Drawing on years of experience analyzing the EPRDF’s federal system, Mehari Taddele Maru explains why it is in grave danger, and outlines how to avoid a drift towards majoritarian rule and worsening instability.
After a long wait, the highly anticipated 11th Congress of the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front opened today in Hawassa, the capital of the multi-ethnic Southern Nations state. This Congress cannot be dismissed as routine. It is deadly serious, as its outcome may well determine the future of Ethiopian politics and economic and foreign policy.
There are many possible trajectories for the ruling front after the three-day meeting, but signs of a dark future are prominent. The configuration of forces within the EPRDF may well change, but more importantly the constitution and its consensus-based federative and parliamentary democracy are at risk. Arguably of even greater import, the Congress may toll the death knell for the EPRDF’s Democratic Developmental State.
The Congress may toll the death knell for the EPRDF’s Democratic Developmental State
The Congress’ theme is “Let’s ensure the Ethiopian Renaissance by upholding changes within the Developmental Democracy Framework.” Until recently, the Democratic Developmental’ State had been the EPRDF’s ideological anchor. The change in emphasis from ‘Democratic Developmental’ to ‘Developmental Democracy’ suggests the EPRDF could mutate from a development-centric to a democratic-centric ideology. Ostensibly superficial, these semantic could be the wind in the sails of change, as can also been seen in the ‘democratic’ name changes of the Amhara and Oromia parties.
Such alterations could mean an extended, increasingly volatile political transition, and a loss of economic momentum at a crucial stage of development.
A powerful front or hollow shell?
In 2007 at the Forum for all Political Parties I argued that in the eyes of many the EPRDF would no longer be the EPRDF if it reversed its support for some of the founding principles of the federation, such as Article 9, the sovereignty of ethno-cultural communities; Article 39, the right to self-determination up to secession; and Article 40, the collective ownership of land. Deviation from these constitutional principles would mean that Ethiopia had moved into a post-EPRDF era.
Now the key questions are: Are these constitutional provisions still the core principles EPRDF and are they fully supported by powerful members? Is EPRDF now a federalist or a majoritarian force? Procedurally, is EPRDF still guided by the principle of Democratic Centralism?
My answers to all are in the negative. The powerful ideological and organizational adhesive of EPRDF is no longer shared, even superficially. Like galaxies in the cosmos, the EPRDF’s four building blocks are drifting apart.
EPRDF was an offshoot of the Student Movement of the 1970s that played a key role in the 1974 Ethiopian Revolution that toppled Emperor Haile Selassie. Though highly contested by its peers in the opposition, the EPRDF founders considered itself a continuity of the 1970s Ethiopian Student Movement. Five vital characteristics of the Student Movement were 1) the ‘question of nationalities’ (a popular term for the 1960s struggle against ethno-linguistic domination, famously referred to as ‘Ye BiherBiheresebTiyaque’ in Amharic), 2) the ‘land question’ (‘Ye MeriyetTiyaque’ or ‘Land to the Tiller’, ‘Meret La Rashu’), 3) unquestioning support for Marxist-Leninist ideology, 4) extreme intolerance of any form of dissent and 5) high commitment to public service.
After EPRDF seized power in Ethiopia in 1991, the federal constitution stipulated state ownership of the land. Federalism became an institutional form for the protection, expression and promotion of nationalities. The drafters of the constitution favored a model of consociational democracy, where ethno-linguistic communities would be meaningfully represented in all government institutions and hold sovereign constitutional power over federal and regional states. Such communities are entitled by the constitution to establish regional states or even claim full independence. The Ethiopian federal system was intended to contain disintegrative forces and to create a balance between centripetal and centrifugal drifts. Critics of this system claim that it may encourage disintegration, whilst others portray it as detrimental to the self-determination of ethno-linguistic communities, with the intention of continuing the domination from the center that prevailed for a long time in Ethiopia.
EPRDF in paralysis
Since taking state power in 1991, EPRDF has faced several crises including the major split in 2001, and mass protests in 2005 and 2015. The crisis that begun in the protests of 2015 in Oromia regional state has inflicted grave blows and left EPRDF paralyzed. Internal divisions have been so great within EPRDF’s leadership that it denied former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, also Chairperson of the front, the command and control the position once enjoyed.
