The world has come to know the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed for winning the Nobel Peace Prize. But he is increasingly facing difficult issues at home. Ethiopia has been unraveling even before he assumed power and his actions or lack thereof may be making the situation worse. The Ethiopian crises has been in gestation since at least the annexation of Eritrea in 1962. One can trace the origins of these crises to the very inception of the country under Menelik II. This long read investigates whether there is a way out of Ethiopia’s ongoing crisis of government …
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power amid euphoria claiming to represent something new, and appeared to have a messianic belief in himself, as this quote indicates:
Yet, two years into becoming PM, there are troubling indications that far from being a progressive reformer, Abiy is obsessed with power. He works hard to win Western approval and admiration but is increasingly criticised at home, even as he wins awards and adulations from Westerners. He has proven adept at grabbing headlines, cutting down the number of cabinet ministers from 28 to 20 and increasing the proportion of women in his cabinet to fifty percent. He also appointed a woman, career diplomat Ms.Sahle-Work Zewde, to the largely ceremonial presidency of the country, as well as choosing a woman Supreme Court Chief, Mrs.Meaza Ashenafi. This has earned him international acclaim and praise from world leaders. Others have dubbed it as a savvy PR move to appear gender- sensitive in order to attract international investment and clout. A similar tactic has been used by the autocratic president of Rwanda, Paul Kagame.
Abiy has had some success in attracting loans from the Gulf States and the World Bank. In terms of his economic policy Abiy is also opening up the core businesses of the Ethiopian economy (Telecommunications, Airline power, maritime transport, and so on) to investments and lending by outsiders. Through these actions, Abiy and his advisors have clearly shown that they’re not keen to continue with Developmental State model that Meles Zenawi pursued. In his address to parliament on 28 February, Abiy justified this shift on the basis that Ethiopia was a sinking ship before he assumed power but that it is now floating — albeit under turbulent conditions. He attributed this “improvement” as the reason for qualifying for loan from the IMF. But even if one accepts this narrative of economic improvement, the country’s partial and problematic political transition threatens to destabilise both the political and economic system.
Elite Power Struggles
In Ethiopia, politics is often characterized by weak institutions and strong personal rivalries. Relationships among politicians are of a personal/factional nature, in which friends and supporters play an oversized role. Strained relations among political elites translate into the fragmentation of power, while patron–client linkages structure the interaction between politicians.
Abiy’s former political ally, Lemma Megersa, no longer believes in Medemer, (Ahmed, 2019) which has been translated as ‘synergy’, ‘adding up’, or ‘togetherness’. Medemer was coined by Abiy and has been presented variously as a political slogan but has been upgraded into a ‘philosophy’ and published as a book by that title.
This rift is significant, as the group that led Abiy’s rise to power by outmanoeuvring the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) has been known as the ‘Lemma Group’, in recognition of the critical role Lemma played in the “coup” that resulted in Abiy’s premiership. Both Abiy and Lemma were actively working for the TPLF until they jumped ship when it became apparent that the TPLF’s political dominance was coming to an end. By all accounts, Lemma was initially much better known than Abiy, both nationally and especially in Oromia. He won wide acclaim for his support of the Oromo against the controversial Addis Ababa master plan, which involved encroaching on to nearby farmland. He also won acclaim among proponents of “Ethiopianism” when he traveled to the city of Bahirdar in the Amhara region to express solidarity by proclaiming “Tanan Kaygna” in the campaign against an invasive weed hyacinth that was ravaging Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile.
Lemma once said, “Till death do us part” regarding his political bond with Abiy. It appeared then that the political lives of the two men were so intertwined that they were destined to face every political challenge together. In a shrewd tactical move, Lemma gave up the chairmanship of the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO), since renamed as the Oromo Democratic Party (ODP), to facilitate Abiy’s selection as Prime Minister. This was necessary because Lemma was not a member of parliament, which disqualified him from being considered for the premiership. He therefore deferred to Abiy and their partnership, which at that point appeared rock-solid.
