In-depth

Preaching unity but flying solo, Abiy’s ambition may stall Ethiopia’s transition

The fatal error of Ethiopia’s acclaimed premier Abiy Ahmed has been to place his standing ahead of his country’s democratic transition.

“God only can save us” is currently a popular phrase in a rural village in North Shoa in Amhara region. “You can rely only on yourself and your arms to protect your environment,” is another

The churches are full. A feeling of insecurity is rife and arms contraband is profitable. At twilight, people rush home and double-lock the door. In this area of this region at least, the omnipotent party-state, pervasive and intrusive since its takeover in 1991, is absent: there are no meetings, no 1-5 system in which one household headed a cell of four neighbours, and no local development work. The village (kebele) chairman’s tasks are confined to delivering documents. He had not held any meeting at the district (wereda) level for more than two months.1Interview, North Shoa, December 1, 2019. Local development agents are busier trying to solve local conflicts than fulfilling their mission. “We now act like a fire brigade,” one says.2Idem. Local militia are reluctant to be involved in maintaining law and order because of the authorities’ lack of popular legitimacy.

The prevailing popular feeling is fear. Fear because the age-old pyramidal ruling structure has disappeared; besides authority’s absence, the traditional social hierarchy has crumbled. “We cannot even order our own children,” elders complain. Fear because in this unprecedented present and unknown future “something bad could happen” repeat people, even if the area is peaceful, petty crime normal, and the source of these “bad” things unidentified. Most believe some form of armed confrontation is on its way.

In many, if not most parts of Ethiopia, except in Tigray region, the mengist—together the authority, the power exemplified in governance, in the state apparatus and civil servants—has vanished. Amhara region, as a whole, seems severely affected. Areas north-west of Gondar are still lawless, and the Qemant area remains restive after bouts of something close to ethnic cleansing last year. Since Abiy Ahmed became Prime Minister in April 2018, Wellega, Guji and Borana zones in Oromia have suffered armed, in some cases ethnic, conflicts and clashes have occurred between Afar and Somali. According to the Attorney General’s Office, at least 1,200 people were killed and more than 1.2 million displaced by violence or the threat of violence over the last Ethiopian calendar year (September 2018-September 2019). The universities have become a cauldron of ethnic hostility, sometimes murderous.

The vacuum at the local level is partially occupied by informal groupings and a kind of community self-regulation. In the same kebele where fear reigns, an informal group of youngsters is headed, de facto, by members of the emerging middle-class in their forties (typically grain merchants, shopkeepers, and so on). What would be considered as the new small-town proletariat, such as young casual labourers, is over-represented in this group. Farmers form less than a third of members. The youngsters are the only body which show some muscle. “We are treated with big respect by the authorities”, they proudly proclaim.

The weakened authorities, kebele chairman, village militia, wereda officials, have to work through them; traditional authorities such as priests, elders, and model farmers (who worked hand-in-hand with the former ruling power) have been forced to take a backseat. These youths now take care of maintaining basic law and order. They replace local officials in organising new kinds of development work, this time in accordance with unmet community demands, like building a road and a church.  “We support Fano”, they say, but claim to be distinct from that Amhara youth group, probably because it is described variously as a protest movement or a militia.

Discussions about various parts of Oromia offer the same or an even more serious situation. The rise of informal youth groups and their de facto recognition by the authorities is widespread. Given such a power vacuum in governance, their role can be beneficial, but on occasions, they have certainly acted as vigilantes, even as predators. Whatever their state of organisation, their strength makes them a force that cannot be ignored. They will not necessarily shape the transition, but they have the ability to impede it, if they consider it is going too far off their script.

This may not be so clear in urban areas where perception of the situation is affected by an upper-class bias. Addis Ababa and other larger towns are oases where, even if deeply disorganised, higher levels of the state and governance can still more or less operate. In Addis Ababa, indeed, it is largely business-as-usual, except for the crime situation, which is of increasing concern; but even in Addis Ababa, wereda and kebele administrations are more often than not at a virtual standstill. “The state has collapsed” or “Ethiopia is statelessness” is a frequently heard assessment outside these towns.

Vaguely clarifying

Despite their activity, the probability remains high that the millions of youngsters that brought Abiy to power through their protests in 2015-18 will be the real losers in the end. The same people who held to positions in the former ruling party and the state, and instrumentalized these to accumulate wealth, from the top down to the level of kebele chairman, largely remain in situ: the reform process doesn’t affect them, it even supports them. Nothing shows that this oligarchic fortress has been shaken, except for the politically motivated targeting of a few individuals, mostly Tigrayan. Corruption reached an unprecedented level in the last years. If the former senior official quoted in Foreign Policy is right (“Abiy and his colleagues were brought to power less by the street than by the venality of Oromo elites”), then the new ruling power has to return the favour. It is doubtful if the new economic liberalisation, yet to be fully or thoroughly debated, will really tackle the unemployment problem in quick time.

The future of the country essentially remains the exclusive affair of a few powerful political figures through a grand elite bargain in which youngsters had, and are likely to have, no say. The danger, in the short term, is their continuing frustration could lead to even greater focus on ethnic solidarity and mobilisation, and that this will be used by politicians for their own purposes in the federalist-Ethiopianist debate. Youth unemployment and political marginalization remain potential time bombs.

In November, Abiy announced the creation of Prosperity Party, to replace the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), in order “to change the form and content of EPRDF to make it fit to the struggle that the time requires”. EPRDF’s ethnic parties coalition had governed the country since 1991 – Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), Amhara Democratic Party (ADP), Oromo Democratic Party (ODP) and Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM). It had become effectively bankrupt and irreparably divided over the previous years. The foundation of Prosperity Party was a forceful operation to seize control of what remained.

The aim appears to be to re-evaluate the EPRDF’s foundations of ethnic federalism and the developmental state and acquire the support of as many as possible of the perhaps 7 million members of its constituent parties while making up for the exodus of some members by incorporating formerly affiliated ‘agar’ parties, which represent peripheral regions (Afar, Benishangul-Gumuz, Gambella, Harari and Somali). It was also intended to provide the prime minister with a functional ruling tool that a paralysed and collapsed EPRDF could no longer be.

This was a major change, a fundamental political clarification. Ethnicity was the foundation of the previously dominant political parties, both inside and outside the EPRDF. Prosperity Party is being structured along a clear political divide, endorsing some main trends of the ‘Ethiopianist’ political current, which had been largely silenced since the beginning of the 1990s. It is aimed particularly at the country’s ethnically mixed cities. Membership is not based on ethnicity—anybody can join whatever his ethnicity and residence, while under EPRDF’s rule one could join only the party of his ethnicity. In the leading organs, the representation of each ethnic group will not be equal as in the EPRDF but probably roughly proportionate to their population.

The political programme of Prosperity Party has yet to be fully defined, but incorporates elements of the traditional EPRDF and anti-ethnic federalist forces, a kind of catch-all hybrid aiming to gather as much as possible under a ‘big tent’ approach. As a result, it still looks somewhat confused and contradictory. It lacks clarity on how it plans to respect both individual and groups rights, on the kind of federalism it will promote, and how it will be nationally and regionally structured to bring together citizenship and ethnic identities. In the economy, its plan for the government to intervene to make up for market shortfalls sounds much like the EPRDF’s approach.

