Rene Lefort’s “Ethiopia Crisis”: What We Know


by the Strathink Editorial Team

The discourse on Ethiopian politics is a bleak landscape of twisted and oblique narratives packaged in a one-size-fits-all generic model of “the African state” rather than “the state in Africa.” Current writing about recent events in Ethiopia theorizes the state as authoritarian, repressive and corrupt.  The cause of the unrest is based on marginalization of a majority ethnicity (Oromo) and formerly dominant ethnicity (Amhara) by a minority ethnicity (Tigrean). So-called scholars write about what “the people” think about the government in the absence of data-driven, empirical study and analysis. No one writes about “the American people” as a homogenous, monolithic group based on conversations with a dozen people.

The alarming reductive discourse that dominates the debate consistently fails to take into account the heterogeneity of 100 million people in terms of ethnicity, class, religion, age and gender, to name a few, in Ethiopia. Without the science of polling, outside observers are parroting the words of a few elites who are self-proclaimed representatives of “the people.”

It is true that some valuable analysis can take place in the absence of real data about attitudes, values and behavior as long as the analyst sticks to what is known.

However, Rene Lefort, in his article “Ethiopia’s Crisis,” fails to stick to what is known. Instead, he crosses the line into generalized speculation, unscientific extrapolation and an uninspired personification of civil society.

Let’s review what he says.

He begins with some useful observations. Professor Lefort rightly notes the government’s weakness in communicating with the public—both domestically and internationally. A few press releases during such a turbulent period does not meet a threshold of effective communication.  He rightly notes that the only information available about the situation comes from the diaspora, “which itself is often hyperbolic to the point of implausibility.” It is reassuring to know that someone in the community of “Ethiopia watchers” recognizes the absurdity of the diaspora’s information. It is also helpful for the government to be reminded once again about the urgency of effective and frequent communication.

Unfortunately, he then dips his feet into the unknown. Using as his source interviews with elites from Addis Ababa and Mekelle, Professor Lefort states “People have stopped taking notice of anything the ruling power says, seeing it as incapable of handling the situation.” The Strathink editorial team may even agree to some extent with Professort Lefort. Yet, interviews with elites from Ethiopia’s two important capital cities cannot be generalized to reflect the views of 100 million people.

The following section, “Meles left with the password,” is simply confusing. Professor Lefort argues that Prime Minister Hailemariam “lacks what it takes to fill the boots of his predecessor [the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi]—namely, to be a “strongman.” Professor Lefort tries to make the case that power “hung on him [Meles] alone. ” The fact that the smooth succession of power following the late Prime Minister’s death demonstrated the “robustness of the regime and the reliability of its institutions” doesn’t seem to be enough evidence to dispute Meles as a constellation of singular power, according to Professor Lefort. He concludes, “Ethiopia is left with a system of power tailored for a strongman and filled accordingly, but which now lacks a strongman.”

How does he argue his conclusion? He doesn’t. What evidence does he present to explain his conclusion? He provides none. The statement just hangs there in vacuity—meaninglessness.

Professor Lefort moves on to describe the three big sources of the crisis: 1) the weakening of central authority; 2) democratic aspiration; and 3) collateral damage from super-rapid growth. The first source is the most perplexing narrative offered by Professor Lefort. He begins describing the tensions within a federal system—the balance between the center and the periphery, the sharing of power and resources. This is, by definition, a constant balancing act in any federal system. Agreed. However, the narrative then becomes confusing.

Professor Lefort raises the question, “How can the country make the transition from a bogus and ethnically weighted federalism to real decentralization, which would bring about a more authentically fairer federalism, or even confederalism? And what does this mean, according to Professor Lefort? It means that political and economic power should shift to Oromia, thereby making the case why should and how can an Ethiopian state exist, and on what basis?” “Ethiopianness,” according to Professor Lefort, is really “Amhara-ness,” and their challenge “is to revamp their identity and accept that their place in the Ethiopian state should reflect their numerical and economic importance, no more, no less with the other ethnicities in a lesser role.”

What this appears to mean is that the construct of “Ethiopia” is really just Amhara. Further, it means that the Amhara, along with other ethnicities, should take a backseat in a new political construct based on Oromia, given its numerical plurality. If we think about this argument within the context of the U.S. federalist system, African Americans and other non-white ethnicities need to take a backseat to white Americans given their numerical and economic importance. It doesn’t sound so good when you apply it to another country.

