Yes, the pandemic does present a political opportunity—for Abiy

By René Lefort, April 28, 2020

pandemic
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed with Alibaba owner Jack Ma; 25 November 2019; Office of the Prime Minister.

There are few reasons to think Ethiopia’s political classes can now redirect the transition in a more democratic direction


(Ethiopia Insight) — Media coverage of Ethiopia’s election postponement and state of emergency precipitated by COVID-19 has been extensive. Much of it pursues the legal angle: what is the constitutional path to take now that the mandate of parliament will expire well before elections and only elected lawmakers can appoint a Prime Minister? In the background is the possible political impact: is the pandemic more of a disaster or an opportunity?

Commentators from International Crisis GroupAddis Standard, and Addis Fortune have stressed the latter. They argue that although it’s a further disruption to a so-called “transition to democracy” that was already looking shaky, it also offers an exceptional chance to get it back on track. How? First, by creating a common front against the virus via “inclusive dialogue” with the opposition and civil society, and, after this new dynamic is established, by intensifying it to reach agreement on a legitimate form of government until next elections and the procedures to make them “free and fair”.

This perspective rests on a presupposition that this “transition to democracy” is the priority objective of the majority of the political class. Some events and statements make this questionable. For example, the Prime Minister’s Tweets reveal that his most frequently mentioned objective is by far “prosperity”. Then comes “medemer” and then “growth”. You need to go back to early December to find the first mention of “democracy” and “democratic transition”.

Additionally, the personalization of power is increasingly evident. Will it lead to autocratic rule? Privately, as I have detailed before, Abiy Ahmed has not hidden that he aspires to become the new ‘Big Man’, at any cost, including by operating outside the legal framework if necessary.  The two major Oromo parties, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), have stated that  “Contrary to the early days when the current leadership assumed office, and promised to open the political space, it has taking actions, in recent months, that have reversed those early positive changes. Intimidation, mass incarceration of party leaders and members, all point to return to the old authoritarian days”. Amnesty international said: “The return of mass arrests of opposition activists and supporters is a worrying signal in Ethiopia.” A ‘dirty war’ has struck Wellega. Tigray experiences underhand isolation.

Historian Shiferaw Bekele recently wrote to me: “The defining dichotomy is not between ethnofederalist and Ethiopianist forces but between those who are committed for democratic competition, who are very few and far between, and those who would like to grab power by hook or by crook…The major political forces are deeply anti-democratic in their nature…They know that they do not wish to engage in open political competition by the rules.” Opposition leaders such as Daud Ibsa, Merera Gudina, Beyene Petros, Berhanu Nega, or the ‘old guard’ of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), are the heirs of student protest movements of the 1960s and 70s. Except at the margins, they did not operate democratically.

Currently, the majority of parties see democracy as their exclusive domain, rather than a process that involves all of society. Politics is reserved for an educated elite who will strike a “grand bargain” on sharing power and the resources which it brings. However, they have so far not managed to reach a consensus even within this small inner circle. “Over the last two years, rival regional, ethnic and political factions clashed over ideology, power and resources,” wrote Crisis Group.

The commentators’ underlying reasoning for optimism is that the health emergency would upend these political blockages by acting as a catalyst. It would put the political forces on a road to Damascus where they would overcome their fundamental differences to relaunch the transition. This assumes that they would do so through some kind of moral awakening. However, politics is first and foremost the result of the balance of power. So, the question is: how and why would this postponement and proclamation push the political actors to put this transition to democracy back on track? Or is that, in fact, an unlikely outcome?

For the moment, according to official figures, the pandemic is progressing remarkably slowly. Ethiopia has some assets to help contain it, including the experience of other countries; a young population; a solid majority of peasants whom can live for a few weeks on food stored at home; and the fact that, as more than three-quarters of Ethiopians reside in the countryside, many people live in scattered households. But Ethiopia suffers from serious weaknesses also, notably, the health service, and the difficulties of ‘social distancing’, primarily due to the obligation for perhaps 40 million informally employed Ethiopians to earn their daily bread.