The paralysis was attributable to the internal weakness of the EPRDF, namely corruption, power struggles, and a lack of shared vision for the future. The external forces with strategic interests hostile to Ethiopia, competition among great powers due to shift of focus from war on terror to strategic competition between USA, on one hand and China and Russia on the other, accelerated this change. Foreign-based Ethiopian activists also played a critical role. The rise of populism from corrupt elements within EPRDF accelerated these changes.
The rise of populism from corrupt elements within EPRDF accelerated these changes
Eventually, Hailemariam resigned and Abiy Ahmed was elected chairperson. Since then, significant changes have come to Ethiopia. But new and outstanding questions remain unanswered. Key among them are whether the front transforms into one party and the fate of affiliated parties ruling Somali, Afar, Benishangul-Gumuz, Gambella and Harar. The issues of equity in voting within EPRDF, and the fate of the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement, along with other thorny questions.
But meanwhile, the EPRDF’s internal power struggles persist. Failure of the EPRDF leadership to mend its division at this Congress may lead to imminent fragmentation. The coalition is still there for the sole reason that the party is in power. It lacks a shared ideological doctrine worth standing and fighting for. Once its power base is eroded, the remaining institutional unity of EPRDF will wither away. But what may bring about such self-destruction?
Consensus democracy is the core of the federal constitution. Lijphart Arend, a leading scholar on democracies, asserts that the two primary characteristics of consociational democracy are: sharing of executive power under grand coalition and two, group autonomy with mutual veto power and proportionality in power sharing. The Ethiopian constitution confers veto powers to the regional states. It also grants fundamental rights to each cultural community including the freedom to enjoy autonomy, establish own regional state and even seek an independent sovereign state if they so wish and fulfil the preconditions. This is reflective of the consensus principle that promotes the idea that democracy should be designed to represent all interests and provide numerous checks and balance on the majority. Thus, the federal constitution redefined Ethiopianism and reconceptualized it as egalitarian, inclusive and multicultural identity drawn from a federation of diverse cultures.
A groundswell of populism has caused a drift to majoritarianism even within the EPRDF
This redefinition is now under severe attack from both old absolutist Ethiopianism, and extreme ethno-nationalism. A groundswell of populism has caused a drift to majoritarianism even within the EPRDF. The surge of populism of absolutist Ethiopianist, extreme ethnonationalist, and hyper Pan-Ethiopianists is in total control of some regional states, particularly Amhara and Oromia, and to a limited extent in other regions, such as parts of Southern Nations (Wolayta, Sidama), Tigray, Somali and Afar. Political forces in these regions supported by Diaspora-based activists are pushing the politics of hate, fear and resentment. This has led to clashes between regional states on the pretext of internal boundary disputes (Oromia and Somali), or between a regional state (Somali) and the federal government.
In addition to the mob attacks and vigilante incidents, this could lead to intensifying conflict between states or between a state and the central government. These confrontational trends, if left unabated, may set Amhara in a collision course with Tigray over the Wolkait area boundary dispute, and, even worse, between the federal government and Tigray, as it exercises its constitutional rights.
The father of the consensus-based federal system, EPRDF, is increasingly finding it difficult to be the champion of inclusive Ethiopian identity. Though it is the author of the anti-majoritarian federal constitution, EPRDF has found itself in a majoritarian drift that is antagonistic to consensus constitutional democracy envisaged by the constitution. Academics such as Lahra Smith found the current constitution does not enjoy equal degree of support in all regional states by all communities. For instance, in Amhara, most of the political parties reject the constitution , while others including in Oromia may demand critical amendments to introduce a new form of majoritarian rule including presidential system. But, in the rest of the states, particularly in Afar, Tigray, Somali, Gambella, support for the constitution seems strong.
