New Man, new day or same old EPRDF? Some reflections on the current Ethiopian situation

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April 8, 2018

Introduction

After months of speculation about the next move, the Ethiopian ruling party, Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (“EPRDF”), finally elected its new chairman and prime minister whose inaugural speech took place on April 2 in the presence of dignitaries and members of the parliament.  For the past decade, world leaders have lauded the economic progress Ethiopia has made under EPRDF.

Human Rights Groups, however, have emphasized that under EPRDF, Ethiopia has become repressive and intolerant for dissent. They cite that extrajudicial killings, torture, mass arrest, repressive media laws and violations of human rights have come to characterize the regime. The recent political impasse and continuous protests have brought the country to a standstill. The country declared a state of emergency twice in less than two years; the prime minister resigned, and EPRDF showed the fact that there is no unity in the party as the new chairman was elected after a hotly contested internal debate. For those who are concerned about the future of Ethiopia, several important issues are now implicated: what does the current situation mean to Ethiopian politics and to its people? Is he going to confront the political, social and economic injustice that has characterized the Ethiopian state for decades head-on and lead to a genuine transformation and reform or is there going to be resistance from those who have been the holder of unique places under the previous leaders? Will there be a change of policies? Will there be an open space for opposition political parties?

New leader

After a heated and prolonged discussion and debate, the EPRDF Central Committee, with a majority, agreed upon the election of Dr. Abiy Ahmed (from OPDO) and Dr. Demeke Mekonnen (From the Amhara National Democratic Movement (“ANDM”) to become chairman and deputy chairman of the EPRDF respectively. Abiy was nominated as prime minister on April 2. The election of Dr. Abiy gave many Ethiopians and foreign leaders hope. Skeptics are also correct in pointing out that the all-important pillars of power, intelligence, the military, and economy, are still dominated by the TPLF, so it will be very difficult for Abiy to exercise real power just like Mr. Hailemariam. The signs so far suggest that those who are in power have zoomed on the new prime minister. Some indicate that during the EPRDF Executive Council meeting the new prime minister and some others were forced to send their families aboard to protect them. There are also rumors that going around: the intelligence and army leadership are going to get rid of the new Prime Minister should he attempt to make any meaningful reform.

Those who know Abiy closely say that he is unique in many ways. They suggest that Abiy is not a man who can easily be manipulated, and that was one of the reasons why TPLF leaders and supporters opened a propaganda war on him through social media before and during the EPRDF Executive Council meeting. On person who claims to have known Abiy says, “This man has worked with TPLF for years without offending them and at the same time without compromising his principles.”

The speech of Dr. Abiy

The new Prime Minister made the inaugural speech that has received rave reviews among social media users- ‘captivating’, ‘uplifting’, ‘historic’, ‘elevating’ and ‘inspiring’ were some of the words used to describe his speech. The speech was indeed, tremendous. The new PM addressed the problems that led to the current political instability. He discussed the need for reform, the need for change in the country. He tried to base his speech on Pan-Ethiopian history (at times appeal to emotion), the fact that the destiny of each and every Ethiopian ethnic group is tied to each other. That noted, he invited the opposition parties to work with the government. Some argue that as he did not give any specifics, this is just a vague rhetoric. The new Prime Minister even called upon the Eritrean government to get prepared to solve the problem between the two countries through discussion.

The big limitation of the speech was that the prime minister did not talk about accountability. This is a big limitation in a sense that impunity has been one of the hallmarks of the security forces in the country. For instance, while Dr. Abiy expressed his condolences to those who were killed during the protests in the country but did not mention the issue of compensation for the victims or legal protections for peaceful protestors moving forward.

Whose EPRDF?  Whose Ethiopia?

The EPRDF could change some of its controversial policies it followed during the previous leaders, especially under the rule of late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. When Abiy was elected many believed that he would lambast the EPRDF for the major failure happened on its watch. However, the new premier has stressed that under the leadership of EPRDF, Ethiopia has made massive progress in many ways. He has praised most of the policies of EPRDF.

