Ethiopia’s reform rollback creates a vicious circle
By Mebratu Kelecha, September 7, 2020
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed appears unable to oversee a democratic shift, primarily as he has prioritized the consolidation of his and Prosperity Party’s power.
(Ethiopia Insight) — Ethiopia is sliding back into turmoil following the assassination of towering musician-activist, Hachalu Hundessa, on 29 June in the capital, Addis Ababa. His death sparked violence that caused fatalities and destroyed property, as well as the detention of prominent politicians, exacerbating already heightened tensions.
Hachalu’s music encapsulated the struggles and grievances of the Oromo people, serving as the soundtrack to the protests of 2015-2018 that brought down the Tigray People’s Liberation Front-led regime, propelling Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to power in April 2018.
Abiy’s rise brought a promise of fundamental change and the chance to foster a democratic culture in which Ethiopians could finally realize their civic right to shape the country’s destiny. This honeymoon period was marked by unprecedented reforms, opening up previously suppressed spaces that amplified voices hopeful of this apparent turning point in our history.
In his July 2018 address to the Ethiopian diaspora in the U.S, Abiy emphasized his interim administration’s role in facilitating the country’s democratic transition by restoring peace within the remaining two years of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) mandate.
At a time when most observers echoed rhetoric that was enthusiastically propagated by the regime, prominent activist Jawar Mohammed warned that the transition could be derailed if negotiations were not held based on an agreed roadmap for inclusively managing the transition.
Unfortunately, as Jawar argued, and as is often the case with regime changes, it took Abiy only a few months to contradict his own statements and renege on his promises as he began to grapple with the country’s deep-rooted problems.
Abiy’s intention to control the discourse soon became clear from the way he side-lined his own comrades and activists who greatly contributed to the mass protests that brought him to power, as well as opposition figures whose political outlook differed from his.
When taking stock of Ethiopia’s progress on the track to democracy today, two interrelated patterns emerge.
The first is the move to eliminate significant competition by reversing political liberalization in order to create a monopoly of power for Abiy and his political vehicle, Prosperity Party. Starting in late March this year, following the unilateral and indefinite postponement of national elections without valid legal procedure, so breaking the constitutional term limit, the government began to rollback reforms enacted during Abiy’s rule.
The context was that pre-COVID the opposition had capitalized on his failure to respond to the demands of the Oromo protest movement, as well as on the general sense of discontent due to the exclusion of political parties and civil society from key decision-making processes, especially in relation to security and the election.
This growing anti-government sentiment, heightened by the rapprochement of Jawar Mohammed and Lidetu Ayalew in early May, reopened the possibility of confronting the unconstitutional means used to extend Abiy’s term beyond 10 October, when his mandate expires, and compounded by hostile relations with the TPLF, which presented an existential threat to Abiy’s administration.
Thus, liberalization gave way to de-liberalization.
As was foreshadowed by restrictions implemented during COVID-19, the government seized on Hachalu’s assassination to intensify its crackdown on opposition leaders—high profile arrests included Bekele Gerba, Jawar, Lidetu and Eskinder Nega—and independent media, shutting down the OMN studio in Addis Ababa, for example.
Ethiopia’s fragile political landscape—lacking the foundations of democratic resilience, such as strong, autonomous public institutions—has been shaken by the subsequent wave of repression under Abiy and allies, who instead of sincerely investigating the assassination, or addressing the root causes of the unrest it triggered, exploited it.
In fact, Abiy’s taste for liberalization proved to be short-lived long before recent unrest.
His tolerance for dissent was tested by Jawar’s accusations of creeping authoritarianism, as revealed when government forces allegedly attempted to stage an assault on him in October 2019; an incident that may have helped prompt Jawar to join the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC).
But the rift between Jawar and Abiy began long before the October crisis, ahead of Abiy’s rise to power.
In February 2018, Jawar strongly opposed the replacement of Lemma Megersa as chairman of the Oromo Democratic Party (the regional EPRDF ruling party, formerly Oromo People’s Democratic Organization/OPDO) with Abiy, claiming the latter unfit for the premiership. Abiy was the deputy to his once-key ally Lemma. However, Lemma’s absence from the federal parliament meant that he would not become prime minister, even if he were elected as head of the EPRDF. They swapped places so that Abiy could be elected chairman of the EPRDF and become the next prime minister of the federation.
