Separating the wheat from the chaff on Ethiopia: reply to René Lefort

One must see things in their movement rather than in their fixity. The EPRDF is the only path toward maintaining the unity of the country and consolidating it by means of democratic reforms.

Messay Kebede
5 November 2018
lead lead

Angela Merkel welcomes Abiy Ahmed Ali to the "Compact with Africa" conference in Berlin, October 30, 2018. Bernd von Jutrczenka/Press Association. All rights reserved.

In his latest article, René Lefort argues that the reformism of Abiy Ahmed, Prime Minister of Ethiopia, is bound to fail and that the only way out is through a return to the hegemonic rule of the past, provided that it corrects some of its glaring mistakes. Lefort seems to have a low opinion of Abiy’s political acumen and ability. He finds that his reforms are “not well thought through,” that his haste to sign a peace agreement with Eritrea was reckless, and that Abiy seeks reform without having the support of the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), and especially of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Instead, Abiy prefers to rely “on personal charisma and personal popularity”. According to Lefort, Abiy has begun to realise his own limitations. He says that is why, in the last Congress of the party, Abiy was seen “backtracking” toward a position more sympathetic to ethnic parties.  

Only time will tell whether Abiy is an able politician and leader or not. However, what we can say for sure is that the accusation that he attempted to sideline the EPRDF, preferring to rely on his charisma and popularity, is mistaken. If anything, one position that Abiy has firmly and consistently held since the beginning of his premiership is his flat rejection of the demand for the formation of a government of transition that would include representatives of opposition political parties. He urged all opposition political parties to prepare themselves for the next election rather than to call for a government of transition. Yet, the demand of opposition leaders had some justification, as they doubted that serious reforms could be undertaken by a coalition of parties that has proven to be undemocratic and self-serving for the past 25 years. Despite Lefort’s assertion, what many observers saw as problematic was not Abiy’s attempt to bypass the EPRDF, but his conviction that he could effect deep changes while using the structure and cadres of the party. 

As to charging Abiy with recklessness on the grounds that he invited in armed opposition groups and reached peace with the Eritrean leader, this overlooks a number of important factors. It would be inconsistent on the part of Abiy to close the political space for some groups because they opted for armed struggle, subsequent to the blockage of all other means of protest. Provided that they renounce the use of arms in favour of peaceful competition, they should be welcomed in the newly opened democratic space.

Doubtless, some of these groups may still secretly retain their plan to seize power by means of arms, but until the intention is firmly established any exclusion would be undemocratic. Lefort knows that democracy is a risky business involving a constant bet on the prevalence of reason over emotions and extremism. The same can be said concerning peace with Eritrea: the constant stalemate was obviously harmful to both countries. Reason had to prevail and Abiy did what was reasonable, as opposed to the particular interests that some factions had in prolonging the hostility between the two countries. I fail to see in what way peace with Eritrea could be a reckless decision and the continuity of the stalemate more reasonable. 

No life without the TPLF?

The leitmotif of Lefort’s analysis is the deterioration of social peace and stability since the political and economic hegemony of the TPLF has been curtailed. According to him, nowhere is the recklessness of Abiy’s reforms more manifest than in the chaos that resulted in all the echelons of the state apparatus. Without fear of exaggeration, he says: “the state has collapsed. The top-down lines of authority have vanished. There is no respect, no fear. The power vacuum is abyssal.”

As Lefort sees it, the truth about Ethiopia is that neither the EPRDF nor the Ethiopian state can function without the guidance and the authority of the TPLF. He writes this about the possibility of reform: “Only a strong EPRDF leadership with an affirmed vision can give it impetus and direction. Having enjoyed hegemony for more than two decades, the TPLF had more than enough time to become the backbone not only of the party but also of the state.”

