The Role of Elites in Ethiopian Politics

The Role of Elites in Ethiopian Politics

Assefa A. Lemu, June 1, 2019

According to Vilferado Pareto and Gaetano Mosca only minority have talent, intelligence, ability, and leadership quality to occupy power or important position. Minority has access to power, to top decision makers and control the outcome of the decision and take the advantage of that decision. The thinking, decision, and behavior of the ordinary peoples are influenced mainly by elites.

Elites played key role in Ethiopian politics in the past, they are playing key role in the present and will play key role in the future. Elites are very important because they are “… those who have vastly disproportionate control over or access to a resource. …. we can think of elites as occupying a position that provides them with access and control or as possessing resources that advantage them…” (Shamus Rahman Khan, 2012, The Sociology of Elites  Therefore, the term elites can be defined in relation to the power and resources they possess as well as the positions/status they have within the society and their influence. The resource they control must have transferable or conversion value to give them economic rewards to create influence and integrate into some of the higher social echelons. For example, athlete Haile Gebresellassie was good in running and he earned wealth and fame out of that running and became part of the higher social echelon in Ethiopia. The wealth, fame, and position he got in the society initiated him to aspire to be a Prime Minister of Ethiopia, the top Government position in the country occupied only by elite ( and ). Artists such as Temagn Beyene and Tewodros Kassahun became elites using acting and singing skills respectively.  These artists and athlete are examples of individuals who transferred their skills and fames into capital (wealth and goodwill) that made them elites and gave them power to create influence in the society. Thus, elites could be talented individuals, government officials, rich individuals, experts/intellectuals, religious or community leaders who have access or control over different resources (political, economic, cultural, social (networks), and knowledge capital) to influence others.

As clearly indicated in the preamble of the constitution of the FDRE that says “Fully cognizant that our common destiny can best be served by rectifying historically unjust relationships and by further promoting our shared interests”, EPRDF’s assessment was that the concentration of elites in Ethiopia has been skewed to one ethnic group because of historical reasons and tried to correct/manage its distribution to make it proportional.  As a result we saw the representation of more ethnic groups in federal offices and different affirmative measures. However, following the divisions created within EPRDF member organizations and coming to power of Dr. Abiy Ahmed as EPRDF Chairman and Prime Minister of Ethiopia in April 2018, that approach was challenged and the achievement of EPRDF in this regard is in a downward spiral. At present, a group which got higher pool of elites is using every mechanism at its disposal to undo what have been done in the last 28 years by influencing individuals in the higher government and EPRDF positions. This group is also intensively using electronic and print media and other modes of communication to discredit the current constitution, the current federal system, and regionalization as well as the current parliamentary form of government.

I don’t have the data which shows the number and quality of Ethiopian elites by ethnic group, but from the simple observation of the fact on the ground, I can say that Amhara elites are the majority and dominant one.  The simple indicators to this argument is numbers of elites who are making presentations on the national conferences and workshops sponsored by the Federal Government with the taxpayer’s money to discuss about the future of Ethiopia and participants invited to those conferences/workshops disaggregated by ethnic group, number of owners of electronic and print media in Ethiopia and journalists focusing on Ethiopian politics by ethnic group. From the monks in the remote parts of Ethiopia to the professors in American universities, the Amhara elites are aggressively working to undo what have been done in the last 28 years.  Some of them claim that they were not represented in the making of the current Ethiopian constitution which some of them called “Lencho-Meles Constitution”. However, they didn’t tell us whom ANDM and its members like Mr. Dawit Yohannes who was the Head of the Office of the Constitutional Commission and Secretary of the Commission and Mr. Mesfin Bekele who was the representative of Amhara Regional State at the Constitutional Commission represented.