After the appointment of Abiy and the promises he made to lead the country to democracy, Jawar relented, but, considering himself one of those forces that helped Abiy’s rise to power, he tried to assert his role supporting his government. Despite growing criticism of Abiy’s unilateral approach to the transition, the activist did enough to help rally Oromo youth behind the premier during the early reforms that earned widespread praise domestically and internationally.
However, Jawar’s support for Abiy was short-lived following a closed ODP meeting in Bishoftu in early October 2019, which Jawar attended and warned participants of Abiy’s intention to dissolve the EPRDF coalition, seeing it a step towards creating autocratic, centralized rule. Days later, he openly voiced the same criticism of Abiy’s penchant for personalized authoritarianism to the wider public on social media and LTV, which put him on a collision course with the prime minster.
In response allegedly to Jawar criticism, Abiy also issued a warning in his speech to parliament on 22 October 2019: “Those media owners who do not have Ethiopian passports are playing both sides. When there is peace, you play here, and when we in trouble, you are not here. We tried to be patient. But if it undermines the peace and existence of Ethiopia …we will take action. You can’t play both ways.”
On 23 October, the day after this warning, government forces allegedly attempted to stage an attack on Jawar after midnight, when the prime minister was in Russia to attend the Russia-Africa summit. Despite attempts to reconcile their differences in the aftermath of these incidents, their relationship deteriorated and turned hostile as the division over mismanagement of the transition escalated.
Subsequently, the past few months only further exposed Abiy’s determination to consolidate his grip on power.
Over two months after the high-profile arrests of vocal opposition figures, the government is struggling to present a legal case against them, thus betraying the façade of an unbiased judicial system. The authorities were not able to bring credible charges based on clear evidence against the detainees or secure their release, which indicates that they did not abandon the old practices of arresting first and investigating later.
In addition to leaving Ethiopia’s deep-seated issues unresolved, Abiy’s actions confirm that the dysfunctional status quo he inherited remains intact, and strongly informs his decisions.
The second pattern is one that was often detectable in Abiy’s approach but is now increasingly reflected in the political grammar of virtually all government officials and media; namely the “prosperity” rhetoric. It is employed to assume legitimacy and its critics are vilified as “banda” to justify their purging, elimination, and imprisonment.
With the “prosperity” rhetoric, the ‘idiom of survival’ is firmly back as a means for Arat Kilo to browbeat exhausted Ethiopians into submission.
Under the previous regime, the securitization discourse of development that framed poverty as an existential and imminent threat to Ethiopia’s survival was frequently invoked to justify the emboldened role of the state in social life and its repression of opposition, critics, and independent media.
Likewise, Abiy’s government is trying to define itself as a regime whose goal is to ensure the prosperity of the Ethiopian people, and this is then utilized to justify all the measures that Abiy takes to strengthen his position in the name of ‘prosperity’.
With a focus on the materialistic, Prosperity Party has often proclaimed that the government will never bow to popular pressure. Abiy, in particular, has been forceful in expressing the position that no one can stop the path taken by his administration: “…this is a period of prosperity for Ethiopia. We would like to make it clear to our enemy that we will not deviate from the path we are on to lead our nation to prosperity… what we are going to do is bring prosperity to Ethiopia. This is the only road. We have already begun the work, there is no retreat and no force to stop the prosperity of Ethiopia…”
The main rhetorical technique that Prosperity Party employs to dominate Ethiopia’s political and economic landscape remains the age-old rhetoric of the ‘survival idiom’ from the playbooks of past Ethiopian rulers. Ethiopians are constantly reminded that in a hostile region only their current rulers have the expertise and wherewithal to steer the Ethiopian ship safely to shore.
The continued availability of ‘enemies’, ‘challenges’ and ‘uncertainty’ is a given. From the millennia-old narrative of a Christian Island sieged by Islamist states, regional instability because of the Ethiopia-Somalia war in 1977, the Ethiopia-Eritrea war of 1998-2000, to global war on terrorism in Somalia, instability in South Sudan, tension over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a hostile, unstable region is always at hand.
Hence, Prosperity Party often emphasizes that Abiy’s guiding hand is indispensable to the nation’s survival.
A critical part of the narrative is that a fundamental aspect of good governance is the ability to ensure prosperity before a hostile Horn region’s geopolitical crisis strikes Ethiopia. Prosperity Party cadres and the state media also ensure that Ethiopian society is bombarded with information on how the wise hand of the prime minister counters the threats with a comprehensive array of effective policy options guided by his pet ‘Medemer’ ideology.
