Abiy Ahmed’s Plan to Become an Autocrat and Plot to Kill the FDRE Constitution: Reflection on His Measures and Steps
By Jabessa Gurmessa, Finfinne, Oromia, January 09, 2020
The freedom lovers and proponents of democracy/democratization believed that the release of political prisoners, Abiy Ahmed’s inaugural speech, the political liberalization, and the removal of opposition political parties from the list of terrorist organizations were indications of the inauguration of democratization. On this account, not only the freedom lovers and proponents of democracy, but many others considered Abiy Ahmed and Lamma Magarsa as angels, beacon lights of hope, and saviors of a country on the brink of collapse. Our people became fond of them. But above all many began extending support to and rally behind OPDO/ODP without any precondition and without questioning their motives and plan for Oromia and Ethiopia. Subsequently, the supporters of Abiy Ahmed, Lamma Magarsa, and OPDO/ODP became intolerant to critical voices and dissent. They have even gone to the extent of labeling anyone who is critical of them as ‘Shanee’-a pejorative term used to signify OLF/OLA- or disgruntled OPDO who is still affiliated with TPLF. Meanwhile, the measures and steps that Abiy has been taking to consolidate his power received little or no critical scrutiny from the public at large. The few critical voices also fell on deaf ears.
The joy, however, could not last long; it started waning gradually. And, in less than two years since Abiy Ahmed has become Prime Minister, it appears that the hope for successful transition to democracy has been dashed. Currently, very few doubt that Abiy wants to rule over the country unopposed both from within his own party and outside, and that he wants to demolish the current multi-national federalism. Some suspect that Abiy had a blue print for autocracy and a new model for re-structuring the Ethiopian state even before assuming political power. The books he authored before assuming the position of premiership are often presented as testimony of this assertion.
This paper attempts to substantiate the argument that Abiy Ahmed is trying to become a new autocrat by identifying and describing the measures and steps that he has been taking to this end. These measures and steps include: (1) capturing the referees of the political game, (2) sidelining some of the rival side’s star players with a view, (3) re-writing the rules of the game to lock in their advantage (in other words, tilting the playing field against their opponents), and (4) using crises as a pretext and justification for antidemocratic measures. There is, however, a question as to whether Abiy effectively install an authoritarian regime in Ethiopia. This piece does not delve into the assessment/evaluation of this issue. But I believe that it all depends on how all the stakeholders respond to his moves. Moreover, this piece argues that the end goal of the would-be authoritarian regime is diluting Oromo nationalism and eventually unmaking Oromia.
At this juncture, it is important to note that any ruler that can effectively implement the above measures and steps can even subvert an established democracy; this had happened in Peru under the leadership of Alberto Fujimori. The other point to note is that would-be authoritarian rulers and/or well-established authoritarian regimes can take some other measures to strengthen their grip on power. Disciplining administrative agents (and party members in the Ethiopian context) is one among such measures. Hence, the dissolution of EPRDF and its member parties needs to be seen from this perspective; Abiy dissolved EPRDF because he could not effectively control all the parties that were member to the front. Moreover, he needs the backing of international community, and this appears to be one of the reasons why he is accepting and trying to implement policy prescription of the neoliberal forces. I also want to remind the readers that it is hardly possible to exhaustively list the measures and steps that would-be autocrats take. Finally, it is vital to note that the various measures that would-be autocrats take are not mutually exclusive as it will be shown hereunder.
The intention here is to make people aware of the measures and steps. If we really want to ensure transition to democracy without delay, there is a dire need to organize promptly and wage resistance, at least democratically and in a non-violent manner, against the premier’s effort to become a new autocrat. As such the paper can be considered as an alarm bell for freedom lovers and proponents of democracy. For some folk, particularly those Oromo activists who have been recently brought onto the government payroll, the rise of a new autocrat may not be an issue to worry about. But I believe it is wrong. In the long term the Oromo will not benefit from establishing an authoritarian regime in Ethiopia. Having said this, I will now describe the measures and steps one after another.
