Print Friendly and PDF
only search openDemocracy.net

Ethiopia: climbing Mount Uncertainty

"Abiy Ahmed has already gone down in history for addressing the pressing demands of the vast majority of Ethiopians... But Abiy Ahmed made three mammoth strategic errors."

lead Abiy Ahmed, November 2017. Wikicommons/Odaw. Some rights reserved.

Abiy Ahmed has already gone down in history by breaking – in just a few weeks – almost every rule in the age-old Ethiopian way of governing. His liberal reforms and diplomatic openings fulfilled the pressing demands of the vast majority of Ethiopians, and thus brought to a halt the infernal spiral into which the country was headed. But Abiy Ahmed made three mammoth strategic errors.

First, he believed that – or at least acted as if – he could carry out his agenda by relying only on his charisma, his immense popularity and a handful of stalwarts, a kind of “team Abiy”. In short, he thought he could de-institutionalize his rule. Ably Ahmed… thought he could de-institutionalize his rule.

There were even widespread rumours that he envisaged establishing a presidential regime, a modern way to fit into the mould, and don the apparel of the traditional “Big Man” – the "teleq säw” – in Ethiopian politics. In other words, he seemed to believe that he could bypass the EPRDF and the institutions – notably the Cabinet, the ministries and Parliament – by acting unilaterally through his own micro-structure at the pinnacle of the state.

Second, the salvo of reforms he fired off created the positive shock of which whole swathes of public opinion were dreaming. But without any adequate preparation, without anticipating their effects, and therefore without being able to control their consequences.

The most obvious overhastiness concerned the thorniest questions, like the return of formerly outlawed armed opposition groups (Oromo Liberation Front – OLF – and Berhanu Nega’s Ginbot 7) and the “normalisation” with Eritrea. The symbolism of the act, always carefully staged, seemed to matter more than the real outcome of the measure. The probable goal: to present his opponents with a fait accompli.

Genuine federalism

Third, it was the anti-TPLF (Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front) wave and the tactical alliance with ANDM (Amhara National Democratic Movement) that brought Abiy to power. This was founded on the demand for genuine federalism, and therefore for the end of domination by the Tigrayan elite ("Down Woyane!").

But in order to capitalise on this movement, Abiy has continued to reinforce it. He has gone so far as to flirt with the political and historical rhetoric of the fiercest enemies of federalism, and therefore of the TPLF. From Ginbot 7 to those who regret the passing of the Derg, they see the introduction of federalism as the source of all the evils that, according to them, have brought Ethiopia, the great, the eternal, the unified, to its knees.

The EPRDF, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Party, the leading coalition of the four main ethnic parties, is not just a political party. Consistently with the age-old interweaving of government and state in Ethiopia, and now even more than before, the Party is de facto in charge of the state and – beyond it – of the entire public and parapublic sector of the economy.

If a civil servant were to give a truthful answer to the question: “what is your main duty?”, he would say: “to execute the orders of the party”. The state machinery has almost no intrinsic dynamic. Only a strong EPRDF leadership with an affirmed vision can give it impetus and direction. Having held on to its hegemony for more than two decades, the TPLF has had more than enough time to become the backbone not only of the party but also of the state.

“We come in the morning in the office, stay there doing nothing, and leave in the evening only to get our salary at the end of the month… We don’t receive any guideline from the top, we don’t send any instruction to the bottom,” reports a civil servant in a rural woreda administration. “Nobody takes any decision.”

What might be called a “pen strike” is reminiscent of the uncertainties after the previous regime changes of 1974 and 1991. In addition, “the great majority of us know they will be fired or removed because they have been appointed by the party despite being unqualified for their job”.

Moreover, local administration is paralyzed not only internally but also externally. Almost everywhere, it faces an unprecedented wave of hostility because of its constant former abuses: the people deny its legitimacy to govern local affairs. One key political leader asserted: “the state has collapsed. The top-down lines of authority have vanished. There is no respect, no fear. The power vacuum is abyssal.” “We are witnessing anarchy in the country,” concluded the last EPRDF Congress (October 3-5).

