Sptember 2012 | By Jawar Mohammed
(NB: This essay was drafted before Meles Zenawi fell ill and was put on hold until things clear up. Attempt has been made to update it with the new developments)
Following the popular uprisings throughout North Africa and the Middle East, both democracy activists as well as those working to preserve the status quo are closely watching this incredible moment. While Tunisia and Egypt experienced a quick and orderly downfall of dictatorships, the uprisings in Libya and Syria turned bloody. Yemen falls somewhere in between. One of the factors that differentiate the orderly fall of a strongman from the bloody and protracted civil war is the level of sectarian concentration of power.
Three themes will be addressed in this essay. Why do certain authoritarian regimes exercise blatant discrimination when distributing rent – i.e. political power and wealth? How could such regimes concentrate power and wealth in the hands of small sectarian groups and remain in power for so long? Finally, what kind of transition is likely to take place in such situations?
Let us start with a brief look at how each of the three regimes evolved.In Syria and Libya, the status quo is characterized by extensive concentration of economic privilege and political power in the hands of a single ethnic/religious group, with the vast majority excluded. Under such conditions, transitions could only be achieved after the old regime is completely obliterated, including its support base and institutions. A cursory look at how these two countries got into their respective situations shows a remarkable similarity to the developments in Ethiopia in the last two decades.
Libya: The tragedy of the Qadhadhfa tribe; from have it all to lose it all
When 27-year-old Moammar Gaddafi staged a coup d’etat in 1969, his small Qadhadhfa tribe was a little known marginal group located in the northwestern Libyan desert. By the time the popular uprising against his rule erupted in 2011, his once insignificant tribe became so powerful that Gaddafi offered their once nonexistent village of Sirte as a seat for the the African Union.
Under the cover of Nasserist Pan-Arab rhetoric, the core of Gaddafi’s coup coconspirators were officers of the Qadhadhfa. Hence although initially he promised a collective leadership made up of mid-rank officers, Gadaffi eventually resorted to clan loyalty. Writing for Think Africa Press, Jan De Haansta
“despite Gaddafi’s rhetoric of Arab socialism and a post-tribal Libya, he always remained strongly aware of the potential threat to his power posed by other tribes and, in the process, ending up exacerbating tribal tensions.”
Having survived the first coup attempt a few months after taking power, he began surrounding himself by officers from his tribe. When these aroused opposition from officers who belonged to other tribes, he purged them and filled their place by recruiting more soldiers from Qadhadhfa. Gaddafi faced multiple coups, the most serious ones in 1975 and 1979 by officers and bureaucrats that despised his increasingly dictatorial and discriminatory policies. Once he “cleansed” the military of troublemakers and replaced them with his tribal kinsmen, the opposition took on the form of Islamic insurgency – which, thanks to the open desert, he was able to easily quash.
The more threats he faced the more blatant his favoritism towards his tribe became. Cognizant of the fact that in such an open desert country conditions are unfavorable for insurgency, therefore the only internal threat would come from the military, he gradually and systematically weakened the army through purges and defunding. Gaddafi understood his tiny tribe was numerically too small to fill up a real army. So, he disabled the army and strengthened the revolutionary guard of a few brigades filled with soldiers from his tribe and mercenaries from neighboring countries, and commanded either by his sons or close relatives. In this way he neutralized the army while increasing his own security.
Besides concentration of power, the Qadhadhfa tribesmen accumulated enormous wealth and dominated the economy. In addition to disproportionate distribution of oil revenue to his tribe and the region, Gaddafi ensured Qadhadhfa business elites benefited from skewed competition and government subsidy. Gaddafi’s immediate family sat at the top of the business class owning or running most of the major corporations.
In explaining why the Libyan revolution was not as quick as that of Tunisia and Egypt, John Hamilton wrote:
“[Gaddafi] stuffed the lists of regional military governors, Republican Guard leaders and Revolutionary Committee members with members of his own tribe, the Qadhadhfa. Because of its relatively lowly status in the hierarchy, it is unlikely that the majority of the population would accept another of its members wielding power in Gaddafi’s place: that means the entire regime has its back to the wall, not just its leader.”
Inevitably, the struggle against Gaddafi practically became a struggle against the interest and security of Qadhadhfa tribe, who owed their power and privilege to Gaddafi, and stood to lose it all if he was toppled. They fought to the last minute, and went from having it all to losing it all when Sirte fell on the death of Gaddafi. Having suffered debilitating casualties during the war, and guilt-stricken for the mass atrocities they committed, the Qadhadhfa have little if any role in the power politics of the new Libya.
