Ethiopia: Accounts of Ethiopia's Invisible Government

Insecurity in the Tigray region of Ethiopia is driving people into Hamdayet in Sudan.

Ethiopia's constantly changing political landscape has puzzled many citizens as much as spectators. However, it was not just citizens but the incumbents as well who misread the situation and avoided any plans to relinquish power. History has it that the country's political narrative changed in a rainy season some eight years ago. This event is the announcement of the death of the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi on August 15, 2012.

With credible information hard to come by, the state of health/illness of the late Meles Zenawi was deliberately concealed, plunging citizens into anxiety and speculation. The whole situation shed light on the country's political discourse and security. However, the announcement of his death did not abate citizens' fears.

After the national mourning period, the then Deputy-Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hailemariam Dessalegn was sworn in as the Prime Minister of the country and chairman of a party best known for its culture of democratic centralism.

To this end, questions on his ability to run the TPLF dominated political system cropped up along with doubts on whether he could fill Meles's shoe.

Considering the power arrangement among the former coalition of the ruling party, the Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), many local and international analysts delved in debates on whether PM Hailemariam could maintain a powerful influence in both the party and government.

As per the supreme law of the land, the Ethiopian Constitution, the Prime Minister holds the most powerful Office in the country with control over security, economy and social affairs. Moreover, Article 74 designates the PM as the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, the head of the executive body and the chairperson of the Council of Ministers. Furthermore, albeit subject to approval by the House of Peoples' Representative (HPR), the PM can appoint and remove Ministers, heads of security, and the like.

However, this does not always seem to be true. Especially at the beginning of his premiership, Hailemariam did not seem to exercise constitutional powers bestowed upon him by the party, like his predecessor did. Subsequently, many rumors of an invisible and visible figure, who took the decisions rather than the PM, and the popular assumption "he is a puppet," started taking afoot.

The six years spent in Office, until he resigned in 2018, was blighted by speculation and unrest in the country, prompting more to believe the narrative that influential individuals and veteran politicians specifically from TPLF circles ran the country behind the curtain and that he was just the face.

This issue has become clearer after he resigned from office following the popular unrest that shook the leadership of the then EPRDF and of course destabilized different parts of the country. In an interview after he left his post, Hailemariam, said that "he was not properly provided with intel briefs and reports by the intelligence unit, the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS), regarding security matters, which in turn hindered him to enforce law and order across the country."

Though, Hailemariam's executive powers and responsibilities were curtailed, the more powerful influence and interference is believed to have come from the illusive then head of NISS, Getachew Assefa - now among the list of wanted individuals by the federal government.

Despite his absence from the media or failure to grace local and international engagements, Getachew was considered the de facto leader and the shadow king of the country.

Until recently, especially after Abiy Ahmed (PhD) assumed the highest echelon of power in the country, it was almost impossible to find a photograph or a video footage of Getachew. However, his influence in the day to day political and intel activities was vivid.

With the exception of a handful of veteran politicians around the ruling party, he is not known by many. Even the chairman of the standing committee of the parliament tasked to supervise and monitor security affairs has not met him.

Tesfaye Daba, before his latest appointment as Deputy Attorney General, chaired the Defense, Security and Foreign Affairs Standing Committee of the HPR for more than one parliamentary term. According to the law and legal framework, Tesfaye as a Chair of the standing committee and the entire members of the committee have the right and the power to receive reports from Getachew Assefa, like any other standing committees set up in the parliament. Though the standing committee is also endowed with the power to summon the Chief of Intelligence to report on the existing security and intelligence affairs, the reality on the ground was very different.

When Tesfaye recently spoke before the parliament, he said that he had neither the opportunity to summon and see what the NISS head [Getachew Assefa] looks like or visit the headquarters of the intel office located a walking distance away from his office at the premises of the parliament.

It is only when PM Abiy came to power that NISS opened its doors for Members of Parliament for the first time at least in almost three decades. This time around, however, the doors were also open for members of opposition political parties.

Clash of legislation vs legitimacy

While addressing the parliament earlier this week, PM Abiy also revealed the mounted challenges and the threats he had faced from the former intel chief, especially during the early stages of his role as the PM and chairman of the then EPRDF.

However, prior to discussing the challenges that Abiy had faced from the former intel chief, one needs to look back at what major changes and restructurings had been made during Hailemariam's tenure.

