Oromia/Ethiopia: Meles Zenawi and OPDO Relations Enter A New Phase
By Jawar Mohammed*
A massive purging campaign has hit the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO). While purging (later rehabilitating) those seen as disloyal to Meles has been a common practice for the organization, the latest drama that slashed 120 senior and mid-level members, is by far the biggest ever. Reportedly the same fate awaits the remaining leadership, including the “Speaker of the House,” Abadula Gemeda.
Excuses to Preempt Emerging Threats
The condemned individuals are accused of corruption and incapability to implement the so-called Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP). However, the suggestion that the purge is meant to facilitate the implementation of the GTP is difficult to believe. For one, just a year ago, these very people were praised of making Oromia a model for other regions in terms of administrative efficiency. Second, the GTP is supposedly a five-year plan that would run its course from 2010 to 2015. The preparation for effective implementation of such ‘new’ and ambitious policy should have taken place at the planning stage, not halfway through the implementation stage. This is yet evidence that the GTP is sham rhetoric, and the purging has nothing to do with it.
The existence of corruption among some of these officials is an undeniable fact because, in Meles’ Ethiopia, corruption is a prerequisite for political power. It is alleged that the purged individuals were involved in illegal sale of land in towns around the capital. But, why act now after all the damage has been done?
Had the authorities not ignored the plight of the public, these alleged crimes could have been prevented, or at least interrupted, three or four years ago. For instance, in 2008, in a corruption case involving the illegal sale of 47 housing plots in the town of Galan, a voluntary team comprised of concerned citizens conducted a thorough investigation over a period of six months and was able to gather solid, irrefutable evidence, including forged documents, receipts, bank accounts, pictures, and voices of personal transactions. The team presented the result of their investigation to appropriate authorities, including the Prime Minister’s office. Instead of taking action against perpetrators, and despite the promised guarantee to protect whistle-blowers, the individual who exposed himself to hand over the evidence came under immediate harassment and was finally forced to flee the country. Following the money trails, the remaining team further uncovered that the final destination was an account belonging to a relative of a powerful federal minister. This explains why the principal broker identified in that investigation has not been touched during the current purge.
In all, the massive corruption scandal involving land sale was not a hidden act, but one done with knowledge, tacit approval, and indirect participation of TPLF bosses. Therefore, the claim that the current purge is connected with the land sale is disingenuous at best.
Dealing with the Unintended Consequences of an Appeasement Strategy
Like all autocrats, Meles relies on a Clientelist system which he is the top patron. In such systems, the patron controls the distribution of power and material benefit to his clients in exchange for loyalty and support. Most importantly, the benefits are highly conditioned on subordination and servitude to the patron, not to mention an unwavering compliance with his demands and interests. Dictators want the patrimonial corruption of public resources to remain a vertical transaction, but sometimes horizontal cliques emerge where sub-patrons establish their own networks. In such cases, those cliques could develop to a level where they could threaten the power of the top patron.
The never-ending reshuffling, relocation, demotion and promotion, common in Meles’ client parties, are meant to avoid such problems. From a director of an elementary school to a regional bureau chief, the average time a person is allowed to serve in one position is 2.5 years. The shake-up is even worse in the two regions considered to be the main threat to Meles’ power, the Somali (Ogaden) with eleven presidents in two decades, followed by Oromia with five during the same time period. The periodic destabilization of clienteles prevents consolidation of power at the regional level. Moreover, instead of the respective party bosses, TPLF indirectly controls appointment to key positions both at regional and zonal levels. Thus, the appointees are made to be loyal to the master patron rather than their immediate superiors. This denies regional leaders the sources of rent by which they could establish their own clientele.
The 2005 election temporarily disrupted this tactic. For the previous 15 years, antagonizing and alienating the Oromo elite was seen as a key strategy to keep OPDO weak and subordinate. However, in order to survive the sudden surge of the Amhara threat, Meles had no choice, but to try to make peace with the Oromo constituency. That is where Abadula Gemeda came in with a proven loyalty, particularly during the 2001 TPLF internal crisis.
