Preaching unity but flying solo, Abiy’s ambition may stall Ethiopia’s transition

26 Feb

Posted by The Ethiopia Observatory (TEO)

by René Lefort

The fatal error of Ethiopia’s acclaimed premier Abiy Ahmed has been to place his standing ahead of his country’s democratic transition.

“God only can save us” is currently a popular phrase in a rural village in North Shoa in Amhara region. “You can rely only on yourself and your arms to protect your environment,” is another

The churches are full. A feeling of insecurity is rife and arms contraband is profitable. At twilight, people rush home and double-lock the door. In this area of this region at least, the omnipotent party-state, pervasive and intrusive since its takeover in 1991, is absent: there are no meetings, no 1-5 system in which one household headed a cell of four neighbours, and no local development work. The village (kebele) chairman’s tasks are confined to delivering documents. He had not held any meeting at the district (wereda) level for more than two months.1 Local development agents are busier trying to solve local conflicts than fulfilling their mission. “We now act like a fire brigade,” one says.2 Local militia are reluctant to be involved in maintaining law and order because of the authorities’ lack of popular legitimacy.

The prevailing popular feeling is fear. Fear because the age-old pyramidal ruling structure has disappeared; besides authority’s absence, the traditional social hierarchy has crumbled. “We cannot even order our own children,” elders complain. Fear because in this unprecedented present and unknown future “something bad could happen” repeat people, even if the area is peaceful, petty crime normal, and the source of these “bad” things unidentified. Most believe some form of armed confrontation is on its way.

In many, if not most parts of Ethiopia, except in Tigray region, the mengist—together the authority, the power exemplified in governance, in the state apparatus and civil servants—has vanished. Amhara region, as a whole, seems severely affected. Areas north-west of Gondar are still lawless, and the Qemant area remains restive after bouts of something close to ethnic cleansing last year. Since Abiy Ahmed became Prime Minister in April 2018, Wellega, Guji and Borana zones in Oromia have suffered armed, in some cases ethnic, conflicts and clashes have occurred between Afar and Somali. According to the Attorney General’s Office, at least 1,200 people were killed and more than 1.2 million displaced by violence or the threat of violence over the last Ethiopian calendar year (September 2018-September 2019). The universities have become a cauldron of ethnic hostility, sometimes murderous.

The vacuum at the local level is partially occupied by informal groupings and a kind of community self-regulation. In the same kebele where fear reigns, an informal group of youngsters is headed, de facto, by members of the emerging middle-class in their forties (typically grain merchants, shopkeepers, and so on). What would be considered as the new small-town proletariat, such as young casual labourers, is over-represented in this group. Farmers form less than a third of members. The youngsters are the only body which show some muscle. “We are treated with big respect by the authorities”, they proudly proclaim.


By the same author: Aug. 29, 2018 Abiy’s first Q&A raises more questions than answers


The weakened authorities, kebele chairman, village militia, wereda officials, have to work through them; traditional authorities such as priests, elders, and model farmers (who worked hand-in-hand with the former ruling power) have been forced to take a backseat. These youths now take care of maintaining basic law and order. They replace local officials in organising new kinds of development work, this time in accordance with unmet community demands, like building a road and a church.  “We support Fano”, they say, but claim to be distinct from that Amhara youth group, probably because it is described variously as a protest movement or a militia.

Discussions about various parts of Oromia offer the same or an even more serious situation. The rise of informal youth groups and their de facto recognition by the authorities is widespread. Given such a power vacuum in governance, their role can be beneficial, but on occasions, they have certainly acted as vigilantes, even as predators. Whatever their state of organisation, their strength makes them a force that cannot be ignored. They will not necessarily shape the transition, but they have the ability to impede it, if they consider it is going too far off their script.

This may not be so clear in urban areas where perception of the situation is affected by an upper-class bias. Addis Ababa and other larger towns are oases where, even if deeply disorganised, higher levels of the state and governance can still more or less operate. In Addis Ababa, indeed, it is largely business-as-usual, except for the crime situation, which is of increasing concern; but even in Addis Ababa, wereda and kebele administrations are more often than not at a virtual standstill. “The state has collapsed” or “Ethiopia is statelessness” is a frequently heard assessment outside these towns.

