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How Did Ethiopia Get from There to Here: Questioning the Current Narrative (Part 1)

How Did Ethiopia Get from There to Here: Questioning the Current Narrative (Part 1)


By Elias Dawit 4-22-19



In this article I look at the current political narrative that is being written about today’s political transition—the key actors and the underlying assumptions., In Part 2, I look at the role of one of the key actors and explore the reasons behind his prominence—former head of the National Intelligence security services Getachew Assefa.


It is the winners who write the narrative that describes the “before” and “after” of political change. Let’s take the case of contemporary Ethiopia.


Today’s political narrative describes a country celebrating the rise of a young political reformer who upended 27  years of authoritarian (mis)rule by a minority group who seized power in 1991. Accounts of the new Prime Minister attribute messianic characteristics to the former army officer whose personal narrative include mystical predictions of his ascension to the long-lost throne.


The new Prime Minister, within several months of his election, undertook a number of extraordinary actions meant to make a break from decades of EPRDF policies and separate himself from the TPLF. He opened the prisons, invited the exiled opposition back home, embraced Eritrea’s Isayas Afewerki, and announced the death of the developmental state.


Meanwhile, the losers in this change, according to this narrative, skulked back to their region and spend their days plotting to regain the power they lost to the new Prime Minister and his allies.


The international media, sensing a “feel good” story about Africa, seized on this narrative and have been producing story after story attesting to this modern miracle of positivity.


Yet, shouldn’t we be suspicious of such binary political narratives that splice so cleanly between “good” guys and “bad” guys? Shouldn’t we be questioning political narratives that are so steeped in stereotypes, clichés and mythologies as to defy reasonable credibility?

Was yesterday’s Ethiopian political reality an oppressive blanket of a one-party dictatorship monopolizing power for the benefit of a few, cavalierly abusing the rights of those in the opposition, building an economy inviting corruption, and marginalizing groups of people based on ethnic identity?


Or, conversely, was yesterday’s Ethiopia an emerging democracy addressing long held ethnic tension and historical marginalization through ethnic federalism, creating an economy of responsible economic governance, and upholding the rule of law?


Is today’s Ethiopia on a forward moving trajectory of political and economic reform based on a neo-liberal interpretation of democracy and free market capitalism—a country committed to peace among its regional neighbors and friendly ties to the Arab world?


Or, is today’s Ethiopia merely a democratic façade led by narcissistic elites seeking shortcuts to power, capitalizing on ethnic fear, and selling out Ethiopia’s economy to foreign investors?

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How do we discern the truth between these two versions of Ethiopia—what Ethiopia was and what Ethiopia is?


There is a maxim that is universally true: There are two sides to every story. Yet, the story from the perspective of the TPLF is never presented. Here is a narrative of the past several years from the perspective of the TPLF, which is based on a number of conversations with the TPLF leadership.


You, the reader, will decide.


The Beginning of the Transition: Who, What and Why


The current narrative begins with the death of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and the emergence of Hailemariam Dessalegn.


Hailemariam Dessalegn, an engineer from the Wolayta who served as president of the Southern Peoples’ Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ Region (SPNNPR), became a Deputy Prime Minister in 2010 under Meles Zenawi.


We all know the narrative that casts Ethiopia under Prime Minister Meles as an ethnic oligarchy led by the minority Tigrayans. In this narrative, Meles hand-picks Hailemariam as his potential successor following his announcement to the party that he would be stepping down at some point in the near future. Only his closest advisors knew that he was experiencing ill health.


His virtues as a national leader were untested but he fit the bill in other ways. Hailemariam was a well-educated person, a technocrat, who served the party for five years as President of the SNNPR. He was promoted to the Prime Minister’s Office where he was instrumental in developing the Charities and Societies Organizations (CSO) law and is credited with playing a key role in mobilizing party membership to 5 million following the 2005 election. Moreover, he was not Tigrayan, Amhara or Oromo,


Following Prime Minister Meles’ death in 2012, the EPRDF chose Hailemariam to be Ethiopia’s next Prime Minister.


This is where the narrative turns.


