unfashionable in today’s political discourse to bring up the ideas of former
Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, it is hard to ignore his thinking on issues
related to Ethiopia’s national security and economy. In a country of over 100
million people cohabitating together in a rough neighborhood of ethnic,
religious, regional and political differences—and increasingly an enormous
generational divide—national security, according to the former Prime Minister,
is inexorably linked to the government’s economic policy; and they condition
In simple terms,
there is a primacy in national survival that drives an effective and
professional national security institution, but Ethiopia’s national security
was also a function of the country’s economy. Meles believed that national
security was human security for the people of Ethiopia. The tools of the state
to make people secure included the economy—because Ethiopia’s number one enemy
Ethiopia, both national security and human security are being sacrificed at the
altar of Western aid and future investment—particularly support from the U.S.
and its allies, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In this
arrangement, Ethiopia compromises its sovereignty and its pro-poor economic policies
to accommodate the strategic and economic interests of external political
Perhaps it was
necessary, then, to dismantle the country’s national security system to create
the conditions for large-scale economic transformation to enrich external
investors who can provide the inputs for regime stabilization. In other words,
it was necessary to create the instability to justify repression without
changing the prevailing narrative of political and economic reform. It was a
transactional bargain between the Ethiopian government and its coalition of
willing partners—the U.S., Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. The partners would
politically support the Prime Minister’s government and he would create the
conditions needed for external investors to profit from Ethiopia’s resources.
How else can we explain the wholesale annihilation of a national security
system with a global reputation of effectiveness?
of the national security system took place at lightning speed and the vacuum
was filled by the political actors embraced by the Prime Minister at the behest
of the U.S. and its allies. For years, the U.S. had summarily dismissed the
concerns of Ethiopia’s national security officials over three opposition groups
in particular—the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), Patriotic Ginbot 7 and the
Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF)—as “paranoia.”
In fact, for
decades the U.S. had continually engaged these groups, even ignoring the U.S.
laws consistently broken by Patriotic Ginbot 7 when raising funds to violently
overthrow a government recognized by the U.S. How could the U.S. government not
understand that their engagement in Ethiopian politics would result in a
zero-sum struggle for power? Or perhaps that was the goal all along?
national security system—once admired by its Western allies—has been neutered
and rendered ineffective by the targeted removal of key officials, beginning
with the former head of the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS),
Getachew Assefa. In nothing less than an ethnic purge, the Prime Minister
removed civil servants from NISS known to be Tigrayan, leaving the agency in
the hands of less experienced staff. Later, it became clear that the Prime
Minister was, in effect, dismantling the national security system.
At the same
time, the regional states were creating parallel systems that merged with
untrained militias. The results have been catastrophic, as demonstrated by the
assassination of the Amhara Regional President by his own security chief,
released from prison having been convicted of attempting a coup against former
Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
has had even more far-reaching consequences. The militias hosted by the Somali
and Oromia regional governments under the regional security apparatus are
responsible for the displacement of millions of people.
hosts the largest number of internally displaced people in the world. The
federal government operates under an undeclared state of emergency in three
regions. Yet, in only a few instances have Ethiopia’s friends and allies, along
with the international media, raised questions about the new “reformist” Prime
narrative of reform and good governance remains a dominant headline even when
reporting deadly violence, displacement or executive decision-making by fiat.
When one of these instances occur, and they are frequent, friends and allies
offer rationalizations, justifications ad extenuating circumstances that are
beyond the Prime Minister’s control.
country, he would be called an autocrat.
of the new Prime Minister and his government was long in the works. The “soft
coup” that took place was orchestrated by individuals in the (then) OPDO and
(then) ANDM, sister parties of the EPRDF, assisted by external political actors
with their own agendas for Ethiopia. These external political actors were led
by the U.S., hoping to drive Ethiopia’s domestic and foreign policy in a
direction more favorable to U.S. economic interests—in particular, to dislodge
China’s footprint in the region and to bring President Isaias in from the cold.
The U.S. was supported by two of its Middle Eastern allies, Saudi Arabia and
the U.A.E., wishing to make money and expand its own influence in the Horn of
the new Prime Minister’s first six months in office seemed to have been
sketched out on the iPads of several key U.S. State Department officials.
Noteworthy were: opening the prisons to release members of the opposition,
including future assassin Brigadier General Asiminew; inviting opposition
groups out of exile, including three violent organizations with ties to Eritrea
(OLF, Ginbot 7, and ONLF); and announcing economic reforms to attract foreign
investors with limitless resources, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE. To
achieve these goals, it was necessary to not only remove the leadership of the
TPLF from government institutions, but to make them an enemy of the people.
U.S. historically has enjoyed a positive relationship with Ethiopia’s defense
and security institutions based on the mutually defined interests of
maintaining peace in the country and the region, the U.S. has always been
uneasy, even queasy, about its relationship with the leadership of the TPLF.
The U.S. could never accept the party’s rejection of the neo-liberal economic
model and adoption of the developmental state. It ran counter to U.S. and other
global economic interests. Moreover, the U.S. has doggedly tracked China’s
economic engagement in Ethiopia and was becoming increasingly alarmed over
China’s growing influence in Africa.
So, the TPLF had
to go, clearly. They were out and now the new Prime Minister was in, joined by
U.S. partners as insurance should the Prime Minister fall out of line. Uniting
the Prime Minister, Patriotic Ginbot 7, the OLF and the ONLF was their
antipathy towards the TPLF. This political theatre would also buy time
for external political actors to identify the likely winner in the impending
In addition to
writing speeches, advising the Prime Minister on what to wear and promoting
photo opportunities with Eritrea’s President Isaias Afewerki and sometimes
trees, the U.S. and its allies have devised a made-for-television political
drama. In this political theater, the Prime Minister has pointed his finger at
Getachew Assefa as the protagonist, or central character in the drama, as a
symbol of the excesses of the TPLF. No matter that few people in the country
knew the name of the Chief of the National Intelligence and Security Services
(NISS). With the opposition now advising the government and taking senior
positions in the federal and regional government—including would-be assassin
Brigadier General Asaiminew—it had to be demonstrated that these groups and
individuals were wrongly identified as a “terrorist” by the country’s national
against Getachew began with a lot of noise. Ethiopia’s Attorney General
announced charges against Getachew Assefa and an Antonov with 40 federal
commandos was said to have been sent to Mekelle to issue the arrest warrant for
Getachew. When the Attorney General failed to arrest Getachew, the noise
stopped. Getachew, appointed head of security and elected to the executive
committee by the party, is today overseeing the security of the one region in
Ethiopia not experiencing the dystopian politics and insecurity of its
throughout the country, however, the void left by the dismantling of Ethiopia’s
security system is being filled by the narrow interests of the Prime Minister’s
new partners—those individuals and groups formerly identified as threats to
national security. The “addition” of these new partners has resulted in a
thoroughly dysfunctional federal government in a new “era of the princes.”
Regions are spiraling out of control as the power struggle among its elites