Ethiopian elite lost in electoral maze under Abiy’s gaze

Despite Ethiopia’s momentous challenges, there is little sign of corresponding action from the political elite, leaving the path open for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s potential rise and rise. 

In Ethiopia today, most political forces keep repeating the same mantra: we need to get everything in place for free and fair polls in 2020. Elections are heralded as the last crucial stepping-stone to the completion of a democratic transition that is believed to definitively turn the page on the authoritarian order and struggling ethnic federal system established in 1991.

Taking the long view, one might wonder whether holding elections on schedule and under acceptable conditions will really give birth to the new, fair, and stable order as promised, given the political fragmentation and polarization observed in Ethiopia today. In the short-term, however, this mantra raises two questions: Are the political parties publicly advocating for the election to go ahead as planned really committed to that stance? And are they acting as if it is their sincere desire?

While last year’s dismantling of the ‘TPLF system’ was lightning fast and radical, the construction of the framework needed to hold competitive elections is erratic and slow. Work was announced by the ‘old’ EPRDF during the height of the protests 18 months ago, but pushed as a priority shortly after Abiy Ahmed took office. Yet revising two of the three big anti-freedom laws (terrorism and media) is still ongoing, as is the revision of election laws and the regulatory framework for the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE).

The work on the electoral system hadn’t gone much further than a draft bill and the appointment of a new chairperson of the board. Agreement has only been reached on “the procedure to conduct and regulate the upcoming negotiations and discussions” between the government and the plethora of registered parties. Yet it is via the NEBE that Abiy Ahmed proposed to restart the dialogue between EPRDF and the opposition after the burial of the Political Parties Negotiations Forum, set up in January 2017. In late December, NEBE itself sounded the alarm: “delays in pre-election preparations may create hectic schedule to hold the much anticipated general elections in 2020.”

Sensitive census

The immensity of the task at hand may partly explain this procrastination. There are a lot of hurdles to overcome. The national census is planned for April and its outcome is crucial for credible elections. Highly sensitive issues are at stake.

Close to three million people are now internally displaced. The census will count the number of each “nations, nationalities and peoples”, which carries highly significant political and economic weight in a federal system. It will also assess the ethnic composition in mixed areas. But for the first time, no one will be forced to choose an ethnic identity, and can instead register as “Ethiopian” or of “mixed ethnic heritage”. This may prove confusing for the ethnic quota system.

Furthermore, the Constitution states that it is “on the basis of the census results” that “the boundaries of constituencies are determined”. This may appear as a recipe for continued ethnic conflicts and demographic rearrangements (read, ‘cleansing’); or ‘ethnic ownership’ of cities such as Addis Ababa, Dire Dawa, Harar, and Hawassa. Hence, will existing ethnic tensions prevent completion of the census, or, more likely, preclude its findings from being widely accepted?

In addition, the work of the newly created Administrative Boundaries and Identity Issues Commission, or the ongoing demand of different zones in the SNNP to become states, could impact the election’s organization. In particular, will the Sidama statehood claim complicate the election process, as it seems unlikely that the Sidama will accept a postponement of their presumed right to establish their own region. So far NEBE has not started to prepare for a referendum on this question, although they are required to do so within a year of the request, which was made in June/July. Sidama activists are demanding that the process must be obeyed. A separate Sidama state would add additional burdens on NEBE to prepare for elections in the southern region, as a new electoral map would need to be drawn.

Delay reaction

The herculean task ahead of the NEBE to put its house in order to facilitate a “free and fair ” election in just 15 months’ time has allegedly led to discreet discussions at the center to possibly postpone them for about six months until after the main rainy season. However, whatever they publicly say, for a substantial proportion of political forces, creating suitable conditions for timely elections does not genuinely seem a priority. This position is dictated by beliefs and/or interests.

