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date: 13 June 2024

Ethiopia: The Role of the Military in the Political Orderfree

Ethiopia: The Role of the Military in the Political Orderfree

  • Alem KebedeAlem KebedeDepartment of Sociology, California State University, Bakersfield


The history of the military in Ethiopia is a social history. There is no surprise here. Military institutions are social constructs whose structure and functions in each society can only be understood contextually. Because the Ethiopian military has emerged as a relatively independent institution after World War II, its nature, and role in the political order, has been impacted by structural conditions—including the interplay between tradition and modernity, the rise of the middle class, authoritarian culture and political makeup, interethnic tensions, chronic economic problems, and geopolitical conditions. Nevertheless, while being constrained by these factors and processes, the military, like other political actors in the country, has not acted as a passive spectacle; instead, members of the military have played an essential role in the perpetuation and unmaking of political regimes. Within the three administrations that have surfaced during the last nine decades, the role of the Ethiopian military in the political order has ranged from soft to active intervention. However, in all these regimes, military power has invariably undermined people power. The most extreme of all the regimes was the military establishment of 1974–1991. Under this palpably authoritarian government, to the extent that the distinction between military and civilian rule was blurred, the army was involved in politics more than its due share. During the imperial era (1930–1974), on the other hand, the emperor, who cherished his power (with no pretense for democratic governance) more than his outspoken commitment to the idea of progress, made the military subservient to his bidding while forcing it to remain politically indifferent. The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) regime (1991–present) shared similar attributes with the imperial government in its recognition (at least theoretically) of the distinction between military and civilian rule. Here too the military was the strong arm of the incumbent. Despite its fervent claim for political and cultural pluralism, the EPRDF used the military to defend its “democratic” authoritarian interests. The lesson to be learned from this social history of the military is clear: Ethiopia needs a proper military–civil relationship, along with institutional mechanisms that counterweight against the military’s detrimental intervention in political affairs, for it to materialize the potential of its people and create a well-ordered, just society.


  • Contentious Politics and Political Violence

Understanding the role of the military in the Ethiopian political order would be severely impaired if the interplay between the military field, on the one hand, and the Ethiopian society, on the other, is not considered. The character and the flaws of the military in Ethiopia, even when it was superbly powerful enough to put its profound mark on the political landscape, has been shaped by the nature of preexisting governance, prevailing social issues, economic and social processes as well as geopolitical conditions. Under these national and global state of plays, the interaction between tradition and modernity has an important place. Ever since foreign actors individually or collectively, for reasons ranging from intellectual curiosity to political control, set foot in Ethiopia, the country has remained a syncretic society—part traditional, part modern—the latter ever-emerging as important without fully asserting itself. However, in these sociohistorical dynamics, the boundary between the two forces at play has never been set. To the extent that the traditionalists availed themselves of modern instruments, just as the modernists have hardly succeeded in avoiding traditional techniques and belief systems embedded in their sociopolitical sensibility, the distinction between the conventional and the modern has always remained blurred. In addition, the modernists were by no means a monolithic group. Even when they agreed on the same goals concerning the specific techniques of attaining social objectives, the interpretation of historical events, and the selection of up-and-coming nation-states to be emulated, they were not on the same plane.

It is in a broader sociohistorical context (from premodern times to the present) that the role of the military in the history of modern Ethiopia is better appreciated. Like all premodern societies, Ethiopian society remained an undifferentiated whole until it embarked on the course of modernization. Ethiopian peasants, for instance, were multitasking agents who alternated between farming and soldiery with relative ease. The advent of modernity led to a process of differentiation among various institutions, each acting relatively autonomously while being connected to other institutions and subordinate to powerful political forces. After World War II, it was this process of differentiation that allowed the military, as a relatively independent institution, to play an essential role in the history of modern Ethiopia. Despite the military invariably being the strong arm of the state, the way it has played its role in the political order has not been the same. During the three marked periods in the history of modern Ethiopia, the civil–military relation wavered between a state or condition wherein there was a separation between civilian leadership and an apolitical military, to an extreme case of blurred disunion between the military and political leadership. Under Mengistu’s garrison socialism (1974–1991), to the extent that civilian leadership had a wholly subservient position, the military was extremely dominant, buttressing Mengistu’s personalist iron rule for 17 years.

On the other hand, under Haile Selassie’s imperial regime (1930–1974) and later under the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF [1991–present]), the military has been subordinated to civilian rule. However, the way the linkage manifested itself was not the same in both cases. Since the EPRDF came to power as a rebel force, the separation between the military and civilian leadership has been shadowy. This article examines each historical moment separately, starting with the historical background that set the stage for the military’s place in the political order of modern Ethiopia.

Successions of Military Emperors

Before the establishment of a semi-autonomous military order, Ethiopia had military emperors who exercised traditional authority primarily through soldierly prowess. With the advent of modernity, these leaders became military emperors increasingly dependent on imported military technology.

Militant Society

Premodern Ethiopia was a militant society to a reasonable degree. The controlling and instrumental dimensions of militancy extended themselves into virtually every domain of the Ethiopian social fabric. During peace times, the subtle nuances of military ethos that permeate the culture are overtaken by rules intended for normative gains. However, elements of militancy were vividly manifest during times of conflict between nobles or groups or against foreign invaders. Military affair was indeed social affair (Abate, 1981). Often, despite the absence of a standing army, mobilization of an armed force was carried out with relative ease. When the need arose, no one was exempt from participating in war efforts. All nondisabled persons, save for priests, were obligated to respond affirmatively to the call of duty. The military spirit was not the sine qua non for the many battles and wars that the country engaged in during its polychromatic history. However, one thing is certain: Although alternative nonmilitary, traditional mechanisms for resolving conflicts existed, political forces have quickly resorted to militaristic devices when settling differences.

Nowhere are these militant features more apparent than in the succession of leaders who were, in essence, military emperors. Virtually no leader in Ethiopia assumed political position without having a formidable military force capable of exercising its dominance over other competing powers. Social legitimation processes have always been critical (cf. Levine, 2014). Imperial coronations did not happen in the absence of a high priest. Aspiring leaders went out of their way to justify their forthcoming imperial rule through ascriptive biblical lineage, even when they have earned public recognition through their triumphant wartime experiences. No one ruled by force alone. Nevertheless, all things being equal, force was the deciding factor (Levine, 1961). Often one powerful person, by the economic and military resources at his disposal, including the soldiers under him, emerges as an influential political figure to which others willingly or reluctantly submit.

One exception to this historical progression, in which no one among the aspiring military emperors emerged to take power, was the “Era of the Princes,” named after the Book of Judges 21:25: “Every noble was after his vested interest” in the case of the Ethiopian princes of the age.

This rare historical moment (1769–1855) was a period of political anomie in which varied semiautonomous warlords and lesser principalities contended for power, none wholly claiming the throne for almost a century (cf. Abir, 1978). By one count, there were 28 regional leaders involved in the tug of war for supremacy. None of the contending forces, however, declared full sovereignty distinct and apart from Ethiopia; all worked under the umbrella of the Ethiopian Empire and its symbolic significations (Henze, 2000). During these tumultuous years, and in part because of a lack of access to the sea, Ethiopia was hardly impacted by the processes of industrialization underway in Europe (Pankhurst, 2002). The military tactics, dispositions, and instruments used for supremacy were, to no small extent, conspicuously Ethiopic. This process was turned around during the latter part of the 19th century when semi-modern emperors, with their excessively traditional political disposition, assumed power. Upon the change, in addition to its internal problems, the country had to deal with more significant issues related to the emerging international economic and political order.