Some argue that it is naive to expect the TPLF to relinquish the power it has enjoyed under in the past 27 years. If TPLF is seen as a hurdle to a genuine reform in the country, it is inevitable that such lack of prospects of real reform would even create more protest. That could even go to the extent of challenging the unity of the country. Now that the new premier is elected from Oromia, the hotspot of the protests for many years, the expectation among the Oromo people is very high.  However, many believe that if the TPLF wants to retain its lion’s share of influence in the EPRDF, it needs to come from the military and security leadership where they enjoy a significant control. Yet, others are cautious, saying that that would only recycle the problem that has led to the coming into power of Dr. Abiy: the same problem that has led to the declaration of state of emergency, the same problem that has led to the resignation of Hailemariam Desalegn, the same problem that has chased foreign investors out of the country.

The EPRDF is formed by four regional parties: The Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (“OPDO”), The Amhara National Democratic Movement (“ANDM”), The Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (“SEPDM”) and the TPLF. In addition, there are other small parties with the official status of ‘EPRDF affiliates’. A few years ago, the idea of changing the EPRDF to national party was raised and discussed but postponed on the ground that the time was not right.  Currently, some have commented that changing the EPRDF to a national party may be one of the solutions that the government will consider in the long-term to solve the problem from inside and outside the party. Particularly, it is believed that such a move would be an antidote to the negative consequences of ethnic federalism, for which many blame the EPRDF. In that sense it is thought that such a shift will keep diversity within unity. The challenge that was faced during election of the chairman of EPRDF (eventual PM), has shown that electing a party chairman can be very tricky. Some suggest that, if EPRDF is not ready to change the party to national party, the EPRDF Council’s regulations must change. For example, votes of each and every member party have to be based on their regional population- just like the seats in the parliament. More importantly, the ‘EPRDF affiliates’ must have seats in the EPRDF Executive council. There is no reason why other Ethiopians are pedestrians in their own country in a bus that is being driven by OPDO, TPLF, ANDM and SEPDM. It must change, and the change has to be done now. Those parties that represent other smaller ethnic groups must be represented in the EPRDF executive committee, just like they are represented in the House of Federation.

The Opposition

Under EPRDF, the opposition has been systematically dismantled through repressive laws. Some leaders of the opposition have spent years/decades in jail; some have been expelled; some have disappeared; some have been killed in daylight. Thus, when one speaks of opposition groups in Ethiopia, it must be within that context.  Having said that, what are the nature of the Ethiopian political parties (both inside and outside the country)?

In Ethiopia, the difference between oppositions is even much wider than the difference between them and the ruling party. Existing political groups, including the EPRDF, comprise three camps. First, there are the political groups which are advocating secession, or at the least a loose federal system that could give states more autonomy. In support of their position, some groups cite the current approach of Canada to the problem of Quebec.

Secondly, there are those groups which believe that Ethiopia needs a system that ignores ethnic delineations. Third, there is the EPRDF which is believed to be in the middle of the political debate on Ethiopian federalism. The EPRDF has declared that those who denounce ethnic federalism are seeking a system which will privilege the select few at the expense of marginalizing the majority. The EPRDF has labeled these groups enemies of Ethiopian ethnic diversity and peace. It has also labeled those seeking greater autonomy or secession as enemies of Ethiopia. This rhetoric has created an even larger gap between the opposition parties and has enabled the government to gain further inroads amongst the populace.

The EPRDF meanwhile has been doing what it can to take advantage of the situation by pitting one opposition group against another whenever it has felt one group is becoming too powerful. Accordingly, as it stands, it is almost impossible to have a strong and inclusive opposition that can be a true alternative to the EPRDF. Thus, it is fair to suggest that the presence of opposition groups with such diametrically opposed views, is counter-productive to the democratic process in Ethiopia. Other analysts underline that the ruling party is to blame for this problem by effectuating the disappearance of some opposition leaders while simultaneously keeping other opposition groups weak through harassment and imprisonment. As a result, even if the incumbent regime shows a willingness and determination for reconciliation and negotiation, the opposition will remain powerless, unorganized, and disunited.

There is one thing that the opposition must underline: OPDO is EPRDF and  there should not be any confusion or disillusion about that. OPDO can be seen as a party within EPRDF that challenges the hegemony of TPLF and wants to reform EPRDF and the country, at best. No more no less. Is the new prime minister, the chairman of the OPDO, going to take important steps toward reform? Is he going to open political space for the opposition? The opposition must take stand on those areas. They must put his feet to the fire. They have to be relentless.

