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

By René Lefort, February 25, 2020

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed at the launch of his book, Medemer; October 20, 2019; Office of the Prime Minister.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

Indeed, as in the rest of Ethiopia a new generation of ethno-radical activists has emerged, particularly among graduates in the towns. Members of the Tigrayan elite can now have their say through new social media outlet Digital Woyane, and the new parties of Baitona and Third Woyane, the second being even more ethno-nationalist than the first. The name of a soon-to-be established organisation is explicit: the Tigray Independence Party.

The TPLF is dealing with these new more nationalist forces by playing a double game. It gives them some room in order to prove its new openness, while also demonstrating it is sticking to a moderate position vis-à-vis more radical trends; although it has also to take these into account. It may even concede a few constituencies to Baitona in the next election. Yet these ethno-radical movements know where the red lines are: they urge TPLF to assert Tigray’s self-rule, to liberalize the political landscape, and to soften its grip on the economy, but advocate that at this perilous time there is a need to prioritize a common front against Tigray’s adversaries.

Alternatively, Arena and the Tigrayan Democratic Party are distancing themselves from ethnic federalism, and so they are treated as plague carriers. They were probably the target of TPLF leader Debretsion when he denounced the “internal forces that are operating to disturb the peace and the unity of Tigray”, even though the last TPLF extraordinary congress decided that TPLF “should continue to work with all legal oppositions in Tigray”.

The TPLF’s leadership is worried, of course, but appears calm and confident. It affirms that the party is more “cohesive”, “principled” and “experienced” and that the bond between the Front and Tigrayans is stronger than in any other region. They highlight the age-old fighting capacity of Tigray, and note that some of the country’s most skilled former senior military officers are now in the region. When asked about armament, they respond: “don’t worry for that!”. A huge security training campaign is ongoing. A former leading Tigrayan commander summarized: “there is not one army in the whole Horn which can defeat us”.6 They appear to be confident in the systems of resilience that Tigray has built over the years precisely to face the kind of situation it now confronts.

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

The TPLF strategy is threefold, according to senior members. In the first instance to “to maintain peace, security and development in Tigray”, which means to assert the “de facto state” which it has imposed since the end of the 1980s when it started to control the whole region. Secondly, it wants to reach “peaceful coexistence” with Addis Ababa, including, if requested, involvement in key national issues, like security. Taking for granted Abiy’s failure, it also aims “to avoid a situation in which Abiy would take the whole nation down with him”. It is, therefore, working on building an alternative force, coming together “with link-minded political groups”, sticking to the basis of the constitution, ethnic federalism.7

This is rather ironic for a Front which itself did much to “emasculate the federal arrangement”, as one of its historic figures puts it.8 It insists that otherwise all other political, economic, and other issues are negotiable. It believes such an alternative force will not be able to organize formally before the elections, so each ethnic party should campaign under its own flag. The current preparations now underway will, however, lay the foundation for a coalition in the next Parliament.9

The TPLF knows the other ethnic federalist parties remain wary of it due to the repression it waged against them for years. It doesn’t want to appear as the architect of such a coalition. Some of its leading members concede that to regain the confidence of their proposed partners, a sincere and extensive mea culpa is necessary. They are also convinced that a programme stripped back to the pillars of the constitution is not enough to build the coalition. They need to design a framework to engage in fruitful negotiations. They know the best way to attract allies is for Tigray to demonstrate clearly it has reformed; that there will be democratization in Tigray and no ambition for TPLF to recapture its former leading role at the center.

The range and the pace of this and the role of the TPLF in coalition-building are at the core of the present robust debates inside the Front. But the main opinion among the Tigrayan elite, as underlined by a local journalist, appears to be that “the best thing that Tigray can do is to sit out the more and more critical evolution taking place in the rest of Ethiopia”.10 Wait and see: the ball is in the other court.