“Anarchy”

The mutiny of October 10 demonstrates that “anarchy” has even reached the topmost pinnacle of the power system. The Ethiopian army claims that “it is up to the Military to maintain the stability of the nation”. It is sub-Saharan Africa’s second-largest force. Its outstanding reputation for discipline and professionalism has attracted much praise.

Nevertheless, a group of soldiers was able to plan their operation and travel undetected across the Addis suburbs to the Palace, summon the Prime Minister, Commander-in-Chief of the national armed forces under the Constitution, bargain with him and quietly leave the Palace after the PM promised “to positively consider their demands.” These elite soldiers belonged to the Agazi Commandos, named after one of the seven founders of the TPLF, killed a year into the armed struggle. The mutiny was initially presented as being motivated by grievances over pay. Abiy Ahmed has just conceded that some of the soldiers wanted to kill him. “The intention was to abort the ongoing reforms.”

In fact, day-to-day life carries on in relative peace in large parts of the country. Local wielding of authority has been spontaneously replaced by a kind of popular self-regulation. But petty crimes like theft or robbery are spreading like wildfire. Arms smuggling is skyrocketing, not to equip clandestine radical groups, but simply because ordinary people say that they need to be able to defend themselves in the absence of reliable security services.

Much worse is the wave of pogroms and “ethnic clashes”. “The number of violent events and protests have actually increased… in the 6 months since Abiy Ahmed has taken office relative to the 6 months prior… (with) an increase of over 48% in the number of reported fatalities… 954 fatalities from April to October 2018” (Armed Conflict Location and Events Dataset). Around 1.5 million people have been internally displaced since the beginning of the year, more that in Syria or Yemen in the same period. “The number of violent events and protests have actually increased… in the 6 months since Abiy Ahmed has taken office relative to the 6 months prior.”

The powerlessness or passivity of the security service and police forces is such that they failed to foresee and subsequently to stop a pogrom in a suburb of Addis Ababa which lasted no less then two and a half days and left dozens dead and thousands homeless. The random mass arrests that followed, supposed to prove that the government was ready to take the bull by the horns, was in fact an admission of impotence. The Prime Minister continues to issue martial statements warning that these acts will be met with the full force of the law, but so far to no practical avail.

Power vacuum

Almost all observers rightly point out that these outbreaks of unrest are rooted in age-old conflicts between communities, stemming from disputes over borders or land access, sometimes triggered and manipulated by local politicians eager to make their mark by playing upon and even eliciting these populist  flareups.

Many blame “forces of darkness”, a hidden but all-pervasive hand working to “sabotage” Abiy’s progress, steered by a brain naturally situated in the capital of Tigray. Up to now, however, not a single piece of concrete evidence of the existence of this network has been presented. Of course, “saboteurs” are active here and there. But the main culprit of this power vacuum is the state, beginning with the security apparatus, not through “sabotage” but through simple passivity, an attitude of “wait and see”. A state apparatus with a venerable tradition of strictly hierarchical operation has broken down for lack of a strong command post. The main culprit of this power vacuum is the state, beginning with the security apparatus… through passivity, an attitude of “wait and see.”However, a more general and more perilous dynamic is coming into play: the radicalization of ethno-nationalist identities. For the first time in interviews, some intellectuals from different ethnic groups go so far as to refer to Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations”. They argue that the identities of the different ethnic regions are so irreconcilable that self-isolation is inevitable. In the past, regional identities were basically affirmative. Now they are increasingly tainted with exclusiveness, if not vengefulness and even xenophobia. 

Rule of law – how?

The last Congress shelved all major problems – i.e. all divisive issues – to prevent a split in the party. It took only two real decisions. It re-elected Abiy Ahmed as its chairman, but could it do otherwise? It united around the attempt to save the Party by focusing on a single issue: law and order. Its final resolution – no more than a dozen lines – states: “the constitutional rights of citizens have been violated in different parts of the country… This should be stopped, the rule of law respected.” The question is how?