The elites play crucial role in mobilizing people by setting agenda, generating theory which support that agenda, by financing that agenda and defending that agenda. For example in 1970s and 1980s certain groups of Ethiopian elites developed an agenda of “equality of ethnic groups in Ethiopia”. They generated theories around the rights of ethnic groups in Ethiopia, financed, and defended (including armed struggle) that agenda. That agenda became victorious in 1991 and dominated Ethiopian politics up until the present. Now, another group of elites came up with the “citizenship political agenda” which is antithesis of ethnic/diversity based politics and showed their determination to promote, finance, and defend this agenda by establishing Ethiopian Citizens Party for Social Justice (ECPSJ) (or የኢትዮጵያ ዜጎች ለማህበራዊ ፍትህ ፓርቲ /ኢዜማ in Amharic) with Dr. Berhanu Nega  and Mr. Andualem Arage, as its leader and deputy leader respectively and Mr. Yeshiwas Assefa and Dr. Chane Kebede as chairperson and deputy chairperson respectively. Few others are echoing the term “citizenship politics” even without understanding what it mean with the assumption that it will change the current constitution and the federal system. This is one of the examples that support the statement of an Italian philosopher Vilfredo Pareto who said “When it is useful to them, men can believe a theory of which they know nothing more than its name”. In his presentation to discredit diversity in Ethiopia, one of the promoters of the “citizenship politics” Deacon Daniel Kibret explained how the Ethiopian elites mobilize their supporters and how the ordinary individuals follow them and participate in the implementation of their objectives with the herd mentality ( It is important to note that his explanation of how Ethiopian elites operate applies to all groups of elites.

Ethiopia of today is a country where elites who are not the citizens of Ethiopia preach about “citizenship politics” and meddle in its politics. About two weeks ago, when we discuss the involvement of these non-Ethiopian citizens in Ethiopian politics, one of my friends said “Ethiopia never colonized and maybe now she is working to catch up with other African countries that were colonized by giving a chance to foreign citizens to control its politics” and made me laugh. His joke has a grain of truth and I wonder why these individuals who renounced Ethiopian citizen and took the citizen of foreign countries and not willing to regain Ethiopian citizenship by giving up foreign citizenships are allowed to meddle in Ethiopian domestic politics? These contra naturam individuals are trying to present acknowledgement of being part of one’s ethnic group as backwardness and upholding one’s ethnic value and culture as primordial practice. In their opinion, what is good is, as Walelign Mekonnen clearly put it four decades ago, “… to speak Amharic, to listen to Amharic music, to accept the Amhara-Tigre religion, Orthodox Christianity, and to wear the Amhara-Tigre Shamma in international conferences” (

Currently, Ethiopian politics is caught between two major elite groups- those who support diversity based political agenda and those who claim they oppose that agenda. The top EPRDF officials are now swinging between these two groups to make both groups comfortable. EPRDF’s political agenda and principles which have been dominant for the last 28 years are now challenged by EPRDF leaders themselves. Top EPRDF officials are more concerned about how to please the elite group they think is dominant rather than defending the objectives of their party. The renewal and deep-renewals couldn’t save EPRDF from incessant decaying and from the opportunistic political disease that EPRDF recently diagnosed with and called “confusion”.

It is beyond doubt that the direction and fate of Ethiopia will be decided by its elites. The group of elites who sets the right agenda, who is able to support that agenda with the authoritative discourse, that is able to finance and defend that agenda will take the leadership role. In light of the present EPRDF leadership’s nearly accepting the defeat of their political agenda, the diversity politics (the current constitution and federal system) could be defended only by either changing the current EPRDF leadership or establishing another strong political organization that can defend diversity in Ethiopia. It will be unwise to expect the current EPRDF leadership that blames the constitution and the federal system as causes of instability and other problems and busy with restoration of Emperor Menelik’s palace and political culture to defend the gains achieved in the last 28 years and the rights of ethnic groups in Ethiopia. Particularly, the Oromo nationalists must stop dreaming that Team Lemma who hijacked the Oromo protests and came to power could bring something fundamental in Oromo politics. Team Lemma has now replaced with Team Abiy who on the very first day of his speech as a Prime Minister of Ethiopia reopened the wound of Oromo and added salt to it. Team Abiy composes of individuals who deny the crimes committed against Oromo at Anolle and turns deaf ear to the Oromo demands and even working to destroy achievements made so far including the continuation of Oromia as one state of the FDRE. As an Italian political scientist Gaetano Mosca said “If tolerance is taken to the point where it tolerates the destruction of those same principles that made tolerance possible in the first place, it becomes intolerable”. Dr. Abiy’s Government project to take Ethiopia back to pre-1991, even to pre 1974, by undermining or changing the current constitution and the federal arrangement already reached intolerable stage in one year.