Let us recall first that in the 2005 election, the only one under EPRDF to have been relatively free, people voted primarily for a party, embodied by a leader, and took practically no interest in the candidate representing their local electoral constituency. The vast majority probably did not even know the names of the local candidates. Thirteen years on, however, some strong representatives, linked with varying degrees to the opposition, have emerged locally, especially during the last few years of widespread protests. This time, voters may be more influenced by these figures than by party leaders in Addis Ababa. And, let’s not forget, the Prime Minister is not on the ballot; it is the House of People’s Representatives that elects the premier from among its members.

Opposition leader Beyene Petros (second row on left) listens to Abiy; Nov. 27, 2018; Office of PM

Some are convinced that elections can only occur as the culmination of a democratic transition. The recent proliferation of articles pleading for a postponement, for different reasons, is symptomatic of this trend. For example, they should only be held “after the public has regained its trust in the democratic institutions of the nation… There is a danger in allowing incumbents to stay in office beyond the mandated limit, but there is just as much peril in pushing forward with an election before the foundations for a democratic nation are laid.”

Building these new foundations by May 2020 is an impossible task, given the dearth of reforms completed so far and the disorganization and fragmentation of deeply conflicting political forces. So, how could a democratic transition be managed, according to those calling for elections to be postponed? For its promoters, by a transitional government only. The question of the elections should be shelved until comprehensive institutional reforms are completed and consolidated. But this logic returns us to the same obstacle: are the present political forces cohesive enough to reach a consensus on how trustworthy democratic institutions should be designed, when simply agreeing on an electoral roadmap has been so laborious?

Systemic opposition

Above all, too many factions and figures believe that elections on the due date and under current rules would be fatal. First among these are the “unitarians” or “pan-Ethiopianists” who prize “Ethiopianness” above all else. In private, they cite years of harassment, even prohibition, as a reason why they should be given ample time to rebuild their constituency and party platform and why the elections should be postponed. But their reasons go deeper. Some of them never accepted ethnic federalism. Yet the most important issue is their observation that radical ethno-nationalist parties currently dominate the political stage.

Some extremist positions are presented. To prevent the next elections being “dominated by over ninety percent of ethnic based parties”, there should even be a ban on “all ethnicity based political parties from participating in electoral politics” some even argue. Without going as far as this, the dominant current within this political segment is surreptitiously pushing to prevent the victory of a “block” of ethnic and resolutely ethnofederalist parties, and at the same time for measures to be taken against the growing insecurity in the country. They argue consistently for the establishment of a sort of special transitional regime. Parliament would be mothballed and the executive would govern by decree.

The new alliance created around Ginbot 7 is the spearhead of the “unitarians”. However, the situation is nothing like 2005, when the Amhara region, Addis Ababa, Dire Dawa, and parts of the South—in particular Gurage area—were their bastions. It is likely that they would still attract urban votes—Addis Ababa in particular—and from segments of the South, primarily Gurage. But the newly established National Movement for Amhara (NaMA) has the wind in its sails, partly as the ruling Amhara Democratic Party is widely discredited. The growth of Amhara nationalism would diminish Ginbot 7’s support in the region. Elsewhere, they would probably be even less popular, except in urban centers with strong Amhara—or rather ‘Ethiopianised’—populations.

Party moves

A similar scenario may also face Abiy’s Oromo Democratic Party (ODP). The stigma of being the EPRDF flag bearer may haunt it. We have not met any Ethiopian who is currently a die-hard defender of EPRDF; rather, the opposite—it is generally despised. The ODP political machine, for instance, is so disparaged that a majority of informed observers think the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), possibly in alliance with the Oromo Federalist Congress, might win a majority of federal seats in Oromia.

In the Southern Nation, Nationalities and Peoples Regional State (SNNPRS), the governing party, the Southern Ethiopian Peoples’ Democratic Movement (SEPDM) is a shambles, as the region’s integrity crumbles. Mismanagement, internal power struggles, the stepping down of former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn as chairperson, and a host of other issues, have left SEPDM in such disarray that most southern observers claim that it no longer de facto exists.

