism that, because of its brief history, this movement will be different from its predecessors. Reference to the very words of "people" and "collective rights" created a level of trust necessary for the formation of transitional alliance between the TPLF and other people- or nation-based forces. The key vocabulary became education in one's own language, a federal arrangement based on ones own linguistic and territorial settlement, regional autonomy and decentralization of power.

These pronouncements were revolutionary in themselves given the autocratic, centralized and brutal past in contemporary Ethiopia's polity. Some lauded these pronouncements as courageous and bold. The new government's officials bragged for "holding the bull by its horns." That instead of denying the existence of severe problems, such as nationality, they promised their open manifestation. (I eschew the usage of the terms "ethnicity" and "ethnic groups" because in contemporary Ethiopia the neo-fascists and fundamentalists have abused the term to suit their wilful political goals).

At first glance, all seemed logical and positive. For populations cowed and confused by decades of brutal misrule, the year 1991 seemed to offer another opportunity towards liberty. The hope was nonetheless short lived as the TPLF wanted to entrench itself as an Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). For this purpose, it organised and strengthened the People's Democratic Organisations (PDOs) from different national groups while at the same time weakening independent organizations that had their own political beliefs and ideals.

Within this atmosphere, elections were organized for 1992. That was a point where key stakeholders in the transitional arrangement were coerced to depart the "legal" political process. The TPLF then easily won elections through the instrumentalities of satellite political parties all of which were commanded by the TPLF leaders or cadres. On this background, the TPLF drafted a constitution of its liking (with provisions for national self-determination as a theoretical possibility but practical impossibility for the people who would choose its implementation.

It should also be mentioned that right in 1991, Eritrea became an independent state though its independence was formalized by a referendum held a few years later. In 1995, the TPLF/EPRDF held another election which it declared itself a winner without competition. Only three years after the term, a serious problem emerged between Ethiopia and Eritrea, a problem serious enough to consume two and a half years, imposing huge cost in terms of human lives and other economic resources. Thus 1998 was a time for international community to start wondering if all was right with the arrangement that it sanctioned and supported financially and diplomatically.

The war was said to be many things to many and all agreed that it was nonsensical. The sensible reasoning lies in chequered history of Ethiopia, its ruling regimes and its relations within the populations at it controls and its relations to the outside world. The contemporary Ethiopian statehood is built on the pillars of one or two national groups (Amhara-Tigray) with the vast majority of the populations of the South being incorporated into the Ethiopian empire state (the former Abyssinia) in the late 19th century -- the time coinciding with the colonial Scramble for Africa. Close to 70 per cent of the populations were considered as second-class subjects by the subsequent rule by the elite emerging from the said national groups who also imposed their language, beliefs and cultural norms on disparate national groups. The polity run by clientelism, favouritism and systematic discrimination of peoples which hampered the economic and social progress of the country for ages. The arrested development of peoples produced a country which is the one of the last in the order of the progress of nations.

The appalling famine of the 1974 resulted in the death of nearly a million people. The anger and grievance led to the toppling of an autocratic rule. The southern farmers whose lives have always been miserable since the conquest, had demanded, through their sons and daughters, for the rightful ownership of land. The slogan ‘land to the tiller" attracted the imagination of the disillusioned youth not only on the incorporated areas but also close to the centre. The imperial system was structurally deficient to respond to the demands of the day and it collapsed. The army took advantage with the support of radical intellectuals. The manipulation of the politics of the Cold War, force and terror as instruments of coercion and submission failed to sustain the polity. The intensification of wars, the famine and resistance to oppression brought the derg rule to end in 1991.

Nothing is ironic if the same round of events replicated from 1991 until today. The EPRDF-led regime waged war with Eritrea, with different liberation front, and with neighbouring peoples. The reason for it to engage in such political and war activity in Somalia and Kanya is primarily an extension of its war with internal people's resistance.

The split within the TPLF over the contradictions of empire state has surfaced since February 2000, having all the making of the progressive decay in the political system. The war with Eritrea, drought and famine, and "forest fires" have devastated areas that are outside the favoured state that made so many enemies in so short a time. The leadership is divided like the poles of Arctic and Antarctica. As if these 30 or so communist central and politi bureau figures of the TPLF, many of whom were zealous nationalists, were not one and the same in their actions only a year ago, today one group desires the demise of the other. The causality was the Prime Minster's right hand man, the head of the security forces. Each group defames the other as anti-democracy and illegal. Allegations from both sides showed that TPLF's Ethiopia was never democratic and it lacked legitimacy. The significance of how Ethiopia was run by a single party is seen by the extent of paralysis and unrests that followed the rumour of dissent within the single party (TPLF). Nepotistic and clientelism networks started to collapse as relatives of one dissenter after the other started leaving their high positions and depart unceremoniously.

The difference within the TPLF is having tremendous effect not only within the TPLF. The satellite political parties are now grilled by ‘gimgema" until such a time that their outlook is correct and the demon of wrong outlook is exorcised. This procedure took, in some instances, two to three weeks having a debilitating impact on the running of day-to-day public duties. The "gimgema" is not over yet. The army's chief of staff lost his post; so will continue the purges reminiscent of the derg era. The purpose of the purges today is to have "a clear outlook" and a single-handed vision: uncorrupt market democracy.

The PM Meles Zenawi has the most difficult job of his life at hand now. The Palace Group, as it is often referred to, is being increasingly confined to the palace with growing uncertainty. Bonaparteism makes little sense in a polity that saw more partisan centralization of power (and the most certain route to the end of all Ethiopian rulers) just as the talk of corruption is meaningless from a system that was founded on unfair favouritism and discrimination. There is another problem in the TPLF/EPRDF Ethiopia when it talks about "revolutionary democracy" when everyone knows that there is no revolution or democracy left. Here lies a regime which made many promises to the people and failed all of them so swiftly. What concerns many is what is next.

Amid significant uncertainty, there are elements of certainties. Neither the TPLF nor the EPRDF will be the same again. The change in personnel is imminent as the change in outlook. The removal of the TPLF cadre leaders who were real power brokers behind the shadowy regional "states" will leave the satellite parties (PDOs) with time and reason to think twice about their actions. Equally, however, the centralizing disease of the empire state polity may well cancel this option and worsen situations further. What has happened in the past is the seemingly irreparable breach of trust, so necessary for any social or political dialogue. To talk with someone you need to trust, first that he is a human, and then that he is bind by predictable behaviour or actions.

The TPLF made reckless promises and broke them so quickly. That is how its constitution is viewed, which was drafted with the exclusion of other organized ideas and ideals. It is wrong on the part of the TPLF to demand peoples to defend what they did not participate to create. In the past, the exclusivist, unitarist and centralising disease of the empire state also meant that all the subsequent regimes install new constitutions by discarding the old ones. The imperial constitution of 1933/1955 was replaced by derg's 1987 constitution which was replaced by EPRDF's 1994 constitution. The irony is, none of these rulers abide by what is in their own constitutions but demand others to abide by them. There must be something wrong in the contract itself which forces its own creators to disregard its provisions. That wrong belongs to the past full of conflict, oppression and injustice. For peace, stability and economic progress to prevail, the above deformities need to cease.