Ethiopia’s ruling party, EPRDF, opts for more authoritarianism to tackle anti-authoritarian protests
(OPride)—In a lengthy statement on Dec. 29, the 36-person Executive Committee of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) congratulated itself claiming Ethiopia’s growing woes are the outcome of its economic miracles of the last two decades.
Issued at the end of crisis talks that lasted 18 days, the press release underscored the party’s dangerous turn toward more authoritarianism while masking its real intentions with reformist-sounding language that is as convoluted as self-contradictory.
The marathon meeting was forced by deepening political crisis in Ethiopia, which has come to cast doubt on the party’s ability to govern a country with a diverse population of more than 100 million. There are serious questions about whether the final statement was indeed agreed to by the entire top decision-making body and concerns about last-minute additions.
Nature of problems
The statement starts out with an analysis of the problems, old and new, facing Ethiopia—the most pressing being new and merely temporary. These problems, the statement claims, resulted from rising public expectations, which in turn are driven by the country’s burgeoning economy (midwifed by it). EPRDF summed this up with a metaphor: Two contrasting prospects—tantalizing opportunities for prosperity, on the one hand, and the prospect of instability, on the other— are staring each other in the eye. Consequently, Ethiopia is “at the crossroads caught between the phenomenal accomplishments emanating from the groundbreaking and correct policy directions taken by the party and temporary hiccups triggered by the party’s errors as well as newly emerging changes and desires induced by rapid economic growth.” In short, Ethiopia’s ills are merely unavoidable side effects of the ruling party’s successes.
This raises the question: Does EPRDF not see anything worrisome? The remedy suggested—quickly restoring law and order via the usual security solutions—bellies the effort to minimize the crises’ severity. Sensing the imminent danger of losing control, it makes imposing law and order the party’s number one priority. “The government, in concert with the public, will put under control all activities that undermine the peaceful lives of the people,” the statement said. This, the party intimates, would make sure that the “superiority of the rule of law” and aggressively punish all violations.
To this end, “EPRDF takes this opportunity to express its respect and admiration to our defense and security forces for protecting our peace under difficult and trying circumstances.” In effect giving security forces a free-hand to crush any resistance against the state’s reassertion of firm control.
In the same breath, the statement broaches the need to thwart “tendencies that allowed the violation of the human and democratic rights enshrined in the constitution.” In this regard, it admits the regrettable inability of citizens to hold violators accountable. However, the party doesn’t disclose neither what it plans to do nor why the government has miserably failed to guarantee the protection of basic rights. It also says little about the lack of an independent judiciary, which leaves these rights as nothing more than hollow promises on paper. Moreover, aren’t the chief human rights violators the federal security forces and the army? In an ironic way, the EPRDF statement commends the security forces for “their sacrifices” when they needed to be held accountable for their routine use of excessive force. If anyone is to be commended and lionized, it ought to be the Oromia state police force, and to some extent that of the Amhara state, for allowing citizens to exercise at least their rights to assembly against lethal threats by the trigger-happy federal police and army.
Sources of problems
Glaring leadership weaknesses, for which the party grudgingly apologizes, are presented as the main culprit. In a characteristic rhetorical gymnastics, EPRDF “assumed full responsibility” for the blunders and their deadly consequences. However, no one is held accountable.
The Executive Committee also identified the lack of democracy within the party as the other source of the current crisis. However, strangely, the leaders issued threats to stamp out recent openings at unnamed state-owned media outlets. This appears to be a subtle jab at the Oromia Broadcasting Network (OBN) and Amhara Mass Media Agency (AMMA), who have begun to allow a freer exchange of ideas. The top party bosses make no effort to reconcile their claim that the inability to freely exchange ideas is a major problem facing the country and the party’s desire to maintain tight control over the media.
Once strictly mouthpieces for the party, both OBN and AMMA have in recent months welcomed diverse views from the public, as well as from outside the ruling party. The executive committee finds this opening worrisome and vows to squash it. This is done ostensibly under the pretext that the two agencies are pitting people against people rather than “promoting development and national unity.” Accordingly, the statement vows to stop the media from spreading “messages that incite public unrest contrary to the political and legal framework and in violation of the constitutional order.” Over the past two decades and a half, the regime used the same groundless charge to silence the private press and outfox independent journalists.
Democratizing the bureaucracy
The statement claims that the bureaucracy is failing to carry out its day-to-day duties due to the weakening of inner-party democracy. Why should civil servants be forced to become party members in the first place? Likewise, what does democracy have to do with routine day-to-day bureaucratic decision-making? The tokenism becomes starkly clear from the remedy prescribed: Urging the civil service at both the federal and state levels to improve service delivery and respond quickly to people’s questions. This is tantamount to saying: the protesting youth are risking imprisonment and being shot on the spot because bureaucrats failed to issue them business permits or driving licenses on time.
