If anyone doubted before that Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s bold reforms are not going well, he put such doubts to rest this week. By refusing to take questions from the press when receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, he sent a very clear signal that he hasn’t got the answers for his country’s mounting problems. That silence irritated even the usually-diplomatic Norwegian Nobel Committee. Its secretary Olav Njoelstad told Reuters in a rare, if mild, rebuke to a peace prize winner; “Yes, we would very much have wanted him to engage with the press during his stay in Oslo.”
“We strongly believe that freedom of expression and a free and independent press are vital components of peace. Moreover, some former Nobel Peace Prize laureates have received the prize in recognition of their efforts in favor of these very rights and freedoms,” said Njoelstad.
Kjetil Tronvoll, a Norwegian anthropologist and director of Oslo Analytica, was much sharper, telling Norwegian media Abiy had refused to talk to the press because “he doesn’t have much to brag about after his first six months. There are great tensions in Ethiopia, as great as it has hardly ever been. By not meeting the press, Ahmed avoids having to answer difficult questions about the peace process, about the unrest in Ethiopia and what the growing fragmentation in Ahmed’s own party could entail.”
Sadly this seems all too true. The core of the very initiatives which earned Abiy the most prestigious award have been going rather badly lately. He won the prize for offering an olive branch to Ethiopia’s neighbour and long-time enemy, Eritrea; for liberating Ethiopia’s own hitherto restrictive politics; and also for helping other countries in the region, like Sudan, Kenya and Somalia to resolve their conflicts.
The rapprochement with Eritrea remains valid, though static, largely through lack of reciprocity by that country’s hardline leader Isiais Afewerki. But the real problem for Abiy is the immense difficulty he is experiencing in executing political reforms back home. As so often with reformers, lifting much of the repression of his predecessors has also unbottled political, regional and ethnic interests, often nasty. Centrifugal forces are threatening to tear the Ethiopian states apart.
After overthrowing the Marxist tyranny of Hailemariam Mengistu in 1991,Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and his revolutionary allies created the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) a coalition of four parties, each representing a region and ethnic group of the country– the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, Amhara Democratic Party, Oromo Democratic Party, and Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement.
As ruling party, the EPRDF served its purpose of keeping regional and ethnic competition in check, coupled with a repressive central EPRDF government in Addis Ababa. But Abiy unexpectedly came into office in April 2018 precisely because his predecessor Hailemariam Desalegn could no longer contain rising regional and ethnic discontent by force.
Abiy’s alternative, as the Nobel Peace Committee said in its citation, was to lift the country’s state of emergency, grant amnesty to thousands of political prisoners, end media censorship, legalize outlawed opposition groups, dismiss military and civilian leaders who were suspected of corruption, increase the influence of women in Ethiopian political and community life and pledge to strengthen democracy by holding [truly] free and fair elections.
Though it was undoubtedly the right thing to do morally, and may also succeed in the long run politically, such liberation was also risky as it has, perhaps inevitably, released toxic forces, including ethnic chauvinism. Ethnic relations have deteriorated and violence has become widespread across the country. And by democraticising Ethiopia’s politics and cracking down on corrupt and brutal leaders of the past, Abiy also antagonised those who held the levers of power before, mainly the Tigrayans who led the revolution against Mengistu.
Ethnic protest and violence have been erupting all over the country. In June, for example, Amharic nationalists assassinated the governor of the federal state of Amhara in the state capital as well as the national defence chief in Addis Ababa. Some analysts thought that was a backlash to Abiy’s reforms, while others believed it was just the result of intra-Amharic political rivalries unbottled by his liberal politics.
In October violence erupted in Oromia, home of Abiy’s own ethnic group, when his erstwhile pollical ally, now turned rival, Jawar Mohammed claimed that the security forces were targeting him. In a melee of protests by his supporters and a crackdown by security forces, at least 78 demonstrators were killed.
More recently lethal violence rocked the Sidama region which is administratively part of the Southern federal state but wants to become a federal state of its own. After resisting this secessionist tendency for months, Abiy eventually allowed the Sidama to hold a referendum on November 13 where most voted in favour of forming a Sidama federal state.
The rising violence across Ethiopia has killed thousands and displaced as many as a million Ethiopians, analysts say.
Many blame this on Abiy for failing to assert himself as the top authority. “This has created space for regional actors to violently oppose the state,” Yohannes Gedamu lecturer in Political Science at Georgia’s Gwinnett College in the US, wrote in the Mail and Guardian last month.
“As the wrangling continues, EPRDF’s constituent parties from the Oromia, Amhara and Tigray regions are asserting themselves more than ever,” he continued. “Some of the parties are known for advocating the politics of ethno-nationalism which has historically polarised Ethiopia’s ethnic federation. Ethno-nationalism is an ideology that defines national identity based on ethnicity.
“Today, ethno-nationalists are seizing the opportunity to gain the political upper hand. Abiy’s regime’s failure to stabilise the nation, and declining public trust in his administration, have given them fresh political momentum.”
Gedamu believed then that Abiy had two choices, to retreat into ethnicity to secure his own Oromo power base or to take a leap of faith into a pan-Ethiopian future by transcending the ruling EPRDF ethnic-based coalition.
Abiy took the later course, launching the non-ethnic Prosperity Party (PP) late last month. Three of the four constituent parties of the EPRDF – the Amhara Democratic Party, Oromo Democratic Party, and Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement- decided to join the PP.
Only the Tigray People’s Liberation Front stayed out, not surprisingly, given the resentment of the Tigrayans at losing their dominance. Five regional parties from Afar, Gambella, Harari, Benishangul Gumz and Somali have also joined the PP. These regions had historically been excluded from the decision-making process at the national level, Gedamu wrote in The Conversation this week. He added that PP faced big challenges, including criticism from members of the former ruling coalition- “even though many Ethiopians see it as an opportunity to unite and overcome ethnic polarisation and recurrent violence.”
The Prosperity Party will be tested quite soon, as elections must take place next year and most analysts expect them to be held in May. Will Davison, an Ethiopia expert with the International Crisis Group has emphasised that the main difference between the PP and the EPRDF is that the former is more centralised. Its structures and procedures for choosing office bearers are based more on nation-wide voting by members and less on representation at the centre of ethnic-regional constituent parties as the EPRDF is.
“The aim is to streamline decision-making so executive organs of the national party become more important than the regional components,” he said.
But he said the danger for Abiy going into elections was that if he steered too far away from his own Oromo ethnic group, many Oromo voters might jump ship to more ethno-nationalist parties in the region, fearing that Abiy was selling out to the other main ethnic group in the PP, the Amhara.
Nevertheless, the Prosperity Party seems to be the big gamble Abiy had to take to keep his faltering reforms on track. DM
"Smart people sometimes get stupid but stupid people never get smart." ~ Don Winslow