Ethiopia’s foreign affairs and national security policy and strategy document states that “work carried out on the basis of studies has a better chance of bringing good results”.[1] In the spirit of this encouraging statement, the present report seeks to contribute to a productive debate on the relationship between political power and security in Ethiopia in order to inform international initiatives aimed at supporting the country’s development. More specifically, it examines the evolution of Ethiopia’s ‘political settlement’ and its implications, consequences and risks with regard to the organization and provision of security by state forces. The report is part of the growing body of research on the role of elites and leadership in the politics of developmental processes, and as such it adds value to the domains of political science, development and conflict studies.

The report analyses a number of historical and contemporary factors that have influenced the evolution of Ethiopia’s political settlement in order to understand the broad political parameters that govern the organization of security. On this basis, it subsequently identifies and unpacks three major implications for the organization of security. The figure below provides a schematic overview of the approach and headline findings:

Figure 2
Schematic overview of the report’s key findings

The picture that emerges from the analysis of factors influencing the evolution of Ethiopia’s political settlement shows that the TPLF/EPRDF has acquired and maintained a significant level of control over the structures, resources and instruments of the Ethiopian state during the past 25 years. The party’s centralized hold on power is based to a large extent on the interlinked dynamics of generating legitimacy through output in terms of social service delivery and economic growth, using economic and security incentives to maintain loyalty to the party, and limiting meaningful political competition. As a political party, the EPRDF comprises inner and outer layers. The outermost layers have strengthened over time, align with regional (sub-state) leading groups and provide a platform that extends the party’s authority and legitimacy into Ethiopia’s regions. Resources are managed through a state-led economy with a key role for parastatal companies, many of which are run by party-associated individuals. These companies are harnessed to a state-led vision of economic development and poverty reduction. As robust security measures continue to be used as a common instrument of rule, political dialogue and compromise characterize the government’s policy agenda only to a limited extent. This situation has three particular implications for the organization of security:

The EPRDF/TPLF strategically controls state security forces which, given the party’s quasi-monopoly on political power, often makes it difficult to distinguish instruments of the state from the party. This creates a situation in which state security forces may serve national interests but in which these interests are defined on the basis of a particular ideology and they also sustain existing power structures. This view has been reinforced by the fact that some leading security professionals remain party-affiliated. The top ranks of the security forces also still tend to be dominated by people of an Tigrayan ethnic background.

The combination of de facto centralization of authority and security with de jure decentralization of autonomy to Ethiopia’s regions, in recognition of their social and developmental diversity, creates inconsistency in matters of security, in terms of both intent and performance. More specifically, while regions are responsible for maintaining security within their borders, they often lack the capacity to ensure it and, particularly on the issue of fighting terrorism, they face the problem that federal mandates and powers of intervention are not clearly delineated from their own. This creates a patchwork of security provision of variable quality and extent.

The military serves both as a combat force and as a vehicle for development. As a disciplined organization, it is entrusted with running, and providing strategic advisory support for, significant business enterprises contributing to the country’s development. This happens mainly through the vehicle of ‘METEC’, a military-run conglomerate. While this seems sensible from the perspective of strengthening party rule and enhancing implementation capacity for development strategies, it also increases the risk of corruption, nepotism and inefficient resource allocation.

As long as popular perceptions of individual prospects, economic opportunities and personal security are positive, such issues will be relatively unproblematic. However, in order to avoid a situation where demands for socio-political change outmatch the government’s capability to accommodate them, two actions could be considered. In the short term, the government could find ways of creating greater transparency around security thinking, policies and operations, including opportunities for consultation, which fall short of undermining the political dominance of the TPLF/EPRDF. In the medium-to-long term, greater support for Ethiopia’s regional police forces could help local security provision to respond more closely to people’s security concerns; this would gradually establish a habit of dialogue, provided such a process were undertaken in a consultative as well as a capacitating fashion. As key state security organizations would remain centralized, this could be an acceptable method of experimenting with how the principles of Ethiopia’s constitution can be given greater meaning in terms of regional security autonomy.

On a final note, it should be noted that this research proved to be a difficult endeavour. This was partly because Ethiopia’s political and economic model differs significantly from the framework of the liberal peacebuilding agenda. On the one hand, present-day Ethiopia is a world away from the country in 1991 that was suffering the effects of decades of civil war, droughts and poor governance. In a single generation, Ethiopia has become a fairly secure, economically fast-growing and well-regarded member of the international community. On the other hand, it has reached current levels of performance and activity by way of a more centralized and control-oriented approach. Regardless of the fact that insufficient evidence is available on the extent to which exits from fragility need to be centralized and controlled in order to ‘succeed’, normative views tend to dominate the framing of development processes such as those in Ethiopia. In particular, tension exists between the developmental and political realities of Ethiopia and the global political and human rights agenda. This matter is beyond the scope of the present report, but it suggests that analysis should be conducted with caution. The complex processes of political and social change in Ethiopia invite discussion, but they are ongoing and multifaceted.

Another problem was that there is only a very modest analytical base for research on security matters in Ethiopia, given the limited scholarly work and public data available. In addition, because political discourse in Ethiopia between the ruling party and the opposition is polemicized, and significant grievances exist in sections of the population, there is an absence of objective, evidence-based sources of data. This makes it difficult for research to navigate across different perceptions and experiences. It is for these reasons that interviews supporting the analysis are not attributed or referenced. Data has of course been triangulated between interviews and with existing research where possible. It is likewise for these reasons that the report should be read as an exploratory effort to stimulate discussion as well as further research.

Ministry of Information (2002), Ethiopia’s National Security and Foreign Affairs Policy and Strategy, Addis Ababa, 2002. Accessible here (consulted 22 February 2016).