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Misreading History and Political Science and the Exigency of Smooth Power Transition in Ethiopia

By Ghelawdewos Araia, PhD
Tigrai Online, Feb. 19, 2018

Misreading History and Political Science in Ethiopia All Ethiopians without exception and irrespective of their ethnicity, religion, creed, and affiliation to political parties, must bear in mind that they have one and only one country

In the last three to four years, Ethiopia has been in constant political turmoil, ranging from Gondar and Oromia incidents to the Oromo-Somali confrontations in South East Ethiopia, to the Woldia-Kobo-Mersa protestations and subsequent deaths of innocent Ethiopians. All these protestations, euphemistically called mass upheavals by some disgruntled Diaspora Ethiopian groupings, were actually ethnic-based and ethnic-hatred disturbances; I label them as disturbances because in any historical context, revolutionary and peoples’ uprisings do not destroy and/or burn public property. Moreover, the only mass upheaval that moved toward revolutionary insurrection in Ethiopia is that of 1974 (Yekatit 1966 Ethiopian Calendar) broad-based people’s uprising.

The 1974 revolution, as opposed to the present ethno-nationalist disturbances, involved all classes – from urban dwellers to rural peasants – and their demand was class-based equality, freedom and justice, and no iota of ethnic politics were manifested in the mass insurrections, but unfortunately the revolution was hijacked by the military and Mengistu and his henchmen presided over a Red Terror regime, slaughtered the people (especially the youth), and governed the country by tyrannical rule for seventeen years.

Any given society, including our own Ethiopian society, must be examined in the context and methodological framework of history and political science, because the two social science disciplines can effectively dissect and analyze the nature and characteristics of systems and phenomena. As Charles Tilly and Robert E. Goodwin aptly put it, “the ultimate aim of political science is to identify general laws of political process that cut across the details of time, place, circumstances and previous history.” Furthermore, these scholars tell us that “knowledge of historical context provides a means of producing more systematic knowledge of political processes.”1 It is this kind of methodological rigor that is clearly missing in the Ethiopian Diaspora charlatan groups. They have heavily depended on the ethnic factor to explain present Ethiopian politics, and as a result they have completely misread history and political science. Consequently, they have made wrong diagnosis of the Ethiopian reality and singled out Tigrayans from other Ethiopians in an attempt to isolate and target Tigrigna-speaking Ethiopians. The Diaspora opposition attempted to construct a rational analysis of the Ethiopian political scenario by attributing ethnicity to regime change in the country; some of them even argued that the TPLF managed to capture state power by campaigning hate against the Amhara; there is some truth in this reasoning because the TPLF mobilized its fighting forces by exaggerating the national question (nationalities self-determination and secession) and mobilizing its fighting forces by emphasizing on Amhara dominance and Shewan hegemony. However, the TPLF actually defeated the Derg militarily and took over state power. In significant measure with respect to Ethiopian history, State power in Ethiopia was earned or acquired via the barrel of the gun, and leaving out this determining factor could lead to misreading history and political science.

On top of misreading history and political science, the Ethiopian Diaspora has also a completely mistaken analysis of the Ethiopian political landscape, especially when it comes to dealing with the ruling party and/or the Government; and because it has wrongly perceived Ethiopian politics, it has squared on the people of Tigray; interestingly, the Diaspora opposition groups have made a quick transition from being anti-Woyane to anti-Tigrayan. They falsely assumed that the present socioeconomic formation of Ethiopia is dominated solely by Tigrayans. A good misconception (or perhaps deliberate deception) of this view is Shaleka Dawit’s article entitled “Ethiopia and the United States: Can the crisis be prevented?”

