The Ethiopian polity has maintained a historical continuity of thousands of years of existence. However, the modern Ethiopian state took shape since the mid of the nineteenth century and was eventually centralized with advent of emergent modern apparatuses of governance under a formalized monarchial rule of Emperor Haile Selassie.
Many of the current political discourses and contentions about the fate of Ethiopia’s statehood and polarized political conflicts among various protagonists in today’s Ethiopia trace their origins to the complex political events of modern state formation. The competing attempts to redefine the state and the underlying interpretations of the political processes based on issues like cultural or ethnonational conflicts, territorial claims, and economic alienation and political exclusion are indicative of the implicit conception that since its emergence the contemporary state and politics of Ethiopia has been in persistent crisis. The country was substantially a traditional agrarian society with major economic resources especially land controlled by monarchy and the nobility.

Notions of citizens’ liberty, freedom and human rights were not even conceived in issues of politics and governance. All citizens were considered subjects of the Emperor, who assumed the role of the ultimate sovereign. Political opposition and descent were not to be contemplated as Ethiopian political culture primarily dominated by submission and loyalty to the ruler whether the emperor or the immediate local ruler holding power. However, Haile Selassie’s imperial autocracy came under mounting pressures from both emerging educated elements and rural groups seeking political changes and end to economic hardships. The social pressures eventually culminated in the revolution of 1974 that led to the overthrow of Haile Selassie’s monarchial rule.


A military junta, that came to be known as the Derg, unleashed a coup in the midst of revolutionary turmoil and established a praetorian rule that soon adopted a socialist ideology of the Marxist-Leninist brand with allegiance to the Soviet communist bloc. The regime initially introduced a series of radical political changes some of which were considered progressive such as nationalization of land to win support of the large mass of landless rural communities. Nevertheless, with its communist-style coercive measures and unpopular policies, it lost any semblance of support from significant portions of both the rural and urban communities.


The marking feature of the Derg regime was its blatant disregard of basic human rights and civil liberties. The infamous period of what came to be known as the Red Terror has witnessed massive extra judicial executions and violent obliteration of all political descent and opposition groups. In a totalitarian style, only the regime’s own Worker’s Party of Ethiopia was officially allowed to organize. Gradually, the regime fell under a personal dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam. Ethiopia’s economy dipped into the bottom low; massive famines afflicted millions in the 1980s; and the regime was entangled itself in a protracted civil war with insurgent movements. It was severely weakened by the combined onslaught of insurgency uprisings by the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front and the Tigrayn People’s Liberation Front as well as spreading of nationalist insurgencies elsewhere by other groups such as Oromo Liberation Front.

Insurgent rebels controlled a large part of the northern part of country and formed the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, which is essentially controlled by the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front as its core. In 1991, as Mengistu Haile Mariam fled to his exile to Harare, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front took control of the capital city Addis Ababa, while the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front assumed control of Eritrea’s capital Asmara thereby forming a de facto independence of Eritrea as a new state.

The EPRDF formed a transitional authority in which political movements such as the Oromo Liberation Front and various other ethnic political organizations were invited to be represented. EPRDF’s Chairman Meles Zenawi became the nation’s President. The new regime promised a political priority of peace and stability; declared Ethiopia’s adoption of the Universal Principles of Human Rights.


In 1992, the first local and regional elections were held but only the EPRDF and its affiliated parties took part and claimed victory. Other opposition parties including the OLF boycotted the elections, accusing the regime of conducting harassment, mistreatments and denying access to political campaigning. Opposition groups were forced out of the government.


In the mean time, the EPRDF introduced a federal form of government based on ethnic, linguistic and cultural patterns originally with 14 regions. The EPRDF introduced a Federal Constitution in 1994 that was ratified in 1995 declaring the country as a Federal Democratic Republic. The federation comprised of 9 states and 2 Chartered cities of Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa directly under the federal government and more precisely under the Prime Minister of the government, based on the new constitution wields most effective political power. The President of the Federal Republic was allotted largely ceremonial and nominal powers.

Each of the regional states of the federation has replicate legislative, executive and judicial organs with their own constitutions and flags. The federal practice appeared to have made a clear departure of moving towards devolution of power to the regional powers and more precisely devolution power to ethnic and nationality groups. Political decentralization, however, has not been accompanied with commensurate economic and administrative decentralization, and at best the devolution seems to be manifest in form rather than content. The federal authority continues to exercise effective control of the affairs of regional states through a unified party structure and the principle of “democratic centralism” founded in its “revolutionary democracy” variant of a communist ideology remnant.

In form, the regional officials and administrators derive from local ethnic groups, but in doing so, the regime tends to recruit a local based elite group based on patrimonial relationships of informal micromanaging of political and economic favors in exchange to loyalty to the center or as it has increasingly been evident loyalty to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. The recent factional break up of the TPLF and EPRDF has shown that Regional State officials who descanted from the Prime Minister’s position were summarily dismissed from their respective positions and even some have been incarcerated. The continuity of the traditional political culture of submission and loyalty to the power wielder lest should face the wrath of the ruler remains strikingly apparent in the modern Federal republic.


In theory, the highest political power is vested in the legislative chamber referred to as the House of Peoples Representatives whose members are to be elected for a five-year term in a simple-majority (first past the post) ballot. The second legislative chamber of theHouse of Federation was to be comprised based on representations from regional assemblies and minority groups with limited authority of overseeing distribution of budgetary allocation between federal regions and constitutional matters. In practice, so far, however, since both Houses were absolutely dominated until the recent May 2005 elections, the legislative organs merely served as the rubber stamp of the Executive branch. In effect, this meant that Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and the TPLF/EPLF leaders who have remained loyal to him completely controlled the parliament to the extent of twisting the House members to pass any legislation at instant command.


