Ethiopia, A Stable Peace or an Impending Crisis?

(Teklemariam T. Tesfay [PhD])

Meles was the sole architect of all the major policies of the country that brought about double-digit economic growth for more than a decade. His sudden passing left his party and the country in shambles.

The man who succeeded him was by all measures unprepared. Even though he had all the chances to leave his own mark by setting his own agenda for the government he led, he decided to act like someone who was bound by a spell. He became a subject of mockery for his lack of leadership and for parroting the same phrases Meles would have used while addressing the parliament and in interviews.

His tenure was marked by a period of confusion and turmoil. The country experienced the longest and most disastrous protests that destroyed several investments and loss of hundreds, if not thousands, of lives. Ethnic tension increased to levels unseen in the history of the country.

While all this was unfolding, the prime minister demonstrated total lack of leadership. The Ethiopian people stopped believing in him bringing any change to the state of beings and prayed for a savior to be delivered from somewhere.

As protests intensified and the country started entering into a precarious situation, it became clear for everyone that the chances of EPRDF to continue to rule the country were slim unless some radical measures were taken. And this the party did.

The prime minister announced his resignation on Feb 15/2018. The party approved his resignation and decided to elect a new party chairman who would also assume the premiership. History will remember Meles’ successor as an inconsequential premier who spent his time in the national palace as a simple resident but not as a premier.

The protests opened rift among the four sister parties that form the EPRDF. The opposition and the parties within the EPRDF intensified the TPLF/Tigray supremacy narrative and used it to their advantage. Populists within the parties exploited the situation to agitate their constituency and reach the helm of power.

New blood replaced the old guards in OPDO. Individuals who seem to have actively contributed to the displacement and suffering of Tigrians in the Amhara region seemed to have gained the upper hand within ANDM. TPLF seemed to have been left confused about how to respond to the situation.

Being a party that swears by the importance and effectiveness of “gimgema” (meetings of performance appraisal), TPLF had several of this meetings, with no significant effect. The party’s central committee kept the same faces that have become all too familiar to us since the party came to power (or even before). It has become a party of the elderlies when the other parties have transformed themselves to become parties of the “new generation”.

OPDO, in particular, has seen the ascendance to power of a populist Lemma who, at first, seemed to be the man who could bring his region to peace and lead the path to national reconciliation. Alas, it did not last long. He was too little too carried away by the attention he was getting and started acting like someone who was leading the whole country by defeating an opposition party. In his speeches, he seemed to harbor resentment and hold grudges against those imaginary individuals he defeated.

The race to the top

Once the ineffectual premier’s resignation was announced, it was obvious that the next prime minister was going to come either from OPDO or ANDM. TPLF had neither the willingness nor the readiness to present a candidate. SEPDM was an unlikely contender for a second come back to the top.

The sitting vice prime minister was from ANDM. Ethiopia has not had a prime minister from ANDM since the current constitution came into force in 1995. The region represented by ANDM was one of the restive states that saw displacement and suffering of tens of thousands of Tigrians. All this combined; ANDM had a chance to win the premiership.

However, infighting within the party was rife. Although it formed what seemed like a sinister alliance with OPDO to challenge the ‘status quo’, it was obvious that ANDM was not going to have strong support from other sister parties to secure the premiership.

OPDO, on the other hand, seemed to have done every preparation it can to get the premiership. Contrary to party tradition, during the days leading up to EPRDF’s chairman election, OPDO leaders openly talked about the party’s prime objective being to secure the premiership.

Few days before EPRDF’s council meeting, OPDO quickly swapped the chairman and vice chairman leadership in a meeting that was held in short notice. This swap took many people by surprise. However, for those who knew Abiy, it did not come as a surprise to see him coming to the top. They say Abiy has always talked about his intentions of being the prime minister of the country.

For months OPDO seemed to have invested heavily on social media to create a personality cult around the group dubbed ‘Team Lemma’, which was pictorially represented by the trio – Lemma, Abiy and Addisu. Lemma was the vocal leader who seemed to be liked by everyone in Oromia.