The transitional government solution is no longer on the agenda. Some still say (e.g. Jawar Mohammed, flag bearer of the young Oromo protesters, the Queerroo) that “to save the revolution and the country”, the only way is “to prioritize and embark on negotiation and preparation for election.” A couple of months ago, this was a view also shared by the author. “This would clarify the political landscape… Each force would be required to present voters with its flagship measures… Following the elections, this landscape could be structured and hierarchized on clear and transparent foundations… (If free and fair), the outcome of the election would be unchallengeable. (Above all) this would channel protest that is both vigorous and inchoate into a concrete, tangible, decisive and commonly shared goal.”

However, in the current state of insecurity, an election could not be organized, let alone be free and fair. In the present political climate, there is maximum risk that an electoral campaign would only exacerbate hysteria and irrationality.

It would seem that the only way out is first to re-establish law and order. This cannot be done by the security forces alone, as demonstrated by the years of unrest in Oromia. Their imposition must start at the lowest level, the kebele, through the more than half a million militiamen, whose loyalty is to the kebele chairman, usually the local chair of the Party. He is the final link in the party-state’s authority. So, the party-state needs to be put back in working order, which in turn demands the emergence of a leadership that can gain credibility through a minimum of inclusivity and cohesiveness.

The very wise elder Leenco Lata has declared: “We (the political parties) disagree on a number of basic issues. We disagree on what is Ethiopia… on what kind of democracy we want… A gulf separates various positions… We have no choice but to negotiate a compromise, or else the alternative is a total breakdown of order.” Even if enough goodwill existed on all sides to reach a compromise, who would be party to it and on what basis?

Federalism and confederalism

The debate that raged in the student movements of the 60s and 70s is now definitively over. Their question was: which will prevail, the “question of nationalities” or the “class struggle”? Officially, almost nobody challenges federalism. The main rifts in Ethiopia’s politics today are about what kind of federalism it should be. Economic and social issues have been shelved. The traditional and almost universal divide between “right” and “left” has become entirely subsidiary. As a former TPLF highest body member regretted it, “all parties are not raising programmatic issues but playing with an extreme ethno nationalism”.[1]

Ginbot 7 is calling for a demarcation of the regional states on a geographical basis. But although it still has strongholds in Addis Ababa and other ethnically “mixed” cities, it would appear to be a minority voice at national level.

All the other political forces wish to maintain a federalism based on ethnic regional states, “delimited on the basis of settlement patterns, language, identity” (Constitution). But they differ on the relationship between the centre and these states. That is the main rift now. The “federalists” or “centralists” advocate strong central authority and limited autonomy for the regional states.

The “confederalists” or “decentralists” recommend a loose union of quasi-sovereign states. The intervention of the federal army to oust Abdi Iley is a case in point: justified by the “federalists” because the Somali state had fallen beneath the yoke of a corrupt autocrat, unacceptable for the “confederalists” because Addis Ababa forces can intervene in a regional state only at the request of its leadership, regardless of that leadership’s behaviour.

Autocracy and ultranationalism

This division runs right through the Oromo Democratic Party (ODP ex-OPDO). Abiy continues to hammer home his “federalist” position. But the wave of young newcomers in the leading structures appears much more radical and closer to the “confederalists”. In addition, the ODP is a head without body. The loyalty of the rank and file cadres is far from a given. If questioned about their real allegiance, most would confess proximity to the other Oromo ethno-nationalist forces, which are irrefutably “confederacies”: Dawud Ibsa’s OLF, Merera Gudina/Bekele Gerba’s OFC, Leenco Lata’s ODF and, last but not least, the Queerroo and Jawar Mohammed. The paradox is that despite having bowed to popular pressure by transferring – usually without firing – more than 20,000 local cadres, the ODP continues to be distrusted at local level, while Abiy remains an idol in Oromia.

