Viewpoint

Preventing Ethiopia’s descent into a failed state

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.

Soul cleansing

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.

Accommodation

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.

Grand bargain

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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About the author

Mohamed Olad

Mohamed is a former Media and Communications Advisor to Somali Region acting president Mustafa Omer. Follow him on Twitter @oladmohamed or email him at mohamedolad88@gmail.com

28 Comments

  • Even though there might be irregularities with the current government. It is really pity how everybody criticize and reflect only their interest. Though your article is very well written, it failed on neutral observation and really coincides with hate and anger toward one ethnicity. And it’s not a rushed decision when the prime minister dissolves EPRDF. When a meaure is taken to distant the politicts from ethnicity, it is not being nostalgic about the past, it is a way forward ahead.

  • Bravo! Very well written and considered article which resonates in every paragraph with my experiences of documenting abuses throughout Ethiopia over the last 26 years. The author should be congratulated on his succinct non-accusatory statements of fact and I share with him the anxiety that those who wish to return to unitary authoritarian rule may stop at nothing in pursuing their objective.
    How many Amhara lives is Abiy willing to sacrifice in his attempts to vilify Oromo people and their organisations? The recent killings and pillage at Guliso were obviously staged to besmirch OLA and OLF. It is a dangerous man who is willing to sacrifice his supporters in order to score propaganda points like this.
    The broad representative transitional administration which is suggested by the author will enable and facilitate dialogue so that a constructive and rights-based solution to Ethiopia’s government’s present crisis of legitimacy can be allowed to evolve.
    Polarisation, barrier-building and ditch-digging between opposing camps solves nothing. Imposition of rule from above without the permission of citizens is so last century.

  • First and foremost the Federal Government of Ethiopia should deem the terrorist incubators Balderas and Amara National Movement political parties as the terrorist organizations they are and take a decisive action to bring all their members to justice.

  • Excellent observation. Isnt it already descended into failure? Let me see if I get this straight as far as a criteria of failed or general decline of the state is concerned: among others, 1) an erosion of its legitimacy in the eyes of its citizens and public ; 2) lack of control over parts its sovereign territories,: 3) non-existent or weakness to carry out basic public services; 4) the break down of law and order and thus a danger of safety of public.; 5) a rampant and
    through of unconstitutionall means to violate and trample citizens rights; 7) a lack of accountability and widespread corruption of public institutions; 8) a tendency of authoritarianism practice where the rule becomes synonymous with whims of the ruler or few cult personalities iinstead of with national institutions and public norms and so on. I’m afraid we do see some of these signs, if not all.

    • Awale: Sadly all those ailments manifest themselves but it doesn’t hurt to be a bit optimistic about serious matters like these.

  • Prosecution, media vilification, economic retribution, exclusion from the federal government, border closures, exclusion from “peace’ with Eritrea – these are some of the conditions of animosity and political vendetta used against TPLF/Tigray, contrary to what Abiy had said would be a new era of reconciliation and goodwill.

  • – If founding a nation through imperialism is an original sin, then all modern countries including the US were built illegitimately. Should we restart world history for the sake of some ethnic nationalists? Stop acting like past Ethiopian monarchies invented imperialism.

    – When more than half of the top posts in Abiy’s government are made up of Oromo, Southerners, Muslims, women, and other minorities, I don’t know what apology you are requesting. Abiy could have made leaps on his reforms by now if the grievance masters wouldn’t go out protesting everyday for every local problem they may encounter.

    – Current Amhara generation have suffered enough sacrificing their own progress in the name of equality, historical injustice, and fairness . Go anywhere in Ethiopia today, each and every region is being ruled by people of their own ethnicity. Ethiopia is moving forward with Abiy and that’s that!

  • The Ethiopian government is sending sleeping cells spies into Tigray to sabotage TPLF from within inside, which is highly concerning given the current fragile relationship the Amara region got with the Tigray region.

  • This is the most biased and one sided article as most of the article i happen to read on this side. The author is suggesting that we need more of the past 27 years than a system of governance that promotes equality, fairness and justice. As we have lived through the past 30 years, in the name of Ethnic Federalism what is witnessed in the promotion of ethnic lords and a lopsided governance where minorities in any other regions are considered as outsiders with no political representation.

    Contrary to the authors assertions, we didn’t in any way observe the interference of the current administration in the affairs of Tigrai Regional government. As clearly stipulated in the constitution which was crafted by TPLF/OLF ethnic lords, proportional representation in the federal affairs is the norm. TPLF at the time brought about such a system assuming that they would stay at the helm for eternity. Otherwise a minority with only 5% would never have vouched for such a system. Now what the new administration doing is implementing the supreme law as written without the slightest change…and enjoying the benefits accorded to them. The author seems to be unhappy that the Oromo block is applying the rule and steering the country to be governed by the law and taking what they are granted.

