The Challenges of Ethiopia’s Transition and its Policy Options

26 May

Posted by The Ethiopia Observatory (TEO)

by The Board of Vision Ethiopia

The postponement of the election was predictable long before the outbreak of the COVID-19 outbreak. The  government  has not been able to  conduct  national  census, political parties  were  not  able  to  campaign  freely  in  all  regions  of  the  country,  and  sectarian messages  dominated  the  airwaves.  Allegations  that  security  forces,  law  enforcement agencies  and  government  institutions  are  partisans  have  eroded  public  trust  in  the government’s ability to prepare the country for the promised free and fair election.


Had it not been for a complex set of events, the month of May 2020 would have witnessed Ethiopia’s first post-conflict and transitional election.

Two years have passed since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power in the aftermath of  a popular  uprising  that demanded political  reforms,  protection of  human  rights and establishment  of  law  and  order.  He  raised  the  hopes  and  aspirations  of  millions  of Ethiopians back home and abroad with tantalizing measures that included the releases of  political  prisoners,  amnesty  for  political  dissidents,  and  a  peace  settlement  with neighboring Eritrea.

These bold steps earned the prime minister all round commendations and the 2019 Nobel Prize for Peace.

To the dismay of many Ethiopians, no sooner had glimpses of these signs of change been caught than the specter of anarchy and chaos ominously descended on the land. Ethnic conflicts got worse, resulting in countless deaths   and   massive   internal   human displacement. Minorities (especially the Amharas and Christians) in the various regions were  targeted  and  persecuted,  while  university campuses  became  centers  of  political agitation, violence and killings. Defenseless students of the Amhara ethnic group, mostly young girls, were abducted and tortured by extremist Oromo fighters, and several places of worship, including heritage institutions, were burned down. The governor of the Amhara region and his colleagues were assassinated under mysterious circumstances, as was the Chief of Staff of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces.

The frequent reshuffling of the cabinet, dominance of  the political scene by non-state actors, and pervasive conflicts between the government and the armed wing of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) added to the atmosphere of insecurity and instability in the country. The  “de  facto  independence”  of  certain  regions  of  the  country,  and   the  blatant appointments  of  government  officials  based  on  ethnicity  rather  than  competency,  the growth in illicit trade that included small arms, and the general breakdown of law  and order in many regions contributed to the fragility and dysfunctionality of the government.

These unsettling developments have captured the attentions of observers, such as the International Crisis Group, to ponder over the dooms and glooms of the transition and the precariousness of the very survival of the country as a united entity.

At its meeting of May 10, 2020, the Board of Vision Ethiopia discussed the contemporary issues  affecting  the  country  and  identified  the  following  four  thematic  areas  that  are believed to be legitimate threats to the freedom of the people and to the survival of the country:

  • The Covid-19 pandemic and its social, economic, political, and national security implications;
  • Egypt’s  coercive  diplomacy  towards  the  Grand  Ethiopian  Renaissance  Dam (GERD);
  • Elections and government accountability, transparency and rule of law; and
  • The Eritrea-Ethiopia relationship.

In what follows, we present a brief assessment of each of the above topics and propose relevant  policy  alternatives,  informed  by  papers  and  abstracts  submitted  to  previous Vision Ethiopia conferences, as well as by relevant academic and policy literature, with a view to helping the transition of the nation into a post-conflict and stable country in the otherwise troubled region of the Horn of Africa. Consistent with the overarching mission of Vision Ethiopia, the objective is the promotion of the well-being of all of the country’s 110 million people, and the sanctity of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the nation.

  1. The COVID-19 Pandemic and Its Implications

The coronavirus epidemic  has inflicted unprecedented  damage  to countries that were once thought to be invincible. For Sub-Sahara Africa (SSA), the poorest part of the world, the challenge is even more immense. The low rates of infection reported thus far in most parts of SSA may not be cause for comfort. According to many predictions, Africa, with its  relatively  weak  healthcare  systems,  may  be  the  next  epicenter  of  the  pandemic outbreak.

Unsurprisingly, Ethiopia is bracing itself for its share of the global storm. Only time can tell the degree of success or failure of Ethiopia’s response to the anticipated assault. The economic,  educational,  social  and  political  effects  of  the  virus  in  the  country  are staggering. The economy is in a standstill, while exports and tourism have frozen, and remittances have declined. Except for the few and privileged, schools and universities are shut. The landlocked country is under serious distress, with the GDP growth rate falling from the cliff. The gloomy picture has been elucidated by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed using  notable  international  media  outlets  such  as  the  New  York  Times  and  Financial Times.

There have been a few encouraging developments in terms of alleviating the looming catastrophe  in  these  otherwise  uncertain  times.  Ethiopians  in  the  Diaspora  who  are themselves affected by the virus have generally responded affirmatively in sending much needed personal protection equipment; and the World Bank, IMF, European Union and the United States have released modest funds to fight the plague.