The identity crisis of the Amhara Democratic Party (ADP, ex-ANDM) started with its birth and is deepening. It has never succeeded either in building a popular base or in appealing to the Amhara elite. In addition, it is now under heavy pressure from the new National Movement of Amhara (NaMA). This ultranationalist current capitalizes on popular resentment of the TPLF and on a widely shared aspiration for the Amhara nation to reassert its greatness after long years of constraint.

ADP is officially seeking to extend Amhara’s borders to incorporate Wilkeite and Raja. Amhara activists have gone further by claiming other chunks of land not only in Tigray but also in Afar, Benishangul and Oromia. In addition, these Amhara movements want to play a greater role in central affairs, where they see Oromo incomers as having captured too big a stake. Amhara intellectuals are joining NaMA en masse. Its membership is skyrocketing.

The tactical alliance with the ODP to oust the TPLF, imposed at the very apex – the so-called “Oromara” – was welcomed because it sidelined the TPLF. But the great majority of the rank and file members, of the population, and of the elite, is strongly opposed to any further moves in that direction. To regain lost ground, ADP is increasingly drifting towards ultranationalist and even aggressive positions.

The Southerners remain a minor partner. The overtness of their recent internal conflicts has accentuated their weakness. But they cannot be out of the game: their representatives have a voice too in the Executive and Central Committee of the EPRDF.

Thus, Abiy does not have the structured political power base commensurate with his function either in Oromia or in the EPRDF. Probably recognizing a stalemate, he is backtracking toward a more “decentralist” stance as quickly as he initially drifted toward “centralist” positions. But he remains very ambiguous. Deliberately, some suspect. In this view, his game is to remain vague about the electoral rulebook so as to hinder the competing parties in their preparations and therefore to emerge at the end as the only savior.

Concerning the central debate, he said in his opening speech to the Congress, for those able to interpret it: “a federal form of government is a preferred option in Ethiopia as long as we don’t confuse regional arrangements with ethnic identity.” But is this ambiguity sustainable? In the end, he asked the former Executive Committee of the EPRDF, either word for word or in substance, depending whom you ask: “What shall I do?”

The TPLF

The TPLF is the first to blame for the sudden and total loss of its hegemony, which it attributes to a “leadership crisis”. In fact, treating its unquestionable economic successes as conclusive evidence of the rightness of its political credo and its way of governing, it for too long refused to question either. Rejecting a genuine renewal of ideas and personnel, complacent and arrogant, it proved incapable of realizing that society had profoundly changed, that its dominance could not last and that the only way out would have been through a commitment to a soft landing from the summit to a more rational position.

Its leadership closed ranks after its 37-day meeting in late 2017 more because of the external dangers it faced than because it had managed to define a common vision. It has now announced that it will devote itself first and foremost to Tigran affairs.

This is the first reason for the revival of the TPLF’s popularity in Tigray, after years of discontent. “When we asked for something, we spoke to empty chairs,” complained one peasant.

The second is the anti-TPLF campaign, which has been counter-productive in this respect. The third is the expulsion of Tigrayans, mainly from the Amhara region, with local authorities at best turning a blind eye. The fourth is Amhara’s claims over areas that are currently part of Tigrayan territory. A short visit to the Tigrayan countryside reveals that the dominant feeling among the population is of being “under siege” because it is “surrounded by enemies,” starting with “the expansionist Amhara.” Any kind of threat from the Oromo is never mentioned.

“The TPLF is our only shield, to betray it would be like walking on the graves of our martyrs.” Of which each family has at least one. 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. The entire political space is in the hands of the TPLF. It is the only party that is currently organized, almost unanimously supported, and has real political substance, whatever one might think of it.

“We shall prevail” is the watchword in Mekelle. This may seem surprising. In TPLF circles, the quiet belief is that their options are open. “We are willing to collaborate with any body who respects us. If not, we will go our own way.”