It was around this time that Lemma said that he was addicted to Ethiopiawinet, i.e., Ethiopianism, like one is addicted to hashish, which appealed to the proponents of this doctrine of a distinctive form of national unity. Lately, however, Lemma was quoted as saying he needs to pay more attention to Oromo demands, proclaiming “Oromia first!”
Abiy’s feud with his erstwhile comrade has now resulted in Lemma being “excluded” from Abiy’s Prosperity Party (PP) – a new political vehicle designed to replace the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, and to allow Abiy to build a new ruling party in his own image – which Lemma had already rejected. Then, on 17 August, Lemma was fired from his position as defense minister in an example of intra-Oromo rivalry is at its worst.
This recalibration of political alliances has had some strange effects. The creation of the PP upset the TPLF, which promptly quit the ruling coalition. In an “enemy of my enemy is my friend” moment, former Oromo critics of the TPLF are now claiming that it as a strategic ally and appear regularly in TPLF aligned media to render their condemnations of Abiy. Bekele Gerba, a prominent Oromo critic of Abiy before his arrest, was a regular commentator in TPLF media. He even reversed his earlier testimonies that he was tortured by the TPLF when he was in prison, contradicting statements from his own lawyer, in order to take up this position.
The phrase strange political bedfellows phase is very much on display in Ethiopia today. Former tactical allies, such as the Amharas and the Oromo that joined forces to contest TPLF hegemony appear to be on their way to being bitter rivals. Everything is happening at a dizzying speed. Hachalu Hundessa was an independent Oromo musician who used his music to popularize the cause of Oromo rights. Around the end of his life, he had expressed criticism of the various political players, including Abiy, but following his controversial killing – which sparked two days of unrest in which at least 80 people died – it seems everyone wants to claim him as their own.
“Ethiopianism” and its discontents
At the root of the differences between the various political actors is disagreement about the very meaning of Ethiopia. Advocates of “Ethiopianism” like Eskinder Nega pursue a national vision of a united country in which Amharic would be the main lingua franca. Others like Jawar Mohammed and apparently Lemma now seek the creation of more autonomous regions. Oromo nationalists like Jawar, Bekele and Lemma share the belief that politics happens in local and regional spaces and should be conducted at that level, with the Afaan Oromo language as their preferred means of communication and means of claiming control over resources.
Therefore, languages, specific symbols such as flags, ceremonies like Irrecha, maps, monuments, anthems, and all manner of other imagery are being promoted in order to cement “the region” as a part of people’s lives. For example, one source of conflict during the Timket celebrations in Harar was the objection by the Querro (an Oromo youth movement) to hoisting the Ethiopian flag popular among Ethiopianists.
For this part, Abiy appears torn between the Ethiophiles and the Ethno-nationalists. Although he seeks central control over the country, the Prime Minister also appreciates how dangerous it is to be rejected by his own Oromo community. He therefore used the assassination of Hundessa mentioned earlier as a pretext to arrest opponents from across the political spectrum, including the right wing Amhara nationalist Eskinder Nega, the Oromo nationalist Jawar Mohammed and 9,000 others. At the same time, he closed the Oromo Media Network (OMN) which Jawar owned, in an effort to consolidate his power in the region.
There is a widespread fear, however, that these mass arrests will make matters worse, and the situation remains uncertain and precarious. Those who have been arrested have their supporters and constituencies that are biding their time to resist Abiy’s leadership more confrontationally: a recipe for further instability.
Ethnic elites continue to realign themselves in shifting alliances that are shaped as much by a common enemy as by any shared values or history, first in order to combat the TPLF and now the PP. The bewildering rotation of alliances appears to reflect the preference of these groups for autonomy and self-determination by weakening whatever power appears to be on the verge of asserting political dominance over others. It is reasonable to assume this would have happened regardless of who was in power, so the real question is whether Abiy is responding in the most effective way possible.
