By Messay Kebede
The trouble with tyranny and personalized power is that institutional mechanisms of power transfer do not work. In most cases, such mechanisms exist and are enshrined in written and exalted constitutions. Nonetheless, to the extent that tyranny and the exercise of arbitrary power irreparably tarnish them, institutions do not command any respect or legitimacy. Instead, the need to pass on power unleashes a bitter struggle among various contenders. The proliferation of contenders is a natural effect of the arbitrary exercise of power: when power is exercised without the aura of legitimacy, it sends the message that it is up for grab, thereby fostering contenders. Another effect of the demise of arbitrary power is the tendency to stimulate popular uprisings. People who so far had accepted tyranny without protest suddenly feel an impetus to rebel because they sense the weakening of the repressive power of the state: both power struggle among the ruling elite and the orphan condition of repressive forces (police and armed forces), which repressive forces were shaped by an exclusive loyalty to the now disabled or dead dictator, give the picture of a disintegrating power system.
The above description exactly defines Ethiopia’s present condition. Whether Meles is already dead, incapacitated by disease, or has no much time left, one thing is sure: there is now a power vacuum and a struggle among contenders for his position has already started. The bare fact that the government has so far refused to provide any reliable information about his condition is indication enough that Meles’s time is over. The assurance that he is now receiving treatment or resting and that he will soon resume his work is just a lie destined to prevent a popular uprising and conceal the on-going power struggle until the emergence of a winning faction. On top of economic disasters, the failure to establish any firm institution demonstrates that the two decades of TPLF rule have been nothing but a colossal waste for Ethiopia and Ethiopians.
What concerns Ethiopians most is neither the fate of Meles nor of his cronies, but what developments are likely in post-Meles Ethiopia. My intention here is not to predict the future. Personally, I do not believe that the future is simply unfolding from past conditions. The direction of history depends on unpredictable variables and, mostly, on decisions that people and individuals make. The future is the outcome of a creative process and as such bound to be unpredictable in its novelty. The best that analysis can do is to present possible scenarios, which are then possibilities, potentialities, not predictions.
As previously indicated, Meles’s death or incapacitation has created a situation of power struggle. This power struggle is essentially occurring within the EPRDF, but more importantly, within the TPLF, which is the decisive force. It is translated by the appearance of factions, often around individuals supposed to be influential. We already know the names of the individuals. However, there is no guarantee that said individuals are really or remain the main players. In a fluid situation of power vacuum, little known individuals often emerge, just as new factions can appear, while the old ones disappear or are integrated into the new factions. In other words, we must expect some form of restructuration within the TPLF, a different alignment of competing forces.
Most probably, the winning faction will be the one that secures the support of the armed forces. In this raw situation of power struggle, no individual or faction can impose its will without the support of repressive forces. Since the TPLF alone is able to claim (at least at this stage) the loyalty of the armed forces, it follows that it is likely to stay in control after an internal redistribution, which can even take a violent form. Even if the deputy Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, stays as head of the government, he would simply be a figurehead. My guess is that, given the complete impotence of Hailemariam, the winning faction may find it wise to promote him to prime minister, at least until things settle down.
What factors could possibly alter this scenario? One important factor could be that the army ends up by developing its own political ambition to the detriment of the civilian power of the TPLF. This possibility is not farfetched: experience shows that each time a faction appeals to the army to prevail over other factions, it incites the ambition of the army. Why would the army work for somebody else when it could have it all for itself? But this scenario depends on the unity of the army: conflicts among or between senior and junior officers or dissenting voices from the rank and file can incapacitate the army and force it to accept the civilian leadership.
Another important factor that can jeopardize the continuation of the rule of the TPLF is popular uprising. Given the bubbling general discontent, the rule of the TPLF cannot continue without the support of a strong and loyal repressive force. Any sign of weakening cannot but encourage uprisings. The occurrence of a generalized uprising will greatly complicate the situation. It will further divide the ruling party, including the army, as the start of a bloody confrontation is necessarily fraught with dangerous and uncontrollable developments. One uncontrollable development is, of course, the ethnic reaction. Two decades of misrule and ethnicization of Ethiopia direct animosity, not only to state power, but also to ethnic groups. Some such confrontation will break up the EPRDF and will force people to align around ethnic lines rather than class or national unity.
There are also other complicating factors. For instance, the Eritrean element: in the face of a serious unrest, Eritrea may again resort to military action both to recover the territories that it claims and punish the TPLF for its 2000 military victory. One other factor that is difficult to measure is the possible role of the opposition. If the opposition presents a united face, and this is a big if, it can have some role in avoiding the worst scenario, namely, ethnic confrontations. It can even present itself as an alternative course if a popular uprising occurs. At any rate, its ability to displace the TPLF is congenitally dependent on the occurrence of a popular uprising. Even then, it will not have much impact if it remains divided. I note that Medrek has finally upgraded itself to a front, which is good news. But this is not enough: to appear as a real alternative to the TPLF, the union must be credible and reach out to other opposition parties as well as to the bureaucracy and military apparatus.
Lastly, the direct intervention and real pressure of Western powers can have a serious impact in the direction of facilitating the creation of a government representative of all contending forces. Their pressure can thwart the scenario of military coup or of a refurbishing rule of the TPLF; it can even prevent the start of a popular uprising. The two basic conditions for Western pressure to be effective are: (1) Western powers themselves must show a united front and act as honest brokers; (2) the opposition must speak with one voice and credibly argue in favor of a transitional inclusive government. This last possibility is by far the best course, for it alone promises a peaceful transition.
(The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)