Although the introduction of electoral politics and constitutional recognition of the right to assembly, association and free expression was a marked improvement to the past, in the practical exercise these changes merely appear to be cosmetic. While Private Press has been allowed and flourished since early on, the government tended to impose various legal measures and excuses to clump down on newspaper editors and owners at various occasion of critical reporting perceived to be damaging to government positions. Similarly, political assemblies such as public rallies or demonstrations can be allowed when the government is comfortable of their potential impact but may be denied if they may be seen as opposed to the government’s policies and measures. Even then, both distribution of private newspapers and occasions of protest rallies are mainly limited to the capital city and a few urban centers; and almost rarely allowed in the vast rural areas.

Political opposition parties have emerged in numerous numbers with varying national and regional platforms. However, in all of the elections so far, the government has been quite reluctant to view the opposition to operate and mobilize freely in relatively similar manner as the ruling party organizes. Prime Minister Zenawi’s regime frequently professed to allow the opposition parties with viable political alternatives to take part in the elections. Opposition parties in the successive elections of 1995 and 2000 barely managed to win a dozen of seats. Reports of past election observers indicated frequent cases of electoral fraud, harassment, detention of candidates, even killings of voters and candidates in some cases as serious problems that cause difficulty to accept these elections as free and fair in spite of being conducted more effectively and peacefully. Thus, the EPRDF tends to maintain presence of opposition parties and a semblance of multi party elections to provide a façade of a democratic multiparty election in the eye of the international donor community and to perpetuate its hold of power indefinitely.

In the run up for the May 2005 elections, the government of Meles Zenawi under donors’ pressure has allowed opposition parties to freely campaign and mobilize support undermining the divisive nature of opposition parties and lack of a coherent political strategy coalescing and consistency in the previous elections. However, the opposition parties were better prepared forming two broad coalitions under the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) and United Ethiopian Democratic Forces (UEDF), along with other opposition parties. The opposition parties succeeded in effectively mobilizing various groups of society that were dissatisfied with abysmal failure of Zenawi’s government to deliver the promise of generating sufficient economic changes and political reforms after more than a decade of staying in power.


In particular, his regime’s total neglect of the urban areas and various rural communities by constricting of labor mobility, factors of production, and trade while pursuing a misguided policy of “Agriculture-Development-Led-Industrialization” has produced broadening discontent within the society. The government’s irresponsible neglect of fast spreading HIV/AIDS pandemic, widening impoverishment, annually recurrent famines and food shortages, and irresponsible and poor handling of border conflict with Eritrea and its legal ramifications have turned the Meles Zenawi’s TPLF/EPRDF a highly unpopular regime in the eye of the ordinary urban and rural Ethiopian voters. However, the EPRDF fatally miscalculated that the opposition would provide any formidable challenge and least any viable alternative.


The dynamics of the elections dramatically shifted when international observers were allowed to monitor and opposition and government candidates conducted campaign debates that were aired live. The opposition parties not only seized the opportunity to access wider constituencies but they also managed to present more attractive policy options incorporated in comprehensive political programs. As the election results indicated, almost majority of urban centers with few exceptions and a substantial portion of rural constituencies were predisposed to support the leading opposition party of CUD followed by UEDF. The government’s resort to resolve the conflict through accentuating the electoral dispute into a non-cooperative game of political conflict rather than pursuing a more peaceful cooperative solution indicates the regime’s willingness modify rules of the electoral game to maximize its possibility of staying in power at the expense defiling the set constitutional principles.


In political conflict of the aftermath of the elections, the government showed a relentless willingness to use violence and carry out widespread abuse of human rights against civilians in what appears to be a punitive pay back for their electoral punishment in the capital city. The leaders of the main opposition party and thousands of its supporters have been detained in mass; several including children, women and elderly wounded and killed at times in styles of extra judicial executions. President Meles Zenawi’s reputation unraveled from a poster-boy status of Western donors praised as one of “Africa’s New Leaders” to that of joining the ranks of banal autocratic tyrants of Africa. However, more damaging to his political longevity is the persistent inability to misunderstand expectations of statesmanship from Ethiopians.


It should be also mentioned that neither the opposition nor the government tended to mutually trust one another. The source of absence of mutual trust is the total failure of institutionalizing the rule of the electoral game, in this case encompassing the electoral law, the Electoral Board of Ethiopia, and the independence of the judiciary, into viable and nonpartisan political institutions capable of managing such legal-political conflicts during more than fourteen years of existence. This central problem of failure of institutionalizing the rule of the law in Ethiopia today continues to cast a serious doubt on Ethiopia’s potentials of democratization in the foreseeable future.
The absence of institutionalized legal constraint has encouraged the Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s regime to disregard or openly renege from issues of commitment both political and legal. Conversely, it may be argued that the regime strategically chooses not to institutionalize the rule of law and institutional constraints on political authority for the precise reason of disregarding its legal and political commitments. However, this only helped to increasingly erode the already tarnished credibility of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and his regime among the domestic and international publics.

We may not solve all the problems that were created in the past fifty years overnight, but we sure can lay down a strong foundation for the next generation to solve them.

Elias Wondimu, EINEPS Founder



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