Prosperity Party will operate under the prime minister’s new philosophy of medemer (which translates roughly as ‘synergy’) but this appears to be a set of ethical values that has yet to be concretely translated into a policy or an economic strategy. The core of Abiy’s convictions seems to be shaped by a mix of looking at Ethiopia and the outside world through the lens of his fervent and strict religious beliefs and what he calls Ethiopian philosophy or “Ethiopian values”. He hasn’t publicly detailed their specificities, but, according to members of his entourage, the core is religious. Ninety-nine per cent of Ethiopians belong to a monotheist faith. Is it by chance only that the name Prosperity Party echoes the rising ‘prosperity gospel’ among Christian evangelists?

The founders of Prosperity Party strongly reject the EPRDF’s centralism. But, according to new party’s rules, its supreme body, the Executive Committee, has strong rights over the appointment of the heads of its regional branches and their executive power, among others. Time will tell how far a degree of democracy will triumph over the age-old practice of centralisation in Ethiopia. Besides, one wonders how far the support gained by moving closer to Amhara elite positions, by shifting to the more centralist and less ethnic-based federalism sharing it favours, and by giving full membership to the previously affiliated parties, is now being counterbalanced by distancing itself from ethnic nationalisms, which are strongly visible and have never been so powerful.

Prosperity Party’s birth was controversial, with Tigray ruling party questioning its legality. In the EPRDF Executive Committee, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) voted against the dissolution of the coalition. According to different sources in Mekele, who participated in the committee, two heavyweights, Lemma Megersa, Minister of Defence and former president of Oromia, and Muferiat Kamil, chairwoman of the Southern party and Minister of Peace, openly expressed strong reservations and abstained.3Other sources deny Muferiat’s abstention. Since then, Abiy’s relationship with the TPLF has deteriorated. The TPLF’s chairman, Debretsion Gebremichael, has said he considered those who created Prosperity Party as “traitors”. Members of another former EPRDF coalition, the former Oromo Democratic Party are divided on the merger; a substantial proportion of the elite among the Oromo people themselves appear to be against it. The support Abiy had in Oromia has shrunk.

Another member of the EPRDF coalition that was dissolved when Prosperity Party was formed was the Amhara Democratic Party, which represented the Amhara people. A significant element of this grouping prefers the opposition National Movement of Amhara’s (NaMA) ethno-nationalist programme. Even among the leaders of the affiliated parties, some have started to fear they will have little weight in Prosperity Party’s leadership due to their probably small representation and the dilution of their regional leadership after their parties disappear in the melting-pot of the national Prosperity Party.

Prosperity Party’s programmatic and organisational blurring, its obvious internal heterogeneity and its awkward position in relation to much present political reality, at odds with the overriding ethno-nationalist push, will all affect its efforts to fill the power vacuum in Addis Ababa and remobilise the party-state apparatus, a precondition to re-establishing law and order. It’s hard to see a clear comparative advantage of the Prosperity Party compared with the EPRDF in this regard, or ways in which the former could succeed where the latter failed. Instead, the signs are it may fall back on repression to beat off the opposition challenge.

Fatal error

The new party is Abiy’s attempt to break the stalemate of the last few years and to resolve the political crisis which has persisted and even deepened since he took office, over the ‘ethnic federalist’ and ‘Ethiopianist’ divide. But for some, his approach is too flexible – he “shifts his loyalty as necessary to serve his interests”, according to academic researcher Mebratu Kelecha in Ethiopia Insight. The result, claims a condemnatory Addis Standard editorial, is that “he has isolated himself from closest allies and a vast political base”.

The best example is Defence Minister Lemma, who was a key player in the recent transition. Abiy, multiple sources say, has systematically undermined Lemma’s positions in the government and the party. The editorial goes on: “Abiy focused on attempts to materialize the transition solo… To say today he is all alone is not an overstatement.” This is far away from the idea of medemer. The editorial concludes that “this is not the time to abandon him”, but fails to offer arguments in his support.

Abiy’s fatal initial error, which has led to many of his other missteps, is to have pursued the wrong objective. Regardless of the fate of his leadership, Abiy should have focused on trying to lead the country to a peaceful and orderly transition in order to give it its best chance of success. Instead, he seems to have deprioritized the transition’s success in favour of becoming the next in a long line of Ethiopian ‘Big Man’ rulers. For example, several high officials and journalists in Mekele and Addis Ababa have reported that during a meeting with around 50 Tigrayan businessmen on 24 November, gathered to start a shuttle diplomacy between him and the TPLF, Abiy said: “I am the leader for the next five years; if I don’t get enough votes in the ballot boxes, I will rig the elections”. His justification: “This is Africa”.

If this is Abiy’s genuine position, it means he is ready to climb to the “Big Man” rank by force if necessary. This tendency left its mark on Abiy’s instrumentalization of the creation of the Prosperity Party, which blurred its positive political aim. Then at least parts of the formal and informal opposition, like the Qeerroo and Fano, could react forcefully too, adding a very perilous factor to the already dangerous situation.

One example of his personalised approach has been the way Abiy bypasses institutions. If these operated according to the constitution, they would be powerful enough to exert control over his activities. To avoid this, he has created different bodies, for example, the Administrative Boundaries and Identity Issues Commission, usually staffing them on his own recommendations. They largely overlap, and in effect replace, already existing institutions. There was another worrying sign recently of a disregard for constitutionalism when Abiy appointed new ministers rather than recommending them to Parliament. Abiy, in fact, has chosen to build a personalised network through transactional deals, requesting the mediation of elders and religious leaders, or face-to-face dialogue.

He has also followed the example of the TPLF when it took power in 1991. It ostracised the Amhara so as “to end their hegemony”,4Interview with a former TPLF Politburo member, Addis Ababa, December 11, 2019. and imposed its own creation, the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization, as the representative of the Oromo people. This denied them what some saw as their true representatives from the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), who were part of the transitional government until they clashed with TPLF and were exiled. As a result, the TPLF failed in the vital task of national reconciliation, and this contributed heavily to the problems of the past few years.

In turn, Abiy has allowed the demonization of the TPLF and threatened to strangle the Tigray region it represents, riding a wave of wide criticism, even hatred, and aligning with Amhara and Oromo elites. This has exacerbated ethnic division, exactly the opposite of his motto of medemer. Similarly, in rebalancing (justifiably) the ethnic composition of the state apparatus, particularly the army and the security services, Abiy and his supporters have acted with blind relentlessness, throwing the baby out with the bathwater, overcompensating the Oromo. He is also widely perceived to have appointed a disproportional number of officials sharing his Pentecostalist faith. One close Ethiopian observer of national politics called it an “Evangelical state capture”,5Interview, Addis Ababa, December 17, 2019. at least at the top; and there have been increasing criticisms on social media on the weight of these “converted Christians”.

This has affected Abiy’s legitimacy. His original popularity was nurtured by quasi-mystic expectations that he would be the saviour of the country, a messianic tone strengthened by Abiy’s presentation of himself as a prophet. The international media depicted him as an apostle of democracy. Now, critics are emphasising that he was elected without a popular mandate, by only three of the four components of a delegitimized and decaying EPRDF. For the transition to have a chance to succeed, he should have focused on galvanising it, himself remaining aloof so as to position himself as a neutral broker. Instead, he prioritised his personal agenda. And the rallying cry of his new book, ‘Medemer’, hasn’t yet provided an alternative to assemble widespread support, despite being published in Amharic and Afaan Oromo and widely distributed.

