Six causes of transitional trauma

There is almost no prospect of a swift and painless democratic transition in Ethiopia

Authoritarian regimes in Ethiopia—Imperial, Derg, and EPRDF alike—irrespective of ideologies they pursued, imposed their wishes on Ethiopian societies. All were finally forced to surrender to waves of public anger.

It was in 1960s when the renowned Ethiopian writer, Hadis Alemayehu, in his famous book “Fiker eske Mekabirreferring to the then Imperial Regime, prophesied that ‘’people take decision in their own hands when their hope in God is eroded’’.

Despite positive steps at every regime change during the second half of 20th century, the underlying contradictions were not resolved. The new governments that took office pursued their own group’s parochial self-interest.

Both Derg and EPRDF had “democracy” in their regimes’ names, but never put democracy into practice. Now we have entered another transition. This is not only about elections. It is about the process and outcome over a longer span. There is, however, almost no prospect of a swift and painless democratic transition in Ethiopia.

There are five main reasons for this transitional trauma:

  1. EPRDF’s parlous state
  2. Prosperity Party paradox
  3. Politicised security forces
  4. Politicised civil service
  5. Weak opposition
  6. Weak democratic institutions

EPRDF’s parlous state

To reduce the pain, the government must be ready to hand over power. That means, the EPRDF coalition and partner parties must hold that commitment. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has reiterated that he will hand over power if his party is defeated at next election. The conundrum is whether his party colleagues are equally committed to leaving office.

Currently the dynamics in regional states vary and may quickly change as the situation is fluid. There has been no linearity in EPRDF; the leadership could not speak on behalf of the entire coalition. There is no more democratic centralism.

Additionally, the boundaries between the ruling and opposition parties are not thick in some regional states, such as Somali and Afar. Clan relations will continue to play central roles in Somali politics and require a balanced mix of clans in both ruling and opposition parties. ONLF and the current ruling party in Somali Region may likely maintain their strategic alliance despite inter- and intra-party skirmishes. In Tigray, TPLF has taken a defensive position, towards which their cadres are highly agitated, leaving little space for dissent. It appears TPLF is not yet ready to concede power.

For better or worse, the change-makers are in the Oromia and Amhara parties. Yet there is no strong reason to believe that Abiy’s ODP is committed to multi-partyism in Oromia. Several of its officials are part and parcel of the old EPRDF regime and perceived to have been plunderers that may fear being criminalised once relieved of power. ODP is playing cat-and-mouse with the Oromo Liberation Front and Oromo Federalist Congress, making the political situation unpredictable. There is squabbling among OLF factions, which most Oromos see as a symbol of resistance against central rule.

ADPs came through a path similar to ODPs and there is also no strong reason here to believe their commitment to multiparty democracy. It seems that ADP is engaged in competition and collaboration with NaMA at the same time, possibly aimed at retaining power by pushing out parties like Ezema from Amhara Region. Democratic space in the region is stifled, and the security situation is volatile after the chaos in June.

That incident stemmed partly from ADP-NaMA’s unholy marriage but seems to have saved ADP from bowing to NaMA and its violent youths. In general, Amhara political elites still take it for granted that Ethiopiawinet is synonymous with Amharization and seem not to have dropped the imperial ambition of Amhara cultural hegemony where assimilation was an official line of citizenship and other cultures and languages were denigrated.

ADP’s ambition for hegemony throughout EPRDF is littered with skirmishes and collaborations. ADP and ODP are putting immense pressures on each other: ADPs want ODPs to subdue OLF factions and Oromo activists like Jawar Mohammed, whereas ODPs want ADPs subdue NaMA and other amorphous rightist groups like Eskinder Nega’s Baladera Council.

Prosperity Party paradox

Recently, it was difficult to think of EPRDF as a genuine coalition. Paradoxically, Abiy’s preferred solution is to merge it into one national party. There are two critical issues with this. The first is incompatibility of the current coalition members, and the second is how to bring on-board fully the so-called partner parties from Somali, Afar, Gambella, Benishangul-Gumuz and Harari.

Abiy has driven through the merger, but it is not clear how it will work in practice. Should EPRDF dissolve and get replaced by a leadership group directly elected by members, or should the coalition parties including the so called ‘partners’ be given quotas in the leadership depending on certain criteria, such as existing party membership and population size?

EPRDF and partners’ merger to form Prosperity Party (PP) means dissolving all the regional parties and replacing them with PP. Again, there are two serious questions—regional representation and party programme.

