For Ethiopia’s political tribes, it’s 2005 redux

Source: Ethiopia Insight

Once more, irreconcilable blocs are vying for power

One of the common fallacies bedevilling contemporary Ethiopian political analysis is presenting the 28 years of Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) rule as uniform.Instead, there were three phases:

  1. 1991-95, the EPRDF-era takes shape: The transitional government and shared rule; stabilization of the country; and 1993 Eritrean referendum.
  2. 1995-2005, politics occurs within EPRDF: The first two elections in 1995 and 2000, the 1998-2000 Ethio-Eritrea war, the 2000 Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) rupture.
  3. 2005-2018, EPRDF is tested, retains power, falls apart: The open 2005 election, its violent aftermath, reinstating a centralized authoritarian regime, growth and decay, sham elections, protests, the fall of Hailemariam’s government.

Within these three phases, the 2005 election was the critical event—and right now it is more important than ever.

It not only shaped the course of the EPRDF era, but also displays stark similarities to the current alarming situation the country is in. The parallels are such that in many ways we are revisiting 2005, with one bloc committed to multinational federalism and another looking for an election victory to pave the way to revise the constitutional order. Indeed, with Ezema’s backing for a constitutional amendment to resolve the current legitimacy crisis, and the National Movement of Amhara’s proposal for wholesale constitutional revisions, that campaign is arguably already underway.

Despite being the most competitive, and being referred to as the benchmark of pre-election preparation, the 2005 polls ended in dispute over the results and at least 330 deaths as security forces cracked down post-election on street protests. Shocked by the result and the opposition reaction, the EPRDF then rethought its strategy and seemed to decide the nature of Ethiopia’s opposition meant the country was not ready for multi-party democracy. Increasing authoritarianism ensued.

Those existential issues that created the 2005 tragedy have not progressed to policy debates in the subsequent 15 years. Instead, this time around, the opposition from the Oromo-dominated south is calling the upcoming election a referendum on retaining the federal system.

Once more, irreconcilable political blocs are vying for power in a first-past-the-post contest in a weak institutional environment.

Arguably, the 2005 election showed that the anti-multinational camp is not willing to share power with identity-based regionalist powers, partly as they revile the constitutional system and consider scrapping it the only worthwhile political objective.

Meanwhile, arguably, the federalist EPRDF was willing to do so, including accepting joint administration of major cities with the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) led by the late Hailu Shawel, although it moved quickly and ruthlessly to constrain the opposition-run Addis Ababa administration’s power.

Zero sum

EPRDF had in fact already showed signs during the 1991-95 transitional period that it could share executive and legislative power. During that period, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) occupied a handful of cabinet positions like the Ministry of Education (introducing the Qubee generation) and the Ministry of Information. This short period of power-sharing was the only one in modern Ethiopian history. It shows, regardless of how fleeting it was, that the federalist camp has the potential to work with its opponents—albeit opponents that were ideological allies on the issue of state structure.

Indeed, former OLF leader Lencho Leta has said since his return to Ethiopia that one of his regrets was not doing enough to try and work out differences in the 1990s due to his youthful revolutionary convictions. That led to the group’s withdrawal from a coalition government after clashing with TPLF, military defeat, decades in the political wilderness, and fragmentation of the movement.

In 2005, the anti-federalist camp allowed foreign meddling in the form of an activist European Union election observation, sanctions, and proxy interventions by NGOs like ActionAid. It was also willing to use ethnic intimidation, with one leader declaring that the Tigray minority should go back to where it came from, and it toyed with undemocratic methods to achieve power. For example, in his article ‘Kinijit in the 2005 Elections’, Melakou Tegegn recalls: “In early 2005, in an address at an election debate on the issue of labour and trade unions, one of the Kinijit leaders at the time, Lidetu Ayalew, said that if the EPRDF rigged the election, the Ethiopian people would topple it in a Georgian and Ukrainian type of revolution.”

The zero-sum fight that was inspired by the hardliners in CUD/Kinijit during and after the 2005 vote installed in the psyche of the opposition the belief that EPRDF/TPLF is a force not to work with but a party that needs to be vanquished—a belief that was greatly strengthened by the EPRDF’s violent response to the November 2005 demonstrations. The struggle was thereafter pursued by violent means from neighbouring countries, including a proxy war in Somalia, looking to Eritrea for assistance in armed opposition, and nurturing partisan and unreliable media, such as ESAT.

Regardless of how much effort is made to hold a free and credible election, once again undemocratic action may well prove tempting to sway the outcome. In 2005, the United Ethiopian Democratic Forces (UEDF) coalition led by Merera Gudina (now Oromo Federalist Congress leader) and Beyene Petros accepted the outcome and took up its seats in parliament. However, Hailu Shawel pronounced that CUD would not join parliament. Its supporters continued to protest and refused to take up elected positions, including the mayorship of Addis Ababa that was Berhanu Nega’s to occupy.