However, there are several factors that make the resource mobilization challenging. First, the usual sources of support, such as the United States and the European Union, are themselves hit hard by the pandemic. Even when promises are made, disbursements do not arrive on time. Corporate philanthropy is virtually nonexistent, since the number of transnational  corporations  in  Ethiopia  is  insignificant.  Internally,  ethnicity  and  human rights  violations  have  divided  the  Ethiopian  society.  More  importantly,  there  is  an atmosphere  of  mistrust  of  government  emanating  from  the  perception  of  extensive corruption,  evictions, land speculation, gentrification,  unaccountability, and partiality of the governance system. Allegations that security forces, law enforcement agencies and government  institutions  are  partisans  have eroded  public  trust,  affecting  the  country’s response to the dreaded pandemic.

There is legitimate concern that the combination of the lockdown, political instability, weak government, debt burden, outmigration, external threats, as well as the locust invasion are more than likely to make the recovery arduous and long. The ethnic cleavages, the economic hardships and the continued eviction of the poor during these trying times can only spark new unrests in and around Africa’s premier diplomatic city, Addis Ababa, as well as the entire country.

It was in this backdrop that Vision Ethiopia in April of 2020 issued a statement on the measures  taken  to  combat  the  novel  coronavirus  pandemic  and  specifically  warned against potential human rights violations that accompany natural or man-made disasters.

Vision Ethiopia believes that the Government should continue to implement data-driven measures  to  mitigate  and  suppress  the  outbreak,  and  aggressively  pursue  effective resource mobilization from both local and international sources. Most importantly, there should be an unambiguously stated policy that guarantees that the resources mobilized will reach the vulnerable segments of the society.  Further, extreme caution should be exercised so that the State of Emergency cannot be misused to suppress human rights, influence election outcomes, or harass those who raise genuine nonsectarian transition questions.

  1. Egypt’s Coercive Diplomacy and the GERD

Undoubtedly, the GERD has become a game-changer in the hydro-politics of the Nile river  system.  Colonial treaties which  served  Egypt  over  the  years are  in tatters. As a consequence,  Egypt  has  embarked  on   a  dangerously  coercive  and  adventurous diplomacy. It has rallied the support of the Arab League and a few African countries, and has managed to influence the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury to issue a statement that contravened  the  principles  of  international  law  and  the  sovereign  rights  of  Ethiopia. Recently, it has even requested the UN Security Council to intervene on the matter.

All along, Vision Ethiopia has remained engaged and has unwaveringly supported the Government  of  Ethiopia  in  its  effort  to  protect  the  sovereignty  of  the  country  and  to promote the fair and equitable exploitation of the Nile river system. We acknowledge the work of the various Ethiopian diaspora networks,  the technical team at the Ministry of Water,  Irrigation  and  Electricity,  and  the  recent  leadership  shown  at  the  Ministry  of Foreign Affairs.

Vision Ethiopia believes that the only way of dealing with Africa’s problems is through an active implementation of the principles enshrined in Article 4 of the Constitutive Act of the African Union. Neither the Security Council, nor the Arab League nor the United States should be dictating the resolution of the transboundary water sharing problems in Africa. Egypt must have confidence in the continental institutions, return back to the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), and ratify the agreement on the Nile River Basin Cooperative Framework, and any agreement must be within these frameworks. Indeed, the Secretary General of the United Nations, consistent with Chapter VI of the Charter, has referred the matter back to the continent by asking the parties to “persevere” in resolving the dispute.

It should be underscored that any military adventure on the part of Egypt runs the risk of igniting an endless Afro-Arab conflict. In this respect millions of Africans very well know the  history  of  the  Arab  conquest  of  the  continent  and  Egypt’s  colonial  ambitions  and extractive diplomacy to control the sources of the Nile (both the Blue as well as the  White Nile). This matter is also vivid to the African American community in the United States as well as those in the Caribbean.

The nefarious roles of Egypt in inciting unrest and political upheavals in Ethiopia are very well known, and ranged from aborted invasions over the centuries to promoting ethnic and religious dissonance in recent times. The accession to power of the TPLF in 1991, the  secession  of  Eritrea  in  1993,  and  the  Eritrea-Ethiopia  war  of  1998-2000  are  all examples  of  traumatic  events  that  exemplify  Egypt’s  relentless  efforts  to  control  the sources of the Blue Nile.

