Is there a way forward for the opposition?


The Ethiopian political landscape has changed dramatically since the 2005 elections.  In the six years since, EPRDF has strengthened considerably while the opposition in Ethiopia has split and proven itself to be not well organized.   We have seen opposition leaders being co-opted when possible (as in the case of Lidetu and Hailu)  or being arrested (as in the cases of Birtukan, Debebe, and Andualem). The opposition’s lack of  strong grass roots organization coupled with its thin leadership  pool has made EPRDF’s goal of breaking it up easier.

There exists a cyclic problem where the opposition is in trouble because it doesn’t have a broad base to protect it and it can’t have a broad base since EPRDF works day and night to limit the opposition’s activities.  Given the level of internet penetration, organizing over the web is not feasible.  I don’t think there is an existential threat to the opposition – EPRDF is not interested in killing it completely since it serves a PR purpose, but it is also not going to let it thrive.  For the opposition, there is little escape from the fact that  for it to be successful, it needs to build a support base despite the narrow political space it finds itself in. While one should not trivialize the attempts of the opposition to expand its foothold so far, there are some areas of improvement that can benefit it.

A good place to start, I think, is for the opposition to take a hard look at how it has defined itself so far. Rather than any policy position, the opposition is characterized by a fervent dislike of  EPRDF.  Though some had attempted to temper this attitude (e.g. Birtukan, Dr. Birhanu – pre Ginbot 7), the average supporter, harbored feelings of emotional dislike*.  This feeling often overshadows differences among the various opposition groups and comes at the expense of articulating well thought out positions on many national issues.

Second, while calls for democratic elections are important, these alone can not be enough. Seeing how the Kinijit leadership fractured post election 2005 despite the leaderships belief in a democratic path should be illustrative enough. The rapid fracture was the result of an opposition leadership who were united by little more than a call for open elections and their loath for EPRDF. Clearer definitions of values and goals, a clear political program, and clear positions on issues of national interest that go beyond the superficial (e.g. “privatize land!” kind of arguments**) are needed.

There is of course little doubt that the anti-EPRDF rhetoric has been useful for the opposition.  It works well for election times where people are faced with a choice between something they don’t like and something they don’t know very well. But this sentiment does not create believers in the organization’s goals.  When goals are not broadly shared, EPRDF’s strategy of imprisoning individual leaders works.  It leaves the organizations shaken and without a clear direction on where to go next.


*I should also state that EPRDF also harbors no love for anyone – its comments and actions are of contempt and hatred for anyone who doesn’t agree with it.

** Meles is now essentially privatizing land to foreign investors and arguing that this was what the opposition had for so long wished for.

Dissent =? Terrorism


On September 6th, the Ethiopian government arrested 29 people on alleged terrorism charges.  This news was widely covered including on Al Jazeera and other news outlets. One of the people that commented in these articles, Andualem Arage, is now in jail under terrorism charges himself. Along with Andualem, Eskinder Nega, who writes regularly on Ethiomedia, and three others have also been arrested. Today’s arrests follow others in recent days where the government has detained two swedish journalists as well as Ato Debebe Eshetu  – all alleged to be involved in “terrorism.”

The government’s definition of terrorism is expansive enough to be meaningless. The mention of the Arab spring in news articles and its appearance in Eskinder’s essays seem to have rattled the government’s nerves.  Back in February, I had thought that something similar to the Arab spring was unlikely to happen in Ethiopia on account of the size of the urban population.  But perhaps the government thinks otherwise.  Rising inflation and the government’s inability to control it may prove to be the catalyst that ignites the simmering frustrations just below the surface.

Wikileaks: on Al Amoudi


Several cables in the newly released cables detail Al Amoudi‘s business empire and his relationship with the ruling EPRDF. Some are summarized below:

As the Ethiopian government auctioned off state owned enterprises, Al Amoudi was aggressively buying them up. According to this cable, “nearly every enterprise of significant monetary or strategic value privatized since 1994 has passed from the ownership of the Government of Ethiopia (GoE) to one of Al Amoudi’s companies.” In total his purchases accounted for “approximately 55 percent of total privatization revenues.”

