Will Abiy Ahmed’s Bet on Ethiopia’s Political Future Pay Off?

The Nobel Peace Prize-winning prime minister has disbanded Africa’s largest political party in an effort to reinvent the country’s politics—but some powerful players stand to lose, and they won’t go quietly.

BY TOM GARDNER | JANUARY 21, 2020

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Ethiopia’s Prime Minister and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Abiy Ahmed (R) and his wife, Zinash Tayachew, wave to the crowd from the balcony of the Grand Hotel in Oslo on Dec. 10, 2019 HEIKO JUNGE/NTB SCANPIX/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

(Foreign Policy) — The Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) was once Africa’s largest, and arguably most powerful, political party. It was also, thanks to its business interests, its richest. Since coming to power in 1991, the coalition party controlled each tier of government in Africa’s second most-populous nation. In the last national election, held in 2015, it won every seat in the federal parliament.

Until as recently as 2016, it seemed indomitable, its leadership boasting that the vision set out by former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi would guide the country for decades into the future. Yet, on Dec. 1, 2019, the EPRDF quietly disappeared“demolished,” according to one of its former leaders, “with betrayal.”

In its place a new party was formed, led by Ethiopia’s new prime minister and the EPRDF’s last chairman, Abiy Ahmed—heralding, according to its supporters, an entirely new mode of politics. The Prosperity Party (PP) has done away with the four-part ethnic coalition structure which made up the EPRDF: the Tigrayan Peoples’ Liberation Front, the Amhara National Democratic Movement (later Amhara Democratic Party), the Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organization (later Oromo Democratic Party), and the Southern Ethiopian Peoples’ Democratic Movement. It will instead be a single organization spanning the entire country.

To its supporters, the PP offers an escape from the divisive and, increasingly deadly, ethnic politics which characterized three decades of EPRDF rule. To its critics, it is the thin end of the wedge towards abandonment of the 1995 constitution and the principle of ethnic self-rule—ethnic federalism—which it enshrines. It is perhaps the single most significant—some say boldest—move yet from the Nobel Peace Prize-winning prime minister. But it could also tear an already desperately polarized country even further apart.

Two new books provide some insight into how Ethiopia reached this epochal juncture. In Laying the Past to Restformer insider Mulugeta Gebrehiwot Berhe narrates the history of the EPRDF from its origins in the student movement of the 1960s through the untimely death of Meles, its chief ideological architect, in 2012. Appropriately, given his background as one its early founders, the book focuses on TPLF, the ethnic Tigrayan guerrilla movement which created the EPRDF in the late 1980s during the struggle against the Marxist junta known as the Derg, and dominated it from the latter’s overthrow in 1991 until Abiy’s appointment in early 2018.

Though the book stops before the EPRDF’s final act, it nonetheless helps explain the mindset—a mixture of conviction and arrogance—that led the TPLF to announce this month that it alone among the EPRDF’s four constituent organizations would not join the PP.

Mulugeta, now a senior fellow at Tufts University’s World Peace Foundation, offers a granular history of the TPLF and the EPRDF that it would later come to dominate. He draws on his experience as a “participant-observer” of the struggle and the EPRDF’s first decade in power, as well as extensive interviews with senior party members and a close reading of its official documents. The book reads not as memoir but as a dispassionate academic analysis, which can be frustrating. But beneath the dry, detached prose lies a sharp and ultimately excoriating critique of the party to which he once devoted his life.

The TPLF climbed out the bush and into the halls of power with astonishing discipline and guile. But, like the hero of a Greek tragedy, it was undone by a fatal flaw: a culture of secrecy and insularity formed in the struggle years that gradually pulled it apart from its own members and coalition partners.

Mulugeta tells the story of a movement whose success in battle was unmatched almost anywhere on the continent. But then, like many other African liberation movements, it failed to adapt to the demands of government—transparency and accountability, above all. As he has put it elsewhere: “It was like having a football team, a really good football team, suddenly transform into a basketball team. It did not go smoothly.” Instead it began to resemble an oligarchy.