Appealing for TPLF’s “experience”, last November, Prime Minister Abiy made a clumsy and painful attempt at reconciliation, through the mediation of the group of around fifty Tigrayan businessmen in Addis Ababa. It produced deeper tension. Abiy offered no political arguments, but proposed three options. The first was that the TPLF should merge with Prosperity Party or secondly that it should join Prosperity Party with the same status that the “agar” affiliated parties previously had with EPRDF. A third option was for the TPLF to send, say, ten high-level figures to Addis to work with him. He also proposed that Debretsion could be appointed as Deputy Prime Minister, a role he shared under former premier Hailemariam Desalegn. The TPLF categorically refused. It said it could not compromise over the Prosperity Party program but it was ready to negotiate on national issues, particularly security and the holding of peaceful elections.11

The Prime Minister reacted by threatening a full blockade of Tigray, the cutting of federal funds (around 70 percent of Tigray’s budget), the firing of all Tigrayans in the federal institutions, cutting off all communications between Tigray and the rest of the country and even changing the banknotes. Such “a blockade would be tantamount to a declaration of war”, said a TPLF military figure. “We will not stand idly”.12 We would react with “a military engagement”. Abiy knows that, just as he knows the balance of forces. The federal army without the Tigrayan element of its middle management would find it difficult to operate effectively. A full blockade remains improbable.

On the other side, secession would be endorsed by the Front only if it had no other option, and even that remains highly improbable. Ordinary Tigrayans would never accept it because it is unthinkable for those who see Tigray as the cradle of Ethiopia. Whatever their declaration of loyalty to the TPLF, the Tigrayan business community is mostly invested outside Tigray. Even for strong ethno-nationalists, a secessionist Tigray could be sustainable “only if surrounded by peaceful and friendly states”,13 which would be very unlikely.

TPLFites believes the main risk is of a “Badme scenario”, in which a minor incident led to uncontrolled escalation, as happened in that little-know area to trigger the Ethio-Eritrean war in 1998, rather than any attempt at a blockade. Conversely, they also consider an eventual armed confrontation is looking increasingly likely. For most observers, however, the tension between Tigray and Addis Ababa is secondary, because of the geographical, demographic, and economic marginality of this region. The crucial danger lies at the centre between the two colossi, Oromia and Amhara.

Disintegration or dialogue?

Elections have been scheduled for August 29. The results are unpredictable, to say the least. The relative strengths of Ethiopian nationalists and ethnic federalists remain a subject of speculation, though a majority of observers agree that if the present ratio of force persists, the latter are likely to win. But the margin of victory is debatable and there are major uncertainties. The political landscape remains fluid, and it is far from clear how functional either Prosperity Party or any ethnic coalition will be.

At the grassroots level, former EPRDF cadres, frequently despised, will not get sudden popular support by claiming to be members of Prosperity Party. Previously, candidates were parachuted in their constituencies. This time, local support or at least some meaningful popular acceptance, will be compulsory. The elections, both national and regional, will be locally determined as never before. This raises the question: what weight will the youngsters, the Qeerroo, Fano, etc., bring to the electoral process? And will this be peaceful or violent?

The outcome of the election could be very different in the Amhara and the Oromo regions. In the Amhara region, the rise of the Ethiopianess nationalist discourse fits with the broad political expectation. Everything else is subsidiary. People in the regional kebele mentioned above want a ‘Big Man’. Mengistu Hailemariam is often mentioned with nostalgia. They present an alternative: either Abiy will prove he can re-establish a minimum of security, and they will support him, and the Prosperity Party; if not, they will look for what they call an “Amhara shield”, i.e. vote NaMA.