How many people would be represented from each region and on what basis at different levels of leadership-executive committee, central committee, etc. Should this be rules-based or simply hand-picked by the chairman or leadership?

Technically, if PP is a new party to replace EPRDF, it will be required to choose a new leadership group including its chairman. Abiy Ahmed cannot automatically assume the post as he was not elected by PP members. Furthermore, the so-called partner parties were not part of the EPRDF Council that elected him chairman of the front in March 2018.

On the other hand, can PP come up with an agreed party programme that reenergises the movement? TPLF has already rejected the merger in the absence of an agreed programme, and now key ODP senior figure Lemma Megersa has spoken out in opposition. But the conundrum goes beyond that. The elites lined up behind the regional parties have polarised views, putting pressure on every regional branch and leaving with them little room to manoeuvre.

Some of the major dividing issues are: the nature of federal structure, resolution of administrative-territorial disputes (Addis Abeba, Dire Dawa and Welkait, for example), critical issues in Ethiopian history, and the language question. PM Abiy’s Medemer has become a buzz word and seems to have been perceived as an instrument or lens to provide a way out of the conundrum. However, Medemer cannot replace a political programme.

It is only with a party manifesto that PP can go out and campaign for election. Can PP have different programmes for people living in different regions, particularly for the contentious issues mentioned above? Can they tell contradictory messages to people living in different parts of the federation? How cohesive will this national party be?

It appears that the merger can go ahead even if TPLF rejects the move, although some legal issues are outstanding. It appears the merger is not ultra-risky in the short term if PP is able to forge a programme acceptable to all its members. The serious risk which may possibly lead to explosion is incompatibility of Abiy’s attempt to appeal to pro-ethnic federalists and anti-ethnic federalists at the same time; a dilemma Lemma’s opposition has highlighted. The other danger may arise in relation with the election if EPP tries to close the space before the polls or tries rigging the election itself.

The PP bylaws and programme has been approved by the EPRDF executive and central committee and some party congresses. They have made it clear that all EPRDF coalition members and partner parties will be dissolved. Their language decision has already trigger anger on social media—it brought back Amharic at the centre in all the regional branches. If this intent is followed by regional governments, it would complete PM Abiy’s aspiration to inherit the imperial regimes’ legacy.

Politicized security forces

EPRDF security structures—military, intelligence, police, militia—were highly attached to the political leadership both in ideology and through individual network with officers. Uncertainties remain with regional security structures (police, special force and militia).

It is not clear how much force regional security structures have both in terms of personnel and armaments. The Somali Region Special Force under Abdi Iley, for example, was a serious threat not only to other regions, specifically Oromia and Afar, but also to the Federal Government.

The current security structure, mainly the regional special police, is the most dangerous threat to the orderly transition. All parties must take this as a serious concern before moving to general election. Abiy has said that the security apparatus is under reform. But it seems the regional special police is out of his reach. Divorcing it from party politics is a primary requirement for democratic transition.

Politicized civil service

The nature of Ethiopian civil service is another bottleneck for a democratic transition. Ethiopia has not seen in its history the Weberian type of civil service or the Douglas North type of institutions. Under the emperors, the bureaucracy was just an extension of monarchies. Under Derg and EPRDF, the civil service was enmeshed with the ruling parties.

There is no formal rule to do a favour for civil servants of party members. However, civil service is considered a warehouse of future political leaders and mechanisms were put in place to attract civil servants to party membership; including preferential treatment for further education, better job, promotion, guaranteed job, key civil service posts and moving to key political appointment posts. And therefore, members and non-members are treated differently, as members are considered loyal to the ruling party’s agenda.

The following is a simple and live example of appointments that evidently will be problematic unless addressed early on. Currently, the number of weredas in Ethiopia is estimated to be more than 1,200 (rural and urban). If we estimate the number of zones (zones are one level up from weredas) to be just 100, together with the weredas we have 1,300 tiers below regional level. If we assume minimum 10 politically appointed officials at each wereda/zone, we will have 13,000 political appointees below regional government tiers. What will happen to those people if the opposition wins partially or fully? Should the opposition parties retain them while knowing these people are members of EPRDF who were appointed without meritocratic qualification?