The U.S. embassy believes that Al Amoudi’s strong connection to the ruling EPRDF (he “reportedly deals directly with Prime Minister Meles“) provides him with preferential treatment. Al Amoudi is now one of the main investors in the recent land deals that the Ethiopian government has been making (link). As of 2009, his investments were approximated to be around 8% of total foreign investment in this sector and is slated to increase in the coming years. The cable also suggests that some exceptions might have been granted to his operations.

His ties to the EPRDF also insulates him and his companies from serious allegations. In a cable from 2010, for example, Al Amoudi’s Laga Dembi gold mine is accused of “releasing toxic chemical waste into a nearby river, causing illness to people and animals.” The government’s response to the local protests that ensued was its usual prescription of mass arrests and intimidation followed by accusations of being OLF sympathizers. Al Amoudi for his part tried to calm the situation by giving 15 Million Birr to the affected woredas. The cables do not say whether any real, long-term solutions were planned to investigate or address the problem.

Al Amoudi understands the brewing challenge to the unprecedented control over resources and the Ethiopian economy that he wields. In a conversation with the US ambassador, he repeatedly says for Ethiopia to change, the “young people have to change.” He explains that his recruitment of the Black Eyed Peas, Janet Jackson, Beyonce Knowles and 50 Cent, to perform concerts in Addis is part of his focus to shape the [urban?] youth [and to rehabilitate Ethiopia’s image]. At face value, this seems quite absurd. But it points to his belief that the young need to be depoliticized. The idea isn’t that far fetched – a simple search for “hip-hop” among the released Wikileaks cables does point to its utility in shaping attitudes.

Though Al Amoudi’s name often pops up on cables from the U.S. embassy in Addis, he is also mentioned in cables from Djibouti and Saudi Arabia. In this cable from Riyadh, the US embassy is unable to reconcile the ownership of the largest media interest in Saudi Arabia, SRMG (global readership of 180 million and aggregate market share of 46.1%), which on paper says is majority owned by Al Amoudi, but senior Saudi editors said was owned by the Saudi prince Salman (who isn’t listed as part owner and whose sons only have a 10% interest).  Such revelations are likely to raise questions among EPRDF political leaders as to what “Al Amoudi owned” really means.

Wikileaks: on EFFORT and other ‘Endowments’


On how EFFORT was founded:

2. (C) Seeye Abraha (strictly protect), the Chief Executive 
Officer of EFFORT from 1995 until his expulsion from the 
TPLF in 2001, detailed EFFORT's founding and operations to 
Pol/Econ Chief in a two-hour discussion on March 17.  Seeye 
noted that the TPLF had received huge amounts of 
international assistance, particularly from the United 
States, throughout the 1980s to support its struggle 
against the Derg government and to provide relief to the 
Tigrayan people.  Whatever food or other in-kind support 
that they could use or transport into Tigray, they would. 
They sold the excess food and support items in Sudan for 
cash.  At the end of the struggle, the TPLF incorporated 
whatever military materiel it held into the Ethiopian 
military's inventory, kept all of its more than 100 
transport lorries, and liquidated most of the remaining 
stock held.  Seeye estimated that in 1991 the TPLF had 
roughly $100 million liquidated.  Acknowledging that these 
resources did not belong to individual TPLF members, the 
party decided to use the funds as a perpetual relief 
mechanism for the Tigrayan people who suffered the costs of 
the struggle.

There was an interview on VOA sometime back where Sebhat Nega told the unbelievable story that the money came from a shai bet (Tea/Coffee Shop) that the TPLF operated in Yemen and some house(s) which the TPLF owned and rented (link to interview). Seeye’s version seems more believable.

Seeye also says that changes at EFFORT reflect Meles & Azeb’s increasing control of the TPLF…

Seeye argued that, much like 
Sebhat Nega's removal from the TPLF Central Committee in 
2006, his removal as CEO of EFFORT in late 2008 likely 
reflects tensions between Sebhat and Prime Minister Meles' 
wife Azeb Mesfin.  While former regional Vice President of 
Tigray Abadi Zemo has taken over the CEO position at 
EFFORT, Seeye argued that Azeb's ascendance to the EFFORT 
Vice Chairmanship reflects an increasing consolidation of 
influence within the party and control over resources by 
Meles and Azeb.