Fortress Mekele

An important element in this, at least in the short term, remains the stance of the TPLF, as it offers the most stark denunciation of Abiy’s ruling approach and policies. Popular wisdom claims that the Tigrayan party opposes Abiy’s reformism and is still pushing the image of a dogmatic Marxist-Leninist party, dreaming of revenge and a return to national power, ruling Tigrayans with an iron fist, and doing its best to plunge the whole country into chaos. This is hardly accurate. Certainly, although it achieved undoubted economic and social success over the past two decades, the TPLF bears a huge responsibility, not because it single-handedly created Ethiopia’s problems (it didn’t) but because it failed to do enough to vanquish the age-old demons it inherited, including the infamous “question of nationalities” born of Emperor Menelik II’s southern conquests in the late nineteenth century and raised by the student movement which condemned Amhara domination. Similarly, Meles Zenawi, the TPLF politician who was prime minister from 1995 until his death in 2012, despite de jure devolution, operated a system of age-old authoritarian centralist power, at least after his 2001 purge. The TPLF failed to resolve these, and other issues

Tigrayans are certainly deeply bitter about the way TPLF’s coalition colleagues assisted their stigmatisation and this contributes largely to their retreat to the bunker of Tigray. “Why should I marry a fiancé that cheated on me?” was the headline of an Aiga Forum article. They feel encircled, from the north by ‘Shabia’ in Eritrea; from the south by the Amhara. TPLF propaganda, through its media and in meetings, repeats day after day that the population must mobilise behind it to counter this encirclement. Tigrayans fear a bloody future. But they are probably the only people in Ethiopia today who are sure of their strength, and Tigray is the only region to be peaceful and effectively governed.

The authoritarian stand of the TPLF cadre has evolved, whether willingly or unwillingly. This followed merciless popular criticism of the party in 2017. It meant the TPLF’s six-week-long Central Committee meeting at the end of 2017 was the most self-critical of the assemblies held at that time by the EPRDF’s four components. It launched a reform process which deepened and accelerated after Abiy’s election. Having lost its position and strength in Addis Ababa, with most of its key officials retreating to Mekele, the capital of Tigray, the TPLF knew that it had to regain the full confidence of Tigrayans to reassert itself by considering old popular grievances and the local emerging political forces.

At the grassroots level, the Front now tries to distance itself from the state. For example, for the first time, it has taken note and begun to implement the request that wereda officials should be selected from the district itself and that their appointment should at least be supported by the population. The possibility of fairer elections for the next parliament is not out of the question. One has to accept that Tigray is the only one of Ethiopia’s nine regions which has started to proceed with the reform process in an orderly fashion. For example, allowing demonstrators to block a road for at least three days to protest against a district restructuring was inconceivable a couple of years ago, as was Tigrayans frequently and loudly criticising TPLF in public spaces.

Indeed, as in the rest of Ethiopia a new generation of ethno-radical activists has emerged, particularly among graduates in the towns. Members of the Tigrayan elite can now have their say through new social media outlet Digital Woyane, and the new parties of Baitona and Third Woyane, the second being even more ethno-nationalist than the first. The name of a soon-to-be established organisation is explicit: the Tigray Independence Party.

The TPLF is dealing with these new more nationalist forces by playing a double game. It gives them some room in order to prove its new openness, while also demonstrating it is sticking to a moderate position vis-à-vis more radical trends; although it has also to take these into account. It may even concede a few constituencies to Baitona in the next election. Yet these ethno-radical movements know where the red lines are: they urge TPLF to assert Tigray’s self-rule, to liberalize the political landscape, and to soften its grip on the economy, but advocate that at this perilous time there is a need to prioritize a common front against Tigray’s adversaries.

Alternatively, Arena and the Tigrayan Democratic Party are distancing themselves from ethnic federalism, and so they are treated as plague carriers. They were probably the target of TPLF leader Debretsion when he denounced the “internal forces that are operating to disturb the peace and the unity of Tigray”, even though the last TPLF extraordinary congress decided that TPLF “should continue to work with all legal oppositions in Tigray”.

The TPLF’s leadership is worried, of course, but appears calm and confident. It affirms that the party is more “cohesive”, “principled” and “experienced” and that the bond between the Front and Tigrayans is stronger than in any other region. They highlight the age-old fighting capacity of Tigray, and note that some of the country’s most skilled former senior military officers are now in the region. When asked about armament, they respond: “don’t worry for that!”. A huge security training campaign is ongoing. A former leading Tigrayan commander summarized: “there is not one army in the whole Horn which can defeat us”.6Interview, Addis Ababa, December 16, 2019. They appear to be confident in the systems of resilience that Tigray has built over the years precisely to face the kind of situation it now confronts.

Tigray police parade in Mekele ahead of TPLF’s 45th anniversary; February 7, 2020; social media

The TPLF strategy is threefold, according to senior members. In the first instance to “to maintain peace, security and development in Tigray”, which means to assert the “de facto state” which it has imposed since the end of the 1980s when it started to control the whole region. Secondly, it wants to reach “peaceful coexistence” with Addis Ababa, including, if requested, involvement in key national issues, like security. Taking for granted Abiy’s failure, it also aims “to avoid a situation in which Abiy would take the whole nation down with him”. It is, therefore, working on building an alternative force, coming together “with link-minded political groups”, sticking to the basis of the constitution, ethnic federalism.7Interviews in Mekele including with Executive Committee members, December 8-11, 2019.

This is rather ironic for a Front which itself did much to “emasculate the federal arrangement”, as one of its historic figures puts it.8Interview, Addis Ababa, December 16, 2019. It insists that otherwise all other political, economic, and other issues are negotiable. It believes such an alternative force will not be able to organize formally before the elections, so each ethnic party should campaign under its own flag. The current preparations now underway will, however, lay the foundation for a coalition in the next Parliament.9Interviews in Mekele including with Executive Committee members, December 8-11, 2019.

The TPLF knows the other ethnic federalist parties remain wary of it due to the repression it waged against them for years. It doesn’t want to appear as the architect of such a coalition. Some of its leading members concede that to regain the confidence of their proposed partners, a sincere and extensive mea culpa is necessary. They are also convinced that a programme stripped back to the pillars of the constitution is not enough to build the coalition. They need to design a framework to engage in fruitful negotiations. They know the best way to attract allies is for Tigray to demonstrate clearly it has reformed; that there will be democratization in Tigray and no ambition for TPLF to recapture its former leading role at the center.

The range and the pace of this and the role of the TPLF in coalition-building are at the core of the present robust debates inside the Front. But the main opinion among the Tigrayan elite, as underlined by a local journalist, appears to be that “the best thing that Tigray can do is to sit out the more and more critical evolution taking place in the rest of Ethiopia”.10Interview Mekele, December 9, 2019. Wait and see: the ball is in the other court.

Appealing for TPLF’s “experience”, last November, Prime Minister Abiy made a clumsy and painful attempt at reconciliation, through the mediation of the group of around fifty Tigrayan businessmen in Addis Ababa. It produced deeper tension. Abiy offered no political arguments, but proposed three options. The first was that the TPLF should merge with Prosperity Party or secondly that it should join Prosperity Party with the same status that the “agar” affiliated parties previously had with EPRDF. A third option was for the TPLF to send, say, ten high-level figures to Addis to work with him. He also proposed that Debretsion could be appointed as Deputy Prime Minister, a role he shared under former premier Hailemariam Desalegn. The TPLF categorically refused. It said it could not compromise over the Prosperity Party program but it was ready to negotiate on national issues, particularly security and the holding of peaceful elections.11Interviews in Mekele including with Executive Committee members, December 8-11, 2019

The Prime Minister reacted by threatening a full blockade of Tigray, the cutting of federal funds (around 70 percent of Tigray’s budget), the firing of all Tigrayans in the federal institutions, cutting off all communications between Tigray and the rest of the country and even changing the banknotes. Such “a blockade would be tantamount to a declaration of war”, said a TPLF military figure. “We will not stand idly”.12Interview, Addis Ababa, December 16, 2019. We would react with “a military engagement”. Abiy knows that, just as he knows the balance of forces. The federal army without the Tigrayan element of its middle management would find it difficult to operate effectively. A full blockade remains improbable.