2. The Measures
2.1. Capturing the Referees
Referees in a political game are those agencies that have “the authority to investigate and punish wrong-doing by both public officials and private citizens.” These include the judicial system, the law enforcement bodies and intelligence, tax, and regulatory bodies. The army, the national electoral board, the office of the president of the FDRE (for a reasons I will explicate hereunder), and the Human Rights Commission can also be added to this list in a country like Ethiopia. If you are in a political contest and all these referees are on your side, then the game will hardly be fair. It is, therefore, to avoid potential bias and unfairness that constitutions and laws require such agencies to be independent and neutral arbiters.
These referees pose both a challenge and an opportunity for would-be authoritarians. If they remain independent, they may expose and punish government abuse, and may attempt to prevent cheating. This creates a challenge for authoritarians. On the other hand, if these referees are loyalists and close allies, they could serve as a shield; they protect the government from investigation and criminal prosecutions. The prime minister and other incumbents, including other party members, may breach the law, threaten citizen’s rights, and even violate the constitution without having to worry that such abuse will be investigated or censured. It means that governments can act with impunity.
These referees can also be used as a powerful weapon with which to assault opponents. Public prosecutors may be used by the government to selectively enforce the law, punishing opponents while protecting allies. The police and the army can crack down on opposition protest while tolerating acts of violence by pro-government thugs. The intelligence and security service can engage massive surveillance and threatening of citizens with a view to silence or sideline individuals who oppose the ruling party. Tax authorities may be used to target rival politicians, businesses and media outlets. The judiciary might be used to give a veneer of legality for the repressive measures taken by the government.
The institutions like the election board can be used if and when the government decides to engage in electoral fraud. The role of the human rights commission and the President of the polity (as it will be elaborated hereunder) is not insignificant.
For these agencies to be used both as a shield and as a weapon, they have to be filled with loyalists. This may necessitate purging the institutions. And the “institutions that cannot be purged easily will be hijacked using other means such as bribing, entering brothels, engaging in other illicit activity, etc.” For instance, if there are judges who are not loyal to the ruling party, they will be bought off and if they cannot be bought off, they will be targeted for impeachment. They may also be forced to resign. If this is still not possible, i.e., if it is not possible to remove or bypass judges, authoritarians usually ‘pack the courts’, for example, by expanding the size of the court, changing the nomination rules, and then filling new positions with loyalists.
Abiy’s government has already captured these referees; he assigned individuals who are loyal to him and those who have a political sentiment that is particularly anti-Oromo nationalism to almost all of these institutions. And, they are already serving him both as a shield, and as a weapon with which to assault opponents.
To begin with, let’s look at the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS). Initially, an Amhara army general, General Adem Mohammed, was assigned to head this institution and the current director general of the NISS, Demelash Gebremichael, was a Vice Director General responsible for domestic affairs. Demelash is notorious for his engagement in corruption and illicit trade. People close to him and his circle say that he is one of the individuals who control the contraband/illegal coffee trade in western Oromia. His close ally in this illicit business, Commissioner Dhibbarra, was killed almost a year ago in fight with Oromo Liberation Army. On top of this, he is anti-Oromo nationalism. Thus, his loyalty to Abiy is based on his desire to use his office as a cover for his illicit coffee trade and his desire to suppress Oromo nationalism. There is no doubt that Abiy is aware of the involvement of this person in an illicit coffee trade. What is important to Abiy is his loyalty and the guy is effectively serving him as a weapon to sideline the key players in the opposition camp, particularly OLF members, through mass arrest and intimidation.