Since loyalty to the prime minister is the main criterion for appointments, the technocrats around him are hardly able to express disagreement even on specific topics, as such voices are seen as attacks on the entire administrative edifice of the party and its leader, Abiy, the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
In this circumstance, only a handful of Abiy’s critics were able to speak out against his actions, believing that his strategy is to gradually abandon inclusive process in order to establish a more centralized one-man rule in the country.
In the wake of the recent killing of Hachalu, it has become clear that Abiy’s liberalization measures were intended only to invite more guests into the living room for a ‘coffee talk’—with only a select few welcome to stay for dinner.
He is crushing any civilians or scapegoated groups that stand in his way, as demonstrated during the recent Oromo protests and civil disobedience named 12:12:12 organised by diaspora activists. Protests in Oromia recently began amid claims that Jawar was denied medical treatment in prison, with demonstrators demanding his release. Government security forces reportedly killed more than 40 protesters.
Although formally an Oromia branch decision, Abiy effectively sacked Lemma and two other high-ranking officials from Prosperity Party. Beside the crackdown on the opposition, Oromia authorities have also arrested about 1,700 government officials at the district and zonal levels in connection with the recent unrests. Judges in Oromia are facing arrest and beatings by police.
This raises concern over the cost Ethiopia will pay for the security forces’ brutality and the clean-room approach of Prosperity Party. It produces a sterile sphere, creating a weak, intolerant, and undeveloped political culture, unable to meet the challenges of democratic citizenship, including the task of finding future leaders. Such moves are counterproductive for Ethiopia’s democratic development.
In short, Abiy appears unable to bring about the much-desired decisive democratic shift, primarily as he has prioritized the consolidation of his and Prosperity Party’s power.
His failure to move Ethiopia onto an unambiguously democratic path is the result of a combination of factors.
First, instead of being a transformational leader able to rally support and bring together rival groups, Abiy has operated more as a transactional leader, competing for short-term political gain, shifting his loyalty between Amhara and Oromo. As the first prime minister of Oromo in the country, Abiy was expected to give respite to Oromo politics. His initial approach was to rally them on his side, involving in Gaaddisa Hoggansa Oromoo (Oromo Leadership Convention) with other Oromo politicians, but he later abandoned them, taking the side of the Amhara political elite.
Second, the continued presence of many actors and structures of the previous regime prevented a clean break with the past.
TPLF stepped down, but the legacy of its regime continued to cast a shadow over Abiy’s, as the embedded undemocratic practices persists long after the change of leadership, continuing to influence values and behaviour. A lack of fresh faces, especially at the lower levels, meant that political competition created instability, causing frustration in society at large. The complex system of patronage that operated under the EPRDF remained largely intact—only the rhetoric changed.
Tensions and hostile relations between the TPLF and federal authorities are also of great concern.
TPLF dominated the EPRDF coalition until Abiy took office in early 2018. But it has since joined the opposition, accusing Abiy of plotting to replace the multinational federal system with a unitary state. While the TPLF’s claim of this threat is sheer hypocrisy, given the fact that it resisted true regional autonomy throughout the time it ruled the country, there is an element of truth in its version of political developments that have been unfolding since Abiy came to power.
The TPLF was the one who caused these anomalies, abandoning a multinational political settlement in which former strongman Meles Zenawi created the mess that others had to inherit after his death in an attempt to create a dominant party regime.
The rapid dissolution of the EPRDF coalition, the formation of Prosperity Party, and the indefinite postponement of elections, not only cast doubt on the prime minister’s commitment to reform, but are also seen as a behind-the-scenes attempt to subvert the federal structure. Suspicion is sparked by the highly militarized reaction to the ongoing unrest and the arrest and murder of key political figures, including the Oromo’s favourite musician, Hachalu.
The biggest distortion of the situation is the portrayal of multinational federalism as the cause of conflicts in Ethiopia. It is not. In fact, it is the culmination of the struggle to resolve Ethiopia’s long-stalled transition from an empire dominated by one group to a country shared by many nations.
Abiy does not have the luxury of viewing the multinational federation as a policy option if peace and stability in the country are their primary goals, as this is a political settlement that ended decades of conflict leading to the adoption of the current constitution in 1995, which Abiy, like all of his predecessors, is trying to evade sincere implementation of.
