By Zerihun Addisu
On November 24 Canadian journalist Jeff Pearce released a secretly recorded zoom meeting between Western veteran diplomats and ambassadors. Within minutes social media accounts exploded. Board members of the International Center for Peace and Development (PDC), which facilitated the meeting, became a target of a tremendous level of outrage online.
In that infamous meeting, participants are seen discussing a possible change in government, some would go as far as to say strategizing the overthrow of the Ethiopian government. The meeting was centered around long-time TPLF official, Berhane Gebre-Christos. Berhane, who served as Ethiopia’s ambassador to the United States for 10 years following the party’s ascent to power, has a strong track record in diplomacy. Most notably, he served as Ethiopia's ambassador to several European countries, the EU, China, and as foreign minister from 2010 until 2012.
The ambassador was introduced in this meeting as the “chief representative of the TLF,” an older title used by the party during its guerilla warfare days. The meeting also included former EU ambassador to Ethiopia Tim Clarke, known for his leaked email reports on the actions of the EPRDF following the 2005 national election, which resulted in the death of hundreds of Ethiopians.
The solution or the problem
In this zoom call, leaked on November 24, Birhane proposes a ‘transitional government’ to replace the current government; a government duly elected by Ethiopians and sworn in last September. Despite valid claims and criticism raised during the last election season, none of these warrant conspiring to topple a legitimate government of the country.
The prime advocate for this transitional government, the TPLF, is a party known for undermining the constitutional order as evidenced by its iron-fist rule in the past three decades. The EPRDF, with the TPLF at the helm of the political and economic dominance, was an authoritarian regime. It operated as a business conglomerate and monopolized the political and social dividends of Ethiopians.
Systemic repression, methodical silencing, and structural bottlenecks to dissenting ideas were deeply entrenched in its governance.
Under the leadership of Meles Zenawi, its ‘enlightened autocrat’, the party established a one-man and one-party state, which reduced opposition to dust through political imprisonment, and structural control of the political and electoral process. Draconian laws further ensured that speaking out against the regime would lead to financial and political bankruptcy, subduing citizens to comfortable self-censorship.
The TPLF is an unlikely candidate to shoulder the responsibility of regime change that could usher in a better democratic and political order. The idea that it is solely dedicated to restoring the constitutional order and protecting the federal system is improbable given its track record.
The party is the mastermind and the architect of the oppressive rule that has undermined the very foundation of the country and engineered a system that cannot survive in its absence. The greedy scramble for control, power, and domination following the immediate ousting of TPLF from the nucleus of power is a testament to this.
A partial negotiator
The meeting was held under the auspices of the International Center for Peace and Development, a non-profit organization that is chaired by prominent diaspora Professor Ephraim Isaac. Professor Isaac, a linguistic scholar, is well remembered by many Ethiopians for his role in the mediation process following the 2005 national election.
The website of the Peace and Development Center International states that the organization is a neutral non-profit and non-governmental organization working for conflict prevention, resolution, peacebuilding, and development in Ethiopia and across the horn of Africa.
It strongly advocates for peace education and non-violence. It further claims that it does not endorse or oppose political parties, political entities, candidates, forums or platforms, and religious ideologies. Contrary to this claim, however, the organization was clearly seen performing as a platform where higher US officials and diplomats meet and perform the act of concocting a policy intervention on a sovereign nation.
Among the PDC’s partners and donors are USAID and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED); both known for wielding a strong influence on third world liberalization and democratic initiatives.
There is ample research and case study that substantiates how third-world civil societies and foreign-educated diaspora elites serve as a tool for foreign intervention and subjugation of the home country.
This November meeting of the PDC was not the first nor will it be the last of its kind that had been running behind closed doors. This comprador agency of civil society organizations and diaspora elites, however, is not a new phenomenon.
The notion of the comprador complex
The term comprador originates from the natives of a colonized land that are "bought" by the colonizers.
Comprador can be described as, ‘relatively privileged… introduced by the colonial domination, and who may therefore be less inclined to struggle for local cultural and political independence’. This condition of partial independence has been termed as ‘neo-colonialism’ by Nkrumah in his book Neo-colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism.
Neo-colonialism is the (indirect) survival of the colonial system, a stage-managed and designed by the colonial powers, to give the colonized the illusion of freedom. The Marxists defined comprador capitalists as ‘servitors of foreign imperialism’. Rather than seeking to promote national development, ‘comprador capitalists’ serve the interests of an international capitalist class.
A powerful metaphor is one of South Africa’s present leaders shining, rather than breaking, the chains of 21st-century global Apartheid.
Analysts argue that comprador intelligentsia is ‘those managerial and technocratic professionals who serve as consultants, managers, and intermediaries to foreign capital.’
The argument goes on that ‘members of the managerial and technocratic elite could, and in some cases, have sold their firms at advantageous prices to their former foreign business connections…in exchange for their position as managers’.