In Shaleka Dawit’s article, there is no mention of EPRDF as a ruling party or government, or any ethnicity that make up the Party. It is a well-known fact that the EPRDF main driving force (until now) was the TPLF, but other parties of the Amhara, Oromo, and Debub also have been playing a pivotal role in the policy and decision making processes. In contradistinction to the four-party coalition of the EPRDF, Shaleka Dawit states, “a minority government representing in theory 6% of the population that is in complete control of the state machinery, including the economic, political, and state apparatus…current Ethiopia is gripped with the Rwandan syndrome before the 1994 genocide. It is Tigray people versus the rest of the population. It is a situation the elites from the 6% own major private enterprises directly or indirectly. It is a situation where the entire 6% is portrayed as a superior race than others. It is the case where the disproportionate amount of resources is being directed to the province where the 6% live. It is the case where the majority of the 6% are led to believe that they will be exterminated unless they have full control of the economic, political, and security apparatus. It is the case where through fear, intimidation, and blackmail the 6% is being brainwashed to hate the rest of the population and prepare itself against a possible genocide. Hence the hate becomes mutual.”2 

For those of us in the academia and for others who are engaged in modest scholarly works, Dawit’s description of the Ethiopian political reality (which is largely a mirage), not only lacks substantive theoretical framework but it also evaporates in thin air as a meaningless verbose that contradicts the overall situation in Ethiopia.  

First and foremost, there had never been genocidal ethnic confrontations in the history of Ethiopia because the country have had a long history of durable civilization and advanced political economy that enabled it to forge a centralized political system, in which the low-level ethnic communities are woven into the fabric of a united and overarching nation-state. Moreover, the Ethiopian people have been interacting, intermingling, and intermarrying for thousands of years, and there is no Ethiopian history where one tribe was mobilized to exterminate or commit genocide against another tribe; even during the Era of Princes (1769-1855), when Ethiopia was divided into mini-states for seven decades, it was the regional lords and not the people that fought against each other. Interestingly but ironically, even the regional lords believed in the oneness of Ethiopia and in recognizing the king (now subservient to the lords) as symbol of Ethiopian unity.  

So, given the history of Ethiopia in the context of political economy, can we then safely conclude that large scale and persistent ethnic confrontations and genocide will never happen in Ethiopia? The answer, of course, is no. Although the background history of Ethiopia could possibly keep such blood-letting civil wars at bay, and could manage and control ethnic wars, given the new psychology of the Ethiopian youth, that is, a psychology devoid of pan-Ethiopian ideology, the new ethno-national tendencies, coupled by the relentless efforts of Ethiopian enemies to drag the country into ethnic warfare, it is highly probable that Ethiopia could encounter civil wars among nationalities, especially if the Government continue to exhibit silence, inaction, and a non-intervention attitude.

The current ethno-nationalist politics in Ethiopia was engineered and fabricated by the EPRDF government when it demarcated the regional states based on language and ethnicity, although it did not intentionally install the new federal structure to divide up Ethiopians. However, we could surmise that the EPRDF misread history and political science when it devised the devolution of power unto ethnic enclaves without calculating the risks. At any rate, 23 years ago, I was very much concerned that Ethiopia could face a major setback due to its nascent geopolitical configurations, and here is what I scribbled then:

The TGE policy of Kilil and self-determination is commendable, but the consequence of fragmentation as a result of new wave of ethnic political consciousness, and the inability of some minority nationalities to become economically and politically viable would ultimately preoccupy Ethiopians to otherwise unforeseen problem.3    

Now, beyond the concern I discussed 23 years ago, the enemies of Ethiopia have managed to create a target audience of youngsters imbued with ethnic hatred and as agents, could easily perform the agenda of anti-Ethiopia grand actors who are the impetus behind the political fragmentation of Ethiopia. The grand actors are Ethiopians whose allegiance is to foreign powers; and in many instances, they have been coordinating their activities and their political language (or ‘political program’ as they call it) with non-Ethiopians including Europeans, Americans, and Arabs.

In 2010, I was compelled to respond to a non-Ethiopian by the name Gregory Stanton, who also took it for granted that Tigrayans could become victims of genocide. Here below is a summary of Stanton’s speech and my critique:

 Stanton’s opening speech was quite palatable to my political opinion and I want to extend credit to him for attempting to foster “trans-ethnic politics” and for saying “you are Ethiopians, not Amharas or Tigrayans” to his audience. And to be sure, it is this kind of thinking that Ethiopians should entertain at this juncture of their history.

