Viewpoint

From his pulpit, amid a crisis, Abiy regally dismisses all opponents

After unilaterally deciding that Prosperity Party will govern until elections, the type of ruling system the Nobel laureate yearns for becomes clearer and clearer

History may show that last week was a decisive moment in the post-EPRDF era. Albeit a clear sign that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is heading in the wrong direction.

On 27 April, Prosperity Party’s Central Committee chose constitutional interpretation among the now famous four options to overcome the constitutional crisis: dissolving parliament; declaring a state of emergency; constitutional amendment; and constitutional interpretation. In advance, the government tasked a team of “highly reputable legal experts” to conduct an in-depth analysis. This was disclosed by the Prime Minister only ten days later in his 7 May address. The legal team’s composition is not public.

As if the four options were still on the table, Abiy then “consulted” opposition leaders about them on 29 and 30 April. He told his social media followers the meeting was “fruitful”, but on the occasion he also attacked the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

To the first, as one its former militant wing is engaged in an armed struggle in Wellega, he said: “You cannot stand on the peaceful and legal struggle and armed activity”. For the second: “practice democracy on your turf. You cannot repress in Tigray and demand a free and open forum in the Federal government”.  Furthermore, he condemned those political forces allegedly working with enemies of Ethiopia. He called them “banda”, the label for Ethiopians who collaborated with Italian invaders after 1935.

On 3 May, Jawar Mohammed, now a senior Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) figure, wrote: “the decision on the date of the national elections and the type of provisional administration we will have in the interim period between September and election time should only be made after proper dialogue and agreement with all political parties and concerned stakeholders including civil society organizations”.

A day later, federalist opposition parties, including OLF and OFC, said they were “seeking a legitimate political consensus on how to manage the constitutional crisis the country is facing”, through “the deliberation and negotiation (of the registered parties) facilitated by entities who do not have direct involvement in electoral affairs and do not have a vested interest in the outcome…The final agreement reached by the parties should be binding.”

Officials and constitutional specialists have been offering their views on how to overcome the crisis. Even when supporting the interpretation option, some, like Solomon Dersso, who sits on the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, have articulated proposals on how to make the process more inclusive for political forces and civil society representatives.

The TPLF now positions itself as the champion of the constitution, even though constitutionally protected civil rights were frequently violated during its period of pre-eminence. It announced it wants to hold regional elections in Tigray independently from the rest of the country, which is legally debatable. Electoral board chair Birtukan Mideksa, a former opposition leader, despite having no mandate to speak on this issue, stated this was “unconstitutional”. The TPLF seems increasingly set on confronting Abiy, but its rigidity and refusal to make a sincere assessment of its controversial rule maintains its isolation from ethno-nationalist forces who would be its natural allies.

On 4 May the House of Peoples’ Representatives, the lower legislative house, announced it would hold a special session the following day. On 5 May, it voted in a similar hurry—the debate lasted less than two hours—to endorse interpretation.

The next day, Alemu Sime, Political and Civic Affairs Head of Prosperity Party, stated that regarding the interpretation option “any other alternatives being informally raised by some citizens is unconstitutional and unacceptable”. Thus, all dissenting voices, including even those who backed interpretation but suggested making it more inclusive, were rejected. Abiy confirmed this position in his 7 May address.

The primary conclusion to draw from this sequence of events is that it would have been hard for the incumbent to express a more reckless disregard for dissenting voices, regardless of how constructive they are, from opposition or civil society, and thus to have done more to derail the “democratic transition”.

True, the opposition is presently toothless. It cannot use its favourite tools, demonstrations, road blocks, etc, because it would then—justifiably—be accused of undermining the struggle against the pandemic. The whole political scene is frozen—except in the palace. The pandemic gives Abiy a strong ally: time. But he has further jeopardized a peaceful future by dismissing these actors. They may well have a strong motivation to return to the streets again when the health situation normalizes.

Tactically, Abiy could have tried, or at least looked as if he was trying, to find a compromise with the Oromo opposition so as to further isolate TPLF. But he apparently feels strong enough to rule without the support of any strong opposition constituency and also against the democratic push from civil society.