    To make matters worse, the author is busy bashing the Amhara wing of the prosperity party which is by any standard not even representing the aspirations of its constituency. He does seem to believe that the endless murdering of Amharas in every corner of the country is because they are enjoying the benefits of the so called change brought about after TPLF retreated to MeQele. One wonders that according to the author unless the complete liquidation of the Amhara people is achieved, the country Ethiopia should never exists.

    I failed to see any suggestion in the whole text that tries to address the reason why TPLF is so unhappy about and what could be given to TPLF to bring them to the table short of reinstalling their former dominance in all spheres of lives in the country be it political, economic or social. Blaming the long gone emperors or the brutal military junta and blaming the amhara people as people for all the ills of those regimes and forgetting to address what we went thru in the past 27 years is very disingenuous to say the least.

  • Ethiopians got an average income of about one thousand dollars per year per person.
    Ethiopia is about to complete building the GERD soon.
    Ethiopia got peace for close two decades now.
    There is no way Tigray or any other region will declare independence when democracy is insured to every region to govern their own region as it is being done now with little intervention from the central government.

  • The article is informative and insightful.

    Abiy has been part of the political problem the country is facing ever since he assumed power. He cannot be part of the solution. He botched up the transition. Many people tortured, mistreated, killed and detained under his regime.

    He, therefore, should be brought to book.

  • The author states:

    “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 …..”

    Let us go through this statement step by step:

    “A Grand Elite Bargain is a must now …”: You make it sound easy. The so called elite grand bargain would have been achieved already. It seems to me the politicians are standing on opposite corners. There are more than 100 million people in Ethiopia. Who gave these so called elites the right to call the shots and governance. Maybe these so called elites should learn from the men, women, and children on the street and villages on how to co-exist peacefully. It seems to me these so called elites are the problem ….

    “…and it must come with a caretaker administration …”:

    Do you know what this statement means? Given the observation I made about our so called elites above I find this statement irresponsible. Let me ask you a question: Have you ever run a small organization that consists of say 10 people. Do you know how hard it is to manage all the competing requirements? Well I have. Now think about admistering a country of more than 100 million people with endless problems. Be careful what you wish for …..

    In my view the current adminstration led by Abiy Ahmed seems to be, in balance, following a better trajectory than any of the ones that ruled the country over the past 50 years. Time will tell if this statement is premature. I am confident non the less.

    Ethiopian politics needs to change so that individual rights supersede group rights. Today you are Amara, Somali, Oromo, etc. first and an individual much later. This needs to change. Otherwise there is no room for people like me: I am 50% oromo, 25% gurage, 25% amara. I dont need to be forced to choose a group.

    The sad commentary of our ethnic politics is this: This whole ethnicity-first setup was imposed by TPLF (the dominant groups within EPRDF) in the early 1990s. TPLF used Soviet Union and Yugoslavia as a model and yet these two countries were imploding while TPLF blindly implemented this ideology on Ethiopia. Fast forward 29 years and we are here.

    Dont get me wrong — I want every lanaguage, culture, customs (at least customs that should be maintained) to flourish. That can be achieved while at same time placing the right’s and identities of the individual first and group rights second.

    • Dibiya, You hit the nail on the head. The so called elites are a bunch of arrogant blood sucker leaches. They are incompetent to make a living outside of the ethnic political arena.

  • Wonderful analysis of the existing political problem we are in.
    Amhara elites don’t wanna hear the truth especially when it’s told by non-Amhara. These guys are the root cause for Ethiopia’s Political backwardness as they still live in the past dreaming about Ethiopia’s “Glorious Era@Past”, the glory that never existed.
    What is more, they want their political opponents killed or imprisoned as they don’t believe in the power of the electorate to freely choose their representatives via free&fair elections.
    That is why they rejoiced over politically motivated charges against Jawar&et-al. And they endlessly talk ill about Oromo political leaders. How on earth can one think of building democratic Ethiopia with such lunatics?

    • As a matter of fact, it is such toxic & fake tales of victim hood sentiment that is creating wreck havock in Ethiopia region. Made in TPLF and its toys/likes.

  • Wow a great article. You only forgot to mention he should have avoided courting Essayas for political advice. That man is bad news for the whole of horn of Africa

  • The piece is biased and the recommendations provided are impractical given the circumstances.
    The arrested political leaders Jawar Mohammed and Bekele Gerba deserve to serve time in prison whatever that time may be as long as the court decides. They have blood in their hands and it is astounding that the author glossed over what everyone with half a brain understands. There was enough reason to charge them with the alleged crime they are accused of conspiring and coordinating.

    The only political prisoner known to the whole world is Lidetu Ayalew. That is because he is still detained even though the court decided that he must be released. The other political leaders are still waiting for the court’s decision.

