Tag Archives: Forthcoming election

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.


Is Ethiopia sliding backwards under Abiy Ahmed?—Jazeera’s UpFront

14 Feb

Posted by The Ethiopia Observatory (TEO)

 

In this episode of UpFront, we challenge Lencho Bati, an adviser to the office of the Ethiopian prime minister about Abiy Ahmed’s controversial handling of protests and ask why the Nobel laureate is so media-shy.

 

 

What a bad season! In a single day, I saw two individuals I had always respected going down the tuble. One is Lencho himself. The other is Taye Dendea, who during the week had lost two million Birr, taken from the Treasury to pay for Prosperity cadres in Training in Bishoftu. Has this been subjected to investigation. Taye said, those that broke into his car “had master key and when he went to lunch they had opened the car and took the money and other stuff.

Amid blackout, western Oromia plunges deeper into chaos and confusion shows clearly what the man I have always admired how he is attributing the problems Prosperity has faced to its enemies. That frigid explanation has robbed me of the person I admired: This he used to dismiss any failures of Abiy Ahmed Ali as a national leader. Go through the article, you would see what I am trying to explain.

Of all things, Taye, Prosperity Party’s spokesman, astounded me when he zeroed in on denying there were abducted university students. I read that denial in Ethiopia Insight. Here is a quote from Ethiopia Insight states:

 

 

 

 

ፕ/ር መረራ ጉዲና በአራት ኪሎ ቤተ መንግሥትና ሃዉልት እንገነባለን ላሉት በኢንጂ ይልቃል ጌትነት የተሰጠ ምላሽ

31 Jan

Posted by The Ethiopia Observatory (TEO)

 

 

 

 

Chief Commissioner Daniel Bekele has his eyes firmly set on state accountability. The question isn’t if he can do the job, but if he lasts!

9 Nov

Posted by The Ethiopia Observatory (TEO)

“Ensuring accountability is key to ending culture of impunity and cycle of human rights abuses… It is now for police and the Attorney General’s office to undertake full investigation, gather evidences and hold all perpetrators of these heinous crimes to account.”

Daniel Bekele (PhD) is the newly-minted Chief Commissioner of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission. A lawyer, he was previously with Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Action Aid and was the Senior Director for Africa Advocacy, based in New York City, where he also served one time as its Executive Director of its African Division. He earned his PhD from Oxford University in International law last year. A former prisoner-of-conscious, he reflects with Samuel Getachew of The Reporter on human rights in Ethiopia, on the recent civil unrest, on how the commission is ever evolving and becoming independent and finally reflects on the role it intends to play in the upcoming national election happening next year. Excerpts:

The Reporter: For the last several weeks, we have seen many lives being lost, properties damaged and thousands of people displaced and hurt. We have read the statement that came out of your commission recently. Is there any plan to bring accountability to what has happened by way of an independent investigation or public inquiry?

Chief High Commissioner Daniel Bekele (Credit: The Reporter)Daniel Bekele (PhD): Ensuring accountability is key to ending culture of impunity and cycle of human rights abuses. EHRC has already called for full accountability of all offenders and the federal government has stated its commitment to ensure accountability. It is now for police and the Attorney General’s office to undertake full investigation, gather evidences and hold all perpetrators of these heinous crimes to account. But any such investigation and the judicial process requires time. We should now let the police and prosecutors do their job but it is also critical to ensure that innocent people are not further victimized in the name of criminal investigation. EHRC will also continue to monitor the process.

Do you think the actions of the government so far are adequate? 

We are still at very early stages of the criminal investigation process and hence it would be rather premature to comment on the adequacy of the process at this stage. But the government clearly is stating its unwavering commitment to hold all perpetrators to account is the first step in the right direction. This statement should now be followed by concrete actions.

Highlighted by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, there have been widespread complaints on delayed justice for suspects under police custody as well as due process, including their Miranda rights, denied to them during the investigation process. Since you have taken over the commission, there has been a push to make it more transparent and earn the commission public confidence. How far do you think you have you come in achieving that?

There is still a long way to go in improving administration of criminal justice in Ethiopia. There are notable advances on many levels but there are lots of areas yet to be improved including extended remand custody, denial of bail rights and ensuring speedy trials. The various law enforcement agencies are working with very limited resources.

One of the long-running accusations against the commission was its lack of independence and the uniform like accusation was that government cadres run it. How independent is the commission now do you think?

The Commission is now fully independent in a sense that no government authority gives direction on the work of the Commission but there are certain structural limitations affecting its operational independence and fundamental reforms are yet to be accomplished to ensure both the operational and financial autonomy of the institution. We are working towards an amendment of the establishment proclamation to ensure the full autonomy of the Commission.

