Viewpoint

Move fast and break things

The Prime Minister’s tactics of populism, appeasement, and disruption have gone as far as they can in this complex political landscape

A few months after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed assumed office, a BBC journalist asked him “are you the man to unite Ethiopia?” He breezily replied, “of course I am, no doubt about it.”

Subsequently, he injected Ethiopia with hope, and undertook a bold program of renewal. Yet despite his messages of optimism and unity, the country remains divided, maybe even more so, and major challenges remain.

Abiy is a leader of multiple characters rather than a steady manager like his predecessor Hailemariam Desalegn. In his inaugural speech he promised to transform governance and transition to genuine democracy. He brought a different flavor to EPRDF Ethiopia where narratives were repeated consistently at every level of the state structure. He spoke differently, he acted differently.

The period, however, has been complex. Amid the euphoria, it provided space for old grievances to re-emerge, fundamental contradictions to surface, and created a different type of conflict.

One year on, it is time to take stock of what went well, what did not, and consider what the future might hold.

Fixer

Abiy was fast in fixing urgent problems. He was quick to admit past state human rights abuses and he went far further than Hailemariam’s apology, even calling his own government a “terrorist”. He acknowledged the constitution was not respected and abuses rampant. He released the vast majority of political prisoners, allowed exiled dissidents to return, sometimes to a hero’s welcome, and promoted women and opposition leaders.

Quick fixes buy time, and that is what the Prime Minister got.

His actions convinced diverse actors, or at least sufficiently confused them, to give him a chance. The pan-Ethiopian camp embraced him for his unity rhetoric and anti-TPLF positions. Oromo nationalists considered him one of their own. Ethno-nationalists appreciated his perceived commitment to federalism. The West embraced him as a liberal reformer. The public liked his populist messages, freshness, and easy-going style. And with that, he was able to effectively avert, or perhaps delay, a worsening crisis.

Integral to his initial consolidation of power was a series of bold measures to oust TPLF from power, including from the military and national intelligence (NISS). His popularity soared. He was portrayed as the only viable leader, by his party, the public, and activists.

Popular support is fickle

His appointments and appeals to the diaspora and others gave him currency among groups that felt sidelined or had been dubbed hostile, including the business elite and intellectuals. Lidetu Ayalew, former opposition leader, said at a public discussion: “Dr Abiy has become the leader of the country, the leader of the ruling party, and the leader of the opposition all at the same time.”

Still, popular support is fickle, and elite support even more so, especially when based on motivated reasoning. We are already witnessing impatience and Abiy’s popularity diminishing. Furthermore, there is a serious risk that Abiy has permanently alienated potential strategic allies in exchange for short-term support. He has done very little to co-opt TPLF whose experience, at least, could have been an asset. His condemnation of EPRDF rule, calling it 27 years of darkness, negatively impacted the morale of party cadres and its machinery. Opportunist support from an urban elite with no political base is proving to be inadequate compensation.

His big-tent politics risk emboldening everyone without a clear set of rules, including Derg remnants and secessionists that were more or less neutralized. Getachew Reda, TPLF Executive Committee member, recently said such actions “have deprived the on-going transition moral foundation, because people who came back with pardons are acting like victors with limited incentives to act and behave democratically.”

Reformer

The problems that Abiy confronts are wide-ranging and complicated. They include a closed political space, rampant unemployment and inequality, intense competition for power and resources, and the politicization of ethnicity in a poorly managed federation. These issues, underpinned by increased social media use, and an intra-EPRDF power struggle, are grave.

EPRDF was committed to address them through deep renewal, but this only became real after Abiy took charge.

The peace deal with Eritrea is his most eye-catching success so far. Although much remains to be done to ensure the agreement is sustained, it could transform the region. The decision to revise repressive laws, including infamous anti-terrorism, civil society and media legislation, are tangible, much-needed measures. Equally important is how the legal reforms are being carried out. Ethiopian professionals, including activists that suffered from former laws, are drafting the revisions. While this is positive, it runs the risk of marginalizing the officials tasked with implementation.

Abiy’s government opened up the state for citizens, not just cadres. He invited professional elites to join government. He boldly appointed personalities that were previously not even allowed into the country as members of commissions and committees. This created a new wave of inspiration for budding technocrats, something EPRDF failed at. A young university student told me a few days ago that now she can imagine herself in public service, even as a minister.