A sworn enemy of the OLF, Abadula was the least suspected among the rank for possible defection or conspiracy. Hence, albeit briefly, he was given unprecedented autonomy to ‘reform’ the OPDO, appease the educated Oromos, and bring them on board. He was remarkably successful. He began organizing mega conferences where the organization admitted to all accusations and criticisms by the participants. The weaknesses were attributed to the alienation of the intelligentsia. For an organization that once declared the educated sector narrow nationalists and enemy of democracy, the move took many by surprise.
Abadula then challenged the students, teachers, and technocrats to join him and implement the kind of changes they aspired for. To make the offer more attractive, financial incentives were added in the form of staggering salary increases for administrative positions. Given the fact that the Oromo voice was dwarfed during the election, and the fading hope on the OLF’s homecoming, there was little rationale to reject Abadula’s lucrative offer. Recent graduates, teachers and technocrats joined the bureaucracy in thousands. Since Meles was entangled in the post election crisis, Abadula had a relative autonomy to assign these recruits to different regional offices.
The surge brought multiple changes to the Oromia regional government. As better educated and trained technocrats took over administrative affairs, service delivery was significantly improved. The new comers were former advocates for more freedom. As a result, direct repression on the peasant was also lessened. In addition, the new president had a hands-on administrative approach mingling with the constituents, attending religious and cultural celebrations, listening to their complaints and, at times, responding quickly to their demands. Adapting a fatherly approach to intra-party tensions, he mediated between faction and resolved quarrels peacefully without taking sides. This enabled him to contain internal problems at the regional office instead of passing it onto his superiors. Once the most hated man, witnessing the reforms he had brought forth, people began giving him a second look.
Halfway through his five-year term, Abadula’s popularity skyrocketed putting him in a collision course with Meles who saw him as an emerging threat. With OPDO’s already growing assertiveness, Abadula’s influence and power needed to be contained. Several tactics were floated to tarnish his image. A “forgotten” corruption allegation relating to a house Abadula built resurfaced for the second time (the case was first discovered and used against him in 2004).
Meles’ protégés were assigned to humiliate him at the party’s conference with some ‘independent’ newspaper spearheading the defamation campaign. As OPDO’s rank and file mobilized to defend Abadula and ostracized those that turned against him, Meles’ strategy backfired. This was evident when the OPDO executive committee openly rejected Meles’ order to remove Abadula from the party chairmanship and regional presidency.
When the attempt to indirectly engineer an internal coup failed (a tactic that was effectively used against previous presidents of the region), Abadula came under direct pressure from the top bras and was forced to vacate his position. The removal of Abadula was followed by restructuring of the regional government to avoid repeating those mistakes. An outsider with little connection to regional power-play was appointed president. New four vice presidential portfolios were created to generate rivalry and prevent the concentration of power in the president’s hand.
Yet, it was not all too easy to close Abadula’s chapter. The public continued to air disappointment and anger over Abadula’s ouster, and accused Meles of attempting to derail the reform. Despite several re-indoctrination seminars, the bureaucracy continued to show resentment by ignoring or undermining orders from the new appointees and even some federal authorities. The new president himself is said to be complacent. The recent federal cabinet reshuffle, where the OPDO was sidestepped, added to the disappointment.
As unintended consequences of Meles’ appeasement strategy, the Clientelistic relationship between TPLF and OPDO has soured. Abadula built his own horizontal clique disrupting the vertical flow of loyalty. Furthermore, by opening the door to the educated class, he transformed the OPDO from what it was designed to be – a collection of high school dropouts, into a potential power house of technocrats. The most telling evidence is the significant improvement in educational level of OPDO’s new MP’s. Roughly 8 out of 10 have a first degree or higher, with a substantial increase in the number of graduate degree holders(1).