Tigrayan hegemony or victimhood
At the start of the EPRDF meeting, the issue of Tigrayan hegemony was the single thorniest issue for the wobbly coalition. The prevalent view among both the Oromo and the Amhara public is that the unremitting problems facing Ethiopia have a lot to do with the pervasive political and economic dominance of the country by ethnic Tigrayans–a rent still accruing from their victory against the previous military junta two decades and a half ago. Online Tigrayan activists often dismiss such claims as blasphemy. Concurring with the narrow minority casting Tigrayans as the real victims, the EPRDF statement makes a denial of any form of ethnic supremacy.
Our country has created a situation whereby no nation and nationality is ruled by anybody other than itself. The federal and democratic system built over 25 years has established equality of all languages, cultures, and histories. Since self-rule has become a practical reality, a situation prevails where neither hegemony nor marginalization are possible. The federal system in place simply does not allow it.
Thus, Tigrean domination being a figment of imagination, the statement instructs regional parties to root out “parasite groups” seeking to build political capital from this phantom problem. As if this isn’t enough, the statement also censures efforts at closer bilateral relationships between coalition parties. Without naming names, it denounces the growing ANDM-OPDO bromance as opportunistic and unprincipled. The two are also castigated—again without being named—for lacking courage to deal with hard problems and instead resorting to empty populism.
Three points are worth raising here. First, if EPRDF is serious about inner-party democracy, why are the statement’s authors so bothered by horizontal affiliations between sister organizations? Second, how can a party that cannot allow the autonomy of its coalition partners be taken seriously on its promises to open up the political process for opponents? Third, isn’t democracy a system where policy is supposed to be a response to public desire? In this case, what is populist about OPDO and ANDM’s efforts to respond positively to their constituents’ long standing grievances, which the mother party itself has in the past acknowledged as legitimate?
Why are People Revolting?
The EPRDF statement criticizes the public for resorting to protests “while our system provides for a sufficient and secure way to handle demands for special benefits and interests to be handled in a democratic, legal, and peaceful manner.” How can one talk of constitutionalism when one of the cardinal principles of the constitution — the right to free assembly — is criminalized? To pass the blame for the unrests on to regional party leaders, the statement absurdly scolded them for “failing to meet their obligations to expand democracy, which contributed its part in paving the way for people to attempt to resolve problems and differences through violent conflict.”
Pluralism and multiparty democracy
The constitutional and democratic order being built in our country is one of plural interests and benefits. Although our party and the government it leads have worked tirelessly for the last 25 years to build a democratic multiparty political order, we have observed that conditions allowing for expression of plurality of ideas have weakened over the last few years. Even though the question of expanding the democratic space does not hinge solely on proclamations and our party’s goodwill, the Executive Committee noted that there were gaps in terms of steps that could have been taken in this regard. Among the institutions crucial for building a democratic order, the media and the press play a key role. However, our efforts with regards to keeping the media’s independence and allowing them to serve as the eyes and ears of the public have not borne fruit.
In the same vein, the press release also talks about the importance of civic associations in promoting and deepening democracy. To say the least, that’s a bit rich coming from one of the worst violators of press freedom. This is the same regime that passed a trio of draconian proclamations since 2008 — the media Freedom of Information law, the Charities and Societies Proclamation, and the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation. These edicts have been blatantly instrumentalized to imprison dozens of journalists under bogus charges of terrorism and emasculated the civil society and the opposition. It is deeply insulting and mind-boggling for EPRDF leaders to ostentatiously claim free press and robust civic society are crucial for a democratic system. One could excuse this statement if it was preceded by the rescinding of the restrictive laws and the release of all political prisoners and members of the press who are victimized by these laws and languishing in jail.
The nauseating and contradictory statement makes mention of two further steps to realize multiparty democracy.
First, “since the participation of the public is the secret behind our proud achievements and successes,” the statement proclaims, it is important “for the party to take consecutive actions to restore its legitimacy with the public and answer popular demands in an expeditious manner.” To this end, it says the ruling party will hold public listening forums, particularly with the youth. EPRDF have been abusing public forums since it usurped power in 1991 to shove its one-sided agenda down people’s throats without any genuine input from the public. Why would things be different this time around when the same statement accuses OPDO and ANDM of populism for holding similar but genuinely participatory public forums?
Second, the EPRDF leaders make vague promises of dialogue with the opposition. It stated that the ruling party would work “in concert with the public and all opposition groups, to discuss the shortcomings observed with respect to building a multi-party system.” It also promised to open up the political space for intellectuals and civic organizations to play their proper role. A buyer’s remorse for their decision to go for 100 percent wins in elections?
EPRDF is hinting at allowing a token opposition in parliament at the next election. But what is the utility of this tokenism when the ruling party does not envisage itself ever losing elections and peacefully giving up power? But seriously, aside from appeasing their western donors (too easy to be pleased), what would inspire confidence that any future dialogue with the opposition will be credible when the top leaders of the domestic opposition, including Bekele Gerba, Merera Gudina, and Andualem Arage and many others, are in prison under bogus charges of terrorism and countless others are driven into exile and prevented from taking part in the political process?
