Ethiopia: We need to come together — but not inside Prosperity Party’s straitjacket

Ethiopia Insight, February 20, 2020

A regional official writing exclusively for Ethiopia Insight believes Prosperity Party faces electoral defeat as it undermines genuine self-rule

For years, I had been among those advocating for the transformation of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the defunct ruling coalition.For someone who had been propelling the ‘peripheral’ regions’ concerns and aspirations to the centre of a national discourse dominated by ‘highlanders’, the expansion of EPRDF beyond it is traditional base was the logical next step.

However, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s creation of a single national party, and the accompanying dissolution of all ruling regional parties other than Tigray’s, without addressing the fundamental reasons for their existence—to answer the question of Ethiopian nations and nationalities—was not the right way to address such a sensitive, seismic matter.

It would be a mistake of a historic proportion if the price of a ‘seat at the national table’ is further erosion of hard-fought gains by nations and nationalities. Imagine watching dreams for genuine self-rule slip away before real freedom is tasted—especially after having only recently escaped the Tigray People Liberation Front’s three-decade-long choke-hold.

Emerging details suggest the new centralized Prosperity Party (PP) is not the magic gateway to the Garden of Eden. Instead, the answer to Ethiopian nations, nationalities and people’s demand for genuine self-rule is a democratic, multi-national, federalist nation with functional constitutionalism.

Some argue, reasonably, that bringing EPRDF parties and its affiliate parties together was necessary to create a more cohesive polity. They posit that merging bickering regional parties was integral to establishing political harmony and refocusing on development. But what that argument is missing is the fact that until now, despite formal political and administrative devolution, the federal government dictated policy and EPRDF’s brutal democratic centralism kept regional parties on a vanishingly short leash.

That said, the recent obliteration of EPRDF and ‘affiliated’ regional parties has further eroded some of the institutional trappings of self-rule, such as independent political parties, parliaments, and other institutions that were supposed to protect and advance the political, cultural, and economic interest of the communities they represent. Any such attempt to roll-back the gains under the current ethno-linguistic federal order will not succeed, regardless of who tries it.

The crux of the case is this: until we realize a just, democratic, multinational Ethiopia, the presence of a strong, federalist parties is not only desirable, but essential, given the very limited ways that the fundamental demands of the ‘nations and nationalities’ have so far been met. Though it is claimed Prosperity Party will not infringe on self-administration—even in spirit, let alone in practice—this is misleading, at best. As things stand, all sorts of decisions will be made by people that are neither elected nor accountable to the nation or nationality in any given area.

In order to get approval of an unpopular merger, central authorities used coercion and intimidation as political weapons, much like the EPRDF did in the past. Council members were given very little time to scrutinise PP’s rapidly compiled program and by-laws, while regional elites were presented with a fait accompli: sign up or forfeit influence.

The most concerning PP by-laws clauses are those that seem set to hand the party’s national committees influence over regional government appointments. Article 28.4 (c) of the by-laws says the Organizing Committee of the Party is to “Present the appointment of the organizing committees of the party to the higher bodies at each level and assign them when approved”. Meanwhile, Article 24 (4) says the Party’s Head Office will “Identify candidate for different offices in the regions by discussing with the party President or regional authorities and presenting them to the Executive Committee.”

Combined, this suggests, although it is not explicit, that all appointments, both party and government, will be handled by the party at different levels of the hierarchy. The outcome is therefore somewhat ambiguous and murky, and that is by design: EPRDF/PP is not the U.S. Democratic Party nor British Liberal Democrats. There has been no meaningful distinction between party and state in Ethiopia, and PP’s assumption is it will be the party of government.

Regardless, under such arrangements, it looks highly likely people’s right for self-determination will be curtailed as their regional representatives cannot choose their own leaders without at least a nod from Arat Kilo. The same, of course, was the practice under EPRDF’s coercive democratic centralism. Meanwhile under Abiy central influence has arguably increased: recall last July when the premier’s National Security Advisor (and former Information Network Security Agency colleague) Temesgen Tiruneh was parachuted into the Amhara presidency.