In contrast to consensus democracy, the majoritarian principle emphasizes concentration of power in the hands of majority. Peter Emerson, in his book From Majority Rule to Inclusive Politics, stresses “unfortunately, one of the worst democratic structures is the most ubiquitous: majority rule based on majority voting. It must be emphasized, furthermore, that these two practices are often the catalysts of division and bitterness, if not indeed violence and war.”
Majoritarianism contradicts consensus constitutional democracy. Such majoritarianism will destroy not only EPRDF but also the equilibrium on which progressive and inclusive Pan-Ethiopianism was built. To make radical change to the current constitutional order, the majoritarian drift may introduce a presidential system (replacing parliamentary system), and even employ public referendum (in place of amendments). This drift to majoritarianism may end up in a constitutional crisis and protracted instability.
Developmental dead end
Convinced that the constitution had helped to address long-standing political questions of the 1970s Student Movement, the EPRDF chose to focus on poverty eradication as a priority. For the EPRDF, state ownership of land and an emphasis on group rights were the logical culmination of the ‘national questions’ of the Student Movement and the armed struggle that followed.
As I discussed in a co-authored 2015 research paper, through enabling state ownership of the land and adopting a federal system, the EPRDF believes that it has fulfilled the core demands of the Movement. It believes that peace and economic development in Ethiopia can only be achieved through federal arrangements and protection of the overwhelmingly agrarian population from displacement due to dispossession of its land. For the opposition parties, the EPRDF’s land and federal policies are a means to maintain power by controlling land—the vital means of economic activity for the great majority of Ethiopians.
Rejecting the neoliberal economic path, EPRDF also looked to the east for inspiration on developmental state. China, Singapore, and South Korea provided good examples on which the EPRDF decided to base its economic model, albeit with some adjustments to reflect Ethiopia’s historical, cultural and other national peculiarities. With authoritarian or Marxist-dominant parties at some time in their history, these countries have a highly dominant ethnic community and are less heterogeneous than Ethiopia.
As a coalition, EPRDF looks now set to abandon its economic focus on the Developmental State
In general, Developmental States emphasize the delivery of public services over democratic governance. At the center of the Developmental State (DS) is monopoly of power. The DS not only provides the legislative, regulatory and enforcement mechanisms within which the market operates, but also defines the direction of the political economy, providing a lead for all public and private actors engaged in economic activities. Accordingly, the state monopolizes not only the means and use of violence, norm-setting mandates, and regulatory and enforcement powers, but also the economic space of the country.
Thus, the EPRDF’s idea of the DS reverses the traditional capitalist conception of the respective roles of the public and private sector in the economy. In a market economy, the state intervenes to correct market failure. In the Ethiopian DS, while the state invests, the private sector intervenes to complement the public investment and economic actions of the state. In a nutshell, the private sector fills the ‘state gaps’ in the economy. The state dominates, whereas the private sector plays a supportive role.
Once termed by the World Bank as “The Ethiopian Way”, the DS brought transformations that the free market would not have been able to bring by its own.
As a coalition, EPRDF looks now set to abandon its economic focus on the DS. Three factors may play essential roles: ideological differences; continued instability’ and geopolitical competition between great powers for economic domination. It is unlikely to continue to implement its pro-poor developmental policies with the same dedication due to divisions within itself, and the advent of coalition politics. Monopoly of power uninterrupted by election cycles is a vital element for a DS. Without such stability, economic delivery will be slow-paced at best, or cause an economic crisis at worst.
Coalition politics is in sight, but without the requisite institutions
The recent instability in Ethiopia may overshadow the economic progress Ethiopia has already made under EPRDF in recent decades. In the past three decades or so, Ethiopia’s stability had three pillars: the ruling party EPRDF, the security sector including the Ethiopian National Defense Forces, Federal and Regional Police, and the intelligence services; and the collective social psychology of Ethiopians emanating from the history of uninterrupted statehood.
Ethiopia seems now to be in a post-EPRDF-dominated era, but without strong institutions. The security sector, including the military, is timorous, more reticent to act than ever. They remain apprehensive and prone to fragmentation if not insulated from the political schisms of the ruling party and ethnicity based political mobilizations. Coalition politics is in sight, but without the requisite institutions, and without the necessary mentality required in the population at large. The likely ensuing protracted instability may curtail the chances for continued rapid development.