On the other side, secession would be endorsed by the Front only if it had no other option, and even that remains highly improbable. Ordinary Tigrayans would never accept it because it is unthinkable for those who see Tigray as the cradle of Ethiopia. Whatever their declaration of loyalty to the TPLF, the Tigrayan business community is mostly invested outside Tigray. Even for strong ethno-nationalists, a secessionist Tigray could be sustainable “only if surrounded by peaceful and friendly states”,13Interview, Mekele, December 9, 2019. which would be very unlikely.

TPLFites believes the main risk is of a “Badme scenario”, in which a minor incident led to uncontrolled escalation, as happened in that little-know area to trigger the Ethio-Eritrean war in 1998, rather than any attempt at a blockade. Conversely, they also consider an eventual armed confrontation is looking increasingly likely. For most observers, however, the tension between Tigray and Addis Ababa is secondary, because of the geographical, demographic, and economic marginality of this region. The crucial danger lies at the centre between the two colossi, Oromia and Amhara.

Disintegration or dialogue?

Elections have been scheduled for August 29. The results are unpredictable, to say the least. The relative strengths of Ethiopian nationalists and ethnic federalists remain a subject of speculation, though a majority of observers agree that if the present ratio of force persists, the latter are likely to win. But the margin of victory is debatable and there are major uncertainties. The political landscape remains fluid, and it is far from clear how functional either Prosperity Party or any ethnic coalition will be.

At the grassroots level, former EPRDF cadres, frequently despised, will not get sudden popular support by claiming to be members of Prosperity Party. Previously, candidates were parachuted in their constituencies. This time, local support or at least some meaningful popular acceptance, will be compulsory. The elections, both national and regional, will be locally determined as never before. This raises the question: what weight will the youngsters, the Qeerroo, Fano, etc., bring to the electoral process? And will this be peaceful or violent?

The outcome of the election could be very different in the Amhara and the Oromo regions. In the Amhara region, the rise of the Ethiopianess nationalist discourse fits with the broad political expectation. Everything else is subsidiary. People in the regional kebele mentioned above want a ‘Big Man’. Mengistu Hailemariam is often mentioned with nostalgia. They present an alternative: either Abiy will prove he can re-establish a minimum of security, and they will support him, and the Prosperity Party; if not, they will look for what they call an “Amhara shield”, i.e. vote NaMA.

In Oromia, the quest for authentic self-rule seems to be the overwhelming priority. Discussions between members of the “elite”, national or party leaders, may have been continuous, but little detail has been disclosed. One thing that seems clear is that policy hasn’t been prioritized. Daud Ibsa, the head of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), says: “the policy issue is very secondary… For our people, the first essential and most important issue is to elect their own representatives”. Jawar Mohammed, a leading Oromo activist, says: “there is really no ideological difference between Oromo political parties… just tactical difference”. When a key leader of an Oromo federalist movement was asked about the political content of an agreement just concluded between the Oromo federalist forces, he replied: “it doesn’t matter”.14Interview, Paris, February 21, 2019.

Such comments raise the question: why not a merger of the Oromo federalist parties? OLF, Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) and Oromo Nationalist Party (ONP) have just created a Coalition for Democratic Federalism to “jointly field candidates for Oromia regional State Council and to form a national coalition with other parties that share similar programs and operate in different regional states”. According to reports, they plan to form a regional coalition government “based on election results”, with its head, and possibly the future Prime Minister, will be chosen according to the votes. But it remains a coalition, not a merger. A merger would have meant the choice and appointment of a party chairman, but rivalry between the leaders of the parties and Jawar, who is also joining the coalition, meant this was impossible. Nevertheless, they may well deny Abiy a victory even in Oromia.

One possible scenario, widely shared at even a popular level, is that as elections comes closer, the security situation will continue to deteriorate and other problems will inexorably increase. This will end in the declaration of a nationwide state of emergency and the emergence of a new ‘Big Man’, possibly someone other than Abiy, as front man for the federal army. But some sources close to or formerly part of the military high command consider this too optimistic. They claim such a situation would inevitably be preceded by extensive ethnic conflicts. They are convinced that the army would then split along ethnic lines and, if not, wouldn’t be sufficiently numerous to adequately intervene. According to one, this would also be the case if the Prime Minister tried to impose his centralizing agenda.

In fact, already today, parts of Oromia, the Southern region, parts of Amhara, and Benishangul-Gumuz are governed by a Command Post, in effect a kind of state of emergency under which the military have the controlling role. The same is the case along many inter- regional borders. It appears more than half of Ethiopian territory is de facto under the command of the federal army. Besides, it is not altogether happy about the situation. The army is “gutted”, as one security specialist puts it;15Interview, Addis Ababa, December 17, 2019. despite extensive changes in commands, it doesn’t consider Abiy respectfully, and he isn’t as confident of his control as he would like.

There has already been continuing and extensive militarization across the country. In the Amhara kebele mentioned above, the only authority channel which remains effective is the one in charge of security affairs. According to the militia head, previously under the authority of the kebele chairman, the militia apparatus has been “restructured” to be also incorporated into the regional Amhara security system.16Interview, North Shoa, December 1, 2019. Even one of the de facto leaders of the group of youngsters confesses that he is constantly in touch with this system. Overall, it seems likely that the regional special forces now outnumber the federal army.

An alternative option, frequently mentioned over the last few months, is for a “national dialogue”. The best opportunity for this already passed months ago; now it would be far more difficult to organize. Abiy’s interest in this is also questionable, even though he claims to set great store by dialogue. Nor is there much evidence that the main political forces would support it. Their positions are so irreconcilable that any real agreement looks out of reach. A well-known Ethiopian journalist adds the “essentialist” argument, not rooted in any obviously visible or quantifiable factors, but based on analysis of personalities: political leaders would prefer to sink together rather than to accept the pre-eminence of any one of them.17Interview, Addis Ababa, December 17, 2019.

Indeed, in the first instance, of course, any such compromise as would be involved in a national dialogue would reflect a balance of forces. Today, both ethno-federalists and Abiy’s centralist followers, proclaim their absolute certainty they are in a majority. And who is mistaken? In fact, none of the leading political personalities have any mandate to decide on the country’s future. In advance of elections, this would be an undemocratic coup de force. It would be ironic if the whole political class, which expresses its support for democracy, forgot that only the electorate can legitimately arbitrate on these crucial issues. It would be to put the cart before the horse.

A national dialogue is needed, however, to focus urgently on one issue: a roadmap for the elections. In addition to the problems outlined, the obstacles facing an acceptable and effective election in August are tremendous: the neutrality of the electoral board and of the state apparatus, the appointing of the 250,000 to 300,000 electoral officials needed, the modalities of a modus vivendi for campaigning, security and other areas. But Prime Minister Abiy remains the only person who is in a position to drive this successfully, and his Western supporters are those who can encourage him decisively to do this.

The West, and above all the U.S., has been giving Abiy unfailing support. Ambassador Michael Raynor calls the Prime Minister a “visionary”. He says: “The United States firmly believes that Ethiopia’s political and economic reforms offer the surest and quickest path to securing the prosperous, stable and politically inclusive future for all Ethiopians”. It may not be clear if the U.S. State Department has a clear strategy regarding Ethiopia but certainly Ambassador Raynor looks like having a free hand to implement his own views.