Paradoxically, the only EPRDF party that has more or less sustained its cohesion and regained its grassroots support is the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Strong criticism from the grassroots was articulated against the leadership for mismanagement, corruption and lack of delivery. Certain corrective measures have been undertaken, foremost of these the change of leadership. However, the turn of events elsewhere in Ethiopia, and the more or less open persecution of all things Tigrayan as a consequence of collective blame for the authoritarian streak of TPLF/EPRDF rule since 1991, has led the Tigrayan people to ‘circle the wagons’ for individual as well as collective protection.

Tigrayans are convinced that the only agent strong enough to provide this protection in the uncertain terrain Ethiopia is heading is the TPLF; hence its absolute dominance at the ballot box in 2020 seems guaranteed. The Tigrayan opposition parties Arena and Tand are in talks of a merger, also possibly including the Tigray People’s Democratic Movement. Although they may gather some protest votes, it seems unlikely they will pose any threat as a constituency level anywhere in Tigray.

In short, if the political landscape and electoral system remains the same and if a free and fair election is conducted, which is highly questionable as things stand today, then EPRDF—with the exception of TPLF in Tigray—can feel nothing but dread about the possibility of elections in 2020; and consequently Abiy Ahmed about his chances of continuing as Prime Minister.

Ambiguous Abiy

As on so many other points, Abiy Ahmed’s public position is ambiguous.

Heading a federalist party, he has nevertheless made repeated statements and moves which were godsends for the “unitarians”. Abiy’s emphasis on ‘medemer’ – Ethiopian ‘synergy’ or ‘oneness’, is permeating all his speeches, as well as his intentions to reconnect Eritrea, one way or the other, to Ethiopia; making both his own qeerroo constituency and Eritrean nationalists nervous.

And according to a report about the last session of the EPRDF Executive Committee, “the chairman of the ruling party does not seem to have made up his mind whether to let the national elections conducted on schedule.” His game is obviously to keep things vague in order to hold two irons in the fire, one in each camp, each totally opposed to each other on this subject. On the one hand, he has allegedly stated at a forum with 81 opposition parties that “constitutional amendment, if necessary, will only happen after first having a legitimately elected government with the mandate to govern.

On the other hand, there are multiple rumors about his intention to switch to a presidential system. He declared: “people in the Council of the EPRDF made me PM, even though there are 100 million Ethiopians. We need to open up the leadership to direct elections.” Apparently he recently asked the Attorney General’s Office to prepare a legal brief on this matter, and he all but admitted his ambitions in his recent first major interview with the international media. This would be the major card he could play, in fact his trump card, in order to stay in charge of the country, since there is no other national figure likely to overshadow him.

Bulcha Demeksa, a veteran Oromo figure who still has a certain political stature, has always advocated for a presidential system. It is gaining adherents in Oromia, in particular because the Oromo are the most numerous ethnic community and direct suffrage would increase their chances of getting one of their own to the pinnacle of government. A move to a presidential regime is also advocated by the “unitarians”, including Berhanu Nega, head of Ginbot 7, due to a belief it would have national unifying dynamic.

Federalist unity

At the other extreme, a pivot to a presidential system is rejected by all those who fought dearly for ethnic federalism and who believe that they would benefit under the current system. This is the case in particular for the resolutely federalist dominant camp—not to say confederalist forces—such as OLF, OFC, TPLF, and most parties from the so-called ‘peripheral regions’ of Afar, Somali, Benishangul-Gumuz and Gambella. Nevertheless, some of them, particularly among the former outlawed parties, are considering that a brief electoral postponement would be welcome to help them reinforce their positions.

