Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed should now perform a historic peacemaking role by pursuing an elite bargain.To make sense out of Ethiopia’s political predicament, a Somali folktale about leadership, attitude, and society, comes to mind.
Legend has it, there was once an animal tribe called Reer Dabangaale, meaning the Kangaroo tribe in Somali, ruled by their own king named Dabangaale. Reer Dabangaale was a fully functioning society with their own customs, challenges, resources and a leader. As far as resources go, all they had was a piece of Dhiil —a carved wood multipurpose container filled with milk, a goat, and a machete. That was it.
One day, however, disaster struck, and the goat somehow managed to get its head stuck inside the Dhiil. As they always do when tragedy strikes, Reer Dabangaale gathered around their leader and solicited his guidance. However, Dabangaale, was known for his stubbornness and not for his wits.
He condescendingly asked ‘is it this that you guys can’t figure out?’ They replied ‘yes’. Then yelling and marching orders followed; do this, do that and so on, finally telling them to go and crack the bottom of the Dhiil with their machete. Boom; problem solved!
But, they found out the hard way that not only was the problem not solved but it was exacerbated — the container was wrecked, the milk spilled, and the goat still remained stuck in what’s left of the Dhiil.
Yet, they came back to Dabangaale the leader, explaining what happened. This time, he told them to slaughter the goat; and boom, problem solved. As they were about to leave, Dabangaale wept hysterically about the poor state of his folks and how he is worried about their very existence when he is no longer around.
With their only container wrecked and their milk wasted earlier; now Reer Dabangaale would have to go back and slaughter their only goat, leaving them bankrupt and broken.
The moral of the story: those expected to solve our problems can actually worsen them beyond repair either through their incompetence or ignorance.
Since the advent of the modern Ethiopian era, there have been numerous moments to redress historical injustices and build a fairer society embracing a plurality of ideas and peoples. Unfortunately, we have not been able to take advantage of them. Even now, it seems we are wasting another once-in-a-generation opportunity.
Yet, however, it is not all gloom and doom. There is still a chance to salvage the tottering transition—and, above all, that means the prime minister stepping down from the lectern, and starting to listen.
Yet first, we must all deal with our past.
A failure to reach consensus over what had happened to southern peoples during the Imperial era still causes bitter dispute and indeed is threatening more than ever to wreck Ethiopia. Positions remain polarized, and few sincere attempts have been made to arrive at a common understanding on these controversial events.
Any national consensus needs deep soul-searching that lays the groundwork for addressing what we can call Ethiopia’s ‘original sin’—the subjugation, oppression and subsequent marginalization of the nations and nationalities upon which it was built.
Rather than settling for the revisionism advanced by imperial apologists, the historically disenfranchised people of the broader south should advocate for an official apology. The Ethiopian government should officially recognize the historical cruelties of past Ethiopian regimes, just like the prime minister did for the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) era.
Though not sufficient, a State apology would go a long way in terms of bridging the social, cultural, and political rifts that we so desperately need to start closing.
If the definition of insanity is repeating the same mistake, then persistently trekking the same path of exclusion and disenfranchisement, rather than opening the political space to accommodate divergent views, would not only be insane, but catastrophic. Looking at where we are after decades of tyranny, it goes without saying that our leaders should not silence political opponents, not matter how provocative they are.
Rather than marginalizing, what was needed was the attitude Merera Gudina, the Oromo Federalist Congress leader, displayed last year when he prophetically asserted that it would be misguided to cut the formerly dominant Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) out of the political bargain.
The standoff between Abiy and the TPLF, a formidable political force that should not have been underestimated, has now escalated to the point that an independent ‘Republic of Tigray’ is not a fringe idea anymore. As long as Tigray’s ruling party persists in challenging the legitimacy of the federal government, and the prime minister, in turn, keeps ridiculing an election in which millions have participated as ‘shanty’ poll, or the House of Federation insists on cutting budget subsidies to the region, we are likely to eventually cross a dangerous threshold, if we have not already. Though the House of Federation’s restraint from calling for military intervention was a relief, the problem remains and the legal cover is there for such destabilizing measures.
The federal government’s confusion regarding Tigray became apparent when it declared an election unconstitutional, and yet did nothing about it. Having declined to act coercively, the federal government should now engage the regional government in Tigray and strive to resolve the current impasse amicably. For this to happen, the TPLF will have to start cooperating; it can still insist on its call for a “caretaker” administration, as that is what is needed, but should diplomatically tone down the rhetoric about ‘illegitimacy’ in the interests of getting around the table to collectively work out a path forward.
The same approach should be followed by the federal government in engaging the Oromo Liberation Front, Oromo Federalist Congress, Balderas Movement for Genuine Democracy and jailed political figures that enjoy large followings, like Jawar Mohammed, Bekele Gerba, and Eskinder Nega—accommodation.
That does not mean, of course, that political figures should be immune from prosecution, but that they should not be subjected to politically motivated trials by an unreformed justice system in the midst of a make or break transition. So far, the wild allegations and clumsy procedure feels like a replay of the EPRDF’s show trials.
For the accommodation approach to work, the role of the Amhara wing of Prosperity Party, a power faction within the ruling establishment, and whose support Abiy has come to increasingly rely on, needs to be acknowledged.
