Liberty, Democracy, Organized Crime and Political Hypnosis: The Ethiopian Perspective ( By Zelalem Attlee )


February 11, 2019 

Liberty, Democracy and Organized Crime: The Ethiopian Perspective


The current Ethiopian politics is rooted in its society‟s culture, belief systems, past political  and governance systems. The 20th century Ethiopian political paradigm was marred by the feudal and feudo-bourgeoisie system of class between the feudal few and the broad slaves/servant lower classes that prevailed during the times of the emperors. This trend led to the rise of the poor and middle class educated elites who embraced communist ideals to initiate and topple the feudal class through the communist revolution. The revolution brought a blood bath for power under the same communist and socialist ideologies and it ramified to mixed communist, pro-colonialist and ethnic struggles leading securing power through armed struggle. The communist-based ideology which should have been buried at the end of the cold war era in Ethiopia instead changed its cloak and ushered an era of communist-inspired ethnic federalism which evolved to ethnic polarization, ethnic classism, ethno-bourgeoisie, which ultimately bent towards the imminent disintegration of the country itself.

Since the coup de etat of the King Haile Selassie I regime, the past 44 years have heard the rhetoric of democratization in theory while the necessary elements to build it were absent. At the same time what has been lacking throughout all the Ethiopian regimes was the question of liberty and democracy. The liberty question has been voiced by different institutions such as the mass media, academia, and individual scholars in the past 60 years and it never caught the attention of the incoming governments up until now. The current prime minister, Dr. Abiy Ahmed has repeatedly spoken about the idea of individual liberty as opposed to group rights.

The Foundation for Economic Education (2018) defines liberty as follows:

In terms of what a free society seeks to accomplish, liberty is five freedoms for each individual: (1) freedom to come and go, (2) equality and justice before the law, (3)security of property, (4) freedom of speech, and (5) freedom of conscience. There are many other names for these five individual freedoms—freedom of the press, freedom of expression and opinion, freedom of religion, freedom of association, right of habeas corpus, right of assembly, right of jury trial, etc. But these five individual freedoms are the “blessings of liberty” that constitute the first element of the word. The active and politically minded members of a free society may use a “more or less” liberal or an absolute “either-or” approach, but these five individual freedoms are what a free society seeks to accomplish. The intent of a free society is to keep the use of all man-made power within the periphery of these five individual freedoms. This requires that the activities provided for in our laws have to be limited by the inherent give-and-take requirements contained in each of these five individual freedoms. We do not expect either these five individual freedoms or their conflicts with each other to “wither away,” and we know that we could not have them where the state is everything, or where there is no state.

All the above facets of the classic liberty have never been realized in Ethiopia since the deposition of the Haile Selassie regime. Instead the incoming regimes perpetuated a vicious cycle of revenge, oppression, dictatorship, and a totalitarian rule. The Dergue and the TPLF-led regimes were totalitarian regimes. What is said to distinguish this type of regime from traditional forms of nondemocratic authority such as tyranny or dictatorship is the ability of the totalitarian state to establish and maintain a highly integrated social system that controls nearly every aspect of public and private life (Totalitarianism, 2008). Darity(2008) further characterizes totalitarian regimes‟ four key features as follows:

First, the totalitarian state is organized around an allencompassing ideology that subordinates all aspects of society to the logic of a teleological process that promises to culminate in the attainment of a perfect and final stage of humanity. In order to achieve the revolutionary goal, the totalitarian project systematically eliminates constraints on state power. In this manner, a totalitarian state aims to establish a permanent state of emergency (wherein the rule of law is suspended) as a legal norm, thus, in effect, codifying arbitrary power.

Second, totalitarianism destroys all social, legal, and political traditions that precede it. It transforms a pluralistic party system into the rule of a single mass party headed usually by a single dictator. The party aims to transform the ensemble of social relations into an integrated social totality by a process of perpetual revolution.