Following Meles' death, Getachew Asseffa and few other TPLF officials were believed to be the main drivers of party politics and the government. This is not just only speculation but rather has a legal ground which strengthens the claims that Getachew was actually the shadow king.

Such invisible power to rule from the back originally emanates from one of the draft proclamations endorsed by the parliament which aimed at amending the former bill to re-establish the intelligence organization - now cited as the "National Intelligence and Security Service Re-establishment Proclamation No. 804/2013".

Unlike the previous proclamation, the new bill granted additional powers and responsibilities to the intel chief. Similarly, the House also revised and endorsed the Proclamation, which legislated the establishment of the Ministry of Defense.

This law introduces a new provision, which establishes Council of Generals for the first time. According to the amended bill, the Chief of the armed forces has the power to submit request for military action to the Prime Minister, who is the Commander in Chief. Based on the request or suggestion of the Chief of the armed forces, the commander in chief would take the next action by his own and in some cases upon approval by the legislative body.

To the contrary, the new law diverges from the then existing trend and gives the council the ultimate power of requesting and suggesting military action instead of the chief of the Armed forces. According to this provision, the Army chief is the chair of the council but does not have a veto power as was the case in the former bill.

The other surprising steps introduced include the provision under Article 8(2) of proclamation No. 804/2013. This article provides the intel chief with new roles regarding the powers and duties of the intelligence service. The article reads as follows: "Head and coordinate national counter-terrorism cooperation and coordination, represent the country in international and continental counter-terrorism relation and cooperation as head and leading representative." This specific article puts the head of the intel in a position of representing the country in the international arena related to matters of terrorism and counter terrorism.

Moreover, the amended bill, also bestows extended powers to the intel unity by involving them in political matters and allowing the head of the intel unit to join government cabinet members in meetings. The move has had a major impact in influencing decisions.

This somewhat sheds light on Getachew's surge in influence following the death of Meles Zenawi.

While responding to questions raised by MPs earlier this week regarding the government's current capability to handle outstanding security crises and repeated failures to address violence, Abiy went as far back to his first months of assuming power.

In his account, the premier narrated the TPLF's subversive activities, shed light on the intimidation efforts by the intelligence team under the command of Getachew Assefa. He told the MPs that especially a few months before assuming the role of the premiership, he was subjected to nonstop spying and surveillance, which prevented him from executing his job to the best of his capacities.

According to the PM, under Getachew Assefa, the institution was a symbol of torture and repression. One of Abiy's reform measures in this regard, therefore, was to remove the security chief and replace him with the head of the Ethiopian Air force, General Adem Mohammed, who was then appointed as the Chief of Staff, following the assassination of former chief of staff, Seare Mekonnen. General Adem has recently been sacked and replaced by Temesgen Tiruneh.

The PM highlighted that the intelligence team had made several attempts to kill him, instigating various unrests and deadly clashes across the nation, after Getachew Assefa and most of the TPLF leaders left the federal government. According to the PM, over 113 conflicts to destabilize the country have taken place across all regions including Addis Ababa over the past two and half years.

The premier said all those conflicts were financed and supported by TPLF to create the impression that the new administration is weak. He noted that the group organized forces in such a manner as to abort the reform and sabotage development endeavors in the country. He further added that when all those conflicts were deliberately orchestrated and incited in all regional states, not a single conflict occurred in Tigray.

Adding insult to injury, the embattled TPLF used it by boasting that peace existed only in Tigray region, the PM noted.

The TPLF had made great efforts to exterminate, kidnap and intimidate the reformist leadership, he said, "From the onset of the reform, an arrest warrant was issued for us. We were about to be arrested and killed," The PM emphasized.

"The day I was sworn in as Prime Minister, the security sector controlled then by the TPLF clique, refused the entrance of my own chosen security detail to the office and my residence," the PM recalled and said he was told he could only use the security personnel provided to him.

"Swift changes were being demanded from the people we serve, while we were under the conditions of duress by TPLF's well laid out espionage network. Yet we agreed we would take any risks counting on the Ethiopian people to stand with us," he said.

"We took a firm decision to remove "mini governments" operating within the legitimate government by taking measures to guarantee institutional independence from the influence of a clique working for its own survival. This was done particularly in the security sector," Abiy said.

Much has changed since 2018. Now Abiy seems to be, as it should, the most powerful man in the country. However, the checks and balance on his power need to be operational to avoid a similar end.

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