In the face of this stalemate, the political class, whether in power or in the opposition, seems unwilling or unable to break it. There are absolutely fundamental disagreements among the political forces, mainly on the role of ethnicity and the degree of devolution in the federal system, and on the shift to neoliberalism. They lack sufficient cohesion and coherence to rise to most of the challenges they face. The autocratic rule of former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi undermined the collective leadership model of EPRDF after the 2001 split, and authoritarianism devastated the political opposition.

Ginbot 7 leader Berhanu Nega (center) listen to Abiy; Nov. 27, 2018; Office of PM

After Abiy Ahmed’s rise to power ended the wave of protests, there is a popular impetus and mobilization to move towards a liberal democratic system, similar to those in countries escaping from an authoritarian regime. However, the mismatch between this business-as-usual approach and the gravity of the country’s situation is striking.

At the federal level, the ruling group comes down to a handful of persons under the thumb of a Prime Minister who is the sole embodiment of power. He is hyperactive and hyper-visible, but is busy with routine tasks. Day after day, he receives foreign VIPs, travels frequently to foreign countries, speaks to various groups, inaugurates… But to the best of our knowledge, he has for instance yet to visit any of the IDP camps scattered across the country; and to tackle head-on the primary crisis of security in Ethiopia.

Instead the PM is focusing on his top priority of resuming high growth, running after potential investors, mainly foreigners, as if the political crisis is in the process of being resolved. Thus he acts in accordance with the analysis of the former government for which the root cause of unrest was the lack of jobs, mainly for the youth.

Collective irresponsibility

Addis Fortune noted an incongruity that “best describes Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.” Addressing an audience of Ethiopian financiers who expected to be discussing “the most important subject” in their eyes—the faltering economy—Abiy Ahmed asked them to put their hands in their pockets to contribute to two tourist amenities in Addis Ababa, together representing a sum of more than $1.2 billion. One of them, the Addis Ababa River Project, was officially launched by the PM’s Office on Feb. 21.

Lemma Megersa, President of Oromia, recently travelled to the Netherlands, accompanied by Gedu Andargachew, President of the Amhara region, “to familiarize with some of the Dutch companies active in Ethiopia.” The other ministers are largely invisible, except to some extent Workneh Gebeyehu, at Foreign Affairs. For example two new key ministers, the Minister of Peace, responsible, among other things, for all the security services, and the Minister of Defense, both with no previous experience in their field, are hardly visible in the public domain, although their portfolios are crucial.

The opposition leaders occasionally speak up here and there, mainly to complain about the slow pace of reform, but seem incapacitated or powerless to assume an active position as checks-and-balances to power and push efficiently for genuine democratization. At the same time, these same leaders, whatever their allegiance, are quite ready to claim that the house is on fire, that Ethiopia is on the edge of the precipice and at risk of sinking into a Yugoslavia scenario.

An Amhara-Tigray cold war is in effect

True, the agreement reached between OLF and ODP to put an end to their confrontations, notably in Wollega, sends a positive signal. However, it remains to be seen whether it will be applied by all the Oromo Liberation Army units, many of which are semi-autonomous, and whether the young Oromo activists who recently took up arms to form the mass of the combatants in Wollega will agree to disarm. The Somali region is beginning to heave again. There is a renewal of tensions between Afar and Issa. The conflict—and reportedly mass evictions and killings —between the Amhara authorities and the Quemant is still ongoing, without any official comment or intervention from the federal government.

In Tigray, the Raya grievance remains tense. Concomitantly NaMA and Amhara nationalists are mobilizing to reclaim Wolkait and Raya areas of Tigray, as they are seen as Amhara lands. In addition, the incorporation of Metekel Zone into Benishangul-Gumuz after 1991 is criticized on the ground that it was historically part of Gojjam. A cold war between Amhara and Tigray is in effect, as their border is securitized and crossing it is restricted, as local Amhara vigilantes erratically prevent personnel and goods going to and from Tigray; most has to be re-routed through Afar region. Former chief of staff Tsadkan Gebretensae, a TPLF veteran thrown out of the party after the 2001 split, known for his levelheadedness, has declared that: “a war [between Tigray and the Amhara region] seems at the zenith of the chaotic situation.”