Oromo elites need to evaluate their tolerance and silence before Oromia is divided and taken over by “vulture politicians” and Afan Oromo is limited only to the informal business like in the Pre-1991 Ethiopia. To protect Oromo interest and participate in the shaping of the future of Ethiopia, the Oromo elites must wakeup and challenge the idea which says “supporting Team Lemma is the only option” because Team Lemma no longer exist. Rather they must agree upon the principle and ideology around which to organize the Oromo and other peoples. They need to generate a current political discourse to exhibit and sell on Oromia and Ethiopian market place of ideas. If the elites who are best  educated, best informed, best exposed, and best enlightened simply follow the seasonal wind, who is  going to lead the society to the right direction? The Oromo elites, I want to humbly remind you that if you fail to stand up for the interest of Oromo at this critical moment, expose those who are trying to paint Oromo with their dirty and black paints, clear the misunderstandings created against Oromo, defend the unity of Oromo and integrity of Oromia, defend Oromo values and culture, advocate for your people when they are in need of advocate  know that you are contributing to the effort its adversaries to ruin Oromo and Oromia and it will be regrettable. This is a critical moment to ask yourself and evaluate your role in politics and contribute your share. I would like to remind you Plato’s advice regarding those who sit in the back and expect others to do good politics for them: “One of the penalties of refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors”.

Organization is a critical step in politics. Amhara intellectuals’ initiative to organize themselves and their May 18, 2019 decision to unselfishly serve the Amhara people in all sectors deserves kudos ( and ). It is because of self-organization that Addis Ababa Caretaker Administration was established and started mobilizing supporters and resources to make the special interest of the State of Oromia in Addis Ababa which was stipulated under Article 49 (5) of the constitution of the FDRE null and void and to undermine the official Administration of Addis Ababa while Oromos are talking about this special interest for over 24 years. Unless they organize themselves to defend their rights, Oromos will lose their constitutional and democratic rights one by one to those who organized themselves and may see Oromia Caretaker Government led by non-Oromo elites.

The egalitarian Oromos whose way of thinking have been shaped by the teachings of Gada system and group leadership must appreciate the role of powerful individuals, the role of money, and the role of influence in modern politics and must use them to promote and protect their interest. Consensus and direct democracy is not a viable option in the modern politics and Oromo elites need to embrace this fact and stand up, mobilize the majority and lead them to the victory. It is good to know one’s constituency and focus on the majority in that constituency rather than thinly spreading one’s capacity.  Focusing on the majority in the target area is important because pleasing everybody is not possible in politics. Thus, the wishy-washy approach to fit within the sermon which looks dominant over the media that are controlled by the dominant elite group doesn’t help. After Dr. Abiy became a Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Oromo elites are dawdling while others are sprinting. Is the purpose of Oromo Protests to bring individual to Prime Minister Position or to get answer for Oromo’s constitutional and democratic questions?

The economic theory of Adam Smith which says “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest” also works in politics. The political prescriptions that the elites make for us is not really out of the concern for all of us, but out of the concern for themselves and for the group they want to benefit.  For example, the argument which discredits the representation of ethnic groups in federal offices and advocat for merit based appointment and hiring system is based on the assumption that their groups are relatively more educated, urbanized, and have access to those who appoint and hire and could get more positions. Thus, it is necessary to evaluate each policy agenda that the elites present to us. We should not limit ourselves to be recipients of the proposed solutions of the few, rather we must be the generators of solutions; we should not limit ourselves to be the discussant of agenda crafted by few elites, rather we must be the crafters of agenda. In that way, we can bring competition to the idea market place and contribute to the existence of quality elites with integrity, maturity, and balanced ideas. If we allow few elites to run all our political affairs, they will manipulate it for their own benefits because more than any other groups of the society, the elites know that politics/power shapes the lives of the society and they use all means including myth, deceiving, fraud, influence, and force to control it.

In his May 28, 2019 interview with the Voice of Amharic (VOA) Amharic Program, Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed used the analogy of wedding party and life after the party to explain the role of elites and crowds in politics. He said the hustle and bustle at the eve and aftermath of change are like the hustle and bustle of wedding party but managing and leading the activities after the change is the business of few elites who took the leadership like leading the life after marriage is the responsibility of the wedded parties ( Prime Minister Dr. Abiy could be right, but the question is who are these few elites that took over the change and leading it and to which direction they are leading the change for which many paid dearly?  These are our questions and concerns and the reason to call upon elites to play their role meticulously and responsibly.


