When regional powers battled for control of the kingdom in the 18th and 19th centuries, historians called it the Age of Princes. As the EPRDF turns fratricidal, is Ethiopia now entering its Age of Parties?
Since it came to power as a rebel movement in 1991, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front, under the watchful guidance of its Tigrayan core, has been an overwhelmingly powerful political force.
The three other member parties have been largely subservient to the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which imposed its vision, dogma, and policies on the front, and thus the country.
But following the past two years of resistance in the most-populous regions, Amhara and Oromia, TPLF hegemony has crumbled and its formerly junior partners are assertive.
Yet the resulting political jujitsu among squabbling EPRDF siblings is adversely affecting the lives of millions of Ethiopians.
Angered by lost privilege and power, TPLF elements are fomenting conflict in Qemant populated areas of Amhara to undermine the Amhara Democratic Party (ADP), and flirting with the Oromo Liberation Front in Oromia to challenge that state’s now ascendant rulers.
ADP and the Oromo Democratic Party (ODP) hit back by exposing in the media the crimes of TPLF officials such as Getachew Assefa and his deputies at the National Intelligence and Security Service. ADP is also openly supporting the identity questions in Wolqait-Tegede and Raya to demonstrate to Amhara people that it is no more the servant of TPLF.
The Qemant question is an ADP-TPLF flashpoint, but the issues are obscured by TPLF propaganda and destabilization. The 2016 protest in Gondar that ignited the Amhara protests was a watershed moment in recent developments. Besides the demonstration, the stay-home protest that eventually paralyzed the regime started there. In addition, by showing solidarity to the protests in Oromia, it took the struggle to the next stage. Since the start of the resistance in Gondar, the TPLF’s influence has been waning day-by-day, so, is has been trying to pit residents of the Gondar area against each other.
Identity is fluid
Currently, there is no linguistic or cultural difference between Amhara and Qemant and settlements are mixed. Centuries old intermarriage, movement of people and urbanization has resulted in an intermingled linguistically homogeneous society. The case of Qemant and Amhara is just like two Americans who trace their ancestry to different European countries. Their forefathers might have spoken different tongues and differ in culture, but they do not.
EPRDF under the leadership of the TPLF was the government of minorities. Being identified as the member of majority ethnicity like the Amhara or Oromo was perceived to place someone at a disadvantage. Therefore, some Ethiopians were eager to play-up their minority status, even if they were predominantly Amhara or Oromo. But with the waning of TPLF supremacy, such tactics are no longer required, and it might even be a dangerous move in practice considering the rising ethno-nationalist sentiment among the majority groups.
Identity is fluid in many inter-regional border areas and Amhara and Tigray in particular. The 1991 border demarcation that ignores the historical and natural boundaries between the two has led to bitter controversy. In 1991, a triumphant TPLF was in the heady mood of a victor who grabbed anything it could. But it bit off more than it can chew by incorporating adjacent areas of Gondar (Wolqait-Tegede) and Wollo (Raya) into Tigray. It apparently didn’t consider the long-run ramifications of its action.
In its heyday the TPLF could dictate almost anything to its subordinates. ADP (ANDM), a lapdog since its inception, was not in a position to object to the annexation; it was more inclined to support it to show its loyalty. But with the power shift, things are changing dramatically.
Brothers at arms
TPLF’s contempt towards ADP and both parties willingness put up a fight is a dangerous development. Abiy’s ODP (OPDO) and Oromo ethno-nationalists see the scrap between ADP and TPLF as a great opportunity to weaken their two rivals. They believe that a struggle between the two would clear the way for ODP’s absolute control of the central government.
ODP and ADP have been taking a good cop-bad cop approach to their dealings with TPLF. While ADP is the bad cop that aggressively gave media coverage to the crimes of TPLF officials, ODP was the good cop that showed restraint, until recently. It is only after the TPLF accused the incumbents of violating the constitution at rallies in Tigray that ODP shot back with a program that showed victims of torture on national television.