Abiy’s camp has used a legal means—one could say legalistic—to try and sidestep a problem that is essentially political and thus could only be sustainably solved through a political process. Despite the prime minister’s claims, Prosperity Party controls all the involved institutions, including the House of Federation, the upper dispute-resolving chamber of parliament, and the autonomy of the Council of Constitutional Inquiry is questionable. Therefore, even if nobody knows for certain the outcome of the interpretation process, it is highly improbable that it will throw up a nasty surprise for Prosperity Party and its leader.

But before the interpretation has been concluded, despite declaring that the body in charge of it, the Council of Constitutional Inquiry, a kind of advisory version of a constitutional court, “is an independent collection of professionals”, even this legalistic window-dressing has been peeled away. Abiy said that “Prosperity Party is a political party that is responsible for everything including managing COVID-19 threat and continues to govern the country until the next election period”. To justify the legitimacy of the ruling party to do so, the prime minister asserted that Prosperity Party is one of the parties “favoured by the majority for winning the next election”.

This approach violates the separation of powers, one of the pillars of democracy. How could the prime minister executively announce that his government will remain in place until the next election period before the Council of Constitutional Inquiry has concluded its work and before the House of the Federation—part of the legislative branch—makes its decision on the Council’s recommendation?

In addition, after a strong warning that “the demand to get power through illegal ways or by trying to undertake illegal elections is unacceptable,” Abiy did not utter one word to extend his hand to the opposition.

I recently wrote “Abiy seems to have deprioritized the transition’s success in favour of becoming the next in a long line of Ethiopian ‘Big Man’ rulers”. This is confirmed by recent events. The ruling system the Nobel laureate yearns for becomes clearer and clearer.

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This is the author’s viewpoint. However, Ethiopia Insight will correct clear factual errors.

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More Insight from René Lefort

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

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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.

32 Comments

  • Man….. you don’t know anything about my country. It is rubbish. May be your article is useful for TPLF/OFC propoganda. Please leave us alone don’t add fuel in our pain.

  • I do not feel this writer feels most ethiopians feel and undestand their real issues.
    Without balanced facts. Generally, I think he is one of the big voices who do not want to see the nation firm sranding on its foot.

  • Abiy Ahmed is a delusional narcist who will do anything to stay in power .

    From back stabbing hus comarades to befriending the worst dictator Isayas of Eretria , who waged war and caused the death of thousands of ethiopians and eretrians .

    Abiy Ahmed claims that he has a prophecy from his mother to be the 7th king .He is devoid of any knowledge in constitution and federalism .

    The TPLF humbly left all the power they have hoping he will be a reformist .but, he proved him self to be a power thirsty ,confused CON ARTIST.

    His demise will be worst that the previous dictators as he is trying to block democratic rights such as electing leaders through ballots .

    His time niw is marred by corruption, nepotism , blood shed and failed diplomacy.

    Self aggrandized clown who acts street smart .

  • I’ve read your articles so far you’ve not predicted Abiy right, All your TPLF supporter friends undermine Abiy he keeps low profile and his enemies think he’s weak. His enemies call him names expected he’ll be ousted guess what he dismantled revolutionary democracy,EPRDF,arrested high rank Tplf Generals ,weakened TPLF.and he took down Kilil 5 arrested Abdi Ile. Judge him by what he did

  • The political fracture between Abiy and TPLF goes back to when Abiy started characterizing TPLF directly or indirectly as 27 years of darkness, daytime hyenas; allowing targeted prosecution, and a mass media frenzy of vilification and defamation of TPLF members. All this happened in such a deliberate way that it is possible Abiy had antipathy towards TPLF before he became PM. And then there is the Eritrea / Ethiopia “peace” that looks more like a personal alliance between Abiy and Isaias intended to exclude TPLF – in effect excluding Tigray region from the consolidation of the peace, right there at the border. Peace is desirable, but this is a “bizarre peace”, a travesty in the Horn of Africa, perhaps not surprising since the Horn is known for political chaos and tragedy.
    Once the current constitutional and political debate is over, for those who believe in the federal framework this much is clear. Some 27 years ago, after years of war and revolution, Ethiopia became a federal republic with a constitution that is now being used for debate about interpretation and political legitimacy. In those same years, Ethiopia embarked on an industrial plan for
    economic revival – agriculture, industrial parks, hydro dams, and GERD to use the water of the Blue Nile. All this, the political and economic dimensions, this was a commitment to nation-building, and TPLF was there along with its EPRDF coalition dedicated to the goal of a better life for the people of Ethiopia. I believe history will show all this to be part of TPLF legacy for Ethiopia, it was a noble cause. No amount of defamation or falsification can alter that history or that legacy.