He quotes a TPLF veteran recalling the self-denial of the early days: “Our fighters made their own shoes from local materials. They wore clothes taken from the government army during battles and secondhand clothes collected by our supporters and/or purchased in the secondhand clothing market in Europe. We discouraged smoking among our fighters and only provided 5 pieces of cigarettes to those who prior to joining the liberation army had an addiction, and we had detailed guidelines that enabled us to discourage smoking.”

The contrast with the corruption and entitlement which, by the turn of the millennium, began to characterize senior cadres—not only within the TPLF but also the OPDO and the ANDM—is as poignant as it is striking. But the change was hardly unexpected for a rebel movement-turned-ruling party, whose leaders gave their best years to the struggle. Rather, what was uniquely damaging, Mulugeta argues, was the wholesale capture of the state by the party, especially in the years following the 2005 national election—the closest thing to a free contest in Ethiopian history and in which a coalition of opposition parties claimed victory. Spooked, the EPRDF ramped up repression and vastly expanded its ranks, tying civil service recruitment to party membership.

What was uniquely damaging, Mulugeta argues, was the wholesale capture of the state by the party, especially in the years following the 2005 national election.

This mattered not only because it made the state less effective in delivering the rapid development the party promised but also because it widened the scope for “rent-seeking” and corruption, as politics became one of the few avenues for advancement.

An organization renowned for its intellectualism was overrun by grifters and opportunists. Political education atrophied: Mulugeta recounts with mild horror how, by the mid-2000s, “efforts to create a wide-ranging consensus on EPRDF values were limited to irregular lectures given to thousands of members at a time via video conferences.” Cadres ceased to read ideological literature, and were no longer encouraged to do so. Anyone with critical or independent thought deserted. As Mulugeta, himself among them, once put it to me: “By the time of Meles’s death, the whole organization was done.”

These were the roots of the crisis of 2016, which erupted following the government’s doomed attempt to introduce a new “integrated” master plan for Addis Ababa, the capital, and the surrounding region of Oromia. Mulugeta’s account of this period is quietly damning, blaming “careerist elites” within the OPDO (including some of Abiy’s allies, many would argue) for cynically stirring up opposition among Oromo farmers: “The elites administering the environs of Addis were against this plan at it might curb their rent-seeking by setting out a plan that controls the use of land they used to allocate in different ways.”

Rather than trying to assuage concerns, he argues, they deliberately misrepresented the master plan as a “land grab” and mobilized farmers and young Oromo men, by this point known as the Qeerroo, in a revolt against it. The rest is history: Protests, galvanized by activists in the diaspora, swept across Oromia and then into Amhara—the two largest regions—and increasingly focused on bringing down the TPLF, which both the OPDO and ANDM shared an interest in dislodging from the leadership of the EPRDF.

States of emergency, first in 2016-2017 and then again in early 2018, forced Meles’s successor, Hailemariam Desalegn, to resign, paving the way for Abiy and the OPDO to take the helm of the ruling party. What Mulugeta does not say, but which is implicit in this critique, is that Abiy and his colleagues were brought to power less by the street than by the venality of Oromo elites, whose rent-seeking behavior unleashed popular discontent and furthered their political ambitions. Whether this in the long-run have been a good thing—he concludes the book by calling for “a more liberal form of democracy” as an answer to Ethiopia’s woes—is unclear, though in a recent conversation with me he expressed deep skepticism toward the country’s new leaders, despite their more liberal leanings.

The grave consequences of fusing party and state is also a central theme of The Puzzle of Ethiopian Politics by Terrance Lyons, a longtime American observer of Ethiopian politics at George Mason University. This book, which takes a wider view of the EPRDF, focusing less on the culture of the TPLF and more on the evolving power dynamics between the four member organizations, provides an eminently readable and accessible overview of the subject.

The Puzzle of Ethiopian Politics, Terrence Lyons, Lynne Rienner, 245 pp., $79.95, July 2019.

But Lyons dissents from Mulugeta’s view that the merging of party and state represented a reversal of the TPLF’s early instincts. Rather, he sees it as a natural extension into government of the TPLF’s neo-Maoist wartime tendency to combine military and political authority. “The blurring of institutional roles present during the armed struggle remained after the transition,” he writes, “re-created in the relationship between the political party and the country.”

