TPLF’s shum-shir - old wine in old wineskin

By Shiferaw Abebe
December 18, 2017

The past two years have been tough times for everyone in Ethiopia, including TPLF. Never before has TPLF faced as widespread and sustained popular uprising as in the past two years. Utterly incoherent - almost mindless - it failed to understand the popular feeling and resolve for change. Instead of providing at least a modicum leadership to ease tensions, it reverted to its natural disposition of using force. It killed over a thousand peaceful demonstrators over a span of 10 months and jailed tens of thousands. When this didn’t produce the intended result, it cowered into declaring a state of emergency that lasted 10 long months. By the time the state of emergency ended, TPLF has virtually done nothing to understand the seriousness of the crisis let alone take some tangible measures to address it. So once the curfew was lifted, the uprising resurfaced in many parts of the Oromia region, which only got worse by the death of dozens, if not hundreds, and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Oromos and Ethiopian Somalis. Many believe TPLF has played a part in instigating the inter-ethnic conflict that caused this mayhem. As the country descends into chaos, TPLF put the protest ban back in place, if only there was anyone to heed it. At this point, the protest has spread throughout the Oromia and Amhara regions more intensely, more deadly.

There was no good news on the economic front either. It was revealed that the much touted economic growth was actually in shambles as the double-digit growth claim turned out to be a hoax that was covered up by other people’s money. When the aid and the loans dried up, there was nothing by way of domestic resources to keep the economy going. The governor of the National Bank warned that unless tens of billions of hard dollars were somehow procured fast, the economy would tank. Many state agencies such as Telecommunications announced they are unable to pay their external debt let alone expand operations. Private and regime owned entities, too many to list, lament lack of foreign currency has tied their hands to import goods and services for investment. The arrest of regime billionaire friend in Saudi Arabia on corruption charges didn’t help matters.

It is not just the foreign sector that is in trouble; the entire economy is falling apart under the weight of corruption, mismanagement and sheer incompetency and negligence. Nothing displays the depth of the economic ill more than the fact that people had to lose their lives to get sugar for their cup of tea as did happen in Ambo. Twenty-seven years later in power with a tight grip on pretty much every sphere of the national economy, TPLF is unable to provide basic consumer goods like sugar. As the economy comes to a grinding halt, the hundreds of thousands of Ethiopian youth who graduate from universities, colleges and high schools have nowhere to go but join the tsunami against TPLF.

There was however one positive development that happened in spite of TPLF and shaped the trajectory of the popular struggle in a fundamental way. The Oromos and the Amharas, the two largest ethnic groups, finally tore the wall TPLF erected between them and started building bridges, giving the much needed hope and security for the future stability of the country. Nothing underscored this sea change more than the act of a couple hundred Oromo qero spontaneously organizing themselves and crossing the Abay River to join their Amhara compatriots in the fight against the imboch on Lake Tana. “Tana Kegna!” they chanted, in effect asserting that the whole of Ethiopia belongs to all Ethiopians - a simple, powerful and direct indictment of TPLF’s 27-years divisive political agenda. If TPLF thought of it as a youth infatuation, it was solidified within a few weeks when some 250 Oromo statesmen and women, elders, intellectuals and artists travelled to Bahir Dar and held the most celebrated conference of unity with their Amhara compatriots. “Amharas and Oromos are like a sergegna teff"   was the theme of the conference. TPLF tried to mimic it a few weeks later by sending a contingent of cadres from Tigray to Gondar, but it flopped because there was no truth or sincerity in it.

TPLF central committee meeting…

It was in the midst of all this that TPLF’s central committee convened its 35-day long meeting in Mekele. Much of the time was reportedly wasted on TPLF’s Leninst-Stanlinist ritual of gimgema, criticism and self-criticism, which apparently caused emotional breakdowns for some – one left the country for a medical attention abroad, another walked out of the meeting in contempt of party rules, among others. In the end, they dethroned the incumbent chairman of the Front and demoted him to the central committee; they kicked the widow of the late Meles Zenawi from the politburo and suspended her from the central committee too; and a third individual was also demoted to the central committee. The former deputy chair was made the new chair of the Front and four others were also elevated to the politburo. They issued a communique which states that the central committee conducted a thorough examination of the dire situation in the country and yet settled on a simple shum-shir in the TPLF’s leadership as its solution.

