The development of Ethiopia is characterized by a number of paradoxes that raise both challenging and interesting questions in respect of the country’s future trajectory. Its economic performance is one such paradox. While state-led growth averaged an impressive 10–11% per year over the period 2003–13,‍[2] Ethiopia’s ranking on the Human Development Index has not moved by much, which is partly a reflection of its population growth and the difficulty of translating macro-growth into micro-gains.‍[3] Ethiopia’s politics suggest another paradox in the form of the contrast between a progressive constitution, a discourse of respect for ethnic self-determination and the almost complete political dominance of the Ethiopean People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).‍[4] Ethiopia´s state security forces represent a third paradox. On the one hand, many commentators have acknowledged the contribution of the Ethiopian military to regional stability through, for example, substantial peacekeeping contributions and acting as US ally in the Horn of Africa theatre of the ‘global war on terror’.‍[5] At the same time, others argue that the concentration of political power in the hands of the EPRDF results in the use of state security forces (police and intelligence in particular) as instruments of the party to preserve the existing power structure.‍[6]

In the context of these paradoxes, the report examines the relationship between political power and security in Ethiopia to inform international initiatives designed to support the country’s development. More specifically, it examines the evolution of Ethiopia’s ‘political settlement’ and its implications for the organization and provision of security by state forces.‍[7]

Although imperfect, the concept of ‘political settlement’ offers a useful analytical lens because it focuses on the negotiation process, as well as the agreement that may result from it, between a country’s various powerful groups on the division and use of power.‍[8] In fragile societies, coercive capacities, including state security forces, are drivers of such political settlements and at the same time instruments for maintaining and implementing them. On the one hand, powerful groups that can avail themselves of coercive capacities such as militias, factionalized security forces or even criminal elements, enjoy an advantage when competing for political power. On the other hand, when such groups reach agreement on the distribution of power, the administrative machinery of state usually plays a significant role in implementing its terms.‍[9] State security forces are a vital part of this equation beause of their ability to enforce the political settlement vis-à-vis those that are not included or represented.

Ethiopia reached a fairly stable political settlement, after the overthrow of its military dictatorship, in the period 1991–95, and the settlement is still in place today. This resulted in both a de jure, and a significant measure of de facto, state control over the means for violence, meaning that the use of coercive capacity as an independent variable that influences the terms of the country´s political settlement has largely ceased to be relevant. There is no question about the ability of the Ethiopian state to defend itself effectively by force should the need arise and none of the groups excluded from its political settlement currently possesses adequate force to challenge it. Therefore, it is appropriate and relevant to focus on how, and to what effect, state security institutions implement the existing political settlement.

The paper is part of a larger project that analyses how political settlements – as expressions of elite interests – influence the way in which security is organized. This project is co-funded by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Swedish Folke Bernadotte Academy and includes another case study (on Lebanon) and a more general synthesis paper. The present report is based on literature research and 27 semi-structured, qualitative interviews with Ethiopian individuals who have agenda-setting influence on the conception and use of a nation’s tangible and intangible security resources. The interviews took place in Addis Ababa in February and June 2015, with additional validation meetings conducted in March 2016.‍[10] Shortcomings of the interview data include limited coverage of the opposition, a lack of interviews with representatives of state security forces outside of Addis Ababa and the fact that non-state security actors were not included. In addition, the second part of the analysis relies more on the limited set of interviews than ideally would be the case. This is largely because not much is written about Ethiopia’s security sector. This makes the report an explorative effort to stimulate discussion as well as further research.

As to the report’s structure, Section 2 examines the evolution of Ethiopia’s political settlement from both a historical and a contemporary perspective, with the aim of clarifying the political parameters within which the present organization of security must be understood. Section 3 subsequently examines the implications of these parameters for the organization of security in terms of their consequences, perceptions and risks. The report’s conclusion offers short reflections on the future challenges that Ethiopia’s present organization and provision of security are likely to generate, and how they could be dealt with.

Wondifraw, A. et al., Ethiopia 2015, African Economic Outlook, AfDB, OECD and UNDP, 2015.
United Nations Development Programme, Accelerating Inclusive Growth for Sustainable Human Development in Ethiopia, National Human Development Report, Addis Ababa, 2014. About 25 out of 100 million Ethiopians lived below the national poverty line of USD 0.60 a day in 2013.
For example: Abbink, J., “The Ethiopian Second Republic and the Fragile Social Contract”, Africa Spectrum, vol. 44, no. 2., pp 3-28, 2009; Markakis, J., Ethiopia: The Last Two Frontiers, Woodbridge, James Currey, 2011.
President Obama´s visit in July 2015 strongly emphasized US support for Ethiopia because of the latter’s role in the region. See: The Guardian, 27 July 2015.
Illustrative are: Pausewang, S., Local Democracy and Human Security in Ethiopia, Structural Reasons for the Failure of Democratisation, Johannesburg, SAIIA, 2004; Abbink, J., ‘The Ethiopian Revolution after 40 Years (1974-2014): Plan B in Progress?’, Journal of Developing Societies, vol. 31, no. 3, pp 333-357, 2015.
In this report, state security organizations include the military, police (federal and regional) and intelligence services. See box 2 for more details.
A political settlement is the set of (in)formal representation, control and distribution rules that guide governance and resource allocation in a particular country. It is usually based on the interests of powerful groups led by a country’s elites. They negotiate the extent to which they can pursue their interests on the basis of their relative power and skill within the boundaries of what their constituencies tolerate. The settlement that is the outcome of these negotiations influences the type of institutions that can exist and the nature of their performance. See for example: Parks, T. and W. Cole, Political settlements: Implications for International Development Policy and Practice, Occasional paper no. 2, The Asia Foundation, 2010. For a useful overview of the issues and usefulness of the concept: Bell, C., What we talk about when we talk about political settlements: Towards inclusive and open political settlements in an era of disillusionment, Edinburgh, Political settlements research programme, 2015.
Putzel, J. and J. Di John, Meeting the challenges of crisis states, London, LSE, 2012.
Seven of these interviewees were political leaders (senior government officials, opposition and trade union leaders), five were opinion-makers (academics, journalists, think-tank analyst) and fifteen were senior officials across the security sector).