opinionBy Daniel Berhane
If there is a cliché often repeated among the ranking officers of the Ethiopian national defence forces, it is that, "the military is the last barrack of defence for the Constitution".
Apparently, the maxim is part of their training on the Constitution.
The exact meaning varies with the officer one talks to and depends on her level of articulation and political consciousness.
The line is equally ambiguous among political commentators. It could simply mean that the military will provide assistance when all other security forces are overwhelmed in the course of protecting the constitutional order. Or, it could indicate that the military will step-in when all state institutions fail the Constitution.
However well-intentioned the motto may be, it echoes the custodian mindset of armed forces in post-colonial Africa. This mindset resulted from their better standing in terms of institutional make-up, including more professionalism, organisational cohesiveness and public trust when compared to other state organs. Thus, they believed that it is their duty to step-in whenever politicians led the nation astray.
The Ethiopian forces share some similarities. It is an institution that enjoys a high level of public trust compared to other state institutions, as a few-years-old survey by PEW, a fact tank, suggests.
Despite the nation's official policy of building a labour-intensive army, it seems to have become a small elite force. Data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) suggests that the number of its active personnel shrunk below 130,000, whilst unofficial data from the army indicates that about five percent of its members are attending or have graduated from tertiary education.
It managed to survive on an annual budget which is continually shrinking, relative to the nation's gross domestic product (GDP). Though the nation's budget report shows some increase in recent years, the overall defence related expenditures stood around one percent of the GDP in 2010, according to the World Development Indicators (WDI) database and data from SIPRI.
The meagre budget, however, is offset by military cooperation from a half-a-dozen countries. The cooperation with the United States is relatively transparent, whilst relations with Israel and North Korea are obscure, even for American diplomats, as the Wikileaks cables revealed.
A more curious and crucial source of revenue is the military industrial establishments. The official justification for these firms is the popular and developmental trend that the army is expected to assume.
It is not unusual for the government to call upon nearby military to help farmers collect their harvest when weather forecasts are unfavourable. Similarly, the nation's security policy dictates, "factories which were originally designed for solely military purposes could also be geared, wholly or partially, to produce commodities needed by the civilian community, contributing to technology transfer between the military and civilian sector."
But the recent industrial endeavours of the forces seem to go beyond the objectives of technology transfer and the justifiable intent not to keep military factories idle in times of peace.
If the military, which takes a decent share of the nation's budget, succeeds with its ongoing projects and its efforts to partner foreign investors, civilian politicians will have less and less leverage on it.
In fact, the economic autonomy of the military may not be an unintended outcome. Inconclusive data from army-owned corporations indicate an increasing trend of appointing active and retired officers to mid-level management posts as of 2009.
This curiously coincides with the forces' 'generational transition' (Metekakat) plan, which appears to be a replica of a similar plan by the ruling party.
The plan was to retire 561 ranking officers in a few years time, as of the 2009/10 fiscal year. So far, the retirement of 13 generals and 303 colonels and lieutenant colonels has been reported. Though the process is expected to include top military chiefs including the chief of staff, it now appears they will stay around to run the fast growing military conglomerates.
One may ponder, albeit cynically, how an elite, economically self- sufficient army, with its hard-line senior officers around, would view the political elites. If one agrees, the new generation of political leaders highly defer to advise from their seniors, the matter would be even stronger in the army.
It may be insightful to note, as observed by a western military attaché, Ethiopian military officers decline invitations to all social events, lest it is communicated through their superiors.
Wikileaks cables, on the other hand, revealed that the Chief-of-Staff declined offers to train his officers in American military colleges. He insisted that training should be provided in Ethiopia. In fact, an irritated United States Ambassador wrote in a 2008 cable that the Chief was unwilling to let him visit a military facility, which is allegedly assisted by the North Korean government, as the Ambassador only had an oral permission from the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
Needless to say, for the top military brass, the political leadership's relationship with westerners is too cosy for their taste. They are focused on keeping their rank and files immune to formal and informal influences from Western armies; which is the main source of the latter's influence in the armed forces of other countries, such as Egypt.
Thus, given its strong institutional stature, economic autonomy from the civilian leadership and loose links with its peers in the West, it would not be implausible to fear that the defence forces may be tempted to step-in whenever democratic institutions engage in a stalemate, considering themselves as the fourth state.
This possibility is countered by the long-established belief, of the top officers, in the separation of political and military roles, with the former taking precedence. This was a principle adhered to since their days as commanders of the ruling party during the armed struggle.
There is no indication that there is a change in their policy of leaving the politics for politicians. But that does not mean they would not step-in as an arbiter if the civilians appear hopelessly off-track.
The recent public display of the military's stature could be not only an effort to improve their ratings in opinion polls, but also intended to be reassuring and intimidating, depending on where one stands.