Now, under PP, Tesmegen himself appears to have suffered from the centralism that put him in office, as some Amhara lawmakers this week opposed the transfer to the federal government Yohannes Buaylew, the head of Amhara PP, and Deputy President Lake Ayalew. The president said the two feisty regional leaders requested moves to Addis Ababa, but the sense is the reshuffle was directed from the federal capital.

Dead on arrival

Despite EPRDF’s failures of implementation, the fundamentals of the current constitutional order are sacred for millions of Ethiopians, other than a cohort of entitled urban elites. For them, tectonic shifts, like those generated by the Ethiopian Student Movement of the 1960s and half a century of struggle by the nations, nationalities and peoples never happened, or do not matter at all.

In this context, the decision to dismantle EPRDF and its affiliates is not only electorally doomed, but it is paradoxical: it amplifies the problems its proponents claim to be addressing; what is billed as an effort to curb hardliners and ethno-nationalist ‘political entrepreneurs’ seems set to be the best thing that ever happened to them.

For example, the creation of PP has opened up a huge possibility in the tentatively scheduled 2020 elections for the Oromo opposition now spearheaded by popular activist Jawar Mohammed. In a region that has 178 out of 547 federal seats and where there was already mass discontent at the lack of dividend for the Qeerroo struggle from Abiy’s rule, now PP has tipped even more people into outright opposition to the PM’s centralising tendencies.

Another emerging battleground is Somali region where the poll was set to be a competition between the now obsolete Somali Democratic Party (SDP), a beleaguered and despised organization, but also resurgent and broad-based in terms of clan and geographic balance, and the Ogaden National Liberation Front—an archaic, increasingly fractious party with tainted legacy of clannish, divisive rhetoric, but one that, nonetheless, enjoy a fiercely loyal base. And the odds were pretty good in favour of SDP. All that it needed was solid popular mobilization and a list of strong, credible candidates.

However, it is a different ball game now. The regional Somali PP representatives can easily be framed as ‘agents and collaborators’ of a secret, dangerous ‘neftegna’ scheme to chip away Somalis’s inalienable rights for political and cultural independence. In short, opponents can question their Somali-ness, or the fact that they can even stand for Somalis, before getting to the merits of policy proposals. This creates an opportunity for Somali-centric federalists hitherto overshadowed by the now defunct SDP.

The same goes in the Southern Nations where the political focus is overwhelmingly on campaigns for regional statehood that have even less chance of PP support than they did from the embattled leadership of the former Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement. If opposition federalist movement are able to get their act together—and Jawar’s intention is clearly to help make that happen—the ruling party’s control of many of the 123 seats in the south could be under threat.

PP, therefore, arguably  stands no serious electoral chance—of course, assuming that the upcoming elections will be ‘free and fair’—even though the Prime Minister prophetically claimed “his idea for prosperity” is unbeatable at the ballot box for the coming half century.

Instead, resurgent nationalism and its soaring electoral prospects can be observed in Oromia, Somali, Southern Nations, Tigray and, to some extent, even Amhara. This gloomy outlook frames PP’s prospects wherever you look, even without accounting for the damage wrought to Abiy by the Amhara-focused #BringBackOurGirls campaign.

So, given how well PP’s ‘get-rich-quick scheme’ is faring nationwide, especially in regions where socioeconomic, cultural, and political connections with the centre are the strongest, it is not that hard to imagine how it is set to spectacularly fail in parts of the historically disadvantaged ‘periphery’.

Unless it wants to end up dead on arrival, PP should revise its organisational structure and bylaws and ensure that it does not infringe on the constitutional right to self-determination, both in appearance and in substance. It should also put in place a set of institutional mechanisms to safeguard these sacred rights from gradual erosion.

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