  1. Well articulated, Assefa A. Lemu! Thank you.

    You have raised extremely important issues and put forward your analysis of the Ethiopian political affairs, and tried to alert Oromo “elites” to the current situation. Since you have covered sufficient details requiring urgent attentions, I would prefer not to go into details in my comment so as not to distract Oromo “elites” (from your points), who may wake up and answer to your call before it is too late. Nevertheless, allow me to raise 10 simple points to Oromo “elites” who may be capable of acting to avert the grave dangers encircling the great Oromo people.

    1. Organize yourselves and become forces that can “shake and shape”. Understand your potential; it is there and superior to the other side, who are working very hard to bury our just causes.

    2. ‘Do not obey in advance’; do not offer yourse!lives for free to advance policies in contradiction with Oromo interests. Ask; what is in it for our people?

    3. “Do not put all your eggs in one basket”; tap into the immense potential of our great nation, and have multiple resources at your disposal. Have multiple alternatives; come up with plan B, C, D, etc., if team Lemma/Abiy is unable to deliver for our people.

    4. Avoid mediocrity and be alert to political deceptions; ‘in politics, deception is no excuse’. Oromo “elites” must aspire to function at much higher levels than the adversaries of our causes.

    5. Learn to always voice Oromo concerns louder and exert pressure rather than being pressured.

    6. Be patriot; do not look away when Oromo interests are undermined; stand out and set example for others to do so. Never be shy to advance Oromo nationalism genuinely.

    7. Believe in truth; ‘to abandon facts is to abandon freedom’.

    8. Investigate; ‘it is your ability to discern facts that makes you an individual’, who can contribute, and shape the future of our people.

    9. Make new friends and use ‘the power of who you know’ to advance Oromo just cause.

    10. ‘Be active in organizations, political or not, that express your own view of life’. By doing so you will have played active roles in contributing to and leading Oromo objectives towards the desired goals.

    Finally, I would like to declare, humbly, that the simple 10 points I have listed above are not intended to instruct Oromo “elites”, however, to challenge those it may concern to wake up and act on the issues raised by Assefa A. Lemu. I have huge respect for Oromo individuals who have given everything they can, and enabled Oromo struggles for justice and freedom to reach the point of no return. Their rewards will be the freedom of the great Oromo people!

    Best wishes

  2. Dear Obbo Olana Abbalichie,
    Thank you so much for your comment and putting forward your 10 points. That is how we cross-pollinate and develop ideas. I wish more Oromo intellectuals pay attention to the political condition in Ethiopia and contribute their share. On Oromo TVs and medias we see only familiar faces and same ideas repeatedly. We need to be open to new faces and new ideas so that we can weigh alternatives and be competent win in the idea market place.
    In case you want to red my recent articles, here are the titles and the links:
    Title Link Published Date (MM/DD/YY)
    1 The Making of Ethiopian Constitution of 1995 1.
    2. OR
    2 Does Ethiopia Need to Start Truth and Reconciliation Process? 1.
    3 Ethiopia and the Federal System 1. OR
    4 Is Presidential System of Government Better for Ethiopia? OR OR
    5 The Rise and Fall of EPRDF
    6 EPRDF and Election in Ethiopia
    7 Choice of Ideologies for Ethiopia: Revolutionary Democracy, Social Democracy, or Liberal Democracy 1. OR
    8 The Agreement Between ODP and OLF and Its Outcome
    9 People’s Call for Unity and Oromo Political Organizations’ Refusal
    10 Constitutional Crises in Ethiopia
    11 Regionalization of Ethiopia
    12 Book Review: “Erkab Ena Menber”
    13 Ethnic Politics vs. Citizenship Politics in Ethiopia
    14 Let’s Make Ethiopia a Country for All of Us
    15 The Role of Elites in Ethiopian Politics 1.

  3. Dear Assefa A. Lemu,

    Thank you very much for not only writing intensively on important issues but also for your efforts to, generously, make your pieces accessible.

    Ethiopia definitely needs intellectuals who voice their view points, relentlessly, like you. As Snyder (2017) observes, ‘Life is political, not because the world cares about how you feel, but because the world reacts to what you do. … In the politics of everyday, our words and gestures, or their absence, count very much’. I hope that others will pay attention to your view points, and work hard on contributing and enriching ideas so as for a culture of genuine dialogue (constructive discourse) to flourish in our country. Particularly, Ethiopian intellectuals must depart from the culture of “looking away”, a norm to which they are used to, and take responsibilities for the face of the country. Keep writing!

    Best wishes

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