In Oromia, the quest for authentic self-rule seems to be the overwhelming priority. Discussions between members of the “elite”, national or party leaders, may have been continuous, but little detail has been disclosed. One thing that seems clear is that policy hasn’t been prioritized. Daud Ibsa, the head of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), says: “the policy issue is very secondary… For our people, the first essential and most important issue is to elect their own representatives”. Jawar Mohammed, a leading Oromo activist, says: “there is really no ideological difference between Oromo political parties… just tactical difference”. When a key leader of an Oromo federalist movement was asked about the political content of an agreement just concluded between the Oromo federalist forces, he replied: “it doesn’t matter”.14

Such comments raise the question: why not a merger of the Oromo federalist parties? OLF, Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) and Oromo Nationalist Party (ONP) have just created a Coalition for Democratic Federalism to “jointly field candidates for Oromia regional State Council and to form a national coalition with other parties that share similar programs and operate in different regional states”. According to reports, they plan to form a regional coalition government “based on election results”, with its head, and possibly the future Prime Minister, will be chosen according to the votes. But it remains a coalition, not a merger. A merger would have meant the choice and appointment of a party chairman, but rivalry between the leaders of the parties and Jawar, who is also joining the coalition, meant this was impossible. Nevertheless, they may well deny Abiy a victory even in Oromia.

One possible scenario, widely shared at even a popular level, is that as elections comes closer, the security situation will continue to deteriorate and other problems will inexorably increase. This will end in the declaration of a nationwide state of emergency and the emergence of a new ‘Big Man’, possibly someone other than Abiy, as front man for the federal army. But some sources close to or formerly part of the military high command consider this too optimistic. They claim such a situation would inevitably be preceded by extensive ethnic conflicts. They are convinced that the army would then split along ethnic lines and, if not, wouldn’t be sufficiently numerous to adequately intervene. According to one, this would also be the case if the Prime Minister tried to impose his centralizing agenda.

In fact, already today, parts of Oromia, the Southern region, parts of Amhara, and Benishangul-Gumuz are governed by a Command Post, in effect a kind of state of emergency under which the military have the controlling role. The same is the case along many inter- regional borders. It appears more than half of Ethiopian territory is de facto under the command of the federal army. Besides, it is not altogether happy about the situation. The army is “gutted”, as one security specialist puts it;15 despite extensive changes in commands, it doesn’t consider Abiy respectfully, and he isn’t as confident of his control as he would like.

There has already been continuing and extensive militarization across the country. In the Amhara kebele mentioned above, the only authority channel which remains effective is the one in charge of security affairs. According to the militia head, previously under the authority of the kebele chairman, the militia apparatus has been “restructured” to be also incorporated into the regional Amhara security system.16 Even one of the de facto leaders of the group of youngsters confesses that he is constantly in touch with this system. Overall, it seems likely that the regional special forces now outnumber the federal army.

An alternative option, frequently mentioned over the last few months, is for a “national dialogue”. The best opportunity for this already passed months ago; now it would be far more difficult to organize. Abiy’s interest in this is also questionable, even though he claims to set great store by dialogue. Nor is there much evidence that the main political forces would support it. Their positions are so irreconcilable that any real agreement looks out of reach. A well-known Ethiopian journalist adds the “essentialist” argument, not rooted in any obviously visible or quantifiable factors, but based on analysis of personalities: political leaders would prefer to sink together rather than to accept the pre-eminence of any one of them.17

Indeed, in the first instance, of course, any such compromise as would be involved in a national dialogue would reflect a balance of forces. Today, both ethno-federalists and Abiy’s centralist followers, proclaim their absolute certainty they are in a majority. And who is mistaken? In fact, none of the leading political personalities have any mandate to decide on the country’s future. In advance of elections, this would be an undemocratic coup de force. It would be ironic if the whole political class, which expresses its support for democracy, forgot that only the electorate can legitimately arbitrate on these crucial issues. It would be to put the cart before the horse.