He is also less delicate in denouncing it. “Ethiopia is more than a party-state. … [It] is a party-business-non-government-organization-military-mass-organization-state, where the lines among all of these different facets of the EPRDF overlap and are blurred by design.” This had a disturbing impact on Ethiopian politics, entrenching a culture of paranoid authoritarianism, which may take decades to unwind.

As Lyons explains, “when combined with the conviction that the party represents the ‘people,’ then the party-state-people complex is complete and impossible for the opposition to challenge without being categorized as ‘anti-people,’ ‘anti-development,’ or ‘anti-peace.’” Even now, despite a more tolerant disposition towards dissent, those in government, including Abiy himself, can be quick to smear critics as “anti-peace,” or, in the latest lexicon, “enemies of the reform.” This is part of the EPRDF’s legacy.

Lyons’s study is particularly illuminating in explaining why the coalition unraveled. Uniquely, he offers statistics to show how the TPLF’s dominance was gradually eroded by the OPDO and ANDM in the years after Meles’s death (the fractious fourth organization, SEPDM, was always weakest). Data on appointments to the central committees of each is especially revealing.

Between 2003 and 2013, the TPLF added an average of eight new members, fewer than the others, which helped to ensure its cohesion and stability. But this advantage diminished over time. “By the mid-2010s,” Lyons observes, “the ANDM and the OPDO had Central Committees that more closely resembled that of the TPLF and, therefore, were positioned better to compete with the TPLF in intra-EPRDF struggles for power.” By 2015, the leadership of all four organizations converged in terms of seniority and experience.


Both authors see the EPRDF as a victim of its own success in part. A growing economy in the 2000s, and stronger regional governments, both exacerbated the centrifugal tendencies which the 1995 constitution arguably promoted, in part by creating more rent-seeking opportunities for regional elites, and by fueling resentment of the TPLF among Oromo and Amhara elites in particular. Meles’s death simply removed the last line of defense against eventual fragmentation, ultimately precipitating a violent rush for control of both the party and the state.

But neither anticipated such a sudden demise (both books were released before the PP came into existence). Indeed, Lyons argues that “the EPRDF as a political organization remains dominant and is likely to remain,” not least because the dramatic change of leadership at the top belies “considerable continuity” in the party structures beneath. Moreover, he adds, “each member party has strong incentives to remain within the EPRDF to have access to the resources that remain concentrated at the center.”

This then poses an important question: Is the EPRDF really dead? In some respects, after all, it has simply been rebranded. Minus the TPLF, and the many low-level officials purged over the last two years, the personnel is unchanged; Abiy and his colleagues are all children of the EPRDF. Party offices remain the same, only with a new logo. Its enormous economic assets—notably party-owned endowment funds with sprawling interests across a range of industries—will be rolled over, pending a settlement with the TPLF over its share. And when it comes to the election scheduled for later this year, the PP will enjoy the same advantages of incumbency, not least a pliant state media.

Meles’s death simply removed the last line of defense against eventual fragmentation, ultimately precipitating a violent rush for control of both the party and the state.

In a recent article, a senior PP official made the case for the new party, promising a radical break from the past. In particular, he claimed, the PP would do what the EPRDF failed to do, and separate itself from the state entirely. “The courts really should be courts. Parliament really should be parliament. And, above all, the party really should just be a party,” he wrote.

But old habits die hard: In recent weeks, for instance, the Addis Ababa city administration used public money to hold forums across the capital educating ordinary citizens on the PP’s bylaws and political program. Even more troubling is what many see as the selective prosecution of senior TPLF figures, pursued by the attorney general’s office as part of Abiy’s battle against his political rivals.

Still, as both books make amply clear, an EPRDF without the TPLF cannot be the EPRDF. In this respect, and more, the old party is dead. Ideologically, the difference is profound. The TPLF’s Marxist-tinged leftism is gone; the PP is so much more economically liberal that it recently signed a $2.9 billion financing deal with the International Monetary Fund, something the party of Meles always resisted out of pride, ideology, and refusal of conditions imposed from abroad.

The TPLF’s core ideological doctrines of “revolutionary democracy” (a Leninist-Maoist form of mass participation conceived in opposition to Western liberal democracy) and “democratic centralism” (a form of party democracy which strictly prohibits internal dissent once an agreement is reached through theoretically open deliberation) have been ditched.