Syria: The Making and unmaking of the Alawite Monopoly
In an article published in 1989 Daniel Pipes, an expert on Middle Eastern politics, wrote
“For many centuries, the ‘Alawis[ who make up 13% of the population] were the weakest, poorest, most rural, most despised, and most backward people of Syria. In recent years, however, they have transformed themselves into the ruling elite of Damascus. Today, ‘Alawis dominate the government, hold key military positions, enjoy a disproportionate share of the educational resources, and are becoming wealthy.”
Four decades after Alawites took state power, and twenty three years since Pipes penned this observation, what is the consequence of such Alawite domination for the contemporary politics of Syria?
During the first two decades of its independence, Syria experienced extreme political instability, marked by numerous coups and counter-coups. Stability was restored only after Hafez al-Assad took power in 1970. Having watched that neither military rank nor ideological support insulated his numerous predecessors from coups, Assad believed that only a patronage system based on primordial identity could help him create a reliable and loyal support base. Thus, as a politically ambitious young military officer, he created a clandestine group of Alawites within the military and the Ba’th party. A prominent member of the military committee that staged the 1963 and 1966 coups, by the time he officially took power in 1970 through another coup, Assad had already built a strong Alawite block within the Baath party, and this block immediately dominated his government. Assad also forged alliances with the Alawite and Druze business classes. The two minority groups who long complained about discrimination by the Sunni majority have had strong reasons to help him consolidate power.
Although Syrian and foreign observers alike were alarmed by such concentration of power in the hands of the minority, they rationalized it as an acceptable price for ending the immediate political crisis. Basically, if Alawites could usher a new era of stability in the country, went their thinking, let them do it. However, the increasing domination began to stir resentment among the Sunni majority. The regime responded by purging Sunnis from the military and security. Alawites were recruited to the military en masse to replace the purged Sunnis. In a recent essay on the roots of the Alawite-Sunni rivalry, AyseTekdalFildis notes that
“after the [November 1970] coup, the gaps in the army resulting from purges of political opponents were filled by Alawites…the representation of Alawites among the newly appointed officers was as high as 90 percent.”
This was followed by development of a skewed economic scheme in which Sunni businesses considered to be disloyal were systematically pushed out, giving Alawites economic control.
In the 1980s, the tension rose to armed confrontation, as Sunni rebels targeted Alawite elites for assassination. In return, Assad responded by ordering the bombing of Hama – resulting in a massacre of 40,000 civilians. Having soaked its hand in blood, the regime had lost any chance of reconciling with the Sunnis; its only option for remaining in power was to strengthen and further secure the loyalty of the Alawites. In addition to continuous favouritism, fear-mongering propaganda was employed in which, theSunnis were portrayed as savages who will turn back the clock to the old days of domination and destroy the Alawites if Assad was to lose power. Four decades later, the regime and Alawites have become two sides of the same coin welded together with blood and privilege. For the Alawites, defending the regime became a necessity for defending the future existence of their people. For the opposition, fighting dictatorship meant fighting the Alawites who are at defensive line.
Therefore, close observers of the country’s politics were not surprised when the popular uprising that began in March 2011 quickly turned into a sectarian civil war. A recent report by the Associated Press notes that
“Sectarian slayings between Syria’s Sunni majority and the Alawite minority have been a brutal reality of Syria’s 17-month-old conflict, and they have only accelerated as the country falls into outright civil war. Sunnis have largely backed the uprising against Assad’s rule, while the Alawites — members of an offshoot of Shiism — have firmly stood behind the regime, where they fill the leadership ranks.”
The regime’s brutal attack on civilian protesters during the early stages of the conflict resulted in a defection of low-ranking Sunni members of the military, followed by the purging and execution of officers suspected of being disloyal. Assad’s paranoia reached its peak when the most senior security personnel of the regime were blown up at the intelligence headquarters. Soon after, the highest-ranking Sunni member of the cabinet, the Prime Minister, had to defect in order to save himself from the anger, fear and suspicion that gripped the Alawite elites.
As the above-mentioned report by the AP indicates, as “tit-for-tat killings have increased, so has the segregation of the two communities”. Yet such segregation does not seem to be a result of communal violence alone, but part of an exit strategy by a regime whose hold on much of the country is rapidly depleting. As Franck Salameh argues,
” The grisly massacres running riot through the Syrian countryside are not mere sectarian outbursts or bouts of senseless killings and retaliatory counter killings… what they entail in terms of displacements, deportations and population movements—are nothing if not the groundwork of a future Alawite entity; the grafting of new facts on the ground and the drafting of new frontiers. No longer able to rule in the name of Arab unity (and in the process preserve their own ethnic and sectarian autonomy), the Alawites may retreat into the Levantine highlands overlooking the Mediterranean.”
