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A picture Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed that was circulating on social media this week. He is dressed in Ethad Airways jersey. This happened at a time when it is rumored that he is selling a portion of Ethiopian Airlines ( photo : Social media)

By Addissu Admas

What does an ordinary person with no pretension of class, rank, or status wants and expect from any form of government, or from the ideology that inspires and sustains it? I can answer with conviction by saying that such a person wants:  a) the security to lead one’s life in peace  b) conduct one’s business without fear  c) do one’s work unmolested  d) find redress in a fair, competent and honest justice system  e) enjoy government services without bribing anyone  f) not being exploited by a predatory economic system g) not being arrested without due process  h) express one’s opinion without fear of imprisonment  i) practice one’s religion or belief system without being persecuted for it.

The words democracy, republic, commonwealth, etc…mean absolutely nothing if any of the above-listed conditions are absent. On the other hand, you can call a system anything you wish as long as it delivers on all of them.

If we are to make an objective assessment, untainted by ideological prejudice, and compare the three regimes that have passed in Ethiopia and the current one that is still rather un-delineated, we can evaluate them by the conditions listed above as parameters. None of them in fact has been successful in delivering any number of the ordinary person’s expectations here laid out.

The imperial regime aimed primarily at maintaining the status quo of the feudal system while at the same time aiming to modernize the country on the western model. Between 1941 and 1974, during Atse Haile Selassie I’s second reign, there was a concerted effort to modernize the country on all fronts. To be exact, the emperor’s desire to modernize Ethiopia did not start with the defeat of Italy. It had begun, though very tentatively, with Atse Menelik II, and more deliberately and programmatically with Atse Haile Selassie I’s regency. However, we did not see its quantifiable results until decades after the Italian invasion. 

During Atse Haile Selassie’s regime, one may very well argue that, apart from localized and well-contained rebellions in far-flung provinces, there was a general sense of a pacified nation. Unless one deliberately chose the life of a revolutionary or a rebel, one could have expected to live in peace. This obviously does not concern those who had a run-in with the law; in which case one could have expected a fair but inefficient legal system. There was not only expectation, but also conviction that one could hold a job, run a business, or be active in the economy in any field one chose, without restrictions. To call capitalism the economy of this period is to misrepresent it. Nevertheless, people saw the possibilities of better living standards, of improving institutions, education, etc…. For the older generation, with absolutely no concept of democracy, it was no struggle holding their personal opinions in check. Grumbling was inevitable, but it had its own protocol and etiquette. Of course, it was unfathomable for this generation, even sacrilegious, not to say in poor taste, to defame the emperor in public. In many cases, parents sided with the authorities when their educated children declared their intentions to subvert the only order they had known. Did the emperor order the execution of dissidents? Did he create a Gulag to re-educate them? Did he order them into exile? None of this happened. It may be true that some chose exile abroad to “wait it out”, while feverishly organizing for the new Ethiopia. However, most were booked, held for a few days in urban jails, and soon released to their parents and relatives. The Emperor was always careful to never project the image of a bloodthirsty tyrant, but instead cultivated superbly the image of a benevolent patriarch. Indeed, he embodied paternalism like no other head of state of his time. Even though the Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox Church (ETOC) held as always a pre-eminent position under the imperial regime and the emperor himself was de facto its head, Islam, the other Christian denominations and primal religions were free to practice their faiths. 