Third, if this “perpetual revolution” is to be carried out successfully, it must institutionalize a highly coordinated use of terror that shifts the epicenter of power from the army to the police. Totalitarian use of terror suppresses not only political opposition and all groups and ideas not subordinate to the substantive goals of the state, but also all social space traditionally beyond state control that exists among citizens. Such use of terror produces an environment within which individuals live with an extremely high level of uncertainty and unpredictability.

Fourth, such a regime monopolizes not only the armed forces, but all forms of mass communication as well. Seizing control over the means of communication allows the state to socialize and mobilize different segments of the population through the dissemination of mass propaganda. This mobilization entails the participation of individuals in state-sponsored social and political organizations that stage events and campaigns that often target an “enemy of the state,” usually entire categories of citizens that must be eliminated. Finally, the totalitarian state seeks central control and direction of the economy (p.394-397).

All the four key features were observed in both the Dergue and the TPLF-led EPRDF regimes and it has been responsible for the loss of millions of lives, poverty, and societal degradation. Not only it was responsible for the human suffering, it also was responsible for the cropping up of new ethnic-based groups that seek ethnic agendas in all facets of socioeconomic and political life. Colonialism and European imperialism in the 1880‟s sow the seeds of ethnicism by capitalizing on exploitation of people and their nations, and by following aggressive world political goals and systematically appending other nations not just for economic gain, as colonialism always had, but to increase their power base abroad. This was further ramified by the rise of Aryanism and social Darwinism leading to further classifying human beings in to upper and lower races (Kaplan,2001). While imperialism is flourishing around the globe, the rise of communism in the former Soviet Union provided the ultimate fertilizer for the development of ethnicism. Weitz,(2001) states,

The communist state had a developmental and civilizing mission to fulfill, force-pacing industrialization and the collectivization of agriculture, forging nations out of disparate ethnic groups, and, not least, creating the new communist man and woman. To accomplish these dramatic tasks, the state became a gigantic apparatus, one that also violated the most basic democratic standards (p 519-532).

In Ethiopia, the student movement of the 60‟s and the 70‟s replicated these MarxistLeninist-Stalinist ideals and dangerously implemented them as one of the proposed solutions for “equal‟ rights. The spark that led to the wild fire of ethnicism was set by one rebellious yet naïve student by the name of Walelign. Driven by his deep hatred of his family‟s poverty, and the lawlessness of the feudals in his home province of Wello, he vowed to topple the Haile Sellassie‟s regime by any means necessary and pulled his arson by copying the communist manifesto and Joseph Stalin‟s scripture about the new definition of nations and nationalities. The 5 pager article by Walelign was presented on a student conference about what is known now as ethnic oppression and the rest is history. It is pretty interesting to me how short sighted a revolution or a movement can be based on Walelign‟s paper. In his article for the struggle news paper entitled on the question of nationalities in Ethiopia, he in what seemed a hallucination state of mind he envisioned a socialist egalitarian state. However, the article was nothing but a compilation of historical vacuities, myopic political vision, and a factory of false propaganda.

(Earley, 2000), states:

“What is an egalitarian society?” and “How have these societies evolved?” Boehm begins by arguing that egalitarian societies, although peaceful by nature, are maintained by the subordinates’ ability as a group to aggressively and vigilantly keep the would-be dominant individuals in check. To ensure that the readers do not mistake egalitarian societies for those that are devoid of competition or social order, he coins the term “reverse dominance hierarchy,” which expresses the importance of subordinate coalitions in maintaining parity within the group.

In the above note Walelign was looking for ethnic egalitarianism, which connoted and actually happened as a reverse dominance hierarchy. By toppling one regime, and replicating a failed communist state‟s ideals he pushed to create an ethnic state devoid of his coveted ethnic egalitarianism. In fact, his apostles that carried his banner to their grave and those who are alive today created an ethnic totalitarianism, with multiple splinter ethno-genocidal groups, and a chaotic corrupt economic system. It also lacked the moral grounds by creating ethnic segregation and further creating ethnic casts as it usurped the rights of certain ethnic groups that would rise to the level of being their existential threat. (Gilabert, 2015) states:

How can one consistently endorse global moral egalitarianism (the view that all human beings are owed equal respect and concern by everyone) and fail to also endorse global distributive egalitarianism (the view that each human being’s access to important material advantages matters equally)? On the face of it, if we do not endorse the latter, we contradict our commitment to the former, thinking that the access to economic opportunities for some humans is more important than it is for others.