Therefore, just like Gaddafi, Assad seems to be preparing to flee to his home and try to form a separate state that he can rule and protect his and his group’s interests. Only time will tell whether this strategy will help avoid Gaddafi’s fate – because by the time Assad gives up on Damascus, the military and security apparatus tirelessly built by his father would be severely damaged and unlikely to provide him a safe-haven in a new breakaway state.
In that 1989 piece quoted above, Daniel Pipes prophesied:
“It appears inevitable that the ‘Alawis – still a small and despised minority, for all their present power – will eventually lose their control over Syria. When this happens, it is likely that conflicts along communal lines will bring them down, with the critical battle taking place between the ‘Alawi rulers and the Sunni majority. In this sense, the ‘Alawis’ fall – be it through assassinations of top figures, a palace coup, or a regional revolt – is likely to resemble their rise.”
Sadly, this prediction has been realized with the ongoing popular armed uprising. Not only the hegemony of the Alawite elites is rapidly crumbling, but also the social fabric, economic and military foundation of the Syrian state and society is being destroyed. Whether to protect themselves from internal threat or to justify their domination by earning nationalist credentials, the Alawite elites built strong military, intelligence institution that had made Syria one of the most powerful regional players. Unfortunately by excluding the rest of the population from genuinely taking part in such national project and denying them equitable share, they made the current civil war inevitable. The elites’ quest for eternal domination resulted in more marginalization of their Alawite community and left the Syrian state weaker than ever before.
When we look at what has been happening in Ethiopia in the last two decades, we observe frighteningly similar developments to those of Libya and Syria. In assessing Meles’ 21 years rule, a recent report by the International Crisis Group asserted
“Meles engineered one-party rule in effect for the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and his Tigrayan inner circle, with the complicity of other ethnic elites that were co-opted into the ruling alliance, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). The Front promised freedom, democracy and ethnic devolution but is highly centralised, tightly controls the economy and suppresses political, social, ethnic and religious liberties.”
Meles came to power riding on Tigrean grievances. In order to consolidate power, he needed to maintain the loyalty of his Tigrean base and the movement’s organizational cohesiveness so that he could effectively neutralize the previous power-holders, the Amhara, as well as emerging contenders, the Oromos. In addition to completely demobilizing the previous military and replacing it with his own ethnic rebel army, he gradually filled the bureaucracy at the federal level with individuals from his ethnic group. Systematic acquisition of wealth – through establishing endowments explicitly meant to serve his ethnic group, and domination of the market by Tigrean businessmen through displacement of others – has been heavily and systematically undertaken.
In an article written three years ago, I discussed the strategic logic behind Meles’ transformation of Tigrean nationalism from a fuel for peasant revolution to a weapon for consolidation and sustenance of his political power.
“Meles [the ruling elites under his leadership] have been using the Tigrean people to insulate themselves against their opponents. Thus, disproportionately favoring the Tigray region is a calculated move not only to increase Meles’ nationalist credentials, but also to agitate the rest of the Ethiopian people, and create a sense of insecurity among the Tigreans so that they remain loyal supporters of the regime. Similarly, Tigrean elites have been made to monopolize the center in order to propagate tension and hostility from the elites of other ethnic groups. As a result, in order to retain their economic privilege, power and sense of security, the Tigrean elites have to defend the regime at any cost.”
Although some moderation was observed after the ruling elites split in 2001, this policy of building the Tigrean monopoly of business, military and security has been re-intensified after the 2005 election, an episode that posed a serious threat to the status quo. The parties that competed in the election made an issue out of the emerging Tigrean domination, which alarmed the Tigrean politico-military and business elites, motivating them to close ranks around Meles. The post-election violence and the reversal of the democratic opening observed from 2004 onward dashed hope for “change in Ethiopia to bring about peace and for the peoples to live in equality,” as stated by General Kemal Gelchu, who was among many non-Tigrean elites who defected from the regime.
Then, using conspiracy of coup d’etat as pretext, most of the high-ranking military officers from the two main ethnic groups that posed a threat, Oromo and Amhara, along with tens of thousands of soldiers, have been purged from the military – imprisoned, demoted and then replaced by Tigreans. Currently all but one of the generals commanding Ethiopia’s armed forces are Tigrean, and even in the lower ranks many officers decry the sectarian nature of the military organization.