When we pass to the Derg regime, we are in effect passing to the opposite end of the spectrum. The official doctrine adopted by it was, perhaps more out of expediency than conviction, a type of socialism a la Soviet, with a sprinkle of Maoism. The outcome has been rather disastrous. There has never been before or after it a period in which the citizens lived with so much insecurity and uncertainty in Ethiopia. Thus, a whole generation of bright young men and women lost their lives to defend ideological points that the general population hardly understood. The ordinary, law-abiding citizen was in a constant state of fear, not knowing what the government had in store for him or her. The expropriation of rural land and urban rental properties had the effect of paralyzing commercial initiatives in the economy. The State became the largest employer consequently. The effect of this is still with us today. There was no justice system to speak of; there were instead revolutionary tribunals, which were essentially instruments of control and compliance. In all areas of society, the citizen was at the mercy of the party cadre that delighted in displaying its powers capriciously and with impunity. Religion, though not persecuted systematically as in the other communist countries, had lost its centrality in the citizens’ lives. The ETOC (the Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox Church) lost vast tracts of land and urban property, while Islamic courts and schools were shut down or went into hiding, and all public display of religion was censored or abolished. For the first time in Ethiopian history, people left in droves for other countries permanently and definitively. Previously, residence abroad was seen as necessary to further one’s education, or to work at prestigious jobs. Beginning with the Derg, travel abroad became a much sought after opportunity to escape the hell created by the government. Freedom of speech, much heralded by the student movement during the previous regime, was completely eradicated. Many of our distinguished and gifted journalists languished in prison or lost their lives for expressing the mildest of criticisms. After the fateful May 5, 1975, no public demonstration that was not sanctioned by the regime took place. Ethiopians remained muzzled until the very early days of the subsequent regime.

The Woyane regime, which followed the Derg under the dubious but more acceptable denomination of EPRDF, was both a continuation and a break of the Derg regime. Both claimed Marxism-Leninism as underpinning their political programs. Whereas the Derg sought strict fidelity to it, at least until Mikhail Gorbachov’s Perestroika (restructuring) and Glasnost (openness) in the former Soviet Union. The Woyane regime, which openly defended an Albanian type of socialism at first – i.e., besides being Marxist-Leninist, a strong strain of Stalinism coursed through its political program – once in power, adopted more and more pragmatic policies. 

Ethiopians thought in the beginning that a new dawn had broken for personal freedom. In fact, in the first years of the regime, it became hard to keep up with the number of newspapers and magazines in circulation. However, soon the door started to close on the free-press gradually but firmly. What we see today are the few remnants of the initial burst. Not long after, journalists became the casualty of the day. Though there was no longer terror in expressing one’s disapproval of the government, public demonstrations were highly restricted or choreographed. Most political parties went effectively into hiding after the election of 2005, or had to accept restrictions that basically rendered them voiceless. The government’s effort went more to enrich the ruling party’s coffers and its powerful cadre than creating a well-balanced, middle of the road economic system as it claimed to have adopted. Religions, though they continued to be supervised closely, enjoyed relative freedom. One of them, the Pentecostal or Pentey movement, grew so explosively that today nearly one in every five Ethiopian claims to be its adherents. 

Modeled on the federal system of justice, the Ethiopian courts under the Woyane regime were designed to deliver justice at every level. However, by all accounts, they completely lacked independence from political interference. They in fact were extremely corrupt, and staffed by individuals chosen more for their party allegiance than for their professionalism. They became the willing agents for illegal expropriation, depredation, imprisonment and even executions of countless citizens. The common citizen lost its faith in the justice system completely.

What is perhaps the most galling and condemnable feature of the Woyane regime was, of course, its extremely damaging ethnic politics. For the first time in Ethiopia, we witnessed a political party, which exploited consciously, methodically and shamelessly our latent ethnic differences and diffidence. This was done to extend its own survival, arrogate itself disproportionate power and enormous wealth for itself and for the people it claimed to represent. Ethiopia has scores of years ahead of her, if indeed she remains one, before she can heal the rift between the ethnic groups that the malice of the Woyane regime has exacerbated.  

Today’s situation is as murky as it had never been. Personal security of the citizen has never been as precarious since the Red Terror. Urban criminality, a problem that has always been controlled well during the previous regimes, has become a constant threat for city dwellers. Travel by road, even within a hundred kilometer radius from the capital, has become a hazardous proposition. Gone are the days in which one ventured into the countryside without fear and trepidation. Thirty years of ethnocentric propaganda has produced a population that is today sadly diffident and hostile. The bond of “Ethiopiawinet” that helped us survive not only against Italian invasion, but also against the divisive and savage war instigated by the TPLF, has now waned to the point that Ethiopia’s end appears more real than ever. We can only thank the vision-less, narrow-minded and fascist Oromummaa ideology for further exacerbating this state of affairs.