    • Except that TPLF, a minority group whose constituents account for a mere 5-6% of the whole Ethiopian population, had been trespassing their very own constitution in extra judiciously killing and torturing each and every individual they deem enemy. By doing so, they killed, made disappear, torture and maimed hundreds of thousands of people over their reign. Moreover, the higher echelons of TPLF members ransacked the country to its bone for their own personal gains. Sure, history will remember TPLF for all pains and suffering they caused during their reign.

      • Abiy Ahmed is a delusional narcist who will do anything to stay in power .

        From back stabbing hus comarades to befriending the worst dictator Isayas of Eretria , who waged war and caused the death of thousands of ethiopians and eretrians .

        Abiy Ahmed claims that he has a prophecy from his mother to be the 7th king .He is devoid of any knowledge in constitution and federalism .

        The TPLF humbly left all the power they have hoping he will be a reformist .but, he proved him self to be a power thirsty ,confused CON ARTIST.

        His demise will be worst that the previous dictators as he is trying to block democratic rights such as electing leaders through ballots .

        His time niw is marred by corruption, nepotism , blood shed and failed diplomacy.

        Self aggrandized clown who acts street smart .

  • Its always axiomatically incompatible to expect a poor developing nation to fit into an idealistic notion of liberal democracy. The PM has to be more than a slave to the “democratic “dogma to become competent as a leader of a failing state like Ethiopia. The article lacks nuances which reflect “insight” and the absence of lived experience in the country. The PM is acting like a “leader ” for the first time.

  • At the outset would like to underscore your
    contributions to shade lights on complex &
    Intricate issues in Ethiopia. On theoretical &
    Legal ground it is not justifiable, however in
    the context of the prevailing complex reality
    The constitutionally sound option would be
    A prescription for chaos & turmoil , hence
    Pragmatism must prevail to save Ethiopia

  • The writer has mixed reasonableness and bias. I didn’t get much from this piece. I found the writer whining on behalf of Jawar and TPLF.

  • What an Insight. Dear Rene hats off, what a wonderful piece of writing. you know Ethiopia and its politics more than Ethiopians. I am sure you will not be surprised with negative comments, because you know you are to the right side. from the start of Ethiopian creation we used to hear and write good things about only food things about our kings and president as if the are God. even today people think king Mnilk is a God and they prefer 50 million people to die than to hear any criticism on him. our only source of truth is foreign journalist like you. may God bliss more white people and Rene. my wish is to change the name of Ethiopia, flag of Ethiopia and start fresh, I know 70 minion people will agree agree but 30 million think they will die. but they don’t know we love them as if they are our own and no ill filling what we want is democracy and freedom for all. a country for all. equality for all. we are different but one

  • I wouldn’t go as far as say being a full fledged authoritarian, not by any measure yet, but these latest actions doesn’t aspire confidence in terms of transparency, reforms and inclusive democratic aspirations for the masses and political parties. But then again, to quote familiar political hypocrisy ” politicians are the only arts who disvow their masterpieces.” Furthermore, who are these shadow legalists and constitutionalist gurus depicted as a nonpartisan and benevolents by the way? It is too good to be true that they haven’t partisan motives or vested interest.Another thing kills that me every time heard is this Prosperity Party moniker. If nothing, its based on an alien evangelism branding and concept than real and secular political ideology. Don’t reforms , progress and economics growth come first before anything? But that is for another discussion for another day.

  • Thanks, Mr. Lefort, this is exactly how I felt from the incumbent’s speech in the parliament. It seems like it didn’t take long for Abit to copy what TPLF has been doing for long in Ethiopia. Now the problem is the complicated situation of the whole world because of COVID19. Most politicians will try to use this pandemic as an opportunity and it is not different here.