Once the immediate external threats were neutralized, transfer of wealth to Tigrean elites has been intensified – with the aim of further consolidating power. In addition to the fledgling party-owned conglomerate, the Endowment Fund for the Rehabilitation of Tigray, which owns over 85 companies operating “banks, insurance forms, manufacturing and construction giants, hotel chains and media outlets,” a new class of Tigrean private millionaires have sprung up. Looking at businesses (agriculture, industry and service sector alike) that have started in the last five years shows us how blatant this scheme of establishing Tigrean economic domination has become. For instance, in the case of the ongoing land grab, field research by the Oakland Institute found out that
” All but one of the domestic investors that we visited were from the Tigray region, and several spoke of the ease of acquiring land and of securing credit. One regional government official in Gambella estimated that 75 percent of the domestic investors in Gambella were from Tigray. Many of these Tigray investors seem to have limited, if any, farming experience.”
Ironically, Meles often ranted, both in his writings and verbally, against rent seeking behavior. His major criticism was directed at Amhara and Oromo opponents of the regime, whom he accused of seeking power to enrich themselves. However, in reality he turned Tigrean domination of the Ethiopian state into a grand rent producing enterprise. While Tigreans collect the lion’s share of the rent, cronies with strong political connections to the ruling party are receiving the leftover that trickles down to them through the political patronage system. While Meles attributed Somalia’s collapse to rent seeking behavior by Said Barre family, he failed to take note of the danger presented by his own comrades converting their sole ownership of Ethiopian state into a huge cash making machine.
Simply put, in his relentless drive to protect and prolong his rein, Meles wanted to deny any material sources of power to his opponents and use it to maintain loyalty of his base. Consequently, the more Meles favored his kin, the more threats he faced from the alienated elites of other ethnic groups, including those serving within the system, which resulted in an ever-growing exclusiveness of the power elites. Upon his death, Meles leaves behind a political system characterized by growing segregation between the Tigrean elites and the rest of the country. Unless these discriminatory policies and practices are reversed by opening up the political system to competition and compromise, conflict along sectarian lines is inevitable. Writing on the importance of using nonviolent methods in waging struggle in a fragmented society, I expressed my concern that if and when they lose grip of the capital the ruling elites could flee to Mekele and fortify themselves using Tigray as a shield. Similarly footnote 56 of ICG’s latest states
“If the TPLF is fundamentally threatened and seeks to keep power by any means, it might return to its original ethnic platform, call for Tigrayan independence, move most of the army to Tigray and unilaterally implement the self-determination enshrined in the 1994 constitution.”
Suffice it to say that the risk of the ruling elites attempting to break away a part of the country is higher than of Libya and Egypt, because today Tigray has the administrative apparatus, economic strength and constitutional justification that can be utilized to seek independence, when push comes to shove. Yet by the time, they give up on the center, their military capability and political capital would be so damaged that, they are unlikely to be able to defend the enclave by withstanding the rapidly shifting gravity of power.
Why Do Authoritarian Regimes Establish Sectarian Monopolies?
Why do some dictators promote monopolization of political power and wealth at the hands of a particular ethnic/religious group? The usual and simplistic answer is that such rulers care more about their ethnic kin rather than the country they run. That being as it may, my view is that the real reason for such policy is the ruler’s concern for his own political power rather than the benefit of his kin.
If we look at the three cases briefly discussed above, it’s possible that, before ascending to power, the three leaders shared the grievances of their ethnic or religious group. However, what necessitated the initial acts of sectarian preference was the desire to secure their fragile hold on power from immediate threat. During transition from one ruler to another, state power is vulnerable to subversion, either in the form of coup or popular uprising. Therefore, in order to consolidate the power they have just grabbed and prevent it from being taken away by rival factions, aspiring dictators surround themselves with trusted supporters whose loyalty is not just based on material interest but also emotional and psychological identification with the ruler. And primordial identity, by allowing a clearer delineation of us vs. them, offers a stronger loyalty than other forms of group formation such as profession or class.
The problem is that a ruler that uses primordial identity to help him consolidate power is likely to be stuck with the model for the rest of his rule. For one, by promoting his kinsmen, by the time he has consolidated power, he has alienated and aggrieved others. And since such people holding grievances could pose potential threat, its is difficult to trust them and bring them on board and make peace with them. Furthermore, since positions of power and privileges are often limited, promoting outsiders as way of reconciling with them requires demoting kin. Such action of course amounts to depleting the ruler’s only dependable loyal base and creating potential internal threat.
Therefore, the excessive preferential treatment and the eventual exclusive monopolization of power and wealth at the hand of a single group is a result of, in part, the strategy of the dictatorship and in part its consequence. The strategic objective of the dictator is to appease his particular base in order to secure and maintain their loyalty. Consequently, the major channels of political power and economic privilege will be filled with people from that specific group. Since wealth and power trickles down from top to bottom through these channels, gradually the entire preferred group appears to be more privileged than other groups, while the outside groups become victims of perceived or real exclusion.