In one of the biblical parables, one is advised not to put new wine in an old wineskin. So the instruction is to change the wineskin first for the old wineskin would be too fragile to contend with the pressure from the new wine. But TPLF does not see any problem with the old wineskin - TPLF actually think the governance system, the policies, and the strategies are doing just fine. They think the problems were a certain Abay Woldu, a certain Beyene Mikru, and a certain Azeb Mesfin, and the solution, a certain Debretsion and old fart Sebhat Nega.

There was no new wine within TPLF anyway. Before his death, Meles had ensured that there was no independent thinking (he virtually did all the thinking for them all) or difference of opinions let alone contemplation of new policy directions. As a result, the relatively young TPLF leaders, including the new chairman and his politburo cohorts were cut and dried to fit the old wineskin. Even five years after his death, Meles ruled them from his grave.

Where to from here?

First, will the internal strife and the leadership shum-shir have a lasting impact on TPLF organizationally? TPLF has survived more dramatic splits in the past, so the natural answer would be “no”, but this time it could be different especially if Azeb Mesfin loses her CEO position at EFFORT, and/or Samora Yonus, who reportedly sided with the loser faction, is forced to retire. These individuals currently sit on top of the two economic empires - EFFORT and METEk – that they will use every drop of political clout they have to fight back.

Unlike 15 years ago when TPLF’s biggest split happened, this time the Front is under a tremendous amount of stress with the on-going protests in the country that, the losers may, depending on their reading of the political direction, choose to distance themselves from the sinking ship. It is not outside of the realm of possibility that this group even start spilling the beans about the corruption and other crimes of the victor side in order to find some support from the opposition side. More likely, though, both sides may look for internal concessions and stick together, for better or worse. There is simply a lot at stake, including their economic empires, that is a stronger incentive to unite them than divide them.

Second, is the new TPLF leadership capable of changing course, unless forced? Is the victor group - Debretsion, Getachew Assefa (the Security Chief) and Sebhat Nega – pro reform as some wishful thinking kicking around suggests? The answer to both questions must be “no”. The new bunch ain’t new wine at all, and it is a well-known fact that at least some of the members of this group including Sebhat Nega and a certain Getachew Reda are notorious for their divisive and anti-Ethiopian rhetoric and stance. If the new leadership inclines to making any “reform” out of their own accord, it will be with the intention of continuing TPLF's grip on power. True reform would have to be forced out of them.

Third, what happens to EPRDF? The TPLF central committee admitted things were not rosy at EPRDF and even took the lion’s share of responsibility for the distrustful relationship with its EPRDF partners. This is not an honest admission of guilt, of course, but a realization that EPRDF will no longer be the Trojan horse for TPLF’s agenda. One would therefore think, in order to keep EPRDF together and functional, it will be in TPLF’s self-interest to give OPDO and ANDM more autonomy to run the affairs of their respective kililis. This may be a smart move in the short term and one TPLF may be tempted to take. Problem is, once TPLF loses control over OPDO and ANDM, it will lose much else of its power overall. A tyrant does not sustain itself too long by sharing power. So, what TPLF will likely do is to undermine or undercut the leadership of these two organizations by exercising full military control over the two regions, if it cannot kowtow them into submission through the usual bullying tactics. TPLF actions have commenced on both fronts as we speak.

The choice in front of OPDO, ANDM, and SEPDM leaders cannot be clearer: they must rally themselves with their rank and file members, mobilize the people of their regions and the resources under their disposal, form a united front against TPLF’s bully, and prepare for the ultimate showdown if need be. Standing up with the people is not just what is honorable but what is perhaps safer for them personally and politically. TPLF is a diminished entity at this point; it has lost the psychological battle; it has lost the economic battle; it will easily lose its control over the military and the security if the other EPRDF partners stick together with Ethiopians. The cracks are already apparent.

There is more to winning this fight and transitioning the country into a democratic landscape than ganging up against TPLF (which is a necessary condition). The turn of events in the months ahead is also unpredictable. What is needed is a deep conviction by all concerned in the key principles of unity, democracy, patience and optimism. Coalitions, partnerships, and relationships must be built between those who want to bring change from within the system and those who fought for it from outside on the basis of goodwill and inclusiveness. From here on, the future of the country depends much not on what TPLF will or will not do, but on what the other EPRDF partners, opposition parties, and the Ethiopian people at large will do.

The writer can be reached at - An African-American news and views website.
Copyright 2016