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Ethiopia in an Existential Crisis Without a Leader, But This, Too, Shall Pass

February 6, 2023

Yonas Biru, PhD

I. Executive Summary 

When it comes to facing a problem head-on, there is the proverbial ostrich that buries its head in the  sand and there is PM Abiy Ahmed who turns attention to something else. True to his character, when  the Orthodox Church conflict reached a point of national crisis, the PM ran out of town and released a  picture with TPLF leaders to show he is in control and to give the media talking points away from the  real crisis.

The PM is being tossed around by the waves of turbulence caused by Oromo extremist forces, including  high-level officials in his own party. The crisis can be summarized in one line: በትረ መንግስት በእጁ ይዞ እና በመንበረ-ሥልጣን ዙፋን ላይ ተቀምጦ በራሱ ላይ መሸፈት የሚያምረው የኦሮሞ ሃይል ተነስቷል.

My command of the English language will not allow me to translate the line in a way that does justice  to it. In a nutshell it means “The Oromo elite that sits at the apex of the political power structure and  controls the levers of power is rebelling against itself.” Sadly, a mind that has been stuck in 50 years of  grievance politics cannot unlearn its reflexive behavior that is primed to rebel.

The question that imposes itself on us is: Why did the Orthodox splinter group took a bold action at  this juncture? Since  the  Church  conflict  has  been  ongoing  for  some  time,  the  timing  of  the  splinter  group’s action is a marker of trigger events. Understanding this dynamic is critical to understand how  we got where we are and how to get out of it.

One thing is for certain. By the time, the Tigrayan Liberation People’s Front (TPLF) came to power, the  Tigrayan tribal politics had a well-developed and articulated goal that was strategically implemented.  In contrast, the Oromo tribal politics has many heads and souls. It lacks strategy and what happens is  determined by accident and chance.

As I have noted in an earlier article titled “The Accidental Rise and the Foreseeable Fall of Abiy Ahmed  in the Land of Two Shenes”, two conflict centers have emerged after the fall of TPLF. The first is between  Amhara and Oromo extremist groups – I call  them Amhara-Shene and Oromo-Shene. The second is  within Oromo political forces.

The conflict between the two Shenes has been raging in full earnest for nearly three years. Both see the  PM as their primary enemy and channel their wrath against each other through him. Using him as a  transmission line and converter station has allowed them to weaponize their animosity to each other  as a national conflict. This has increasingly weakened the PM, and tilted the balance of power within  the Oromo tribal forces in favor of his adversaries, without strengthening the Amhara power base.

The conflict within the Oromo landscape involves three different groups: Pan-Ethiopianist Oromos led  by  the  PM,  secessionist  forces,  champions  of  hegemonic  Oromia  within  Ethiopia.  The  third  group  includes a shadow government within the Oromo wing of the Prosperity Party (PP-Oromo).

The dynamics of  these  two conflict centers have all but stripped  the PM of  the levers of power. His  recent engagement with  the TPLF  that has refused  to  fully disarm and relinquish power as per  the  Pretoria agreement has signaled two things. The first signal is that he is powerless. The second is that  he is  not  governed  by  principle, and  he would  do  anything  to  stay in  power. When  seen  from  this  perspective, the timing of the splinter Orthodox group’s bold action is both strategic and political. They  acted because they believed the Oromo tribal land is his only lifeline and he will not act against them.

By  forces of circumstances, Shene-Oromo  that was a small group of ragtag Oromo Liberation Army  (OLA) has progressively grown to a force of national significance as more Oromo tribalist forces threw  their support behind it. With the PM all but incapacitated, the contention has been between Oromo Shene and the PP-Oromo shadow government.

The bold assault against the Ethiopian Orthodox Church has given Shene-Oromo strategic advantage  against both the PM and the PP-Oromo shadow government. The PP-Oromo shadow government that  has been supporting Shene-Oromo as an insurance policy against the PM’s reform agenda has found  itself dwarfed by it.

Ethiopia  is  left  naked  without  a  leader  and  credible  opposition  against  emboldened  Oromo  tribal  groups that are increasingly morphing into the body and spirit of Shene-Oromo politics.

On the bright side, there is a silver lining in the gathering dark clouds. The fact that the PM is hiding in  some distant land and the Oromo tribal government is aligning itself with the splinter Orthodox group  has created a completely new dynamic that will unravel the Oromo tribal politics. The crisis will break  the political apathy of the silent majority both inside and outside of the Oromo tribal land. Grownups  will  rise  to  take  charge as  Oromo  elders  have  done  to  disassociate  the  Oromo  youth  from  Jawar  Mohammed toward the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020.

