The history of the military in Ethiopia is a social history. There is no surprise here. Military institutions are social constructs whose structure and functions in each society can only be understood contextually. Because the Ethiopian military has emerged as a relatively independent institution after World War II, its nature, and role in the political order, has been impacted by structural conditions—including the interplay between tradition and modernity, the rise of the middle class, authoritarian culture and political makeup, interethnic tensions, chronic economic problems, and geopolitical conditions. Nevertheless, while being constrained by these factors and processes, the military, like other political actors in the country, has not acted as a passive spectacle; instead, members of the military have played an essential role in the perpetuation and unmaking of political regimes. Within the three administrations that have surfaced during the last nine decades, the role of the Ethiopian military in the political order has ranged from soft to active intervention. However, in all these regimes, military power has invariably undermined people power. The most extreme of all the regimes was the military establishment of 1974–1991. Under this palpably authoritarian government, to the extent that the distinction between military and civilian rule was blurred, the army was involved in politics more than its due share. During the imperial era (1930–1974), on the other hand, the emperor, who cherished his power (with no pretense for democratic governance) more than his outspoken commitment to the idea of progress, made the military subservient to his bidding while forcing it to remain politically indifferent. The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) regime (1991–present) shared similar attributes with the imperial government in its recognition (at least theoretically) of the distinction between military and civilian rule. Here too the military was the strong arm of the incumbent. Despite its fervent claim for political and cultural pluralism, the EPRDF used the military to defend its “democratic” authoritarian interests. The lesson to be learned from this social history of the military is clear: Ethiopia needs a proper military–civil relationship, along with institutional mechanisms that counterweight against the military’s detrimental intervention in political affairs, for it to materialize the potential of its people and create a well-ordered, just society.

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