He cannot undo the progress made on issues of nationalities and multinational federation, as this is the most important component of democracy in today’s Ethiopia.
This is the most politically sensitive and explosive issue that broke Emperor Haile Selassie and the Derg’s regimes—so it will break Abiy’s if he cannot keep it. It is better for him to stop upholding this pan-Ethiopian chauvinism inherited from the feudal-imperial past, which refuses to recognize other national-cultural entities as equal.
To move Ethiopia forward, it is imperative that the equal status of nations and nationalities, enshrined in the federal constitution, materialize and are internalized as part of the country’s overall political discourse. This does not mean that the federation itself would be a panacea for all Ethiopia’s problems, but it is the glue that holds the country together in a polarized political landscape.
And the split on this issue remains one of the factors that has prevented the creation of a united front that would have allowed a strong move towards democratic stability.
My way or the highway
Third, while the dispute with the TPLF has limited the scope for change, there are other factors.
With Ethiopian society divided along ethnic, cultural, and linguistic lines, the opening of the political space increased ethnic conflicts because of competing demands.
When Abiy rose to the pinnacle of power in early 2018, he was supposed to address the legacy of political exclusion and economic marginalization that have characterized successive Ethiopian regimes by striking a balance between the groups’ competing demands.
However, he was unable to deliver this.
His critics believe that Abiy lacks strategic foresight, knowledge, and understanding of the country’s complex history to fix the structural anomaly intertwined with the imperial past and authoritarian culture. This appears to be compounded by his Messiah complex, which prevents him from taking advice, according to his critics, because he has always believed in his destiny as the country’s leader, as his mother prophetically told him that he would become the “seventh king” of Ethiopia.
This has contributed to the return of the ‘my way or the highway’ attitude, creating an environment in which the history of imperialism, autocracy and economic woes (the ‘neftegna’ system) is glorified, featuring life-size wax replicas of Menelik II and Haile Selassie at the palace, whose eras were the epitome of atrocities for millions of poor Ethiopians.
The inability to tame fiery and competing nationalisms is another exacerbating factor.
While many hoped that Abiy could pacify raging nationalisms by satisfying their basic demands or creating the conditions for a national dialogue where they could debate and agree on the country’s future, instead he rather played a counterproductive role, shifting priorities depending on what would consolidate his power.
As a result, the diverging ethno-nationalist aspirations of various groups, the lack of common demands among the leading ethnic elites, and the historical discontent has created a dynamic that prevented Abiy from advancing his reform. For example, the Amhara branch of Prosperity Party became hostage to the “Amhara first” nationalist movement promoted by the newly created rival National Movement of Amhara (NaMA) gaining ground in the region.
Similarly, the fate of Oromia branch of Prosperity Party became hostage to the Oromo nationalist movements, such as Oromo Liberation Front and OFC. As the two ethno-nationalisms intensified in the two largest regions, their impacts soon grew, significantly diminishing the prospects of Prosperity Party’s success in elections.
Fourth, responsibility for the rollback rests with a number of actors, who rallied behind both the ruling party and the opposition.
The opposition, in particular the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), bears its share of responsibility for the failure of democratization.
The OLF wavered between pursuing a peaceful struggle by demobilizing its fighters and seeking a power-sharing agreement with Prosperity Party to secure important positions; and, alternatively, continuing the armed struggle to take over the country. This ambivalence exposed its vulnerabilities, allowing Prosperity Party to do whatever it could to prevent it from organizing, such as closing its offices, and harassing, and imprisoning its cadres.
There is always a discrepancy between the OLF’s aspirations and potential and its accomplishments. While it was expected to be a major player in peaceful politics, in fact, it never realized its potential, mainly due to weak organization and factional squabbling.
Hence, the intransigence and impending hegemony of Prosperity Party and the continued failure of the likes of the OLF has created an unstable and undemocratic vicious circle.
While it is still a good idea, it is also perplexing that Abiy backed a national dialogue recently on pressing issues such as nation building, national consensus, elections, the constitution, and constitutionalism after imprisoning key opponents. A dialogue that excludes key actors is worse than no dialogue, since such a move can only be an endorsement of Prosperity Party’s desired dominance, further diminishing hope for credible elections and democratic advancement in Ethiopia.