Based on interviews with former high-level government officials, it was Ethiopia’s head of the National Intelligence and Security Service, (NISS) Getachew Assefa, who championed Hailemariam’s appointment to the Prime Minister’s office. According to sources, Getachew was afraid others in the party were merely seeking power for the sake of power—not be trusted with the serious business of governance.


Hailemariam was not a popular choice. Getachew fought tooth and nail with the Executive Council to elect Hailemariam in the hopes that he could serve as a placeholder Prime Minister until the next election. Moreover, Getachew persuaded everyone in the party leadership to do everything possible to help Hailemariam succeed.


Prime Minister Hailemariam, however, despite initial goodwill, was did not turn out to be  a cooperating partner. The new Prime Minister was viewed as lazy, incompetent and a persistent gossip that spent his days talking to this and that Minister in an endless cycle of procrastination.


And while the West portrayed Pime Minister Hailemariam as a reformer, tensions continued to build, particularly among youth, and the security situation around the country was beginning to perilously decline.


Enter Ambassador Donald Yamamoto.


Ambassador Yamamoto, a career American diplomat who served as U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia from 2006-2009. Ambassador Yamamoto wrote the widely circulated embassy cable that characterized Getachew Assefa as “the elusive head and main hardliner” of the EPRDF.


Why was Ambassador Yamamoto so interested in establishing “close contact” with Ethiopia’s security chief? The Ambassador made it perfectly clear that Getachew and the American intelligence community saw eye-to-eye on matters pertaining to counter-terrorism in the region.


Yet, it is clear from the cable and discussions with the TPLF leadership that the U.S. and Ethiopia had very different views on Ethiopia’s domestic insurgent groups, such as Ginbot 7, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), and the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF). Getachew expressed to Yamamoto his view that Ginbot 7’s Berhanu Nega, following his election as mayor of Addis Ababa, might have succeeded to manage the city’s complex problems had he not “descended into the role of a terrorist”. U.S. support for Ginbot 7, the Voice of America’s (VOA) Horn of Africa Service biased reporting as well as the tolerance for OLF and ONLF, despite their violent tactics and unconstitutional approach to overthrowing the Ethiopian government, remained a contentious issue.


In retrospect, given the role Ambassador Yamamoto played in the recent political transition, his motives for supporting these groups seem clear.


Under Prime Mnister Meles  Zenawi, despite decades of close and amicable cooperation in counter-terrorism and intelligence-sharing, the United States was against a brick wall when it came to issues of Ethiopia’s sovereignty. The Prime Minister resented efforts by the U.S. Congress to micro-manage Ethiopian affairs and set clear boundaries of the bilateral relationship.


In Hailemariam, the West saw an opening to gain a stronger foothold in Ethiopia’s internal affairs and external engagement. At the same time, Getachew became increasingly disillusioned with the Prime Minister, yet was constrained by the party’s structure and the rule of law. His responsibilities as security chief were to provide information to the prime Minister’s office. The Prime Minister was mandated to take action.


Getachew Assefa, recognizing the Prime Minister’s limitations, was flooding the Hailemariam’s office with report after report documenting the country’s security breaches carried out by an increasingly hostile youth manipulated by external and internal elites. The fighting between the Oromo and Somali precipitated the deployment of a security team into the area to assess causes and consequences of the violent unrest. To Getachew’s dismay, the Oromia regional government sabotaged the deployment and the fighting escalated. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister, charged with enforcing the laws, sat on all this information.


The narrative around Hailemariam’s resignation shines a spotlight on how the winners write history. In this narrative, Hailemariam honorably tenders his resignation in the face of mounting ethnic violence triggered by “27 years of darkness” under the EPRDF/TPLF. He is celebrated globally as a humbled leader who can no longer faithfully execute his duties as Prime Minister and resigns, telling global philanthropist Mo Ibrahim, “The main problem in African politics is that people stick to power. And I wanted to show that it is possible that you can leave while having power as a citizen in my country.”


It’s a great story. It is also untrue.


Hailemariam resigned because his party forced him out. Under a parliamentary system, the Prime Minister is chosen and serves at the consent of his party. The party giveth and the party taketh away.