Semimodern Military Emperors

The first semimodern emperor who had to deal with these matters up front was Emperor Tewodros (1855–1868). Under his rule, after he defeated his rivals for the throne in 1854, effectively ending the Era of the Princes, central authority was restored. Several scholars note that Tewodros was unique among Ethiopian leaders for his zeal for modernization (see, e.g., Crummey, 1969; Rubenson, 1966). To this effect, he attempted to form a national professional army, salaried civil servants, and a less scrounging, reformed church. All these nontraditional reformative efforts meant transcending long-established, hidebound, at best regional politics.

Nevertheless, despite the emperor’s desire to unify the country and take it along a modernist path, his efforts encountered resistance from three primary sources: the church, the local nobility, and the peasantry. By withdrawing its support, the church, to which the emperor denied surplus land, played a significant role in delegitimizing his rule. On the other hand, the nobility, whose traditional power had faded, used their military prowess to frustrate his centralizing and modernizing goals. It was, however, the lack of support from the peasantry that gave a death blow to his regime. He was, in principle, their man; his style of leadership, however, was too harsh to earn their recognition. Consequently, a lack of legitimation made the emperor go on a harsh militaristic rampage against his people, later depriving him of the support he needed during the fight against the British in 1868. With the loss of the battle and his death, his rulership ended.

The demise of Tewodros’s rule did not soften the militant features of premodern Ethiopia. Nonetheless, Emperor Yohannes IV (1872–1889), whose military power was augmented after the British left him a significant amount of ammunition for his support against Tewodros, had a less aggressive approach to dealing with the nobility and the contenders for imperial power (Gebre Sellassie, 1977). Instead of making a concerted effort to weaken the power of the nobility, he granted them a degree of autonomy so long as they operated under his suzerainty. In some instances, the emperor allowed prominent regional leaders to govern their respective provinces with the title of king. Accordingly, his approach gave him room to deal with external enemies, albeit with diminished support from the nobility. Preoccupation with defending the territorial integrity of the country against the Egyptians, the Italians, and the Mahdists of Sudan had the unintended consequence of strengthening militancy in Ethiopia. Furthermore, Yohannes’s multiple confrontations against these foreign forces made him recognize the relevance of organizing the army along Western lines, paving the way for the future military as an independent institution. This process was interrupted when Yohannes, while virtually on the verge of winning the battle, met his Waterloo in Metema during the fight against the Mahdists on March 9, 1889.

After Yohannes’s death, Menelik II ascended to the throne in 1889. Menelik II’s rulership was much different from that of his predecessors, for three reasons (cf. Jonas, 2011; Marcus, 1975; Prouty, 1986; Rubenson, 1976). First, modernization expanded relatively faster than in the previous eras. Second, Ethiopia won a decisive battle against a foreign power, Italy, significantly increasing its international stature. Finally, the Ethiopian Empire expanded considerably. These developments had essential repercussions on the military as a separate institution with a not very visible or pronounced role in the political order. The periphery–center distinction with Addis Ababa, the current capital, as the center, where the throne was stationed, required the development of a professional army to protect the emerging central government. With the nascent central government and its administrative units at different corners of the country, a double-pronged unitary nation-state developed. Although the unitary nation-state tried to put multiple groups under the same umbrella, it also undermined the autonomy and culture of incorporated groups, thereby creating an enduring monist puzzle. The military increasingly became an essential instrument of the state in the futile resolution of social problems. However, despite the drastic changes during Menelik’s era, it was under emperor Haile Selassie (1930–1974) that the process of centralization and its implications for the development of the military as a separate entity, with an implied political role, started to develop steadily (Marcus, 1994). Haile Selassie went far beyond the defensive modernization attempts of his predecessors.

The Military Under the Imperial Regime

Haile Selassie’s imperial regime (1930–1974) has a unique place in the history of Ethiopia. Under him, the military expanded to a significant and qualitative degree (Levine, 1968). It was in his time that the military emerged as a well-organized, depoliticalized, relatively independent institution, yet under the firm control of the emperor.

Military Institution

After he ascended to the throne, Haile Selassie had an excellent reason to embark on establishing a robust military. Before Haile Selassie, to the extent that regional leaders had a leeway to be heard by the one sitting on the throne, decentralized power was the rule rather than the exception. Haile Selassie knew well that it was only by having a robust military institution under his command that he could significantly undermine possible power contenders. Accordingly, using a modern military institution, he was able to bury the Era of the Princes, which his three predecessors failed to accomplish wholly. The very existence of a distinct military institution under his command made the emperor the most powerful political figure in the history of the country. Through laws that disallowed them from collecting taxes and raising their army (Harbeson, 1988; Tegenu, 2007), the imperial regime denied nobles relevant sources of economic capital and military prowess.

Also, one of the remarkable outcomes of the break of the indistinct coexistence between the military and civil institutions was that members of the armed forces, to a degree, were resocialized, increasingly becoming loyal to the nation-state and not to their region of origin. What is more, the military served as an essential modern institution wherein ascription increasingly played a lesser role in social mobility. Loyalty to the regime, along with proper education and manners, was the most critical catalyst in determining one’s position. The formation of a modern military institution had an ironic twist too: It was because of the military that the emperor enjoyed a long political sojourn; meanwhile, the same institution jeopardized his rule, especially at a time when he needed it most.

U.S. Military Assistance

Haile Selassie’s efforts for centralization and the buildup of the military were primarily meant for internal purposes. Nonetheless, there was a set of centripetal factors that facilitated centralization. Foreign actors played an essential role in the making of the modern military in Ethiopia. Norway, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Israel, India, and the United States were the main actors in this process. Nonetheless, it was the United States that played the most essential role in the formation of the Ethiopian military (Henze, 1991; Marcus, 1998). The relationship between the United States and Ethiopia started when, under the stewardship of an American diplomat, Robert P. Skinner, the two countries signed the Treaty of Amity and Commerce in 1903. Gradually, the United States earned the respect and trust of Ethiopians, who perceived U.S. interest in their country as being devoid of strings attached, in contrast to that of the British military administration, which palpably curtailed Ethiopian sovereignty and got in its way regarding achieving economic independence (Pankhurst, 2002).

The first Ethiopian–U.S. diplomatic move occurred when the United States successfully broke the hegemony of the British during the 1950s. The United States had a good reason to ally with Ethiopia too. At a time when the Cold War was hot, the United States had to get the most out of Ethiopia’s strategic position. Before Eritrea became an independent state, Ethiopia was at the crossroads of the Middle East and Africa, making it the subject of geopolitics. The offshoot of the marriage of convenience between the United States and Ethiopia was the signing of the Mutual Defense Assistant Agreement (MDAA), on March 22, 1953. The MDAA played a critical role in the formation of the modern Ethiopian army. The agreement commissioned the United States to develop, train, and equip the Ethiopian military. The United States was in turn allowed to use Radio Marina, later renamed Kagnew Station, a communications facility initially set up by the Italians.