 

Vaguely clarifying

Despite their activity, the probability remains high that the millions of youngsters that brought Abiy to power through their protests in 2015-18 will be the real losers in the end. The same people who held to positions in the former ruling party and the state, and instrumentalized these to accumulate wealth, from the top down to the level of kebele chairman, largely remain in situ: the reform process doesn’t affect them, it even supports them. Nothing shows that this oligarchic fortress has been shaken, except for the politically motivated targeting of a few individuals, mostly Tigrayan. Corruption reached an unprecedented level in the last years. If the former senior official quoted in Foreign Policy is right (“Abiy and his colleagues were brought to power less by the street than by the venality of Oromo elites”), then the new ruling power has to return the favour. It is doubtful if the new economic liberalisation, yet to be fully or thoroughly debated, will really tackle the unemployment problem in quick time.

The future of the country essentially remains the exclusive affair of a few powerful political figures through a grand elite bargain in which youngsters had, and are likely to have, no say. The danger, in the short term, is their continuing frustration could lead to even greater focus on ethnic solidarity and mobilisation, and that this will be used by politicians for their own purposes in the federalist-Ethiopianist debate. Youth unemployment and political marginalization remain potential time bombs.

In November, Abiy announced the creation of Prosperity Party, to replace the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), in order “to change the form and content of EPRDF to make it fit to the struggle that the time requires”. EPRDF’s ethnic parties coalition had governed the country since 1991 – Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), Amhara Democratic Party (ADP), Oromo Democratic Party (ODP) and Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM). It had become effectively bankrupt and irreparably divided over the previous years. The foundation of Prosperity Party was a forceful operation to seize control of what remained.

The aim appears to be to re-evaluate the EPRDF’s foundations of ethnic federalism and the developmental state and acquire the support of as many as possible of the perhaps 7 million members of its constituent parties while making up for the exodus of some members by incorporating formerly affiliated ‘agar’ parties, which represent peripheral regions (Afar, Benishangul-Gumuz, Gambella, Harari and Somali). It was also intended to provide the prime minister with a functional ruling tool that a paralysed and collapsed EPRDF could no longer be.

This was a major change, a fundamental political clarification. Ethnicity was the foundation of the previously dominant political parties, both inside and outside the EPRDF. Prosperity Party is being structured along a clear political divide, endorsing some main trends of the ‘Ethiopianist’ political current, which had been largely silenced since the beginning of the 1990s. It is aimed particularly at the country’s ethnically mixed cities. Membership is not based on ethnicity—anybody can join whatever his ethnicity and residence, while under EPRDF’s rule one could join only the party of his ethnicity. In the leading organs, the representation of each ethnic group will not be equal as in the EPRDF but probably roughly proportionate to their population.

The political programme of Prosperity Party has yet to be fully defined, but incorporates elements of the traditional EPRDF and anti-ethnic federalist forces, a kind of catch-all hybrid aiming to gather as much as possible under a ‘big tent’ approach. As a result, it still looks somewhat confused and contradictory. It lacks clarity on how it plans to respect both individual and groups rights, on the kind of federalism it will promote, and how it will be nationally and regionally structured to bring together citizenship and ethnic identities. In the economy, its plan for the government to intervene to make up for market shortfalls sounds much like the EPRDF’s approach.

Prosperity Party will operate under the prime minister’s new philosophy of medemer (which translates roughly as ‘synergy’) but this appears to be a set of ethical values that has yet to be concretely translated into a policy or an economic strategy. The core of Abiy’s convictions seems to be shaped by a mix of looking at Ethiopia and the outside world through the lens of his fervent and strict religious beliefs and what he calls Ethiopian philosophy or “Ethiopian values”. He hasn’t publicly detailed their specificities, but, according to members of his entourage, the core is religious. Ninety-nine per cent of Ethiopians belong to a monotheist faith. Is it by chance only that the name Prosperity Party echoes the rising ‘prosperity gospel’ among Christian evangelists?


By the same author Oct. 21, 2018 Ethiopia: Climbing Mount Uncertainty


The founders of Prosperity Party strongly reject the EPRDF’s centralism. But, according to new party’s rules, its supreme body, the Executive Committee, has strong rights over the appointment of the heads of its regional branches and their executive power, among others. Time will tell how far a degree of democracy will triumph over the age-old practice of centralisation in Ethiopia. Besides, one wonders how far the support gained by moving closer to Amhara elite positions, by shifting to the more centralist and less ethnic-based federalism sharing it favours, and by giving full membership to the previously affiliated parties, is now being counterbalanced by distancing itself from ethnic nationalisms, which are strongly visible and have never been so powerful.