No one can predict the impact of the pandemic when it reaches its peak, which authorities expect next month. On the other hand, officials already foresee a devastating effect on the economy and employment. “The total number of people who will require emergency relief, safety net cash transfers, food for work reaches up to 30 million people,” or almost a third of the population, according to Fitsum Assefa, National Planning and Development Commissioner.

In addition to some promised debt relief, existing budget support, and the usual annual inflows of up to $4 billion, Ethiopia has asked for $415 million from the International Monetary Fund and $1.6 billion of emergency funding from the Development Assistance Group (DAG). It plans to acquire two million tonnes of wheat and rice, which is almost twice the usual amount. And as if one bad thing must lead to many others, the locust invasion is the worst in the last quarter of a century and adds another one million people to the number in need of emergency food aid.

These figures could be inflated so as to grab the attention of donors, but, regardless, will Ethiopia attract the support it has requested? “To date (April 19), only 10.5pc of this requirement has been secured from international assistance,” Addis Fortune reported. In terms of finance as well as food, the global nature of the pandemic means it is often every nation for itself. And already the pandemic is having an impact on those in need. The UN reports that aid operations have been reduced because of COVID-19, meanwhile ongoing insecurity in western and southern Oromia has suspended emergency programs there.

Faced with these mounting challenges, the authorities chose to focus on the humanitarian crisis rather than the health crisis. “Food security will be the key challenge,” tweeted Abiy. This approach has logic on its side, as the first risks more victims than the second. “There is also a real danger that more people could potentially die from the economic impact of Covid-19 than from the virus itself”, stated the WFP. Yet the choice also has political implications.

“We can only pray God for his mercy,” some inhabitants of a rural kebele in North Shoa told me by phone. Most added something along the lines of: “To complain about the government is useless because it is totally powerless: even rich countries have been unable to stop the pandemic”.[1] This opinion seems to be common: there is little anger against the government regarding the pandemic, at least so far. For some, it is considered as supernatural, even divine. For others, the government is doing its best. But opinion would turn against the authorities if they proved incapable or deficient in responding to the humanitarian crisis. We are no longer in the same situation as a few decades back when many people, at least in the countryside, considered famine as divine punishment.

The government is now better equipped to deal with a humanitarian crisis, as long as international partners lend a strong hand. As social scientist Alula Pankhurst rightly wrote: “The Ethiopian state is well known for its organizational capacity that has increased over the regimes, and its ability to organize zemecha campaigns,[2] mobilizing people and resources rapidly and efficiently”. Already in “normal” times, it manages the Productive Safety Net Programme that supports around 8 million Ethiopians.

The mobilization of international humanitarian aid—including health assistance—and its transportation to the big regional warehouses will mainly be a federal government responsibility and will have mostly to transit through Addis Ababa. There is no other operational network to distribute it at the grassroots level than the local authorities. However, they continue to belong almost exclusively to the Prosperity Party. Roundly disparaged by the public, this is a golden opportunity to redeem themselves. They will be able to demonstrate to assisted populations that they have no other option than to rely on the mengist to survive. They can say and repeat: ‘Look, the opposition can do nothing for you.’ The ‘politics of the belly’ will take priority.

In this scenario, the incumbent will emerge stronger—assuming two conditions.

First, that they do not transform humanitarian aid into a weapon, as was routinely done in the past. Two new factors could counter this age-old inclination. The impunity enjoyed by local authorities has been greatly reduced. Officials know they are under the watchful gaze of new personalities who emerged during the wave of protests, including Qeerroo and Fano vigilantes. To formalize this role, The Reporter proposed “to empower compatriots recognized for their upstanding character and ability to give their best shot ”. This could be done through “watchdog” committees stemming from the civil society. It would give a strong signal of transparency and accountability.