A national dialogue is needed, however, to focus urgently on one issue: a roadmap for the elections. In addition to the problems outlined, the obstacles facing an acceptable and effective election in August are tremendous: the neutrality of the electoral board and of the state apparatus, the appointing of the 250,000 to 300,000 electoral officials needed, the modalities of a modus vivendi for campaigning, security and other areas. But Prime Minister Abiy remains the only person who is in a position to drive this successfully, and his Western supporters are those who can encourage him decisively to do this.

The West, and above all the U.S., has been giving Abiy unfailing support. Ambassador Michael Raynor calls the Prime Minister a “visionary”. He says: “The United States firmly believes that Ethiopia’s political and economic reforms offer the surest and quickest path to securing the prosperous, stable and politically inclusive future for all Ethiopians”. It may not be clear if the U.S. State Department has a clear strategy regarding Ethiopia but certainly Ambassador Raynor looks like having a free hand to implement his own views.

Some of his advisers are privately unequivocal: the aim is to maintain Abiy in power for years at any cost, handling not only Ethiopia but the whole Horn because of its weight in the region. Their vision is Manichean. On the good side, there is Prime Minister Abiy and his followers. On the bad side is ethno-nationalism, an offspring of the archaic “tribalism” which has so deeply hurt Africa. Their rejection is visceral: Jawar Mohammed is evil and, with the Qeerroo, the source of all Ethiopia’s ills; in addition, the TPLF remains a hopeless Marxist-Leninist survivor.

This myopic approach stems first from the assumption that there is no alternative to Abiy to provide what the U.S. and other outside powers value above all: stability. His liberal economic stance is highly welcome at a time when the U.S. has decided to try to counter China in Africa. It is the main trade partner, the main investor and the main lender in Ethiopia. The fact that the U.S. Ambassador is also an Evangelist contributes to allowing his relationship with the premier to develop well beyond the usual diplomatic niceties. The result is that money and experts have poured in “The United States has invested over USD three billion in Ethiopia in the last three years alone”, insists Ambassador Raynor.

Additionally, U.S. officials are “embedded” in key Ethiopian economic ministries, and more widely. Ethiopia has just received pledges of around $6 billion from multilateral creditors, including an exceptionally generous loan of $3 billion from the International Monetary Fund, presumably to shore up Ethiopia’s balance of payments when the birr is floated. Meanwhile, the West turns a blind eye to any abuse of power, or renewed political repression, such as what Amnesty recently called a “intensification of the crackdown on dissenting political views”, not to mention excesses by the federal army, particularly in Wellega, against armed groups with links to OLF.

Abiy seems set to continue on his current track despite the many dangers lurking there because, among other reasons, he can be sure the West will give him carte blanche. But by putting all their eggs in Abiy’s basket, the West is not only closing all other options for itself, it is also threatening its own interests—Ethiopia’s stability. The alternative, a national dialogue to craft an election roadmap, requires Abiy’s full commitment, and he needs all the help he can get if the process is to be successful. His foreign supporters must therefore shift their policies to align with Ethiopian realities and throw their full weight behind getting an effective electoral process, including, of course, putting pressure on Abiy himself. It is high time for both the Prime Minister, and his Western supporters, to do the right thing for the country.

More Insight from René Lefort

Aug. 29, 2018 Abiy’s first Q&A raises more questions than answers
Oct. 21, 2018 Ethiopia: Climbing Mount Uncertainty
Nov. 21, 2018 “Leba! Leba!” Abiy inspires farmers’ revolt in North Shoa village
Feb. 27, 2019  Ethiopian elite lost in electoral maze under Abiy’s gaze
May 29, 2019 Political shake-up and localism can edge Ethiopia forwards
Aug. 18, 2019 Federalist façade for centralist front
Oct. 25, 2019 Local bosses may fill the party-sized hole in Ethiopia’s next election
Oct. 31, 2019 A flicker in the gloom

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

René Lefort

René has been writing about sub-Saharan Africa since the 1970s and reported on the region for French newspapers. He is now a researcher and publishes in academic titles such as The Journal of Modern African Studies.

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