As a result of the relationship between the two countries, Ethiopia became the highest recipient of military aid in Africa. In just two decades (1950–1970), Ethiopia received more than the total military assistance given to other African nation-states (Agyeman-Duah, 1986). The military assistant also offered the opportunity for 4,000 Ethiopian soldiers to be trained in the United States, the future dictator of Ethiopia, Mengistu Haile Mariam, being one of them. It was during this time that the Ethiopian military established itself as an independent institution, although subservient to the emperor. By the early 1970s, with its 40,000 well-trained soldiers, Ethiopia had the strongest army in the Horn of Africa. The modernization of the Ethiopian military in turn increased Ethiopia’s international stature. It participated in two UN-sponsored operations: in Korea in 1951 and in the Congo in 1960. These global operations played an essential part in the politicization of the army (Abate, 1981). Ethiopia was also able to defend itself against Somalia, which, despite the Organization of African Unity’s emphasis on the sanctity of existing borders, adhered to an irredentist policy. Finally, one of the outcomes of the relationship was that the imperial establishment, with its heavy-handed military operation, was able to hold back the Eritrean liberation movement that began in 1962.

The 1960 Coup

By the 1960s, Haile Selassie’s efforts to modernize the country while also protecting his imperial vested interests, using the newly organized professional army, opened a Pandora’s box. A growing number of individuals who worked for the regime started to perceive the government as a political anomaly working against the revered features of the country. Perceptions and the will to change, reinforced by the emperor’s grandiose self-definition of himself as the grand reformer, yet sincerely traditional (Levine, 2014)—and with no alternative charismatic figure in sight—turned into action on December 13, 1960. The emperor was out of the country for a state visit to Brazil. In an ironic twist, at the center of the rebellion was the Imperial Bodyguard, the very military body that was meant to defend the throne. What made the actions of the guard paradoxical was the fact that the emperor gave its members special treatment.

The principal architects of the rebellion were two brothers, Germame Neway, a graduate of Colombia University with a stint as a sub-governor at two subprovinces, and Brigadier General Mengistu Neway, commander of the Imperial Bodyguard. The two brothers also had the backing of Colonel Workenah Gebeyahu, chief of Security, and Brigadier General Tsige Dibu, police commissioner. The plotters also had the support of intellectuals who were eager to see a new order that they believed would prevail over the apparent contradiction between the country’s long history of independence and the state of it having made less progress relative to other African countries (Greenfield, 1965). Indeed, the rebellion was a novel digression from previous attempts to challenge the emperor (Tareke, 2009) but was by no means a social revolution by design, but not because it was short-lived—four days total. In their proclamations to the public, for which they got the support of college students, the rebels noted the inauguration of a “new era” under the leadership of the crown prince. The new, ambitious project would address the economic ills of the country and take it along a path of rapid progress. Thus, by all indications, the 1960 coup was conjectural. It focused on replacing the emperor’s retainers with another set of leaders committed to modernization and liberal principles, without abolishing the imperial order in toto (Clapham, 1968). Structural changes entailing major political, economic, and social transformation had to wait for almost a decade and a half.

Despite the plotters’ restrained view of social transformation, the coup failed abruptly.

Its failure, in large part, was because the leaders embarked on a political venture without adequately gauging the social climate of their country (Bekele, 1993) and because of inadequate preparation on how to organizationally outflank the loyalists. The leaders thought a simple excision of the political order would bring them support from the populace. Thus, higher goals would be attained readily. However, this did not occur although the leaders of the movement took sharp-witted actions that could have allowed them to reinforce their emerging power (Zewde, 1998). Their clandestine efforts seem to suggest (although not constituting the only reason to do so) that they operated under the assumption that their action would jump-start a process, eventually leading to across-the-board collective action. The rebels had good arguments for just political order, but they imagined a lack in legitimation at a time when recognition was too limited to galvanize an all-out rebellion. Their perception was hardly consistent with the accepted normative definition of the situation. All the same, although the coup failed in dislodging the emperor, it acted, as often described, as a dress rehearsal for the forthcoming revolt. It indeed paved the way for the 1974 “creeping coup” (Legum, 1975) that made Haile Selassie the last military emperor of Ethiopia.

The Last Military Emperor

Despite all its modernist accomplishments, Haile Selassie’s imperial regime was not a fully rational-legal, or bureaucratic, actor. The modernization changes that were taken up by Haile Selassie turned the political system into a halfway house, somewhere between the traditional order and the emerging modern era (Markakis, 1974). In principle, the regime was willing to undertake economic changes—and it did produce some remarkable outcomes. Still, it lacked the appropriate capital to make extensive changes and the will to restructure the feudal socioeconomic order thoroughly.

Requisite political changes were indefinitely postponed (Harbeson, 1988; Tareke, 1996). The first set of reforms, as outlined, prevented primarily interdicted traditional forces from becoming a contending power. Through the processes of centralization, the political gravitas of these traditional forces waned slowly but surely. The traditional forces remaining visibility was merely symbolic and was too weak to defy the political power of the emperor in any profound way. Nor were its leaders strong enough to be allies of the imperial regime when it was under social and political strain.

However, modern forces were not weighty enough to challenge the regime successfully, for all social venues that could have allowed them to mobilize their constituencies or articulate their political goals were not open. The near-ubiquitous security apparatus prevented grievances within the private domain from coalescing into organized collective action. At the same time, the institutional branches of the imperial regime were too weak to deliver political goods to its citizenry, and most importantly, its economic policies hardly responded meritoriously to the financial demands of the emerging middle class and the public at large.

The crisis in leadership during the 1970s would have remained just at the structural level, without letting the collective flame palpably become part of the public transcript, if it were not for the involvement of agents within the educational and military institutions that the imperial regime gave birth to and nurtured. Whereas the educational institutions were a seat for a set of intellectuals, who later turned into movement intellectuals of the 1974 revolution, the military institutions included agents who were willing to try change with the advantage of preexisting organization and instruments of violence at their disposal. These agents, along with self-exiled intellectuals who returned from Europe and the United States, formed a triad political group that critically determined the first course of the revolution. Unlike members of the imperial regime, who were half traditional and half modern, these groups were decidedly modernist, at least in the public pronunciation of their terms. With no regard for their own culture, the West was wholly the source of their ideology.

They made no effort to blend the traditional and the modern. Nonetheless, the manner in which movement intellectuals dealt with one another was straight out of the Ethiopian authoritarian playbook. They preferred to be engaged in a zero-sum game with no room for negotiation and productive political discourse. Participants were not treated as fellow citizens, but as political others deserving removal from the political landscape. All the same, before they dealt with one another, they made a concerted effort in turning Haile Selassie into the last military emperor of Ethiopia, thereby paving the way for the first “republican” military dictator.

The Military Under the Derg

Under the Derg regime (1974–1991), the military expanded exponentially, turning it into the most behemoth military institution in sub-Saharan Africa except for South Africa. By the time the military regime collapsed in 1991, there were 38 divisions, up from 4 under the imperial regime (Ayele, 2014). With the Derg, Ethiopia turned into a modern-day militant society disgorging endless bellicose language; mind-numbing propaganda; schemas of political categorization (us vs. them); and futile social, economic, and military policies and practices.

