Ethiopia: A new dominant party delays democratization

Source: Ethiopia Insight

As EPRDF’s successor, Prosperity Party will assume its suffocating role

Despite being the oldest independent country in Africa, Ethiopia has no experience of peaceful, let alone democratic, transfers of power. In fact, throughout much of its history, transitions from one regime to the next have invariably been shrouded in intrigue or marred by bloodshed.

The last two rounds of power transfer for which we have a living memory (the ascent to power of the Derg in 1974 and its removal in 1991) involved unimaginable cruelty and the death of an untold number of people. Even the so-called democratic elections in recent years have been accompanied by violence, which at its peak in 2005 claimed the lives of more than 300 protesters in Addis Ababa alone. As a result, every potential change of power in Ethiopia raises fears of tumult of some kind. 

The rise to power of the current Prime Minster, Abiy Ahmed, has all the hallmarks of a change of power (but technically it is not). Although the groundswell of protests that brought him to power cost many lives, all the subsequent changes of laws and regulations that transformed the political landscape in the country went largely peacefully. That is partly what seems to have generated a tenuous hope for peaceful democratization through an election, which we are led to expect in a few months’ time in August. This upcoming election is to be seen as a critical test for many things. On one hand, it will test the Prime Minister’s ability to act on his promises and fulfill the unprecedented, constitutional assurance of assuming power through the ballot box. On the other, it sadly could demonstrate that our optimism was either ill-founded or premature.

It is pertinent to ask why changes involving violence and instability have dominated governance in Ethiopia for so long. In my opinion, the burning demand at the heart of the long-standing discontent has always centered on the right to self-rule at local level. Somewhat overlooked, and, at times, dangerously underestimated, is the extent of centuries-long resentment harbored by people of the southern part of the country towards administration from Addis Ababa, ever since their incorporation into modern-day Ethiopia. For many nationalities, being part of Ethiopia has meant the loss of their language, culture, religion, and land.

Historically, the response from the central government to this deep-seated frustration by the various groups has either been outright denial or token gestures. That is why the ethnicity-based demarcation of the country into regional states that make up Ethiopia as we know it today was devised as the solution to these long-held grievances. First articulated in a 1992 proclamation of the transitional government, the intention was for regional self-rule and therefore guaranteed autonomy to conduct internal affairs free of interference from the Federal Government.

It can be argued, however, that the 1995 federal constitution existed firmly on paper but, for the most part, was never truly implemented in practice. It is clear, even to the casual observer, that the right to self-governance, among other rights, was never fully granted. In reality, all regional states have been governed by the ruling EPRDF coalition, either directly or indirectly through affiliated parties, all of which have maintained power through controversial elections. As a result, a de facto unitary system of governance was produced wherein the central government had free rein to involve itself in the internal affairs of all states.

As well as being at odds with the constitution, this meddling naturally proved unsustainable. Over the years, protests frequently turned into violence against minorities, leading to the deaths and displacement of millions of Ethiopians. It can be suspected that inter-ethnic animosity was instrumentalized by the EPRDF coalition as a deliberate strategy, not unlike the ‘divide and rule’ policy first popularized by European colonizers. This was exemplified by the operations of government-supported militia at the Oromia-Benishangul-Gumuz and Somali-Oromia borders, at the peak of violence in 2018-19, that resulted in the displacement of more than three million and an unknown number of deaths. Finally, a sustained popular uprising brought Abiy to power, aided critically by internal divisions within the ruling coalition and support from the Amhara and Oromo governments.

Currently, there are credible political parties and a swell of popular opinion that blame the constitution and resultant self-rule and administrative structure for all the country’s socio-political ills. Key to my argument here is that the hitherto dubious implementation of federalism has led to a gross misdiagnosis of the root cause of this seemingly intractable antagonism. The formation of the Prosperity Party (PP) – a gargantuan that is more likely to suffocate the remaining political space in Ethiopia than bring lasting respite from inter-ethnic dispute – is also premised on this dangerous misdiagnosis.

The formation of PP, based as it is on the “medemer” principle articulated by the prime minister, was fast-tracked for three main reasons. First, to indirectly address the regional border issues, as ensuring local leadership on either side of regional borders are part of the larger central party would make divisions less problematic. Second, to breathe new life and vigor into a ruling coalition already weakened from internal division and acrimony. Third, to address the complaints by affiliated parties of exclusion from decision making. It is therefore unsurprising that many Ethiopians appear to be supportive of the formation of PP; they are hopeful that it will lessen ethnic polarization and reduce the salience of the identity politics that is troubling the country.