The last few years, we have seen a uniform-like unrest across the nation – from Benishangul, Gedeo to Guji and Qimant. Some say, the commission has been silent. Why the silence?

It has only been just few months since the Commission got a new Chief Commissioner and we started a process of reform and restructuring. The reform is key to make the institution fit for purpose. Although the Commission is not yet at full capacity, there is good effort underway, among other things, to handle wide range of complaints, monitoring of prisons and detainees, and responding to emergency human rights situations.

We are almost a year away from a national election and fear of unrest and violence is almost certain to occur. What is the commission doing to ensure those who instigate such violence are held accountable and that the rights of citizens would be respected? 

We hope the Commission will make progress on the reform and restricting work sooner than later and be ready to design and implement a proper human rights strategy around the elections. This will help to contribute towards a peaceful and credible electoral process and ensuring the respect and protection of all human rights before, during and in the post-election period.

Share with me about the status of the implementation of the National Human Rights Action Plan.

I would like to see a new human rights action plan that clearly sets out the priority human rights issues in the country with a robust action plan.

Is the commission working closely with federal and regional police commissions?

We seek to coordinate our work with all relevant stakeholders including police and all law enforcement agencies both at regional and federal level. Just the last couple of months, police commissions have been helpful in facilitating our visits to detention centers.

How well-versed do you think are security officers and the police when it comes to ensuring the rights of citizens?

All law enforcement agencies and their officers could benefit from a regular and sustained training and capacity development on international human rights standards and other relevant professional skills for their work. Capacity building is not just a one-time intervention. You need to institutionalize a system of continuing professional education program for all law enforcement officers.

 

/The Reporter’s Samuel Getachew

Photo credit: The Reporter

 

How Ethiopia’s ruling coalition created a playbook for disinformation

19 Oct

Posted by The Ethiopia Observatory (TEO)

“Mis- and disinformation online fuels pre-election suspicions in Ethiopia”

A deep split that exists within Ethiopia’s ruling coalition — the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (the EPRDF) —was made evident over the last few weeks when a Facebook row broke out between two major political party members who disagreed on the historical accounts of Ethiopia as a modern state.

The row revealed how party members within the EPRDF use social media — through posts and memes — to manipulate public opinion and spread misinformation and incendiary content.

The EPRDF is a coalition of four ethnically-based parties. Members from these four parties: Amhara Democratic Party (ADP), Oromo Democratic Party (ODP), Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM) and Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), currently make up Ethiopia’s top leadership.

Until 2018, the TPLF was the dominant party in the coalition, holding absolute power for over 25 years. ADP and ODP have joined forces to put an end to the supremacy of TPLF, yet its members continue their rivalry, with infighting that usually goes under the radar. Tensions have risen steadily since April 2018, when Abiy Ahmed of the ODP was sworn in as prime minister.

On October 4, ODP-ADP infighting burst out into the open when members and supporters of ADP and ODP started to bicker over a remark made by the vice president of Oromia Regional State, Shimeles Abdisa, in Addis Ababa, on the eve of Irreecha (an annual celebration marking the beginning of spring).

In his remarks, Abdisa hailed the Irreecha celebration in Addis Ababa, which he described as the very place where Oromos were defeated and humiliated by the old regime:

The Oromo people were defeated right here, our humiliation started right here.

In his speech, Abdisa struck a triumphant tone and marked the day’s celebration in Addis as a turning point in the struggle of the Oromo people. He used the Amharic word neftegna (“riflemen” in English) to refer to the ruling class established in the wake of Emperor Menelik II’s conquest in southern Ethiopia in the late 19th century.

Today, many ethnic Amahras view Emperor Menelik II as a symbol of triumph and defiance of European colonialism, while many Oromos consider him the root cause of their social and cultural subjugation.

Abdisa’s use of the term neftegna prompted backlash given that it is often used to refer to members of Emperor Menelik II’s army after TPLF came to power in 1991.

The following day, in a Facebook post, Asemahegn Aseres, a top ADP member, accused Abdisa of employing coded language to intimidate the Amhara people and, in turn, drew the ire of Taye Dendea, a top ODP member, who saw Asemahegn’s accusation as a denial of the historical social and cultural subjugation the Oromos suffered.

Dueling statements made by Aseres and Dendea exemplify the differences in interpretations of Ethiopia’s historical events among the country’s elites. While the ADP considers the formation of a modern Ethiopian state as faultless and virtuous, the ODP understands its formation as a process that led to the subjugation and humiliation of Oromos at the hands of Ethiopian emperors.