The Military Council

Claiming that it has transformed itself from a politically indifferent entity into a group-for-itself destined to transform Ethiopia for good, the military played a significant role in the political order like no other in the history of the country. What made this dramatic change even more extravagant was that not only did it ruthlessly eliminate potential rivals, using the instruments of violence and preexisting organizational framework, but also Mengistu, exercising a personalist rule, erased the line between party, state, and the military institution. Besides, the government directed its efforts and resources toward destroying groups with an alternative vision after labeling them as “enemies of the people and the Revolution.” In this state-sanctioned existential war carried out in the name of saving the country from disintegration, up to 54% of government expenditure was spent on the military, resulting in a 10-fold increase of international debt between 1974 and 1988 (Marcus, 1994). The profligate outlay on a blocked zone of society, along with ill-devised social, chiefly agricultural, policies undermined the economy significantly, leading to a devasting famine that claimed the lives of more than 1 million people (De Waal, 1991). Despite all these problems, the regime stuck to an aggressive approach to solving problems—as the saying goes, expecting different results while adhering to the same stratagem. The more militarism was applied, the more the regime viewed militarism as a panacea to political challenges.

None of these dystopic outcomes was what the Ethiopian people sought when they (mostly urbanites [Tiruneh, 1993]) enthusiastically championed the 1974 revolution (Chege, 1979; Haile-Selassie, 1997), the first spark of which came off at the most inchoate part of the country on January 12. Non-commissioned officers in Negelle Borena, a semiarid region located in the southern part of Ethiopia, rebelled against their officers, later detaining General Deresse Dubale, the commander of the ground forces, who approached them as the emperor’s envoy. The cause of their revolt was wholly apolitical, though their actions and the emperor’s passive reaction had significant political implications. The rebels demanded a better living condition, but their action served as a slow-burning fuse leading to an unimagined social explosion—but not one bang followed by a long quiet moment. The military, which had hitherto denied participating in political processes, was engaged in a set of political actions, one following another, each setting the stage for a much more significant action. First, the Negelle Borena spark was picked by the air force, stationed just 40 kilometers away from the center, followed by a much broader demand posed by the Second Division located in Eritrea, prompting the first historic resignation of the prime minister. Next, the Fourth Division, located in the capital, took a much bigger action: They arrested the emperor’s cabinet members.

Civil–Military Coalition

At this point, civilians joined the movement. Students, who had been a thorn in the side of the imperial regime (cf. Balsvik, 2005), demonstrated against the suggested sector review, which they perceived as a destroyer of education and future careers; taxi drivers objected to the increasing price of gasoline. Even the clergy, who, because of their normative position, were expected to sit on the fence, joined the movement. What is more, Muslims, who were deeply aggrieved because of religious discrimination but had remained silent for quite a long time, staged the most dramatic demonstration in the history of modern Ethiopia.

Various collective actions were adding up to push the military to move in the direction of the emperor. While all these were happening, Haile Selassie was literally and figuratively alone. He was in a catatonic mood, doing nothing save acquiescing to the increasing demands of the populace and the military. Perhaps he knew too well that this time the movement arc could not be halted as it was qualitatively different from the ones that he had dealt with cunningly in the past, or old age hampered him from acting effectively. Furthermore, by giving him the false impression that he was outside the political fold, the military reduced him to a powerless monarch.

More than anything, what prompted the military for radical action was the diagnostic and projective framings provided by movement intellectuals (Kebede, 2010). Through their diagnostic framing, politically active academics delivered an incisive analysis of the imperial regime, highlighting the drought and famine that had claimed the lives of thousands of peasants in the north. On the other hand, by way of a projective framing, they painted an optimistic picture of the forthcoming well-ordered society that would put the country on the path of progress. On top of that, the emperor had created the problem of what Max Weber (1978) called “crisis in the ritualization of charisma”—he made himself the lone charismatic figure at the expense of potential leaders. Thus, although deeply rankled by developments, the emperor’s cadre of loyalists lacked organizational leadership to extricate themselves from the predicament they were in (Tareke, 2009). Events and the emperor’s prior actions had turned them into passive agents while the status quo was falling apart precipitously before their eyes. On the day after the Ethiopian new year, September 12, 1974, the emperor lost power. That day took place without a legitimation crisis running its course at a national level. Haile Selassie became the last monarch largely because the nay-sayers had organizationally outflanked the loyalists and the emperor. Most Ethiopians, especially outside urban centers, were too preoccupied with their day-to-day lives to respond to events meaningfully.

Soon after, to be perceived as a legitimate force determined to transform the country, the military junta selected a highly respected military officer as the chairman of the Provisional Military Administrative Council (Derg in Amharic). General Aman Mikael Andom was the charismatic figure who represented the feelings and aspirations of the Ethiopian people. During his first weeks in power, he acted in good faith. However, he was the right person under a demanding set of circumstances. He was working with a group of officers who were not only determined to set the stage but also to direct the course of the collective action in their terms. General Aman had a different take on how to address political changes in the country. Mostly, his views were at variance with the Derg’s aggressive approach to, among other things, the long-standing yet publicly unacknowledged Eritrean problem. He preferred a peaceful resolution that would restore the previous federal arrangement between Ethiopia and Eritrea while Ethiopia’s sovereignty was maintained. Nor was he interested in extrajudicial measures against political prisoners; he was in favor of due process. Finally, for him, the military council was too cumbersome to play an active role. He wanted to have a small-scale committee with the role of the chairperson identified; the idea of being a nominal head of state with no real power was antithetical to his style of leadership (Zewde, 1998). Once he knew that he could not resolve the issue within the military council, the general made a last-ditch effort to garner support outside the Derg. His actions were in vain.

The Terrorist Military State

What followed was unorthodoxy of gigantic proportions. Catching the public by surprise and putting aside its motto of “revolution without bloodshed,” the military council reacted irrationally and excessively to Aman’s distinct perspective and lone efforts to direct the revolution. This move was not the first time that the council responded violently, however. The emerging military regime crushed army engineers, who supported the idea of a civilian rule. On November 23, 1974, he—along with two members of the military council and 57 high-ranking personnel of the imperial era, 18 of whom were military generals—was killed. This momentous event opened the floodgates to bloodshed and political repression unprecedented in the history of the country. Among the first set of victims were political actors from Oromo and Tigray ethnic groups. This action, and the Council’s distaste for political tolerance and rigid unitary position on inter-ethnic relations, triggered a set of ethnic-centered political organizations that seriously challenged the military regime, ultimately causing its demise.

However, its downfall was not to come any time soon. It had to go through many destructive moments. In an intrapower struggle, Brigadier General Teferi Banti, the Provisional Military Administrative Council (PMAC) chairman who replaced Aman, was killed on February 3, 1977. His death was followed by that of Atnafu Abate, the second vice chairman of the PMAC, on November 12, 1977. The most dramatic among these destructive moments was the Red Terror of 1976–1978. During this great time, an estimated 50,000 individuals died; thousands more were subject to torture; and extra-judicial detentions were pervasive. Urban centers—where the terror mostly took place—became large-scale “heterotopic spaces,” to use Michel Foucault’s term (1967, p. 25), in which traditional rules were dropped, and actions that ran sharply athwart of long-standing normative practices were rampant. Parents who lost their children were not allowed to bury their children; the perpetrators of the terrorism asked them to pay for the bullets used to kill their loved ones; they left corpses on the streets for display; and self-incriminating confession sessions in which relatives, friends, and neighbors denounced one another prevailed.