Full cable

Here is another cable where the GM of Dashen Brewery, an ANDM controlled company, tells embassy officials that he can “make or break any one” and that HE has “the right to kill.”

Wikileaks: Reconciliation with the OLF


A series of cables detail reconciliation efforts between GoE and the OLF that took place in 2008/2009. These cables describe two parallel efforts, one by Professor Efrem Issac and Pastor Daniel Gebresellasie, which seems to have been rebuffed by the OLF at least until the involvement of Ababiya, former head of OLF, and another by a group of prominent Oromo individuals (Ato Berhanu Dinka, Rev. Eteffa Gobana Molte, and Ato Abera Tola), which seems to have had some traction.  The second group was able to get a signed statement from Oromo elders throughout Ethiopia asking the OLF to come to the negotiating table.  Dawd Ibsa, the head of OLF, had previously agreed to the precondition Meles had set for negotiations to start (i.e. acceptance of the constitution). The OLF central committee, on the other hand, was unwilling to agree to Meles’s demand on the grounds that no preconditions should be set.  Eritrea’s influence over the OLF leadership is also cited as another obstacle for talks between the two sides.  The three elders believed the signed request from community leaders would exert enough pressure on the OLF leadership to come around.

In the end, things don’t seem to have progressed very far.  While these elders engaged the OLF with Meles’s blessing, the EPRDF/GoE undercut the negotiations by undertaking a campaign of suppression  in Oromia arresting those they said were connected to the OLF (see GOE CLAMPS DOWN ON OROMOS, OPPOSITION PARTIES). These actions led the embassy to question whether EPRDF was serious about reconciliation. The elders had different theories for why the suppression was taking place.  They surmised that it could be the work of the OPDO, who saw themselves as the biggest losers if an OLF-EPRDF agreement took place.  Another theory was that this was Meles’s way of indicating to the OPDO that he wasn’t serious about reconciling with the OLF. In any event, the cables are silent about these efforts after January 2009.

9 Sep 2008
Oromo Elders Believe Reconciliation Breakthrough Possible

24 Nov 2008
Reconciling The Oromo Liberation Front And Ethiopian Government

20 Jan 2009
Former Olf Head Ababiya Seeks GoE-OLF Reconciliation
Related Cables
20 Nov 2008

5 Nov 2008, Embassy Asmara
OLF Chairman Survives “Coup Attempt”

24 Jun 2008, Embassy Asmara
OLF Claims To Be Fighting For Democracy

Wed, 11 Jan 2006
Ethiopia: Meles On Internal Situation
Only a small part of this cable discusses the OLF.  It suggests a previous failed attempt at reconciliation. It reads:

Meles lamented that he thought he had struck a deal with OLF leader Lencho in Bonn in which the OLF would respect the constitution, give up violence and become a peaceful political competitor of the EPRDF. However, when violence erupted and the EPRDF looked weak, the OLF had gone back on the agreement and called for insurrection. Nevertheless, differences between the government and OLF were not irreconcilable. Meles confirmed that he remained open to renewing the discussion. All Lencho had to do was contact him — and “he knows how to do that.”

Wikileaks: Meles’s Myers-Briggs type


I am impressed by how far the State Department goes to understand the people they are dealing with. The following Myers-Briggs profile of Meles Zenawi is very interesting and at times entertaining. Not only are you being worked on with carrots and sticks, but they are served with your personality in mind …


¶1. (S/NF) After scores of meetings with Ethiopian Prime
Minister Meles Zenawi, Post has strong confidence in our
ability to infer Meles's Myers-Briggs type. We strongly
believe that Meles is a strong ISTJ.


