The Puzzle of Ethiopian Politics
By Terrence Lyons
Lynne Rienner, 2019, 245 pp.
Lyons’s political history of post–Haile Selassie Ethiopia is timely, as the new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed (who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019), tries to sustain a beleaguered program of political liberalization. Beginning in the late 1970s, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front carried out a disciplined and highly centralized insurgency that toppled the Soviet-backed dictatorship in 1991. Once in power, the TPLF leader Meles Zenawi built a broader, more inclusive party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, which recognized and sought to incorporate all the ethnic groups in the country, creating a decentralized ethnic federation. Meles led Ethiopia for more than two decades: first as president, from 1991 until 1995, and then as prime minister, until his death in 2012. Lyons does a great job of analyzing how Meles ably managed the fissiparous tendencies of the EPRDF while continuing to make most of the key decisions through a coterie of TPLF leaders and why this balancing act could not outlive him. Ethiopians have welcomed Abiy’s promises to end the Meles regime’s sometimes heavy-handed repression of political rights, but the country is now wrestling with the fragmentary pressures of ethnic politics that Meles managed to contain.