Most Ethiopianists blame the TPLF and Meles Zenawi as the architects of the ethnic politics that threatens to tear the country apart, but that is somewhat disingenuous. Meles’s ethnic-based federalism may have partially contributed to the crises, but the history of Ethiopia is inflected with debates over ethnic politics and land ownership, in which the country has never quite found the right balance, to achieve long-term political stability. Elite ethnic entrepreneurs have actively been vying against each other and manipulating ethnic sentiments to try to get what they want since at least the heyday of the student movement of the 1960s. The process of state formation in Ethiopia is and always has been about struggles over land, resources, and identity. Neither Meles nor Abiy created this situation – but how the Prime Minister manages it will have profound implications for the future of Ethiopia.
Elections and ethnic violence
Abiy promised to be a transitional agent until elections were to be held in August by 2020. Elections can be controversial and destabilising even in otherwise orderly countries. Precisely because of the instability in Ethiopia, which has gotten worse since Abiy assumed power, many felt postponing the election might be better than holding a “façade” poll that would disappoint many citizens. The coronavirus then gave Abiy an excuse to postpone a process that already seemed destined to failure.
The minimal precondition for carrying out an election is a modicum of respect for law and order. If the PP were to hold an election by manipulating the process every step of the way to try to strengthen Abiy’s grip on power, it may have lost what little legitimacy he still has. But while COVID-19 was in some ways a godsend for Abiy, it has not resolved all of his problems. There was not sufficient discussion of alternative possibilities for holding elections, and a clear timetable has not been presented for holding the postponed polls. At the same time, there has been no serious attempt to build a more inclusive government during the period that the regime will now be in power beyond the end of its scheduled term in office, angering some opposition leaders who argue that Abiy will lack authority during this period – despite hastily passed legislation to “legalise” the delay. As a result, not holding elections threatens to also generate political instability.
Perhaps the best example of this is that the TPLF in Tigray is insisting on holding its own election, despite the official cancellation, and has accused Abiy of violating the constitution (which is somewhat ironic given its own record of rigged and fraudulent elections). Tigray is thus operating as a state within a state, and the standoff between the TPLF and Abiy has reached a critical stage. The remaining TPLF members in Abiy’s cabinet have either been fired or pushed to resign. There have also been arrests of TPLF officials and military commanders who have dared to venture out of the region.
The more that tensions with groups such as the TPLF grow, the worse ethnic tensions will become. Identity politics in Ethiopia is deteriorating into political violence, which in turn emphasises the tensions and differences between communities. The city of Shashamane was around eighty percent destroyed in the wake of the violence following the assassination of Hachalu Hundessa. Universities were closed due to a lack of security, even before the pandemic. Boko Haram style kidnapping of female students has been occurring, while churches and mosques have been targets of arson. These atrocities have been accompanied by tactics of dehumanization, such as the use of obscene pejorative names as well as warped interpretations of the past that make light of the suffering of others.
Vigilante murders that include shootings, hangings, throwing students from high rise buildings, other forms of mob violence by young angry men, mutilations and other acts of brutal violence – often perpetrated in front of cheering crowds – have become common. The gruesome conflicts that were once mainly contained to the Oromo and the Somali are now spreading to other regions of Ethiopia.
The killing of Hachalu acted as a catalyst for more violence in Adama, Ambo, Shashamane, Arsi, Konso and Benishangul, and serves as an important reminder of how quickly ethnic rhetoric can turn deadly — even in a city like Dire Dawa, once famed for tolerance and a sense of community. Growing conflict has also resulted in the migration of tens of thousands of people from where they lived for decades to their ethnic “homeland” where they feel safer. The domestic media is playing into this process, stoking distrust and exacerbating the situation.
When Abiy assumed power his populist messages were Ethiopiawinet, Medemer, prosperity and Fikir Yashenfal (love will win). Yet only two years since the gates of Ethiopian prisons were opened, they are now filling up again with former political prisoners as well as new ones. More recently, the language of Fikir Yashenfal has given way to the “supremacy of the rule of law” but this appears to target political opponents selectively.