Displacement activity

Ethnic confrontations, far from diminishing or even stabilizing, are becoming worse. The number of IDPs driven out by conflict has risen from 1.47 to 1.77 million in the last two months. “The country registered one of the fastest growing internally displaced population (IDPs) in the world in 2018” A recent report puts even this figure at least 2.4 million: “more than 80 per cent of the at least 3 million IDPs in the country… cited inter-communal violence as the primary driver of displacement”.

Although information on the ground is patchy, not a day goes by without news of civilians being killed here or there by unidentified “gunmen” or by the security forces. Arms-trafficking is exploding, and reportedly gunshots are heard during the nights in cities across Amhara region as people are testing their newly purchased arms. The prices for Kalashnikovs and handguns are skyrocketing. The police, whether federal or regional, have ceased to play their full role. The army seems to be the only solution in the event of significant disorder. But there are also some worrying signs that the new “Republican Guard” special force may develop in parallel to the armed forces and is commanded directly by the Prime Minister.

The economy has ground to a halt: the 8 percent growth forecast for the current fiscal year is likely an over-estimate for two main reasons: insecurity, and as Abiy has decided to turn his back to the developmental state strategy to embrace neo-liberalism. But this U-turn is so sudden and unprepared that its management is chaotic. A close observer of Ethiopia’s economic performances and development since the Derg period draws a parallel of the radical policy shifts seen in the economic sector with what happened after Trump’s takeover in U.S.. Whatever policy Obama had pursued, even if it was working well, was thrown out regardless. Apparently the same is happening in Addis. Ethiopian neo-liberalists are called home and given authority to redesign the economic sector. The brain behind Ethiopia’s industrial park program, Arekbe Oqubay, is reportedly sidelined, and with him institutional memory is lost.

The dollar is shooting up again on the black market (now c.37/38 to the dollar, while official exchange is 28), exports have declined by 10 percent and FDI has fallen by half compared with the same period last year. Ethiopia will not be able to service its loans without restructuring, the industrial parks are failing to keep their promises in terms of both exports and jobs.

Divided rule

So the political class recognizes that the situation is dire, but does not take proportional action. It seems neither willing nor capable of rising to the challenges—to prioritise—but jumps from one issue to the next without proper empirical underpinned policy planning, accountable decision-making processes, and speedy institutionalization. It is hanging in the air, as if it would be in charge of a virtual country, a country in a tranquil situation. A smart but disillusioned observer close to the political class, including the top players, reveals that they are locked in “pathetic short-term political calculations.”

In this flux, Abiy is said to have informed the EPRDF Executive Committee meeting that the opposition is “highly fragmented and occupied by mutual squabbleshence little worry about their capacity to challenge the ruling party on the electoral front”, which could thus expect “a landslide victory”. This harks back to a similar statement a month before the 2005 elections, when Meles Zenawi was asked by French officials during his visit in Paris about the election outcome. He smiled and responded: “It will be a formality…”

All observers agree that the EPRDF is more divided and polarized than any time before. Even key leaders and politburo members of EPRDF admit in private that “the party is dead”, even if it is the only surviving power pole at national level. By way of illustration, although they are supposed to form part of the same coalition, ADP and TPLF are at daggers drawn.

The party is dead

The Tigray assembly, composed exclusively of TPLF members, yet with two ministers in the federal government, declared the formation of the Administrative Boundaries and Identity Issues Commission—an institution backed by the head of the government and approved by parliament—to be unconstitutional and void in matters related to Tigray.

An arrest warrant issued against Getachew Assefa, former chief of the federal security services, has not been executed, and Getachew remains a member of TPLF’s politburo and at large. Most recently, at the Yekatit celebrations commemorating the 44th anniversary of TPLF, the chair Debretsion Gebremichael made his most critical statement against the federal government and the PM to date; calling all federalist forces to stand together against the chauvinist rule in the palace. He stressed that TPLF and Tigray will take all necessary measures to defend the constitutional framework and Tigray region.

