PEACEFUL TRANSITION TO DEMOCRACY IN ETHIOPIA: WHY IS IT SO ENIGMATIC?
Time and again our politics has been continuously squandering opportunities that could have otherwise facilitated the country’s path towards a democratic rule. The 1974 revolution would have been a marvelous moment to initiate the long journey to democracy had it not been spoiled mainly by the military junta’s (Derg) ruthless approaches to control power single-handedly. In its wake, it left a gloomy juncture that took the lives of a large number of selfless dynamic political champions and a dysfunctional political order.
Similarly, ending the longest civil war in the country, 1991 came as a harbinger for multi-party democracy in Ethiopia. However, it too didn’t take long before the EPRDF ruling coalition mustered power under its dominant one-party rule. Later on, the 2005 election, which constituted a radical turning-point in the country’s election history, revealed a captivating instance of electoral democracy with the extraordinary participation of opposition political parties.
Nevertheless, it too was reversed by the ruling party when it showed results at odds with its expectations.
The recent development as well stirred hope for a peaceful democratic transition. The widespread protests across the country that caused the dominant EPRDF ruling party to crack under pressure and comply with public demands led to its own initiative of unprecedented reform proposals; now it all seems hanging in the balance. Two years and five months later, we are yet to see the promised reforms for a stable country; on the contrary, the country is forced to experience one crisis after another, almost entirely political in nature.
This op-ed will look into the recent opportunity, which is the last in the series and is peculiar in many aspects.
Transition From Within
Considering the extent to which it controlled monopoly of power, it was hard to conceive a moment in which the EPRDF coalition would lose its momentum. Its engagement with the military structure, its privileged encroachment in the (then) booming economy, and its remarkable use of the security apparatus for political purposes could tell how daunting it was to see any peaceful transfer of power any time soon. The Oromo protests, which began in April 2014 and ended with the designation of Abiy Ahmed as prime minister in April 2018, was consequential. Even though the external pressure from the protests and the discontent from every corner of the country, including the Amhara protest, had been instrumental, it was very hard to think of any shift in power had it not been for the rise of some reformist elements from within the coalition who embraced the people’s demand for change. The role played by the familiar phrase ‘team Lemma’ in realizing this change was substantial.
For a country that had been tightly controlled by a single party, the crisis that might have resulted in its demolition would have been devastating. Moreover, the absence of competent opposition parties that could qualify to replace the ruling coalition, could have resulted in multiple crises of its own. Nonetheless, the emergence of this reformist bloc from within the party was welcomed with a collective sigh of relief in a country that was on the verge of complete collapse due to political, ethnic, religious, and ideological divides. It was this group that sparked a lot of hope to the different actors in all sides of the spectrum and restored faith in the political process that followed.
What Went Wrong?
The first months of Abiy’s leadership witnessed important developments, including but not limited to, the lifting of the state of emergency, release of political prisoners, opening up the media, and legalizing outlawed political parties. His attempts to make peace with Eritrea has earned PM Abiy last year’s Nobel Peace Prize. Furthermore, his rhetoric of peace and reconciliation was acclaimed by many in spite of a host of differences across the country. The combined effects of these resulted in unprecedented support for him and the incumbent regime which was hoped to direct the country to a better sociopolitical path.
However, it was only for about the first six months that the unanimous support PM Abiy enjoyed from all corners of the country could last. The security deterioration across the country was the first manifestation that caused many to question his ability to deliver the expected leadership the time has needed. Even if his supporters justified the developments as an intentional compassionate gesture of avoiding the use of force, his critics presented it as his inability to enforce the rule of law in the country. However, many have already started to criticize his leadership in the early days due mainly to his lack of presenting a proper roadmap to guide the transition. Even if several outlawed political parties came into the country, including those who were engaged in armed struggles, and many more proliferated anew, there was no clear plan for involving them in the supposed transition. His declaration and intransigence to lead the transition solo was also widely condemned. Many observers have noted skeptically the paucity of platforms for collaborative engagements with the opposition groups.
Later on, his decision to create a new party (Prosperity Party) to replace the age-old Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) was a significant development that provoked varied reactions. One of the parties in the coalition – TPLF, which was arguably taken as the original maker, questioned the development for its legality, eventually exiting membership of PP. Others accused the move as an attempt to deny different nations and nationalities in Ethiopia the institutional frameworks which could help them advance their group rights. Lemma Megersa, who was considered the front runner of the reformist team, stood against the decision, creating the first signs of a consequential rift between him and Abiy. In less than a year, the exceptional unanimous support the new reformist group enjoyed began to get thinner and the political landscape deeply split up between polarized supporters and opponents.