Some of his advisers are privately unequivocal: the aim is to maintain Abiy in power for years at any cost, handling not only Ethiopia but the whole Horn because of its weight in the region. Their vision is Manichean. On the good side, there is Prime Minister Abiy and his followers. On the bad side is ethno-nationalism, an offspring of the archaic “tribalism” which has so deeply hurt Africa. Their rejection is visceral: Jawar Mohammed is evil and, with the Qeerroo, the source of all Ethiopia’s ills; in addition, the TPLF remains a hopeless Marxist-Leninist survivor.

This myopic approach stems first from the assumption that there is no alternative to Abiy to provide what the U.S. and other outside powers value above all: stability. His liberal economic stance is highly welcome at a time when the U.S. has decided to try to counter China in Africa. It is the main trade partner, the main investor and the main lender in Ethiopia. The fact that the U.S. Ambassador is also an Evangelist contributes to allowing his relationship with the premier to develop well beyond the usual diplomatic niceties. The result is that money and experts have poured in “The United States has invested over USD three billion in Ethiopia in the last three years alone”, insists Ambassador Raynor.

Additionally, U.S. officials are “embedded” in key Ethiopian economic ministries, and more widely. Ethiopia has just received pledges of around $6 billion from multilateral creditors, including an exceptionally generous loan of $3 billion from the International Monetary Fund, presumably to shore up Ethiopia’s balance of payments when the birr is floated. Meanwhile, the West turns a blind eye to any abuse of power, or renewed political repression, such as what Amnesty recently called a “intensification of the crackdown on dissenting political views”, not to mention excesses by the federal army, particularly in Wellega, against armed groups with links to OLF.

Abiy seems set to continue on his current track despite the many dangers lurking there because, among other reasons, he can be sure the West will give him carte blanche. But by putting all their eggs in Abiy’s basket, the West is not only closing all other options for itself, it is also threatening its own interests—Ethiopia’s stability. The alternative, a national dialogue to craft an election roadmap, requires Abiy’s full commitment, and he needs all the help he can get if the process is to be successful. His foreign supporters must therefore shift their policies to align with Ethiopian realities and throw their full weight behind getting an effective electoral process, including, of course, putting pressure on Abiy himself. It is high time for both the Prime Minister, and his Western supporters, to do the right thing for the country.

Follow us on Twitter @EthiopiaInsight and join our Telegram channel here

Editors: Patrick Gilkes, William Davison

Main photo: Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed at the launch of his book, Medemer; October 20, 2019; Office of the Prime Minister.

Query or correction? Email us

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

More Insight from René Lefort

Aug. 29, 2018 Abiy’s first Q&A raises more questions than answers

Oct. 21, 2018 Ethiopia: Climbing Mount Uncertainty

Nov. 21, 2018 “Leba! Leba!” Abiy inspires farmers’ revolt in North Shoa village

Feb. 27, 2019  Ethiopian elite lost in electoral maze under Abiy’s gaze

May 29, 2019 Political shake-up and localism can edge Ethiopia forwards

Aug. 18, 2019 Federalist façade for centralist front

Oct. 25, 2019 Local bosses may fill the party-sized hole in Ethiopia’s next election

Oct. 31, 2019 A flicker in the gloom

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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.

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43 Comments

  • Dear Mr. Writer,

    Thank you. The article is informative and well articulated. Above all, it is clean of I, my and me’s, which declares its sanity. Responding to your invitation for constructive comments, have written down the following.

    Starting at the title, rather than “flying”, according to Webster, the right word should have been “falling”, as the PM is not flying anymore. After the honeymoon, it has been a continuous free fall and the country has woken up with a headache to realize, maybe we aren’t with the right guy. Reminds one of the optimist, you know, fell from ten stories and at each window bar, he shouted to his friends:
    “All right so far “, that guy. He is not flying, it’s falling.

    In describing the current atmosphere and mood, things you mentioned are spot on but you missed some points. In some Oromo corners, there is a feeling of the victorious hero. We have won, so we have to benefit, kind of our turn to loot. There is a loser, according to Shimeles, president of the Oromia region, the neftegna has been broken and another time according to the PM, weyane, the same, broken. Some are resorting to intimidation and harassment of non Oromos in the Oromia region. This is manifesting in official and non official ways. Officially, the losers are being fired, if you have the wrong ethnicity in your ID, you are prone to discrimination in the office and losing your job. Non officially, young Afro black panthers look alike are harassing and intimidating the non Oromo. One case, guy rents house, intimidates landlord and stays without paying rent for six months. Because this is his land and the landlord is a “settler”. You go to the police, they will say we will register your case but don’t expect us to do anything about it. The towns around Addis Ababa, most of non Oromo’s want to sell and move out where they can feel secure. But the real estate market has nearly stopped, too many sellers and very few buyers. There was a case of condominiums in a place called koyefeche, tens of thousands of Addis Abebie had hoped and saved to be home owners for years but thanks to a Facebook general going out there and declaring that this is Oromo’s land and Addis Abebie will never step foot here, that dream seems to be dim. While reading this, as the internet speed is better on your side, would you please check google earth/maps and report back if the condominiums are still there or has the mouth of the mayor swallowed them up? Could mention many ways how the h&i is manifesting in everyday lives of the common people in the morning, afternoon, evening and night but for reinforcement sake, be better if you hear it from others as well. Don’t know, if it is similar in the other regions, where the “settlers” are being harassed by the ” indigenous” people, have heard similar stories in the Sidama, Benishangulgumuz and Diredawa and maybe this holds true across the whole country ?

    Passing to your vaguely clarifying section, some of the words used: probability, to be fully defined, confused, contradictory, lacks clarity and blurring, describing the pp and the leader are correct. During the honeymoon period, there were some concrete steps that were taken in the right direction. After that, it has been pp season, planting and painting. Painting eprdf and the agar parties to pp (tplf said I am allergic to paint, so didn’t get painted), painting gov’t offices and buildings and painting streets. Also, millions of seedlings were planted which will grow according to their luck. Here, it will be a sin if one passes without commending the whole planting project and the example set by the PM of releasing so many photos of him watering plants but it was saddening to hear his report to the Parliament of the twenty or so of his flowers going missing. Once, every TV channel was asked to transmit at the same time a documentary made by the PM’s office, you can google its title but it was to the effect of how development works. We were told by the doc that development starts at the PM’s house. Beautiful building and beautiful garden, take this as a model, and replicate across the whole country. The good news, it has started and that, ladies and gentlemen is development. Hurray!! But most of us other than sending some of our sisters to Arab countries to work and send some money back, don’t have Emirates contacts that can finance us as they did with the PM’s to replicate the building’s and the garden! Is there anyone who knows some good generous Emirates who can help with this?

    Fatal error: the way the transition has been preceding is littered with a lot of mess. On balance, don’t know which outweighs, the good or the bad. So far it has been about one person talking (sometimes preaching), starting with the rhetoric, “my mother told me that I will be king one day” to calling someone ” jezba” ( meaning crazy, not sure if he was referring to himself ) and other tongue throw ups mixed with inspirational, motivational and flattery ( flattery takes form of equating one to exotic animals or some kind of car parts, the Oromo was the elephant, Tigray was the motor or engine however you put it, continues in similar fashion with the others). It has been a wild ride. So many omg, did he just say that moments and yes, he just said that. Don’t know if the writer understands Amharic, assuming not, get a translation of his talks and see how many pens you will run out of. And if you add the incompetent officials that are around, the dish is extra hot, full of special pepper. Remembering the security official who said, we couldn’t get there in time because of the landscape is mountainous in Burayu and lately an official who lost the gov’t two million birr from his car as he was inside a restaurant eating lunch, does the Guinness world book of records have a category for these kinds of officials? These guys are up there. Somebody has to nominate them for that honor. They say may you live in interesting times, we are living in interesting times sir.

