Although 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 each other. 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 was poverty. In today’s 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 actors. 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? The dismantling 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? Today Ethiopia’s 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. Another example 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. Ethiopia now 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 Minister. The political 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.

In another country, he would be called an autocrat.

The ascendance 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 Africa. Everything about 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. Although the 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 power struggle. 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 security agency. The campaign 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 neighbors. Elsewhere 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 intensifies
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