Bravado? The TPLF has always done its utmost to prepare the region for this eventuality as a last resort. At least among intellectuals, whether supporters or opponents of the Front, never has there been such a strong expression of the aspiration to build a sovereign Tigray step by step, reunifying the two sides of the border, the “Again state”, following the same path as the European nations in the 20th century.[2]

The developmental state

The TPLF leadership is deeply critical of Abiy Ahmed. They say that it was in fact the Front that initiated the reform movement in the governing structures of the EPRDF, but criticize the lack of preparation, the failure to involve all stakeholders, the haste, and even the scope of the reforms.

“We have pardoned political parties who resided abroad…unfortunately they are working so hard… and exploiting this chance to topple the government (through)  unlawful activities”, stated Debretsion during the last TPLF Congress. The “patriarch” Sebhat Nega insists: the “true political prisoners” should have been separated from the “criminals”. His opinion of the whole reform process: “not at that level and with wrong procedures”.[3]

This is a ploy, argue some observers close to the Front: if it was really reformist, why didn’t the Front prove this in Tigray itself, where it had full legal authority to take the corresponding measures?

But at least one wing of the leadership, led by Debretsion, seems willing to go beyond these critiques.

The Front has set out three conditions for a rapprochement with Abiy Ahmed. First, full respect for the constitution, i.e. for federalism. But which federalism? TPLF’s overwhelming aim now is to govern Tigray with as little external interference as possible. It therefore champions a true “confederalism”. Second, endorsement of the “developmental state”, of “democratic centralism” and of “revolutionary democracy”, i.e. an apparent refusal to move one iota from its immutable dogma. And last, the end of the anti-TPLF campaign.

Up to now, the “developmental state” has been highly centralized. An alternative would be for each region to be empowered to decide on its own state’s role in economic development. This shift from a “developmental state” to a “developmental states” strategy could certainly be endorsed by the “confederalists”.

The TPLF’s insistence on the developmental state seems to be a response to the announcement of the intention to part-privatize national treasures like EthioTelecom and Ethiopian Airlines. The modalities of this issue are not fixed and there could be room for bargaining.

Mutual self-interest

As for democratic centralism, all parties both in and outside the EPRDF are in fact bound by this doctrine, though the term democratic is something of a misnomer. This could continue. It also held true within the EPRDF until its crisis. But that crisis opened a breach that cannot be closed. From now on, the components of the Party will be able to reach a real common position only by negotiation and compromise.

The notion of revolutionary democracy is purely rhetorical, if not theological. It is a concept whose meaning nobody has ever understood. Being “neither democratic nor revolutionary,” this doctrine is a “bricolage… aiming at legitimizing the political and economical structure” put in place by the TPLF.[4] Yet it is the ideological DNA of the TPLF, which would perceive its abandonment as a negation of its identity and a denial of its contribution to Ethiopia’s trajectory since 1991. But the concept has almost no practical significance, since it can always be used to justify any zigzag. 

The deal between OPDO and TPLF could be built on mutual self-interest. Among Ethiopia’s eleven administrative entities, Tigray ranks eighth in terms of poverty. Around three-quarters of the region’s budget comes from Addis Ababa. The oligarchic Tigrayan elite has built an economic empire through systemic corruption via its positions in the party-state. A very small proportion of its dubious assets are located in Tigray. Abiy Ahmed, who is certainly sitting on a mountain of dossiers on this issue, could forgive and forget to a certain extent. He could also put a curb on the ongoing purge of Tigrayans, most visible for senior positions but also occurring, though largely unnoticed, at lower levels.  In exchange, the TPLF could do much to help put the party-state machinery back in working order and, beyond it, the huge public and para-public economic sector. Tigrayans remain very present at middle-rank levels, even in the armed forces and the security services. Their expertise cannot be replaced overnight.

Rapprochement potential

Above all, a rapprochement between ODP and TPLF at a time when the tactical alliance between ODP and ADP is clearly weakening, would send a clear and public signal that a dominant force is emerging inside the EPRDF and therefore that the end may be in sight for its leadership crisis. The impact of this in remotivating the entire body of civil servants could be substantial. Above all, a rapprochement between ODP and TPLF… would send a clear and public signal that a dominant force is emerging inside the EPRDF.