Why Minority Monopoly Endures
Despite their narrow support base, minority dominated regimes are among the longest surviving authoritarian systems around the world. In addition to the three cases under discussion, from apartheid South Africa to various Latin American countries minority rule has endured majority opposition for decades. And while minority dictatorships have been able to remain in power by facilitating monopolization of wealth and politics in the hands of their base, it seems that such tactics do not work for dictators who originate from the majority population group. Why might this be so?
The obvious reason is that for dictators coming from a large group, since the group already contributes substantial amount to national output, favouritism would not create the sense of privilege. Let us assume that one dictator originates from a population that makes up 10% of the population, while another dictator comes from a group that makes up 60%. If the former channels just 40% of the national wealth and power to his 10% group, the impact, perception and visibility of the preferential treatment would be significant. While the marginalized 90% will no doubt feel indignant about their relegated status, the preferred minority would have very little to be dissatisfied about. If, on the other hand, a 60% majority channels 80% of the wealth, the impact and perception would be much less significant. Thus, the dictator has to choose a specific segment of the majority (military, region etc), to channel the resources which fragments the larger group, leading to the rise of internal rivalries and alliances with ‘outsiders’. Thus, for an aspiring tyrant emerging from the majority, group-based clientelism is not a very effective way of consolidating and maintaining authoritarian power.
The second reason is that cohesion, one of the necessary tools for effective collective action, is harder for larger groups than smaller ones. Unlike leaders of a minority group, who can use the fear of existential threat to keep their base in a state of permanent insecurity, leaders of large group cannot do so due to the sense of security that comes with large groups.
This does not mean that dictators originating from majority groups would not exercise discriminatory policy or practice fear-mongering – they do. Such dictators also use sectarian tactics to remain in power. They usually practice statist nationalism, which emphasizes unity and often uses minorities as scapegoats for the perceived or real problems of the majority – which are usually created due to failure of the leadership itself.
For instance, the Mubarak dictatorship used propaganda that called into question the loyalty of the minority Copts to the nation in order to pit them against the majority Muslims. In Burma the military junta used the secessionist threat of minority ethnic groups as part of its strategy to justify suspension of civil rights for decades. However, while such exploitation of the majority’s prejudice against the minority does help deflect attention, it does not permanently prevent the emergence of a rival group from within the majority. Rivals can challenge the status quo either brandishing ultra-nationalist rhetoric to steal away a segment from the majority or offer moderate alternatives to win over minority and build a progressive coalition. Therefore, authoritarian regimes that rely on majority as support base are marred by frequent coups by internal saboteurs, which shortens their lifespan.
Transition from Authoritarian Regimes Monopolized by Minority
In his popular book The Third Wave, Samuel Huntington gave three possible ways of transition from dictatorship to democracy. The first is transformation, a process in which the ruling elite willingly take the initiative to facilitate transition to democracy. The second, replacement, is when the opposition takes the lead in bringing about democracy by overthrowing the dictatorship or forcing its downfall. The third, transplacement, occurs due to a combination of reformist actions from within the status quo and pressure exerted by the opposition. As we will see below, in cases where the authoritarian system has facilitated monopolization of political power and economy by a minority group, only one way – replacement – is the most like outcome.
Transformation Through Reforming the status qo
Rulers emerging from a minority group might embark on consolidating power through the use of kinship loyalty as a temporary tactic, with the aim of using their power to eventually establish a more inclusive government, and even ushering in a democratic transition. They might be able to do so if they undertake such reform within a short period of taking power. But, as we saw in the cases discussed above, once those promoted relatives and kinsmen have entrenched themselves in power and privilege, implementing reform would be near impossible. That is because, over time, having built strong network and accumulated wealth, the political, economic and military elites of the privileged group develop a capacity that can resist and undermine any reform that threatens the status quo – even if it comes from the ruler that paved the way for their enrichment at the first place.
That is what happened in Syria. Upon inheriting power from his father in 2000, Bashar al-Assad, who is known to be very liberal as a person, attempted to introduce some political reform, ushering a period known as the Damascus Spring. He loosened his father’s strict state of emergency and encouraged open discussion and debate on political and social issues. Opposition leaders, intellectuals and reformist Baath party members established discussion forums that immediately became popular. As intellectuals began taking on the sensitive issues of sectarian favouritism and the opposition used the forums to agitate for more reform, Assad came under increased pressure from the establishment to curb the opening. In less than a year, the door was slammed shut again, opposition leaders thrown into jail and charged with inciting sectarian hatred and attempting to change the government through extra-constitutional mechanisms. With that ended the much anticipated Damascus Spring!