    Coming to fortress Mekele, here the writer seems to be kind to the tplf. There are many sources that are quoted in this section, which implies, the writer has many contacts there. Can’t judge how biased that will make the article. Anyway, the portrayal of tplf as if they have their business together is implausible. These are people who didn’t do their homework. They are saying now we will focus on Tigray and compensate our people. We had forgotten about you but now situation has brought us to our mind. We were asleep but now we are awake. These are the things they are saying there. Imagine your fortress Mekele, just last year got a Chinese loan to build a drinking water supply. These people have been at it for the last 30 years or so and no adequate water supply for a city of hundreds of thousands. How it may be with the smaller towns, does not require you to be an Albert Einstein to imagine. The painting where the house is in order there is hard to accept. The peace may be attributed to the homogeneity of the people more than to the diligence of the security forces. And now looking at their media, it seems like they have gone back to the derg era and they are in a ‘fight mode’. The guy at arat kilo is an enemy, he has to go. Going full circle in one life time. Back to where you started, something must have gone wrong. As to the progress they have made, don’t know if you have heard of the word “Banda”. It can translate as a stranger, not one of us and traitor. The tplf uses that word quite often, if you differ in your ideas from them, you get an opportunity to be baptized with that name. But it is not a name you will proudly wear in a badge. The new parties mentioned aren’t serious contenders. Sometimes they seem to play from a script written by tplf. For tigryans investing outside of tigray, the reason is tplf. It was a stumbling stone in the region, being pro poor meant to them going against the rich. If you’re a bit higher, they had to cut you and make you level. So usually if a tigrayan makes a bit of money, he takes it to Addis Ababa or one of the other towns in other regions, invests and tries to prosper. Now times have changed, ethnic tensions are high, tigryans want to go back to Tigray, and what is tplf doing? Their role in Ethiopia’s future is not clear, positive or negative? They have been a good scapegoat for all the woes so far, how will this continue as election approaches? Time will tell. To the balance of forces mentioned, for someone who has read Sun Tzu , it seems you sir may have been used as a conveyor belt in the deception game ( when you are far appear close, … When you are dead, appear as if you’re alive, something like that) Which isn’t helpful to our case. No need for look at my six pack abs or eight pack by any side. The language used by some of the politicians is divisive, bitter and inflammatory which doesn’t help.

    In your disintegration or dialogue part, discussing on the various actors in Oromia and Amara, the dynamics you outlined is right. Difficult to see the whole picture at the moment. In Amara, the political arena has been marred with deaths of its leadership and recently with further reorganization. Things haven’t settled yet, the region is in disarray, good thing the new sheriff admitted it himself, said region is in disorder and we are setting order, how far are they? How the Amara pp will present itself to the people remains to be seen. The region seems to have a chronic deficiency of leaders though, so don’t know where they will get your big man. Your prediction, that if they get a big man, people voting for Amara pp otherwise going for Nama is conditional, seems they are lost. Another issue here is the identity crisis it is facing. Equating Amara to Ethiopianes is in question. Stand as an Ethiopian or stand as an Amara, some there, some over there, and some lost. By the way recently Nama has reorganized its leadership also. So many unknowns there. In Oromia, there are somethings that appear tangible as you mentioned which are correct. Some have done the math and claimed the election is a done deal and is in our pocket. Assuming all goes well prior, during and after the elections, they have tried to see which constituency will go for who and such kind of scenario analysis. The parties have signed countless times to work together and probably we will see them signing again and again as the ink they use have the property of disappearing in a day. Somebody help, please give them ink that sticks. Regarding to the recent improved interest of the US, any help they can provide is much appreciated. We are at the bottom of the economy ladder, so any dollar or yen, franc or pound that is thrown this direction is always welcome. The PM is doing a fine job of bringing the dough. More, and some more please. How will it be used? Another matter. Sovereignty, what about it? With the international community as long as they help with the process, is fine, in fact appreciated. But if they play kingmaker or the spoiler act, choosing sides,that will be a nightmare. The crisis group have listed some landmines to watch out, maybe this should be included as one of them. The Achilles heel of this gov’t has been security. Let alone smelling where fire may start, they find it difficult to put out the fire that’s burning in front of them. They need help for everyone’s sake. The international community somehow may help here. In the article, Addis Ababa isn’t mentioned. Surprise. The center of the whole drama, and not even one paragraph or few lines, how disappointing. Passing it as if it’s irrelevant, left a big hole in your article. There are some new political developments that should be watched. Addis Abebie is waking up now and trying to be involved in charting the destiny of the city. You ended your article by saying the PM and the west should do the right thing. Of course these are heavyweights but the weight of the other players is not something to be dismissed. Ethiopia has been said to have become a country with two gov’t, the formal and the informal and hopefully everyone of concern will do the right thing. Good will and peace to Ethiopians. Thank you Mr. Writer, in appreciation, attached please find the 100 fine French pens (could be converted to wine depending on your preference).

    • This is a great article on its own right, Mr. Sleepless in Addis! No doubt Mr. Le Fort stands out among foreign writers in his understanding of politics in Ethiopia. Except that he has a soft heart to TPLF (time and again) who are most of his informers, and a detest to Ethiopian nationalism himself. These always compromise his otherwise superb articles.

  • Rene’s article should have been titled, “Pretending to be insight but actually sowing grievances, Rene’s article may damage to your eyes.”

  • I always read your pessimistic opinion on Ethiopia .Dot worry the same God who protects Ethiopia will continues as he promised by the total submission of Ethiopia to Him Book of Psalm 68;31.All the anarchy you mentioned are an accumulation of the previous regimes where I know as a victim of rounded up by the evil era of the emperor ,by torture and jail of by the fascist military junta and by harassment and arrest of the TPLF divisive tribal regime.It is only in the reign of Dr Abiy I first time praise agiovernment in my natve Ethiopia .I will continue to pray and support him no matter the critics spreading hate speech on him and those extremists from each side wrongly assign him to either side of them but he is not.Of course he came out of that corrupted TPLF recruited puppets political parties and the yeast of that regime can not be healed over night and I am confident Ethiopia is in the hand of Almighty God by the leadership of the man of God Dr. Abiy Ahmed.

  • Regardless of all the hysteria against TPLF, history will show that TPLF/EPRDF did the honorable thing by giving Ethiopia federalism to save the country from endless civil war. I think especially the Oromos would agree given how they have consolidated their identity and political influence in the country.

  • Grain
    ‘… The same people who held to positions in the former ruling party and the state, and instrumentalized these to accumulate wealth, from the top down to the level of kebele chairman, largely remain in situ: the reform process doesn’t affect them, it even supports them. Nothing shows that this oligarchic fortress has been shaken, except for the… ‘

  • ‘he (PM Abiy) seems to have deprioritized the transition’s success in favour of becoming the next in a long line of Ethiopian ‘Big Man’ rulers’. I think this sums up his egoistic character and his actions in undermining the country’s political and democratic institutions, turning the game into one man show. He say hi is a true EPDRF-ite and cares for the party in the first few months he came to power but ended up unlawfully dismantling it. ‘Woe unto those that say they’re EPRDF-ites ,and they are not, lo, they shall be cast away like chaff that the wind driveth away…’

  • I recently came from
    Ethiopia. What is depicted as a doomsday scenario is this article is absolutely far from reality. To my surprise Dr Abiy has wide support in the country. He has already made significant improvements.The free press is flourishing again. People can speak their mind with out being afraid of a TPLF cadre or their security apparatus. Opposition political parties are actively engaged. Just look at Birtukan Mideksa who had spend years languishing in prison during the era of Meles/TPLF but she is now the chairwoman of the electoral commission. I am rather surprised that the editors published such a biased article by a presumably seasoned Journalist whose time in Ethiopia politics may have passed along with TPLF

  • Very unfortunate that a seasoned journalist such as you would use unverified sources and rumors to sound Alarm on the single most promising African leader in a generation.

