Becker on Berhe, 'Laying the Past to Rest: The EPRDF and the Challenges of Ethiopian State-Building'

Mulugeta Gebrehiwot Berhe
Derick Becker

Mulugeta Gebrehiwot Berhe. Laying the Past to Rest: The EPRDF and the Challenges of Ethiopian State-Building. London: Hurst Publishers, 2020. 376 pp. $70.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-78738-291-6

Reviewed by Derick Becker (University of Nottingham Malaysia) Published on H-Africa (September, 2020) Commissioned by David D. Hurlbut (Boston University)

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Laying the Past to Rest is essential reading for anyone who wishes to understand contemporary Ethiopian politics. The book is primarily an in-depth case study of the rise of the Tigrai People's Liberation Front (TPLF) and its development over time, the creation of the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Forces (EPRDF), and the transformation of post-civil war Ethiopian politics. It is a work that stands at the intersection of several literatures from African liberation movements to democratic transitions and perhaps even party politics in Africa. It is a rare work of scholarship that combines an insider's view with academic distance to critically evaluate the history of the movement as well as its successes and failures in government. Mulugeta Gebrehiwot Berhe pulls no punches in laying blame on the EPRDF for its failure to instill democratic norms and for providing space for the destabilizing ethno-nationalist politics that have arisen since its assumption of power. There is, indeed, a subtle sense in the concluding chapters that the author, who played an active role in the TPLF-EPRDF and civil war, laments not just the direction of contemporary Ethiopian politics but also the failure of the EPRDF to uphold its revolutionary democratic ideals.

The book largely follows a chronological format beginning with the origins and foundation of the TPLF, its development after years of struggle, and its rise to power and the transformation of Ethiopian politics. This approach is more than a simple historical narrative of a group over time; it is also intimately bound to the theoretical framework to explain how and why the group made the decisions it did and why and how it was successful where so few other movements in the civil war were. It also allows the author to do more than state that the TPLF-EPRDF failed to transition to a true political party from its origins as a liberation movement; it allows him to explain why. The author borrows heavily from a particular approach to the study of organizations that seeks to place them in context. That is, we see the history of the TPLF not just as a liberation movement that won but also as an organization with internal dynamics engaging and reacting to the external dynamics of the region, the state, and eventually the international system.

The book opens by placing the TPLF's founding as a student group within the broader politics of student activism in 1970s Ethiopia in the waning days of emperor Haile Selassie's rule. The TPLF is, thus, a product of its time—a product of the growing opposition to the centralizing rule of the emperor and the ways Marxist/socialist thought provided a framework to understand this rule and the solutions to it. Many student groups of the time, the TPLF included, were primarily organized by ethnicity. Their Marxist-inspired debates were focused on how to approach the problem of centralizing Amharic rule: as a traditionally class-based one or, mixing ethnic and socialist politics, a colonial one of ethnic rule and subjugation. Where a group fell in such debates determined whether they later aspired to a pan-Ethiopian resistance or ethnic separatism. The TPLF, though initially viewing the problems in Tigrai through the lens of Amharic colonialism, later and somewhat intriguingly comes to thread the needle on this question. When the military overthrew the emperor and associated itself with a pan-Ethiopian socialist student group, the founders of the TPLF saw the same centralizing tendencies that defined the rule of Selassie. This initially led the founders to concentrate on liberating Tigrai alone and to see the problems facing the state through a colonial ethnic lens. But as the author notes, this was never a fully settled debate within the TPLF. Yes, Marxism helped the TPLF understand the plight of poor peasants but internal debate continued over whether separation was the solution.

Regardless of such debates, unlike many other dissident groups formed after the military coup, the TPLF organized and recruited on the basis that their struggle would be a protracted one. This proved key early on as its fighters were not looking for a quick victory, making minor setbacks less threatening to its military strategy. Similarly it meant that the group focused heavily on its internal organization to recruit members and take and hold territory. For Berhe these early decisions would prove key to the group's immediate and long-term success as well as the dynamics of its evolution. From an early stage the TPLF was able to take and hold territory. But to hold territory it would need to be governed. The revolutionary socialist origins of the group came to bear on both how the group organized itself as a rebel movement and as a local government. Internally, the TPLF organized itself with a democratic ethos. Its leaders were elected—and crucially removed—by members and criticism was built into its rules. Similarly, the TPLF sought to empower peasants where it held territory and did so by encouraging local governance and the use of local customs and norms to do so. Over time both processes fed the internal development of the movement's logistics and more effective structures of governmental organization. This ultimately gave the group a certain "stateness" that it would carry through to government when it came to power.