Furthermore, all these did not occur in faraway, inaccessible, removed places. Most of these tragicomic spectacles happened in the newly formed kebeles, neighborhood urban organizational centers heavily attached to the regime of truth and activities of the military establishment. Far from acting as meso-level associations counteracting the excesses of the political apparatus, the kebeles served as essential instruments of surveillance and domination (Wiebel, 2015), playing a critical role in the reduction of citizens into permanent subjugated others. Fetishizing violence to the utmost degree, active agents within the kebeles gravely undermined the Ethiopian patriotic spirit and the will to rise. Many Ethiopians, as a result, were forced to retreat into private domains, where they mourned without closure and avoided politics as a harmful activity.

The irony here is that the 1976–1978 policide was a manifestation of a political family feud—all parties involved worked under the umbrella of Marxist-Leninist ideology (Tareke, 2008). The terror was initiated and executed by three prominent political organizations of the time: the Military Council’s Revolutionary Flame, the All Ethiopia Socialist Movement (mostly known by its Amharic acronym, Meison), and the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP). In the first triad dynamics, the first two worked in concert, and they successfully removed the EPRP out of the urban political landscape. Later it was Meison’s turn to bear the brunt.

Militaristic Personalist Rule

Once the Derg crushed its formidable antagonists, it had to redefine its foreign policy. Realignment was a natural outcome of the military’s definition of the situation. Because the council viewed the country’s problems and possible solutions through the lens of “scientific socialism,” it would have been inconsistent to ally with the wrong international forces (Patman 1990; Schwab, 1978). The United States was thus left out of the equation. To fulfill its “destiny,” the military had to get in bed with the Soviets. Nevertheless, there was another significant and apparent reason for the dramatic move. The military regime desperately needed a necessary supply of weapons to defend the country from internal and external enemies. Failing to do so would have jeopardized its fledgling legitimation. Nevertheless, cutting the relationship with the United States and forging a new one with the Soviets was not as easy as one-two-three.

Three years passed before the diplomatic rumbling came to an end, with the military unambiguously switching to the Soviet Bloc (Korn, 1986).

One of the outcomes of the pragmatic move to the East was that Colonel Mengistu was able to get the essential military assistance that he sought to consolidate the military regime and hence his rule. However, excessive both reliance on foreign powers and dictatorship were antithetical to the precepts of the revolution. The revolution was turning into a revolution from above (Donham, 1999; Halliday & Molyneux, 1981). On February 3, 1977, Mengistu, after quickly acting, to his advantage, against the restructuring of the Military Council that would have moderated his power, asserted himself as the undisputed leader of the military junta. He rose to the apex of political power, with no challenger in sight once he got rid of seven members of the Derg whom he thought were bent on impairing his political status. Shortly thereafter, the Soviets were quick to recognize Mengistu’s victory, and he responded to their acknowledgment by erasing all essential marks of American presence in Ethiopia. Ethiopia became part of the Eastern Bloc without equivocation, with Mengistu as the grand Leninist leader.

In the meantime, the Somalis had decided to get the most out of Ethiopia’s precarious revolutionary condition. They assumed that, because Ethiopia was in the fight against the Eritrean rebels in the north and had not yet put its administrative structure in proper order, they could get a comfortable win against the Ethiopian army. This time they were right, although not for long. They were able to capture a significant part of Ogaden within a matter of weeks. Fortunately for the Ethiopians, and unfortunately for the Somalis, the Soviets took a clear stand on the war between the two countries. Using a large part of their airlifting capacity (an estimated 15%), the Soviets transported $1 billion of weapons (Korn, 1986). What is more, 15,000 Cubans arrived in Ethiopia as part of international solidarity to reinforce the Ethiopian revolution. The Ethiopian army, accordingly, won the war against the Somalian armed forces decisively, and Mengistu strengthened his absolute position yet again.

Militarized “Solutions.”

Consequently, the Military Council got international recognition from the Socialist Bloc, and the war effort also galvanized many Ethiopians working alongside the government. However, it was not over for the military regime, which had to deal with the northern rebels, especially the Eritrean liberation fronts. Adhering to its misconstrued conception of getting rid of its enemies once and for all, conflating the northern problem with the eastern issue, and wrongly assuming that having a large army and better equipment would easily translate into a strategic advantage, it embarked on a long quandary from which it could not extricate itself successfully. In retrospect, General Aman’s proposition—in which Ethiopia would maintain its full sovereignty while Eritrea administered its citizens autonomously—was a happy medium, particularly for Ethiopia. What members of the Military Council did not want to acknowledge was that the Eritrean rebels were not a group of banditry, as the government pejoratively referred to them. Rather, they were tenacious fighters determined to achieve their objective, even at a hefty price. They were outnumbered by the Ethiopian armed forces and overpowered by imported military technology. Nevertheless, they kept their casualties to a minimum while outmaneuvering and frustrating the government’s army, as well as incurring a good deal of damage to it.

Often the military’s response to the rebels’ small insurgence was a reactive and destructive big retaliation, the local people being on the receiving end of the army’s wrath. The military acted more like an occupation army than its pretentious title, the Revolutionary Liberating Army would suggest. To the extent that they threw their support to the rebels, the military treated the locals as though they were permanent outsiders deserving suspicious treatment. Some generals used to say that their interest in Eritrea had to do with land, and not the people occupying it. Not surprisingly, many joined the Eritrean liberation fronts willingly, whereas the Ethiopian army was increasingly dependent on conscripts. As the war dragged on, not only the military but the Ethiopian people, who had indefinitely sacrificed their sons and daughters as well as their meager assets, became war weary. Moreover, the Military Council knew no cost-benefit analysis.

Also, the relationship between the Soviets and the Ethiopian government was a blessing in disguise for the Eritrean rebels. They captured much of their weaponry from the Ethiopian army. Furthermore, where the Ethiopians had uncritically adopted Soviet-style dual command in which both political commissars and military commanders play a role in military operations, the former often acting as superiors, the Eritrean rebels had a highly cohesive, centralized, and single-minded leadership. All the significant defeats that the military government suffered in the hands of EPLF (Nakfa, Summer 1979; Afabet, March 17–20, 1988; Massawa, February 11, 1990) were manifestations of poorly administered social order.

What made the northern debacle much more combustible was that the Eritreans were not alone in their challenge against the military regime. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) was there, working in concert with the EPLF, thwarting the regime’s efforts to deal with the Eritrean problem militarily (Young, 1997). The Military Council underestimated the TPLF until it rose to prominence during the 1980s. Its approach was to first capture and kill the bigger fish (EPLF) and then deal with the lesser ones, TPLF being one of them. As the government relentlessly attacked the EPLF, the TPLF was temporarily left alone. Using the hiatus, the TPLF reorganized and expanded itself ultimately—after a series of fights against the army—becoming a battle-hardened formidable force. In this, the TPLF was getting indirect help from the military. The army served as a recruiting force on behalf of the rebels because it hurt the very people that it was supposed to protect. In June 1988, for instance, the Ethiopian air force bombarded a marketplace in Hawzen, located in the eastern part of Tigray, killing more than 2,500 civilians. TPLF was thus able to garner the support of many residents of Tigray. By the late 1980s, the TPLF, with its highly disciplined and dedicated peasant army and cohesive leadership, was so powerful that it was able to achieve significant victories against the military government. The most notable one was the victory at the Battle of Shire, a western district in Tigray, held between December 28 and February 19, 1989. One of the most significant ramifications of the victory was that it forced the Ethiopian military to abandon the province of Tigray, making it a de facto self-governed region as a result of which, among other things, the military government had no access to Eritrea by land. The end of the military government was in sight.