    • dear Henok Tilahun, would you please tell us atleast a single “unverified source and rumors” from the abovementioned statements than blindly critisizing?
      On my way, i would like to ensure that, i personaly witnessed some, not all of those facts addressed by the outhor.

  • Mr. Lefort is a long time observer of Ethiopian politics and as such I consider him to be one of the better informed foreigners writing and commenting about Ethiopia.

    I, however found this piece to be based more on the biases of disgruntled TPLF officials who lost out in the power struggle within EPRDF and who are now residing both in Addis and Mekele and feeling powerless, than the objective reality on the ground. I wish the rosy picture(‘robust debates inside the front’!) he paints about TPLF’s old guard trying to reform itself and be accountable to the people was true. But the abuse opposition parties like Arena face, and recent statements by unrepentant old guards like Abay and Seyoum talking about Tigrean traitors…etc doesn’t give hope about the ability of the group to reform itself.

    Further,empty bravado and bluster of ‘a former leading Tigrean commander summarized:” there is not one army in the whole Horn which can defeat us’…is a clear indication of how these are incorrigible elements who suffer the bunker mentality prevailing within the leadership of what he calls “Fortress Mekele”!

    Mr. Lefort states that”except in Tigray region, the mengist-together the authority, the power exemplified in governance, in the state apparatus and civil servants-has vanished.” Is this really the case? It is true that there are pockets within regions where this might be the case,but if you take the country as a whole this assertion does not hold true.. Somali kilil is one of the most stable and vibrant regions in the country as are Afar. As for the more populous Amhara and Oromia killils outside of the pockets of trouble you mentioned they seem to be calm and peaceful, if uncertain as to what the future holds.

    The dichotomy between Ethiopianists and Federalists is a false one as what you call Ethiopianists are also Federalists.The difference being that some who claim to be Federalists could only think of one based on ethnicity and some who claim to be Ethiopianists fail to acknowledge the diversity of the nation.

    However, it always amazes me that freshly minted ethno-nationalists as well as old hands like Lefort find it difficult to accept or fail to acknowledge that there’s such an animal called Ethiopian nationalism, and that it’s several million strong, is not a monopoly of a particular ethnic group and that it cuts across all ethnic boundaries and has been in existence for a very long time, is resilient and is the bedrock that guarantees the survival of the nation.

    • Not true regarding Ethiopian nationalisms. It’s claimed and thought the country belongs only to one tribe, one language and one religion and this tribe feels Ethiopian nationalism. The rest never likes the flag, the language , etc.

      • @Zack: It might be true, due to historical incidences, one religion may have dominance over the other; one language, over others … But it does not mean the people do not feel Ethiopian nationalism. How come people from Welega, Gojam, Gambela … came together to fight in the war with Eritrea? To my recollection there were no any enforced listing, or they were not mercenaries hired by the government. If we follow your logic, Muslims, Blacks … in the US or the Aborigines in Australia, because they feel (they are) relatively less privileged, should do not have that patriotism in them. Their situations are even incomparable to us. Is there ethnic based differences in education, health and life expectancy in Ethiopia?

  • It ya great article. I have no doubt that our beloved country has fallen in to the hands a narcissist leader who only care about his own power. What makes me so sad is that after a 29 years of brutal administration by facist Woyane, Ethiopia has now fallen in to a man who has no ideology, no conviction, no leadership and creativity. How does our elites allowed this to happen? History will never forgive you all those who are watching this disaster unfolding in our country. How our elites allowed unrepentant EPRDF cadre took power and now making us a laughing stock. Abiye has got no leadership skills and he has got no mandate at all to lead our beloved county. Our country need someone who has a broad support from all the regions to bring stability both politically and economically. Our economy is heading to utter collapse. Inflation is rising alarmingly, the banks are running out of cash & unemployment is so high that over 70-80% of school leavers and graduates are not able to find a job. Where are we heading to? Lawlessness is so rampant, there’s so security in the country but Abiye is promising us the heaven in his daily Pentecostal style preach. Yet some lousy elites are telling us that we will all be fine. Most of these elites either lives in the US with utter comfort or they are getting paid large amount of US dollars by UNDP. The situation in the country are getting worse by day. Some are condemning Woyane as a cause of all the ills, some are condemning Jawar, some still happy to blame the Amhara elites. But the root cause of our problems are nothing other than EPRDF and Abiye. We Ethiopians deserve a better leadership.

  • I don’t disagree with the author in the majority of the issues he raised and his analysis. However, the author could and should have tried to be a bit neutral. I feel that the author looked sentimental toward TPLF to the extent that he glossed over the misery and subjugation of the Tigrayan people at the hands of the TPLF and called Tigray the only peaceful region in current Ethiopia.

    I would like the author to respond to a credibility question. The author says, “For example, several high officials and journalists in Mekele and Addis Ababa have reported that during a meeting with around 50 Tigrayan businessmen on 24 November, gathered to start a shuttle diplomacy between him and the TPLF, Abiy said: “I am the leader for the next five years; if I don’t get enough votes in the ballot boxes, I will rig the elections”. His justification: “This is Africa”.” Was the author in the meeting? Because if the author was not there or has a direct evidence to show the direct quote, the author’s credibility is questionable. Given the intent of the meeting that the Prime Minister and the 50 Tigrayan businessmen, I don’t think the author had a chance to be a participant. How does the author defend himself here?

  • I think, by working on Ethiopia’s problem for extended period of time, Mr Lefort has become Ethiopian himself that he seems to choose his side. You can say anything about this article but not that it is unfairly balanced. I really do not want to imagine or even think about the possibility of a war between Addis Ababa and Mekele. However, how on earth one would think a militia force (I do not care how organized it would be) would go toe to toe with a State with a highly mechanized force … unless that person is Daniel Berhane 🙂

    Abiy said he is going to rig the election … according to, probably, his worst enemies. Does this really mean anything?

    The country may still be in a deep shit but today is much better than yesterday: last year, the country seemed to go through a civil war (part of Oromia held hostage by OLF), and to explode with EPRDF … which we do not see that danger today. I really see hope now. And if Mr. Lefort reads, time to time, what he has written before, makes a comparison and sees how things are developing, I am sure he would be optimistic as well.

  • Ethiopia will survive in a way nobody could beleave how it happened it is just a labour time be patient and positive.

  • Doomsday analysis. Foreigners underestimate Ethiopian nationalism by equating it with only Amhara. Ethiopia will survive Ethnic “warfare” and estabilish a govt for the people by the people under One Ethiopia !!!!

    • Sounds naive, or at best dismissive.

      The writer understood the problem way better than most natives including those in leadership.

      Wishful thinking and slogans would not solve any of the glaring issues.

