T. Lyons: The Puzzle of Ethiopian Politics

The Puzzle of Ethiopian Politics.

Lyons, Terrence
245 S.
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Ulf Engel, Institute of African Studies, Leipzig University

The first draft of the book was written just before the rise to power of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in April 2018. Since dramatic changes happened – modernisation and political reforms, but also severe crisis, including the threat of a civil war around questions of “nations” (ethnic groups) as well as the split of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF): While Abiy last year created the new Prosperity Party (PP), the founding element and main wing within the governing coalition, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), decided to go alone and continue the politics of a repressive ethnic-based federalism. The central question, or puzzle, Terrence Lyons has been wondering about for many years, it seems, is how a small Marxist-Leninist insurgency in the northern edge of the country has managed to organise a successful liberation war against the military junta of the Derg regime (1974–1991) in the first place and, once in power, to forge the ERPDF coalition which is in power since and today claims a membership of 8 million people.

The author is no stranger to the Horn of Africa in general and Ethiopia in particular, to say the least. Terrence Lyons is an associate professor in the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University, Arlington VA, United States. For many years he has been part of the Washington DC political advisor circuit on Africa. Lyon also is a visiting scholar at the Centre for Human Rights, Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia, and a fellow at the Rift Valley Institute, Nairobi, Kenya.[1]

The book is organised in ten chapters. Following the introduction, which takes up the book’s title, chapter 2 deals with the legacies of the war. In chapter 3 the new rules of the game under the ERPDF are described, followed by an analysis of the coalition’s power strategy. In chapter 5 the diverse opposition against the new regime is scrutinized. Chapter 6 highlights the 2005 elections and the closing of political space in its aftermath. In chapter 7 the vision and practices of the developmental state model under the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi (1955–2012) are revisited. Chapters 8 and 9 discuss the popular uprising which have unfolded after 2016 in Oromia State and other regions of the country, and the prospects of political reform under Abiy. Finally, in the conclusions the question of change and continuity is addressed in a more conceptual and comparative politics perspective.

Lyon’s answer to the above-mentioned puzzle is straightforward: It was the TPLF’s ability to create a coherently organised coalition of insurgencies which, first, enabled it to overwhelm the Derg in a cumbersome military struggle and, once the regime was overthrown, second, establish firm control over the country. This was mainly done through building and controlling the ERPDF coalition, based on a huge vanguard party machine along Marxist-Leninist principles and the experience of running its own administration in liberated territories before overthrowing the Derg. As much as the TPLF fought a military regime which was based on Marxist-Leninist principles too, it also thrived for establishing an authoritarian regime within “contradictory logics of centralization and regional autonomy” (p. 209). After 1991 it managed the war-to-peace transition to become a “disciplined and cohesive hierarchical organization” (ibid.), with command-and-control mechanisms from the top to the grassroots. How the TPLF/ERPDF transition from war to peace was managed, is pretty much in line with the generalising argument Steven R. Livitsky and Lucan A. Way developed in their book on Competitive Authoritarianism. [2]

The balance between the two policy principles, Lyons argues, eroded after 2015 just after the ERPDF won all seats in parliamentary elections. The regime produced the very conditions which undermined it. The constituent parts of the ruling coalition – apart from the TPLF these are the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM), the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO) and the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM) – became the breeding ground for increasingly inward-looking and conflictual politics in which autonomy, localized identities and fractious intra-coalition contentious politics ruled the day. Attempts to enlarge the federal territory of the capital Addis Ababa at the cost of the surrounding Oromia federal state sparked widespread violent political conflict. Subsequently, a state of emergency was declared, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn (a technocrat from the Southern Nations region who had taken over from Meles in 2012) had to resign, centrifugal forces of regional states and ethnic groups gained ground, the TPLF lost its control over the coalition – and Abiy, born in Oromia and with a background in intelligence, assumed power (though not control).

From a more conceptual perspective, Lyons suggests that it is worthwhile to pay closer attention to the internal dynamics within strong authoritarian political parties – a point that seems to be supported by developments in Zimbabwe before Robert Mugabe was ousted in November 2017, or in Sudan before Omar al-Bashir was removed in April 2019. The argument may even be relevant for dominant-party states with higher levels of political freedom and civil liberties than Ethiopia, such as South Africa (if you think of the factionalism within the ruling African National Congress and the cabals between Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma on the one hand Zuma and Cyril Ramaphosa on the other). Thus, this book greatly adds to recent scholarship on the history of the TPLF/ERPDF and continued conflict in Ethiopia, but also beyond.[3] This is a very well-researched, systematic and rounded monograph which truly reflects a life-long academic engagement with the country and its political actors.

[1] His most prominent publications are: Demilitarizing Politics: Elections on the Uncertain Road to Peace (Lynne Rienner, 2005), Voting for Peace: Postconflict Elections in Liberia (Brookings Institution, 1999), Strategies for Political Reconstruction (Brookings Institution, 1999) and Somalia: State Collapse, Multilateral Intervention (co-authored with Ahmed Samatar, Brookings Institution, 1995). He also co-edited Politics from Afar: Transnational Diasporas and Networks (Columbia University Press, 2012) and Conflict Management and African Politics: Ripeness, Bargaining, and Mediation (Routledge, 2008).
[2] Steven R. Livitsky and Lucan A. Way, Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes After the Cold War, Cambridge 2010.
[3] See my review of Mulugeta Gebrehiwot Berhe, Laying to Rest the Past. The EPRDF and the Challenges of Ethiopian State-Building, London 2020, in: Comparativ (forthcoming). See also Terje Østebø, Islam, Ethnicity and Conflict in Ethiopia, Cambridge 2020.

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