Despite criticisms and the fragile political situation, the incumbent regime continued in its own nonstop, unaccompanied course. It was amidst these consequential developments that COVID-19 was reported as a global pandemic for which the government declared a state of emergency followed shortly by the electoral board’s decision to postpone Ethiopia’s much-anticipated election. The decision left in its weak a constitutional deadlock as the term limit of the incumbent would come to an end before elections were held.
The government’s handling of the state of affairs in resolving this deadlock was very controversial. The use of the two houses, which are fully constituted with members of the incumbent itself, to instrumentalize a decision in its own favor escalated the tension between Abiy and key political actors; it also revealed the Prime Minister’s reluctance for a negotiated political settlement, including an all-inclusive dialogue on how the incumbent should continue once its term in office came to an end.
The current crisis that we are witnessing after the assassination of legendary Oromo artist Hachalu Hundessa only heightened the existing tension as it was followed by the imprisonment of leading opposition political figures like Bekele Gerba, Lidetu Ayalew, Jawar Mohammed, and Eskinder Nega, and many others; by all accounts, it can be taken as the last laps towards an obvious authoritarian rule. The excessive reliance on the use of force to cross the political frontier is becoming strongly evident.
Below, I will discuss the main factors that I believe have contributed to this authoritarian proclivity that PM Abiy’s regime seems to settle on, despite a high level of expectation, both locally and internationally. Without ruling out the contribution of many other intricate elements, these factors have impacted the current failure to a peaceful democratic transition that many of us optimistically anticipated.
Hierarchical And Highly Centered Power Structure
Unlike other African states, which are mere post-colonial constructions, state structure in Ethiopia has a long history. It nurtured a hierarchical power structure with a formidable center. This in consequence helped to manipulate the power structure in one’s favor for whoever controls the seat at the palace in Arat-kilo.
This creates a conducive political environment to pursue authoritarian ambitions. If we try to scrutinize those who seized power on different occasions, most of them precisely changed their declared interest to pursue power-sharing and democratic transitions and ended up with dictatorship and tyranny. This highly centralized hierarchical power structure, in addition to helping in enforcing one’s aspirations, made the acts of targeting and attacking whoever mistakenly or openly opposes this center. It has also been instrumental to subdue the public who often revolt against it. This dominance of central power structure has been highly conspicuous in all the regimes through the Emperor, to Mengistu and Meles.
The incumbent is simply capitalizing on this long-established power structure. The failure for the current transition to democracy is mainly ascribed to this factor and PM Abiy, who inadvertently came to power as a result of the protests, has in time resorted to manipulating this state structure towards consolidating his grip and influence.
If we look back at the developments, had it not been the hierarchical power-center, it would not have been easy for him to continue exerting influence without such a formidable structural backing especially after his moves to demolish the EPRDF coalition, changing it into a single party PP (Prosperity Party) with Medemer as a political ideology. Without using this long-established power structure, orchestrating constitutional interpretation to extend his term in office would have been much challenging too. This dynamic could represent a case of power structure reigning over the agency, which are key notions in conventional political science analysis.
What makes this factor interesting in this particular case is the fact that the major contributing factor for PM Abyi’s ascent to power and the regime legitimacy was popular public demand articulated through the protests. One could say that it was the public agency that prevailed over structural dominance at the start. This was different from Derg’s case which was considered as a military coup by the Emperor’s own army, although it was preceded by popular public discontent. It is also distinct from the TPLF/EPRDF’s 1991 power control, which followed the military defeat of the Marxist regime. That is why the use of similar hierarchical central power for authoritarian ambitions seems paradoxical under PM Abiy.
In relation to this, some construe the ad hoc quietened public reaction against the center’s dominance as a case of subservient political culture which is prevalent among Ethiopians. It is also presented as a major contributing factor for the recurrence of structural domination in Ethiopian politics. But that is not true. This is the essentialist reading of political culture as static throughout history. This couldn’t grasp the changes across generations and the diversity among the population within Ethiopia. Moreover, if we could look back on how regime changes happened in the past, they were the consequences of public revolt and grievances – a demand for freedom. The public showed its capacity to say enough and opted for change.
The vicious cycle of authoritarian rule weakens opposition; and as the last three decades of experience in Ethiopia show, a weak opposition never overcomes authoritarian rule. The EPRDF coalition tenure was known for mercilessly crushing the opposition and cracking the emergence of dissenting voices. In general, intimidation and harassment were the norms towards major opposition parties, civic society, and independent media. This ensued the opposition camp that went disarray characterized by lack of one thing in common: formidable strength that could competitively challenge the incumbent.