But there is also a strong political rationale to such a rapprochement. ADP and NaMA have not endorsed the nostalgia for the Amhara elite’s age-old domination of Ethiopia (so-called “chauvinism”). Mainly in response to its marginalization and the stigmatization of the Amhara after 1991 as the historical “oppressors”, they gradually came to form part of a national movement (“Amarahaness”), just as the Oromo or the Tigrayans had done long before.

It may even be said that the position of the Amhara is now overwhelmingly ultranationalist, as well as “confederalist”. But with one crucial difference: “For the founders of National Movement for the Amhara (NaMA), the Amhara nation is to be defined according to the territorial criterion, not on the basis of cultural [i.e. ethnic] features.”[5] Now this “territorial criterion” is fundamentally expansionist.

As a result, both Oromo and Tigrayans again see a common threat emanating from the Amhara region. The ambition is no longer to re-impose direct subjugation, as in the past, but to extend their territory. There is a palpable fear that they could ultimately try to do this by force. This risk is taken very seriously in Tigray, and not just rhetorically. For example, a large but discreet program of military training and retooling is underway. This is not confined to Tigray: many regions are reinforcing their armed capacities, principally through their regional police.

During the last meeting of the EPRDF Executive Committee and Congress, Abiy Ahmed systematically censured criticisms of the TPLF, particularly by the ADP. He asked for attacks against the Front to end. “A political culture that discourages the past achievements of our predecessors and negate the efforts of the previous generation need to stop.”

While the TPLF was outraged at being totally excluded from the negotiations with Asmara, its chairman, Debretsion, is now in full charge of the normalization with Eritrea. Objections were raised against the concept of revolutionary democracy. Debretsion insisted that “unless you misrepresent the term ‘revolutionary’ in a negative way, revolutionary democracy stands for the peasantry.” ADP publicly rejected it.[6] In the end, the Congress agreed that the party’s ideology should remain in place. A future “study could be commissioned probing into the possibility of shifting it.”

A major decision, largely unnoticed, was to include chairs of affiliate organizations on EPRDF’s Executive Committee and five Executive Committee members from each organization on the EPRDF Council without voting rights, and to commission a study to transform the EPRDF into a national party. These affiliate organizations represent Afar, Harar, Gambella, Somali and Benishangul, 15% of the total population.

For the first time in Ethiopia’s history, these peripheral areas could in future have a real say at central level. This could heavily weight the balance of forces between “federalists” and “confederalists” in favor of the latter. These are territories that have a particularly long memory of “Amhara domination”. A race against time has begun between the escalation of all these… conflicts, and the emergence of a powerful leadership.

Four scenarios

A race against time has begun between the escalation – currently continuous – of all these ethnic, religious or land-related conflicts, or simple settling of individual or communal scores, and the emergence of a powerful leadership. Four possible scenarios may be envisaged.

1. The risk of a progressive shift toward personal power, and thus a return to authoritarianism, but softer and less archaic than before, is frequently mentioned. This risk seems slim, at least in the short term. Supposing that this were his aim, it is nevertheless hard to seen how Abiy Ahmed could build a power base of personalities loyal to him first and foremost and numerous enough to fill all key positions required for authoritarian rule.

He must rely on the EPRDF. Reciprocally, his trans-ethnic popularity means that the Front is largely relying on him for the forthcoming elections. In this balanced deal, the space for personal ascent seems narrow.

2. The rapprochement between ODP and the TPLF, reinforced by the support of some Southerners, particularly the Sidama, and by the peripheral affiliated structures, would produce a leadership capable of getting the party-state machinery running again. Opinions are divided as to whether or not this option is possible.

One objection is that the EPRDF is simply beyond repair.

The Oromo nationalist forces are now convinced that Ethiopia’s destiny is in their hands. But are they capable of shouldering the necessary historical responsibility? In other words, can they overcome their historical, cultural, religious and material divisions? The different movements, or more precisely their different leaders – Merera Gudina and Bekele Gerba, Leenco Lata, Dawud Ibsa – have their respective sub-regional strongholds, not to mention Jawar Mohammed, who reaches a much more dispersed public.