EPRDF abroad: Neutrality neutered?
In a detailed study on Ethiopia’s foreign relations published in 2017, I argued that the “emerging geopolitical and geo-economic issues that may impair the diplomatic achievements of Ethiopia if the Foreign Affairs and National Security Policy and Strategy (FANSPS) is not urgently reappraised…Otherwise, internal political crises, the conflicts in Yemen and the Middle East, migration into the EU, rivalry around Nile River hydro-politics and transnational threats such as terrorism and violent extremism may well serve to impair the impressive economic and diplomatic progress Ethiopia has made thus far.”
I also argued that Ethiopia’s successful policy of military containment and diplomatic isolation of the Eritrea since the border war 1998 cannot be maintained without the full support of regional and global allies. “In the ‘no war, no peace’ stalemate that followed the end of the border war with Eritrea in 2000, and against the background of Ethiopia’s successful policy of military containment and diplomatic isolation, the Eritrean army had been weakened to the point where it was barely able to defend the country. The congruence of recent developments in the Middle East, EU and Horn of Africa has, however, substantially eroded the effectiveness of Ethiopia’s policy, requiring significant revision of [FANSPS].”
For a long time, EPRDF has been able to maintain some degree of policy sovereignty
Thus, it was only natural for Ethiopia to revise its policy on Eritrea, and try to mend relations, as diplomatic isolation does not work without allies. Within Ethiopia too, this has led to the euphoria of peace, love, reconciliation, and democracy. This has provided strong positive optics that should be built on.
For a long time, EPRDF has been able to maintain some degree of policy sovereignty. For this reason, EPRDF battled against IMF, World Bank, and other influences, and successfully managed to curve out economic policy sovereignty. As increasingly upsetting to the Western countries, Ethiopia’s voting behavior in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) especially related to Crimea/Ukraine and Syria were indicative of the sovereign strength of the Ethiopian government.
At the same time, EPRDF was able to enjoy significant level of cooperation with the USA and Europe on peace and security and other issues such as climate change. Maintaining the success of the new regional diplomacy in relation to peaceful resolution of disputes also requires care to ensure that Ethiopia maintains its policy sovereignty.
The EPRDF leadership under former Prime Minister Hailemariam failed to read the signals of the imminent US policy shifts. As early as 2010, the ‘Asia pivot’ signaled the shift in US policy towards China with indirect consequences to those considered allies. Embroiled in its internal small squabbles, EPRDF, and particularly TPLF, failed to pick-up these signals and accordingly deliberate and prepare itself for the implications of the shift in US policy. EPRDF has become the unintended target of US policy shift from war on terror to economic confrontation with China. Within EPRDF, the hardcore ideology of the Developmental State and sovereignty comes from TPLF and hence, TPLF became the target of this unforgiving pivot from the USA.
EPRDF’s current approach stands against the longstanding Ethiopian stance of neutrality in its diplomatic relations with Middle Eastern crises and competition between great powers. Now, Ethiopia is increasingly getting closer to the Saudi-led bloc. Eritrea is out of the diplomatic isolation, Egypt and Gulf countries have overrun, if not conclusively, the last obstacles in their effort to put the Horn of Africa under their sphere of influence. On the Nile River and GERD, the high moral and legal ground has been lost both internationally and regionally. Uganda, South Sudan, DRC, Burundi may backpedal on their pledge to sign the Comprehensive Framework Agreement for managing the Nile basin.
A looming crisis
Highly pragmatic in retaining and maintaining political power, EPRDF may survive the current internal ideological and organizational tremors. It may go through a metamorphosis of survival like before. Discovering a united vision among its coalition members will be critical in finding a new equilibrium. In the short-term, and as a tactical measure, coalition members of EPRDF may prefer to stick together. This way, EPRDF would probably fail to reinvent itself and remain as a nominal coalition, therefore unlikely to stand together at the next election. In the final analysis, lacking ideological dynamism and support from key Western allies, EPRDF will fail to revitalize to regain the dominance of the political and economic space it once enjoyed at national and regional level.
