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Analysis: Democratic transition in Abiy’s Ethiopia: managing the bad, the good and the troubling

PM Abiy Ahmed sitting relaxed at the ODP conference in Jimma

G. Teressa, For Addis Standard 

Addis Abeba, September 25/2018 – The power relationship within the four-member ruling coalition party—the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF)-which has ruled Ethiopia autocratically for 27 years, has been irreversibly changed. The Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) is no longer the kingmaker after suffering an ignominious defeat by the tactical alliance between the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO) and the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM). The fourth member of the coalition, the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM), has largely been an inconsequential partner, unable to affect national politics, and remains a junior partner.

At the end of several months of internal power struggle, Abiy Ahmed emerged as the EPRDF party chairman on 27 March 2018, and on 2 April 2018, he was sworn in as the prime minister of a country on the brink of a major catastrophe. He immediately shocked the entire Horn of Africa region by undertaking astonishing reforms with breathtaking speed. His accomplishments and leadership style have earned him comparisons with Barack Obama, Mikhail Gorbachev, Justin Trudeau, and even Nelson Mandela.

However, beneath the optimism and euphoria sweeping the country, there are brewing concerns calling for attention. A confluence of several factors could potentially threaten the democratic transition of Ethiopia and could, perhaps, lead to a major political and security crisis. In this article, I will discuss four major factors that have the potential to collide, explode and stall Ethiopia’s transition to democracy. Absence of a structured transitional roadmap; uncertain roles for opposition politicians and activists in the democratic transition; empowered population with un-managed expectations; and counterrevolutionary forces

Absence of a structured transitional roadmap

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed introduced unprecedented reforms soon after coming to power: the state of emergency was lifted two months before it was set to expire; prominent opposition leaders and journalists were released from prison; the infamous detention center, Maekelawi Prison, closed down; exiled dissidents and banned media outlets returned to Ethiopia; individuals and organizations charged with “terrorism” under the draconian Anti-Terrorism Proclamation have been granted amnesty; nearly two decades of hostility between Ethiopia and Eritrea have ended; and over 264 banned websites and blogs have been unblocked. He did all of this by preaching love, unity, and forgiveness, which resonated with many Ethiopians. He uplifted the spirit of Ethiopians and gave them a reason to feel optimistic about the prospect of peace, democracy, and reconciliation.

Despite these accomplishments, PM Abiy’s government faces a staggering number of demands and appeals for overnight reforms at the local, regional and national levels. There are widely divergent views among Ethiopians on what they believe should be the priorities and specific tasks of Abiy’s government. Most importantly, conflicting views exist on how to engage and then integrate the overwhelming number of opposition political parties during this transitional period. It’s now clear that simply undertaking reforms without presenting to the public a structured transitional agenda is not sufficient to streamline expectations. Elements of a transitional agenda only come to light in bits and pieces. Confusions, uncertainties, and speculations can be avoided by unveiling a structured transitional roadmap that communicates to the public and stakeholders a time-bound and specific transitional agenda. The roadmap must focus on addressing the immediate emergency situation, creating secure and stable conditions to ensure the rights of all citizens, and allowing the stakeholders’ reasonable participation in reforming institutions and paving the way for a free and fair election. This transitional period is a critical time to produce a transitional pact with major stakeholders and lay the foundation for a reasonably stable constitutional democracy, institutionalized through free and fair elections. The reluctance to unveil a structured transitional agenda may be symptomatic of an unfinished debate within the post “revolutionary democracy” EPRDF. As the euphoria around reform begins to wane, and the country still lacks a deliberated and publicly disclosed structured transitional roadmap—one that explains the roles of multiple stakeholders and that manages public expectations—the door has been left open for counterrevolutionary forces, principally, among others, elements within TPLF, disgruntled party apparatchiks,  and plain criminals to derail the democratic transition.

Uncertainty about the roles of opposition politicians and activists in the democratic transition

In his inaugural speech PM Abiy stressed his plan to widen the democratic space. He followed through his promise by undertaking remarkable confidence-building steps. Opposition politicians that were completely denied any role in their country’s affair saw a real possibility of claiming space and a role in Ethiopian politics. Many jailed domestic politicians, including top leaders of the Oromo Federalist Congress, were suddenly released and were received by a rapturous crowd—a scene that was completely unfamiliar to them. Likewise, similar receptions were bestowed upon exiled politicians and activists who flocked into the capital Addis Abeba (Finfinne) with the hope of participating in the transitional process. However, the lack of a structured transitional roadmap has left these groups uncertain about their specific roles; they have been left to engage in sporadic and disjointed activities that are not focused on the immediate tasks of the transitional process. Some are beginning to squabble over the transitional agenda, as they have largely envisioned the transition through the lens of maximizing their own (group) space and role in the government. Some politicians and activists have called for the immediate establishment of a transitional government—these groups advocate for a radical transition, regardless of all the chaos it may entail—and others advocate for a smooth and orderly transition to a representative government in the 2020 election.