There is no unity of purpose and action

Still, it is difficult to describe the character of the change. One year in, the reforms are confusing. There is no consensus among proliferated actors on what the process and goal is. Many have called for a roadmap, although Abiy has dismissed the idea. Mesfin Negash, a formerly exiled journalist, wrote in August the need for a blueprint that states the goal of the transition, the process, and the rules of the game. He argued that it is not enough that we trust Abiy and his team; we need the roadmap for accountability and predictability.

Abiy presents the reform and his role differently depending on the audience. At times, he asserts that he has a mandate to rule; at others he acts like leader of a transitional government, ushering the country to free and fair elections. He gives the impression that all issues are on the table for negotiation, including constitutional ones, such as the parliamentary federal system itself.

This lack of clarity creates inefficiency. There is no unity of purpose and action throughout the various tiers of party and government. It also creates different expectations among the opposition, who all seem to support the change, but have varying understandings of it.

Abiy with former Foreign Minister Workneh Gebeyehu and Oromia president Shimelis Abdissa; Feb. 20; PMO

Institutionalization is another issue. True, Ethiopian institutions are weak, inefficient, and lack public trust. So Abiy has created commissions and committees instead. The boundary commission has a mandate-conflict with the House of Federation, and the peace and reconciliation commission could have been established under the new Ministry of Peace.

He has created a very strong Office of the Prime Minister, at times compromising the role of other ministries. Experts are hired with donor funds, with some signs of nepotism, rather than motivating existing staff, which compromises morale. Evidence suggests that political transitions are most sustainable if done through institutions. The government needs to fix misfiring institutions such as the House of Federation and Ministry of Peace, ensure they regain public trust, reorient them to the new settlement, and empower them.

The other serious risk is political liberalization without the required components for liberal democracy, or a clear plan for achieving it. Ideologically, EPRDF always claimed that liberal democracy is the end goal. Meles argued that, as Ethiopia does not have the social and economic base for Western-style democratization, a piecemeal expansion of rights and liberalization should be pursued. If the EPRDF led by Abiy believes that it is time, then safeguard measures need to be taken.

Many agree that certain norms, values, and functioning institutions are needed for liberal democracy to work. Components include a culture that promotes pluralism, the rule of law, respect for human rights, and limited government. Few suggest the Ethiopian politics is imbued with this ethos; instead, the opposite. Just in the past year, in a moment of hope, we have also seen plentiful hate speech, ethnic tensions, and politically sponsored violence.

Andreas Eshete cautioned that the move to rapidly open up the political space would complicate already fraught and complex relations between the federal and regional governments. He called for a sincere agreement, especially within EPRDF, regarding the objective and process of opening up. If not, he warned, different understandings of issues like elections, rule of law, and free speech might jeopardize stability, with the federal government in a dilemma about how to respond.

Disruptor

The fact reform came from within EPRDF led some to believe that the transition will be less disruptive and that economic and societal gains of the past two and a half decades would be carried forward. Political upheaval is normal, even desirable, when systems and institutions decay. However, Abiy disrupted the status quo at an unexpected pace.

His most significant disruption was to his own party, EPRDF, affecting how it operates and its role in the political arrangement. His critique of its ideologies, actions, and inaction, has weakened the central role the Front played in the state. If EPRDF bargained for deep renewal when electing him, Abiy gave it more of a deep rejection.

Analysts such as Alex de Waal advise that EPRDF’s institutional transition under Abiy demands special care and its structures need to be maintained in some form, since the party was extensively coterminous with the state. The Front was a platform for power-sharing, decision-making, and conflict management. Policies and strategy were set at that level and coalition members and affiliate parties were foot soldiers that implemented decisions locally.

TPLF lost ideological control

Abiy has shown little interest or strong leadership as EPRDF chairperson. Instead he challenged the ideological positions of the party. Revolutionary Democracy seems to be out of favor and democratic centralism abandoned. He repeatedly said in public that EPRDF policies and thinking, including the Developmental State model are dated and need revision, even declaring himself a capitalist; a heresy for a Marxist-Leninist-structured party that prided itself as focusing on the welfare of Ethiopia’s poorest. It is not clear yet if his Medemer philosophy is substantive or a populist slogan. He promised that it will be published soon, but so far it appears too simplistic to solve Ethiopia’s complicated problems.

Coalition members admitted opposition activists as members and merged with former opposition groups without clarity on the shared ideological grounds. They are becoming regional parties distinguished more by a common ethnicity than ideology. As the TPLF has criticized, Abiy made appointments and announcements without following party procedures, and has been reportedly reluctant to call regular meetings. An insider told me that he did not show up in the party secretariat office for about four months, showing how dormant the EPRDF is under Abiy.