It is believed that the establishment did not only resist the pressure but also threatened the newly anointed leader, who already had to watch over his shoulder against his ambitious brother, General Maher, commander of the elite republican guard. Had Bashar insisted on the reform that threatens the privilege of the establishment, they could have toppled and replaced him by his brother, since they have already developed the economic and political capability to do so. When the recent uprising began, it was reported that Assad had to postpone a scheduled speech for several consecutive days and eventually drop an offer for negotiation that was objected by the establishment, and replace it with a much tougher tone of threat.
Therefore, as the Syrian and other similar case demonstrate, once sectarian monopoly of political power and economy is entrenched and institutionalized, transition through internal reform becomes very difficult if not impossible.
Transplacement: Negotiated Transition
Transplacement refers to a negotiated transition between the status quo and the opposition. Basically, the opposition, either nonviolently through public mobilization, or violently wearing out the regime’s repressive capabilities, induces the regime to sit down for negotiation. The status quo, fearing total loss in the eventual collapse, and the opposition, wishing for a quick end to the conflict or being uncertain about victory, reaches a stalemate that allows the conflicting parties to reach a consensus whereby the status quo gives up power in exchange for keeping certain privilege or immunity from persecution.
However, as Acemoglu and Robinson, in the Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy (2006), have shown, democratic transition is more difficult when inequality between the ruling group and the mass is very high. The reason is that the ruling elites’ fear of cost of redistribution in case they lose power leads them to stick to power rather than to relinquish. Since power and wealth is totally controlled by the ruling group who are usually a tiny minority, it is also unlikely that the opposition would be satisfied without significant transfer.
A localized version of this theory can be presented as follows. Let’s assume an elderly man namedGuyo, a father of 10 children and owner of 100 cattle suddenly died without leaving a will. By default the cattle fall in the hands of the youngest son Abbaa-irree, who was taking care of the old man. Customarily the property should have been equally divided among the children. But Abbaa-irree has another idea; he offered one cow each of his siblings’ and kept the rest to himself. When they protested the unfairness and insisted on equal share, instead of budging, Abbaa–irree decided to sell the ten cows and hire securities and bandits to chase away his siblings. How could this family feud be solved?
The fairest and logical formula would be to persuade Abbaa-irree to agree on equal sharing. But why should he agree to a deal that stands to reduce his share from 90 to 10, while he could easily reinforce his defense by selling 20 more. He would still be left with 70 cows. The ‘elders’ could try to persuade the victimized siblings to settle for half of what they are normally entitled to. Although each of them gets 5 cows rather than 10, that is still better than 1. Abbaa-irreewould also be left with 50 which is less than what he now owns but still much better off than what he should get under normal conditions.
But neither party is likely to accept this deal. For one, displaced, impoverished and humiliated, the marginalized siblings are so bitter that a just and equal share is the minimum they would settle for. Hence they rather promise half of the cattle to a warlord or a bandit to acquire weapons that can be used to coerce Abbaa-irree into giving up. For Abbaa-rree, fearing that his angry siblings might want to avenge him one day, he rather sell the fifty or even more cows and further reinforce his defensive mechanism rather than give it away and empower his enemy.
Years after Guyo’s death that sparked the family feud, the situation would be more complicated making the probability of resolving the issue an impossible task. The cattle would be multiplied through reproduction, making Abbaa-irree richer and more powerful but also complicating the numbers. Blood could have been shed increasing the drive for vengeance and rising insecurity of Irree’s household. Also as children have grown up and as each side solicited the help of third parties (bandits, warlords, clan leaders, government officials etc), the number of stakeholders in this affair, with competing and conflicting interests would be multiplied. Thus finding acceptable and peaceful solution becomes a nightmare; leaving the conflicted to be settled when grievance and sheer numbers of the victimized siblings overpower and overrun the material strength of Abbaa-irree and his allies.
Similarly in an authoritarian system where sectarian monopoly of power and wealth is institutionalized, the difficulty is even greater because the ruling class faces not just redistribution of its wealth and power – but also frames the conflict as if the very safety of their ethnic/religious group hangs in balance. Consequently as conflict intensifies and the tension rises, cohesion increases among the ruling group that faces the existential threat. As more blood is shed by the regime, organized or protracted retaliatory attacks on the members of the ruling ethnic/religious group will increase. In such a situation, moderates from each of the sides advocating for compromise will run back to their group for protection, which leaves the conflict to be dominated by hardliners from both sides, closing the window of negotiation. Thus, peaceful power transfer becomes impossible and a total defeat of one side or the other becomes the only possible outcome. That is what happened in Libya, and it is happening in Syria.
