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Modeling Ethiopia’s Change
Crane Brinton (Prof.)

Modeling Ethiopia’s Change

Political changes have become increasingly trickier since the turn of the millennium. The political wave that transpired in the Balkans and countries under the former Soviet Union during the early years of the century, despite being labeled as revolution, defies conventional knowledge about revolutions. The significant reduction of the element of violence and the deployment of tactics of social disobedience are just few of the factors that differentiate color revolutions from conventional social revolutions.

These deviations went even further in the so called “Arab Spring” by employing social media as the main tool of mobilizing the critical mass needed to push the ‘revolution’ into takeoff. Political Science scholars have a hard time classifying these social changes as outright revolutions.

The type of governmental and regime changes seen around the world has changed quite a bit since the turn of the century. The impeachment of the former Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff in 2016 is often cited as a ‘parliamentary coup.’ Her replacement by one of the numerous opposition politicians immersed in a vast corruption scandal, Michel Temer, is generally regarded as an illegal move. Despite the US favoring Michel Temer, The New York Times wrote: “it is at its core an illegal seizure of power.”

The ascendance of Abiy Ahmed (PhD) to the apex of power in Ethiopia is yet another bizarre kind of change that is difficult for categorization. Three scholars from the Political Science and International Relations Department of Addis Ababa University agree that a clear cut categorization is hard to come by. Among the three, Merera Gudina(Prof) was the only one who labeled the change as a ‘reform’ that failed to realize the radical changes sought by the people.

The clandestine activities of ‘team Lemma’ during the reign of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) led governing coalition of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) finally came out to the open and took over power through party voting procedures. Although that is a legitimate approach to win leadership in a coalition, the move was emboldened by over four years of social protests against the oppression of the masses. The prolonged violent engagement of the people against the establishment depicts an element of revolution; while the fact that the ruling coalition that was supposed to be overthrown continued in power after the change goes against that.

Leaving the classification for political science scholars, a lot of the things that happened in Ethiopia over the past five or six years fall in line with Crane Brinton’s four phased revolution model. The classic book by Professor Crane Brinton entitled “The Anatomy of Revolution”  analyzed the British Revolution of 1677, The American Revolution, The French Revolution of 1789 and the Russian Revolution of 1917. First published in 1938, the continued relevance of the book has run right into political discourse in the 21 century.

After analyzing the four revolutions, Brinton came up with four stages of revolution. These are: incubation stage, moderate stage, crisis/radical stage and recovery stage.

During the incubation stage, Brinton pointed out that intellectuals desert the existing system and sharp criticism of the authorities becomes rampant with the whole process ensuring the total loss of faith in the system. The EPRDF government always had credibility issues among the people. Any credibility it might have been left with after the 2005 elections was lost during the last few years of its reign. Governmental claims and propaganda products were automatically taken to be false. The parliament, government officials, state media, the police and other institutions lost credibility.

Brinton also found out that reform attempts by an ailing government that is already in deep trouble with the masses raise people’s hopes, only to frustrate them more right away. He argued, the disappointment the rapid trashing of hopes brings about revolutions. Despite prior popular understanding that the reform measures under the “deep renewal” scheme of the EPRDF were doomed to fail as the party did not have the will required to make fundamental changes, the party kept insulting societal intelligence through ridiculous claims of remarkable change. The situation frustrated the people even more and demonstrated to them once again that the party would never change. In line with Brinton’s analysis, the ruling class became inept and divided.

The situation led to the gradual assertiveness of other members of the coalition against the supremacy of the TPLF. That eventually led to members of the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO), Amhara Nationals Democratic Movement (ANDM) and Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SPDM) to gang up against TPLF during the council voting. 

Brinton also noted that the incubation period sees a complete shutdown of the room for political participation. After the threat that opposition political parties presented the ruling party during the 2005 elections, the latter decided to take no chances with subsequent national elections. Accordingly, it farcically claimed to have won 99 percent of the parliamentary seats during the 2010 elections; while the 2015 election results went the whole yard and clinched the maximum number of seats. The results of these elections are a demonstration of the complete shutdown of the political platform.

Media freedom also endured one of its worst days as a number of journalists were incarcerated on charges of terrorism. Self censorship became the order of the day and the plurality of ideas was not the mark of Ethiopian media during the years before the change. The whole situation exacerbated the pace at which the door for media participation closed.

In the second stage of the Brinton’s model, moderates rise to prominence and challenge the existing authority. In a regime that refused to acknowledge pride in Ethiopian citizenship and promoted ethnic identify for over 25 years, being a radical ethnic nationalist was the ticket to political appointment and promotion. Two years before the change that brought an end to TPLF domination, however, Lemma Megersa became the President of Oromia region. He publicly denounced TPLF officials who made decisions without the consent of the regional administration and sent them a letter to implement the decision. That sort of assertiveness against the domination of TPLF was also evident under Gedu Andargachew’s Presidency of the Amhara region. The two Presidents then started the ‘OROMARA’ movement that brought the two largest ethnic groups in the country together against TPLF domination.

The group that later became known as “team Lemma” challenged the beliefs of the regime by making popular remarks that uplifted the sense of being Ethiopian. They also claimed that there is only a class of oppressors, discarding TPLF’s long held belief that the ruling class of an ethnic group oppressed the rest of the ethnic groups in the country. Their deviation away from the radical ethnic identity based politics of the TPLF to re-embrace Ethiopian identity makes the group moderates.