This bypassing of the party meant TPLF lost ideological control and also its formal positions in the federal structure that would give it ground to fight back. Abiy also delegitimized them through a strong negative narrative, implying that they tried to assassinate him. This has effectively sidelined TPLF.

However, the unity of purpose and action of EPRDF has also diminished. Mistrust and division between coalition members is at its height. The tactical alignment of the Oromo and Amhara parties within EPRDF meant that the Front is no longer a coalition of four. Alliances have become short-lived, backstabbing common, especially in Addis Ababa’s increasingly fractious debate.

Getting his house in order should be the priority

There is tension between and among coalition members. ODP is pulled between Oromo nationalists and ADP/TPLF. ADP is competing with ODP and threatening war with TPLF. The Southern party is in disarray facing imminent disintegration of not just itself, but also the region it rules. TPLF has retreated to Tigray and maintains a defensive line.

In a system where party and state are intertwined, all this has undoubtedly weakened the ability to deliver peace, development, and mature democracy. Ethiopia has been experiencing a spike in inter-communal violence in the past year that led to mass displacement, loss of life, and property damage. The ability of the state to implement has been compromised, as evidenced by postponement of a national census and lack of a commitment or plan to conduct overdue woreda, kebele, Addis Ababa, and Dire Dawa elections. As long as the mistrust and infighting continues, stability will remain elusive.

The decreased role of EPRDF as a functioning front has emboldened regional states, leading to escalated tensions among them and with the federal government. Over the years, the EPRDF center has been stronger than the constituent parts. This seems to be changing. The year saw intensified boundary disputes and increased abuses within states, with the federal government response inadequate, to say the least.

Although his measures against core EPRDF tenets might have a positive effect in the long run, in terms of bringing about genuine federalism, it is clear that it was done too fast and without a viable replacement in the short-term. He is either unable or unwilling to solve the internal infighting and bring the party together. Getting his house in order should be the major priority in the coming year. That might even mean making the hard choice of disbanding EPRDF as a front and finding new allies. But it has to be done if we are to have any chance of a peaceful election by May 2020.

Future

One thing that has become clear is that the honeymoon period is over. The tactics of populism, appeasement, and disruption have gone as far as they can in this complex political landscape. They are no longer sufficient to address the more significant issues affecting the stability and development of the country. Abiy’s leadership needs to evolve to be more principled, pragmatic, and statesmanlike.

He has to make sure, as Samuel P. Huntington wrote in The Third Wave, that the principal political elite, the EPRDF, work together to deal with the problems confronting their society, and refrain from exploiting those problems for their own advantage. Ethiopia’s political problems are complicated and need well-planned, short- and long-term solutions; there are no quick fixes. Ensuring stability is an emerging priority. It is a precursor for the democratization and inclusive development that Abiy promised to deliver. His government needs to quickly find the right political and institutional solutions to address that.

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Main photo: Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed with President Isaias Afewerki; March 3, 2019; Office of Prime Minister

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

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About the author

Mistir Sew

The author requested anonymity because publicly expressing personal political views could negatively affect their professional relationships.

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23 Comments

  • “Abiy is a leader of multiple characters rather than a steady manager like his predecessor Hailemariam Desalegn?”

    You must be joking to make such a silly remark or you have no clue as to how transitions and reforms go. First, you are comparing Hailemariam’s six year term to Abiy’s one year! Second, Hailemariam’s leadership was very brutal and he a Tplf mouthpiece. Third, you are expecting Abiy to resolve in one year what Tplf/Hailemariam messed up in 27 years? Where is your sense of proportion? What insight are you suggesting?

  • The whole Ethiopian reform is premeditated by UAE and USA , since the rise of Abiy the American advisors working with Abiy inner circle who are hard core protestant to implement US agenda, The oromo elites are protestant, the all waliyta region is protestant soon the question of land grabbed by orthodox chruch will come to question , this protestants practice black magic , Abiy already feel he is a prophet , Ethiopia is heading for disaster , soon gay and lasbian wil have the same freedom as us , I miss Melse time even though he is the worst in his administration and caused us to divide but he didn’t bend for us and gulf , Abiy is a sell out , hypocrite who pretends to be Muslim and orthodox Christian his aim is to convert Ethiopia to protestant. Most of the people who are in high position are protestant Fitsum , us Ambassador, Lemma , Shimelse , all of his advisors , this ppl are are liars, devilish no good , also Jawar is 200% with Abiy admin .