On the other hand, retaining those people in their posts will not be acceptable to the supporters of the incoming opposition parties. If we add the number of political appointees at regional and federal government levels, it is obvious how the numbers soar. Therefore, democratic transition is integrally linked to the livelihood and very survival of EPRDF members and families in the current Ethiopia. In preparation for 2010 election, wereda officials were forewarned that defeat of EPRDF in their wereda would cost them their jobs. PM Abiy recently has said that he is not concerned for his job if his party loses the upcoming election. It is not about the prime minister losing his job, it is far beyond that: it is thousands of party officials.

Weak opposition 

The so-called EPRDF’s dominant party system has proved a failure. Democratic elections require not only existence of opposition parties but also commitment to peaceful competition. Opposition parties are numerous but only a few of them meet the criteria of an ‘’opposition party’’. Some are creatures of old EPRDF while others are bread-winners without real political objectives.

Therefore, unlike what we hear in the media, the number of meaningful opposition parties is not more than eight. In my view, all real oppositions are regional parties as their bases are bound by ethno-nationalist identities, including Ezema, which has an Amhara flavour. This means there is a need for a coalition of likeminded regional parties to form country-level parties if Ethiopia is to move to a meaningful multiparty system.

Polarisation or extremism is another concern with oppositions. For example, what would happen if OLF, NaMA, TPLF, ONLF, SLM, Ezema win elections in Oromia, Amhara, Tigray, Somali, Sidama and Addis Ababa respectively? What would the deal look like and how can they come to terms without resorting to violent conflicts?

Weak democratic institutions

It would be naïve to think the election board and judiciary were neutral in the previous elections under EPRDF. There is no strong evidence yet that the new board members and judicial officials who have been appointed to these institutions last year will prove to be neutral.

Two precursors underlie my concerns: firstly, key posts in these institutions seem to have been filled with like-minded anti-ethnic federalists who may likely want to seize the opportunity to act in their ideological interests if the power dynamics turns out to allow them; and secondly, the election board’s interventions outside of its mandate regarding the Sidama referendum. The board’s mandate was to administer the referendum. It was not, for example, to organise debate among non-Sidama elites in Addis Ababa nor enquire about the status of Hawassa post-election.

While lack of capacity and experience is another concern, if the decisions of the board or the judiciary are perceived to have gone against the expected standards in favour of certain groups, it is likely to trigger election-related violence. The neutrality and transparency of these institutions are crucial from the very beginning.

Destructive ambiguity 

So far Abiy has tried to please all domestic actors as well as the international community. This is impossible. Abiy’s stock is falling fast among Ethiopians because his flowery rhetoric is not able to cover up his irreconcilable positions. He glorifies our imperial past, but he tells us he believes in a multinational Ethiopia. His Medemer is not detailed enough to show how to reconcile the extremes.

He wants to lead a transformative transition to democracy but is wedded to an authoritarian state and the constitutional electoral schedule. There is a danger that increasingly only a narrow elite around Abiy remains committed to his aspirational ambiguous project, while those who project a clearer vision, such as Jawar Mohammed, increase their popularity. These political problems combined with the aforementioned structural fragilities make Ethiopia’s transition a perilous one. Further trauma is expected if the ruling elites fail to end the ambiguity.

Query or correction? Email us

Editors: William Davison and Jonah Wedekind

Main photo: A protest on October 21, 2018  in Alamata in Tigray region.

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

Related Insight

October 19, Breaking an electoral suicide pact

August 18, Federalist façade for centralist front

July 24, Elections in End Times

March 29, Rival capital camps must face Finfinnee facts

February 27, Ethiopian elite lost in electoral maze under Abiy’s gaze

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About the author

Ahmed Mohammed

Ahmed lives in Addis Ababa and works on governance and security issues in Ethiopia.


  • Instructive and interesting analyis. Thank you, Ahmed. What Ethiopia needs at this point in time is your kind of balanced analysis and incitful ideas. I salute you, sir.

  • While your ill-conclusive opinion (not professional analysis) is Amhara’s politics is monarchical in behavior and practice, you mention Hadis Alemayehu as if he was from Oromo politics. What an aborted analysis! Haha Jawar’s politics is Crystal clear as you claim. Shameless person ever!! One last comment you conclude that there are two extreme politics. Then what is wrong in Abiy’s move to consider those extreme voices?Unfortunately, Abiy is only in the extreme side of Oromo’s ethnicity politics.