Regarding the second condition, John Nkengasong, the director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, warned that the pandemic could be a “national-security crisis first, an economic crisis second, and a health crisis third.” In Ethiopia, where ethnic tensions are alarming, and with so many uncontrolled armed groups, a humanitarian crisis could lead to confrontations along ethnic lines triggered by radicals, both in regions—against those who don’t belong to the dominant group—and between regions.

Still, if the conditions are met, and an orderly and efficient scenario transpires, it may well restore Abiy’s flickering legitimacy. In addition, the postponement of the elections means time plays in his favour—each day that he remains prime minister strengthens his power. Recall the Abyssinian proverb: “the king who reigns is my king”.

It is difficult to see what role the opposition could play to overcome this double crisis. For example, in their joint communiqué, the two Oromo parties agreed to put politics-as-usual on hold for the health emergency . “We all need to join hands and prioritize defeating the coronavirus. Towards this end, no political activity or decision should hinder the collective fight against the pandemic”. Anyway, demonstrations and road blockades, the main opposition tool until now, are out of question during the health crisis. The parties implored the government that the emergency conditions “should not be used as a pretext to further narrow the fragile political space”. They added that “decisions about the new election date and issues related to that should be made after… consensus” while the interim period “should be decided based on the constitution and in consultation with all political parties and stakeholders.”

On the first point, the opposition could not really act differently in the face of the COVID-19 threat and the two parties rightly ask that the state of emergency is not abused to further marginalize opponents. On the postponement and modalities of elections, they want a consensus. But regarding the transitional mode of government, they request only “consultations”. So, it’s more of a call than a warning; the words “requires” or “demands” never appear.

What leverage does the opposition have to compel Abiy to respond to their pleas? Events so far offer a useful indicator. The two parties criticized the electoral board for announcing the postponement as a fait accompli before the consultations had run their course. Yet they have obtained no guarantees that any of their requests will be heeded. The state of emergency proclamation gave the government carte blanche to take any action it deems useful; an approach the incumbent said was necessary because of the pandemic’s uncertain trajectory in Ethiopia. The State of Emergency Inquiry Board comprising thoroughly obedient parliamentarians from the ruling party is hardly likely to offer real scrutiny.

More broadly, the opposition appears to have mostly departed the political arena since the violence in October. Figures such as Merera Gudina, Daud Ibsa, Bekele Gerba, Jawar Mohammed and Berhanu Nega have lost their regular places on media platforms. The opposition has rarely been proactive, neither through its proposals, nor in its organization. Therefore, what would convince Abiy to do more than to keep up appearances by letting the opposition board a few wagons of a train that he will be the sole drive and conductor of?

Inevitably, the epidemic period will involve the side-lining of much public policy debate. But that does not mean that tensions over power and resources, and in particular ethnic rivalries, which have put the democratic transition in jeopardy, will magically dissipate. They will re-emerge when this period ends. But at that point, if the described scenario occurs, the humanitarian and political situation would have boosted Abiy and his Prosperity Party, and weakened the formal opposition.

The Prime Minister certainly runs a risk if he goes too far in exploiting the state of emergency and election postponement. The main threat, eventually, will come from the popular movements, which were largely responsible for putting him in power, even if they seem now more scattered, disorganized, without a clear purpose, and neglected by the formal opposition leaders. Youth activism is the main force the formal opposition could rely on and they have considered trying to re-mobilize protesters to counter the growing harassment. That has not occurred, either because the opposition was incapable, or because it was caught off-guard by the coronavirus.

For Ethiopia’s political future, the big question, unanswerable for now, is whether the opposition will still be able to push its agenda by mobilizing the youthful masses after the pandemic’s initial impact subsides. There is reason to think that the youth will stay strongly opposed to Abiy’s rule, but it is far less certain that they will see coming together with the opposition elite as part of the solution.

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