Amid this internal rivalry, the EPRDF parties have lost a clear unifying political ideology. Revolutionary democracy has already become revelatory kleptocracy. It is no more a secret that multi-billion dollar projects like the Renaissance Dam are plagued by mismanagement and party conglomerates like EFFORT are more a means of exploitation and extraction than competitive and innovative entities. Most of their wealth came from avoiding taxes, winning government contracts without competition, getting prime urban land on the cheap, dodging loan repayments, and similar other preferential treatment by the government.
Amidst the maelstrom, Abiy seems intent on establishing himself as supreme leader for the foreseeable. The introduction of his Republican Guard is reminiscent of the notorious “Abiyot Tibeka” (the Amharic phrase for Revolutionary Guard) of Mengistu Hailemariam and Meles Zenawi’s infamous Agazi commando force.
A powerful Prime Minister has an Achilles Heel
Both previous strongmen used such units to unleash ruthless attacks on rivals. It seems Abiy is taking a page out of their handbooks. There is no clarity about his new personal protection force; the news of its formation and its televised drill was a bolt from the blue. We will see if it is used responsibly or if it will become “Abiy/ot Guard II”.
Abiy understands that Ethiopia’s political culture is conducive to the rise of a strongman and he is thriving on it. But this powerful Prime Minister has an Achilles Heel. Even if he has widespread popular support in Amhara, Addis Ababa and the South, he and his party is yet to get such support from Oromia, the regional state his party rules. OLF is standing in his way. To win the hearts and minds of Oromos, Abiy has been handling OLF with kid gloves, and the latter exploited the situation.
After entering the country in 2018 following the power shift, OLF is strengthening its force in all parts of Oromia and its commanders appears determined to match the firepower of the central government. It is recruiting and training new fighters in areas under its control. Recently its fighters clashed with government forces and its leaders gave defiant press statements. To quote Dawud Ibsa, OLF leader, “There were conflicts in Sellalie, Bale, Guji and eastern Wollega but the major war is going on in western Wollega.”
Selalie is in central Ethiopia, Bale in the south east, Guji in the south and Wollega in the west. It is clear that OLF fighters are entrenched throughout Oromia and in bordering areas that it has long had designs on. Alemu Sime, a top ODP official, accused the emboldened OLF fighters, saying they’d killed officials and taken western Oromia out of control of the government and started to tax people.
With the strong political support it enjoys in parts of western Oromia, OLF is in a good position in its challenge ODP both on the battlefield and at the ballot box. In the upcoming election, there is a chance that OLF could jeopardize the political life of Abiy and his party in Oromia, and by extension in Ethiopia.
Cognizant of the danger, Abiy might be tempted to change the parliamentary system of the country into a presidential system. Other Oromo political parties have previously shown their appetite for such a change. For example, in the 2005 election political debate, the founder and leader of Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement Bulcha Demeksa argued for a presidential system and made it clear that is his party’s aim because the Ethiopian people wanted to directly elect their leader.
Other Oromo ethno-nationalists may also prefer that, but they might want to wait until after the coming national census, which can be used to legitimize their false claim of Oromos comprising half the population. According to the last census in 2007, Oromos are 34 percent of the population, but elite ethno-nationalists have a record of disseminating incorrect data.
For example, Ezekiel Gebissa, a history professor at Kettering University, claimed that “the Oromo constitute about 50 percent of the population”. Similarly, Awol Kassim Allo, a law lecturer at Keele University in the U.K., said: “Oromos makeup more than almost 40 percent of Ethiopia’s population” for CNN on March 7, 2018.
Under the leadership of ODP, there is a possibility that the upcoming census would be tampered with and so such falsehoods legitimized. Once done, they would push for a presidential system, or a parliamentary system that guarantees at least half of the seats for their ethnicity.
The commission must take utmost care
But changing the system requires amending the constitution and amending the constitution will not be a walk in the park. The founding document of the federation is in fact a bone of contention among Ethiopian elites.