Although Abiy’s role in openly advocating for an ‘Oromia cause’ was marginal if any, the social media campaign was more focused on Abiy’s image-building than it was on Lemma. Many of the short notes and videos posted by facebook accounts with pseudonyms portrayed Abiy as the intellectual leader who knows everything about anything. In different excerpts from his plagiarized ‘presentations’ posted on social media, he pretends to have mastery of astronomy, genetics, medicine, traditional healing, biology, religion, anthropology and whatnot.

For a country that loves academic titles and appreciates phoniness and grandiosity, Abiy seemed to be a Godsend messenger who had the key to every problem the country had. The people had no doubt about who the next prime minister should be. It was Abiy.

The EPRDF council started its meeting on March 20/2018. As a party tradition, the public is not informed about what goes on in these meetings. Unlike previous meetings, participants leaked information about how the meeting was being conducted and who said what against whom. Like all leaks, no one can say whether the leaks were right or not.

The calm after the storm

On March 27/2018, Abiy was elected as a party chairman. Although votes were cast anonymously, leaks started to trickle out that Abiy did not get a single vote from TPLF and that ANDM decisively voted for him. For all we know, these leaks deserve no credibility. However, what was clear was the days of EPRDF reaching consensus with ease and with no serious fault lines were gone. The party is now seen as a party of four contending parties that don’t even seem to believe in the same political ideology.

On April 02/2018, Abiy was sworn in as the prime minister of the country. His acceptance speech spanned several issues. His speech was one of hope, forgiveness, new beginnings and working for a unified country. It was well accepted by the populace.

Before even leading the country as prime minister for a single day, people talked about how great a leader he was, how he saved the country from a total collapse to a strong and unified one. This brings to mind the time the Nobel Committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Obama less than a year into his first term as the US president.

Abiy got to work immediately after he was sworn in. He started his seemingly endless tour to the different regions and neighboring countries. Everywhere he went, he was accepted warmly and his speeches were accepted with a big round of applause. He continued his message of hope and forgiveness and acknowledged the contributions each people in different corners of the country made for the country.

During his visit to Mekelle, the prime minister acknowledged that many Tigrians were wrongly targeted in different parts of the country, especially in the Amhara region. The fact that he gave his speech in Tigrigna, his acknowledgement of the great sacrifices the people of Tigray made for Ethiopia, his analogy about “Ethiopia without Tigray being like a car without engine” and many other remarks were well accepted by almost every Tigrian.

However, this same speech was a bitter pill to swallow to chauvinists among the Amhara elites. They talked about how wrong he was to give speech in Tigrigna and that he gave too much credit to Tigray. These misgivings were reiterated in Gondar and Bahir Dar when ex-soldiers of the Dergue openly expressed their anger at the prime minister about his speech in Tigrai. The prime minister rebuked them harshly and continued his message of forgiveness and togetherness.

Walking the talk

The country has miraculously enjoyed peace since Abiy was elected as the chairman of the EPRDF. At a Peace Festival held at Sheraton Addis, Abba Gedaa Beyene Senbeto openly talked about the dangers that would have followed if an OPDO chairman were not elected as the prime minister. Such talks and the immediate calm that followed after Abiy’s election raise many questions about what the role of OPDO was in the protests.

Abiy has so far travelled to four neighboring countrie and is scheduled to travel to Egypt soon. During his travel to the four countries, he has secured freedom for thousands of Ethiopians imprisoned in these countries. This is one of his greatest achievements as a prime minister so far and he deserves utmost appreciation for that. The hope is that he continues to use his position for the freedom of many other Ethiopians languishing in foreign jails.

Abiy has also pardoned many high-profile imprisoned corrupt officials, business people with criminal business dealings and terrorists. For someone who closely follows what is going on in the country, it looks like; Abiy is leading the country as a pastor treating his subjects as members of a congregation. For example, the recent speech he gave on the May 28 national day urging people to spend the day visiting patients and meditating to look inside themselves feels like it was a speech given by a religious leader on a religious holiday.

Pardoning prisoners may be good, but pardoning individuals with serious criminal background without any due process sets a dangerous precedent. If all criminals in prison are pardoned, how is anyone going to justify jailing any criminal anymore? Does this mean Abiy’s government is not going to crackdown on corruption and terrorism? Abiy told his cabinet members that his government was investigating foreign bank accounts of appointees. Was this an empty bravado?