Members of the comprador class can use their national origins, color, and education to serve as spokesmen and intellectual henchmen for international organizations where they play the role of ‘sugar-coated bitter pills’.
Time and again, western donor agencies and powerful entities have tried to assert and impose their own interests in the name of democratization, economic liberalization, reconciliation, justice, and political transition.
Political leaders and the elites depend on bureaucrats’ and consultants’ expertise to formulate policies according to donors’ wishes. Participation by civil society, then, is used as a cloak by this group. This is how the last 27 years of economic planning, policymaking, and public participation has been functioning.
To give this top-down approach a local façade, a comprador interest group will be created to think and act like their external patrons. Hence, the parroting from this interest group is claimed as participation, although, in practice, this process can actually neutralize or even silence any alternative voices from below.
This is, obviously, part of the poverty reduction approach of the west that runs only through party-affiliated networks and business conglomerates of the EPRDF/TPLF. Besides foreign aid is used as a means of penetration and leverage to exert influence on poor countries’ weak institutions.
The only fitting explanation that can provide an explanation as to the motive, role, and interest of the prominent Ethiopian diaspora in that scandalous meeting is the concept of comprador. It clearly shows that Ethiopia might not be colonized yet it’s significantly influenced and incapacitated by the existing systemic deprivation the global south endures.
One of the video’s most shocking moments came when well-known economist, Dr. Eleni Gabre-Madhin asked for a clarification on a ‘marshal plan’ for economic reconstruction in the country. In the video, she speaks of a unitarist view that has overtaken the country.
Eleni has served in the prime minister’s independent economic advisory council and has been actively participating in the national policy discussion of the country.
Immediately after this video leak, Dr. Yonas Biru, another member of the advisory economic council who had recently resigned, revealed that one of the members he mentioned as a reason for his resignation was Dr. Eleni. In his resignation, he had disclosed his suspicion; that a faction exists inside the council undermining its every effort to bring prudent economic and institutional reform.
Dr Eleni returned to Ethiopia following the country’s millennium celebrations where the EPRDF pardoned detained leaders imprisoned during the third national elections. Imprisoned journalists and prominent opposition leaders of the Coalition for Democracy (CUD) were pardoned on the occasion.
Soon after, she played a prominent role in setting up the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange (ECX), the continent’s pioneering farmers’ agricultural market. ECX is supervised by the board of the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange Authority (ECEA) and its founding law clearly states that it’s a wholly state-owned market institution with its own legal personality.
However, the Authority’s former head, Dr. Addisalem Balema, a member of TPLF’s executive committee of TPLF, enjoyed tremendous leverage of political power within the economic and business circle.
Perhaps, it might well explain the challenges the country was facing since 2018. The state sees the flourishing of the independent private sector as a threat to its hegemonic establishment.
Overcoming a shadow state
State capture is a phenomenon in which powerful groups exert their corrupt and undue influence to shape institutions and policies for their benefit rather than for the public good. It can lead to a failure of economic reforms and the stripping of public assets for private gain using the privatization process as a cloak.
In these circumstances emerge a ‘shadow state’, organized groups or clans clandestinely influencing state structures, including the judiciary, the security apparatus, the military, and even the media.
This analysis strongly supports the Ethiopian case. Under the rule of the EPRDF, the ruling few elites benefited greatly even as the majority of Ethiopians found themselves in deep economic and social impoverishment.
The prevalence of a deep state or shadow state within the state no doubt has created tension among the members of the Prosperity Party and others who see the power change as a threat to their hegemonic status and privilege.
The growing massive mobilization, recruitment, and diaspora demonstrations backing the Ethiopian government, however, depict the support it is garnering from allies.
Judging by the evidence presented to us, TPLF is working to reincarnate Ethiopia from 1991; an Ethiopia unaware of its grave cruelty and brutality. The current day Ethiopian does not envision the TPLF as an emancipator and views this ‘transitional government’ as a group of imposters who have no viable say in the politics of the country.
If PDC members were seriously considering a peaceful intervention, there should have been a mutually agreed-upon framework for this negotiation; fact-finding, validation of the government’s concerns and interests, a clear mandate and expectation, and a means of communication among others. Looking at all these basic elements, to what extent can the zoom meeting be termed as a peacemaking effort?
The selection of the participants, their interests and publicly known positions, and above all the clandestine manner in which they approached the meeting speaks volumes as to why Ethiopians are feeling betrayed.
In the meeting, we see Vicki Huddlestone, the high-profile US diplomat and former ambassador to Ethiopia, wishing military success to the TPLF, erasing any doubt of the motive of the meeting. It was not a peacemaking initiative to silence the guns but a dubious move to silence the voice of millions of Ethiopians.
About the Writer
Zerihun Addisu is an MPCS Candidate at the University of Waterloo, Canada. He’s a frequent writer on the Horn of Africa geopolitics, political economy, and foreign policy.