Another mythical narrative is born.


The internal machinations within the party by the Amhara and the Oromo leadership in the election of Abiy Ahmed are well-known. Abiy Ahmed is elected Prime Minister, to the delight of Ambassador Yamamoto and the United States, and its ally in the north.


And so, after 27 years of fending off American meddling in Ethiopia’s internal affairs, the U.S. has someone in office who will serve the interests of U.S. foreign policy.


At the behest of the U.S., government, Prime Minister Abiy invites back Ginbot 7, the ONLF and the OLF to participate in the governance of the country. Berhanu Nega, having spent more time in the U.S than Ethiopia, becomes a key advisor to the prime Minister, spending the majority of his time in the Prime Minister’s office, sitting alongside 17 “U.S. advisors” making sure Prime Minister Abiy carries out the instructions from Ambassador Yamamoto’s new post in Nairobi.


Most importantly in this new political equation, is the rehabilitation of Eritrea’s President Isayas Afewerki.  Why rehabilitate a formerly pariah dictator leading a country known as “the North Korea of Africa”? Here it is. China. Russia. The Middle East. Global economy.


The Cold War has re-started and the competition among the U.S., China and Russia has re-aligned U.S. foreign policy. China and Russia are competing with the United States in the Horn of Africa for political and economic influence in this critically strategic region.


Djibouti’s alliance with China led the U.S. to focus on bringing Eritrea out of isolation, beginning with the peace initiative with Ethiopia. Acting as surrogates for the U. S. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates provided Eritrea with the economic reward to seal the deal. The U.S. will now be able to use Eritrean ports and set up a military base to safeguard its interests in the face of growing Chinese and Russian influence.


Another beneficiary of the U.S.’s new strategy in the Horn of Africa is Egypt. Just last year, the U.S. Department of Defense informed Congress that it had sold Egypt a one billion package of arms, including 10 Apache Attack helicopters. The U.S. now sees Egypt as playing a much more prominent role in the Horn’s regional security—replacing the Ethiopian military.


The U.S.’s closer ties to Egypt explain Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s attacks on Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam.


Finally, the U.S. sees Ethiopia as a country ready for U.S. investment. Ethiopia’s phenomenal growth rate for more than a decade—resulting in becoming the world’s fastest growth economy—has benefitted the entrepreneurial government of the Peoples’ Republic of China. The U.S. sees a myriad of opportunities for U.S. foreign investment as long as Prime Minister Abiy lets go of the developmental state model and implements economic reform that would benefit American investors.


Understanding the Current Narrative


The current narrative that seeks to underscore 27 years of darkness followed by progressive reform is flawed. It was created by external actors with interests antithetical to the interests of the Ethiopian people—on many levels. These external actors are writing Ethiopia’s story to justify an agenda that promotes the interests of a foreign power by mythologizing its surrogate in the Prime Minister’s office.


This narrative has a simple plot that pits the “good guys” against the “bad guys”—modeled after a classic Western movie where the corrupt sheriff is replaced by the new sheriff and all ends well. In this movie, since Hailemariam is cast as one of the “good guys,” Getachew Assefa must play the “bad guy” as a foil to the efforts of the new sheriff (Abiy Ahmed) to clean up the town.


It is an artless narrative that belies the complex and multifarious realities of Ethiopian politics. It is a false narrative intended to deceive the Ethiopian people in order to further the interests of a foreign power.


The mistakes made by the EPRDF are many reform is required not only for the survival of the party but for the country itself. Mythologizing Prime Minister Abiy, President Afewerki, Ginbot 7 and others is a disservice to the Ethiopian people who need to know the facts of what has transpired in this transition, who are the leading political actors, and whose interests are being served.


Mythologizing requires demonizing—in this case, the TPLF and one person in particular, Getachew Assefa. In his role as head of the country’s intelligence service, Getachew has proven to be the perfect symbol of what the prime Minister has called “27 years of darkness”


In part 2 of this article, I will look at who is Getachew assefa and why he is playing such a central role in this false narrative.



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