There is almost no prospect of a swift and painless democratic transition in Ethiopia
Authoritarian regimes in Ethiopia—Imperial, Derg, and EPRDF alike—irrespective of ideologies they pursued, imposed their wishes on Ethiopian societies. All were finally forced to surrender to waves of public anger.
It was in 1960s when the renowned Ethiopian writer, Hadis Alemayehu, in his famous book “Fiker eske Mekabir” referring to the then Imperial Regime, prophesied that ‘’people take decision in their own hands when their hope in God is eroded’’.
Despite positive steps at every regime change during the second half of 20th century, the underlying contradictions were not resolved. The new governments that took office pursued their own group’s parochial self-interest.
Both Derg and EPRDF had “democracy” in their regimes’ names, but never put democracy into practice. Now we have entered another transition. This is not only about elections. It is about the process and outcome over a longer span. There is, however, almost no prospect of a swift and painless democratic transition in Ethiopia.
There are five main reasons for this transitional trauma:
- EPRDF’s parlous state
- Prosperity Party paradox
- Politicised security forces
- Politicised civil service
- Weak opposition
- Weak democratic institutions
EPRDF’s parlous state
To reduce the pain, the government must be ready to hand over power. That means, the EPRDF coalition and partner parties must hold that commitment. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has reiterated that he will hand over power if his party is defeated at next election. The conundrum is whether his party colleagues are equally committed to leaving office.
Currently the dynamics in regional states vary and may quickly change as the situation is fluid. There has been no linearity in EPRDF; the leadership could not speak on behalf of the entire coalition. There is no more democratic centralism.
Additionally, the boundaries between the ruling and opposition parties are not thick in some regional states, such as Somali and Afar. Clan relations will continue to play central roles in Somali politics and require a balanced mix of clans in both ruling and opposition parties. ONLF and the current ruling party in Somali Region may likely maintain their strategic alliance despite inter- and intra-party skirmishes. In Tigray, TPLF has taken a defensive position, towards which their cadres are highly agitated, leaving little space for dissent. It appears TPLF is not yet ready to concede power.
For better or worse, the change-makers are in the Oromia and Amhara parties. Yet there is no strong reason to believe that Abiy’s ODP is committed to multi-partyism in Oromia. Several of its officials are part and parcel of the old EPRDF regime and perceived to have been plunderers that may fear being criminalised once relieved of power. ODP is playing cat-and-mouse with the Oromo Liberation Front and Oromo Federalist Congress, making the political situation unpredictable. There is squabbling among OLF factions, which most Oromos see as a symbol of resistance against central rule.
ADPs came through a path similar to ODPs and there is also no strong reason here to believe their commitment to multiparty democracy. It seems that ADP is engaged in competition and collaboration with NaMA at the same time, possibly aimed at retaining power by pushing out parties like Ezema from Amhara Region. Democratic space in the region is stifled, and the security situation is volatile after the chaos in June.
That incident stemmed partly from ADP-NaMA’s unholy marriage but seems to have saved ADP from bowing to NaMA and its violent youths. In general, Amhara political elites still take it for granted that Ethiopiawinet is synonymous with Amharization and seem not to have dropped the imperial ambition of Amhara cultural hegemony where assimilation was an official line of citizenship and other cultures and languages were denigrated.
ADP’s ambition for hegemony throughout EPRDF is littered with skirmishes and collaborations. ADP and ODP are putting immense pressures on each other: ADPs want ODPs to subdue OLF factions and Oromo activists like Jawar Mohammed, whereas ODPs want ADPs subdue NaMA and other amorphous rightist groups like Eskinder Nega’s Baladera Council.
Prosperity Party paradox
Recently, it was difficult to think of EPRDF as a genuine coalition. Paradoxically, Abiy’s preferred solution is to merge it into one national party. There are two critical issues with this. The first is incompatibility of the current coalition members, and the second is how to bring on-board fully the so-called partner parties from Somali, Afar, Gambella, Benishangul-Gumuz and Harari.