Based on the above opening remarks of Dr. Stanton, I had a cursory understanding of the tenet of his speech as an advocacy for Ethiopian unity. But, all of a sudden, the speaker began making annoying quirks with respect to Tigrayans and their role in current Ethiopian politics. His speech was inundated with disconnected flashes of themes including the “massive massacre” in Gambella: “the best land of Gambella that is being sold to foreign investors”, and what he calls the “internal colonization” of Ethiopia by Tigrayans.

Dr. Stanton attempted to substantiate his thesis of “Tigrayan regime trying to colonize the best of Ethiopia” by his argument stated as “effectively a Tigrayan takeover of the whole country”. Furthermore, in an omen anticipating sign, the speaker said, “Who do you think is going to pay for all these?” and he answers it himself by saying, “the Tigrayans”, “I am worried for the Tigrayans”, says Stanton, “who could become victims [of genocide] themselves.”4      

The leitmotif or running themes in the Dawit essay and Stanton’s speech are “genocide” and “extermination” of Tigrayans, a stunningly awful and coveted demand and call against innocent people. I am not surprised that Gregory Stanton used portentous or forewarning words without due regard to the people of Tigray; after all, people of European descent have committed genocide and massacres against indigenous and colonized peoples, but I am saddened when my own flesh, Dawit W. Giorgis, entertained same ideas.

As I have discussed above, there has never been ethnic warfare in Ethiopia, and due to this hard fact, one could assume that there wasn’t ethnic hatred amongst the diverse linguistic groups of Ethiopia, except a tinge of bias and stereotype fomented toward some groups. But it is important to discuss the psychology of hatred so that the present generation of Ethiopia understands the gravity and consequence of it, and embrace rather the psychology of love in order to safeguard the unity and brotherhood of Ethiopians.

Navarro, Marchena, and Menacho discuss the psychology of hatred in detail, and they state, “…Hatred is built on a complex mix of cognitions and emotions. The cognitive components are related to the devaluation of the other, the perception of them as a threat. The emotional part includes a set of feelings like anger, fear, distress and hostility. Finally, another element related to hatred is a certain, sometimes crazy, sense that we are justified in acting against – or even eliminating – the object of our hate. When hatred intensifies, a certain fanatical obligation to get rid of the person or group that is the object of the hatred can easily arise (Opotow, 1990).”5      

The word “eliminating” in the above quote corresponds to the Dawit-Stanton words of extermination and genocide, and this catastrophic sentiment is the one directed against Tigrayans that I have discussed above. It is manifested in the gangsters’ actions of burning and destroying public property, assets owned by Tigrayans in particular. However, as per media outlets such as ethiomedia.com, “Scores of businesses owned by individuals suspected as TPLF collaborators were burned down or destroyed…Homes of alleged government collaborators were also burned down.”6

According to the Institute of Development and Education for Africa (IDEA) investigative findings, there is no truth to the ethomedia.com report; on the contrary, it is the homes and businesses of the non-political and non-TPLF affiliated merchants that was destroyed and burned down by the fanatic elements. IDEA’s findings, in fact, was corroborated by the VOA interview of the Tigrayan businessman who lived for thirty years in the Woldia-Kobo area; he said, he managed to escape while at the same time confirming to the interviewer that he and his children have  no affiliation to the TPLF whatsoever.

Fanaticism is dangerous, because it “dilutes empathy, awareness of other suffering, and feelings of guilt toward the object of own hatred…Fanaticism is incompatible with critical judgment. The fanatic lives in a “niche” without being touched by logical reasoning.”7Because the fanatics lack reason and political consciousness they are easily driven by their emotions to accomplish the mission of the anti-Ethiopia forces who desire ‘a Rwandan syndrome’ for Ethiopians.