Currently, both Tigrayan and Oromo ethno nationalists want the existing constitution, which was primarily designed by TPLF and OLF, to stay untouched. Whereas the Amhara argue that they were not represented when the constitution was drafted and adopted. Among the Amhara, the constitution is merely the political document of TPLF and OLF that doesn’t take into account their interest.
If there is any constitutional amendment, the Amhara would fight to gain their lost territories of Wolqait-Tegede, Raya and Metekel (currently part of Benishangul-Gumuz region) among others. Amending the constitution means compromising such competing interests and it would be difficult to do it before elections considering they are less than 18 months away.
If you are wondering why the border commission was created, Abiy and his coterie know that it is dangerous to amend the constitution without addressing that issue. But the border disputes cannot be solved without changing the constitution. It is like the chicken-and-egg causality dilemma.
In addition, the border commission could further complicate the problem due to a lack of experience and historical, geographical and political awareness, or even due to some short-sighted political goal. The commission must take utmost care. There are also those, most of them TPLF supporters, who raise a question about its constitutionality.
The Age of Parties?
Many people think that EPRDF has somehow survived the popular revolt of the past three years. And EPRDF has indeed survived—but in name only. The balance of power, ideology, and relationship among member parties has changed significantly and permanently.
ODP under Abiy is enjoying immense power in central government, but OLF is beating them at home. Unlike ODP, ADP has no strong contender in Amhara region, as the National Movement of Amhara (NaMA) is a party created with the blessing of ADP. NaMA is more of the youth branch of reformed ADP than an adversary. NaMA’s leadership also lacks experience. In the short run the two would cooperate rather than compete, but with the aging of the leadership of ADP and gaining of political experience by NaMA, the latter could become the former’s Frankenstein.
Moreover, EPRDF in general, and ADP in particular, are in soul-searching mode in terms of ideology and their future strategy, and forthcoming shifts could bring unexpected conflicts of interest.
Coming to the EPRDF’s southern wing, it is suffering from an inherent weakness of internal rivalry among different ethnic groups in Southern Nations regional state. Most zonal administrations in the area are demanding their own state. Meanwhile, the ruling parties of the five non-EPRDF regions seek a seat at the top table that they have long been denied.
Isayas is not concealing his hostility to TPLF
For the TPLF, the issue of Wolqait-Tsegede and Raya is a nightmare. As if that is not enough, its officials’ crimes are haunting the party. In addition, an ailing leadership is struggling to keep-up with political developments.
Most of the TPLF top guns prospered in the past two decades and they will lose a lot if the situation in the country gets out of control. The location of Tigray, far from the political and geographic center, and the much smaller size of TPLF’s constituency compared with ADP and ODP, puts TPLF at a disadvantage. After it lost federal power, TPLF is no more punching above its weight. But, taking into account the financial, intelligence and military resources it amassed in the last 27 years, it won’t go down without a fight.
It is already undermining both ODP and ADP at home, but TPLF’s gambit could backfire as economic action including blocking roads could intensify and power lines may also be targeted. Most electricity is generated outside Tigray and has to cross Amhara.
Things could escalate and fracture, especially with the inflammatory addition of Isayas Afeworki to the equation. Forgotten and desperate, Eritrea’s autocrat never thought that he would have such a golden opportunity. His legacy as Eritrea’s liberation hero and founding father was tainted by his authoritarian rule and his fall into TPLF’s trap, which alienated and impoverished Eritrea for two decades. Isayas is not concealing his hostility to TPLF and wouldn’t hesitate to avenge his humiliation. His legacy will be determined by how he plays this last game to the long-term advantage of his country.
The political tit-for-tat among EPRDF parties shows it is no longer a unified front that works for a common goal with a shared ideology. It is a collection of factions engaged in medieval-style political intrigue in order to become the country’s dominant force. Ethiopians are likely to suffer increasingly as the struggle intensifies.
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Main photo: From l-r, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed with the leaders of Tigray, Debretsion Gebremichael, and Amhara, Gedu Andargachew; Ethiopian government
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Oct. 21, Ethiopia: Climbing Mount Uncertainty