Abiy has driven through the merger, but it is not clear how it will work in practice. Should EPRDF dissolve and get replaced by a leadership group directly elected by members, or should the coalition parties including the so called ‘partners’ be given quotas in the leadership depending on certain criteria, such as existing party membership and population size?
EPRDF and partners’ merger to form Prosperity Party (PP) means dissolving all the regional parties and replacing them with PP. Again, there are two serious questions—regional representation and party programme.
How many people would be represented from each region and on what basis at different levels of leadership-executive committee, central committee, etc. Should this be rules-based or simply hand-picked by the chairman or leadership?
Technically, if PP is a new party to replace EPRDF, it will be required to choose a new leadership group including its chairman. Abiy Ahmed cannot automatically assume the post as he was not elected by PP members. Furthermore, the so-called partner parties were not part of the EPRDF Council that elected him chairman of the front in March 2018.
On the other hand, can PP come up with an agreed party programme that reenergises the movement? TPLF has already rejected the merger in the absence of an agreed programme, and now key ODP senior figure Lemma Megersa has spoken out in opposition. But the conundrum goes beyond that. The elites lined up behind the regional parties have polarised views, putting pressure on every regional branch and leaving with them little room to manoeuvre.
Some of the major dividing issues are: the nature of federal structure, resolution of administrative-territorial disputes (Addis Abeba, Dire Dawa and Welkait, for example), critical issues in Ethiopian history, and the language question. PM Abiy’s Medemer has become a buzz word and seems to have been perceived as an instrument or lens to provide a way out of the conundrum. However, Medemer cannot replace a political programme.
It is only with a party manifesto that PP can go out and campaign for election. Can PP have different programmes for people living in different regions, particularly for the contentious issues mentioned above? Can they tell contradictory messages to people living in different parts of the federation? How cohesive will this national party be?
It appears that the merger can go ahead even if TPLF rejects the move, although some legal issues are outstanding. It appears the merger is not ultra-risky in the short term if PP is able to forge a programme acceptable to all its members. The serious risk which may possibly lead to explosion is incompatibility of Abiy’s attempt to appeal to pro-ethnic federalists and anti-ethnic federalists at the same time; a dilemma Lemma’s opposition has highlighted. The other danger may arise in relation with the election if EPP tries to close the space before the polls or tries rigging the election itself.
The PP bylaws and programme has been approved by the EPRDF executive and central committee and some party congresses. They have made it clear that all EPRDF coalition members and partner parties will be dissolved. Their language decision has already trigger anger on social media—it brought back Amharic at the centre in all the regional branches. If this intent is followed by regional governments, it would complete PM Abiy’s aspiration to inherit the imperial regimes’ legacy.
Politicized security forces
EPRDF security structures—military, intelligence, police, militia—were highly attached to the political leadership both in ideology and through individual network with officers. Uncertainties remain with regional security structures (police, special force and militia).
It is not clear how much force regional security structures have both in terms of personnel and armaments. The Somali Region Special Force under Abdi Iley, for example, was a serious threat not only to other regions, specifically Oromia and Afar, but also to the Federal Government.
The current security structure, mainly the regional special police, is the most dangerous threat to the orderly transition. All parties must take this as a serious concern before moving to general election. Abiy has said that the security apparatus is under reform. But it seems the regional special police is out of his reach. Divorcing it from party politics is a primary requirement for democratic transition.
Politicized civil service
The nature of Ethiopian civil service is another bottleneck for a democratic transition. Ethiopia has not seen in its history the Weberian type of civil service or the Douglas North type of institutions. Under the emperors, the bureaucracy was just an extension of monarchies. Under Derg and EPRDF, the civil service was enmeshed with the ruling parties.
There is no formal rule to do a favour for civil servants of party members. However, civil service is considered a warehouse of future political leaders and mechanisms were put in place to attract civil servants to party membership; including preferential treatment for further education, better job, promotion, guaranteed job, key civil service posts and moving to key political appointment posts. And therefore, members and non-members are treated differently, as members are considered loyal to the ruling party’s agenda.