It is no surprise, then, that the lines of authority that EPRDF maintained between the federal government and the regions, as well as within the regions, have disappeared to the point that in many places the exercise of power is no longer decentralized, but atomized. In some places, local authorities have been chased out of office by local vigilante groups, are mainly ceremonial because they are delegitimized by the population, or, when they continue to effectively administer, they do largely what they want. With one key exception: Tigray; TPLF maintains law and order and normal public administration throughout the region.

Premier ambition

If the electoral framework is derailed, the compass which sets the only common course of the political leaders in general at least officially, would disappear. Ethiopia would enter into unknown territory. But this could strengthen Abiy’s hand. Objectively, the longer the political class remains divided and impotent, the stronger his position as the irreplaceable leader will become.

Speculations about his ultimate intentions continue. In particular, the question of whether his ostensible reformism is rooted in sincere and sustained conviction, or is instead the card he played to attain power by riding the wave of the Qeerroo’s anti-authoritarian protest? He is rightly credited with having rapidly shattered the yoke that was weighing on Ethiopia’s neck, and radically opened up democratic space.

However, a double note of caution is in order. First, the high-speed liberalization he introduced had been sought and initiated by his predecessor: the main lines of reform were decided at the EPRDF Executive Committee meeting in December 2017. Second, his conversion to liberalism is very recent. Like his partner Lemma Megersa, and like the number three at the top Workneh Gebeyehu, he spent a large part of his career in the security services of a particularly repressive regime.

Opposition politicians in discussion with Abiy; Nov. 27, 2018; Office of PM

Moreover, it is not known whether Abiy initially opposed the brutal repression exerted on Oromo protesters from 2015 onwards. As a Member of Parliament, he did not vote against the proclamation of the first state of emergency. It was only after the stampede at the Oromo Irreecha Festival caused dozens, perhaps hundreds, of deaths in October 2016 that he performed a U-turn to endorse the demands of the Oromo protests.

Abiy Ahmed doesn’t always make a big deal about accountable government, administrative procedures and the rule of law; or at least he turns a blind eye when it is challenged. For example, Abdi Iley, the former president of Somali region, ruled in an unacceptable way. But the federal army couldn’t intervene legally to depose him if not requested by the Somali regional government, which of course did not happen. So the intervention was, de jure, unconstitutional.

Old tricks

Furthermore, the constitutionality of the Administrative Boundaries and Identity Issues Commission is also highly questionable. Likewise, the prosecutions for corruption and human rights violations focused on former leaders may appear to have an ethnic bias as most of them are Tigrayan, and some old-class ‘TPLF loyalists’ such as Bereket Simon. Yet there are suspicions that are at least as serious hanging over senior figures who remain untouched. As a result, the neutrality and independence of the judicial system remains in doubt, as it can be perceived as being used as a political revenge tool. The state media has been used to condemn the individuals arrested before they even got to court.

While Tigrayans were overrepresented at many levels of the state apparatus and in public or semi-public companies, and while an adjustment of the ethnic balance is justified, there is no apparent legal basis for the seemingly targeted purge they are experiencing, while currently serving Oromo officials known to be part of the ancient regime are left untouched. Despite appealing endlessly to “medemer”, the ruling power risks the same error for which its predecessor, the TPLF, has paid such a heavy price: to cleave instead of to reconcile.