Religious leaders and their role in moving the country forward

Ethiopia is a secular state and separation of State and religion is clearly provided in the constitution.

Historically, there was no separation of religion and state in Ethiopia. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church was one of the key players during the state formation and expansion [Some prefer to call conquest] and remained the state religion until 1974. Currently, even though it is not a state religion any more, its role in shaping the current dynamics of Ethiopian politics should not be overlooked. During the reign of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, some political commentators and supporters of the opposition underscored that Abune Paulos, the then Patriarch of Ethiopian Orthodox Church remained politically important to Mr. Meles throughout the years. Vocal members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in abroad denounced the Patriarch and established an “Independent Ethiopian Orthodox Church” in the USA, Europe and Australia. There have been issues with the leadership of the Ethiopian Muslims as well- it has been alleged that there have been Muslim religious leaders who were taking instructions from the government and that created a rift with other leaders in the Muslim community.

What’s concerning here is the fact that Ethiopian religious readers have not used their moral authority to speak about the injustice and brutality in the country. They failed to speak out when Monks were detained at Waldiba Monastery. They failed to speak out when some Muslim leaders were detained under controversial circumstances. They failed to speak out against the rampant corruption and land grabbing in the country. This is not to say that religious leaders should be activists; yet, they should speak when their voice is needed more than anything else.

The Diaspora

The diaspora has made its presence felt in many countries. The Ethiopian government often considers diasporas as an opposition group. The role that the diaspora could play became evident during the 2005 general elections. The diaspora was a powerhouse in terms of financial contributions to the opposition and diplomatic pressure on the government. During those elections, the CUD was financially competent enough to go and campaign even in remote areas. Many Ethiopians participated in protests around the world that grabbed the attention of many countries. Following those elections, the division among the diaspora undermined the power it played during the election. Similar protests have been taken place in Europe, USA, Australia and other places regarding the killings of civilians by the security forces. They have called for the adoption of resolutions especially by the UN, and US Congress, resolutions that demand/request the Ethiopian government to open up spaces for opposition parties, resolutions that demand the Ethiopian government to stop violating human rights. More importantly, the current development in the country seems to have brought different diaspora groups together. They have started marching and protesting together in USA, UK, and other countries.

The development among Oromo activists in the diaspora after the election of Abiy Ahmed as a Prime Minister is also worth mentioning. Before the election, the majority were arguing that OPDO must be given the premiership role. After OPDO and its supporters in the EPRDF Executive Committee successfully helped Abiy to become the prime minister, the narrative has immediately changed. Those who are arguing for the OPDO to take the premiership role have started arguing that ‘the Oromo People do not need the Prime Minister Position, but a structural change in the country.’ Yes, it is true a premiership role without a structural change is meaningless. If the apparatus and the system that led to injustice and corruption remain in place, the change of the leader means nothing. However, the logic is clear: if you want to have a structural change in the country, leading the change is very key. In the Ethiopian context, being a prime minister is the highest executive office that enables one to lead any change that the people are demanding.

Other significant developments: Political maturity, patience, euphoria and the disharmony among EPRDF

The days that TPLF leaders thought would never come eventually arrived. The Unity between OPDO and ANDM was proven so strong. The two major parties in the country have been courting each other in the past three years and their unanimous vote for Dr. Abiy during the EPRDF’s Executive Committee meeting was a testament to that.  For years many have said that the hegemony of TPLF can only be challenged by the between OPDO and ANDM. It has been reported a long time ago that explosion of disharmony and discontent among EPRDF leadership was all about time. According to sources, this discontent has existed even in the intelligence community, the army and at the cabinet level.

During the EPRDF Executive meeting, there has been harassment and intimidation that targeted Amharas and Oromos (including government officials). Some insiders even suggest that there as a plan to target families of some OPDO leadership. Analysts suggest that it was intended to weaken OPDO’s and ANDM’s resolve. However, that has not worked as planned as shown in Dr. Abiy’s election.

What is commended is not only the political maturity of OPDO and ANDM; the patience of the public has to be admired as well. Despite all the challenges and nerve-racking and prolonged EPRDF meetings, the people remained calm.

