On the Election of Dr. Abiy Ahmed as EPRDF Chairman
By Caala Ibsa Oromo, March 30, 2018
After extended, closed-door meetings, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) Council announced the selection of Dr. Abiy Ahmed as the Chairman of the coalition, clearing the way for his appointment as a prime minister of Ethiopia. Although not guaranteed, Abiy’s selection is not unexpected. He is believed to be the top contender for this position, despite the rumor for weeks that his candidacy was serious opposed by the representatives of the dominant Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). It was probably the decision of Demeke Mekonnen, the representative of the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM) and current deputy prime minister, to withdraw from competition for premiership that solidified Abiy’s position and helped him to overcome TPLF opposition. It is also a smart move on the part of the deputy prime minister to withdraw from competition for premiership because, by doing so, he was able to keep his current position. His decision also shows an emerging alliance between the Amhara and Oromo representatives to overcome TPLF domination. But weather this new partnership between the representatives of the two most populous regional states survives political maneuvers and solidifies remains to be seen.
For now, the big question is: what does Abiy’s election mean for the current political crisis in Ethiopia, and particularly for the Oromo, who have spearheaded the protests to the TPLF rule? Individuals and groups have already started speculating on different outcomes–positive or negative—depending on their political positions. Some activists spent no time to send congratulatory messages to Dr. Abiy and, shamefully, started addressing him with honorific ‘you’, although he is much younger than themselves. This could be typical political opportunism than genuine respect for the presumptive premier. Others have started setting the agenda for him as well. On the other hand, other individuals and opposition groups are already dismissing the election as irrelevant because there are still many structural issues that impede Abiy’s ability to reform the repressive and corrupt system. Given the TPLF’s lukewarm or hostile attitude towards his appointment as a prime minister, the skeptics could be right; he may not have enough strength to overcome the entrenched TPLF security and military establishments to be an effective prime minister.
Thus, for the moment, any celebration or condemnation of Abiy’s appointment is premature for the following reasons. First, although the EPRDF’s council meeting and its decision to pick Dr. Abiy Ahmed as chairman appears to be contentious, we do not yet know the full story. The obvious questions are: (1) were the TPLF representatives outmaneuvered and run out of options to stop his appointment? (2) Could the decision be a tactical move by the TPLF to divide the opposition and weaken the protests, particularly in Oromia? (3) What did Abiy and the OPDO promise to secure this position? (4) What did they scarify to win the premiership?
Second, so far Dr. Abiy Ahmed is politically unknown and untested entity outside the EPRDF system. Notwithstanding the detractions of his opponents and the praises of his supporters, very little information is available in public domain regarding his ability and political maturity to withstand the TPLF pressure or survive the intrigues of the Ethiopian political culture. More specifically, how much of a reformer is he? What did his experience, as a security agent and a military officer working within the TPLF regime, teach him to prepare for this new position? Is he going to be another ‘yes man’ like his predecessor or be a fair and effective prime minster? Is he going to have his own agenda to implement, as some activists hope or believe, or will he continue to carry out the TPLF plan? For the Oromo, is he going to be a symbolic figure, like the current and previous ‘Oromo’ presidents (who, to be fair, were limited by the constitution), and confuse and divide the nationalist camp, or could he serve as an agent of change and facilitate the attainment of their aspirations? Would his premiership lead to sending more Qeerroo to prison or empty the TPLF notorious jails?
Third, even if Dr. Abiy Ahmed is genuinely a reformist or an Oromo nationalist, honestly, it is not fair to expect too much from a single individual. Besides TPLF entrenched power, Ethiopian politics is very complicated to navigate safely. There are numerous conflicting interest groups and deep-rooted historical problems to address. Working in such political environment requires deep understanding of the contradictory narratives of Ethiopian history and broad collaboration of the major political actors. Immediately, there is not much the new prime minister could do while the state of emergency is in place. His power is already compromised by the establishment of the Command Post dominated by the TPLF guards and their affiliates. The army, the security and other key government ministries are occupied by TPLF agents. Key economic sectors are dominated by the TPLF as well. Besides the rampant corruption, it requires strong effort and unified support of all political groups to dismantle the TPLF power network and usher in any reform.
To accomplish all these, Dr. Abiy Ahmed needs the support of the people behind him. But he cannot get their loyalty before he showed them his full commitment to clear the carnage the TPLF has created for 27 years. Where he turns for support matters—to the people or the TPLF. In fact, it is prudent not praise or summarily dismiss him before we clearly understand weather he is TPLF Trojan horse or an agent of change. His appointment as a prime minister could provide some opportunities for reform or he may prove to be utterly ineffectual leader dashing the hopes of some activists.
In any case, what should the Oromo do?
It should be clear that Abiy’s rise to the top of the EPRDF’s power hierarchy is paved by the blood of the Oromo youth. Their selfless struggle put the TPLF/EPRDF regime in disarray. The TPLF perpetrated mass arrests, torture, killings, displacement of innocent people, and exiled opponents. They imposed state of emergencies. None of them worked so far. Realizing the futility of the TPLF/EPRDF repressive policies, some members of the OPDO started to criticize the regime that they are working with. Obviously, they were emboldened by the success of the Oromo Qeerroo uprising. The so-called reformist ‘Team Lemma’ was created by the Qeerroo movement. Dr. Abiy Ahmed’s affiliation with ‘Team Lemma’ helped him to emerge as an alternative to TPLF corrupt leadership. If he won the EPRDF chairmanship and Ethiopia’s premiership against the TPLF wishes or even with their tacit support, it is because they are scared of the Qeerroo movement. But if they have the opportunity, they will not hesitate to use him to weaken the youth movement.
Then, the question is, what would Dr. Abiy Ahmed do? Will he collaborate with the TPLF and turn against the Qeerroo movement? All Oromos should be aware of the fact that Abiy’s premiership may not guarantee their safety, because it could be manipulated by the TPLF, and the TPLF could stay in power longer. In this regard, although Abiy’s rise to power is facilitated by the youth movement, it should not be confused with success of the Oromo national struggle. The latter still requires more sacrifices ahead. For this reason, the Qeerroo should assess the situation carefully and adapt to the changing circumstances very quickly. Irrespective of what Abiy does as a prime minister, the Qeerroo should remain steadfast in their commitment to end the suffering of the Oromo nation. If Abiy and the OPDO remain as obstacles to the Oromo national movement, they should be fought to the bitter end. We do not need another generation of Oromos who want to be a shield for the enemy. But any opportunity his premiership provides for success of the Oromo movement should be exploited skillfully and aggressively without any confusion or praises.