The following is a simple and live example of appointments that evidently will be problematic unless addressed early on. Currently, the number of weredas in Ethiopia is estimated to be more than 1,200 (rural and urban). If we estimate the number of zones (zones are one level up from weredas) to be just 100, together with the weredas we have 1,300 tiers below regional level. If we assume minimum 10 politically appointed officials at each wereda/zone, we will have 13,000 political appointees below regional government tiers. What will happen to those people if the opposition wins partially or fully? Should the opposition parties retain them while knowing these people are members of EPRDF who were appointed without meritocratic qualification?
On the other hand, retaining those people in their posts will not be acceptable to the supporters of the incoming opposition parties. If we add the number of political appointees at regional and federal government levels, it is obvious how the numbers soar. Therefore, democratic transition is integrally linked to the livelihood and very survival of EPRDF members and families in the current Ethiopia. In preparation for 2010 election, wereda officials were forewarned that defeat of EPRDF in their wereda would cost them their jobs. PM Abiy recently has said that he is not concerned for his job if his party loses the upcoming election. It is not about the prime minister losing his job, it is far beyond that: it is thousands of party officials.
The so-called EPRDF’s dominant party system has proved a failure. Democratic elections require not only existence of opposition parties but also commitment to peaceful competition. Opposition parties are numerous but only a few of them meet the criteria of an ‘’opposition party’’. Some are creatures of old EPRDF while others are bread-winners without real political objectives.
Therefore, unlike what we hear in the media, the number of meaningful opposition parties is not more than eight. In my view, all real oppositions are regional parties as their bases are bound by ethno-nationalist identities, including Ezema, which has an Amhara flavour. This means there is a need for a coalition of likeminded regional parties to form country-level parties if Ethiopia is to move to a meaningful multiparty system.
Polarisation or extremism is another concern with oppositions. For example, what would happen if OLF, NaMA, TPLF, ONLF, SLM, Ezema win elections in Oromia, Amhara, Tigray, Somali, Sidama and Addis Ababa respectively? What would the deal look like and how can they come to terms without resorting to violent conflicts?
Weak democratic institutions
It would be naïve to think the election board and judiciary were neutral in the previous elections under EPRDF. There is no strong evidence yet that the new board members and judicial officials who have been appointed to these institutions last year will prove to be neutral.
Two precursors underlie my concerns: firstly, key posts in these institutions seem to have been filled with like-minded anti-ethnic federalists who may likely want to seize the opportunity to act in their ideological interests if the power dynamics turns out to allow them; and secondly, the election board’s interventions outside of its mandate regarding the Sidama referendum. The board’s mandate was to administer the referendum. It was not, for example, to organise debate among non-Sidama elites in Addis Ababa nor enquire about the status of Hawassa post-election.
While lack of capacity and experience is another concern, if the decisions of the board or the judiciary are perceived to have gone against the expected standards in favour of certain groups, it is likely to trigger election-related violence. The neutrality and transparency of these institutions are crucial from the very beginning.
So far Abiy has tried to please all domestic actors as well as the international community. This is impossible. Abiy’s stock is falling fast among Ethiopians because his flowery rhetoric is not able to cover up his irreconcilable positions. He glorifies our imperial past, but he tells us he believes in a multinational Ethiopia. His Medemer is not detailed enough to show how to reconcile the extremes.
He wants to lead a transformative transition to democracy but is wedded to an authoritarian state and the constitutional electoral schedule. There is a danger that increasingly only a narrow elite around Abiy remains committed to his aspirational ambiguous project, while those who project a clearer vision, such as Jawar Mohammed, increase their popularity. These political problems combined with the aforementioned structural fragilities make Ethiopia’s transition a perilous one. Further trauma is expected if the ruling elites fail to end the ambiguity.
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Editors: William Davison and Jonah Wedekind