However, there are more compelling reasons to believe that lacking adequate dynamism and ideological cohesion to resuscitate it, EPRDF may fragment, with each coalition member seeking new coalitions on ideological basis.
The EPRDF parties are in a race to populism within their regional states
The EPRDF parties are in a race to populism within their regional states. The centripetal equilibrium of EPRDF is no more, as the principle of democratic centralism is debilitated. For instance, with strong democratic centralism, there was no open campaigning for positions. Aspirants always said they are soldiers that are ready to work wherever the party deploys them. This was part reality, part fiction, and now it has turned to a total fiction. To be sure there was always a whispering campaign for candidates, but EPRDF has now moved from whispering campaign to open social media campaign in its elections since the resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam. This decline of EPRDF’s command and control helps in exercising genuine federalism, and actually the functioning of some regional states look more like a confederal system.
For now, the only element holding EPRDF together is power and the responsibility associated with ruling a country. Further attempts to renew EPRDF may lead to referendums to change the constitution. Such popular votes may focus on the key constitutional provisions like Article 9, Article 39, and Article 40 with implications for the federal state structure, regional state boundaries, the parliamentary system, and procedures for constitutional amendments. However, a change of position on these provisions will mean entering a substantively post-EPRDF era.
The only element holding EPRDF together is power and the responsibility associated with ruling a country
More importantly, the introduction of the referendum to amend the constitution will be unconstitutional, unless the constitution is first amended as per Article 104. Amendment of such kind at this time may also face significant resistances from regional states and political actors.
This Congress is also held at a time where competitive politics of coalition is setting in without the necessary democratic institutional framework and public mindset. The ruling parties in these regional states, particularly ANDM (now ADP), OPDO (now ODP) and Southern Ethiopia Peoples Democratic Movement will face stiff competition from contending with perhaps more popular parties.
Tigray strongly supports the current constitution. In relative terms, the ruling party, TPLF, also enjoys popular legitimacy. Nonetheless, the region faces a serious democratic deficit, and its development is not on a par with other regional states. But in Tigray, the opposition parties are yet to garner sufficient popular support to challenge TPLF.
Politics in Ethiopia will soon become a dogfight between federalist and assimilationist, and between the Pan-Ethiopianist and absolutists. The change will occur without the necessary preparations for transforming the existing institutions to neutral and independent democratic ones capable of entertaining coalition politics. This risks the state’s stability.
EPRDF leaders are trying to ride three waves of populism: absolutist Ethiopianist, extreme ethnonationalist, and hyper Pan-Ethiopianists that have clashing end-states. Populism has now spread beyond the control of its creators. Rather, the waves are in control of the riders. EPRDF will fail to satisfy either of them, and in the process undermine the progress made so far, making the transition even more precarious.
With regional states driven by populism, the implications of such forces on security sector actors will be far reaching. Uncertainty and volatility may bring more instability and violence that might increase the current atrocities and frighten the private sector and foreign investment.
A long drawn-out internal struggle within EPRDF and with other political parties may undermine the single-minded focus that governments require in order to achieve the fast-paced delivery that is necessary to escape permanent poverty. With higher instability, delivery of public goods, EPRDF’s longstanding source of legitimacy, will deteriorate. Unless EPRDF is able to substitute performance legitimacy through popular legitimacy soon, then EPRDF faces defeat in electoral politics. EPRDF, as a coalition of forces of equality, will have a hard time adjusting to popular politics.
With regional states driven by populism, the implications of such forces on security sector actors will be far reaching
U.S. economist Paul Romer once said “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” Depending on the collective wisdom of the EPRDF leadership, this crisis, like before, could offer EPRDF another chance for revitalization. No one will benefit from defending the old EPRDF. In addition to external forces with hostile interest with Ethiopia, the old EPRDF was the source of much of the trouble the country faced and faces.
The status quo is not the nirvana some EPRDF leaders try to portray it as, and it will not last long. No useful purpose will be served by dwelling the mistakes of the past. Defending the historical and the status quo are not only losing fights, but also deflect the energy we need to search for new common ground for a consensus-based federal system.