By the 1980s the group had steadily spread its territorial power base and eliminated rival groups that did not share its values. This period also brought a formal process of review and, importantly, a clearer declaration of its political thinking. Perhaps the most important decisions of this period concern how to understand the nature and purpose of the liberation movement. Gone was any sense that the troubles in Tigrai were best understood as colonial—and thus the solution being a separate state. In its place, the TPLF sought to paint its movement as radically socialist (and thus somehow also democratic) but also intriguingly as pan-Ethiopian and nationalist. The people of Tigrai, like the Oromo and Eritreans and others, had clearly suffered under the centralizing rule of past and then current governments. The solution, however, lay not in irredentism but in unity, in recognizing the right of all the peoples of Ethiopia to live together as a nation of nations. This guiding principle would later serve as the basis of the EPRDF as an umbrella group of other ethnic political parties/movements. But importantly it would also serve as the basis for placing self-determination in the new Ethiopian constitution. For the author these developments reflect the internal dynamics of the Ethiopian civil war, the need to expand the TPLF's power base, and, crucially, a sense that the strident socialist rhetoric of the group's founding was finding fewer and fewer willing listeners as the Cold War wound down.

Berhe's analysis more or less follows this basic template over succeeding periods of time: internal and external dynamics in a pas de deux. But it is the concluding analysis where his book proves its true value and to which we jump ahead to now. The author never quite frames his work in the context of party politics or the rise of one-party rule. But it is hard not to look at his final chapters as anything but a study of the rise of one-party authoritarian rule. His concluding chapter is an analysis of the success and failure of the EPRDF to implement its true reformist agenda and create a democratic state—albeit a socialist democratic one. The post-civil war era saw the growing power of the EPRDF and the slow melding of party and state that so often defines one-party rule. This is the era of the rise, yet again, of one-party rule and increasingly ethno-nationalist politics. Both of these outcomes the author directly connects to the internal organization of the party and its failure to create the nation of nations at the center of its political program.         

During the transitional period between the ouster of the military dictatorship and the first free elections, the TPLF/EPRDF was the only party with both a highly organized military wing and decades of experience actually governing. As a result, it seamlessly blended into the power structures of the collapsed military regime to hold the government together until a new constitution could be worked out. But as the author sees it, the movement failed to use its powers to build up democratic norms; specifically it failed to build up a true free press or foster a climate for the development of political parties unaligned with its own EPRDF. While it initially used its local governance approach across the country, in time it also sought to co-opt local governance under the EPRDF. As party members moved into governance, some of its famous discipline and self-criticism broke down as well. Politicians began using their offices for personal gain and silencing critics even from within the party. Whatever democratic ethos the movement once had faded away after its spectacular electoral losses in the 2005 elections. These elections still saw the EPRDF with majority power, but it lost power in Addis Ababa to a coalition of opposition groups that ultimately boycotted the results. This created a vacuum quickly filled by the EPRDF who then further eroded any remaining differences between state and party.

It is hard to square some of the author's conclusions with both the facts known and presented and those known but not presented. For one Berhe seems to avoid recognizing that the EPRDF had become an authoritarian one-party rule under the leadership of Meles Zenawi. He also argues that multiculturalism flourished in Ethiopia due in part to the nation of nations approach of the EPRDF. But he limits this to the arts and culture more broadly while giving no mention at all to how the EPRDF government has been credibly accused of stoking ethnic violence and engaging in its own ethnic violence particularly toward the Anuak of Gambella during the government's failed villagization program—a horrible echo of similar programs under the military dictatorship it replaced (see, for instance, Human Rights Watch's Targeting the Anuak: Human Rights Violations and Crimes against Humanity in Ethiopia's Gambella Region [2005] and Human Rights Watch's Waiting for Death: Forced Displacement and "Villagization" in Ethiopia's Gambella Region [2012]). Instead Berhe sees the rising ethno-nationalist politics as a result of the vague constitutional means through which ethnic groups are empowered and in the failure to inculcate sufficient democratic norms such that the opposition could accept winning short of dominance.        

These are not, however, major flaws in this work. Indeed there are few flaws in this work beyond some unusual copyediting mistakes (particularly the one where we find President Jimmy Carter still president in 1989). But I think it does reflect in part some of the insider's view that actually makes this book so strong. This is clearly someone disillusioned with the EPRDF and its failure to create a truly democratic Ethiopia. The study of success and failure must, a priori, assume some normative value in what is being assessed. It is here then where I believe the author should have more clearly laid out his position and time in the movement and after. One only captures small asides here and there where the reader will know that the author was a participant in some of the events discussed. Something of his own biography here might have helped place his analysis in its own personal context. The book remains a remarkable work of scholarship providing insights into not just Ethiopian politics but African politics more broadly. Future scholars seeking to understand the rise of one-party states or the dominance of personal rule will find here a useful resource.

Citation: Derick Becker. Review of Berhe, Mulugeta Gebrehiwot, Laying the Past to Rest: The EPRDF and the Challenges of Ethiopian State-Building. H-Africa, H-Net Reviews. September, 2020. URL:

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