There was years of widespread popular protests in the Oromia region even before the moderates (team Lemma) started to challenge TPLF. With the moderates challenging the system from within, the protests gained momentum and the protests in the Amhara region even adopted armed struggle against the military. These acts coincide with another phase in Brinton’s second stage in which acts of violence occur in challenging authority.

Mid-way through the moderate stage, moderates win the day and get power. Brinton stated that their win is immediately followed by a honeymoon period where the revolution seems to be over. Following the unexpected resignation of Hailemariam Desalegn both from his duties as the Prime Minister of the country and Chairman of the EPRDF in February, 2018, the EPRDF council scheduled an election session for the end of March, 2018. The four parties that make up the EPRDF announce their candidates and the 180 member council made of 45 members from each party would then vote to elect the coalition’s next chairman. The three parties in the coalition worked in tandem to deny the wishes of the dominant party TPLF and elect AbiyAhmed (PhD) as the chairman. He gained 108 of the 180 votes. In line with party tradition, the chairman then became the Prime Minister of Ethiopia.

The move effectively gave the moderates, under Abiy’s leadership, control of the armed forces. As Brinton remarked, “revolutions become revolutions only after the revolutionaries had beaten or won over the armed forces of the government.” Although the team was not made up of revolutionaries, their fight from within finally paid off.

Abiy’s reign started with swift reforms that were hugely popular. Ethiopians across the territory and those living abroad all rejoiced the culmination of TPLF’s grab on power. The honeymoon period that Brinton stated lasted for a few months in which the government and the people celebrated the win together.

The next phase in the model is that the pressure from extremists grows. In his book “The Anatomy of Revolution,” Brinton states that the moderates are dominant in the beginning of the revolution. He further noted that during the rule of the moderates, the ‘honeymoon period’ just after the old regime falls is short lived since it soon becomes clear that there are numerous factions among the revolutionaries. Once in power, Brinton analyzed, the moderates are faced with all the problems of the old regime, but with little power.They are often confronted by foreign/civil war, and they are divided on how to handle
these challenges.In addition, most moderates believe in civil rights such as freedom of
speech, press and assembly, and are reluctant to suppress their enemies. “They find
against them an increasingly strong and intransigent group of radicals and extremists who
insist that the moderates are trying to stop the revolution, that they had betrayed it.”

In line with Brinton’s analysis, “team Lemma” that represents the moderates demonstrated their civility by releasing political prisoners, allowing political decedents and calling armed groups operating in neighboring countries to return back home and join peaceful political opposition. The media also gained a new lease of freedom.

Shortly after their colorful receptions and the euphoria of the honeymoon period, however, numerous political factions started to challenge the power of the moderates. That marks yet another phase in the stage of the moderates where pressure from extremists grows. The Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), led by Dawud Ibsa, kept a section of its armed wing in the jungles of Wollega. Asked to comment on the government’s call to disarm the forces, Dawud infamously responded: “who is to disarm and who is to be disarmed.”The OLF is also widely believed to have infiltrated the ruling Prosperity Party (PP), creating a chain of officials that serve its purpose at both federal and local levels.

Thrown out of their throne, the TPLF made up a notable section of the group of extremists. It has since been accused of instigating and inciting inter-ethnic clashes across the country. It also allegedly funds other ethnic nationalist parties and their acts of instability in their localities. The government also implicated the above two groups in repeated attempts to assassinate Prime Minister Abiy, orchestrate civil unrest in the capital to raid the palace and make their dash to power. These are just a few of the demonstrations of the growing pressure of extremists.

The moderates also adopted the problems of the old regime as ethnic conflicts erupted across the country. The number of internally displaced people went over a million, propelling Ethiopia to the forefront of the list of countries with the problem. There were also cases of religious attacks in some parts of the country. Abiy’s government hesitated to use coercive power to stop unrests in various parts of the country and that fits Brinton’s description of the moderates.

Brinton’s book further stated that by the later part of the rule of the moderates, a “dual sovereignty” existsbetween the institutions of the moderate government and the organizations established bythe extremists.A softer sense of “dual sovereignty” was declared earlier in Ethiopia when the activist turned politician Jawar Mohammed remarked that “there is Abiy’s government and Queero’s government” referring to the informal group of Oromo youngsters he leads. The group played administrative and police roles in some parts of the Oromia region. The sense of “dual sovereignty” that exists between regional administrations, especially that of Tigray, and the federal government led by the moderates clearly resembles the situation at the end of the second stage of Brinton’s model.

Brinton describes the extremists as having nearly religious faith in their leaders. He claims that the extremists “are not only few, they are frantically devoted to their cause.Theextremists follow their leaders with a devotion and unanimity not found among themoderates.” This exact description can be used to depict the situation of the Oromo youth that follow the orders of their leaders, whom they devotedly believe in. 

At the final stage of Brinton’s second stage, the moderates are overthrown by the extremists. Ethiopia obviously hasn’t got there but the struggle between the two seems to be still raging on. Brinton’s third stage is called crisis/radical stage. It is filled with reign of terror and mass executions by the extremists followed by a number of other social vices such as use of secret police, foreign threat, extreme nationalism, demand for sacrifice, class struggle and economic crisis. The fourth and final stage is recovery in which things revert back to normal under a stable government.

Avoiding the radical stage and the bloodshed that ensues comes as a rational option for a peace loving person. For that to be the case, the moderates need to make sure that they don’t lose the fight. So, the more important question is, are the moderates losing the fight in Ethiopia.

Contributed by Tewedaj Sintayehu