Before concluding that being Ethiopian is to be an Amhara or being affiliated with the Amhara-Tigre culture, Walelign should have analyzed the whole history of Ethiopia going back to the time of the Axumite dynasty. He should have realized that until the invasion of Ahmed Gragn, Ethiopia‟s dynasties have been engaged in the transfer of power through inheritance, or continuing cycles of palace coups. He should have observed how the Ahmed Gragn invasion has completely changed the demographics through religious and ethnic cleansing, which further opened the flood gates for the Oromo occupation and expansion. He should have mentioned the time of Zemene Mesafint where there were kingdoms from different tribes where everybody has a piece of the national cake. Shiferaw Bekele,  in The State in the Zamana Masafent (1786-1853) states:

The most powerful lords during the Zemene Mesafint were of the Yejju tribe of the Oromo people and were Ras Ali I, Ras Aligaz, Ras Wolde Selassie, Ras Gugsa and Ras Ali II. These were collectively called the Wara Sheh (or Were, Seh) rulers. Other regional lords included Ras Hailu Yosedeq, Dejazmach Wube Hailemariam and King Sahle Selassie of Shewa. However, the Yejju lords did have predominance or hegemony over the other lords of Ethiopia.

Even during that time there was the dominance of the Oromos which now shamelessly cry out that they were oppressed in what their elites call by the “Ethiopian empire”. The Zemene Mesafint era stayed for 86 years, marred by civil conflicts, forced ethnic mixing and cleansing. The era of the Zemene mesafint ended through consecutive wars carried out by King Theodros II and a new era of Ethiopian unity started. During those 200 years before King Theodros II there has been so much ethnic mixing as well as cleansing by those in power leading to a complete transformation by the time Menilik II came to power. The Walelign paper missed a huge point about the absence of monolithic and „pure‟ ethnicities in Ethiopia in the modern era of the 20th century. Since the time of Zemene mesafint people preferred to identify themselves geographically rather than ethnically. For me what Walelign and his colleagues sought at the time was only power, and they somehow attempted to justify their power hunger by appearing intellectual about it, and to reinforce that they quoted primordial revolutionary scripts which entirely were polar with Ethiopia‟s reality.

Capitalizing on Walelgn‟s and fellow students‟ ideations a purely communist movement ensued by the student movement at the time. The student movement also had a ripple effect on the military, and other socioeconomic sectors which confluenced to become a full blown revolution carrying the rhetoric of socialist/communist democracy. At the time, although in small numbers some elites opposed the fanfare of socialist/communist democracy and voiced somehow about liberty. However, their voices were swept by the hurricane of communism and a new era dawned that brought the military junta in power,  that emphasized on Maoist democracy, and a hybrid of the soviet-cuban communism.

The ethnic agenda that was embryonic at the time grew to become the mainstay of the northern (EPLF and TPLF) and the Oromo movements. It emphasized on an anti-Amhara, antiMuslim and anti-individual right elements which later snowballed to be used for agitation, brainwashing, and recruitment of soldiers in the rural parts of Ethiopia and became what is known now as ethnic-federalism. Its paradoxical stance to either liberty or democracy in their sense of the word posed a challenge later on for both TPLF and EPLF when they came to power.

