If Oromo nationalists can put aside old fears, they can lead the country from the centre alongside the likes of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.When Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed proposed merging the parties comprising the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and forming a new entity called the Prosperity Party in 2019, few people believed he could or should try to accomplish it in the few months before the next election.
Changing the brand, if not completely the substance of the group that ruled Ethiopia since the communist junta was overthrown in 1991 was generally seen as a wise move, but not within such a short period of time. Even a key reform leader and current Defense Minister Lemma Megersa questioned the timing. Nevertheless, Abiy went ahead.
The EPRDF was rooted in ‘revolutionary democracy’, a Leninist-Maoist ideology that maintains the fiction of democracy while in reality, monopolizing power under a single ruling clique. The EPRDF continued to teach this ideology to its cadres, using China and other one-party Asian states such as North Korea as political models. The EPRDF had no intention of democratizing Ethiopia, except in the perverse sense of ‘revolutionary democracy.’
The Orwellian term ‘revolutionary democracy’ is the root of Ethiopia’s political illness. With its promotion of exclusive ruling party control of state power, assisted by the application of democratic centralism, revolutionary democracy was in practice the antithesis of multi-party democracy. Therefore, it is incumbent on any group that hopes to introduce real democracy to Ethiopia to expose ‘revolutionary democracy’ for the fraud that it is. On that count, Abiy has made a good start.
From the start I have spoken out strongly against the idea that the EPRDF could lead the country during a transition to true democracy, arguing that the cause of the disease afflicting the country could not also be the cure. So how can Ethiopia best accomplish the move from effective one-party rule to a multi-party democracy? There is a wide range of views.
Several analysts and activists, including the Oromo commentator and politician Jawar Mohamed, contended that the EPRDF was the only entity capable of saving Ethiopia from disintegration because of its control over the military, police and bureaucracy. These analysts argued that no opposition group has the organizational and administrative expertise necessary to wield power effectively during a transition. My counter-argument was that a dialogue involving all parties should be initiated with the goal of forming a government of national unity. Unfortunately, that did not happen.
Two prominent voices that had been imprisoned together during the EPRDF rule, Bekele Gerba and Eskinder Nega, expressed sharply differing positions during a visit to the United States shortly after they were freed. Eskinder, the dissident journalist known as a staunch advocate of pan-Ethiopianism, supported the idea of a transitional government. By contrast, Bekele, deputy chief of the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress, favored a transitional administration led by Team Lemma. This was at odds with the national unity government proposal favored by Medrek, the opposition coalition of which his party is a member.
Abiy’s eventual answer was merging EPRDF parties and adding the ruling organization from the five non-EPRDF regions. Arguments for and against Abiy’s Prosperity Party (PP) began immediately after the news broke that the EPRDF was morphing into a single pan-Ethiopian party. Opinion is divided into two camps with diametrically opposite outlooks. On one side are supporters of multinational federalism and ethnicity-based identity politics, essentially the status quo. The other group argues there is only “one Ethiopia”. They argue that ethnic identity is counterproductive, as it fosters ethnic based division.” This debate has raged for half a century.
Supporters of the PP argue that it would reverse the fragmentation that currently plagues the country, and boost political inclusivity. They note that the EPRDF came to power as the Cold War ended. Instead of abandoning their Marxist-Leninist roots, the group’s leaders tried to fuse revolutionary principles and class politics with capitalism and liberal democracy. That fusion never took hold. Supporters say the Prosperity Party renounces this heritage in terms of ideology and membership base. The member parties of EPRDF were based on ethnicity, while the PP brings all ethnicities under a single umbrella.
Abiy’s alternative to the EPRDF ideology is a concept he named Medemer. It is a model that rejects ethnic oppression and instead focuses on harmony and national unity. This has won Abiy support from “pan Ethiopian” forces because he seems to agree with them that the EPRDF and its ethno-national federal order is the source of Ethiopia’s troubles. Their support for the PP is driven less by a careful assessment of Ethiopia’s social and political fault lines and more by their belief in the need for a homogenizing ideal of a “common identity”, which they say has the potential to bring together a long-divided country and make the historic step towards national unity. Detractors argue that the “pan Ethiopian” idea was responsible for the crisis of legitimacy that haunted the Ethiopian state for over a century before the EPRDF took power.
Even those who think the Prosperity Party would be a bad idea for Ethiopia neither dismiss its importance nor are particularly opposed to its agenda or ideology. Rather, they fear that the Ethiopian public has a desire to preserve their unique ethnic identities, as a result, causing the party to lose support, and paving the way for reactionary forces to subvert the reform. Some have pointed out that the PP is not going to be the direct representative of any particular ethnic group, which could lead some groups to reject the concept.