Aseres and Dendea have several things in common: They are young politicians who aspire to long political careers and whose parties, the ADP and ODP, — have banded together to bring down the supremacy of TPLF in April 2018.

Their row on Facebook bolstered their popularity and ushered an intense wave of political polarization freighted with misinformation.

 

 

Their spat led to an outpouring of support on their respective Facebook pages, feverishly gathering up reactions, comments, and shares.

Taye’s page, with 56,432 followers, racked up about 5,000 shares and generated 3,500 comments, while Asemahegn’s page, with 45,565 followers, mustered about 3,000 shares and 2,500 comments — just within 24 hours of their posts.

These numbers aren’t enough to gauge the extent of this political divide among Ethiopian citizens. However, it shows how two distinct nationalist discourses on social media struggle for primacy in the debate over Ethiopia’s past events and political future.

The heated exchange not only tests the tactical alliance of ADP and ODP, but it also exerts a “contagion effect” by galvanizing sympathizers by employing misinformation, inflammatory stories, memes and videos on social media.

Manipulating public opinion: The case of EthiopianDJ

For years, members of the EPRDF have used social media to manipulate public opinion on social media for their benefit. In 2017, when a series of EPRDF top-secret documents were leaked online, an army of paid Facebook personalities and bloggers was deployed to produce disparaging comments and misinformation about critics of the Ethiopian government.

However, as the internal power struggle and the ideological battle intensified among EPRDF members, misinformation tactics are shifting from targeting critics of the Ethiopian government to targeting each other and building allies from opposition groups.

For example, on September 3, 2019 Aseres made a little-noticed interview with EthiopianDJ, a Facebook page with about 1.1 million followers, known for spreading fake news, incendiary memes and conspiracy theories including one that says Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed somehow was part of the plot that killed the country’s top military officials and leaders of the Amhara region in June 2019.

In another incident, EthiopianDJ posted images that purported to show security officers confiscating green, yellow and red flags from followers of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, during an annual Meskel celebration, while tolerating the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) flag. (The green, yellow and red flag is associated with Ethiopia’s past emperors while the OLF flag represents Oromo resistance.)

The images are authentic, but they are misleading. The images were actually taken from two different celebrations, Meskel and Irrechaa, held a week apart — albeit in the same venue. During these celebrations, security officers seized and removed flags considered unlawful by the Ethiopian government.

Most often displaying flags associated with opposition groups and old Ethiopian regimes during public events such as Meskel and Irreechaa are considered illegal.

There is no indication that EthiopianDJ has received money from EPRDF, but it offers a fresh example of the misinformation tactics of the disintegrating party.

EthiopiaDJ’s post with these images was shared about 1,000 times and generated 782 comments.

No empirical data shows that automated accounts or bots may have generated these comments, but signs of social media manipulation exist in hundreds of sham Facebook accounts with numerous made-up names that regularly post, like and share incendiary content.

Repeated, deliberated disinformation

Manipulation tactics used by EPRDF members against each other in their internal power struggle serve as a blueprint for opposition groups to attack their opponents and the government.

Over the last two weeks, Ethiopian netizens witnessed repeated, deliberate disinformation around public holidays and political events that often led to unintentional misinformation.

In one high-profile incident, well-known opposition activist, Eskinder Nega, tweeted a two-line poem purportedly written by famed poet and actress, Meron Getenet, which takes a swipe at the leadership of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. But the poem was subsequently found to be taken from an imposter Facebook page that used Meron’s name. The poem, a sharp and direct takedown of Abiy Ahmed’s leadership (without mentioning Abiy’s name), characterizes his administration as “directionless.”

A fact-checking journalist reported the poem attributed to Meron was wrong, but Nega’s original message had already been retweeted over 76 times and his tweet has not yet been deleted.

In another online incident, Oromo activist Jawar Mohammed, who has more than 1.7 million followers on Facebook, questioned the integrity of the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE), after its communication adviser tweeted a question to Addis Ababa’s mayor (an ODP member) when the Irreecha holiday-related road closures will end.

In what has become one of his most high-performing posts, Jawar shared the screengrab of the tweet along with a statement questioning the integrity of NEBE on his Facebook page.

Given the intense political polarization around the celebration of Irreecha in Addis Ababa, some consider the tweet from NEBE’s communication adviser insensitive. But Jawar’s Facebook post is also misleading.

These incidents of mis- and disinformation and misinformation fuel pre-election suspicion as Ethiopia plans to hold highly-anticipated general elections in about ten months.

by Endalk

/Global Village

 

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