What is baffling here is that Lefort blames Abiy for ethnic conflicts, displacements, and various local disruptions, but says nothing about those who are causing these crimes and disturbances in the hope of undermining the reforms. In his eyes, the reason that prevents the state from functioning is not “sabotage” but “simple passivity, an attitude of ‘wait and see.’” This explanation is surely designed to take the blame away from the TPLF and the remnants of the old guard. The state does not work, not because of internal oppositions to reforms, but because its head, namely, the TPLF has been cut off. Without the TPLF, the EPRDF is blind and ineffective. Let it be noted, also, that Lefort never says that these reforms are necessary and that those opposing them are on the wrong side. The culprit is Abiy, with his policy of curbing the hegemony of the TPLF. His imprudence lies in his inability to understand that the only force able to keep Ethiopia working and united is the TPLF. 

Instead of appreciating the relative peace after such dramatic changes, Lefort’s concern for peace is at best short-sighted, all the more so as he admits that “day-to-day life carries on in relative peace in large parts of the country.” Who on earth would expect to see deep changes occurring without some measure of social disturbance? Ethnic clashes and displacements were all the more inevitable as Abiy has inherited a state in complete disarray as a result of prolonged and incessant uprisings in various parts of the country. The idea that Abiy wrecked a party and a state machinery that were functional is anything but true.

What ruined the party and the state was none other than the hegemonic rule of the TPLF.

The spectre of Amhara nationalism

Lefort is right that the alliance between the Amhara and Oromo wings of the EPRDF made possible Abiy’s election to premiership. Soon however he is asserting that “the tactical alliance with the Oromo Democratic Party (ODP) to oust the TPLF, imposed at the very apex – the so-called ‘Oromara’” has evaporated, the reason being that the ADP has espoused “ultranationalist and even aggressive positions.” This echo of the long-standing position of the TPLF towards the Amhara needs qualification. ADP has become ultranationalist and aggressive because it took some measures to assert its independence and, most of all, because it started to claim territories that were unjustly incorporated into the Tigray region. If those leading the TPLF have ever contemplated the idea that the Amhara will renounce their right to the annexed territories, they were nothing less than delusional.

As an observer of political realities, Lefort knows that conflicts resulting from forceful incorporations of territories will not go away. His characterisation of legitimate claims as ultra-nationalism raises the spectre of an Amara expansionism in order to break up any unity between ODP and ADP. It goes without saying that the main beneficiary of such a break-up would be the TPLF. In this way, Ethiopia reverses course and goes back to the original position of the TPLF, which is to guarantee the perpetuation of its hegemony by fomenting a lasting hostility between the Oromo and the Amhara. 

As Lefort sees it, the solution to the leadership crisis responsible for the unrests and conflicts “engulfing” the country is an alliance between the ODP and the TPLF against the Amhara. He thus revives Meles’s old doctrine by stating that, as a result of the resurgence of Amhara nationalism, “both Oromo and Tigrayans again see a common threat emanating from the Amhara region.” This “holy alliance” against the Amhara could be “reinforced by the support of some Southerners, particularly the Sidama, and by the peripheral affiliated structures.” In other words, everybody is ready to form a strong party alliance that would provide the necessary leadership except the Amhara. The latter are the spoilers of the peaceful integration of peoples under the constructive guidance of the TPLF. Lefort finds evidence of the emergence of this anti-Amhara alliance in the fact that in the last Congress “Abiy Ahmed systematically censured criticisms of the TPLF, particularly by the ADP.”

Now, it does not require exceptional insight to admit that the Amhara claim of annexed territories, however legitimate it may be, cannot be solved without igniting war with the region of Tigray. No less obvious is the fact that, under the present conditions, the federal government is in no position to implement whatever decision it may take to right the wrong that has been done. This does not mean that the Amhara should stop making the claims, but simply that they should wait until such times that conditions allow a peaceful or imposed resolution of the issue, which issue is truly turning into one of the thorniest problems of the country. But in singling out the Amhara, and not the TPLF as the problem child of Ethiopia, Lefort does no more than echo the textbook belief of the TPLF.

What remains?