  • It’s amazing what kind of mass confusion the wannabe 7th king created in Ethiopia. Everything he has done seems to be designed by Cambridge Analytica or similar organization that found a convenient colorful preacher to setup an experiment to construct artificial system. If you watch the documentary movie The Great Hack, it shows Cambridge Analytica had campaigned in Ethiopia and other developing countries. How do you create a party with a name “Prosperity Party” or PP without policy or objective program? How and when the transition will take place? What is mind blowing is the mob that has joined without any understanding of the policy except Orwellian language of “Medemer”. It’s remarkable Lemma Megersa detached himself from this insanity and shows his courage by opposing this fictional agenda. Abo Lemma was not competing for power but he wanted to establish a productive and lasting solution.

  • This is a very interesting scholastic analysis, if the so called competents for power in Ethiopia can understand. Its a very timely and perfect but, I don’t think Ethiopian politicians can think a visionary way forward to bring out the from the mess. The recent Prime Ministers run is not clear, he is mixing incompatible ideaologies which couldn’t take him any far. Unless Ethiopian politicians must came to together, tried to pinpoint the exact Ethiopian probles, there will be no hope the country continues. The Prime Minister, only wants to realize a fabricated prophesy by his mother a “King” and rule a dictatorial knighthood rule. There should somebody must tell him the time knighthood has gone for no return. He is still there.

  • “Ethiopiawinet is synonymous with Amharization & seem not to have dropped the imperial ambition of Amhara cultural hegemony where assimilation was an official line of citizenship” wow. The deepseated Amharaphobia & erroneous fearmongering by you so called political analysts really needs to be dissected and checked. What an impudent statement to make and clearly one made out of a personal emotional bias rather than any foundation.

    Throwing in repetitive political jargon does not make you an intellectual and its clear you don’t have much knowledge on the actual matters that are going on. If you did you would know that ADP has little to no support within its own ethnic base to be the power hungry threat that you’re trying to portray it as. Of course this is just a veiled dig at Amharas with no mention of the *actual* military actions OLF has been taking in Wollega , Somali region and Guji, but go awf.

    The biggest thing you fail to mention is that all of these so called problems you listed have all one thing in common, they originate from the failed ethnic federalism that you conveniently forget to mention is now directly responsible for 2.3 Million displaced people that has left us worse than Syria just to top things off. But alas, since you can’t blame Amhara for that you , along with all the other mindless mengas try to create a hysteria that Amharas are the boogeyman trying to “dominate again”.

    Sorry to burst the pea sized bubble you concucted yourself in but the “Ethiopiawinet” you seem to believe is equivalent with “Amharization” is not exemplified just by the Amhara but from several non-Amhara people like myself who do not espouse pathetic ethnic enigmas and revolve their identities around it and the Demonization of a group.

    • For me, this is an excellent analysis of the current political trends and the future prospects in the country. Yes, you and your likes always blame the multi ethnic federalism for any problem that might occur in Ethiopia. I firmly believe this emanates from Amhara hegemony itself. Do you think this mentality could lead us to see a peaceful Ethiopia?. I don’t think. Please, try to think beyond your box and understand the political dynamics and contexts in the country. We are in an era that we need to understand and recognize the different extremely polarized political interest and the historical and contemporary underlying causes of that. Whether you like it or not recognizing the diverse political needs and interests and managing them accordingly. Thi is is imperative to continue as a country. Hence, try to control your emotions

    • Ofcourse, the Ethiopiawinet in Ethiopia is the same as Amharization, its historically and practically evidenced for no denial. Those who cry out when Ethiopiawinet is said to be Amharization are all those who fight for Ethiopia that is for Amhara. This has gone for no return.

    • I’m sorry that you didn’t get it and it shows your understanding is not based on factual truth of Ethiopian history. This is not an indictment of all Amharas or an Oromo bias but unashamed activists unstoppable feeling to glorify the wicked and greedy Amhara Emperors.

    • Very well said Samuel. Why can’t we see a better future for one another regardless of our ethnicity. Why can’t we see a better Ethiopia where every one has equal opportunity and representation in their daily lives? Why do we have to squabble for dominance? why do we have to organize by something we haven’t chosen? why can’t we see outside ethnicity box? Does seeking a better Ethiopia make me an Amhara?

  • It reflects good understanding of the current dynamics in Ethiopia and poses right questions, but little bit harsh on the ‘unitarians’. Can you do a sort of scenario mapping for the year ahead – possibly showing different scenarios?

    • Timely and well thought commentary. True, to overcome all of the above mentioned six issues plus others will be problematic in coming few months, post elections period and beyond. What especially worrisome is the potential violence breakout among different groups and contesting political parties given the morbid and fragile law and order status..

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