The 1989 Coup

After the northern rebels gave a series of blows to the military regime, Mengistu and his government’s ersatz image was punctured. Mengistu was no more a leader who, despite his goodwill, failed to deliver. Instead, in the eyes of many people, he was a scofflaw president with no regard for the rule of law and national interest, and responsible for the military defeats in the north. Nonetheless, except for the insurgents in the north and other parts of the country, there were no potent organized groups that could unsettle the military regime. At long last, the defiance came from the military. In 1989, a group of high-ranking military officers (including the chief of staff of the armed forces, the commander of the air force, the police chief, and the commander of the 2nd Revolutionary Army) who “crossed the Rubicon” because of Mengistu’s disastrous leadership and the hapless war endlessly perpetuated by his administration, revolted against him (cf. Zewde, 1998).

The 1989 coup had all the pointers of a potentially triumphant patch: It happened under a state of condition in which the public lost faith in the military regime. The plotters had four years to work on their plan. It was planned by well-respected officers, with a position at critical administrative and military posts. A significant number of the military were tired of the never-ending war and profoundly disenchanted by Mengistu’s leadership. Most importantly, the plotters were not acting in the abstract—they had a battalion ready to act against those who stood on their way.

Despite those favorable conditions, the near-successful coup failed. The reasons were clear. The coup-setters were highly skilled and experienced, yet they were overconfident: For instance, they held a meeting at a place where they could not escape an attack, and their communication network was quickly disrupted, with almost no escape route. They were at highly administrative positions, yet they failed to outmaneuver the loyalists of the very government they were dismantling. Key political figures, who had a vested interest in maintaining the status quo were not neutralized. They had an army to use, yet they underestimated Mengistu’s pretorian guard. They knew too well that the Ethiopian people were tired of the Mengistu regime. Nevertheless, they did not mobilize the populace for critical support. Like the 1960 plotters before them, they merely assumed that there would be a root-and-branch rejection of the regime once the public knew about the coup. Most importantly, they were fully cognizant that Mengistu has turned into a powerful military “republican” emperor, who would act with a hellish vengeance if he was allowed a comeback. Nevertheless, they had no clear plan on what to do with him. They entertained the bizarre thought of shooting down the airplane carrying him (along with innocent civilians boarding) on his way to East Germany.

The End of Military Socialism

The coup failed, but it surely sounded the last trumpet over the soon-to-come doom. Upon return from East Germany, Mengistu engaged in a slash-and-burn rampage. Twenty-eight military generals who participated in the failed coup lost their lives, and many more were imprisoned or cashiered (Ayele, 2014). Among the dead were General Demissie Bulto, commander of the 2nd Revolutionary Army; Major General Hailu GabreMichael, head of the army ground forces; former police chief Major General Worku Zewde; chief of staff of the armed forces, Major General Merid Negusie; Industry Minister Fanta Belai, former commander of the Air Force; and Major General Amha Desta, commander of the air force. By doing so, Mengistu was able to prolong his era.

Nevertheless, he was also acting like an antibody against his regime. By eliminating critical military figures, he aggravated the leadership crisis that the army suffered for quite some time (Ayele, 2014). The already low morale among soldiers deepened, although some vigorously defended his rule. He further alienated many more Ethiopians. Meanwhile, the TPLF, with its extraordinarily disciplined and highly motivated force, was moving fast toward the center. This time it had the support of other political organizations as well; a coalition of groups (including the Ethiopian Democratic Movement, the Oromo Democratic Movement) had formed the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Front (EPRDF).

The Soviets also refused Mengistu to supply him with the weaponry he desperately needed. A last-ditch effort, involving the EPRDF, EPLF, OLF, and Derg, was made to resolve the crisis peacefully. It did not work. Mengistu was a maximalist in force deployment and a minimalist in negotiation. The negotiations, made halfheartedly, mostly came because of the government’s teetering position. On May 21, 1991, Mengistu—the man who repeatedly invoked the heroic deed of Emperor Tewodros, suggesting that he might follow his example by taking a bullet rather than surrendering to the enemy, preached to the Ethiopian people that they needed to “fight ’til the last man”—fled the country, putting an end to his 17 years “republican” military emperorship. With Mengistu, the question has never been “to be or not to be.” He has always maneuvered to stay longer in power through quantitative military means.

The Military Under the EPRDF

With the EPRDF, the place of the military in modern Ethiopia came full circle. After a prolonged and catastrophic control of the military and society at large under the military regime, EPRDF reintroduced the process of civilian control of the military akin to the imperial regime. Gradually, however, the very army that sacrificed a lot to liberate Ethiopians from the harsh rule of the military regime was used to defend the organizational interest of the EPRDF and the personalist rule of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.

Transitional Government

The transitional government (TG) formed after the fall of the Military Council set a clear boundary, albeit theoretically, between civilian and military authorities. However, a good number of prominent political figures in the new administration had significant military experience during the armed struggle against the Mengistu regime. Having cultural and political pluralism as its underlying principle, the transitional government undertook well-meaning practical measures intended to create a democratic order under which the military is subservient to civilian authority, and the former is engaged in apolitical functions.

To this effect and to consolidate power, the first order of business of the TG involved demobilizing both former soldiers and guerrilla fighters (Lyons, 2019). Nonetheless, its attitude toward soldiers who served under the military regime was reductionist and eliminative. The demobilization of the former military was thorough, with no regard to the military training and experience, wish, and personal beliefs of the ex-soldiers. These soldiers were hardly reintegrated into the national army. It seemed that the EPRDF did not want to see any military group that might jeopardize its rule in any way. There was none indeed save for the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) with its army wing. Because of the OLF’s diminishing role and the EPRDF’s strong desire to augment the political position of its member party, the Oromo Peoples Democratic Organization (OPDO)—made up of war prisoners—despite grassroots mobilization far outpacing the OLF, the latter’s stay in the coalition was short-lived. As in the past, here too the disagreement between the two organizations was settled by force. The EPRDF easily outflanked the OLF. The OLF was no match to the highly organized, well-funded, and militarily weighty EPRDF with new access to government resources. Shortly, the OLF was pushed out of the Ethiopian political landscape, leaving the EPRDF the political party with total control of the army.

Henceforth, the distinction between the military and the civilian rule was in name only. The army was not directly involved in politics. Nevertheless, its position, when disagreements between political parties arise or challengers come to the forefront against government policies, was not hard to figure out. The army’s apolitical stance was political posture by seemingly neutral means. The military’s posture became much more discernable after the Ethiopia-Eritrea war.