If we address this partisanship, there nevertheless remains the core issue, which is that, as Lefort puts it, “Abiy does not have the structured political power base commensurate with his function”–– let me add, with his function as reformer. This faultline is a reality that Abiy himself acknowledged in one of his recent speeches. He mentioned one of the options open to him, namely, the recourse to an authoritarian style of government. But he quickly dismisses this, arguing, correctly, that the method will put him right back where the two previous governments were. On the other hand, we note that, contrary to Lefort’s allegation, Abiy does not intend to marginalize the EPRDF and rely solely on his own popularity. Such a choice would land him where he does not want to go, to wit, in a dictatorship,

To the extent that the will to reform means nothing unless it is backed by a reliable and significant political force and succeeds in being institutionalized, one must concede that the troubles of the country are nowhere near to being resolved, as witnessed by the recent event of armed soldiers entering the vicinities of the Palace.

There is all the more reason to say so, given that Abiy himself knows that the EPRDF machinery is not fully on board with his reformist agenda. Yet, despite this resistance, which, by the way, is unsurprising, Abiy seems determined to push reforms through a machinery that is not fully cooperative. 

Does this means that the reforms are doomed to fail and that to have any chance of success Abiy must restore the alignment of forces existing prior to his election, notably by giving the TPLF the prevalent position it had? Or does it require that Abiy change his previous stand and constitute a government of transition by inviting in opposition forces, as suggested by some leaders of the opposition? The first option makes little sense because it asks Abiy to agree to play a role similar to the previous Prime Minister, Haile Mariam Dessalegn, in which the TPLF governs from behind the scenes. Lefort promises that things will be different this time, given that the TPLF has made its own self-criticism and is ready to give up its hegemonic tendency by its “commitment to a soft landing from the summit to a more rational position.” This promise reminds Ethiopians of the saying, “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” Let there be no doubt that, after 25 years of brutal rule, for Ethiopians one thing is indisputable about the TPLF: a leopard never changes its spots.

The second option, namely, a government of coalition with opposition forces, is unrealistic and, what is more, unable to solve the problems the country is facing. In light of the proliferation of ethnonationalist groups, the sidelining of the EPRDF will only give them a free reign to ignite chaos and the possibility of civil wars. None of the opposition groups is at the present strong enough to make a significant contribution in the resolution of the problems. Or else, if they have appreciable followers, many of them are so impregnated with ethnonationalist ideologies that they will worsen the problem instead of helping to solve it. Put differently, by sidelining the EPRDF, Abiy gets nothing in return, nay, aggravates the problems, weakening his hand further. 

What this means is that reforms must, willy-nilly, occur and continue through the instrumentality of the EPRDF for the foreseeable future. The EPRDF is the only path toward maintaining the unity of the country and consolidating it by means of democratic reforms. As to the objection according to which the EPRDF is unfit for the implementation of real and far-reaching reforms, the answer must be that one must see things in their movement rather than in their fixity. For one thing, reformers of the calibre of Abiy and Lemma Megersa came out of the EPRDF and there is no reason to assume that, given time, more reformers would not follow suit within the ODP and the other associated parties. For another, the strength of the reformers is likely to grow as Abiy vigorously pushes for the renewal of cadres at the various levels of the party. And this seems to be what Abiy is trying to achieve: beyond verbal commitments to reform, he wants to gradually fashion the party by renewing its personnel and outlook. 

Given time, the more the reforms take root, the more the intensity of the problems will decrease, especially those associated with the TPLF’s obsession to regain its hegemonic position. Lefort hails the fact that in Tigray “the fusion between the Front and the population is now almost total. Tigray is the only region that remains globally calm, probably the only one where the local authorities are not contested and are even respected.” To my mind, this calm and deference to the TPLF suggest the silence and fear of repression. As reforms gain ground in the rest of Ethiopia, they will disturb the political calm of Tigray, with Tigreans wondering why freedom and democracy should stop at the borders of their region. 

If, indeed, Tigreans finally decide to engage in the battle for democracy, favourable conditions could emerge for the peaceful resolution of their conflicts with the Amhara region. In a word, Tigreans have the choice between defending the expansionist policy of the TPLF, with the consequence that they will never free themselves from its authoritarian rule, or abandoning expansion in favour of democracy, whose great reward is the possibility of a lasting peace with the Amhara and all the benefits that accrue from it.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData