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Will Election Rectify Ethiopian Political Predicament? 

January 16, 2021

Metta-Alem Sinishaw, Washington, DC
January 16, 2021


Despite international accolades, the reform agenda of Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, has mixed results due to internal and external vulnerabilities. This paper attempts to highlight the adverse impacts of a fractured ruling party, growing instability, ideological ambivalence, and lack of institutions on the reform. Ruling party’s desire for legitimacy, opposition groups’ aspiration for power sharing, public enthusiasm for democracy, and minorities’ excitement for inclusion are favorable conditions with spillover effects to the Horn region. Despite mounting insecurity, it is too early to lose hope for democratization and the international community should support Ethiopia to transition to multiparty democracy.

The state of political reform 

Ethiopia has a history of authoritarian regimes that sporadically open political space. There were rigged elections followed by mass incarceration and crackdown on opposition. Political repression has been a major cause of instability. Incumbent’s successive claim of almost all political seats pushed the public to embrace non-democratic means that ousted the previous administration and brought Abiy into power.

Abiy underlined the significance of political unity and offered alternative political imagination to the ethnolinguistic arrangement. He labored to reinvigorate the shattered economy, reform the military, and build an integrated national political party. Mitigating the adverse effects of COVID-19 pandemic, timely filling of the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD,) and completion of urban projects boosted his support. The speed with which he removed the Tigray people Liberation Front (TPLF) is expected to accelerate the reform.

However, 30 months after assuming power, corruption and maladministration remain the hallmarks of his government. The peace deal with Eritrea that earned him a Nobel Peace Prize hinges on the signatories. While the war on Tigray is eroding international support, the divided ruling party is unable to implement coherent national policies. Abiy’s inability to execute the promised reform and increasing insecurity are diminishing his support and making the future more uncertain.

Holding elections prior to his promised policy and institutional reconfiguration could likely exacerbate conflicts and aggravate the danger of disintegration due to heightened ethnic consciousness. Winner-takes-all (first half-past) electoral system discourages the disenfranchised minorities, obscures credibility, and increases the likelihood of post electoral violence. Following are some of the key challenges that could adversely affect the transition to democracy.

Fractured ruling party is unable to reform:

Divergence on the reform’s direction bifurcated the ruling party. While three of the four coalition partners transformed into multiethnic Prosperity Party (PP), TPLF maintained its “revolutionary democracy” ideology and engaged in confrontation to protect the economic empire it had built in its heydays. However, its isolation from the ruling party diminished its national significance and its military adventure aimed at regaining its lost hegemony led to its unexpected demise.

PP is claimed to be consciously designed to promote the hegemony of Oromo centrist forces through the inclusion of previously marginalized peripheral and other discontented groups. The lack of coherent ideology, discipline, and hasty formation without deliberation brought contradictions among its constituents. Despite professing unification, PP remains divided into ethnic segmentations.

Because of the controversy over the ownership of Addis Ababa and reluctance for constitutional reform, the Amhara, a critical ally of Abiy, are increasingly dissenting from PP. The aggressive hegemony of the ultra-Oromo nationalists within PP frightens other PP members to the detriment of group cohesion.

Abiy may have succeeded in removing TPLF, but he continues to be surrounded by old guards of ethnic Oromo background and key figures from the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), TPLF’s main ideological and strategic partner. OLF utilizes both peaceful and violence methods and targets other ethnic and religious groups. Some even accuse him of replacing Tigrayan domination with that of the Oromo by tacitly colluding with Oromo radicals. Although OLF’s violence made Abiy a more preferred partner to other groups, his persistent silence in the face of increasing violence is diminishing public confidence.

Increasing violent conflicts undermine peace and stability:

The ethnolinguistic constitution remains the bedrock of Ethiopia’s existential threat. The structural controversy is that it creates a federal political nation based on equal citizenship, and contradictorily offers sovereignty to constituent units organized exclusively on primordial cleavage. It shifted political loyalty from the state to cultural groups, undermined national unity, and made elite bargaining cumbersome. Cultural inequality adversely affects political equality, excludes minorities from public life, and deters democratization.

As ethnonationalism became modus operandi, ethnicity emerged as a cardinal organizing principle in which politics, economics, education, and other social benefits are appropriated. Intense ethnic rivalry vying for federal resources among the three (Amhara, Oromo, Tigray) dominant groups exclude the 80 plus other groups from participating in the political discourse.

Seeking immediate access to power, opposition groups stuck on contradictory historical interpretation and perpetual rivalry against the establishment, which led to the proliferation of vertical and horizontal conflicts. Resentment rooted in arbitrarily drowned boundaries brought relentless claims and counterclaims. Intermixing of politics, ethnicity, and religion made coexistence increasingly difficult. The administration’s Human Rights commission revealed widespread atrocity crimes that could easily become genocidal, if uncorrected urgently. Simmering religion tension, escalating ethnocentric media campaign, building up of ethnic militia are recipes for disintegration, and it is real.

Ideological ambivalence diminishes the popularity of the new party

The ideological tension manifests between the radical ethno nationalists masquerading under federalist block whose central demand is self-determination, including session and the moderates who seek a federalism based on geography, sociocultural, and development suitability that reserves the promotion of language and culture to civic and local organizations.

Ethnonationalists stem from the 1960s Marxist-Leninist student radical movement that has dominated national politics since then. It represents the older generation that transformed ethnolinguistic groups into “nations” without comprehensive review of Ethiopia’s predicament. Primordialism, antagonistic narratives, intransigence, and high mindedness are its hallmark.

Abiy represents the young and liberal leaning reformist generation that claim to have home-grown ideology “Medemer” which would mean synergy. Resistance from ethnic radicals pushed Abiy towards ambivalence between nationalist and sub-nationalist postures. As sub-nationalist, he is reluctant to reform the much-contested ethnolinguistic design. Increasing presence of Prosperity gospel followers at the higher echelon of the government undermines state secularity and antagonizes relations with Orthodox Christian and Muslim communities.

As nationalist/unionist, he instituted the Prosperity Party (PP) that aimed at shifting allegiance from cultural groups to the nation at least in rhetoric. However, PP abandoned national symbols and the historical tricolor national flag (Green, Yellow, and Red) that serve Ethiopians, Africans and black people around the world as a symbol of independence. PP further avoided the name Ethiopia from its nomenclature and replaced the lion that symbolizes the Ethiopian state for centuries by extraneous peacock bird. The departure responds to the ethnocentric aspiration of destroying national insignia that symbolizes historical Ethiopia based on the false premise that Ethiopia is a “colonial power.”

Elite intransigence on imported ideology has only brought calamity. Politicians must decipher the enigma that made successive generations of Ethiopian social, economic, and political elites unwilling and unable to negotiate a better future based on shared experience and offer alternate nation vision. If unmitigated, elite animosity could make election results a zero-sum game, outcomes unacceptable to all, and plunge the country into post-election violent turmoil.

Lack of independent institution, civic engagement, and free media discourages participation

Despite leadership change, the policies and organizational structures under which institutions operate remains unchanged. Newly designed organs that were meant to strengthen the reform agenda (Reconciliation and Boundary Commissions) have not yet accomplished their objectives.

Civic organizations generally lack viable national vision and tend to confine in ethnic cleavage. They rarely articulate public interests, hold government accountable, and are seldom neutral. Those that aspire have always been subjected for intimidation and coercive pressure to abandon their demands.  In the past, civic organizations representing women, farmers, economists, teachers …etc. had played key roles. However, repressive law diminished their contributions.

Although some question the electoral board’s ability to conduct credible elections, recent calls for civic organization to serve as observers offers great hope, especially if they are allowed to freely criticize aggressive political discourse, advocate for the inclusion of marginalized “ethnic others,” and encourage free competition.

Few media outlets disseminate credible information, educate the public, provide fair and/or balanced coverage, encourage peaceful competition, and prepare voters for election. Most platforms remain a mouthpiece of ethnocentric forces that disseminate contradictory messages.

In the absence of independent institutions and civic engagement, politicians easily subvert public interests and exploit discontented youth for radical agenda that causes social unrest. Reversal of the initial gains on media openings and freedom of speech further diminishes the hopes for democratization.

Egyptian pressure could worsen domestic instability

Diplomatic row with Egypt over the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is central to Abiy’s foreign policy challenge. Historically, Egypt has supported Ethiopian rebellion groups, attracted Ethiopian neighbors into the Arab League, and succeeded in depriving Ethiopia of access to development finance to undermine its project on Rile river.

Exploiting its strategic proximity to the West and the Gulf, Egypt even succeeded in swinging the Trump administration in its favor which forced Ethiopia to step away from negotiation. President Trump’s open advocacy for violent means against Ethiopian dam undermines long-standing US commitment to democracy that Africans cherish most.  Egypt is actively seeking client states among Ethiopia’s neighbors to place its military base. Egypt exploits Ethiopia’s dependence on access to the sea, allegedly supports its restive ethnonationalist radicals, and orchestrates the current Ethiopian border dispute with Sudan, which collectively pose serious domestic instability and adversely affect Abiy’s reform.

As ethnocentric mobilization subsides and Abiy ostensibly gains more control over national security services, there is a hope that the danger of disintegration will be diminished. Following are some of the favorable conditions that boosts the transition to a multiparty system.