It has been the position of Vision Ethiopia that the construction of the dam must continue in  accordance  with  the  stated  timeline,  making  a  reasonable  tradeoff  between  the principles of “equitable water sharing” and “no significant harm”, without being coerced to seek “permission” from anyone. We encourage the continuation of the recent effort by the Ministry  of  Foreign  Affairs  to  reach  out  to  the  African  diplomatic  community  in  Addis Ababa, and we believe this effort should be intensified to expose Egypt’s self-centered and unjustified claims. While we note the seasoned response to Egypt’s misleading letter to the UN Security Council, we urge the government to vigilantly apprise the international community, especially its allies in the fight against terrorism, of the long history of Egypt’s effort to create political unrest, cause destabilization in Ethiopia, and, in doing so, sow the seeds of extremism and terrorism.

  1. Government Accountability and Elections

There  is  ongoing  debate  about  whether  Ethiopia  has  the  necessary  constitutional instrument  or  transitional  charter  that  guides  the  post-conflict  and  transformational election. Citizens are weary about the direction of the transition, because the preceding transitional/provisional governments in  1975 and 1991  had turned out to be  a military dictatorship and an ethnocentric regime, respectively. While the measures taken by the government to engage dissident groups is commendable, there is a lack of transparency about the agreements reached between the government and exiled groups that are now operating  in  the  country.  There  is  legitimate  concern  that  groups  that  systematically undermine the country’s integrity, promote ethnic tensions, desecrate the national flag and vandalize precious heritages, are allowed to thwart with impunity the transition to “nonsectarian governance”.

Research shows that elections and political parties are the cornerstones of government accountability. However, the 2005 crisis and the 2015 farcical elections in Ethiopia have resulted  in  more  harm  than  progress  towards  government  accountability.  The  1995

Constitution, which excluded many, was not drawn based on the principles of separation of powers (horizontal accountability), and remained unratified by a referendum. It has no credible provisions for the creation of an independent court to interpret ambiguities, as is now exemplified in the search for constitutional “interpretation” about the postponement of the upcoming elections.

The postponement of the election was predictable long before the outbreak of the COVID-19 outbreak. The  government  has not been able to  conduct  national  census, political parties  were  not  able  to  campaign  freely  in  all  regions  of  the  country,  and  sectarian messages  dominated  the  airwaves.  Allegations  that  security  forces,  law  enforcement agencies  and  government  institutions  are  partisans  have  eroded  public  trust  in  the government’s ability to prepare the country for the promised free and fair election.

Remarkably, many points of view have been put forth regarding the election; however, most appear to be self-serving or dictated by ethnic agendas that do not contextualize the challenges of the day. One prevailing view, however, suggests that the transition has “failed” and, hence, the country needs to go back to the drawing board. Unsurprisingly, the airwaves and the Social Media are filled by competing opinions about the form of a transitional   government,   including   a   government   of   national   unity,   a   caretaker government, and a purely technocratic one. Others opine a blank check which suggests that the government must extend its rule irrespective of how the House of Federation resolves the “constitutional crisis”.

The issue of a transitional government has been a focus of interest for Vision Ethiopia for a long time. In its third conference (October 22 and 23, 2016), the topic was extensively discussed and it was concluded that a transitional government was the best option at that time. However, given the present-day situation, Vision Ethiopia holds the view that the elections must be postponed under the stewardship of the current administration, while making a renewed and unwavering commitment to laying the ground for an unfettered and nonsectarian free and fair election within a defined post pandemic period, ensuring the rule of law, protection of human rights, and safeguarding the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country.

  1. The Eritrea-Ethiopia Relationship

One  of  the  major  accomplishments  of  Prime  Minister  Abiy Ahmed  when  he  assumed power  was the resolution of  the no-war-no-peace situation that had characterized the relationship between Eritrea and Ethiopia since the bloody border war that cost tens of thousands of lives between May 1998 and June 2000. The new relationship is yet to be fully defined,  as there have  been uncertainties  about how much of  the  relationship  is institutionalized. To date, there has been no official declaration of the key elements of the various agreements, including any resolutions pertaining to Ethiopia’s landlocked-ness.

Internally, there is a lingering hostility between the TPLF and the Government of Eritrea. The  TPLF  leaders,  who  once  fought  together  with  EPLF  and  colluded  with  Eritrea  to render Ethiopia land-locked, have considered the rapprochement between the leaders of the two countries as an existential threat.

The Eritrea-Ethiopia relationship has been a topic of keen interest to Vision Ethiopia since its inception. Notably, the first conference (October 18, 2015), was conducted under the theme of the then and future relationships between the two countries, and was concluded with the formulation of concrete proposals for a peaceful settlement of the conflict.

Vision  Ethiopia  believes  that  the  Government  of  Ethiopia  should  ensure  that  all agreements  reached  between  the  two  countries  be  ratified  by  the  House  of  Peoples’ Representatives and that the people of Ethiopia be fully informed of pertinent details of the  agreements.  In  addition,  Vision  Ethiopia  believes  that  all  agreements  should  be framed anticipating any potential challenges in Eritrea and in the geopolitics of the Red Sea region.

The Board of Vision Ethiopia

May 23, 2020



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