Ethiopia’s Dilemma and the Prime Minister’s Confusion
By Guluma Gemeda, PhD, May 10, 2020
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s statements on Ethiopia’s election postponement, apparent constitutional crisis and the future of democracy in Ethiopia are full of contradictions and confusion. To some extent, it is easy to blame everything on COVID-19 pandemic; and if one wants to be generous, it is also possible to understand the Prime Minister’s contradictory lectures, administrative directives, show of authority, but also, his vulnerability, confusion, frustration and fear. The pandemic came at the worst time in the country’s history. It appears, the preparations for the 2020 election were already behind schedule even before the outbreak of COVID-19. On April 22, 2020, the National Election Board (NEB) has declared the inevitable—i.e. delaying the election until further notice (obviously after the expiration term of office of the current government). This has triggered constitutional crisis. Second, Ethiopia is increasingly confronted by Egypt, one of the strongest military powers in Africa and the Middle East, over the construction the Grand Renaissance Dam (GRED) on the Blue Nile. Third, the complexity of domestic politics and the prime minister’s lack of attention to resolving the domestic issues are making the country vulnerable to foreign manipulations in this time of crises.
Ethiopia’s political dilemma was, however, in the making for a long time. Before this pandemic erupted, the prime minister had some opportunities he could have exploited to take himself and the country out of the quandary. Two years ago, Dr. Abiy Ahmed suddenly came to power in the middle of intense political protests that swept away the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) elite from power. At the time, he seemed to have limited experience at the national level and apparently lacked knowledge of Ethiopia’s deep-rooted and complex political issues. But he displayed an abundance of charm and deception coated by a rhetoric of national reconciliation, love and peace to persuade many Ethiopians. He soon developed his speeches into a curious philosophy of meddemer. The supporters of the prime minister believe that he is not only man of the time, but a God-sent or a messiah, who came to save the beleaguered country and its people from chaos. The skeptics and a few critics who advised caution were simply pushed to the side or branded as anti-reform or as supporters of the hated TPLF/EPRDF regime, even though Abiy Ahmed was part of that system, and the critics were not.
Ethiopians were not the only ones who were seduced by the prime minister’s huge promises (but few actions). Soon after he came to power, he won the friendship of Isaias Afewerki, President of Eritrea, who had remained unrelenting enemy of the TPLF leaders for almost two decades. During his honeymoon in power, Abiy Ahmed was also a regular guest of the heads of state of northeast African countries, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. Western diplomats and financial institutions also poured praises on him. Finally, the Noble committee named him the winner of the 2019 Noble Peace Prize. All these fast-moving events legitimated his status as a reformist prime minister.
However, the critics were not totally wrong. Despite the early personal successes, the weaknesses of Prime Minster Abiy Ahmed’s administer were out there in public from the beginning. He is good at lecturing, orchestrating and marketing some of his ideas (including meddemer) than developing effective policies and supervising their implementations. Politically, the prime minister made some fatal errors. His rhetoric of reconciliation was tested very quickly in his dealings with opposition political parties. In late 2018, when some units of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) army refused to disarm without additional guarantees from the government, Abiy Ahmed was very quick to send federal forces to western Wallaga to wipe out the group. This effort not only failed, but his rush to trigger armed conflict led to huge human and material losses in Oromia and cost the prime minister the support of the Oromo people. Similarly, he occasionally makes loose and self-inflicting statements. For example, explaining why he did not visit Wallaga zone in 2018, he responded, he could not visit the region because the people there want to kill him; and if they did, the Oromo people would be divided. Obviously, this is not only careless statement for a politician, someone who has a huge ambition to win future elections, but potentially a calculated attempt to divide the Oromo people. Unfortunately, it is not a one-time mistake. As regular observers may notice, he makes numerous silly jokes and unwanted insertions in his public speeches.