The administration seeks legitimacy      

Postponement of last year’s election resulted in the constitutional deadlock that turned out to be a critical bone of contention. The expiration of the five-years mandate in October 2020 raised serious doubts about the administration’s legitimacy. Political actors accused the ruling party of exploiting the pandemic to preempt any demand for credible electoral arrangement.

Despite consulting some opposition groups, Abiy vehemently opposed the notion of interim arrangement and groups who demanded “transition” are now either in prison or disappeared or simply abandoned their position. Opposition groups understand that continued instability and mounting economic constraint together with the constitutional crisis will seriously undermine Abiy’s political legitimacy. Thus, they are effectively exploiting the delayed election as ammunition to delegitimize the administration.

Ethiopia is essentially a traditional society in which 80 percent of the population are subsistence farmers. The peasantry is dependent on public land and rarely influences government policy. As exclusive provider of land and security services, the ruling party has extraordinary advantage in rural settings, which discourages competitiveness. Against this backdrop, the ruling party insisted on its commitment to credible election and inclusive participation. Abiy is likely to win the election and legitimacy would offer him a unique mandate to implement his audacious reform.

Public desire for security and better economic conditions  

Afro barometer revealed that more than 90 percent of Ethiopians advocate for democratic form of governance and 54 percent do not believe the country is heading towards democratization. Despite the lack of middle-income criterion, increasing urbanization, advance in communication, and social media penetration projects positive outlook. There is growing interest in resisting top-bottom approach and fictive oppositions. The long queue in polling stations, growing activism for social justice, equal economic opportunity, and gender parity are favorable conditions that will enhance the journey towards democratization.

Despite widespread security concerns and increasing price of living, there are still expectations that the government is the sole custodian of legitimate coercive power that will address security, the economic quagmire, and youth unemployment.

Power sharing with opposition introduces political pluralism

Since 2000, no single opposition party has had any legislative seat and political participation was nonexistent. Abiy brought exiled and incarcerated politicians back into national conversation. Opposition groups complain that PP is slowly reinvigorating old repressive tactics to restrict mobility and freedom of speech and assembly. Some even wonder whether they could participate in the election due to increased leadership incarceration, office closures, and intimidations at the district level.

If the ruling party restraint on its incumbent privilege and engage politicians, opposition groups could mount formidable challenges, especially in urban centers and rural areas where intra-ethnic competition is high. There is great expectation that the opposition will earn substantial seats and introduce political pluralism. Inclusive participation in government will mark a new era of hope and positively affect the country’s future discourse.

Aggrieved minorities are seeking political representation:

Dominant ethnic groups have been denying the political, economic, and civic rights and prevent minorities from having political representation. Continuous prosecution of Ethiopian citizens of “ethnic others” is destroying social harmony and causing community discord.

Extending the perpetual minority exclusion would only ruin the hopes of citizens for a more perfect union and undermine national survival. If the administration implements its promises on inclusive participation, the election could help reestablish mutual trust and promote national union. It will fundamentally level off the marked inequality, narrow the power imbalance, and serve justices to the repressed resident-minorities.

Political liberalization in Ethiopia influences the Horn region and beyond:

Abiy’s emergence ushered optimism in the Horn region where people are closely interrelated by shared history and culture but with sporadic interstate conflicts. The 2018 peace agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea helped to resolve bilateral conflicts and mitigate regional tensions. Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia converged to forge the “Horn of Africa Cooperation” and improve cross-border trade, environmental concerns, regional security, and transform illegal trade. Thus, democratization in Ethiopia would favorably affect the region and the Red Sea shipping lanes.

 International community should encourage Ethiopia’s transition

As Ethiopia navigates through its bumpy journey, the international community should encourage the transition to genuine multi-party democracy and demand at least inclusive participation and credible election. Emphasis on the tolerance and inclusiveness of minorities in ethnically dominant regions should be much more important than the excessive focus on the outcome. Minority inclusion, public dialogue, and opposition engagement are critical for national survival without which Ethiopia could easily fall into post-election violence and slide back into authoritarianism.

International financial and technical assistance would help to identify and deter wrongdoing on processes or against participants during the election process. The assistance also enables opposition groups to mount reasonable competition against the incumbent. If international partners are truly committed to democratization, they should harmonize their competing interests and scrutinize ambivalence between promoting democracy and cooperating with authoritarian regimes.

In the 1990s, the third wave of democratization did not penetrate Ethiopia not least because it was not part of the communist bloc, but strategic imperative on counterterrorism made the US turn a blind eye on Ethiopia’s heavy hand on human rights.  In 2015, US administration approval of Ethiopia’s 100% claimed victory as free and fair election did not lead to democratization but raised doubts about the West’s commitment to democracy. If the international community remains indifferent, Abiy could easily exploit the country’s vulnerabilities and emerge as the next strongman with a spillover effect to the region and beyond.

For comments: mettaalems@gmail.com

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