  • Looking back 27 years ago, TPLF and the other political groups formed EPRDF to revive and stabilize Ethiopia that was drained and exhausted after years of war and unrest. For a nation bereft of resources, state led development was the only viable option to fight poverty and re-build the nation – in infrastructure, agriculture, the concept of industrial parks, education, etc…And this was being accomplished in spite of efforts by opposition groups to undermine EPRDF, because EPRDF was equated with TPLF…That Abiy would call this period 27 years of darkness sounds like a politically expedient characterization, an appeasement for those who have both political and pathological animosity towards TPLF and Tigray people…Ethiopia and Eritrea peace is a desirable outcome, but it is also a flawed peace, because the declared peace and reconciliation seems to exclude the people of Tigray who were directly involved in the conflict right there are at the border…This makes it an incomplete peace – a defective peace.

    • Tekle, I am happy the Tigre people are isolated and they have to pay a big price for the suffering of Eritrean people. No war no peace, sanction you name it every evil plan to create havoc and disaster towards the nation of Eritrea and its people. To be included in the peace process, admit first your crime and apologize for it, it is nonsense to say we are brothers when you are kicked out of 4 Kilo.
      PIA is alive and strong, he will never sleep unless the criminals face justice. GAME OVER.

      • Saying “game over” is an expression of trash talking…Dealing with the effects of secession and border dispute, where lives were lost and many were displaced, is not “a game” – it was a tragedy committed by both sides, based on strongly held claims by each side…The irony here is that you refer to yourself as Selam – but partial peace is still an incomplete peace, a defective peace.

  • Sir Antonymous pro-TPLF author, you said and I quote “ the principal political elite, the EPRDF, work together to deal with the problems confronting their society, and refrain from exploiting those problems for their own advantage. Ethiopia’s political problems are complicated and need well-planned, short- and long-term solutions; there are no quick fixes. ” You Tigreans and your elks were given 27 years to fix, and look the disaster you summoned on poor Ethiopia, an ethnic-crazed bullies around the country who are bent on dismantling the country for their short-lived ethnic aspirations. As you witnessed recently, the authors of this failed Tigre-centered system are going to be the main victims of the monster they brought alive. Now you are trying to befriend an Eritrean serpent, hoping it will save you from your own disastrous behavior the last 27 years. Loot, selfishness, bias, hatred, and all the evils of humanity you have unlisted during those years are engulfing the country. Ethiopia under Abiy has a better Hope than Ethiopia under Tigre- dominated EPRDF. That’s for sure. So please Mr. Anonymous, don’t masquerade as an intellectual. You very likely are one of the architects of that failed EPRDF state.

  • He is a messenger from God, u can’t stop him. Jesus is in control. Don’t speak negative ideas . Ethiopia will rise and prosper again !!! It’s a prophecy done !!!

  • I agree with the overall discussion of this article, but it is also subtly divisive and ideologically radical ethnonationalist. It is desperate to paint the good picture about the importance of the TPLF because it seems to believe the TPLF return would help to advance the radical ethnonatioalists agenda. The writer seems an ideological partner of the mafia group, TPLF. TPLF itself is a symbol of atrocity even in the eyes of Tigray people. Second, it did not discuss the ethnically informed constitution which led the country into a political deadlock. Its primary concern seems how Abiy is failing in maneuvering well to meet the radical ethnonationalist group ambitions. Third, the writer seems to playdown the significance the overwhelming support that Abiy got from the Ethiopianists, Amharas and the elites etc. “There is a serious risk that Abiy has permanently alienated potential strategic allies in exchange for short-term support. He has done very little to co-opt TPLF whose experience, at least, could have been an asset.” This is a typical perspective of radical ethnonationalists who does not want Abiy to make a serious amendment on the constitution or the federal arrangement. When I read this statement in the context of the current ethnic based political atmosphere, it does seem to suggest that Oromo and Tigray or ODP and TPLF strategical allies while the rest is just tactical ones. Now it seems apparent that in Ethiopia we seem to encountering these political forces: Radical ethnonationalists (OLF, TPLF, Jawarists, ODP in part) ethnonationlists (Sidamas, Somalis, ODP, NAMA, Arena Tigray and few others), Ethiopianists (G7, Bule party, and all others who advocate citizenship politics). Fourth, the anonymity of the write may suggest his senister ambition. If this is what he believes in, he should come open and speak. No one will take him to prison as far as Abiy’s grace period is there.

  • I appreciate your view, and it is your’s and your’s only. While being one sided, other achievements and the root causes of the challenges were not addressed, leaving it off it’s balance. Thus, delivering wrong message.