When PM Abiy came to power, we were almost convinced that a new dawn had broken over Ethiopia. We thought that all wrongs would have been righted under our young and charismatic leader. Sadly, this has not been the case. Today seeking redress from our justice system has become a fool’s errand. The corruption is so overwhelming that in comparison Atse Haile Selassie I’s ችሎት (Chelot) appears as the embodiment of enlightened justice. Officially, we are no longer adhering to any socialist form of economy. Have we embraced wholeheartedly capitalism? How is that even possible when the government remains the only engine of economic development, when land policy remains inscrutable, taxation has become so draconian that it threatens to paralyze businesses, and there is a general sense of lack of direction? 

Under our new regime, though religions appear to enjoy unprecedented freedom, we also note with profound dismay that there have been unnecessary and destabilizing interferences in their internal affairs by the government. This is one problem too many for PM Abiy to handle. He would benefit more by sticking to the spirit of the constitution. 

At the beginning of his tenure, the PM captured our minds and hearts because he wholeheartedly accepted responsibility for all the ills perpetrated by the EPRDF regime, and immediately released tens of thousands of unlawfully imprisoned citizens and hundreds of journalists. We hoped that this would mark the beginning of a new era for the free-press. Yet, today the prisons are full again without due process, and so are too many journalists. The 2022-23 Northern War may have clouded or even hampered certain government policies and programs, however, how can we explain the enormous waste of capital on vanity projects, such as Sheger city and its gargantuan palace? Are these actions of a leader with his two feet planted on the ground?

If we compare side by side all the regimes that we have lived under, none of them comes out as exemplary. However, some were certainly better in some respects than others; and obviously also worse than others. I have already stated their shortcomings and serious faults. In case there is any doubt about my position, I have no problem commending Atse Haile Selassie I’s regime for its handling both internal and external threats without making recourse to extreme violence; for its commitment to nation-building; for its unmatched diplomatic achievements in promoting Ethiopia’s interest; and for literally creating institutions upon which we have built, unfortunately without great improvement. I can commend the socialist system of the Derg for inculcating our fundamental human equality, for creating an urban middle class by granting small plots of land to those who could have never afforded it by themselves. Although perhaps not deliberately, it actually reinforced “Ethiopiawinet”. It recognized for the first time the diversity of Ethiopia’s peoples and languages by giving them a voice. The notable contributions of the EPRDF would have been a workable though amendable constitution, its economic program that lifted Ethiopia out of the list of “the poorest countries of the world”, for establishing definitively the equality of all ethnicities in the realm, the stabilization of the Horn after Somalia’s effective demise, the return of Ethiopia on the international stage. 

It is still too soon for me to summarize the contributions of the current regime. As I stated earlier it remains un-delineated, meaning that it is not quite clear where it is going. What is its economic program for Ethiopia? Is the developmental state still in vigor? What is the regime’s position on human and civil rights on the ground?  Most importantly, is it guided by Medemer or by Oromummaa. The two hardly seem to be compatible! Is the constitution still functional, or does it remain a source of suggestion and not of enforcement? Where is Ethiopia going? It is really unclear!

I could have done, in the same manner as I have done only in part in this piece, list also the colossal damages each has done to the Ethiopian people. However, the intention of this piece was only to indicate what needs to be changed, avoided, and reformed. Also, what needs to be encouraged to advance the interests of the ordinary citizen and the good of the nation. As I would like to reiterate, there is no need for a nicely packaged ideology to follow, there is indeed no intrinsically better or worse political ideology, if conceived in good faith and for the good of society. What we need for Ethiopia, of for that matter for any nation, as I have already stated at the beginning, is that we commit pragmatically to maximize the security of the individual and the state, create from ground up a justice system that is a-political, professional, and solely accountable to itself and the people. To establish a public service that has genuinely in mind to serve the people and not itself. In the economy, we need to strike a middle road between individualistic capitalism and state capitalism. Finally, we need to sustain a thriving free press, and allow complete religious freedom without constant government interference.  

Editor’s note : Views in the article do not necessarily reflect the views of  


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