Prosperity Party’s birth was controversial, with Tigray ruling party questioning its legality. In the EPRDF Executive Committee, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) voted against the dissolution of the coalition. According to different sources in Mekele, who participated in the committee, two heavyweights, Lemma Megersa, Minister of Defence and former president of Oromia, and Muferiat Kamil, chairwoman of the Southern party and Minister of Peace, openly expressed strong reservations and abstained.3 Since then, Abiy’s relationship with the TPLF has deteriorated. The TPLF’s chairman, Debretsion Gebremichael, has said he considered those who created Prosperity Party as “traitors”. Members of another former EPRDF coalition, the former Oromo Democratic Party are divided on the merger; a substantial proportion of the elite among the Oromo people themselves appear to be against it. The support Abiy had in Oromia has shrunk.

Another member of the EPRDF coalition that was dissolved when Prosperity Party was formed was the Amhara Democratic Party, which represented the Amhara people. A significant element of this grouping prefers the opposition National Movement of Amhara’s (NaMA) ethno-nationalist programme. Even among the leaders of the affiliated parties, some have started to fear they will have little weight in Prosperity Party’s leadership due to their probably small representation and the dilution of their regional leadership after their parties disappear in the melting-pot of the national Prosperity Party.

Prosperity Party’s programmatic and organisational blurring, its obvious internal heterogeneity and its awkward position in relation to much present political reality, at odds with the overriding ethno-nationalist push, will all affect its efforts to fill the power vacuum in Addis Ababa and remobilise the party-state apparatus, a precondition to re-establishing law and order. It’s hard to see a clear comparative advantage of the Prosperity Party compared with the EPRDF in this regard, or ways in which the former could succeed where the latter failed. Instead, the signs are it may fall back on repression to beat off the opposition challenge.

Fatal error

The new party is Abiy’s attempt to break the stalemate of the last few years and to resolve the political crisis which has persisted and even deepened since he took office, over the ‘ethnic federalist’ and ‘Ethiopianist’ divide. But for some, his approach is too flexible – he “shifts his loyalty as necessary to serve his interests”, according to academic researcher Mebratu Kelecha in Ethiopia Insight. The result, claims a condemnatory Addis Standard editorial, is that “he has isolated himself from closest allies and a vast political base”.

The best example is Defence Minister Lemma, who was a key player in the recent transition. Abiy, multiple sources say, has systematically undermined Lemma’s positions in the government and the party. The editorial goes on: “Abiy focused on attempts to materialize the transition solo… To say today he is all alone is not an overstatement.” This is far away from the idea of medemer. The editorial concludes that “this is not the time to abandon him”, but fails to offer arguments in his support.

Abiy’s fatal initial error, which has led to many of his other missteps, is to have pursued the wrong objective. Regardless of the fate of his leadership, Abiy should have focused on trying to lead the country to a peaceful and orderly transition in order to give it its best chance of success. Instead, he seems to have deprioritized the transition’s success in favour of becoming the next in a long line of Ethiopian ‘Big Man’ rulers. For example, several high officials and journalists in Mekele and Addis Ababa have reported that during a meeting with around 50 Tigrayan businessmen on 24 November, gathered to start a shuttle diplomacy between him and the TPLF, Abiy said: “I am the leader for the next five years; if I don’t get enough votes in the ballot boxes, I will rig the elections”. His justification: “This is Africa”.

If this is Abiy’s genuine position, it means he is ready to climb to the “Big Man” rank by force if necessary. This tendency left its mark on Abiy’s instrumentalization of the creation of the Prosperity Party, which blurred its positive political aim. Then at least parts of the formal and informal opposition, like the Qeerroo and Fano, could react forcefully too, adding a very perilous factor to the already dangerous situation.


By the same author Aug. 18, 2019 Federalist façade for centralist front


One example of his personalised approach has been the way Abiy bypasses institutions. If these operated according to the constitution, they would be powerful enough to exert control over his activities. To avoid this, he has created different bodies, for example, the Administrative Boundaries and Identity Issues Commission, usually staffing them on his own recommendations. They largely overlap, and in effect replace, already existing institutions. There was another worrying sign recently of a disregard for constitutionalism when Abiy appointed new ministers rather than recommending them to Parliament. Abiy, in fact, has chosen to build a personalised network through transactional deals, requesting the mediation of elders and religious leaders, or face-to-face dialogue.