The open conflict between ODP and the OLF over the latter’s disarmament, the “alleged operatives of the OLF” behind the grenade attack at the Abiy Ahmed meeting on June 23, are some cases in point. Dawud Ibsa went so far as to openly challenge the government: “no one will disarm, and no one is able to make [us] disarm.” To further complicate things, reliable sources in Mekelle report that discussions are under way between the “Tigrayan elite”, without further detail, and OLF. Despite being the pillar of the EPRDF, therefore, OPDO is unable to capitalize on all these Oromo forces.

Last but not least: how would ADP and NaMA react if they felt that the consolidation of the links between ODP and TPLF would result in the Amhara region being squeezed between Tigray and Oromia?

3. The nightmare scenario of an intensification and exacerbation of the “ethnic clashes” obsesses everybody. However, up to now at least, they have remained localized. Could they coalesce? The memory of the civil war of the 70s and 80s haunts the middle-aged generation. Young Oromo were accused of a pogrom against Southerners in Burayu, in the outskirts of Addis Ababa. Young Southerners in Arba Minch wanted to take revenge on the local Oromo. It was the middle-aged who managed to stop them. This kind of intervention is not unusual. It could be the ultimate lifeline for avoidance of a Yugoslavian scenario. It could be the ultimate lifeline for avoidance of a Yugoslavian scenario.

4. The fourth scenario would be a continuation of the present situation, come what may, until the next elections: limited unrest, a wavering leadership, an economy still making headway despite the uncertainties. Following elections, Ethiopia would face the challenge hitherto deferred: to build a coalition of ethnic parties strong enough to govern in a probably highly fragmented political landscape.

Grand Elite Bargain

At this stage at least, the future destiny of Ethiopia is shaped through a "Grand Elite Bargain". The structured links between the people and the political organizations in the hands of this Elite are at best loose, though the members of the spearhead popular movement, the Queerroo, are starting to register for different Oromo nationalist parties.

In its resolution, the EPRDF Congress did not even mention the forthcoming elections. Few of the opposition forces are really pressing to design the framework within which those elections will proceed. It is as if a tacit agreement has been made between the leaderships of the political organizations, whatever side they are on, to try first to reach an agreement among themselves and only then to put it before the electorate for endorsement.

Abiy Ahmed has held meetings in almost all the country’s main urban centers. He has engaged in discussion with many socio-professional categories. Opposition leaders have done the same in their strongholds. Until evidence of the contrary, it is highly symptomatic that none of them went into the rural areas.

Until evidence of the contrary, it is highly symptomatic that none of them went into the rural areas, if for no other reason than to show that they were interested in listening to a group that represents four fifths of the population.

Whatever path is chosen, however, it will be steep and tortuous, making its way up a mountain of uncertainties.

Notes

[1] October 9, 2018, interview, Addis Ababa.

[2] For its supporters, Agazian is the name of the people who founded the Geez Civilization, who invented or modified the Geez script and all the elements of Axumite civilization.

[3] Interview, Mekelle, October 6, 2018.

[4] Jean-Nicolas Bach (2011): Abyotawi democracy: neither revolutionary nor democratic, a critical review of EPRDF's conception of revolutionary democracy in post-1991 Ethiopia, Journal of Eastern African Studies, 5:4, 641-663.

[5] Tezera Tazebew, The Idea of Amhara Identity: A Preliminary Discussion, draft communication, 20th International Conference of Ethiopian Studies, Mekelle University,  October 1-5,  2018.

[6] Idem

openDemocracy and Ethiopia Insight are pleased to be publishing the author's pieces jointly.

About the author

René Lefort has been writing about sub-saharan Africa since the 1970s and has reported on the region for Le Monde, Le Monde diplomatique, Libération, Le Nouvel Observateur.

He is the author of "Ethiopia. An heretical revolution?" (1982, Zed books).

Subjects


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the
oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.