One of the rising public concerns ahead of the EPRDF meeting was the issue of national unity, specifically whether growing ethnic self-identification, especially by the majority Oromo, is undermining national identity. Here, EPRDF tried to extend an olive branch to the urban opposition, to whom antipathy to “ethnic politics” is their bread and butter. EPRDF is simply shedding crocodile tears as its main intent is not to genuinely promote national unity but to rally allies against the threat of growing Oromo self-assertion. One of the ways EPRDF managed to cling to power is by playing the Oromo against other Ethiopians, especially the Amhara. The Tigrayan oligarchy is simply driven by self-interest: It is worried about recent rapprochement between OPDO and ANDM, which have blunted the effectiveness of this divide-and-rule tactic.
The achievements and effectiveness of our work in promoting national unity within the context of our constitutional order, developmental state model, and the multiparty system is limited. Hence, the gap observed in reconciling and integrating ethnic and national (Ethiopian) identity will be tackled quickly and on a sustainable way.
Isn’t that what the close ties between OPDO and ANDM all about?
A leadership in deep crisis
The evaluation has revealed the shortcomings of the Executive Committee and the top leadership of the government in providing the strategic leadership demanded by the current circumstances. There is consensus that the top leadership lacked the ability to foresee problems; to analyze and understand them; to plan ways to deal with them and to resolve them accordingly in way that is consistent with the demands of the time and the stage. And EPRDF expresses its heartfelt apologies.
But aside from ordering member parties, modeled after a similar effort by the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front’s example, to do some house cleaning and reshuffle their leadership, where is the accountability for the disastrous blunders committed by leaders of the federal government, including the prime minister and the chiefs of the military and intelligence services?
The statement makes no mention of the federal government’s dismal failure and rather tries to make it appear as though the country is reeling from a crisis precipitated by regional state leaders. Talk about passing the buck and shirking responsibility! The only two areas where ANDM and OPDO are offered some respite from criticism and ridicule are in recognizing the latent roles of the regional states in the economy and improve people-to-people relations. This decision gives Lemma Megersa, the President of Oromia State, a formal blessing for his so-called Economic Revolution. The EPRDF statement also mandated regional states to carry out “multifaceted activities” to strengthen national unity. This means we will see more of the people-to-people forums, similar to the Oromo-Amhara public forums in Bahir Dar and Debre Birhan, in the coming months. It is clear that TPLF doesn’t like such engagements when it is done by others. Still the most attention-grabbing discussions will be between Oromia and Amhara states—home to two-thirds of the population — especially in light of TPLF’s coming wars on populism and people-to-people alliances they did not pre-approve.
EPRDF’s press release is unusual for several reasons. First, it was issued 24 hours after the meeting concluded. Second, the chairs of the four coalition member parties were supposed to give a joint press conference, which didn’t happen. Third, the content is diametrically contrary to the public positions of at least two parties, OPDO and ANDM. There can be minor defections from these two but it is implausible for the majority of the leaders of the two organizations to make such a drastic about face. Hence, a majority view? The party is known to muzzle minority opinion through its principle of democratic centralism.
However, votes are usually taken by organizations and simple majority doesn’t carry decisions in coalitions, especially on major pronouncements. Can Lemma risk openly breaking with the public, who have come to grudgingly trust him as a genuine reform leader, in deference to this highly criticized and outdated principle? If so, he would be squandering a golden and rare opportunity for Ethiopia’s smooth transformation into a truly representative democracy.
Fourth, the prime minister and chairman of the party, who usually goes on TV to boast about EPRDF’s uncanny ability to overcome challenges, has not done so to date. Fifth, even TPLF supporters privately admit that all is not well with EPRDF and that the statement didn’t necessarily show internal consensus. Sixth, even the return of Abba Dula to the speakership position, from which he abruptly resigned in October, is riddled with uncertainty. Did he make a personal deal with the powers that be or was it done with OPDO’s consent? In all, the statement is creating the very uncertainty it was meant to dispel and more problems than it solves.
Ethiopia is clearly at the crossroads. Or as TPLF chair, Debretsion Gebremichael, wrote earlier this year, “the country is moving from one crisis to another” and the security situation remains “very disconcerting. ” However, EPRDF’s reading of the crisis, judging by this statement, is totally off the mark. It minimizes the severity of the problem. It is vowing to repeat the same harsh security measures that exacerbated the current turmoil. It denies the existence of Tigrean hegemony, which stokes considerable and widespread resentment throughout the country.
EPRDF also talks of opening up the political space. Yet it menacingly castigate member parties that are moving in a reformist direction. It is even more unnerving that the party talks of press freedom while criticizing and vowing to reverse recent modest efforts by OBN and AMMA to allow a free exchange of ideas.
In short, EPRDF is promising the same status quo against which a majority of Ethiopian people have gone on the streets to protest. In other words, the governing coalition is itching more and more toward authoritarianism than reform. At the same time, it couldn’t hide the party’s continuing fissures. Overall, the convoluted press statement doesn’t augur well for the country and points to more troubles.