It should be understood, however, that the ethno-nationalist fanatics are not the making of the anti-Ethiopia movements only; they are also the products of a political systems that underscores differences rather than commonalities among the various Ethiopian nationalities. As Courtney Jung correctly puts it, “race, ethnicity, and religion (and also class, gender, and sexuality) do not have any essential core that determines their fundamental character. Race does not arise from biology; ethnicity does not arise from material conditions. Instead, these categories are constituted by politics and by the particular historical process that have organized access to power, in ways that forge boundaries of exclusion and selective inclusion8 (emphasis mine).

The ‘particular historical process’ in the Ethiopian context is the demarcation of nationality boundaries solely based on language and ethnicity that I have already discussed above; and the ‘boundaries of exclusion and selective inclusion’ very much reflects the nature and characteristics of the EPRDF and its style of patron-client governance for the last 27 years. Unfortunately, even today and after the EPRDF concluded its evaluation meetings, the ruling party does not seem to recognize that ethnic politics is the main culprit for the cause of present crisis.

As far as I am concerned, Ethiopia should come first at all times and the only way out from the present political morass is to promote and embrace the overarching Ethiopian (not Tigryan, Amhara, Oromo, etc) nationalism. Emperor Tewodros and Emperor Yohannes became sacrificial lambs for Ethiopia and not for this or that nationality; Ethiopians converged at Adwa in 1896 and at Badme in 1998-2000 for the independence, defense, and territorial integrity of Ethiopia, and not for this or that nationality. We must follow their footsteps and that is the only way out from the present crisis.

In the past, I have advocated on behalf of Tigrayans only because they were singled out and targeted by the fanatic ethno-nationalists. In point of fact, this is what I argued in 2013: “This is not the first time I have defended the people of Tigray. I have done it back in 2003, and every time the negative campaign is sharpened, I have attempted to provide countervailing ideas in the defense of Tigrayans. However, it should also be known that I have accorded same defense to the Oromos, Amharas, and other Ethiopian nationalities. I do not prescribe to ethno-nationalist politics as a prime agenda in any setting. ; I am a pan-Africanist and pan-Ethiopianist and for more than three decades I have embraced an overarching ideology that unifies rather than separates respective ethnic groups in Ethiopia, although I also support the self-determination of cultural and ethnic groups within a unified and indivisible Ethiopia.”9

Irrespective of the current crisis, however, I believe Ethiopia will remain united and Tigray will not go anywhere because the concept and material force of ‘Ethiopia’ was conceived and born in Tigray. Certain groups may invoke Article 39 of the Constitution to separate Tigray from the rest of Ethiopia but they will not be successful because the majority of the people of Tigray would like to jealously guard the unity of Ethiopia and maintain Ethiopian national identity. In this context, thus, back in 2003 I tried to portray Tigray as an indivisible core of the Ethiopian nation-state, as shown below:

It all began in Tigray. Tigray is the cradle and hub of Ethiopia’s ancient civilization. In Tigray, Ethiopia’s future seems to contend its past while the present testifies cyclical historical events as constant reminders of the distant and near past. In Tigray, the modern period seems to lend the requisite touch of antiquity, as if to deliberately endure uninterrupted Ethiopian political state. After all, this quintessentially Ethiopian northern regional state is the plain field of ancient civilization and unparalleled conventional wisdom, and as the custodian to that epic African ingenuity.10  

What is to be done now? Now that PM Hailemariam Desalegn submitted his letter of resignation in the midst of the crisis and the Council of Ministers declared state of emergency for the second time, what should Ethiopians in general and the government in particular do to ensure smooth transition of power and also guarantee stability and peace in the country? Let me begin with what different groups but well-meaning Ethiopians have proposed in an attempt to overcome the crisis and pave a peaceful path for Ethiopia.

Back in 2016, Professor Awol Allo of Keele University, in an interview with Kassahun Yilam of ESAT, made a very constructive statement with respect to making distinction between the people of Tigray and the TPLF, at a time when a significant number of the Diaspora Ethiopians were unable to see the differences between a given party and a people; hence their overgeneralization and blind condemnation of one people. Emancipating the mind of the zealot from the shackles of sectarian politics is not going to be easy but the contribution of Professor Awol Allo and others like Baysa Wakwoya, who also argues in favor of making distinction between a political party and the masses, could be major assets in this regard.