Second, the government of Abiy Ahmed has been overwhelmed by internal ethnic conflicts and displacements. During 2018-19, about 3 million citizens were internally displaced due to ethnic conflicts. Although some of these conflicts were already in the making when Dr. Abiy Ahmed came to power, his government failed to defuse them in a timely manner to avoid the loss of lives and displacements. Third, under Abiy Ahmed, the Ethiopian government is still characterized by arbitrary arrests and harassments of political opponents. His government routinely arrests leaders and supporters of opposition political parties. The two influential Oromo parties—the OLF and Oromo Federalist Congress (OFCO)—for example, blame the government of Dr. Abiy Ahmed for intimidation, harassment, and arrests of their officers and supporters, and preventing or closing their party offices in different parts of Oromia. Substantiating their claims, the government has arrested ranking members the OLF such as Col. Gemechu Ayana (who was in prison for almost a year before he was released in December 2019), Abdi Regassa, a Central Committee member (detained on February 29, 2020) and two journalist (Dessu Duula and Waaqoo Noole, who were arrested on March 7, 2020. The relationship of Abiy Ahmed’s government with other opposition parties is also filled with suspicion and mistrust. The prime minister’s squabbles with the TPLF was aggravated by his cavalier decision of dismantling the EPRDF and building the Prosperity Party.
Fourth, the prime minister had squandered precious time building a new party (Prosperity Part – PP) and dismantling the ruling EPRDF. But the process was full of manipulations and illegal acts. The lack of transparency and democratic discussion making, even within his own party—the Oromo Democratic Party (ODP)—sidelined such prominent politician as Lemma Megarsa and apparently other ODP members who resisted to join the PP. Some ODP members are rumored to have lost their positions or were imprisoned on fabricated charges because they refused to join the PP. Thus, while focusing on building a new party, the prime minister had lost some key supporters and a crucial time preparing the nation for the anticipated national election in 2020.
Fifth, the desire to create a new party also led the prime minister to an open fight with the TPLF and potentially more complicated relationship with his party in the future. His chance of winning the support of the Oromo people is also gravely damaged by his inconstant and manipulative, sometimes hostile, attitude towards the OLF and OFCO. While antagonizing many prominent opposition parties, very often, the prime minister shows favoritism to political parties which attempt to undermine the rights of nations and nationalities to self-rule. This makes many people to suspect the Prime Minister’s commitment to multinational federalism and complicates his latest efforts resolve the constitutional crisis in delaying the election.
Finally, the postponement of the 2020 elections due to the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the prime minister’s confusion. His government is facing a constitutional crisis because the term of the incumbent government is coming to an end in a few months before the election. Given lack of adequate preparations in the middle of COVID-19 pandemic, NEB’s decision to delay the 2020 election is not unexpected occurrence. But there is no clear constitutional framework to extend the term of the incumbent government beyond five years to avoid a vacuum of leadership. To overcome the crisis, four alternatives were prepared by groups of legal experts and the prime minister has briefly shared it with selected opposition parties (which failed to agree on a single alternative, including one which is favored by the prime minister). Many party leaders claimed that the consultation was insincere because the announcement was made very late and they were not given adequate time to deliberate on it. Although the process has a semblance of constitutionality, as usual, the prime minister lacked interest for serious deliberations on this critical national issue. Instead, he is pushing his proposal—interpretation of constitution—through parliament to achieve his objective, giving it only the appearance of a constitutional process. Thus, even though many stakeholders may not agree with him, he believes he can receive the endorsement he wants from constitutional inquiry board. But this is a very reckless move.
Further complicating the issue, on May 6, 2020, while the constitutional review of his proposal is still going on, the prime minister made a long statement criticizing those who disagreed with him and threatening others. In his statement, citing the experiences of many countries, he argued that his proposal is made on the advice of distinguished legal experts (but the names of the legal teams who advised him on this case are not released to the media), and condemned those who criticized it for lack of expertise on the matter (although his critics include distinguished legal experts and savvy politicians). In part, the prime minister’s statement appeared to be an explanation of his proposal to delay the election, a plea to endorse it, an election campaign and an intimidation of opposition political leaders. An explanation and a plea to endorse his proposal are fine. The election campaign by exploiting the constitutional crisis is unfair while opposition parties are in quarantine. Worse, intimidation of opposition political leaders is dangerous, because it can harden their opposition to his proposal, trigger more resistance and lead to lack of national consensus to resolve the crisis. His intimidation could also stifle the democratic discourse and further limit the political space. If the political situation gets worse, the prime minister has no one to blame except himself and his advisors.