Indeed, the EPRDF reversed its position on the distinction between civilian rule and the military once the PM started to exercise a personalist rule after the most devastating 1998–2000 war in the Horn of Africa. There were multiple reasons for the war: disagreement over currency, rivalry over regional hegemony, a dispute over undemarcated territory (Negash & Tronvoll, 2000). Also, the rush to judgment, together with the will to display military prowess irrespective of the consequences that war might bring, added fuel to the problem. The uncompromising and no-prisoners approach on the part of the two contending parties, with the support of their respective populations, led to a disaster of titanic proportions. An estimated 100,000 Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers died. Over half a million people were displaced. More than 200,000 troops have been deployed along the border since the war erupted in 1998. The cost of maintaining these arrayed troops in the continent’s heavily militarized zone is not hard to imagine. It led to the ballooning of the national debt and decelerating the economy to a significant degree in both countries. The war pressed Eritrea and Ethiopia to shelve critical economic priorities.

The war had grossly taxing political implications as well. Unfortunately, the two prominent political figures, Meles Zenawi and Isaias Afewerki of Eritrea, at the time considered by some as Africa’s promising new-blood leaders, were able to crush their challengers and impose their personalist rule in their respective countries through their successful control of the military and their security apparatuses. In Ethiopia, prominent figures, such as Seye Abrha, the former defense minister, were sent to prison under false corruption charges; and Major General Abebe Teklehaimanot, commander of the air force, Major General Tsadkan Gebretensay, the chief of staff, and Gebru Asrat, president of the Tigray region, were removed from their army and administrative positions for refusing to align themselves with dogged authoritarianism.

“Democratic” Authoritarianism

in 2005, Ethiopia had a historic opportunity to correct past mistakes and pave the way for a genuinely democratic order. Nevertheless, the aggressive approach of the EPRDF to everything political turned it into naught. The 2005 parliamentary elections had all the marks of democratic practice: Participation in the electoral process was very high, and a robust dialogue between varied political groups had preceded it; voter turnout was very high in large part because voters had meaningful, and the incumbent was willing to allow broader political participation (Smith, 2007). The election outcomes were also much different from previous elections, when the EPRDF was winning parliamentary seats almost uncontested (Lyons, 2019). In this election, the opposition increased its seats from 12 to 172 (31% of 547 seats). While all this was happening, the military stayed in the background. All the same, disagreements arose over the results. EPRDF leaders could not see their challengers having an increasing significance in the political order, let alone losing power to groups that they saw as free-riding politicians who were bent on seizing power through the electoral bypass. It was apparent from these actions that EPRDF leaders advocated in favor of inclusive political space not primarily because of their desire to bring change, but because they misread the political situation currently in the country. They were erroneously overoptimistic over election results. In addition to underestimating their challengers, they assumed that they were too well regarded to lose the election. Negotiations between the two groups to resolve the disagreement on election outcomes were to no avail. The EPRDF predictably resorted to force. Using both legal and extralegal means, it worked hard to undermine the opposition.

Consequently, demonstrations on behalf of the opposition met a violent crackdown, leading to the deaths of 192 people, and more than 30,000 people (perhaps a record), along with prominent figures of the opposition, were sent to prison.

Soon after, the criminalization of dissent intensified (Arriola & Lyons, 2016; Mengesha, 2016), and the military, as in the previous regimes, became conspicuously an extended arm of the EPRDF engaged in quieting resistance. Henceforward, the EPRDF exercised what would be called “democratic” authoritarianism. It used seemingly democratic means to assert its authoritarian rule. Unlike the Derg regime, which practiced one-party rule, outrightly disregarding democratic processes in the name of protecting the territorial integrity of the country and the revolution, the EPRDF regime has been much more vigilant in its approach. It held elections, but the outcomes were predetermined. In an ethnically diverse country where there are a host of political groups with different programs, in 2010 the EPRDF won by 95%; in 2015, it won 100% of the seats (Arriola & Lyons, 2016). Elections were an instrument of political “othering” rather than dramatic political moments when people express their will. What is more, capitalizing on its incumbent advantage, the EPRDF subordinated the courts to its will. The courts functioned to frustrate the opposition rather than acting as neutral bodies to resolve disputes. More than anything, the EPRDF was bent on undermining media and civil society institutions. In 2009, the government came up with the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, which, through its sweeping definition of terrorism, criminalized every form of dissent. The 2010 Charities and Societies Proclamation, on the other hand, was by design made to sap the little social energy left out of civil society organizations. One of the provisions of this proclamation stated that not more than 5% of the budget of a civil society organization could come from foreign entities. The intent behind the law was not hard to fathom. Not only did it deprive civil societies of essential resources, but it was also meant to turn civil society organizations into conveyor belts of the government.

Militaristic Interventions and Political Crisis

All these tactics of repressing dissent did prolong the EPRDF’s era but could not stamp out the opposition in toto. Instead, the political crisis was deepening by the day. Before it declared a six-month state of emergency on October 9, 2016 (later extended for another four months), the EPRDF tried to abate the legitimation crisis it was experiencing by directing its efforts on multiple fronts. One such endeavor focused on aggressively expanding party membership.

Within a decade (2005–2015), party membership grew by almost 7 million (Arriola & Lyons, 2016). The problem was, first, that newly recruited members joined the party to share the spoils and get access to government positions with relative ease, and not because of their will to be an active agency in the political process. Second, the EPRDF attempted to reinforce its legitimation through its state-centered commitment to economic growth. This effort had mixed results. Certainly, noteworthy economic changes have taken place under the EPRDF. Since 2005, the economy has grown 10% a year for over a decade (government report, Cited in World Bank, 2019); between 1991 and 2017, capital has increased from $270 to $767 (World Bank, 2019); schools and universities as well as clinics and hospitals have grown phenomenally; roads also have been built extensively; and Addis Ababa, once an extended village, has turned into a metropolis (Ottaway, 2019). All these changes would have been even more remarkable had the population not grown at a Malthusian geometric progression.

Nevertheless, although a good number of people benefited from the changes, there were also many others who were left out. As the economy expanded, the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few has increased drastically. Many, as a result, are within the realm of the underclass. In addition, the EPRDF’s militaristic-type, state-centered approach to development treated citizens like citizen-subjects who have no choice but to be directed and materialize the policies of the government. Rewards, accordingly, were based on the degree of loyalty citizen-subjects show to the government. The government’s “go-big” approach did not help either. Large projects—such as the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, Africa’s biggest biopower plant—were intended to impress as well as to address wide-ranging economic problems by way of large-scale schemes, which are often extraordinarily expensive and subject to corruption. Finally, the ERDF’s effort to avoid an impending doom was correlated with foreign relations. This exercise again worked to a certain degree. The EPRDF’s cooperation against terrorism at the global front has earned it an essential place within the geopolitical domain (Smith, 2007). However, as necessary as the government’s enhanced global stature may be in reinforcing legitimacy, it did not help much to alleviate internal problems.

By and large, during the long rule of the EPRDF, there has always been an apparent contradiction between the incumbent’s efforts for legitimation via rapid economic growth and a cultural pluralist paradigm (with some success), on the one hand, and the utilization of the militarized federal police, the army, and especially the security forces, to undermine political pluralism, on the other. As the violent crackdowns intensified, the government took the path of unadulterated authoritarianism without a seemingly democratic ploy. It was the failure to resolve this contradiction that led to what EPRDF leaders themselves dubbed “deep reform” after multiple collective pushes were made both from within and outside the country between 2016 and 2018.