While this situation on itself already poses a serious threat to Meles, the recent wave of revolutions in North Africa aggravated the concern. Therefore, the patron is striking back, and the current purge is a move to dismantle the horizontal clique. The current purge has little, if any, to do with corruption and capacity building. After orders passed down via proxies were rejected, Meles personally gathered the OPDO executive committee and threatened them with severe punishments unless they got rid of the trouble makers. A list of names was drawn up and given to them.
The following weekend, over 120 members were singled out in the infamous Gimgama – a process of ostracization and coerced self-humiliation. Fearing that Abadula’s presence would unify the rank, he was purposely sent out of the country and made to miss the meeting. His absence was explained as a mere coincidence. To give the process a semblance of factional fighting, TPLF ‘observers’ praised the likes of Kuma Demeksa and Alemayo Atomsa while bashing Abadula and ‘his cronies.’ This tactic did not work either, instead faced a near unanimous objection by other members. Coupled with a heated verbal exchange echoed at the meeting, this exacerbated a fear that, if allowed to go home, the targeted individuals might instigate an uprising. Therefore, they were rushed out of the meeting hall by the Special Forces under the cover of darkness and into prison. They are being held in isolated and heavily-guarded prison in the outskirts of Finfinne. More purges are expected in the coming months. However, even if Abadula’s network is effectively dismantled (which is doubtful), it is unlikely for Meles to regain total subordination and loyalty from the OPDO.
Meles’ Future Strategic Dilemmas
As discussed above, five years ago, Meles adapted a strategy of appeasement over confrontation with Oromo students. Initially, less educated bureaucrats were pushed aside to make rooms for new college graduates. As the number of college graduate significantly increased, the regime was forced to expand its administrative bureaucracy to accommodate them. In his recent paper on the 2010 election, Prof. Merera Gudina reports that from 2005 to 2010 “the local administration councils [have expanded] from about 600,000 members to 3.5 million” and “the EPRDF party membership base grew from about 760,000 … to more than 5 million.”(2) Much of the expansion took place in Oromia, and all these people are paid by the state as salaried employees or receive regular allowances.
The dynamics in OPDO present Meles with a serious dilemma.
1) He cannot continue with the strategy of appeasement because there are simply no resources to take in tens of thousands as new recruits. Replacing the existing employees, as was done five years ago, is risky because the current employees are as educated as any newcomer. If alienated by the system, they could prove to be dangerous adversaries because of their knowledge of the internal party dynamics.
2) Even if the regime finds resources (e.g. by further increasing land sale to multinationals) that would enable it the continuation of the appeasement strategy, sooner or later, OPDO will be filled with and taken over by educated nationalists. This relatively younger and educated class will have difficulty to continue as a subordinate/client while representing the largest and most resourceful constituency.
3) Changing the strategy is also difficult. Since employment is the single incentive that attracts young college graduates to the party, the absence of such incentive does not only make recruitment difficult, but will also lead to a renewed confrontation between Oromo youth and the regime. Seeing the unemployed graduates, college and high school students would not be deceived into joining the party on the promise of future employment. Between 2000 and 2006, Oromo students waged a sporadic resistance that destabilized the regime. Today, their number has increased multiple folds and, with the help of improved access to technology, this is one social segment you would not want to have as an adversary.
Nevertheless, as long as TPLF maintains monopolistic control of the security apparatus, it is unlikely for OPDO to muster enough strengthen and organizational cohesion to completely break free of subordination, and grab state power, but it cannot be ruled out. However, its role as a vehicle for TPLF’s free ride over Oromia is rapidly diminishing. If the latest development is any indication, going forward, the two organizations will be on clear collision path. With change in demographics and social dynamics, Meles’ old tactics are becoming increasingly inefficient. He is left with these options: to introduce genuine political reforms or face an internal explosion or popular revolution.
(2) Gudina, Merera, “Twenty Years of Experimenting with ‘Revolutionary Democracy': Elections and Democratization in Ethiopia, 1991-2010″
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