The other institution that can be mentioned in this regard is the Federal Supreme Court where Abiy assigned Meaza Ashenafi who is a sympathizer of the Ethiopianist camp in the Ethiopian politics. Abiy’s intention in assigning her to this key position is to use her both as shield and as a weapon. For instance, if the issue of dissolution of EPRDF or if the legality of the current government after the dissolution of the EPRDF is challenged in the courts of law, it would be hardly possible to believe that she would rule against Abiy’s government because she holds the same stance about the current dispensation as Abiy does. The Attorney General, Berhanu Tsegaye, who is currently serving as a weapon for politically motivated criminal charges, is known for his loyalty to anyone who is in Arat Kilo. On top of that, according to sources from inside his circle, he, along with Addisu Qabbanessa, former president of the Supreme Court of the State of Oromia and the current Vice Director General of Agency for Refugee and Returnee Affairs, is one of the ring leaders of a corruption network.
The reason behind appointing Birtukan Mideksa as the board chairman of the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia is also conspicuous–in case Abiy decides to rig election, she is there to help him. Some individuals may discredit my claim here arguing that my suspicion is in a clear contradiction with her personal integrity but they cannot adduce any evidence that she won’t be challenged by her political sentiment which is unequivocal as far we know. The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission is also serving the regime as a shield; they are not exposing the human rights violations that are being perpetrated by the government. The role the national army is playing so far is unquestionable; it is the primary institution that Abiy is using more than any other institution to impose his wishes on the Ethiopian people. Finally, Abiy can/will influence (use to his advantage) the decision of President of the FDRE to invite political parties to form a coalition if his party loses in the upcoming election and there is no party/coalition that wins the majority of the parliamentary seats in the upcoming election. This power is given to the president of the republic under article 60 sub-article 1 of the FDRE constitution. Hence, it is not wise to always underestimate the role of the president of the country.
2.2. Sidelining/removing some of the other side’s star players
The other measure that Abiy Ahmed has been taking, after effectively capturing the referees, is the removing or enfeebling of the star players in the opposition camp that may include “opposition politicians, business leaders who finance the opposition, major media outlets, and in some cases religious or other cultural figures who enjoy a certain public moral standing.” There is a difference between the contemporary autocrats and the old-school dictators on the mechanism of sidelining individuals who are considered as threats to the regime/the state. Most of the old-school dictators wipe out all sorts of dissent; they might also torture, exile, or kill their rivals. But the contemporary autocrats usually bribe the star players in their opponent’s camp to throw the game; they buy off the critics by offering them public positions, favors, and bring them on to the government payroll; they co-opt cultural figures (artists, intellectuals, athletes) whose popularity make them a threat to the government and provide friendly business executives with profitable concessions or government contracts. And, where these soft measures do not work, even the contemporary autocrats resort to measures such jailing key opposition figures but they hide their repression under the veneer of legality. The capturing of referees, particularly the judiciary, is important for getting a veneer of legality for the politically motivated acts that are targeted at enfeebling the opposition.
The above measures may enable would-be authoritarians obtain the support of the key figures. In other cases, it might lead to neutrality and/or silencing of influential figures: business people conclude that it is wisest to stay away/withdraw from politics entirely; politicians may decide to give up and retire; dissenters may decide to stay home rather than entering politics; and those who remain active become demoralized.
It appears that Abiy’s regime is demonstrating the features of both contemporary autocrats, and the old-school dictators; the current incumbents have learned and mastered these skills from TPLF. So far, the regime has bought off some of the activists who played a major role during the Oromo Protest and other politicians. The fact that our artists are refusing to criticize Abiy’s government despite visible turn to dictatorship and the resurgence the Neftegna sentiment that is backed by Abiy is an evidence of the fact that the regime has co-opted some of the influential cultural figures. We have also heard Abiy Ahmed complaining about the few Oromo businessmen. Furthermore, the plot to kill Jawar Mohammed as well as the sidelining of Teyba Hassen and Lemma Magarsa are all part of the plan to enfeeble the camp of Oromo nationalists. In fact, Colonel Gamachu Ayana was also locked up behind the bar because it was believed that it is possible to weaken the OLF and OLA by imprisoning him.
