Why progress in Ethiopia and Eritrea requires Tigrayan support

Source: Addis Standard

Editorial: The morning after Oslo: The hard work should begin

addisstandard / December 12, 2019 /

Addis Abeba, December 12/2019 – On December 10, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed accepted the 2019 Noble award for peace. Today, he received a “hero’s welcome” when arriving at Bole International Airport in Addis Abeba. Ethiopians at home and abroad alike are celebrating this extraordinary moment in unison, almost. But the morning after the Nobel celebrations, when attentions focus back to Ethiopia, as they should, reality kicks in and it is not as shinny as that medal in Oslo City Hall, and as bright as the candles of the evening from the balcony of Grand Hotel. It is rather a moment that requires a sober reckoning, primarily by the 2019 Nobel Peace Laureate, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, and the Ethiopian people at large.

… both the peace process with Eritrea and political reforms within Ethiopia are facing serious challenges due in large part to his own inability and/or unwillingness to follow through, institutionalize and consolidate the gains achieved…

In other words, the award can best be describe as a bitter sweet moment. On one hand it is a reminder of the short lived period when popular protests won and ushered in a new Prime Minister to the center stage. In return, he undertook, among others, a dramatic and fast paced opening of the political space – by far the most consequential. But on the other hand, it is a reminder of the uncertain and confused political state Ethiopia is in today. A year and half down the line, much of the initiatives the Prime Minister is recognized for: both the peace process with Eritrea and political reforms within Ethiopia are facing serious challenges due in large part to his own inability and/or unwillingness to follow through, institutionalize and consolidate the gains achieved in the first few months of his time in office.

Let’s take the Eritrea-Ethiopia rapprochement that is central to PM Abiy’s recognition as the Nobel Peace Laureate of 2019. Confirming the cautious note by Berit Reiss-Anderson, chair of the Nobel Committee, the current state of the rapprochement is one that needs a closer look. Its early pace did not proceed to actual demilitarization of the contested areas as was stipulated by the Eritrea Ethiopia Border Commission, which Prime Minister Abiy promised to “fully accept”. Ethiopia did not withdraw, yet, its military forces from all territories awarded to Eritrea by the EEBC, and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of soldiers and heavy artillery equipment remain stationed in Badme, the flashpoint of the two year senseless war between the two countries, and other border posts. In fact things have returned to where PM Abiy started: all the four entry points in the border which were briefly opened have now been closed again, and codification and institutionalization of agreements and reconciliation of elites and communities of the two countries remain at large.

To begin with, PM Abiy’s call for peace kicked off by excluding a key stakeholder, the Tigrean political elites. The Ethio-Eritrean war was largely a result of competition and conflict between Eritrean and Tigrayan political elites (EPLF and TPLF). The war was also fought on their common borders

Why did the rapprochement stall? This magazine believes it has to do, in most part, with Ethiopia’s domestic politics. To begin with, PM Abiy’s call for peace kicked off by excluding a key stakeholder, the Tigrean political elites. The Ethio-Eritrean war was largely a result of competition and conflict between Eritrean and Tigrayan political elites (EPLF and TPLF). The war was also fought on their common borders. Hence, any durable peace would have required agreement between these two rival forces that caused the war in the first place. However, from the get go, despite it being a collective decision by the then EPRDF executive, which includes TPLF, Abiy’s subsequent call for the peace talks made a deliberate attempt to sidestep the TPLF, which did not go unnoticed.  In fact many Tigrayan academics and political pundits portrayed and perceived it as nothing but a political vendetta orchestrated by PM Abiy and President Isaias Afwerki against the TPLF. That initial narrative slowly morphed into a suspicious political gamble up in the north, cornering ordinary Tigrayans as having little incentive to support it.  Leading Tigrayan media platforms have also nurtured hostile narratives which some blame as having contributed to Asmara’s move to slow down on its promises. It should be clear that this is not an argument made to exonerate missteps by the same political elites in Tigray; nor is it an attempt to paint TPLF as an otherwise divine interventionist in this peace process; it is far from it. But it is not the TPLF which is leading the country now, or being judged, praised and awarded for it; it’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.

To make matters worse, the peace initiative did not only exclude Tigrayan elites, but also the rest of Ethiopian people. There is little to no transparency about the whole process, and no public consultation about the deals signed between the two leaders. It all began as a bromance between PM Abiy and President Isaias Afwerki and, so far, remained as such.