Replacement: Disintegration of the Authoritarian System
Since the entrenched interests undermine any effort for internal reform and the high cost of redistribution hinders negotiated power transfer, the likely transition in a minority-monopolized dictatorship is a complete overthrow of the system. In his famous book, ‘From Dictatorship to Democracy’, Gene Sharp gives two mechanisms in which an opposition can forcefully bring down a dictator resulting in a replacement transition. Coercion is when the opposition, through effective mobilization, paralyses the ability of the regime to suppress the population. Once they realize that the system’s endurance is running low and the downfall of the dictator is inevitable, the elits (military and bureaucracy), is coerced to withdraw their support for the ruler and/or defect to the opposition – effectively deposing the dictator. In such cases most of the institutions remain intact, and the defected elites play an important role in shaping the transition. This was the case in Egypt and Tunisia.
The second type is disintegration which happens when the opposition totally overruns the regime. This usually results in cases where an armed insurgency wins the war, but could also happen when mass uprising physically takes over the palace as happened to NicolaeCeauşescu of Romania and Gaddafi of Libya.
The first condition, where the opposition brings down the dictatorship by coercing elite defection, is very difficult to achieve, in a situation where single group monopoly exists, unless the opposition is capable of maintaining strict nonviolent discipline. In a two-way violence, by the time the opposition has been able to mount such coercive pressure, sectarian violence has reached a level where the ruling elites have so drenched its hand in blood, that defection at that stage does not guarantee personal safety or protection of their group. The only possible defection is likely to come from elites who do not have kinship ties with the ruler. Since such elites are unlikely to hold a position of real power, their defection is unlikely to be of immediate consequence. In fact, their defection is likely to strengthen cohesion within the elites of the privileged group because it confirms their long-held suspicion of the “others’” disloyalty. Thus, such regimes are likely to fight until the opposition completely liquidates their fighting force and disintegrates the system. When it is finally defeated after insisting to the last minute, then the ethnic/religious group that has monopolized power and economy for so long risks losing everything completely.
First, the conflict physically wears out most of the economic and political institutions they have built. Second, having secured absolute victory, the new rulers have no reason to share power with the losers, but rather have full capability to expropriate the resources that remain at the hand of the defeated. Third, having disproportionately and illegitimately benefited from the old regime, and having supported it to the last minute, the defeated group is left with little legitimacy to demand benefit from the new rulers. That is what happened in Libya and is the likely conclusion of the Syrian conflict.
For transition to democracy, regime change through such complete disintegration and liquidation of the old system is least desirable of all. First, since the conflict produces absolute winners and absolute losers, the emerging regime is unlikely to be representative, and neither would distribution of resources be equitable. Such a situation hinders reconciliation and building of an inclusive society, and rather leads to a renewed conflict. Second, during the conflict, in an effort to gain the upper hand, both the opposition and the regime are likely to seek support from foreign powers, who have their own interest on the outcome of the conflict. Usually lacking immediately available resources, the opposition is likely to purchase support by promising access to the country’s strategic and natural resources. Such deals make the new leaders vulnerable to external pressure, and force them to compromise their priority and national interest.
Third, restoring security and stability is the primary task of any transitional government. Unfortunately, in cases where the old regime is completely disintegrated, since key institutions of the state, particularly the military and security apparatus, are entirely destroyed, and since rebuilding them is a costly and lengthy process, the country might face a prolonged instability. This of course poses serious danger such as breakup of the country and/or emergence of a new dictatorship in the name of restoring security. In summary, all of the above-mentioned situations are serious obstacles to democratic transition. That is why the prospect of a democratic, stable and inclusive society is brighter in Tunisia and Egypt, but not for Libya and Syria.
Which Way for Ethiopia?
Currently Ethiopia is undoubtedly following the path travelled by Libya and Syria over the last four decades. But it doesn’t necessarily have to end up at the same place. The opportunity for averting such disaster is slipping away fast, but there is still a slim chance to make a detour, particularly using the windows opened for new leadership of the ruling party. Both the ruling group, the international community and those seeking change can undertake measures to do so.
While the existing concentration of political power, rapid accumulation of wealth at the hands of the Tigreans, and blatant exclusion of other groups is an increasing obstacle for reform, it has yet to reach a level where it can block it completely. The Tigrean military and economic elites are still in the process of institutionalizing and entrenching their privileges, and therefore lack the capacity to threaten the ability of senior leadership to engage in reform. A cohesive interest group that can effectively resist, undermine and reverse changes coming from the top has not emerged yet. In other words, Melesused to hold a level of control that could have enabled him to introduce the necessary reforms that would pave the door for orderly transition. Such reform could have been a win-win for all stakeholders; Melescould have been able to negotiate safe and secure departure, his Tigreans colleagues would be in a strong position to negotiate and maintain fair share of power and wealth, the people of Ethiopia could have avoided the cost of fighting and would be in more advantageous position to build a democratic, stable and inclusive society.
