Pandemic is blessing for Abiy but curse for Ethiopian democracy
By Mebratu Kelecha, May 25, 2020
Prime Minister should not use the coronavirus crisis to consolidate power
(Ethiopia Insight) — Democracy has been the driving force of political movements in Ethiopia since the 1960s, but its protagonists have, all-too-often, indulged in violence and bloodshed. The political forces that emerged from the Ethiopian student movement of the 1960s and 1970s, such as the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party and the All-Ethiopia Socialist Movement (MEISON) called for democracy but engaged in mutual assassination in its name before the military regime decimated both parties.
The military regime also claimed to have pursuing “socialist democracy” in a later period of its rule. The TPLF-engineered EPRDF regime which came to power in 1991 introduced “electoral democracy,” but remained a minority ethnic dictatorship, expelling potential rivals and regularly accusing any critics and opposition parties of being anti-democratic.
In the end, the TPLF was confronted with Frankenstein moment, as resurgent groups within the ruling coalition it has created in the 1990s captured the centre and caused the creator’s trouble, aided by street protests that helped propel Abiy Ahmed to power. Political differences among those claiming to be fighting for democracy, both in and out of elections, frequently, almost normally, embraced violence rather than votes, reinforcing what they claimed to be irreconcilable differences between good and evil. Demonization, harassment, imprisonment, torture, and physical elimination have continued as major mechanisms to resolve differences. Hence, the struggle for it has done little to develop or maintain the reality of democracy since a democratically elected government remains the deprioritized goal of political leaders.
When Abiy took office in April 2018 he promised to build a democratic Ethiopian state, and his early reforms were promising, though the political transition he launched, while largely nonviolent in origin, involved hostile rhetoric against the TPLF. From the outset, Abiy faced significant challenge of governing and implementing changes in conditions of continuing instability, testing his capacity, and his intent, to govern effectively and carry out democratic reforms simultaneously. A successful response required significant mobilization of support needed to consolidate the achievements of his early reforms to guarantee a successful transition. The country’s recent experience of nonviolent resistance, which brought Abiy to power, has made it clear that repression is no longer an option as it will not create a submissive population, and any return to dictatorship can only intensify protests.
The pandemic crisis provided an excellent opportunity for Abiy to initiate a genuine, sustained, and inclusive discussion on the key elements of the much-needed and much-desired democratization as a priority for engaging opposition and civil society: commitment to negotiations always encourages cooperation rather than conflict. A realistic option for the regime is to reset priorities and inclusively redraw the election roadmap, which is vital for realizing long-standing aspirations for democratization. These were decisions that could either help stabilize or further destabilize the country, offering a choice of long-term stability over short-term benefits.
The coronavirus arrived at a critical moment just as the Prime Minister appeared to be wrapping himself in the cloak of previous political violence against opponents and critics. Already working to buttress his position, his responses to the crisis rapidly seemed to move in the wrong direction. Indeed, the pandemic appeared to offer an example of almost divine intervention for Abiy, encouraging him to exploit the insecurity to solidify his own power, rather than fight the virus. This was most clearly evidenced by the sequence of political events leading to the postponement of the elections, initially scheduled for August, with statements indicating a step back from his own early promises to ensure the long-awaited democratic transition and moves towards a more personal approach to power.
In effect, the pandemic gave Abiy an opportunity for a ‘corona power grab’ that he was quick to grasp. The decision to postpone the planned elections promises to plunge the country into an unprecedented constitutional crisis as parliament’s mandate expires on 5 October. Supporters of the decision, mainly from the government, such as Mamo Mihretu, the Prime Minister’s senior policy adviser, emphasized the need to contain the disease, superseding all other priorities. This position of government, translated into four options, indicated its intent to exploit the pandemic as a good excuse to remain in power.
Amidst the pandemic pandemonium, this was underlined when politicization of the coronavirus took a new turn and the ruling Prosperity Party chose the option of reading constitutional texts to extend its term limits, ignoring constitutional provisions that clearly state that elections are the only legitimate path to power. Obediently performing its role in a highly choreographed media display of political theater, the federal parliament quickly approved Abiy’s motion seeking constitutional interpretation on an issue which had already been decided in advance: postponement of the upcoming elections.
With parliament’s endorsement of the motion, Abiy has the opportunity and the excuse to ignore any term limit for the government and remain in power beyond October. Indeed, as he himself has indicated, he appears to have made this decision already. Speaking via a video link, on 7 May, he divulged that his government would remain in power until the next election. He made the remark even before any of the institutions invited to be involved in interpretation of the constitutional concerns had completed their work or come to any decisions on the issues causing the constitutional crisis over the postponement of the elections.
Now the supposedly independent body entrusted with this task, the Council of Constitutional Inquiry (CCI), chaired by the President of the Supreme Court, has entrenched Abiy’s position. The hearings last week lacked diversity and endorsed only the ruling party’s stance, despite submission of several alternative views to the council. Critics raised concerns over the impartiality of the process and of those concerned, even of the Supreme Court President, a body which has the responsibility of resolving disputed elections. Abiy was confident enough of the expected results to allow broadcasting of the partisan handling of the hearing process on national television.