Professor Lefort’s second source of the crisis actually is verifiable. Ethiopia’s success in facilitating economic growth and providing widespread public services in health and education has created a robust middle class in both urban and rural areas. Experiences in other countries clearly show the correlation between a growing middle class and democratic aspirations. Ethiopia’s democracy is a “work in progress” and needs to be accelerated to meet these new demands. The people are more than ready and the government should speed up the pace of democratization.

The third source is an indictment of the party. Rent-seeking behavior combined with the absence of transparency and accountability in the distribution of resources has eroded the party’s good name. Lefort goes on to describe a power struggle within the EPRDF between “the complacents” and “the alarmists.” We are not convinced that these labels accurately reflect the internal dynamics of the struggle within the party. We are convinced, however, that there is a struggle and that struggle is between the good guys and the bad guys. Professor Lefort named several of the “old guard” who  are defending the gains of the struggle by pushing reform.

The assertion that the TPLF-Mekelle feels betrayed by those who took positions in the central government just seems weak. How could everyone remain in Tigray following the fall of the Derg? Why would everyone remain in Tigray when the EPRDF took power? Isn’t governing all of Ethiopia as opposed to just Tigray a more beneficial outcome after seventeen years of struggle? Is Professor Lefort reviving the old accusation against the TPLF that it denied its “Ethiopianness.” We guess this fits in with his claims about “Ethiopianess” being only an Amhara construct. He claims that “the view” is that the old guard has let itself “be assimilated by the center and prioritize[s] the latter’s interests over those of the periphery.” Moreover, this [the “fortress Tigrai” feeling] “goes as far as to see a re-emergence of the hope of reunifying Tigreans on both sides of the Ethiopia/Eritrea border into a single nation state.”


In conclusion, Professor Lefort ends this discourse by saying the Prime Minister should be an Oromo,, since Oromia has the largest population and it would help to calm feelings in the region.

Please take note, Prime Minister Hailemariam, that Rene Lefort does not think you should be Prime Minister because your ethnic group is too small.

Professor Lefort finally turns to the current state of emergency. Why a state of emergency, he asks? The first objective, he says, is “to instill fear and uncertainty.” The Strathink editorial team has no issue with citing fear as a desired outcome. Those citizens who incite and carry out violence must fear the consequences of their actions in order to stop. If you follow the rules, ideally, citizens should not be afraid. A sense of uncertainty, however, is more a response to the violence than to maintaining peace and order under a state of emergency.

Professor Lefort says that “the state of emergency is a show of strength.” Of course it is a show of strength. And what about his assertion that the state needs a strongman? Is the state strong or weak? What do the dozen people he spoke to in Addis Ababa and Mekelle say?

In the end, what really bothers the Strathink editorial team is the wholesale cynicism Professor Lefort embraces about the government’s commitment to reform. He begins by quoting professional cynic and detractor Merera Gudina, “summing up the general sentiment, too little too late.” He follows by quoting The Washington Post, the renowned expert commentator on Ethiopian politics. The Post writes, “the state of emergency will bottle up the pressure even more, increasing the likelihood they will explode anew…It won’t work.”

On the one hand, Professor Lefort makes a valid point about the government’s lack of clarity concerning what it will do and how it will do it. Yet, Professor Lefort questions, not convincingly, the current ethnic federal structure of the political system—the constitution and institutions. However, he fails to tell us what is wrong with the constitution and government institutions, in his view. His broad statements are not backed up by a real discussion about the weaknesses of the current system. How, then, do we even begin to understand, in any real way, what he means by “Ethiopia’s crisis?”

Professor Lefort concludes his article by returning to the “paradox of the strongman.” He says that even though the “reformers” have scored a point, they have not “won the long-term game.” Why? “They lack a standout personality [read strongman] to act as a leader.” As he has many times in the past, Professor Lefort predicts the demise of the EPRDF, this time through a “steady deterioration” rather than a “jacquerie”—until a new strongman emerges.

After reading the article, the reader is left with a sense of despair—not because Professor Lefort makes his tired prediction of demise, but because Professor Lefort make his same tired analysis based on air. What is known here is  yet another empty narrative about Ethiopian politics with no value-added information, original thinking or insight.



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