Back to the Future: In Ethiopia, it’s the 70’s All Over Again

ethiopia-drought-aid
What the TPLF is doing in Ethiopia is nothing new. In the end, the TPLF will be defeated.

By Mengistu H. Desalegn*

Some things never change; they just get worse. In a black and white TV and with an army marching band playing in the background, the current state of emergency decree by the TPLF government of Ethiopia would take one right back to the horror days of the 70’s.

When the red-terror was raging, when thousands were getting killed on the streets of every corner of every town in the country, and when mothers were asked to pay for their children’s body. The fact that the brutal military government of Mengistu Hailemariam lasted for 17 long years is testament to the effectiveness of government sanctioned terror in putting down dissent and at keeping people live in fear by giving up their basic human rights.



Those were definitely the years of darkness under the most ruthless and inhumane regime the Ethiopian people have ever seen. The kind of which they thought they would never see when their current rulers led by the TPLF (Tigray People’s Liberation Front) took over power 25 years ago. They couldn’t have been further than the truth.

In 1974, Ethiopia (as we know it now plus Eritrea) was in its 40 plus years of uninterrupted rule—bar the five-year Italian occupation during WWII–under the late Emperor Haile Selassie. He was a friend of the British Empire and the US led West in general. In fact, he was so favoured by the West that he was allowed to annex Eritrea, dissolving the federal arrangement established at the end of the 10-year British administration.

Considering the norm at the time of granting independence to every colonized nation in Africa, there was little wisdom in taking such a draconian unilateral action by the Emperor. Not surprisingly therefore, that single decision, supported by a friendly United Nations, would trigger a bitter 30-year long war of liberation which only concluded when Eritrea won the war and declared its independence as a free nation.

During the Emperor’s reign, although the quest for change had been simmering among the educated elite since well before the failed coup d’état in 1960, it was in the late 60’s and early 70’s that things started to snowball and get out of hand. When Emperor Haile Selassie’s government was finally overthrown in 1974, civil unrest and army mutiny played the crucial role. Drought/famine and the war with the then independence fighters of Eritrea had been the other two significant factors that helped effect change and in fact have continued to be the two constants preceding change of government in Ethiopia in the last 40 plus years.

In 1984, the government in Ethiopia was unapologetically communist and had the USSR (Soviet Union) and the wider Eastern (socialist) Bloc as its patrons and financiers. In 2016, while it is not clear as to what ideology the government is professing, it has the USA and the wider West as its major patrons and financiers. Both would never survive a single day without the constant injection of foreign aid from their respective minders—in a good harvest year. Foreign aid and loans would always account for upwards of 60 percent of their annual budget.

The Mengistu Hailemariam government was fighting a deadly war that was aimed at scuttling the eventual independence of Eritrea at the same time as tens of thousands of people were dying of hunger and while Michael Jackson, Bob Geldof and the rest of the world were busy organizing fundraisers.

Although the change of government didn’t immediately follow the 1984 famine, it was nevertheless a defining moment in terms of how the international community began to view and take the TPLF more seriously as a possible alternative to the military government of the day. This was reflected, among other things, by their willingness to involve the TPLF in the relief effort of drought affected areas under its control.



In 2016, never mind the ‘more than 10 consecutive years of double digit growth figures’, never mind the unprecedented boom that the TPLF claims to be happening in Ethiopia, never mind the not too critical treatment the TPLF led government has been enjoying so far from the mainstream international media amounting to the affirmation and validation of all the economic progresses the government has been claiming to have made, never mind also the tens of billions of dollars the government has been amassing from the international donor community; Ethiopia is once again under the grips of another famine of biblical proportions–the worst in 50 years. An estimated 10 million people (10% of the population) of a nation with ‘the fastest growing economy in sub-Saharan Africa’ are going to starve to death without immediate food assistance from the international community.

During this round of drought, the TPLF government with Hailemariam Desalegn as its figurehead, is also carelessly toying with the idea of going to war with the now independent nation of Eritrea. If recent chatters are to go by, the TPLF led government may be seriously contemplating the idea of going to war with Eritrea as a way of deflecting attention from worsening domestic issues including the drought. It had already tried once in recent months to overrun the Eritrean defence lines in the Tsorona front and failed.