This magazine believes progress is unlikely until after the TPLF is fully brought onboard and the rest of Ethiopian people, from the political class to ordinary citizens, are sufficiently consulted to understand, trust and endorse the bilateral agreements signed between the two countries in the wake of the early days of the rapprochement. But most importantly, bringing TPLF and the people of Tigray on board requires PM Abiy to normalize his relation with them first. This is part and parcel of Ethiopia’s domestic politics and it all depends on how the Prime Minister manages it.

More on that domestic politics

In awarding PM Abiy the coveted peace prize, the Noble Committee also commended him for his domestic reform initiatives. It is true that having risen to the helm with the help of popular uprising, he initially undertook several, hard to comprehend, reform actions at a breakneck speed: he not only opened up the tightly held and controlled political space, but also freed the media. By now it has become a cliché to state the obvious that political prisoners were also released, opposition groups allowed back to the country and promises made to repeal and replace repressive laws.

This magazine believes progress is unlikely until after the TPLF is fully brought onboard and the rest of Ethiopian people, from the political class to ordinary citizens, are sufficiently consulted to understand, trust and endorse the bilateral agreements signed between the two countries

However, just like the Eritrean peace initiatives, the domestic reform initiatives were not followed through. Now it is becoming an Ethiopian universal truth that consolidating and institutionalizing these initiatives would have required convening broad-based consultations, negotiations and political bargain among the various competing elites roaming the political space in Ethiopia. PM Abiy was mandated and expected to lead and facilitate such initiatives; up until now, he did not. Instead he focused on attempts to materialize the transition solo. Let alone build a broad based coalition among change seeking diverse, and fiercely competing elites of the country, he has not been able to keep together the small tight team in his own political circle that brought him to power. In such a short time he has squandered the political capital he had and isolated himself from closest allies and a vast political base. To say today he is all alone is not an overstatement. This magazine has learnt that it is a fact he recently admitted at a meeting of Oromo intellectuals held at UNECA. 

Due to such mismanagement of the transition, those much hyped reform initiatives that earned him worldwide praise and accolade as big as the Noble Prize for Pace are being eroded. We are now waking up to news that jails have returned to being filled with political dissidents. Little known to the general public, PM Abiy is also engaged in armed conflict in his own political constituency, Oromia’s provinces of Wollega, Guji and Borana, a conflict about which nothing is available in the public domain but that has resulted in the death of hundreds, largely civilians, in just one year time.

Reforms of repressive laws have also stalled and results from those already advanced remain elusive as the state is back to using the same laws to charge political dissidents. The much promised security sector reform did not go as expected, too. Today, state security is slowly but surely returning to its old habit of partisan intervention in favor of the ruling party against its opponents, highly problematic especially as we are approaching the general election in May next year. There is little to no negotiation or preparation to ensure the elections will be free and peaceful. Meanwhile, the government is determined to hold the elections regardless of lack of such broad based political negotiations and preparations. As a result of mismanagement of this transition, there are substantiated fears that the political space is fast closing, and hopes are fading away and taken over by fear and pessimism and possibilities of a post-election violence.

Is it too late to reverse course?

To live up to the standard set by the Noble Committee, PM Abiy Ahmed needs to change course, and do it really fast. Can he do it? Can he get back on track to managing this delicate transition? Can he give up being the sole driver and subject himself to collective leadership?

However, this is not the time to abandon him. While cautiously holding him and his administration to account, all political actors and the Ethiopian public in general should continue giving him the benefit of the doubt

Judging from his track record so far, it is safe to say that he is one of the most dedicated, hardworking, brave and decisive political actors in today’s Ethiopia. If he wanted to change course, he can. Yet while a dreamer, like many, this magazine shares a concern that his lack of attention and his knack for oversimplification of Ethiopia’s retail politics, or worse, unwillingness to learn by tapping into knowledge, network and wisdom readily available to him, could take the better of his judgment. He is driven solely by personal ambition and ability, and places little value on compromise and cooperation required by such diverse country in transition.

However, this is not the time to abandon him. While cautiously holding him and his administration to account, all political actors and the Ethiopian public in general should continue giving him the benefit of the doubt. The hard work of delivering on the promises he made in front of the world begins now, and it is the responsibility of his leadership and the leadership of his administration, as well as the patriotic duty of the rest of Ethiopians, to see to it that he meant what he said: “I am committed to toil for peace every single day and in all seasons. I am my brother’s keeper. I am my sister’s keeper too. I have promises to keep before I sleep. I have miles to go on the road of peace.” AS

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