As a result, concern for the political stability of the country is growing among international scholars and former diplomats with intimate knowledge of the country, as demonstrated by the recent statement of the Ethiopia Working Group put out by Freedom House. Although Ethiopia is considered a strategic partner against the “War on Terror” – and receives close to a billion dollars from the United States – its viability as a long term ally is now being called into question, as demonstrated by a critical letter signed by twenty US congressmen.
These concerns are not overblown. At worst, Ethiopia could be staring at complete disintegration. At best, it may be saddled with an utterly dysfunctional government, which will worsen the economic, political, diplomatic and security problems that already the country. Either of these developments would make it harder for the centre to retain control over the regions. The appetite for greater autonomy is already clear. Sidama has already voted overwhelmingly (98.5%) to become the tenth region of Ethiopia and to separate itself from the arbitrary cluster of fifty-six ethnicities known as the Southern Killil. Wolayita, Hadiya Gurage and other regions are now negotiating to do the same.
This complex situation is further complicated by the fact that each region has its own Special Force, known as Liyu Police in Amharic. These forces feel beholden to their regions with little coordination with the federal army. As a result, the relationship of regions with the federal government is becoming increasingly opaque.
Tigrean nationalism for the TPLF is rooted in the idea that Tigray should shape the Ethiopian state and its policies or remain separate. The Amhara and the Oromo feel the same way about their respective ethnicities. So different nationalisms/ethnicities are on a collision course with little room for compromise. However, it is also important to keep in mind that none of these communities is homogenous. There are forces in Tigray advocating for secession as well as those who feel they have more to gain with staying within Ethiopia. Similarly, the Oromo Liberation Front faction waging an insurgency in the Wollega area in the southwest doesn’t have military presence in the Arsi or in Bale. As the situation comes to a head, there is a serious risk that Ethiopia will come apart at the seams.
Abiy’s own actions are playing into and exacerbating the deteriorating situation. His opponents accuse the Prime Minister of using his powers to settle scores with political rivals, as demonstrated by the latest cabinet reshuffle and dismissal of officials.
During this phase, Abiy replaced defense minister Lemma Megaera by Kenea Yadeta, the former security chief of Oromiya region, and placed him under house arrest. He also appointed Adanech Abebe, as mayor of Addis Ababa/Finfinne. She has demonstrated her unflinching loyalty to Abiy by vocally supporting the arrest of political opponents in her position as attorney general. Indeed, the fact that she has been moved around to different positions suggests that Abiy is moving here to wherever he most needs a loyal foot solider.
Less than a year since he received the Nobel Prize for Peace, Abiy’s personal and increasingly exclusionary politics means that his honeymoon with Ethiopians is well and truly over – and the Prime Minister is now scrambling to try and remain in power as opposition to his regime grows.
Crises as an Opportunity
Ethiopia can use this dangerous situation as an opportunity to experiment with a transitional government composed of representatives from the various ethnicities. One option, for example, would be to hold a conference on ‘truth and reconciliation’ to try and build common ground and avert further conflict. Consensus around historical imaginations and memories must stem from conversations between different communities and leaders if it is to be sustainable. Viewed from such perspective, the crisis can be an opportunity to try to salvage the country that has been bedevilled by chronic ethnic conflicts from its inception.
This requires serious commitment and strong political will from Abiy, perhaps even at a political cost to himself. Unfortunately, Abiy’s leadership is not inclusive or bold enough and has already proven inadequate to the task, personifying yet again the words of Frantz Fanon:
Contrary to Abiy’s claim that his Medemer is original and authentic, his actions thus far seem unoriginal, recycling tired ideas. For many, Abiy has therefore already become another disappointment, the latest in a long line of African leaders who hijack the peoples hope for personal aggrandizement. However, in fairness to the Prime Minister, it is important to keep in mind that Ethiopia is a complex and challenging county to government – and might prove to be an impossible empire to transform even for the most capable and selfless political leader.
Yohannes Woldemariam has been teaching International Relations and follows developments in the Horn of Africa closely. Contact him here.