That split the CUD, with one side arguing that participating in parliament would legitimize the government, and the other that it was necessary to accept the partial gains. The hardliners won the day. Protests, chaos, and a deadly crackdown ensued, including the mass arrest of opposition leaders. The political and existential threat felt by EPRDF increased the regime’s harassment of opponents, using both legal and non-legal means. However, most of the CUD-elected MPs did eventually take up their seats in the months after the CUD-organized November 2005 riots and the arrest of its leaders.

Analysts Medhane Tadesse and John Young argue that it would not have been a surprise if EPRDF undermined, monopolized, or even postponed the 2005 election due to the TPLF’s 2001 rupture and the 1998-2000 war with Eritrea. But instead they were committed to upholding the constitutional electoral schedule, and opened the political space in advance of the vote, presumably as they expected an easy win regardless. The subsequent campaigning period was therefore the only one that was accepted as fair by all parties.

Consolidating disintegration

Regardless of the transitional turbulence, Ethiopia is in a much better position now than 15 years ago to justify postponement given COVID-19—although some already were accusing Abiy’s administration of employing a chaos and tension strategy to convince a conservative society that they should choose security over a competitive election. But the relevance of 2005 to the delayed election is also its effect on the psyche of an electorate that views the 2005 election as the benchmark of a competitive democratic process.

During that period, the opposition, particularly the main grouping, CUD, campaigned effectively, using government-controlled media, and by organizing rallies and discussions. The people therefore know how free and fair elections should be conducted, and it will be far harder for the ruling party this time to use its incumbent advantage to dominate proceedings without significant blowback.

From its action following the 2005 fallout, it’s clear that the ruling coalition concluded that there was no hope of sharing power with the anti-multinational federalist, urban elite forces. Similarly, Meles and allies also decided that it was impossible to deal with Eritrea’s ruling party due to its involvement in the internal politics of Ethiopia, after Asmara assumed the 2005 trauma made the ruling coalition fragile, and Isaias started acting on his long-held dislike of multinational federalism by supporting opposition elements. EPRDF’s subsequent change of course was expressed in an escalating response to Eritrean cross-border provocations, and upping its diplomatic campaign to isolate Eritrea and Ethiopian groups that associated with Eritrea, such as Ginbot 7 and Oromo Liberation Front.

Furthermore, since the Ethiopian civil service largely opposed the ruling party in 2005, Meles declared in parliament that, regardless of qualifications, he would assign a security guard as a minister as long as they were loyal to EPRDF policy and had the discipline to implement it. In retrospect, these post-2005 shifts brought mixed results: there was rapid growth and development, and thus it proved that a sensible top-down policy direction, even if it is implemented by semi-educated cadres, can achieve results.

Led by the incomparable Meles, whose political acumen was often acknowledged even by his die-hard detractors, EPRDF also attracted international acclaim. “Boosted by relative political stability and spectacular—if deeply uneven—economic growth at home, the former guerrilla leader from Tigray transformed Ethiopia from an object of international pity into a powerful actor that has commanded increasing global attention,” Harry Verhoeven from Georgetown University wrote after his death in 2012.

However, the decision made after the 2005 election to fill the civil service and even the executive with political loyalists without consideration to merit started to show its downside the moment the state-led economy started producing returns. Corruption, cronyism, and repression rotted the regime, including the justice sector. The result was a lopsided system that handed 99.6 percent of the seats in parliament to EPRDF control—Meles and allies had created a de facto one-party state in under half a decade, as they had begun to do in the late 1990s.

From there, the civil service became subordinate to the parallel party structure, the youth became increasingly frustrated at the lack of opportunities, and the EPRDF’s smothering system of societal control. The result was by 2014 demonstrations started that eventually led to the prime minister resigning four years later. After Hailemariam Desalegn stepped aside—and due to the shaky transitional nature of Abiy’s administration, which has involved the return of long-exiled opponents of EPRDF—the political struggle has restarted where it stopped after 2005.

Federalist suspicion

Albeit after employing reckless methods to take down the EPRDF regime during anti-government protests, the federalist identity-based political bloc is showing again, just like EPRDF in 2005, that it is willing to compete for power within the constitutional structure.

For example, regardless of the former affiliation of Birtukan Mideksa, who was deputy chairman of CUD in 2005 and later founded a party called Unity for Justice and Democracy (UDJ) in 2008 after being pardoned from a life sentence in 2007 (she was re-arrested that year for breaking terms of her pardon), federalists supported the reorganisation of the electoral board and gave its new chair, Birtukan, the benefit of the doubt that she plans to deliver a fair and credible 2020 election. That is despite the fact that UDJ was firmly within the anti-multinational bloc,

In fact, there are enough reasons to be suspicious about the appointment of leaders of democratic institutions such as Birtukan, who were one way or another influential during the 2005 election. As well as the electoral board chief, Daniel Bekele, the current Human Rights Commissioner, was jailed after opposing the EPRDF as an activist while working for ActionAid. While knowing these individuals are not federalists, there is no campaign to delegitimize them—but the new appointees should know that other contenders are watching their every move. There have already been allegations against the board about the process of dissolving EPRDF and registering Prosperity Party, which is considered an addition to the anti-multinational federalism bloc by opposing regional elites.