My confidence that was expressed last week is further inspired by the Orthodox Church that has shown  its  centuries  old  tradition  of wisdom and judgment.  Its leaders  have displayed mastery  of  strategic  thinking and leadership in framing the agenda and managing the narrative. Their response to the PM’s  speech has schooled the young PM the art and science of public relations.

A clarion call must be made by the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church to prohibit extremist forces from  leveraging  the  crisis as a  tool  for political ends. The Church’s  followers and  supporters must  stand  guard to push back against political forces who wish to hijack the protest process. The Church must  provide a list of slogans and protest banners for national and international rallies. Every speech that is  delivered at rallies at home and abroad must be consistent and approved by the Church.

The purpose of this article is to show that the current crisis should not surprise us. It did not happen  by accident. It happened by a slow-motion process. We will not exit from it until we understand the  process that brought us here. This requires understanding the sources of the spiraling conflict and a  sober  discussion  to  build  consensus.  Let  us  start  with  the  man  at  the  helm  of  the  political  power  structure.

II. Abiy-Ahmed: An Ordinary Man Drowning in an Extraordinary Turbulence 

Before we judge the PM’s performance, we need to understand that governing an ungovernable society  is no small feat. From the get-go, Amhara and Oromo extremists started pulling him to their extreme  positions, denying him a space to govern from the center of the political spectrum.

On  the one end,  the likes of Shaleka Dawit want  the  PM  to “abolish  the  constitution,  dissolve  parliament, abandon the ethnic agenda, and lead a transitional government by decree.” On the  other  end,  Team  Jawar  Mohammed  warned  him  “Ethnic  federalism  engrained  in  the  current  constitution is here to stay. It’s not up for discussion, let alone negotiation.”

These are Ivy League educated souls whose understanding of democratic governance is either  ruling by decree or outlawing political discussions and negotiation. The story of the PM is one  of reconciling such diametrically opposing, irreconcilably positioned, and deeply entrenched  political culture of helplessly hermitized (Dawit) and permanently tribalized (Jawar) political  activists. Illiterate peasants who stayed in line for hours to vote for their leaders appreciate  democracy more than their Ivy-League educated counterparts.

Soon after he took office, the PM became a target of Oromo extremists for praising Emperor  Menilik. “አፄ ምኒልክ ኢትዮጵያን ከወረራ በመከላከልና ቴክኖሎጂ በማስገባት ኢትዮጵያን ያስረከቡን ታላቅ መሪ ናቸው.” He was  declared the enemy of Oromo when he affirmed that Ethiopia’s geographic proper and sovereign status  are “not up for negotiation.”

Speaking of  the PM’s betrayal of  the Oromo, Milkessa M. Gemechu, a  former member of  the Central  Committee of  the Oromo Democratic Party (who is now in exile) wrote in Foreign Policy Magazine:  “Not even one year into his premiership, he was openly regarded as a traitor in Oromia.”

Milkessa accused the PM of: (1) purging “hardcore Oromo nationalists from any role in his government  at  federal,  regional, and local government levels”;  (2) demonizing  the Qeerroo as an “ungovernable  pestilence that must be dealt with as soon as possible”; and (3) shifting the Oromo Democratic Party  (ODP) “dramatically toward the public dominance of Ethiopian nationalists who are organized around  Amharic language and culture, the Ethiopian Coptic Orthodox Church, and those who support a return  to an overtly centralized unitarist government.”

On the other hand, Amhara extremists see him as the “enemy of Ethiopia and genocider of Amhara.” One  thing  common  between extremist Oromo and Amhara  forces is  that  they  see  only  through  the  prism of a devout friend or a biblical foe. Both see the Prime Minister as a biblical foe. They both use  him as a transmission line to wage a war against each other.

Whether the PM is an Ethiopianist, a softer version of Oromized Ethiopia, or an opportunist who would  go with what he believed will keep him in power longer is debatable among rational observers. But  what  has dominated  the political discourse is whether  he is part  of  the Oromo-Shene anti-Ethiopia  strategy bent on weakening Ethiopia to build Greater Oromia or a protégée of emperor Menilik doing  the Amhara’s bidding. This has weakened the PM and strengthened Oromo extremists.

No  doubt  that  the  PM  is  stuck  between  ungovernable  political  forces.  However,  his  own  mismanagement has contributed and even exacerbated the crisis. As I have noted in several articles,  he has two characteristic flaws. First is his belief in himself as a prophesized redeemer of Ethiopia. This  has denied him the humility to learn  from his mistakes and seek advice and counsel  from people of  experience. Second, his narcissistic leadership style and I-know-it-all attitude have led him to surround  himself with “yes-men” subordinates. This has denied the nation a competent leadership team. What  we are witnessing is in part a product of this.

—   Read More EEthiopia in an Existential Crisis Without a Leader, But This, Too, Shall Pass

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