    The author whines that the founding fathers of Ethiopia made a huge mistake during the establishment of Ethiopia. And the author blames them for disenfranchising the southerner. The author impliedly shows that the northerners, easterners and westerners had a happy and prosperous life during the time of the kings and feudalism was rampant in the world. The author cannot be more wrong. The truth is, when Ethiopia was established, the customary nation building method was force. That how nations were established then. The founders of Ethiopia at the time didn’t ‘disenfranchise’ specific ethnic groups or group of ethnic groups contrary to what contemporary incompetent politicians would like us believe. There is no SINGLE ethnic group that does not complain about the past now. I have no idea which ethnic group should officially apologize to which ethnic group for what happened during the establishment of Ethiopia. Such a demand is political disingenuous treachery.

    Further more, if the author believes that the earlier establishment didn’t work and was very bad, where did he get the temerity to claim that the ethnic federalism that crumbled in less 3 decades is the best system that deserves to be salvaged? Ethnic federalism is what drove Somali Ethiopians to kill and displace their Oromo brothers and sisters in biblical proportions just 2 years ago. Ethnic federalism is the cancer that needs to be nipped in its bud. And the time is now. What needs to replace is is debatable that requires stakeholder to come together for political negotiation.

    As the founder of ethnic federalism ethnic political parties are packed with incompetent blood suckers. The Father of ethnic federalism TPLF must be declared a terrorist organization. It is TPLF that is causing all the killing and instability in all corners of the country. It is on its last leg and it won’t last long before its septuagenarian old guards perish.

    A recommendation that requires an African leader to leave his power is a pipedream. As an Ethiopian of multiple ethnic heritage, I want a democratic unitary Ethiopia. If I had the authority to pick the first president of the unitary Ethiopia now, that would have been Mustafa Omer.

    • First, let’s work together in realising a country were calling for its leaders to step down isn’t a pipe dream. Then we can argue as much as we want about your choice for leader, whether multinational federalism works, or whether out electoral system should be presidential or parliamentary and so on. How about first things first then getting ahead with ourselves.

      • Mohammed Olad, I don’t think you understand my comment clearly. We Africans don’t have the level of luxury to call our leaders to step down and get their willingness to accept our demand. That is why it is a pipe dream. Hope you will get it this time round.

        As for first things first, I have no problem. Lets get the incompetent politicians remove their ethnic mask and play genuinely in the nation building process. Just so you would understand, the power hungry Oromo politicians such as Jawar and Bekele, don’t care about their people. What they are after is power. Which is why they continue whining about “Historical anomalies” that allegedly happened a century ago and feast with TPLF that killed 5000 young Oromos just a 5 years ago. They are licking TPLFs wound in an effort to remove one of their brothers – Abiy Ahmed.

      • What makes Ethiopia so special and unique when the world is governed by political ideology instead of race in the first place? Why Ethiopia is condemned to stuck for eternity in a system that failed her for the past 3 decades? Why Ethiopia should be governed by a medieval clan system when the world is enjoying the benefits of individual freedom and citizenry? I think you should know better how the clan system lay waste neighboring Somalia and an ethnic rivalry moped Rwanda. A person with a right mind will not advocate for such tribal cannibalism. As a modern Ethiopia with long long experience of statehood, should have been better than that. It is time to extricate ourselves from the rotten system that a rug-tug retarded gorilla brought upon us. Specially, those of us who live in a diversified countries, enjoyed the fruits of democracy based on the very nature of human dignity than tribal affiliation should know better.

    • Yoo are entitled to your opinion but we will never go back to the fake unity .a unity that doesn’t respect and recognize all the nations and nationalities .the current government is a toothless who can’t even safeguard Addis forget the country. We need an honest and open national dialogue to assemble a trastionl government that comprise every one so that we can have an inclusive government in the future. Abiy Ahmed is the new dictator who actually compromised our national security by exposing us to our enemy the same person who got us in all this mess. If the country continues to exist Abiy must be removed ASAP otherwise disintegration is almost around the corner.

      • Abiy may not be the best. But under the circumstances; where TPLF making all attempts to destabilize the country and avoid accountability for atrocities in the past, other groups try to take this opportunity to be in power without the right procedure and capacity Abiy has to be supported to stop them.

    • Mustafe Omer, is psycho who doesn’t have what it takes to lead and govern even small group or community let alone a whole country. The founding fathers that you mentioned is sole problem in hands till date.

  • Article is biased unfortunately and not truthful.

    The north has always been suppressed by Minelik and the last Emperor Haile Sillasie for one.

    Apologies to the south from whom? The oppressors paid for their sins through mass execution, imprisonment, false accusation, and exile since the 70s .

    What is clearly not working and no one is happy about it seems from the clear outcome is Federial System BASED ON TRIBALISM.

    Tribalism is not an identity but the belief that I am different from you because I am called xyz is a DANGEROUS ONE. And this where we are today. Tribal based Federialism is a time bomb. It will work however you dive it.

    I have to commit to life and to serve my human family, and this can only come from the understanding Tribalism is a way to diminish a human potential. A human capabilities are beyond Tribalism. This is the only goal each one if must work to achieve PEACE.

    • You still live in the past with backward, primitive, and archaic Abysinnian theology. Get on with the time or you will be left in the dark alone picking your fleas for anther century.

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