“Deep Reform”: Beyond Militarized Politics

Finally, after Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, Meles Zenawi’s successor, resigned, Abiy Ahmed Ali, a PhD with a military background, holding the rank of colonel, was elected as prime minister. After he provided an overarching restorative narrative in his first impassioned speech, his government made remarkable changes, including freeing political prisoners, reconciling with neighboring Eritrea, and enacting measures of democratic reform that could widen the political arena. These changes could have arrived at a much earlier time had the influential figures within the EPRDF were willing to suspend a militaristic view of challengers early on.

Most importantly, though, extraordinary as these changes are, they are also punctuated by perilous problems that need critical attention. Of these problems, perhaps the most important one is the essentialist ethnic paradigm undercurrent among groups who, to the extent of othering outgroups, defend cultural pluralism zealously manifesting all the marks of a militant society. The current leaders, (former enablers of the “democratic” authoritarian order) consistent with their assiduously drilled presentational skills, speak the language of unity along with making no distinction between party and government resources. Much of the changes implemented are based on a top-down approach despite grassroots participation, mostly reinforcing borderline personalist charismatic authority. Above all else, little effort has come to light to push back against an essentialist ethnic orientation, which is posing an existential threat to the country’s sovereignty. Indeed, an ethnic paradigm is getting the country pulled apart at the seams. In its current form, Ethiopia looks more like a cluster of multiple nation-states rather than a unified whole marked by cultural pluralism. Having its political party, flag, national anthem, a regional boundary suggesting a rigid distinction between ingroups and outgroups among citizens of the same country—and yes, a militia, and a coup too—each region is increasingly smartening up its political posture. In some cases, the absence of an agreed-on regional boundary is the source of tension that may cause an all-out civil war. Already, because of feeling courtesy stigma and dissatisfaction with the center, some groups are entertaining the idea of secession. What is more, thin interpretations of regional autonomy, along with political dysphemism centered on part-hence-whole presumptions often perpetrated by powerful figures (including topmost government officials), have prompted some to engage in ethnic cleansing in the form of removing “outsiders” from state-sanctioned ethnic regions and destroying their houses of worship. As a result, with close to three million people dislocated, Ethiopia ranks first among countries where internal displacement is a significant problem.

In all these, it is not clear what the military’s role would be. In Ethiopia, rulers have never exercised their power without the backing of the military. To rule has always been to rule with a military institution. Upon calling, the military has always defended the corporal interests of the party in power. As the political process goes astray, so does the role of the military. Thus far, at numerous critical moments in the history of the country, the military has revoked its supposed neutral position. Be that as it may, in the absence of an overlapping nationalist paradigm that could serve as a sociopolitical adhesive to help bond the armed forces together and linking them to the broader purposes of the State, it seems that there is much work to be done. However, the focus on a truly national army alone may not solve the problem. It may take back to the old days in which a cock-eyed unitary approach undermines cultural pluralism. Indeed, nationalism should not materialize at the expense of the wills and aspirations of groups forced to play a secondary role in the socio-political destiny of their country. The real solution can come only when there is a happy medium: a multilayered concord together with an appropriate political mechanism in which cultural pluralism exists, political pluralism preponderates, and the military is set aside of the political process.


The military’s place and role in the Ethiopian political order are related to fluctuating civil-military relations in the country. The ebb and flow of this relation ranged from a relatively clear demarcation between military and civilian institutions in which the former was under control by the latter (imperial and EPRDF regimes) to an extreme case where influential military figures turned themselves into permanent military bureaucrats (Military/Derg Regime). These strands of development did not take place within the perimeters of the military. Instead, as important as the intra-institutional practices were, the Ethiopian military has never acted self-dependently, apart from other institutions and social-historical processes. A social-historicist examination of the role of the military in the country’s political order shows that structural factors have conditioned its character and function—including modernization and its attendant features (such as the rise of the middle class), the interplay between tradition and modernity, chronic economic problems—in the company of geometric population increase, an enduring authoritarian political structure, and culture, feudal social and economic relations, and geopolitical arrangements. To a good degree, these factors and processes were critical in constraining rather than enabling Ethiopian political actors. Nonetheless, interested agents were by no means passive receptacles overdetermined by meta-individual processes. They were conditioning structural conditions, although not as much as social and institutional factors conditioned them. Indeed, influential civilian administrators, military officers, movement intellectuals, even when they had no extensive political capital, had a significant share in shaping the relationship between military and civilian institutions.

Indeed, the study of the role of the Ethiopian military in the country’s political order enables us to avoid a monodimensional determinist understanding of Ethiopian social history. The approach, in turn, provides the intellectual occasion to appreciate the country’s problems better and suggest possible solutions. Like most sub-Saharan countries, the problem with modern Ethiopia has been the absence of social and institutional mechanisms that could prevent the perpetuation of many issues. For sure, direct, and indirect intervention of the military in social affairs and unrelenting militarism count as some of them. These prominent features have never been the sole culprits for the country’s predicaments. Nevertheless, they served as critical catalysts for the reproduction of its challenges. Fundamentally, soft, and hard military intervention and militarism, in general, have undermined the wishes and aspirations of the Ethiopian people. They had effectively prevented political and cultural pluralism from being actualized, even when groups in power expressed a profound interest in an all-recognizing multicultural society. This outcome was due in large part the powerful have direct control over the military, making them less accountable to the people. By turning the military into a political instrument, influential individuals and groups have prolonged their rule rather than working on behalf of the very citizenry they claim to represent.

Thus, unhealthy political and military power linkage has compounded the country’s problems. Because they depend on a military sturdy enough to overwhelm other sources of power, Ethiopian leaders have always opposed alternative approaches. They stick religiously to their outlooks and policies despite resistance against them. Their aggressive approach to social issues has prevented cooperation among multiple groups and resulted in the unwise expenditure of social and material resources. This stance has made them excessively dependent on foreign powers thwarting political settlement too. Thus, often negotiations between contending parties come to the fore only when the link between political and military power is severely disturbed. Otherwise, challengers are treated as enemies, deserving a flush out with a bigger stick.

The longer the challenge, the longer the stick gets to exact political revenge. The powerful, accordingly, has been engaged in a zero-sum game undermining contenders and discouraging a building process. New governments claim de-structuring as the only way out of the “old” order. Instead of building from where the previous government left off, the “new” regime begins anew as though historical and cultural processes are subject to destruction and the new bursts off at one fell swoop. Furthermore, the cost of complete structuring has always been culturally as well as economically steep. Ironically, inherited problems shape new regimes that shun the “old,” and the new overtime adopts the very policies and techniques that caused its advent. Accordingly, all the three dominant regimes of the last nine decades, using military prowess at their disposal, have adhered to a top-down approach that undermined micro-level social initiatives. As a result, while the room for institutional charisma is wide open, other social spaces—with the military acting as a lopsided instrument—almost by design, are reduced into infertile grounds. And the lesson is that until there is a proper civil–military relation where the military is a self-dependent institution with clearly defined objectives and a set of social and institutional mechanisms that contain its undue intervention, Ethiopia may not deal with its problems effectively and materialize its potential.


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