TPLF and the Era of Organized Crime

The term organized crime is a multifaceted entity that has the spectrum of transnational, national, or local groupings of highly centralized enterprises run by criminals who intend to engage in illegal activity, most commonly for money and profit. Some criminal organizations, such as terrorist groups, or the so called “liberation fronts” operating anywhere else in the world  are politically motivated. Sometimes criminal organizations force people to do business with them, such as when a gang extorts money from businesses for “protection” (Macionis, Gerber, John, Linda ,2010). (Walsh, 2001) states:

Organized crime is considered one of the most serious forms of crime for two reasons: (1) It is so often lucrative and successful; and (2) it is so difficult to counteract. In the broadest terms, organized crime can be viewed as any form of group conduct designed to take advantage of criminal opportunities, whether on a one-time or a recurring basis. Organized crime is best understood by examining the nature of ongoing criminal organizations, their activities, and societal response to the behavior of these organizations. (p. 2017-2022).

Organized crime in order to flourish conditions such as the gaps existing between the goods and services which citizens demand and the legal codes that attempt to regulate supply,by traditions and political structures conducive to corruption,  and geographic location are important. The other important element to this end is ethnic succession which is affected by the inhibition of certain ethnic groups or subcultures to move upwards in the social mobility ladder. For this to come into effect other competing ethnic groups should move out of the picture by any means necessary.  This leads to market specialization by the powerful ethnic groups involved in the organized crime activity. Previous cultural experience, for instance, which may relate to the level of mistrust of previous governments, the degree of community tolerance for particular types of organized crime activities, the willingness to use violence, and to the forms that criminal organizations assume are essential foundations for organized crime (Walsh, 2001). A culture of authoritarian rule in previous regimes plays a great role for the organized crime subculture, which legitimizes their actions during their reign, because the current legitimizes the previous when looking at many organized crime and terrorist groups in other countries such as the Soviet Union, Iraq, Libya, and Ethiopia. So when we look at TPLF‟s era of organized crime it cross cuts through other types of crimes such as whitecollar crime, financial crimes, political crimes, war crime, state crimes, and treason.

TPLF‟s criminal activities revolve around the formation of the Tigrian oligarch, which was conceived in the 1960‟s with initiation rituals akin to cosa nostra sugar coated with the communist ideology.  This panned out to form hierarchies based on family, social and cultural traditions, fraternal or nepotistic value systems, entrenched belief systems such as ethnic politics, communication and rule enforcement mechanisms dependent on organizational structure, social etiquette, history of criminal involvement, and collective decision-making (Albini ,1995). As the years passed by TPLF moved to a more complex corporate and bureaucratic operations which involved banks, and forming large corporate organizations such as EFFORT, METEC to enhance corruption and override the rule of law in Ethiopia. These operations sucked billions of dollars from the poverty stricken nation making TPLF a formidable criminal organization not nationally but regionally in Africa. To further reinforce its criminal enterprise TPLF recruited more youth and deployed them as parts of the security apparatus around the nation and committed crimes against humanity especially on the Amhara and Oromo populations for 27 years. As the operations of TPLF grew, TPLF started internal settlement programs into neighboring provinces, and started to claim certain geographic areas .along the line of the Sudanese border from the tip of the former Gondar province all the way down to the former Wellega province as being the land of Tigray. TPLF intentionally kicked out the indigenous populations of these geographical areas and replaced them with Tigrian natives and pro-TPLF clique and started to claim the land as part of the greater Tigray as it was conceived by its central committee when they came to power. These border areas now have a lot of business interests of the Tigrian oligarch and have been the source of internal displacements and conflicts against the current regime. TPLF also has been successful in using the cyberspace to advance its transnational crimes by using foreign banks in Dubai, China, Malaysia, and in Europe. The cyberspace has been used to block counter propaganda against the system, to increase new recruits around the world, human trafficking of women, children and poverty stricken labor force especially to the middle east and to connect with underworld criminal groups to carry out illegal drug and arms sales in the Horn of Africa region. TPLF has created a transnational criminal market for prostitution, illegal immigration, money laundering, and undocumented labor force. Because of this aspect of TPLF‟s criminal activities, the organization has managed to set up multiple ghost organizations in the Middle East, The horn of Africa region, South East Asia, Europe and America which have been used to influence governments in the name of activism, lobbying, and fighting terrorism in the Horn region. This makes TPLF entirely unique as compared to any previous regimes in Ethiopia by the fact that it has reached the pinnacle of what an organized criminal group would covet for financially and institutionally. Because of its intensive brainwash in the younger Tigrian population, even if TPLF as a political entity is wiped out of the picture in the current Ethiopian politics, it will continue as a dark underground subculture and organization for the years to come.