Instead, so far, it is the Ethiopian nationalist bloc that is trying to find a way not to commit to an electoral process, arguing, like former G7 leader Andargachew Tsige and ex-Derg official Dawit Woldegiorgis, that the constitution should be suspended and a transitional government formed. Those calls are likely to increase now that the elections will not be held before the government’s term ends.

There has also been a growing suspicion of collaboration, favouritism, and alignment between the Berhanu Nega-led Ezema and Prosperity Party, and also between Abiy and Berhanu, in view of Ezema’s vocal backing of the dissolution of the ruling coalition and support for Abiy’s administration. As in 2005, there are signs that the anti-multinational camp, now buttressed by Prosperity Party’s unitary structure and Abiy’s pan-Ethiopian tendencies, is using backdoor pressure on the civil structure and democratic institutions and creating vulnerability by allowing foreign meddling from Eritrea, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and the West.

But this time the risk is higher than 2005.

The political narrative is no longer dominated by Addis Ababa and its Amharic-speaking elite. Indeed, the narrative is not even occurring in Amharic. It is clear now there are at least three main political power bases: Tigray and Afar; urban elites, including the PM himself; and the Oromo-dominated south. Add the heightened political consciousness produced by protest movements, social media, and regional structures, and Ethiopia’s political constituency looks sharply demarcated.

Déjà vu

This deepening cleavage has been driven by recent increased polarisation and insecurity. For example, famously, Berhanu Nega could not even leave his car in Bahir Dar. The National Movement of Amhara (NAMA) cannot campaign in ethnically mixed Oromia towns, Jawar Mohammed would be unwise to step foot in Amhara, and TPLF leaders are marooned in Mekele.

By the time Hailemariam’s government collapsed—due mainly to protests by the multinational federalist bloc over TPLF predominance and maladministration— there was nothing Ethiopian nationalists wanted to retain from EPRDF rule. It is therefore re-treading the same path as in 2005: challenging and destroying whatever EPRDF created, including the existence of identity-based federal structure; and seemingly with a new powerful backer: Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. These days, the struggle to retain the EPRDF constitution and its structures are not coming from the defunct EPRDF, but regionalist elites from Tigray and the Oromo-dominated south.

The current situation therefore presents comparable opportunities and risk.

When politics resumes in earned post-pandemic, we may see Oromo and Amhara nationalists face off again over Addis Ababa and other issues, tugging at the cohesion of the federal government. Meanwhile, Tigray looks set to keep behaving like a member of a confederation, raising the risk of conflict if Addis Ababa pulls fiscal levers to try and bring it into line. There is ongoing counter-insurgency activity in Wellega and there was another de facto state of emergency across the south long before the national COVID-19-inspired one. But the fact that the ideological divide is now so clearly defined—multinational federalist versus its opponents—is a good opportunity for Ethiopia: as it is unlikely either side will be the absolute winner, there will have to be some form of negotiated settlement.

The key takeaway from 2005 should be that EPRDF managed to dissolve the Ethiopian nationalist camp post-election using repressive methods that gave it no chance to come back. That total rejection led the opponents to turn to violence. The Prosperity Party government does not have the economic and security capacity—mainly due to the rushed nature of the new party’s creation, the destabilizing nature of the crushing five-year protest movement, and the restructuring of the security apparatus after TPLFs withdrawal—to sink the federalist camp. If it tries, serious and sustained violence might erupt.

Further cause for concern was that the build-up to the now-delayed election compared unfavorably to the excitement of the pre-2005 election. This is because the Prosperity Party government was fast restructuring the nation against the Oromo federalist tide that brought about the 2018 reform. This is making the opposition lose hope and, in parts of Oromia, return to asserting their position via insurgency and civil unrest. The 2005 election was unique in holding so much hope as the first competitive election and one that could set the country on a democratic path. The country is not as naive this time around.

If Ethiopian nationalists, using the incumbent Prosperity Party, manipulation of democratic institutions, and remains of the security apparatus, essentially ignore the claims of identity-based federal politics and postpone the election unduly without adequate negotiation, or use the current emergency to entrench their authority, there will be trouble, as will be the case if pre-election repression reoccurs when campaigning resumes.

Meanwhile, if they take the advice of the 2005 opposition stalwarts and try to summarily outlaw identity politics, they would risk Ethiopia’s disintegration.

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