  • Thank you for this well written analysis on the current Ethiopian political situation. It opened my eyes in many areas.
    How ever I don’t believe that Abiy is the Wright leader to take Ethiopia into a peaceful vibrant and stable country.
    Ethiopians by their historical backgrounds, are independent, prone and willing to go into conflict, and reject a weak leader.
    Our history in the last 100 years showed that those who stayed in power are those who are either and or politically savy cunning and brutal.
    Abiy lacks these qualities badly.
    Remember Ethiopia is a third world country and these qualities for a third world leader are imperative.
    I say let’s us have a peaceful election but let’s look around for a “person” that will rule Ethiopia into a peaceful and stable future.
    What Ethiopia needs first and foremost is that its over eighty ethnic groups live and move around peacifuly within the country to earn their daily bred, all the rest will come later.

  • Very interesting read. This  I think is as insightful and sober as any foreign observer can get.

    However, you have missed to cover Isayas Afeworki’s hand in the current Ethiopian political dynamics/realities, which is dangerously deep. Other than that I found it to be the best comprehensive analysis.

    Thank you

  • Mr. Rene Lefort. First I would like to thank you for your concern! I have read the article. There are so many things you did not see or you do not want to see. We know that almost all listed problems have been seen in my country, Ethiopia. But the cause is not as you said. There are so many political driven Ethiopian enemies. They always want to go against to him. He is trying to continue his work to save Ethiopia. I hope you and some of Ethiopian people will understand him at the middle of his journey. Actually we most of Ethiopian currently agree by one thing, Abiy is the only solution for Ethiopia to be continued sovereign country. Some of your evidences are rumors and not certified. Abiy never said I am the next 5 year leader. Ideas are not flowing from the opposition parties but only criticism. This day and night criticism has made the people unsecured!!!!
    Try to write based on evidences and its cause.

    • “Actually we most of Ethiopian currently agree by one thing, Abiy is the only solution for Ethiopia to be continued sovereign country” really? quite the contrary, PM Abiy lacks quality of leadership badly needed in Ethiopia and the current state the country is in, in fact if it wasn’t for the westerners support, I doubt if he would still be in power.
      and yes he said “I am the leader for the next five years; if I don’t get enough votes in the ballot boxes, I will rig the elections” justifying it as after all this is an Africa affair, its clear to see his tendencies to dictate all if not everything that is going on right now.

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  • It is a tragedy that the USA is destablizing the world by pressing a self senteted agena all the tome!
    I believe that no mstter it may take Oromia and all other nation and nationslities will decide on their affairs! I appreciate Ren’e Lafirt for your indightfull and informative and a wake upp call for west to refrain from altering nations very right to determine on thir affair!

  • You often make important contribution. Unfortunately for this article you seem to choose to believe every negative thing said and implied about Abiy. You also do not seem to question whether the interviewees and authors of the articles you relied on were making false claims. And how can you say Abiy is flying solo? Are not you aware of thousands publicly demonstrating their support to him? Even the most politically mature groups and individuals that were actively opposing the TPLF/EPRDF regime are now supporting Abiy’s government?

    The churches are almost always full because Ethiopians are among the most religious people in the world. Why do you imply as if people frequent the church out of fear and lack of order? Elders complaining about the younger generation not listening to their parents is common everywhere. How do you link this with Abiy’s leadership?

    You also claim Abiy does what he does relying on a false hope that the “West will give him carte blanche.” It is true that Abiy sees the west as an important ally. In fact he believes building a win-win partnership with all countries. But he is very clear that all countries are busy advancing their own interests and as such there is no free lunch.

    • PM Abiy Ahmed’s incompetence is the main reason Ethiopia’s Transition is dragged back with full of hopelessness in side the whole country.PM Abiy’s best friends are the rude dictator Isayas Afewerqi of Eritrea & the back ward Arab Kingdoms so what can we expect from such a cursed leader may god save us from disintegration & Chaos.
      Thanks Rene Lefort for your insight.

    • no my friend, think again! this is the most insightful and well researched article I read in a long time and I was 100% behind PM Abiy when he came to power, almost everything about him is lost in vain if you want me to be honest.

    • Why only northern Ethiopian Churches mentioned here. There is ither bigger religion too.
      This is not feudal time of one religion oppress others.
      Religion should stay intheir nitch and leave the country alone. The lighter religion involvement the better the country will be. Secular.

  • we support PM Dr Abiy! Currently the onlyone who is disturbing Ethiopia for the sake of Egyptian bendfit is Jawar Mohammed !! you should see the other side of the story too!

  • The situation is better at this time actually Ethiopian internal politics is not easy to understand specially for foreign observers.

  • Finally, someone from the west is coming to its senses. Abiy is neither a democrat nor a peacemaker. He populist and an opportunist puppy of the highest bidder.

    • Most of what you have raised are happening in Ethiopian. There massive crackdown opposition parties, land grab, killing ,no internet service in some part of region totally for past two months. Above all our puppet PM is trying to impose the old emperial system upon us. For me the only toxin in this country is himself, PM.

    • The author showed clear bias in his writing. He has an intense pesimism about Ethiopia under Abiy and an excruciatingly painful regret about TPLF’s loss of power.

      Some of the paragraphs that talk about TPLF look they were copied from TPLF’s official documents. Obviously, the author had a very good relationship with TPLF leaders for the last 30 decades. If that relationship clouded his perception and he agrandize the TPLF as he did, it is understandable.

      As for the author’s stand on Abiy, the author should not have to quote what Abiy told the 5o bussiness men from Tigray unless the author himself participated in the meeting which I believe he did not.

      Ladt but least, the author accused the west of looking the other way to what happened in some parts of Ethiopia under Abiy’s rule. However, he chose to say nothing about the suffering of people in the Tigray region at the hands of the TPLF.

  • The situation is better than two years ago. Prosperity Party, while relatively unpopular, is also more disciplined and focused than ever before. The security forces acknowledge the authority of the party.

    Abiy has to navigate the maze of conflicting interest groups – it can satisfy the urban Oromo ideologues, but at the expense of alienating many others – to stabilize the power vertical, “Mengist” or “Motumma”.

    An advice : dont compromise on the Orthodox Church. Its one the mains pillars of stability.

    • What? Who made northern Ethiopian Church a pillar for the whole country. No wonder, when your religion and feudal ruled for a century, there were starvation, building churches not school, oppression, slavery, etc.
      TPLF changed the country swiftly in 27 years. Why? Because they were secular though made a u-turn at the end to embrace back ward
      feudal system by attacking the majority oppressed religion. Thus resulted in their downfall.
      Take your religion with you if you love this poor country to flourish. You are minority in reality.

  • The article is fairly written.
    Dialogue is critically important to divert the discussed very likely upcoming political messes in Ethiopia!

    • ‘God only save us…you can only relay on your self and your arms to protect your evirons’. And so on and so forth.If this isn’t the quasi collapse of the law and order of the nation, I don’t what it is.
      Who to blame for this mess? The blame lies with the former TPLF/ EPRDF crooks
      who politicized, exploited and commodified so much social secterianism to stay in power . Equally, the blame lies with the likes of hypocrites Megarsa and Abye’ and company who rode on the back of such perverted and negativee sentiments to achieve their political goals without thinking potential consequences of such unconscionable tactics Remedies and solutions or remedies for the crisis? Don’t bet on a miracle any time soon. Worest of all, the contrast of the current anarchy and chaos to the 1970s by the youth is that the former anchored on class divisions and there was a sense of belonging as a society and citizenry whilst the current one is based on perception of not necessarily equality and democratic ideals but on perception of ethnic grievances and religious fault line.

      • As for the dangerous religious dimension, look no further than the absurd and brazen accusation and condemnation
        of the privileged and pumpered Orthodox Churche issues against the weak regime every now and then.