He has also followed the example of the TPLF when it took power in 1991. It ostracised the Amhara so as “to end their hegemony”,4 and imposed its own creation, the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization, as the representative of the Oromo people. This denied them what some saw as their true representatives from the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), who were part of the transitional government until they clashed with TPLF and were exiled. As a result, the TPLF failed in the vital task of national reconciliation, and this contributed heavily to the problems of the past few years.

In turn, Abiy has allowed the demonization of the TPLF and threatened to strangle the Tigray region it represents, riding a wave of wide criticism, even hatred, and aligning with Amhara and Oromo elites. This has exacerbated ethnic division, exactly the opposite of his motto of medemer. Similarly, in rebalancing (justifiably) the ethnic composition of the state apparatus, particularly the army and the security services, Abiy and his supporters have acted with blind relentlessness, throwing the baby out with the bathwater, overcompensating the Oromo. He is also widely perceived to have appointed a disproportional number of officials sharing his Pentecostalist faith. One close Ethiopian observer of national politics called it an “Evangelical state capture”,5 at least at the top; and there have been increasing criticisms on social media on the weight of these “converted Christians”.

This has affected Abiy’s legitimacy. His original popularity was nurtured by quasi-mystic expectations that he would be the saviour of the country, a messianic tone strengthened by Abiy’s presentation of himself as a prophet. The international media depicted him as an apostle of democracy. Now, critics are emphasising that he was elected without a popular mandate, by only three of the four components of a delegitimized and decaying EPRDF. For the transition to have a chance to succeed, he should have focused on galvanising it, himself remaining aloof so as to position himself as a neutral broker. Instead, he prioritised his personal agenda. And the rallying cry of his new book, ‘Medemer’, hasn’t yet provided an alternative to assemble widespread support, despite being published in Amharic and Afaan Oromo and widely distributed.

Tigray police parade in Mekele ahead of TPLF’s 45th anniversary; February 7, 2020; social media

Fortress Mekele

An important element in this, at least in the short term, remains the stance of the TPLF, as it offers the most stark denunciation of Abiy’s ruling approach and policies. Popular wisdom claims that the Tigrayan party opposes Abiy’s reformism and is still pushing the image of a dogmatic Marxist-Leninist party, dreaming of revenge and a return to national power, ruling Tigrayans with an iron fist, and doing its best to plunge the whole country into chaos. This is hardly accurate. Certainly, although it achieved undoubted economic and social success over the past two decades, the TPLF bears a huge responsibility, not because it single-handedly created Ethiopia’s problems (it didn’t) but because it failed to do enough to vanquish the age-old demons it inherited, including the infamous “question of nationalities” born of Emperor Menelik II’s southern conquests in the late nineteenth century and raised by the student movement which condemned Amhara domination. Similarly, Meles Zenawi, the TPLF politician who was prime minister from 1995 until his death in 2012, despite de jure devolution, operated a system of age-old authoritarian centralist power, at least after his 2001 purge. The TPLF failed to resolve these, and other issues

Tigrayans are certainly deeply bitter about the way TPLF’s coalition colleagues assisted their stigmatisation and this contributes largely to their retreat to the bunker of Tigray. “Why should I marry a fiancé that cheated on me?” was the headline of an Aiga Forum article. They feel encircled, from the north by ‘Shabia’ in Eritrea; from the south by the Amhara. TPLF propaganda, through its media and in meetings, repeats day after day that the population must mobilise behind it to counter this encirclement. Tigrayans fear a bloody future. But they are probably the only people in Ethiopia today who are sure of their strength, and Tigray is the only region to be peaceful and effectively governed.

The authoritarian stand of the TPLF cadre has evolved, whether willingly or unwillingly. This followed merciless popular criticism of the party in 2017. It meant the TPLF’s six-week-long Central Committee meeting at the end of 2017 was the most self-critical of the assemblies held at that time by the EPRDF’s four components. It launched a reform process which deepened and accelerated after Abiy’s election. Having lost its position and strength in Addis Ababa, with most of its key officials retreating to Mekele, the capital of Tigray, the TPLF knew that it had to regain the full confidence of Tigrayans to reassert itself by considering old popular grievances and the local emerging political forces.


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