The institutions don’t seem to play a leading role

Abiy Ahmed clearly favours the role of individuals over the work of institutions. Despite a Parliamentary constitution, the representativescheer and sing to the tune of the incumbent in the executive as if they are guests at a wedding”. He makes spectacular and mostly unexpected appointments to key positions, showing an indisputable willingness to open things up. But the question is not only whether the appointees have the required skills: are they given the resources, political backing and means to revitalize the often moribund institutions in their charge? He has created multiple committees of eminent figures charged with proposing solutions to the most burning issues, rather than to task the institutions concerned with these problems. They are filled with members recommended by him for forgone approval by the Parliament,

In particular, the institutions don’t seem to play a leading role in tackling the major question of ethnic conflict. Most of the attempts at mediation, which have not yet produced lasting results, are entrusted to groups of elders, religious leaders, etc. The recent agreement between the government and Dawud Ibsa’s OLF was organized, driven, and underwritten by the Abba Gadaa Council, the senior body of the traditional Oromo system of governance, which has no constitutional existence. Dawud Ibsa went so far as to announce that the OLF combatants would be handed over to “the Oromo people and the Abba Gadaa”, in other words not to the established state institutions.

The slide towards the personalization and deinstitutionalization of power seems apparent. Apart from Abiy Ahmed’s evident ambition, another factor may be at work. Abiy Ahmed, like the two other key leaders Lemma Megersa and Workeneh Gebeyu, is a fervent Pentecostalist. Pentecostalism is a doctrine with a profoundly individualistic vision, which perceives the achievement of required change much more as a personal accomplishment than a collective enterprise. Such a worldview may also influence his governance thinking.

Illiberal democrat?

Given such a level of complexity, confusion and open conflict, any prediction on the way forward for Ethiopia would be bravado more than ever. But three assessments and one question may be derived. In the present political and legal environment, could the elections lead to an effective winner? Here is the core of the problem. The probability that Abiy and the EPRDF would be defeated in 2020 is high, assuming it is a “free and fair” process. The possibility that another consolidated coalition could rise to power is low. Hence, the likely outcome would, if a democratic vote occurs, be a hung parliament without any strong coalition achieving a majority.

If so, there is a risk that the gate could be open for Abiy to assert himself as the sole vehicle to prevent Ethiopia entering into this unknown territory—a prospect that would increase if there is a renewed drive to convert the EPRDF into a unified party under Abiy; with or without TPLF or others in the federalist camp. Then a sort of “illiberal democracy” could emerge, dominated by a benevolent and modernizing firm-handed leader, a contemporary remake of the “enlightened despot” or, to draw on Ethiopian history, the “Big Man”, the teleq säw. He would rely for his acceptance on a relative tolerance of dissidence, crushed under the previous regime, on a return to order, and on hoped-for growth, revitalized by economic liberalization.

There is no quick fix

A recent article by Messay Kebede, a notable opponent of ethnic federalism, is symptomatic of this broader call for something like this. Faced with ethnic parties that seek only to “foment disorder and violence to achieve their true goals,” faced with rising insecurity, Abiy Ahmed and EPRDF are the only game in town. Certainly, “Abiy and his supporters may well be compelled to resort to authoritarian methods.” But “authoritarianism is not always a negative outcome so long as it continues to promote the order of achievement,” so long as it is used by “reforming” and “modernizing” “nationalist elites” “to promote a social order upholding achievement”.

Popular concerns are increasing about the government’s apparent powerlessness to curtail the growing climate of violence, as is the disillusionment of the literati and civil society elites. The advocates of a classic model of liberal democratization feel increasingly impotent. They believe they can do nothing other than support Abiy and keep silent over the multiple criticisms that they level at him in private, because they are convinced that to express them in public, or to mobilize their adherents, would simply throw oil on the fire. One of them sums up their dilemma in the following way: “Abiy is in the driving seat of the bus; if he is pushed out, no one will be able to replace him; the bus will end up in the ditch.”

There is thus no easy answer or quick fix to the predicament Abiy, EPRDF and Ethiopia are in. If the Prime Minister chooses to lean on his personal popularity and reinforce his position in the driving seat, could he obtain and sustain support from enough of the political spectrum? And could he also bring on board the army and the security forces, and the general population, in particular the young protesters that helped bring him to power, so that the bus would continue unsteadily along its treacherous course?