Closure for many hurt by past violations is paramount so that they can play an active role in the future of Ethiopia. EPRDF leaders and supporters need to reject both defeatist siege mentality, prevent any isolationist tendencies, and above all avoid infantile Panglossian ideas. Sober analysis, strategic foresight, and a forward-looking stance could at least save the country, if not also EPRDF.
Five steps to save the federation
EPRDF has to communicate a clear blueprint for the changes it is introducing, and on how to handle the new political dispensation. To avert the negative implications of the new politics, the federal government and all regional states, and particularly the Houses of Peoples’ Representatives and Federation should urgently consider the following.
- Consensus-based constitutional federal system
The current constitution confers veto power to all regional state when it comes to substantive amendments of the constitution. Any amendment to the constitution should be initiated and ratified as prescribed under Article 104 and 105. Only the House of Peoples’ Representatives, the House of Federation or the Councils of Regional States could trigger constitutional amendments.
The constitution was not ratified by popular referendum, neither does it stipulate amendment through popular referendum. While a popular referendum may look democratic, in a constitutive process of diverse countries, referenda could degenerate to majoritarian rule, the very reason why Ethiopia and many other countries failed to effectively govern diversity, and opted for consensus democracy over majoritarian democracy. While amendments to the constitution are constitutionally permitted, amendment during such transitional period only festers political differences and could lead to constitutional crisis and even worse violent conflict.
- Establish, by an act of parliament, an inclusive National Dialogue, Truth and Reconciliation Commission
This must be created as a transitional pathway towards peaceful, democratic and prosperous Ethiopia. The first act of all participants in this process will be to officially declare cessation of all physical and verbal hostilities and to pledge to the peoples of Ethiopia to remain peaceful.
The success of the dialogue will be determined by the institutionalization of such a process, its impact on bringing necessary reforms in our political culture and all public institutions; the inclusiveness and political will of all actors, design and structure of process, and mechanisms for the implementation of the outcomes of the dialogue. Such institutionalized National Dialogue could serve as a big tent where all strands of opinion are represented under one roof to deliberate on major challenges of the country, forge a national consensus, and advance concrete actionable recommendation for institutional transformation in the country.
- Develop a nationwide pact on common interests
The National Dialogue needs to enhance tolerance, and respect for each other, and foster shared vision and unity of purpose around a constitutional democratic Ethiopia. In order to have an agreement on minimum common ground focusing on national agenda, the National Dialogue should come up with a pact on the vital interests of Ethiopia that foster the equality of cultures and territorial integrity and sovereignty of the country. This requires enlightened elite that thinks beyond ‘vanity of petty differences’ and political forces that are ready to compromise.
- Overhaul all democratic institutions to make them fit for transformation and competitive coalition-based political process
The urgent priority for now is a meritocracy-based vetting process for the officials leading and running the democratic institutions. These institutions play a critical role as shock absorbers in times of crisis. Theoretically autonomous entities such as the judiciary, parliament, electoral board, Human Rights Commission, military and Federal Police can all soften the blows on the bumpy road of the transition.
Constitutionalism rests on institutions that erect procedural safeguards, provide checks and balances, and create the separation of powers between the law-maker, law-adjudicator, and law-enforcer. They place constraints on the will of the people, taming the behavior of the government with regards to minority rights.
- Promote democratic citizenship and forge a unity of purpose
An empowered democratic citizenry is key to increasing the accountability of officials through constitutional democratic institutions. Ultimately building human rights-protective federalism would depend on empowered citizenship rather than sectarianism.
Striking the balance between the forces of unity and diversity, Ethiopia should spend its resources on building progressive federalism with an integrative and human-rights-protective agenda. In this regard the federal government has to make sure that Chapter Three of the constitution on human and democratic rights, both individual and group rights, is observed by all state and non-state actors.
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Main photo: Crowds at the 2016 Irreechaa festival that ended in tragedy, Bishoftu, Oct 2 2016, William Davison
Commentary amended on Oct. 5 to add more details to recommendation 4.
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