¶2. (S/NF) We have a high degree of confidence that Meles is a
moderate-to-strong "I." He is quiet, deliberative, and
certainly not a "man about town." We understand from direct
engagements with him, and from those close to him, that he is
a voracious reader and very introspective (both personally
and about the country). While Meles certainly has to work
the members of the ruling party's central committee, these
are all long-time, very close friends. He thrives on
one-on-one or small group discussions (such as with renown
economists, talking about imperial Japanese history, or the
U.S. founding fathers), while being far more reserved in
larger groups (i.e. large CODEL groups, etc.). As such, we
are highly confident of this "I" classification.


¶3. (S/NF) Meles is a details man. He knows them inside and
out, and he deploys them quickly and precisely to establish
and defend his arguments. Whenever we raise concerns, he
responds with highly nuanced and highly specific details to
counter our arguments. He is particularly adept at using
such details to counter points raised by senior USG (and
presumably other foreign) officials. On numerous occasions
we have observed Meles run circles around visitors who note
general concerns by throwing out detailed responses. As some
more senior USG visitors may not know all of the specific
details regarding a particular dynamic they are asked to
raise beyond what may be included in a two-page brief, their
ability to offer a detailed retort can be limited or can lead
them to stand down without countering Meles's response. As
such, we are again highly confident that Meles is an "S."


¶4. (S/NF) We assess that Meles is likely a moderate-to-strong
"T," but internal ruling party dynamics require him to
operate skillfully as an "F" as well, which he does with
aplomb. As with his deployment of details in presenting an
argument, Meles conveys his analysis of internal, economic,
and regional dynamics in a clear, logical way focused on
ends/objectives far more than on values. While Meles does
certainly still rely to a fair extent on "values"
(particularly regarding the ideologies of revolutionary
democracy and the developmental state), his thinking on these
issues has evolved over the years, particularly after
engagement with others (Sachs, Stiglitz, western governments,
etc.) suggesting that when confronted with a detailed,
logical, results-oriented argument he can move away from
ideological dogma. A stronger argument for his "T"ness, is
actually the argument against his "F"ness as evidenced by the
rift within the TPLF in 2001. Meles's absolute and
near-visceral break from Seeye Abraha ) perhaps his best,
closest, and oldest friend ) suggests that when push comes
to shove, he is far more wedded to tasks/ends than
interpersonal relationships. Finally, Meles desperately
wants recognition and public accolades for his achievements,
consistently focusing us on his accomplishments while being
relatively more willing to forego appreciation while efforts
remain in process.

¶5. (S/NF) While we are fairly confident that Meles is a
moderate-to-strong "T," our confidence is lessened by how
effectively Meles can operate as an "F." The TPLF Executive
Committee has a lot of strong and dogmatic personalities that
would not take lightly to being vetoed frequently. Meles has
retained his influence over more than two decades by
navigating this dynamic well. Moreover, Meles is an expert
in knowing his audience and choosing his language carefully
to deliver a carefully-crafted, audience-specific argument.
Still, the dynamics behind his break with others in the TPLF
in 2001 and his logic-, rather than values-, based
argumentation that leads us to believe that he is a "T."


¶6. (S/NF) Meles is certainly a strong "J." Throughout our
scores of meetings with the Prime Minister, in which he
consistently operates without notes, Meles delivers points on
any range of issues that can be precisely diagrammed into an
outline. Within each point of his arguments he deploys a
precise list of supporting details or arguments. Meles is a
linear thinker, starting from the beginning, then reaching
the end before broaching a new issue. We are very confident
of Meles's "J"ness.


¶7. (S/NF) We hope that this analysis provides useful insights
for USG interlocutors who will engage the Prime Minister.
Meles's ISTJ type suggests very clearly that the most
persuasive arguments to make with the Prime Minister to sway
his decisions will be those that are delivered privately,
focused on an end objective that he supports or values,
highly specific and detailed, and delivered in a clear,
linear fashion. Further, if our message is one that he is
likely to oppose, our arguments will be much more effective
if delivered in a way that emphasize the objective -- Meles
particularly understands and appreciates arguments that
clearly reflect the explicit pursuit of national interests.
Further, USG interlocutors must be thoroughly prepared with
details to retort Meles's detailed responses to initial USG
points. End Comment.

Cable link