It should not be forgotten that the demands of Ethiopia’s ethnic groups for political autonomy and cultural justice remain unresolved. Ethiopians living outside the capital, Addis Ababa, have a strong attachment to their ethnic communities and believe that ethnic groups should be entitled to determine their political, economic and cultural status without any external interference, including the right to be judged and educated in their own language. They want to belong to the larger Ethiopian polity while also preserving their unique identity and character. For them, the PP threatens the achievements of the last three decades in terms of cultural and political autonomy and lays the structural foundation for a homogenized state that would rob them of their identity and autonomy.
Included are many Oromo nationalists, whose narrative is that Ethiopia was constructed on the widely accepted historical narrative that the Oromo nation was invaded and colonized by Abyssinia and annexed to Ethiopia. Abiy lost the trust of Oromo nationalists because of his emphasis on a pan-Ethiopian identity. On his inauguration day, Abiy began his address by praising the Ethiopian state, with “God Bless Ethiopia” which upsets the Oromo nationalists. However, hoping for the removal of the TPLF, and buoyed by a sense of victory that an Oromo had risen to leadership, there was little criticism of Abiy at that time. Some said he was doing it for tactical reasons and not from the bottom of his heart.
Not long afterward, however, Abiy praised Emperor Menelik II, a national enemy for Oromo nationalists. Nationalists started to ask each other, “What is this guy talking about?” Although some activists kept on criticizing him, the vast majority were in a state of euphoria and did not listen. There was disagreement over whether he was making those speeches just to appease the Ethiopian nationalists or if it reflected his true beliefs. Then, in his address to Amhara nationalists in Bahir Dar, he said, “Oromo nationalism did not contribute to Oromo greatness, instead it reduced the Oromo nation”.
Still, the discontent and disappointment of Oromo nationalists has been partially assuaged by some of his positive actions such as the release of political prisoners, the return home of Jawar Mohammed and other members of Oromo diaspora in exile, and the return of the once-banned Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). Generally speaking, it can be said that Abiy is both an Oromo nationalist and an Ethiopian patriot at the same time. He walks a fine line between the two nationalisms. As a result, some Oromo nationalists feel betrayed that their victory was stolen by the Ethio-Amhara nationalists.
The Oromo national struggle used to sway between pursuing a federal democratic Ethiopia and an independent Oromia nation state. Until Abiy came to power, mainstream opinion among Oromo nationalists had favored secession. Now, however, it appears the tables are turned, with a majority supporting a democratized multinational Ethiopia with genuine autonomy for regional states.
That said, they are not yet ready for a pan-Ethiopian party. Most Oromo nationalists consider themselves Oromo first and only accept Ethiopian identity with conditions. Abiy Ahmed’s political train is moving so fast with the Pan-Ethiopian idea that many Oromo nationalists have hopped off. Thus, the Oromo elites are describing Abiy as ‘neftegna.’
Besides the narrative and Abiy’s approach, the failure to address the demands of the Oromo Protests widened the gap. As a result, the PP is likely to face a great challenge in Oromia in the 2020 election. Although the Prime Minister’s party has the potential to win at the federal level, it might lose a considerable number of seats in his home region.
But to really help take Ethiopia forward, Oromo nationalists need to take further progressive measures, rather than simply reject Abiy’s unitary party.
It is widely agreed that the two things Ethiopia needs most are democratic progress and economic prosperity. In order to achieve these, strong political leadership is necessary. Oromo nationalists could play a critical role in providing that leadership, but to do so they must begin to see their history as Ethiopian history, since in truth they also played a huge role in nation building. The traditional Oromo nationalist narrative of oppression at the hands of highlanders must be recognized as incomplete, at best.
Right now, it makes little sense for Oromo nationalists to simply skulk away, demanding more regional power and rights, and aligning themselves with increasingly isolated elements like the OLF. If Oromo nationalist groups can instead put aside old fears and accept that dwelling on the past is counterproductive, they can seize the great opportunity of this political moment to lead the country from the centre of the federation alongside the likes of Abiy. There is no telling how much positive influence they can then exert in shaping a stronger and more stable Ethiopia.
This is the author’s viewpoint. However, Ethiopia Insight will correct clear factual errors.
Editors: Peter Heinlein, William Davison
Main photo: Celebrating the return of the Oromo Liberation Front in Addis Ababa; September 15, 2018; Petterik Wiggers
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