In their place is Abiy’s notion of “Medemer,” published as a book last October, which appears to advocate something like a “third way” between free market capitalism and state-led development. In his article, the senior PP official described the party as centrist. “Instead of ideological certainty, there is a need for the Prosperity Party to embrace a more pragmatic, reflective mode of inquiry,” he wrote.

More significant still is the dissolution of the ethnic factions. The OPDO, ANDM, and SEPDM no longer exist, replaced instead by “regional chapters“ open to individuals of all ethnicities, in every corner of the country. This means, as one senior PP official stressed to me, that the party can now incorporate all Ethiopians, including those of mixed heritage. Moreover, he added, “now people living in Oromia with an Amhara background, for instance, can be represented. That is the fundamental difference with the EPRDF.”

It is also the most controversial part—for those who cherish the ethnic basis of the federal system. It forced Abiy’s closest ally, defense minister and former president of Oromia, Lemma Megersa, to publicly denounce the plan (though he seems to have been won over, at least reluctantly, in recent weeks). It also prompted the influential Oromo activist Jawar Mohammed to announce that he will run in the election explicitly on a platform of defending the ethno-federal set-up. The TPLF, meanwhile, decried the PP as “illegal and reactionary.”

For the latter, part of the objection lies in the fact that the new party will have to scrap the equal voting model of the EPRDF—each of the four organizations enjoyed the same number of party votes, regardless of population size—in favor of a proportional system, inevitably favoring the much more numerous Amhara and Oromo. However, like other ethnonationalists, they also fear that the PP, with its more centralized and streamlined model of decision-making—the party’s national leadership will nominate the heads of its regional branches, for instance—will over time erode ethnic and regional autonomy.

Although the EPRDF was weak, divided and bereft of legitimacy, its sudden death was not inevitable.

Such a change would seem, from a certain perspective, perverse: Jawar has often noted that the wave of protests in Oromia which brought Abiy to power explicitly demanded less interference in regional affairs, not more.

The fact that opposition to the plan has come from so many quarters—including from those, like Jawar, who were once staunch critics of the EPRDF—is revealing. It shows that although the EPRDF was weak, divided, and bereft of legitimacy, its sudden death was not inevitable. The puzzle of why it disappeared so rapidly is an issue that both books, with their focus on organization and structure rather than the work of individuals, are less equipped to answer.

This is because a large part of the explanation lies with Abiy himself. Since coming to power in April 2018, he has taken steps—some admirable, some avoidable—which made the end of the EPRDF much more likely. First, his decision to move so aggressively against the TPLF—removing their leaders from federal institutions, issuing arrest warrants—destroyed whatever remained of the trust between it and the rest of the coalition. Second, by publicly criticizing the record of the EPRDF and its guiding doctrines, while allowing colleagues to publicly and often savagely censure each other, he ensured the irrevocable loss of internal unity.

Finally, he simply made it happen. Believing the EPRDF brand to be too toxic for a successful election campaign, Abiy decided he had no alternative but to ditch it and create something new in time for 2020. He rammed the merger through the party organs so quickly (some say illegally) that it was almost impossible to mount any organized opposition. A low-level ODP member in the city of Adama told me only weeks before the dissolution was finalized that he and his colleagues had been told barely anything about the plan. By then it was, in effect, a fait accompli.

It remains to be seen whether a precipitous wind-up of a party so closely entwined with the state will be a salve for Ethiopia’s troubles. Nor is it yet clear what its demise means for ethnic federalism. In fact, Abiy and the PP publicly argue (albeit unconvincingly) that the new party represents the full realization of federalism, not its demise. They insist—contrary to the claims of the TPLF, Jawar, and others—that there will be no repeal of regional rights guaranteed by the current model of ethnic federalism even if constitutional changes are on the horizon.

There could also be political fallout from his reforms. Indeed, Abiy’s biggest gamble could backfire electorally: Many observers reckon the PP will struggle to win votes in his home region of Oromia, where it will be competing with a raft of explicitly ethnic parties, including the once-banned Oromo Liberation Front. What is not in doubt, however, is that Abiy has done something which will recast Ethiopian politics more dramatically than either of these authors until very recently thought possible.

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