  • I like all of the analysis and insights, BUT there is major flaw in this: the author believe and support a strong EPRDF. What all this reform is the contrary to defeat TPLF (and/or TPLF/EPRDF. I believe the author is an intellect but a person close to TPLF or its ideology.

    Ethiopia has been dismantling the 100 year assignment prescribed and implemented by TPLF. Despite the lows and highs of the past year, Ethiopia is in a good course. But, as the author said, the honeymoon jad ended and Mr.Abiy needs a roadmap, real institutions, intellectual and system….

  • “The author requested anonymity because publicly expressing personal political views could negatively affect their professional relationships.”
    This is a little bit mysterious. If you are genuine you should not be hiding behind computer screen and try to make a difference in Ethiopia’s politics. Lets face it Ethiopia under the leadership of Dr. Ably is on the right path despite some difficulties inherited fro the past regime (TPLF).

    • Mind your business ,Gonder was capital city of Ehiopia long before Eritrea learn history before you try say none sense word sorry./Thomas.

  • Oprn Citisim is good when done right.
    The criticism in this article lacks perspective.
    No leader, post HIM, that I remember has been criticized this fast this much especially considering how much is visibily accomplished in a year he had been in office.

  • This is a very well written article, factually correct. At the beginning PM Abiy was a hopeful leader to the nation, I thought he was a genuine leader who comes at the right time for the right reasons but eventually he became power thirst individual who is more focused on himself than the security and safety of the country.
    PM Abiy’s big mistake was/is: –
    1. Breaking EPRDF into dysfunction front. He should have let genuine election then let EPRDF die naturally.
    2. The “27 years of darkness” remark, he shouldn’t have said it, first of all it is not true. Every administration has its own good and bad, it should be explained that way.
    3. He shouldn’t have orchestrated the bomb explosion at his inaugural. It is obvious that his inner circle orchestrated the explosion to claim popularity and legitimacy, at the same time to sideline TPLF.
    4. He orchestrated about the “soldiers who marched on palace sought to ‘abort reforms’”, this was done in order to create a new “Republic guard”. By the way if you recall after the soldiers march Abiy created “Republic guard”.
    5. He kept silent even if the countries security and safety was being eroded, he thought he was dismantling TPLF’s apparatus but eventually it has become a problem to his own administration and the country at large.
    6. “Considering Ethiopian history”, TPLF handed power in a peaceful and democratic way, thus he shouldn’t have to try to sideline TPLF. Marginalizing TPLF may have helped him to appease Isaias Afeworki and some opposition parties but in the long run it will haunt him. If TPLF marginalization continues it is anyone’s guess that they will defend and create problems for his administration. Cooperation is better than conspiring, in the long run he and the country will be benefited.

    • That is the criticism I had issue with.
      That was the only way people would have even listened to him in the first place.
      And yes even forgetting the atrocities done in 27 years, parallel with or worse than Derg. Just 27 years of ethnic federalism deliberately biased to ethnicity than Ethiopian Nationalism is DARKNESS!
      Yes is is still dark with a little twilight of hope.
      Whoever really mean the good of Ethiopia should understand that it takes note than a year to remove 27 years of venum.

      • You said, “even forgetting the atrocities done in 27 years, parallel with or worse than Derg”

        I am not sure where you lived or grown up, but if you lived in Eritrea, Tigray, Somalia, Afar, or generally outside of the center I don’t think you will have the moral capability to say this. I don’t argue with you whether ethnic federalism is good or bad, but equating the last 27 years with Derg is really morally corrupt. Yes EPRDF has arrested and killed people but to put in the same scale with Derg is not mentally healthy.
        If you haven’t experienced what Derg did to those societies I can understand that, otherwise it will not help to equate the act. You may have the wrong information but Derg is “evil”. Forget the bullet killings, Derg has bombarded towns, killed civilians using his air force. He has dropped bomb more than 100 times at different towns.

        We all wish to have democratic Ethiopia, however we have to have honesty and fairness in our understanding of the past and as well as the present. You are entitled to your own opinion but not your own facts. I am a living witness of those bombardments.
        For your reference please read this, https://www.hrw.org/reports/archives/africa/ETHIOPIA907.htm

        • As a fellow East African I wish the brothers and sisters in Ethiopia long lasting peace and prosperity .
          The peace dividend here in will and surely flow to the rest of the region .
          Our blood ties run so deep we have only one option
          Let’s all get along …21st century and beyond