PM Dr. Abiy’s Challenge

Team Lemma which included Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, Demeke Mekonnen, Gedu Andargachew, and Lemma Megersa challenged the status quo of the TPLF‟s ethnic ideology by mobilizing the Ethiopian nationalist agenda, which led to the partial removal of the TPLF power machinery from the EPRDF coalition. It is a new wave of power reform from within the EPRDF which is still founded on the ethnic federalism platform. While some say it is just another mutation of EPRDF‟s ethnic agenda to maintain power, most Ethiopians view it from the vantage point of a paradigm shift. This transition has similarities with the third and fourth waves of transition of democratization. I will emphasize on the third wave of democratization. (Carothers,2002) states the five core assumptions under the third wave transitology as follows:

The first, which is an umbrella for all the others, is that any country moving away from dictatorial rule can be considered a country in transition toward democracy.

The second assumption is that democratization tends to unfold in a set sequence of stages. First there occurs the opening, a period of democratic ferment and political liberalization in which cracks appear in the ruling dictatorial regime, with the most prominent fault line being that between hardliners and softliners. There follows the breakthrough— the collapse of the regime and the rapid emergence of a new, democratic system, with the coming to power of a new government through national elections and the establishment of a democratic institutional structure, often through the promulgation of a new constitution.

After the transition comes consolidation, a slow but purposeful process in which democratic forms are transformed into democratic substance through the reform of state institutions, the regularization of elections, the strengthening of civil society, and the overall habituation of the society to the new democratic “rules of the game.

The third assumption—the belief in the determinative importance of elections.

A fourth assumption is that the underlying conditions in transitional countries—their economic level, political history, institutional legacies, ethnic make-up, sociocultural traditions, or other “structural” features— will not be major factors in either the onset or the outcome of the transition process.

Fifth, the transition paradigm rests on the assumption that the democratic transitions making up the third wave are being built on coherent, functioning states.(p5-21).

While PM Abiy and his radical team is moving Ethiopia away from TPLF‟s dictatorial rule the move is not complete. This is because the reform is within EPRDF itself, EPRDF has maintained its revolutionary democracy principle as its main road map, and TPLF is still a major stakeholder in the political arena. There are other elements attached to it such as the presence of armed groups like OLF and ONLF, the rise in ethnic conflicts in all parts of the country, an extreme polarization between the radicals (team Lemma) and the reactionaries (TPLF, OLF and others), the loose grip of PM Abiy‟s team over the military and security apparatus, and the pastoresque leadership style of PM Abiy himself. These elements make the first core assumption of democratization partial and embryonic.

The second core assumption of this democratization is only at the stage of opening. This is the manifestation of the first core assumption and it puts Ethiopia at a cross road either to progress to the breakthrough or to an indefinite stall or a reversal of the reform to the status quo ante. At this point it is difficult to predict, which way this reform is headed to. It can progress in either a positive or a negative direction.

The third core assumption, which is about the belief in the determinative importance of elections, while most Ethiopians covet it, it is remotely possible to be favored by the current conditions. This is due to the shortness of the time of the government change, the lack of preparations in creating the constitutional and institutional platforms that are conducive for free and fair elections, and the extreme polarization between the political stakeholders i.e. the people, the parties, and the elite. Expediting the current political environment towards elections at this point in time can have a catastrophic outcome.

