December 18, 2019
by Mebratu Kelecha
On December 10, Ethiopians celebrated an extraordinary moment when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed received the Nobel Peace Prize. It occurred maybe only six months before potentially momentous elections. Whether wilful or not, this makes the Nobel Committee’s decision political: it has the potential to either aggravate Ethiopia’s crisis or excise its political gangrene—depending on the prime minister’s actions in the coming months.
Abiy has won plaudits for making startling changes. But after a year and a half, the reform process faces acute political problems. This is primarily because of his drive to consolidate power, which has contributed to ineffective management of political liberalization and a failure to institutionalize achievements.
For many Ethiopians, Abiy’s efforts so far have been a thrilling, frightening ride, and we are by no means at the end of it yet. Critics say he is guided by personal ambition and attaches little importance to compromise and cooperation. However, there is no doubt Abiy is also working hard to undo the Tigray People’s Liberation Front’s (TPLF) legacy of malicious politics and opaque government that breeds corruption.
But, although many Ethiopians adore him, many also doubt his leadership and intentions, including his own base, the Oromo. This contradiction manifests itself in an increasing number of rival forces across the federation, which fuel Abiy’s legitimacy crisis.
There are several dark spots on the horizon.
The largest one is the disagreement with his former close ally, Lemma Megersa, over the formation of Prosperity Party and his ideology medemer. That emerged after the October crisis, triggered by an alleged attempt by security forces to orchestrate an attack on Jawar Mohammed, intensified Abiy’s challenge.
Plenty of Oromo elites, which thought they were installing an Oromo-friendly government in Addis Ababa last year, feel betrayed by Abiy’s willingness to succumb to Amhara pressure and refusal to submit to an Oromo demands on matters such as federal languages and Addis Ababa. This is perhaps the most serious crisis of Abiy’s tenure, not only because of the wave of unrest, but because his legitimacy is rapidly eroding as a sense of betrayal rises from Oromia.
As he increasingly has become the focal point of dissatisfaction, Abiy has become less sensitive to these doubts that he faces at every political twist. This makes him increasingly calculating. He seems to have come to terms with the fact that he cannot fit into the Oromo, Amhara, or even the Ethiopianist camp. Contrary to popular belief, he is neither an Ethiopianist, as many claim, nor is he the undercover Oromo nationalist that Amhara opponents allege. He is not one of them, but all of them, shifting his loyalty as necessary to serve his interests.
Knowing that none of the groups trust him and will provide him with long-term sustainable support, Abiy will not rely on nor trust any of them. Instead, he is likely to continue to frequently switch his allegiance. This may well heighten rivalry between ethno-nationalists who seek to preserve the multinational federation and those forces that want to undo it.
When Abiy took power, the main tasks were thought by many to be democratisation and clipping the outsized influence of EPRDF’s historically dominant Tigrayan wing, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Both were key demands of the protest movement that led former prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn to resign, paving the way for Abiy’s faction, then the Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organisation (OPDO), to take the helm.
But now, with national elections due maybe as early as May, the challenge is existential. The risk of state collapse is enhanced by the expanded autonomy of the regional states, all of which are equipped with their own heavily armed security forces. This is most problematic in Amhara and Tigray.
Abiy, on the other hand, knows that a free election would probably lead to the opposition holding seats in parliament and possibly heading some central government institutions, if whoever leads the next administration governs the federation inclusively.
In Oromia, factions of the OLF, for example, may see significant gains by allying with like-minded opposition. Lemma’s dissent and Jawar’s decision to run for office in the election are more major challenges to Abiy’s new party. Given this situation in Oromia, which includes the unfortunate confrontation with Jawar, who organized the protests that brought him to power, Abiy not only risks his premiership in the elections, but also the transition.
Recognising the threat, in early October, Abiy’s Oromo Democratic Party (ODP, the rebranded OPDO) signed a deal with the OLF and the Oromo Federalist Congress, another opposition party with popular leaders, to work together in the interests of the Oromo people. This likely meant that they planned to stand aside for each other in certain districts.
Following the October crisis, Abiy toured Oromia to try and ease tension. There were also intensified intra-Oromo negotiations on power sharing and limiting electoral competition between Oromo parties. These should be seen as preparation for a loyalty shift, as Abiy seemed to understand then that eliminating rivals did not secure power.
As the leader of Oromia’s ruling party, he also felt he must defend his constituents against attacks by Addis Ababa-based media’s propaganda in order to shore up his base. This forced him to make an unusual and unwelcome statement detailing victims according to their ethnicity, religion, and gender. Not stopping there, in order to try and boost his Oromo bonafides further, he also felt compelled to inform a public audience in Ambo that he used to be an informant for the then-rebel Oromo Liberation Front (OLF).
But beside the Oromo opposition, rivals from his own party, the ODP, who have doubted his loyalty, emerged as major contenders. This seems to have eventually tempted Abiy to shift his loyalty once more, this time to Amhara groups, and focus almost exclusively on merging the coalition into a single national party as a solution to fragmentation—and as a tool to improve his own electoral prospects.