When Abiy lost his Oromo base, what is left of the sequestered Oromia ruling party was relegated to the status of junior partners. And the Amhara branch of Prosperity Party picked up the slack, gaining significant influence to drive both the narrative and day-to-day affairs of the Ethiopian state.
Their disproportionate influence on military, security and political policy is where the strong-arming of the Tigray and Oromo opposition, the undermining of Southern Nations’ constitutional regional statehood demands, and the high-profile trials can be traced to.
One example to understand these dynamics is the influence that Benalf Andualem enjoys as the head of the Prosperity Party’s Secretariat and as one of the most powerful figures after Abiy and his Amhara deputy Demeke Mokonnen, including a solid grip on Somali region, as I chronicled here.
Now, having profited from Abiy’s vacillations as de facto Enderasewoch, the power behind the throne, Amhara PP should rise to the occasion by taking responsibility for the disastrous political and security predicament we are in rather than forging ahead into the chasm.
Abiy’s historic role
Arguably, Abiy’s reputation is already irreparably tarnished by his handling of the transition, violence against political figures and civilians, including reports of soldiers shooting at imams, mothers and kids in mosques, in their homes, and on the streets. Moreover, the rounding up of more than 10,000 citizens, political leaders and journalists, as well as the move to shut down media organizations, has damaged his government’s image at home and abroad.
For Abiy to salvage his legacy, and whatever is left of the ‘reform’ initiative, he must chart a much more broadly-based transition in which he retains only a limited role.
The first step towards rectifying the crisis would be an amnesty for all senior arrested political figures. The next step should be for Abiy to realize that the postponement of elections through a legally controversial scheme that was rubber-stamped by a chamber of unelected party loyalists does not cut it.
Instead, given that elections were delayed beyond the expiry of the governments’ terms, given the constitution’s clear stipulations on such matters, and given the transitional nature of all our administrations, a comprehensive political settlement inclusive of all stakeholders is the only way to regain popular support, legitimacy, and stability.
At a minimum, any agreed solution must provide a roadmap to elections that addresses the timetable, the schedule for the delayed census, and concerns over fair representation. It should also involve closer scrutiny of key democratic bodies like the National Electoral Board and the Human Rights Commission and the people entrusted to lead them.
Because, sadly, election chief Birtukan Mideksa’s prior affiliations; her premature, unilateral, and ultimately, seismic election postponement; and her recent handling of reported turmoil at the board cast doubt on her and the board’s neutrality.
Likewise, Human Rights Commissioner Daniel Bekele has employed government talking points like blaming “the opening up of the political space” for the violence, as if the transition has not been mismanaged, as with the Asaminew Tsige and OLF debacles—and as if the “opening up” was not a necessary response to the years-long violence that brought the state to the brink of collapse.
It is counter-intuitive anyway to suggest that more political freedom has led to more political violence, while the commissioner’s excusing of prisoner abuses on the government’s limited capacity, and his commission’s apparently uneven concern for Amhara victims, whether in Benishangul-Gumuz or Oromia, compared to, say Oromo and Somali victims, is also worrying.
For example, in just over a month, Somali region security forces killed five civilian protesters and injured 19 others in a town called Raaso, Afdheer Zone, a police officer opened fire on a group of people who tried to intervene and stop him from beating up on a young boy in Kebridahar injuring eleven of them, and as recent as 17 October, security forces killed two young women and injured a man in Eel-Ogaden Woreda. So far, nothing has been heard from Daniel’s Commission about these incidents.
A Grand Elite Bargain is a must now, and it must come with a caretaker administration in order to oversee elections and achieve the political inclusivity that almost all actors other than PP have called for. This would mean that Abiy leads an interim government that presides over elections—but with the condition that he step aside as PP leader and therefore step up as a a once-in-a-generation statesman whose legacy as a reformist and far-sighted bridge-builder has been secured.
This may seem a long way off, but the country’s future is on the line, and Abiy’s graceful, magnanimous exit is needed to build trust into the process, otherwise he will have a direct personal stake in the outcome. It is thus a compromise and a guarantee to secure the full cooperation of his opponents, without which the country may well fall apart.
And it is even more necessary as Abiy has thus far made highly questionable decisions at critical moments. These include the rushed dissolution of regional parties, his empowering of individuals who appear to have nostalgia for the past and are set on dismantling the multinational federal structure, the unilateral election delay, the jailing of opponents and the crackdown of protesters, and his perceived lack of seriousness about an inclusive National Dialogue.
Abiy’s approach has thus further strained an already polarized discourse. The best he can do now is to facilitate a transition that ensures the peace and unity that he has so often evoked eloquently and for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize last year. It is time for the prime minister to reciprocate the generosity of Ethiopians when they embraced him as a reformist savior, despite him ascending as an insider of the three-decades-long EPRDF regime.
Given that in reality Abiy and the ruling party’s limited mandate was to manage the transition by organizing transformative elections, it is time our prime minister earns his prematurely awarded peacemaker credentials, and acts like our temporary democratic leader and a Nobel laureate, rather than Ethiopia’s seventh king with the heavenly mandate that his mother envisaged for him.
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Main photo: Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed after receiving the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize.
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