Query or correction? Email us

Article published in partnership with openDemocracy

Main photo: Abiy Ahmed talking to government and party leader from Afar region,  Nov. 19, 2018; Office of Prime Minister

Published under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. Cite Ethiopia Insight and link to this page if republished. 

Related Insight

Feb. 12, Ethiopia uncorked

Jan. 9, TPLF hegemony has ended, but EPRDF power struggle is just beginning

Dec. 16, Violent Qemant dispute fueling explosive Amhara-Tigray divide

Nov. 28, As Southern Nations break free, pressure mounts on EPRDF

Oct. 21, Ethiopia: Climbing Mount Uncertainty

We need your support to deliver news from across Ethiopia

Please help fund an Ethiopia Insight reporter

Become a patron at Patreon!

About the author

René Lefort

René has been writing about sub-Saharan Africa since the 1970s and reported on the region for French newspapers. He is now a researcher and publishes in academic titles such as The Journal of Modern African Studies.

About the author

Kjetil Tronvoll

Kjetil is professor of peace and conflict studies and Research Director of International Studies at Bjørknes University College, Oslo. He has been researching and publishing on politics, conflicts, and human rights in Ethiopia and Eritrea since the late 1980s.


  • I enjoyed reading the article. Great work, thanks!
    One have to understand today’s Ethiopia as its ambitious to flourish into political and economic democracy without building,having and experiencing the necessary cultures for it. As I see it right now, religion and political governance are mixed in the administering system, and for all difficult man’s work we are asking the divine’s help. I remain unconvinced in that department!

  • Very detailed and insightful, but totally flat on their view on ethnic federalism. It was imposed, with not one ounce of study, by two regional groups, TPLF and OLF, in 1991. For TPLF it was the old divide and loot, also revenge Menelik divided Tigre I divide Shewa, while for OLF to create a fake Oromo region out of thin air. Just cant chop a third of the US call it Hispania, thou 5 states were swallowed from Mexico by the Anglo Preston Scott, got it? The people were never asked, because the overwhelming majority would have rejected it. The idea was to impose it, preach their poison to a newer generation and hope it will take root. But these kinds of evil ideologies, no matter how grand they might look, in the end the bitter end, they totally fail. As an example, the Nazi system in the 1930s, and the seventy year old Soviet totalitarianism that eventually collapsed under the weight of its own fake lies. There are no people called Tigray, it’s a region just like Begemeder, Wallaga, Shewa, Wello, Arsi, and Keffa. The people are Tigre. If you want to talk about Oromo, Amara, Guragae, i.e. ethnic, show a little bit more knowledge and call them by their real name, Tigre. Shewa…..20 million strong, a thousand years old, united and indivisible, we will fight until the end to reestablish our unity and integrity viciously chopped up into four pieces by these hateful ethnic regional parties. That is the nuclear bomb, you have not even scratched in your article.

    • fake lies? Is there genuine lies? Take a deep breath and look at the political issues of ethiopa, from political angles. Departing from the 3 thousand years of Boko Haram like system and entering into the comity of Nations seems to be presenting problems. I’ll remain hopeful that Ethiopia shall overcome the dilemma relatively in short period of time. Cheers!

  • I hope Ethiopia can successfully find a course that is best for their people. This people of this country and others in the region have suffered for many decades because of being poorly run and stifled by corruption. The people deserve better.

  • One of the very rear articles which venture out of their comfortable zone of hypocrisy and pretention and call the spade spade!
    Good courage!

  • I’m an Ethiopian in origin. When I read the article, I thought, I was reading from someone who grew up in Ethiopia or been a member of a party in the country, but I was surprised to know the authors are not from the country. It is really detailed & put all the facts about the current situation in Ethiopia. Wow! Well done!

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.