The rationale behind the desire to enfeeble the Oromo opposition camp appears to be the fear of Oromo nationalism. There is a perception, among the leaders of Prosperity Party, that Oromo nationalism, has endangered and is capable of really hurting the Ethiopian state. This can be inferred from the party’s by-law and program.
2.3. Re-writing the rules of the game to lock in their advantage
The other measure that would-be authoritarians take to strengthen their grip on power is changing the rules of the game in the country so that they can tilt the playing field against their opponents and make the field rough and unsuitable for the playing style of the opponent. Rules pertaining to government bureaucracy, structure of the government, election laws, and legislative process may be changed. In most cases, the target is the constitution which is usually amended or discarded altogether. In many countries, authoritarians have reformed the constitution, the electoral system, and other institutions in ways that disadvantaged or weakened their opponents and thereby enabled them consolidate their power. These antidemocratic constitutional and legal engineering often allows autocrats to lock in advantages (tilting the playing field against their opponents) for years and even decades. The irony is that these reforms are, most of the time, “carried out under the guise of some public good, while in reality they are stacking the deck in favor of incumbents.”
In the Ethiopian context, “medemer,” the new election law, the hate speech and disinformation prevention and suppression proclamation, and the administrative boundaries and identity issues commission establishment proclamation are manifestation of the fact that Abiy’s regime is in a serious antidemocratic constitutional and legal engineering. The peculiar thing in Ethiopia is that the change of the rules is not only aimed at consolidating Abiy’s political power by weakening the opposition but also they are intended to dismantle the current federal dispensation.
If you take, for instance, the Ethiopian electoral and political parties registration and election code of conduct proclamation no. 1162/2019, you can find provisions that are aimed at weakening the opposition. Article 33 sub-article 2 of this proclamation, which requires any civil servant to take leave without to contest in an election, can be mentioned in this regard. The aim of this specific legal provision is crystal clear – it is aimed at shrinking the pool from where the opposition can get candidates.
The hate speech and disinformation prevention and suppression proclamation can also be used as a weapon by which the regime can assault dissidents; Abiy’s government can abuse this law just the same way TPLF was abusing the anti-terrorism proclamation. And, since the referees, particularly the human rights commission and the judiciary, are already filled by loyalists and are in tow, no one institution is going to constrain the regime from abusing the law.
On the other hand, the administrative boundaries and identity issues commission establishment proclamation has an objective that is beyond consolidating the power of Abiy Ahmed; the target of this law is the existing multi-national federalism itself. One can infer from the reading of the proclamation that the commission has the power to provide alternative recommendations on how to solve the problem of administrative boundaries and identity issues that are supposedly occurring in Ethiopia. And, the recommendation of the Commission may be/include the dissolution of the current federal arrangement.
2.4. Using crisis as a pretext and justification for antidemocratic measures
The fabrication or existence of crises– especially security crises such as wars, armed insurgences, or terrorist attacks–is the other measure that would-be autocrats often use to justify abuse of power. States usually impose emergency rules on their people when there is such security crisis and emergency rule helps them to ensconce themselves on power. In short, crisis “facilitate the concentration, and very often, abuse of power.” Moreover, during the time of crisis, public support for government may increase and people tolerate authoritarian measures. In essence, this means that the executive branch of the government will be left virtually unchecked during crisis. Would-be autocrats use this as an opportune time to weaken their opponents and silence their critics who are bought off, and to begin to dismantle the inconvenient and sometimes threatening checks and balances that come with democratic politics.