  • Rene mentions Jawar Mohammed, OLF, OFC in almost all his writings and comes to conclusions based on these groups interests. Is this a mere coincidence or there is some sinister motive behind it? I will give him the benefit of the doubt and say it is a mere coincidence. A person who claims to have been writing on Ethiopian issues since the 1970’s no doubt aware that (or is expected to know that) there are more oppositions groups in Ethiopia than Jawar Mohammed, OLF, OFC. A balanced report should also include the opinions of other oppositions groups, say EZEMA, NAMA, etc. EZEMA, NAMA and other oppositions groups want the legal and constitutional avenue for the constitutional loophole. Nothing else! Case closed!

    • Do you think the later two are prominent than the initial parties. You are not really mature . It looks you are you used your illiteracy as a means for closing of issues.

      • Your insult aside, if the definition of a prominent party is a violent and ultra ethnic parties whose primary motive is power at any cost, then you are right the latter two are not prominent.

        The issue raised by Rene is a closed matter and the key for ‘political dialogue’ pretext to grab power by hook or crook has been thrown into the cesspit. A constitutional issue can only be dealt by constitutional procedures. Now the Council of Constitutional Inquiry (CCI) has made a call for legal experts to submit their opinions. Rene is invited to give his opinion if he knows what constitution or constitutionality mean. If he does not know anything about constitution, he can ask his ultra ethnic cohorts to assist.

    • Thank you brother! It seems for René, the only political parties that matter are ethnic hardliners including TPLF, OLF, OFC etc.

    • Great response Mesfin. A multi party system does indeed include a vast array of political parties currently voicing their position or opposition besides the three aforementioned groups, most notably Jawar, who yes mobilized and spearheaded a forceful opposition that helped topple TPLF. But what about the rest of the parties that are tirelessly involved in the effort to democratize Ethiopian politics? Why the need to be dismissive so early in the formation of a multi-party nation? Having read numerous articles by Mr. Lefort, I am often left questioning the dominance of the OLF, OFC and Jawar narrative repetitively in his articles. This truly does not represent a balanced journalism, particularly when the three groups have demonstrated numerous flaws in their perspective of “inclusion” which oftentimes can be terrifyingly exclusive to the rest of the Ethiopian population and often based on historical narratives of past oppression.

  • PM Abiy wants to popularize himself by creating conflict in b/n Ethiopian peoples and dig deep for his chair not to broken but as of me he is disarrayed from the way.

  • Conjuring at its extreme, and the ease at which the author makes fantastic conclusion with very much surface level reflections hints at a disrespect to the continent’s political process. Par example, doesn’t a speedy election help the incumbent in the Covid-19 context?

  • Who is this Rene. He sounds and writes like typical Ethiopian opposition member.
    One small mention of THE MAJOR issue..COVID.
    Abiy has no choice but to postpone the election.
    The pandemic has not yet seriously arrived in Ethiopia. I hope they can continue to contain it…but just wait and see….

  • This is to remind all potential commenters of our guidelines. If your comment contains insults, or allegations of hidden agendas, etc, then it probably will not be approved.

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  • Africa has a long way to go for a true democratic institution. It’s leaders have to balance between democracy and a strong man’s leadership. Though I am not comfortable with Dr. Abiy I support his current move based on the current situation, the pandemic, the opposition’s scramble for power under the guise of temporary government that is inclusive of all opposition parties, a joke from the buffoons.

    • #Negassa what do you mean report based on evidence? Which evidence is not true. It it crystal clear that the PP becomes a puppet for shortlife.

      Thank you Mr.Lefort for you critical insights. You have a clear picture of what is going on. I found the article totally reported based on facts and evidences on the ground.

      I would rather expect an article from Lefort or William Davidson

      Bests

      Reta Hailu

      • # Reta Hailu….Where do you live man? Do you live in Ethiopia? I don’t think so. Are you suggesting failed state for Ethiopia? I don’t want to live in failed state. As a lay man I support Dr. Abiy views on election stuff, most political parties (especialy the Ethinic based ones) only wants power at any cost. Do you think can we afford transitional government in our current situation? If you think that you are either pure naive or pure evil. Don’t be just “ጥራዝ ነጠቅ”.

  • Please Mr. Lefort instead of becoming a pundit fashioned along the american TV channels pundits (speculation, pure guess and alliance to a political party), try to report the news without taking sides and by the facts.
    The majority of what you wrote above is filled with pundirty views. The only thing I can’t figure out is why.

    • Hello Negassa, can you please inform us by pointing to which part of the author’s assertion/reporting is/are speculation/guesses rather than facts/?

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