But PP, irrespective of its ideals, could potentially undermine any prospect of Ethiopian democratization. While it may ease ethnic fragmentation and mutual distrust in the short term, there is no clear reason to take such an outcome for granted in the long run. It is equally likely that its formation turns out to be counter-productive. That is because this single, nationwide party centralizes political power so that regional leadership is reduced to implementing decisions passed down from Addis Ababa. In short, PP signifies little if any change from the EPRDF’s modus operandi. Despite a superficial rebranding, on the back of sweeping political reforms and a rhetoric of change, Abiy is essentially appropriating and expanding on the previous regime’s model. Concerns over an ominously fervent personality cult developing around the young prime minister, in a phenomenon coined ‘Abiy Mania’, only reinforces this fear.

According to PP’s proposed framework, the representation of each region or ethnic group within the party’s decision-making bodies is to be determined on the basis of population size or number of members (depending on your source), which, in either case, means domination by Amhara and Oromia representatives. PP will consolidate a coalition that controls close to 90 percent of the population and has access to an administrative and organizational network that extends from the PM’s office down to kebeles. For contending parties, this would be a near unbeatable power to challenge in the political arena; in terms of structural efficiency and reach but also financial leverage—all reinforced by control over the federal and regional (with perhaps the exception of Tigray) security and judicial apparatus.

In other words, there is a considerable risk that the proposed future for Ethiopia with PP at the helm signifies a continuation of the dominant party status quo and thus of a system that enables corruption, hinders accountability, and perpetuates dissatisfaction. As foreboding as that may seem, it is secondary to the primary concern that a political party of this weight will, by nature, be detrimental to the plurality of ideas. This is particularly dangerous in the context of fledgling democracies, such as Ethiopia, that have yet to develop a truly democratic culture in government or society. This is exacerbated by the poor state of opposition parties, which are still highly fragmented, organizationally and financially weak as well as ideologically unsophisticated. Faced with a giant such as PP, they would stand little chance, even in a completely free and fair election.

Having said that, recent developments give reason for considering that PP may be electorally challenged in the most populous region of the country, Oromia. Since the formation of the Coalition for Democratic Federalism (CDF) earlier this year, and the inclusion of prominent Oromo activist Jawar Mohammed to its ranks, it would be narrow-sighted not to account for such an X factor in this conversation. While Jawar has demonstrated his ability to galvanize a massive following around his own (federalist) agenda, his appeal is nevertheless limited both demographically (young and social-media literate) and geographically (central and eastern Oromia). It is thus difficult to gauge how successfully this new platform will be leveraged to translate his popularity into a sizeable voter turnout in favor of the CDF (assuming the electoral board registers the coalition) against PP come August.

Looking to other parts of the world, the unfavorable pattern of one-party dominance is evident even in well-established democratic countries. Most notable are the total domination of bipartisan politics in the U.K and U.S., despite the existence of other minor parties. The cases of Poland, Hungary and Turkey in the last couple of election cycles further highlight this tendency; each eventually entering de facto one-party state rule together with all the ugly consequences associated with it. In dominant party systems such as these, the ruling party or coalition is prone to exercising their overreaching power to permanently change the political landscape of their respective country by creating a system of exclusion; changing existing laws, promulgating new ones, modifying the constitution, i.e. a slow but sure devolution to soft authoritarianism. If one can observe these unfavorable developments in mature democracies, it is all too easy to imagine how such a system would manifest in a country like Ethiopia.

The potential damage incurred to pluralistic democratic governance would have far-reaching consequences for a country as diverse as Ethiopia. It would likely lead to another cycle of unrest and state violence that must be avoided at all possible costs. After all, the past five years have demonstrated what can happen in the best-case scenario, given a federal government that was relatively robust, decisive, and coherent in the face of a struggle that was a relatively straightforward people vs the government contention.

There is very little to indicate how devastating a future uprising would prove to be. Already we are seeing an upsurge in civil disorder under Abiy, characterized by riots, kidnappings, burning of mosques and churches. The possible permutations of further instability are endless and the general climate of lawlessness is unlikely to improve once PP is officially in government given that regional states will not be sufficiently empowered to manage the volatility within their respective constituency.

The current state of affairs in Ethiopia suggest that Abiy should first implement a genuinely federated country in keeping with the current constitution that underlines the right to self-rule for all ethnic groups, a right which for the last half-century has been illusory. This would imply organizing the requested referendums in Southern Nations region, for instance. It is conceivable that once these groups are finally granted the chance to realize their freedom to self-govern, the various groups will be in a better position to appreciate what is to gain from “medemer”, from investing in the collaborative project of democratizing Ethiopia. Without such an incentive to work together, a time may never come when all Ethiopians can trust that their political system serves them equally well. Only by allowing the necessarily long and difficult process of institution-building untainted by partiality to any one ethnic group or influence of any one political party, can the ultimate goal of a functioning, democratic Ethiopia be realized.

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