When PM Abiy came to power, he called for all parties to join the transition. But the only change on the ground was the proliferation in numbers of opposition political parties. For some who were able to make it, it justifiably took more than a year to make alliances and partnerships. The paucity of strong parties that could rally the public in favor of them was evident. (This proposition never refutes the emergence of one or two opposition parties which were heading in that direction). But by in large we haven’t seen them making strong commitments that could challenge the ruling party.
This futile situation must have lured the ruling party, which has a good knowledge of their inefficiency, to manipulate that to remain in power. We have observed this from the insignificant attention the ruling party gave for the opposition in spite of their insistence for dialogue and reconciliation.
Even after the constitutional crisis event that signaled the regime’s end of term, the PM and his party were stubborn enough to manipulate the legal system to extend their term in office despite the call from opposition parties to have an all-inclusive dialogue and establish a caretaker government. The closest the incumbent has come to meet these demands was to invite opposition parties (often in the eve) for a meeting without a shared agenda where the PM exerts the maximum power asymmetry and pressure to his points acceptable. The four alternatives he delivered with regard to the differed election was the same; he even scorned them on their unpreparedness for “such critical national issue”. Their insistence to come with their own alternatives was categorically rejected. Giving deaf ear to opposition calls, the ruling party used the rather homogeneously established houses to pick one of its own alternatives and made the decision in favor of extending his term in office, as some interpreted it: ostensibly indefinitely.
When PP established itself as a new party with purportedly different ideological departure from that of EPRDF (excluding TPLF), individuals who were the members of the former party continued their status. All the structures that served the older party continued to serve the new one without laudable reform measures. Even among the higher officials, it was only Lemma Megerssa, who had a leading role at the start of the transition, who stood up against it.
For a country that has been suffering high levels of unemployment and in a country where most government jobs are allotted based on political affiliation and party loyalty, losing position from party membership is equivalent to losing one’s livelihood. This especially becomes very serious for party members who have been accused of rampant corruption at all levels, including the top officials.
Allowing the transition to go forward may come with many uncertainties that they are not willing to face. The change may bring forth developments that may hasten their calamity. Therefore, clinging to the party and dying for its continuity could be an existential struggle that many have opted to fight for. If not all, a good number of party members may not care about ideas and ideologies as much as the importance of keeping their position in the government. They will work for whomever that may come with whatever ideological disposition as long as it does not imperil their lifestyles. The PP party exploited this ambivalent force in its favor. This certainly has benefited its newly minted President, PM Abiy, to consolidate his grip on power, at least for the time being.
Other Players’ Priority For Security
The role of some global powers, which have a special geopolitical and economic interests in the Horn in general and in Ethiopia in particular, in influencing the current political dynamic has been substantial. There may not be direct kingmakers, but the impact of these third parties in influencing political changes, particularly in times of this transition, invisible. Although there were expectations for these external forces to directly influence the internal dynamic towards some specific direction, their role in that aspect seems to be fading away or is becoming very little. Now, the utmost priority seems to have shifted from influencing to democratize the state to helping is keep law and order; security and stability before anything else. This explains why these external forces kept silent in the face of several missteps by PM Abiy in the last two years.
To sum up, the interplay of these and other factors not discussed here has contributed to the failure of the expected peaceful democratic transition in Ethiopia. Each of them, with its varying weight to influence, affected the transition awkwardly as they manifest themselves in the day to day unfolding of events in the country. Now, it has become futile to discuss whether the incumbent has any intention for a negotiated settlement or not. In the first place, the crucial component has been the lack of the leadership’s will for a peaceful democratic transition that could have availed the country with a golden opportunity to enjoy democratic politics. Had there been a genuine determination and will to usher in the desired democratic transition, the supporting factors could have outweighed the challenges. Nobody could take the blame for this except the ruling party and its high-level officials, the PM taking the lion’s share.
Now, the county is at a crossroads that may result in more radicalization and division along political, religious, and ethnic fault lines which could worsen the already existing contest and competition. Rather than de-escalating and calming the situation, the ruling party chose to occupy itself with irrelevant undertakings and to overwhelm the people with PR avalanches, exacerbating the fragile situation. It seems that, at the expense of anything, authoritarian rule is going to be the typical course in Ethiopia, once again, as it has always been, and that is unfortunate.
– WALLELIGN SHEMSEDIN