Abiy’s regime is either fabricating crises or endeavoring to use the already existing crises not only to jail opponents but also to justify the regime’s anti-democratic and unconstitutional measures. We can mention the military “command post” imposed over Guji and Wallaga. The military command post imposed over the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples region following the crises that was created in relation to the 11/11/2011 EC protest by the Sidama people. Hence, suspecting that there are some calculated political gains from the military operation underway in Wallaga cannot be discredited as unfounded and unreasonable. This generally tells that we need to be very cautious about our decisions and actions as a people if we really don’t want to give Abiy’s regime an opportunity to invent new crises or exacerbate the old ones.
3. The Plot to Kill the FDRE Constitution
In the preceding sections, I discussed the measures and steps Abiy Ahmed has been taking to ensconce himself on power. This is, however, not the end goal of this demagogue; his ultimate goal is the erasing of Oromia and other regional states from the Ethiopian map. In other words, this is to say that Abiy wants to unmake Oromia and other regional states, and this requires the killing of the FDRE constitution and the dismantling of the existing multi-national federalism. It is unthinkable that he will be able achieve this smoothly without any reaction and he is well aware of this fact. Hence, the rationale behind his desire and decision to become an autocrat is the consolidation of power which would put him in a better position to suppress and/or get rid of anyone who stands on his way.
Abiy’s desire to undo the existing multi-national federal structure of the Ethiopian state can be gleaned from his books and speeches as well as his party’s by-law and political program. One can, for instance, look at the press statement released following the conclusion of OPDO Central Committee meeting on 06/02/2018 in which the organization impliedly denied the existence of national oppression in Ethiopia. The following excerpt from the press statement is indicative of this:
የመደብ ጭቆና ምን ያህል አስከፊ እንደሆና አዎንታዊ ለውጥን እንደሚገታ ባለፈው ታሪክህ ካንተ በላይ የሚገነዘብ የለም፡፡ በአሁኑም ሰዓት ተመሳሳይ መደባዊ ጭቆና ዳግም በሀገራችን እንዳያቆጠቁጥ ትግልህን አጠንክረህ መቀጠል ይገባሃል፡፡
It was believed that the press statement was composed by Abiy Ahmed who was head of the OPDO Secretariat back then. Presenting the subjugation under which our people was suffering for decades as a consequence of class oppression can be considered an evasive denial of the existence of national oppression. My argument is that if one frames the suffering of the people as a subjugation and repression that resulted/is resulting from class oppression, it is hardly possible to believe that he has a positive attitude towards a multinational federalism currently in place because it is founded on the notion of national oppression and the attendant national question.
In this paper, I argued that Abiy Ahmed has been taking a number of measures and steps that would enable him become an autocrat. I identified and described four measures and steps Abiy has been taking: (1) capturing the referees of the political game, (2) sidelining some of the rival side’s star players with a view, (3) re-writing the rules of the game to lock in their advantage (in other words, tilting the playing field against their opponents), and (4) using crises as a pretext and justification for antidemocratic measures. These measures have been carried out piecemeal and with the appearance of legality. Consequently, the drift into authoritarianism has not set-off alarm bells until recently. Cognizant of Abiy’s steps and being wary of his moves, in a piece entitled, “Keeping OLF at Bay from Conventional Politics: The Purpose, Modus Operandi, and repercussions”-which I wrote for Ayyaantuu.org on January 02, 2019-I cautioned that there is a possibility that the country would fall under the dictatorship of a “military man” unless he is stopped. This piece also contends that becoming an autocrat is not the ultimate goal of Abiy Ahmed. This is a means to achieve another important goal that is the dismantling of the current multi-national federal structure of the government.
Finally, those activists and politicians who argue that the Oromo will be advantageous if an authoritarian regime can be established under the leadership of Abiy Ahmed need to know that even the Tigriyan people have not eventually benefited from the fact that TPLF had imposed an authoritarian rule over the whole country for twenty-seven years. Personally, I do not believe that the Oromo adage which says “Bulchaa alagaarraa bittaa lammiin hawwee” works in our days; what we need today must be “bulchaa lammii” which I understand to mean a democratic, limited, accountable, and transparent government.