Composition and purpose of the Military in Ethiopia

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  • Sumo

By Admassu Feleke

It would be a futile speculation to speak of the possibility of a transitional government in Ethiopia today without addressing first, or at least contemporaneously with other important issues, the proverbial elephant in the room, i.e. the current military in Ethiopia.

Anyone with a modicum of common sense has come to realize already that the current regime has been able to survive this long thanks to its effective use of two strategic weapons: its ethnic politics and its military/security apparatus. While the former has been extensively discussed, analyzed and dissected, the latter has had limited focus; at least in my opinion. In this brief article, I would like first to address how Ethiopia’s current military is fundamentally unlike the previous two regimes’. And secondly, why it cannot be maintained during and after the transitional period and must be disbanded as a matter of necessity. A suggestion on how to replace it, and how to go about forming a new one will be sketched out as a conclusion.

The so re-named Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) is de facto the military branch of the TPLF/EPRDF party, even if, since the constitution of 1995, and as a consequence of article 87, it has de jure replaced the previous national army. The fact of the matter is that the ENDF is nothing but an accretion and expansion of TPLF’s liberation army. At the core of its ideology, methodology and leadership it has always remained essentially the same, it never really morphed into a truly national military. Even though the constitution establishes clearly the formal separation of the military and civilian leadership, and puts the former under the latter’s authority, in actuality the line between the two leaderships has remained blurred throughout. This is basically due to the fact that the military and political leadership were never separated either during the “liberation phase” or after the constitution was promulgated. In essence the political and military agenda have coincided always. And as such the allegiance of the ENDF is clearly to the governing regime and not to the nation as such. Its goal and function have been and remain the maintenance of the status quo, i.e. the continuance in power of the regime. If indeed it has used effectively its might, experience and expertise in international peace keeping, or regional stabilization, it did so as to enhance its prestige and gain negotiating power for both itself and the regime on the international scene. Having been the larger, better trained, equipped and experienced of all the liberation fronts upon the demise of the Derg, it has never considered that other liberation fronts had equal right in the formation of the national military. It simply pushed them out as if it alone were the sole logical and legitimate successor of the defeated military. By doing so it has essentially renounced peace and opted for a permanent state of war with the other liberation fronts. It cannot legitimize itself by exclusion. Only inclusion of other liberation organizations would have given it a semblance of legitimacy. But true legitimacy, we must note, comes only from the people.

While the very first statement of article 87 of the Constitution declares that: “the composition of the national armed forces shall reflect the equitable representation of the nations, nationalities and peoples of Ethiopia”, the reality on the ground is far more different. Just as the TPLF/EPRDF political apparatus has handed down all the plum positions to its members and persons related to it either by blood or friendship, it did quite obviously the same with the higher military positions. This regime has been rather arrogantly dismissive of the fact that the overwhelming majority of the top military brass of the ENDF is made up of members of the TPLF with a sprinkling from other coalition members of the EPRDF. What is even more jarring is the fact that the ENDF has not only gone counter article 87.1 of the Constitution, but it has clearly engaged in a practice that could only be characterized as colonialist. As everyone knows, the very top military brass hails overwhelmingly from one ethnic group, namely the Tigrean. If the TPLF/EPRDF regime claims to be committed to article 87.1, how is it that we are puzzling over this for more than two decades?

Some TPLF ideologues have suggested that unlike the military of Haile Selassie and the Derg, theirs is informed by a profound awareness of our cultural, ethnic and religious diversity and their concomitant difficulties. They have pointed out also the current national and international threats that Ethiopia is facing today as a reason for their peculiar organization. The underlying intimation is that the ENDF is guided by a more enlightened doctrine than its predecessors’. What in reality we have witnessed is quite the opposite: the regime of the TPLF has proven itself tone deaf to most of the issues it claims it has made positive contribution to. If we indeed allow the numbers speak for themselves, the military of the previous two regimes have far better records than the current one. Even though they were never perfectly integrated they clearly aspired to be so. And more than anything they were fundamentally moved by the desire to unite rather than divide. And they acted and pursued policies of national interest rather than limited party goals. This in fact is reason enough to disqualify the current military from overseeing an eventual transitional period. But how can the country be without a military?

In actuality the question should not be “without a military” but “what kind of military”. One of the first pre-condition for the creation of a transitional government must be the replacement of the ENDF and security apparatus by a large contingent of peacekeeping international military corps which can maintain effectively law and order, and provide safety and security for the people until the end of the transitional period. It will also provide the transitional government with the right environment to conduct the daily affairs of the State until the transitional government hammers out the foundation for a new legally formed government. Meanwhile, the peacekeeping force, under the guidance of the transitional government, and with the collaboration of highly experienced international military professionals, will lay down the foundation of a truly national military, and oversee the total orderly demobilization of the current one. Indeed complete and irrevocable demobilization of the ENDF must be effected if peace is paramount. There can’t be a transitional government, let alone a functioning one, with a partisan military breathing down its neck.

How and what essential components our future national military will or should possess has been already been laid out in the Constitution. The aim now is to finally put it in practice.

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