What has to be noted also is the reaction of the people to the election of Dr. Abiy Ahmed. It is simply euphoric. People both inside and outside the country reacted to his election as never before in the country. Can he live up to expectation? Time will tell, but the people are optimistic and hopeful that under the leadership of Abiy, the country will move forward.

What should be changed?

The current problems in the country go beyond what has happened in the last three or five years. It even goes beyond EPRDF. The problems of the country are complex. There has never been any genuine discussion among Ethiopians about their country- what kind of governance system does the country need? What should be the federal working language(s)? Those assumed power stamped their authority with iron and fist. Saying that sishom yalbela sishar yikochewal, those in power enrich themselves and their groups at the expense of others. Saying that semay aytares, negus aykeses, those who ascended to power were acting with impunity.

There are many areas that need attention. The new Premier has to deliver as he promised in his speech. There are economic and social issues that have to be addressed. Doing all at the same time could be challenging, however, there are issues that have to be done immediately:

  • Lift the State of Emergency immediately
  • Ceasing killing of civilians
  • Releasing political prisoners and those who were arrested during the State of Emergency
  • Repealing the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation of 2009
  • Repealing the Charities and Societies Proclamation
  • Immediately allowing UN investigators to come to the country
  • Ensuring the provisions of the Proclamation and enforcement Directive of the State of Emergency comply with international and regional human rights standards enumerated in treaties Ethiopia ratified and with norms of customary international law

While addressing the urgent issues above, the government should also focus on the following systemic changes (just some of):

  • Leaving power to the states as stipulated by the Constitution by avoiding controlling of everything through a party channel
  • Facilitating national consensus and reconciliation is very key for the country to move forward.
  • Making the Army and the Intelligence constitutional in their structure, operation and composition.
  • The judiciary needs profound attention
  • Starting negotiations with all political parties without unnecessary preconditions. The ongoing negotiations between Ogaden National Liberation Fronts (ONLF) and the government can be a positive sign in this regard, if it has been done genuinely to solve the problem not to use that process as a negotiating chip against others. Yet, a real test will be a negotiation between the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the government, which was proven unsuccessful due to various preconditions laid out by the parties, in particular by the government.

Concluding Remarks

The EPRDF has claimed that it has managed to hold Ethiopia together during times that most Ethiopians and outsiders were uncertain about the future of the country following the declaration of the state of emergency twice in less than two years. However, it seems that the EPRDF has managed to elect its new leader albeit while simultaneously showing its fractured face to the public. There is even further indication that the struggle within the EPRDF will continue to the next level. As it stands, the transition of power, peacefully, for the first time, seems positive; however, many believe that exercising real power and holding the EPRDF together would be challenging for Dr. Abiy just like it was for his predecessor Mr. Hailemariam Dessalegn.

If he can navigate through this and answers some of the pressing questions being asked by the citizens of the country, Dr. Abiy would be in the history book as a man who brought genuine reform to the country in its history. I, like others, hope he can be that man. One of the key indicators that we are going to see in a short period of time is: How is he going to reshuffle the cabinet? What is he going to do about the reform he promised? Is he going to use his constitutional power without fear or favor? Herman Cohen, United States Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs from 1989 to 1993, sends a message to Dr. Abiy Ahmed saying: “Do not be reluctant to take bold steps toward democratic reform. TPLF politico-economic monopolists have been revealed as frauds and will not be able to restrain you. The international community is with you.”

This is also a sentiment among the general population in the country and the Ethiopian community abroad.

Abiy’s ascendance to the state house was celebrated by groups that can be categorized as follows: Those who are happy because his election could be a signal for the end of the dominance of TPLF; those who are happy because he is an Oromo; those are happy because he is an agent of change who can take the country out of the trouble. And there are people who celebrated because of all of the above reasons.

On his first day, with his uplifting opening speech, the new prime minister has managed to garner support from many corners. Yet, there is one thing that he should be aware of- that is the real risk of reforms being derailed by those within his own party. There are people in the leadership position for the past 20 years or so, and at times like this, change for them is very scary. Abiy seems soft yet persuasive, and to convince those who may be resistant to reform in the country, he must take decisive actions. Anything short of making decisive decisions in this very challenging situation in the country (even if one at a time), it is just another man, the same old EPRDF.

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