In such circumstances, the final decision of the House of Federation is highly unlikely to produce any unpleasant surprise for the incumbent; the exercise is nothing more than a formality given the regime’s tight grip on the upper house. Nevertheless, however the constitution is interpreted, those responsible should be wary of granting Abiy sweeping powers to govern via executive order, unless such decisions have been passed through a process of deliberation in which the views of the opposition and the civil society representatives have been heard and considered.
Ethiopia has, so far, seen only slow development of the virus, reporting 582 confirmed cases as of 24 May, but official data has been met with scepticism due to the long tradition of official dishonesty and concealment, not to mention the limited testing capabilities. At the outset, the Prime Minister downplayed the severity of the pandemic, but even then he still used it politically, failing to remove a telecommunications blackout in restive parts of the Oromia region.
The consequences of such a political response to the deadly pandemic could have been catastrophic if rights group and individuals hadn’t joined together to spread information about the virus and force the government to lift the shutdown. Despite the lifting, there are still concerns about the recently enacted hate speech and misinformation law, which arbitrarily imposes harsher penalties on users of social media with more than 5,000 followers, as this could become a tool of repression, and restrictions on freedom of expression against critics, especially under the pretext of public health concerns.
Previous Ethiopian governments have often exploited crises for electoral gains or to inflict damage on opponents and critics. Abiy is now behaving in traditional way and his actions are not confined to taking advantage of the coronavirus pandemonium. After miscalculating the influence that the U.S. and the World Bank might have over the negotiations on filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), Abiy accepted Washington as an observer. He failed to analyse the possible consequences.
As the U.S. switched from observer to attempting to be a power broker, negotiations came to a standstill and Ethiopia rejected the US-backed agreement in the face of widespread public criticism of the U.S. role. To divert criticism for his mishandling of the negotiation process, Abiy used the opposition as a scapegoat, calling opposition critics “banda,” a label for Ethiopians who collaborated with the Italian invaders after 1935. It emphasized that he was casting off reticence and working to take advantage of this moment of insecurity to remain in power.
The pandemic will continue to affect the issues of democracy and human rights as well as the elections. Ethiopia still lacks a solid foundation to build a resilient democracy and the impact of the coronavirus on its weak democratic institutions has already allowed the government to restrict individual and collective rights. With the declaration of the public health state of emergency (SOE), Abiy not only puts limits on rights, but also considered the SOE as one of four options for extending the term limited by the constitution.
SOE regulations prohibit the meeting of more than four people and the dissemination of information that may cause confusion in society. It limits citizens’ right to free trials, giving law enforcement agencies no obligation to comply with the provisions regarding the appointment and date of the court when the state of emergency is in effect. Critics argue that such rights should not be restricted even in a state of emergency, as this contradicts the principle of legality and the rule of law, generating arbitrariness.
Regulations also oblige all media not only to report news related to COVID-19 in non-exaggerated or understated ways, but also introduced a legal obligation to report all suspected viral infections to the police or the Ministry of Health. Violation of these provisions entails imprisonment of up to three years or a fine of up to 200,000 Ethiopian birr ($5,895).
This sends bad signals as to where the country might be heading.
Indeed, even before the health crisis, the political space had started shrinking, and the pandemic helped provide Abiy with adequate cover to continue to alter the balance of power in his favour. From the outset, Abiy found it difficult to turn the popularity he gained from his international acclaim into a clear and unambiguous democratic transition. He seemingly became increasingly preoccupied with remaining prime minister after the election.
A lack of cohesion in government led to a preoccupation among leaders over how to manipulate the opportunity provided by popular protests to strengthen their own positions. Following continuing disagreements within the EPRDF, coupled with a surge in ethnic-based conflict, Abiy dissolved the ruling party, despite TPLF opposition and its subsequent refusal to participate in his new Prosperity Party. As competition between PP and TPLF became a focus, intimidation and harassment of critics also became a norm.
The relationship between Abiy and his own Oromo constituency, originally united in opposition to the TPLF, also rapidly deteriorated after he came to power, threatening his ability to win any free and fair election even in Oromia where he can now expect to face substantial opposition from opposition parties, including the Oromo Federalist Congress and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF).
An altercation over the disarmament and demobilization of the OLF’s army was used to try to push the OLF out of the transitional process. The mistake back in October of threatening to arrest Jawar Mohammed, a controversial but formidable figure, capable of motivating a significant part of the youthful population of Oromia, provoked protests and caused a number of deaths, as well as increased government intimidation.
It has all complicated the efforts and actions necessary to overcome the impact of the virus, of which much remains unknown. This makes it even more necessary to create a government with constitutional and popular legitimacy. This is not the time to leave the fate of governing the country to one party or use methods for controlling the pandemic for personal political gain.
As we fight COVID-19, we must also do everything possible to protect our continuing hopes of democratization. We must recognize that protecting public health and protecting democracy are two sides of the same problem, two fronts in the same battle. The opposition is currently in a state of disarray and civil society activities have been severely affected by COVID19 and the government’s responses.
Protests are perhaps unlikely in the short term, but they cannot be ruled out if the hopes of moving towards democracy are continually frustrated by the actions of new leaders concentrating on ways to consolidate their position. Abiy must not jeopardize a peaceful democratic future for Ethiopia by using the coronavirus crisis to circumvent fundamental political problems that can only be resolved through a genuinely inclusive process.