But such transition is becoming increasingly unlikely, in large part due to Meles’ choices. He had been implementing policies that further increase inequality between Tigreans and the rest, and this has been helping further entrench the interest groups, and raise the cost of redistribution. As discussed above, the greater the inequality and more entrenched the monopolizing elites, the lesser his ability to introduce reform, even if he wants to.
Now Meles is no more, which leaves the door wide open. Whether this change in leadership averts the looming disaster or not depends on who succeeds Meles and what Tigrean politico-military elites choose to do. In order to make a detour and open up the system dominated by a minority group, the top leader has to have strong command over his subordinates, particularly the security apparatus. It is a foregone conclusion that, the prospective nominee, HailemariamDessalegn, who lacks a solid political as well as social base of his own, will be a subordinate of rather than exercise command over the Tigrean power elites. He will be at their mercy, even for his own personal security. Hence we cannot expect him to initiate and implement political reforms that entail redistribution of power and privilege. This leaves us to contemplate the collective choice of TPLF leaders.
What matters is whether they want to reform the political system or remain on the same exclusivist path, and whether they can reach consensus on either of the two choices. The absence of a dominant figure that can either succeed Meles or broker a successor might make the issue of reforming the system a valuable commodity in a factional power struggle. Factions are likely to emerge along reformist and conservative fault lines. Since reform with potentially redistributive effect would be more costly to the Tigrean elites, at the end, it’s likely that those in favor of maintaining the status quo would emerge victorious, killing the prospect for peaceful transition. However, if TPLF leaders avoid factional crack in the immediate post Meles period by finding a unifying leader, and if that leader can initiate reform and withstand conservative reaction, then repeating the Libyan and Syrian tragedy can be averted.
Alternatively, the opposition can also induce the detour. If the opposition can narrow its ideological and sectarian difference, devise realistic strategy, build organizational capacity and engage in practical resistance on the ground, it would be able to wear out the regime’s endurance, which would fracture the ruling elite. And such fracture is possible at this stage because the Tigrean elites still reflect signs of factional competition, and a strong interest-based cohesion has not been achieved yet.
I have suggested elsewhere that the opposition should adopt a strategy that isolates the ruling elite from their ethnic base. This includes sticking to nonviolent forms of resistance, aiming to isolate the ruling elites by avoiding generalized propaganda on the Tigrean population and by utilizing tactics that target the dictatorship’s Achilles Hills. However, sustainability and efficiency of such a strategy will be rapidly reduced if the rate of economic monopolization continues at its current rate. Because such rapid growth of inequality will make the disparity between Tigreans and non-Tigreans highly visible even at lower social strata , an appeal by the opposition leadership to differentiate between ordinary Tigreans and the ruling elite is likely to be dismissed by the population.
The other group that can prevent Ethiopia from going the Libya/Syria way is the Tigrean intellectuals and community leaders. While the emergence of Tigrean opposition to the status quo and its alliance with other opposition is a positive development, I have yet to see a single Tigrean intellectual or political leader who acknowledges, let alone denounces, the increasing monopoly of power and wealth at the hand of their ethnic group. And this undercuts their role in helping peaceful transition. Acknowledgement of injustice by members of the privileged group has strong calming impact on the aggrieved. Denial and excusing injustice adds insult to injury. If Tigreans continue on their current path of denial and ignorance, their presence among the opposition serves no transitional purpose and only legitimizes the status quo.
Finally friends of Ethiopia, the international community and African governments, could contribute greatly in averting the Libyan and Syrian scenario from developing in Ethiopia. Rather than being blinded by the facade of stability, calm, and order, the international community needs to be cognizant that the Ethiopian system is inherently unsustainable. Tigrean domination of Ethiopia is untenable in the long-run. Meles was able to postpone the danger through ruthlessness and lately by anchoring his legitimacy to the economy’s performance. However, while some are happy about the country’s economic performance, it has also fueled resentment among the country’s diverse groups due to rising inequality along ethnic lines. This is a time-bomb. To overlook these sectarian resentments for the sake of maintaining short-term stability is to condemn Ethiopia to an inevitable chaos with obvious consequence of a nightmarish regional instability.
Jawar Mohammed is political analysts and Executive Director of Oromia Media Network (OMN). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.