To put things in generational context, Ethiopians in their forties today would have gone through four major famines, three governments and four heads of state. The majority in this group of Ethiopians is perhaps the most unfortunate and by sheer coincidence happen to bear the brunt of the worst the country could offer. They were not old and educated enough to take part in the student or armed movements of the 70’s and 80’s and as a consequence were sidelined and have continued to be mostly outsiders in the current political space.

And the generation of the 50’s and 60’s, which has monopolized influence on all sides of politics for so long, has never shown any interest to take them under its wings. It also appears that this older generation of Ethiopians would always find it difficult to share power without someone taking it out of their hands by force. ‘Point scoring’ as a short cut to power and ill gained riches, and a shallow political conviction for the sole purpose of ‘getting even’ amongst rival political or ethnic groups of that same generation seems to remain at the heart of most political discourse in contemporary Ethiopia.

An all-inclusive far-sighted conversation anchored on a national vision continues to elude the apparatchiks on all sides, giving way instead to a myopic and medieval tendency for one ethnic group to seek to dominate the rest of the country. In the process, they tend to create a system where both the rulers and their subjects end up becoming prisoners–the palace in Arat Kilo has long been acknowledged by Ethiopians as the most luxurious prison in the entire world.

Those Ethiopians in their forties would have also noticed that a change of government or head of state had closely followed each of the previous major famines. Just as meteorologists establish their weather forecast on past trends and statistics; this group of Ethiopians, based on their accumulated experience, would have seen all the tell-tale signs for the current government and/or head of state to be on the brink. If anything, the latest cabinet reshuffle could only help solidify that sense of imminence reminiscent of the ‘weekly’ cabinet reshuffles of the 70’s during the dying days of the Emperor’s government.

Indeed, the TPLF led government today is unravelling at the seams–literally. The seams stitched up by itself when it came to power 25 years ago. The seams of segregation based on ethnicity, on political elitism, on an economic class deriving from ethnic/political connections etc. A year on, the Oromo protests are still raging unabated. The Amhara resistance is going from strength to strength. Most importantly, there is talk of joining forces between those two to better organize and effectively execute their common objectives. Dissent is commonplace and is affecting the relief effort, and business confidence is dwindling in the investment sector including tourism. The armed resistance groups operating in different parts of the country are believed to be catching up with the popular resistance in trying to coordinate their activities for a united and speedy outcome. Things are happening so quickly and situations changing so unexpectedly that even the most seasoned regional observers are finding it hard to predict what comes next, not unlike the situation in the 70’s.

As briefly mentioned, the famine of the early 1970’s (or its expose’, to be exact) had been a major catalyst for the demise of Emperor Haile Selassie’s government. Student uprisings, civil unrest and army mutiny also played significant roles. The other contributor, which is often overlooked was the war with the then freedom fighters of Eritrea. That same war persisted and grew even bigger to be at the forefront of helping end the terror reigns of the military junta government.

The EPLF (Eritrean People’s Liberation Front) dealt the knockout blow to the Dergue and in the process carried the current rulers of Ethiopia, the TPLF, all the way to the Menelik Palace. That was roughly two years after the failed coup d’état on Mengistu Hailemariam by the then army generals which occurred about four years after the 1984 famine.

Fast forward to 2016, it is astounding to imagine that a single generation of Eritreans appears to once again be poised to see off another Ethiopian government, one as brutal and even more reviled by the majority of its people than its two predecessors. A generation of Ethiopians in their forties on the other hand may be standing to get robbed of their forty plus years and brought straight back to the 70’s where it all began–back to the future.

As crushing a tragedy as it may sound, it should also be seen as a perfect opportunity for that generation of Ethiopians to start things afresh. With first-hand knowledge and a trove of lessons learnt from surviving two failed governments under their belt, and with no or little political baggage from the old guard, they would be well-positioned in bridging a transition to a more just and prosperous Ethiopia where its people would live with dignity, equality and at peace with one another.