Besides, the pardoning process seems to be carried out with the direct order of the Prime Minister that does not involve the parliament. Some of the individuals who are being freed were members of what the parliament labeled as terrorist organizations. Even worse, some of them have killed innocent citizens and law enforcement individuals. Is the prime minister following all legal procedures when he bypasses the parliament’s decision and frees terrorists? If that is the case, are we marching towards an era of dictatorship?

Worrying signs

As of now, Abiy enjoys huge support among the Ethiopian people. Whatever decisions he makes, whatever actions he takes, they seem to garner a wide range of support from the population. Those who are opposed to some of his actions for justifiable reasons are silent for fear of angering the majority of the people. Therefore, if Abiy has the will, he can as well claim himself a dictator and no one seems to have the courage or the chance to stop him.

Dictatorship started in the ancient times in the Roman Republic. During those times, dictatorship did not have the negative connotation it has today. In the Roman Republic, political office was always shared with a colleague.

This principle was used to safeguard the political system against anyone who may want to make himself a king. Whenever the Romans  faced a crisis that needed making big decisions, they resorted to their institution of dictatorship where the Roman Senate would nominate a dictator for a short term and the dictator would have all the freedom to make the big decisions on his own, not in a committee. Dictatorship was later abused by some leaders and gained the bad reputation it enjoys today.

Parallels can be drawn between the Roman Republic’s shared-administration approach and EPRDF’s ‘collective leadership’. Similarly, we may make a comparison of the Roman Republic’s failed dictatorship institution with the way the EPRDF government is mutating itself under Abiy.

Traditionally, EPRDF ruled the country based what it called ‘collective leadership’. Most of the important decisions the EPRDF government passed in the past, including the Ethio-Eritrea border war, were made after consensus was reached by the EPRDF leadership. That tradition seems to have completely been ignored after Abiy’s ascendancy.

He seems to follow his personal decisions when he assigns individuals to ministerial and other key posts in his government. His decision to pardon imprisoned individuals without consulting the parliament also seems contrary to EPRDF’s traditions. The phony and patronizing lecture he gave to his cabinet and his claim that as seven years old boy his mother told him he was going to be the 7th king of Ethiopia all point to signs of dictatorship.

As stated above, dictatorship on its own may not be bad; especially if the leader is an able one who would want to use his leadership for the good of his people. However, dictatorship can be acceptable, if it has to be, only till the dictator “clean up the mess”. Abiy has neither the required skills nor any clear agenda to make a ‘good dictator’.

The road ahead

Abiy’s messages of hope, forgiveness and new beginnings have served their intended purpose – bringing temporary peace. How long-lasting will the peace be depends on how effectively Abiy translates his promises to practice. His administration is facing daunting challenges that require immediate attention. Revamping the economic slowdown, solving the acute shortage of hard currency, the Ethio-Eritrea border problem, resolving border issues between regional states and solving good governance challenges are some of the many problems Abiy’s government needs to practically solve.

The ODF leadership, that includes the legendary Lencho Leta and Dima Negewo, has returned to Ethiopia in response to a call from OPDO. Today, more than any other time, the Oromo elites seem to have a unified agenda – making sure Oromia plays its deserved role in the country’s fate.

Though many Oromo elites express their reservations about Abiy’s appointment as a prime minister citing his phoniness and him being an impostor, they prefer to say nothing negative about him in public. Abiy has assigned people from OPDO to almost all the key posts in the government. Now that he has the necessary popular support and the required political tools at hand, he can use them to solve some of the big “Oromo-questions”.

One key “Oromo questions” is the contentious question of making Oromifa the official working language of the country. The other equally contentious question is guaranteeing the state of Oromia’s special interest in Addis Ababa. Unless Abiy provides a satisfying response at least to these two questions, he will soon lose the support and legitimacy he enjoys among many Oromo elites.

However, trying to solve these same questions are going to cause Abiy and OPDO to lock horns with ANDM in particular and the Amhara elites in general. That will be the end of the superficial alliance between some individuals at ANDM and the populist leadership of OPDO against an unnamed third-party. My fear is that such a breakup between the two parties that represent more than 60% of the country’s population may open pandora’s box  bringing the country back to another turmoil.


* The writer, Teklemariam T. Tesfay (PhD), is a postdoctoral fellow at Arizona State university, USA, and can be reached at [email protected]

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