Abiy’s plan to dissolve EPRDF and create Prosperity Party, which will uphold individual rights over group rights, reflects the Amhara position for the past half century, and so will make it hard for him to maintain his uneasy truce with Oromo rivals.
This is explained by the tensions in Ethiopia’s contemporary political settlements. Politics over the past 50 years have been largely a question of equality: how to establish a democratic order that recognizes the equality of Ethiopian national groups has been the subject of almost constant debate. There have been two broad elite stances.
The first recognizes the existence of national oppression in Ethiopia. These groups organized and fought as nations, which led to the creation of a multinational federation that recognizes group rights.
The second rejects the national oppression thesis—describing what opponents cast as Amhara imperialism as a standard state-building process—and so is in favour of individual rights. As such, it undermines the representation of nations. Of these two camps, except Amhara elites, most groups are firmly pitched in the first. From this perspective, the transition to PP favors the Amhara position, as most political entities from there reject the post-1991 political dispensation as being driven by anti-Amhara sentiment.
Prosperity Party will therefore be filled with individuals that contradict the ethno-nationalist position. Because it deprives Ethiopian nations of their rights to organize politically based on their collective identity, many ethno-nationalists from across the federation will not subscribe to it. While those who have signed up dissolve themselves as regional entities in favour of a form of ‘Ethiopianism’ that Abiy’s medemer promotes.
Ultimately, the decision to form Prosperity Party does not consider the interests of the majority of Ethiopians. Instead it seems mainly in the interests of the Prime Minister and like-minded urbanites. Politics is by nature a group exercise; not a solo act. Even if the leader’s vision is important, if the strategies do not consider the public interests, the measures taken will not go far. It seems that the idea behind Prosperity Party is to downgrade ethno-nationalist politics and empower centrism. But due to the opposition, power struggles between and among rival forces might become so violent that it will return the country to authoritarianism.
Some critics are so concerned about the tensions that they think Ethiopia might follow the path of Yugoslavia. This is improbable, but not impossible. What would make it possible are attempts to abridge the right to self-determination that Prosperity Party’s critics fear is coming. They argue that Abiy’s new party runs counter to the constitutional order that recognizes the autonomy of nations, nationalities and peoples. This raises concerns, with national groups fearing that the centralized party structure might push governance toward a similar unitary arrangement.
Casting aside the Yugoslavia debate, the premier’s shifting loyalties could lead the country into troubled water if this potentially debilitating crisis defines its future. From the outset, Abiy methodically allied with and withdrew from the above-mentioned groups as it suited him. He worked from within EPRDF with the Oromo protest movement, which catapulted him into office. He then also yielded to protester demands to expand the democratic space, which diminished EPRDF control.
Mushrooming local demands
However, the premier’s failure to facilitate broad-based negotiations, and his refusal to adopt a transition roadmap, was the mortal mistake. This failure to establish a comprehensive and inclusive forum to hash out the transition fragmented the process. The result was mushrooming local demands facilitated by liberalization that threaten the multinational federation—with both those who oppose the constitutional order and those looking to exploit it emboldened.
As the security state was dismantled, and freedom of speech flourished, conflicts escalated, creating a combustible situation, as ethnic groups sought more autonomy in economic, political and security matters. Tensions between regions, especially the most powerful—Oromia, Amhara, and Tigray—escalated as EPRDF relations deteriorated. (These worrying dynamics have been expertly documented by Semir Yusuf at the Institute for Security Studies.)
Ultimately, it is a mistake to think that either Oromo or Amhara nationalism, as well as the contempt he reportedly has for TPLF, frames Abiy’s decisions. What we see instead is a leader who, with a façade of rationality, uses ethno-nationalist and Ethiopianist discourses to advance his personal interest—and then discards them when they are no longer needed.
He is also flirting with authoritarian tactics, which casts doubt on the possibility of free and fair elections. Evidence is mounting: prisons again contain political dissidents; west and southeast Oromia are under lengthy de facto states of emergency; and the state has returned to using the same repressive laws to charge dissidents. There are well-founded concerns that the political space is closing, and hopes are fading, consumed by fear and pessimism.
The Ethiopianist rhetoric and medemer policies are largely smokescreens to divert attention and maintain the support of enough Ethiopian people to boost Abiy’s electoral prospects. He has ominously engaged in attempts to co-opt activists and eliminate powerful ODP potential competitors. Since he took office, Abiy has side-lined heavyweights such as Lemma Megersa, Workneh Gebeyehu and Teyiba Hassen in favour of a narrow circle of loyalists and technocrats. Such moves further reduce the support from his own party.
His proponents argue the merger is one brick in building a democratic Ethiopia, but it seems more about preserving power than solving the underlying problems of EPRDF and the country. Abiy flits between the Oromo or Amhara political bases, as these two groups are in conflict, but is rarely accepted or trusted by either. The October violence illustrated this: Abiy was slated by elites from both camps.
He just keeps swinging back and forth depending on the circumstances. Such efforts will not gain him long-term acceptance. This will, in turn, continue to shape his views, actions, and role in the transition. As his legitimacy is increasingly challenged by ethno-nationalists, he may be forced to definitively take a side—but beware, the jilted camp will not take rejection lying down, and Abiy is unlikely to respond meekly to challenges to his rule.