One other way and most effective strategy to mitigate the crisis in Ethiopia and resolve the contradiction between the people and the government is to conduct series of public and open forums in which the people could freely express their views and the government exhibits transparency and accountability. A good example of such forums is the ENN (Odaa) program of February 12, 2018, where national security, unity, and Ethiopian nationalism (Ethiopiawinet) were discussed in depth by four learned men. They all have underscored the significance of the overarching Ethiopian national identity while at the same time respecting the cultures and identity of the various nationalities that make up Ethiopia.

In a similar vein to the ENN panel discussion, Goitom Gebreleul and William Bedasso also have produced a timely article entitled “Managing Ethiopia’s political crisis”. The authors argue, “Managing Ethiopia’s current political crisis requires going beyond democratic reform and instead thinking about the political economy and institutions that shape elite competition along ethnic lines. The two most important reform measures that should be embarked upon immediately in this regard are devolving more power to the regional states in accordance to the Constitution and de-ethnicising elite competition at the federal level.”11    I have accepted the authors argument with some reservation; while lessening and gradually eliminating ethnic competition is crucial in Ethiopian politics in order to overcome the governance crisis, ‘devolving more power’ to the regional states may not be feasible and achieveable because there is a huge gap between the states in terms of capital (resources), knowhow (educated and professional personnel), and mode of production. Some states like Afar, Somali, Beni-Shangul, and Gambella have a pastoral/transhumant life style and a portion of them have just made a transition to sedentary agriculture. Therefore, even if you devolve theoretical or constitutional power to these states, they are still going to need massive material aid and administrative support from the federal government in order to catch up with the relatively “advanced” states like Tigray, Amhara, Oromia, and to some extent Debub.

On top of public forums and contributions of scholarly works by intellectuals in the academia from the major Ethiopian universities, the Government should initiate a drastic measure in order to realize the long overdue national reconciliation, and the latter, at long last, could get some space in Ethiopian politics and could be implemented in different forms. Some recommendations are the following:

  1. The Government and the legally operating opposition parties in Ethiopia should enter dialogue with the sole purpose of fostering national unity and retooling Ethiopian nationalism while at the same time deemphasizing ethnic politics. If this kind of national reconciliation is tried, it should be done in public in which the Ethiopian people also become participant-observers. This would also be a momentous historic event at unleashing a political culture of toleration and inclusiveness and a reflection of the ideals and sentiments of the Ethiopian nationhood.
  2.  As L/G Tsadkan suggested in his interview with The Reporter, a commission must be established under the Office of the President to oversee the crisis and come up with solutions, but the EPRDF should continue to govern the country for the coming two years; that is, until the next election is conducted in 2020 and followed by the installment of a transitional government.
  3. A coalition government of the EPRDF, the legally registered opposition parties, scholars and academe with excellent resume and public record, and civic as well as religious leaders. The purpose of the coalition government is to lead Ethiopia peacefully by establishing a transitional government, until elections are conducted in 2020.

Of the three options mentioned above, my preference is the formation of a coalition government, but since Ethiopian politics at this juncture is complicated and fluid, a task force of the coalition should undertake a thorough and in depth study of the Ethiopian reality and come up with some recommendations. I personally would recommend the continuation of the current federal structure with some amendments of the Constitution in regards to Article 39 and its clause of secession; the latter should be discarded and only the ‘self-determination’ clause should be preserved. The regional states must continue as autonomous states but their mono-ethnic composition should change to multi-ethnic diverse and yet inclusive polities. In other words, while, for instance, Oromia, Amhara, Tigray, Debub, Afar, Somali, Benishangul-Gumuz, and Gambella maintain their present status, they should simultaneously accommodate other Ethiopian ethnic groups in their respective turfs, and gradually graduate to multi-ethnic states, very much like the Debub Kilil or Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples (SNNP).   