On the fourth core assumption the situation of Ethiopia is quite opposite to the third wave of democratization line of thought. This is because all the elements stated under this core assumption have a critical role in the reform process. In fact economic level, political history, institutional legacies, ethnic make-up, socio-cultural traditions, or other “structural” features are the key determinants of the outcome of this political reform. Maintaining a working economy that is devastated by outrageous corruption and cleptocracy is the key to answer the demand of the public‟s outcry for the rule of law and fairness in sharing the national cake equally between all Ethiopians.

At this point in time progression to the fifth core paradigm is static due to the lack of coherent, functioning regional states. There is a clear lack of cohesiveness of the Tigray region with the PM Abiy‟s government, which also led to the cropping up of small armed groups in Amhara, Oromia, Benshangul, Somali and Southern regional states. There is no unity of thought between the Ethiopian nationalists and the ethnic federalists which has led to a proxy war on PM Abiy‟s government in these critical regions.

While PM Abiy‟s reform is centered on liberty, fighting crimes against humanity and corruption, his inability to take swift reforms in dissolving the ethnic constitution, capturing criminals, cleaning the corrupt system, building a trust worthy team around him makes his reform full of dire challenges which can rise to a serious compromise his government, the reform process and his life itself.

Abiy‟s style of political hypnosis is raising eye brows in the current delegation of “reform‟ officials in which more than 80% of the assigned individuals belong to the Oromo ethnic group. Some of the measures taken on the youth of Addis Ababa in the name of chaos, and “disturbing‟ the peace are a matter of concern. The new mayor, Takele Uma, an Oromo while not from Addis has become the mayor of Addis Ababa and is creating a blunder in the land ownership reforms.

The clear double standard of the so called Oromo activists is something familiar, as far as Abiy‟s ethnic line is concerned. If he belonged to an Amhara or other non-Oromo tribe, the unrest that started 8 months ago would have continued up to now, until an Oromo is in power.  Why is it so difficult for Abiy to solve the escalating war in Gondar while other areas in Wellega and Hararghe are getting relatively calmer? Well we can say we all are politically hypnotized, and we are in a state of trance from Abiy‟s cosmic showers of mesmerizing pastersque speeches.  At the same time the beat goes on and paradoxically the rhythm is heading in the direction of what it seems  the  second wave of Zemene Mesafint in this day and age.

We will see how it plays out!


Albini (1995). “Russian Organized Crime: Its History, Structure and Function”. Journal ofContemporary Criminal Justice. 11 (4). Archived from the original on 2014-10-16.

Carothers, Thomas. “The End of the Transition Paradigm.” Journal of Democracy 13:1 (2002). © The Johns Hopkins University Press and the National Endowment for Democracy. Reprinted with the permission of The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Earley, R. (2000). Balance of power. American Scientist, 88(2), 182. Retrieved from

Foundation for Economic Education. (2018). Defining Liberty: An Analysis of Its Three Elements.

Retrieved from

Gilabert, P. (2015). Global moral egalitarianism and global distributive egalitarianism. Ethics & International Affairs, 29(3), 269-276. doi:

Kaplan, G. (2001). Racism. In P. N. Stearns (Ed.), Encyclopedia of European Social History (Vol. 1, pp. 545-553). Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons. Retrieved from

Macionis, Gerber, John, Linda (2010). Sociology 7th Canadian Ed. Toronto, Ontario: Pearson Canada Inc. p. 206.

Shiferaw Bekele, The State in the Zamana Masafent (1786-1853), p. 25

Totalitarianism. (2008). In W. A. Darity, Jr. (Ed.), International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (2nd ed., Vol. 8, pp. 394-397). Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA. Retrieved from

Walsh, M. E. (2001). Organized Crime. In Encyclopedia of Sociology (2nd ed., Vol. 3, pp. 2017-2022). New York, NY: Macmillan Reference USA. Retrieved from

Weitz, E. D. (2001). Communism. In P. N. Stearns (Ed.), Encyclopedia of European Social History

(Vol. 2, pp. 519-532). Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons. Retrieved from