Going back to the coalition government, it is important to define its purpose and delineate its formation process. The purpose of the coalition is not only to include multiple parties to participate in the making of the government but also to systematically curb the monopoly or dominance of one party. Coalition government, almost always, are formed in parliamentary systems like we have in Ethiopia today, and it is, in brief, an alliance or bloc within the parliament with a special mission to thwart absolute majority of legislators by one party. Its composition features the many stakeholders that I mentioned above, but a core group or a task force is necessary in order 1) to enhance communication within members of the coalition; 2) to make sure that members of the coalition have common interest and common goal with respect to safeguarding the unity of the Ethiopian people and ensuring the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country; 3) to ascertain that urgent situations such as the crisis in general and the public interest in particular are addressed; 4) to form an effective and efficient government.

Finally, all Ethiopians without exception and irrespective of their ethnicity, religion, creed, and affiliation to political parties, must bear in mind that they have one and only one country and as a result one common identity. They must also further understand that Ethiopia is a great nation with civilization of antiquity and the medieval period; home to Denknesh, the mother of all humanity; symbol of independence to Africans and people of African descent in their Diaspora; and it is the seat and headquarters of the African Union. This greatness must be preserved at all costs and Ethiopians endowed with a modicum of wisdom must seriously consider the continuation of the foundation economy that will ultimately catapult the country to a middle income status, if not one of the highly industrialized countries in Africa. This agenda, however, can be realized only if peace is maintained, and Ethiopians who care for the welfare of Ethiopians and security and stability of the nation should welcome the state of emergency that was just declared. On the other hand, the present EPRDF government or the coalition that is yet to be formed must understand that a country cannot be governed by state of emergency alone; the alternative is democratic governance in all its dimensions. Democracy alone is also not going to solve the bread and butter issue of Ethiopians unless it is reinforced by a transformative and viable economic agenda. The vision and policy implementation, therefore, should be to install a twin system of democracy and development and maintain the delicate balance with extra care.


  1. Charles Tilly and Robert E. Goodwin (editors), The Oxford Handbook of Contextual Political Analysis, Oxford University Press, 2006, p. 20
  2. Dawit W. Giorgis, “Ethiopia and the United States: Can the crisis be prevented?”  Satenaw, October 24, 2017 14:32
  3. Ghelawdewos Araia, Ethiopia: The Political Economy of Transition, University Press of America, 1995, p. 166
  4. Ghelawdewos Araia, “The Fate of Ethiopia must be decided by Ethiopians: A commentary on Gregory Stanton’s speech”, November 15, 2010 www.africanidea.org/commentary_IDEA.org
  5. Joĕl I Navarro, Esperanza Marchena, and Immaculada Menacho, The Open Criminology Journal, 2013, Vol. 6, 13, Department of Psychology, University of Cadez, Spain
  6. “Attack Helicopters Over Defiant Kobo: Security forces again kill unarmed civilians,” www.ethiomedia.com January 26, 2018
  7. Op cit, Navarro et al
  8. Courtney Jung, “Race, Ethnicity, Religion”, in Charles Tilly and Robert E. Goodwin, The Oxford Handbook of Contextual Political Analysis, op cit p. 366
  9. Ghelawdewos Araia, “Ethiopian Diaspora Politics and the People of Tigray”,
  10. www.africanidea.org/Ethiopian_diaspora_polotics.html February 2, 2013
  11. Ghelawdewos Araia, “Hail the People of Tigray, Defenders of Ethiopian Sovereignty and Custodians of its Civilization” July 1, 2003 www.ethiomedia.com/hail_the_people_of_tigray.html  
  12. Goitom Gebreluel and Biniam Bedasso, “Managing Ethiopia’s political crisis”, Opinion/Africa, 7 February 2018. Nemera Mamo is a co-author of this article

All Rights Reserved © IDEA, 2018. Dr. Ghelawdewos Araia can be contacted via dr.garaia@africanidea.org 

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