The nature of Ethiopia’s competing political parties is troubling for the democratization process; there are approximately 70 political parties, some with similar or overlapping political platforms. This proliferation of political parties is a result of Ethiopia’s political culture, which centers on not just political ideologies but personalities as well as ethnonational or regional identities. The emergence of ethnonational parties in the last three to five decades is a direct result of the history of ethnic marginalization and besiegement, as the Ethiopian state promoted its homogenization agenda at the expense of linguistic and cultural diversity. Centralist parties purporting to promote a pan-Ethiopian platform are often in a collision course with ethnonational groups. The former tend to be dismissive, even disdainful, of ethnonational grievances; they only provide vacuous acknowledgement to linguistic and cultural equality, which is quickly dismissed as political chicanery by ethnonational groups. The centralists fervently propagate their absolutist, mystical, and fundamentalist belief in the superiority of Ethiopian centralism and in the legitimacy of a centralized state to stamp out any identity-based institutions. Despite their anachronistic agenda and organizational incoherence, the centralists wield enormous economic and bureaucratic power, which makes them relevant in the major urban centers.

In the absence of an established democratic institutions or a uniform democratic culture, competing political groups are becoming increasingly nervous about getting the short end of the stick at the end of the transitional process. Therefore, hostilities can further deepen if the competing political groups and activists do not engage with one another and with the government in good faith, with the utmost sense of responsibility, and with the willingness to compromise.  These forces must hold dialogue to manage or bridge the cleavage existing between them. Under the current situation, Prime Minister Abiy faces the arduous task of creating equitable space and roles for these numerous political parties, some with a vision for Ethiopia that’s difficult to reconcile with the country’s current push toward multinational democracy. If not skillfully managed by the Abiy administration, and most importantly by the opposition politicians and activists alike, the suddenly widened democratic space will turn into a combustible field of interparty and ethnonational conflict. Furthermore, if the opposition politicians do not engage in the transition process in a meaningful way—especially on reforming key institutions that could pave the way for free and fair elections—they may turn hostile toward Abiy’s government, and, eventually, the parties and/or their bases may adopt disruptive strategies.

Just like organized political groups, activists are also vying for a space and a role in the transitional process. Dr. Abiy’s government and the Ethiopian public seem to give significant importance to activists, as much as (probably more than) political groups—this is despite the fundamental distinctions between activists and politicians with respect to the level of commitment and sense of responsibility inherent to their respective roles. In Ethiopia today, there’s an accepted blurring of boundaries and overlapping of roles between activists and politicians. Both influence debates and mobilize the public equally, and, sometimes, activists overshadow politicians to the point of rendering them invisible actors. Therefore, knowing the influence activists have in Ethiopian politics, it’s important that activists, just like political actors, responsibly handle the apparent success of their last 2 years of nonviolent struggle in order to consummate the democratic transition. Responsible and realist activism must be encouraged, as it is vital to push the transitional process past a democratization threshold.

Empowered Population with un-managed expectations

The Ethiopian population that felt powerless for the last 27 years of TPLF dominated EPRDF rule is now feeling significantly more empowered, thanks to a relatively enhanced freedom brought about by nearly four years of persistent nonviolent struggle. Since the population is no longer ruled by the rule of gun, stability and consolidation of power by the new leadership will depend on satisfying the public expectations concerning political, security, social, and economic agendas. PM Abiy inherited a complex country at the verge of economic and social collapse, and a population with wide range of grievances that had accrued over decades. Therefore, a crucial element of a smooth and successful democratic transition includes managing public expectations by clearly outlining reasonable and achievable goals in the context of the transitional time frame. Without this management, myriads of public grievances can be manipulated by counterrevolutionary forces and demagogues, or the public can be unknowingly led astray by impatient opposition politicians and activists who have limited (or no) experience about the complexities of governing.

The nonviolent struggle that brought the current change was rather fragmented; it manifested mostly in regions with a sizable homogeneous population, such as Oromia and Amhara. With the relatively enhanced freedom now, other regions and different sectors have been mobilizing themselves to voice their specific local or regional grievances. In some instances, local and regional grievances emanate from asymmetric democratization and asynchronous political openings in different regions of Ethiopia. This situation has created a conducive environment for counterrevolutionary forces to instigate violence, which often takes the form of inter-communal conflict. This problem can be partially stemmed by managing citizens’ expectations by clearly and publicly articulating a structured transitional agenda prioritizing the safety and security of the citizens.

Counterrevolutionary Forces

The confluence of the above factors with subversive counterrevolutionary movements is seen erupting in the form of worsening security and administrative breakdown, which could derail the democratic transition. The public statements of some TPLF high-ranking officials and TPLF’s own statement after its two days of emergency meeting in Mekelle unwittingly revealed the party’s mal-intent in promoting violence in various parts of the country. Given the current organizational weakness of TPLF, it is inconceivable that any amount of subversive counterrevolutionary activity will bring the party back to dominance. The overall goal of the subversive activities is, therefore, to stop the democratic transition and make the country difficult to govern. Their actions are simply designed to fulfill their prophecy that Ethiopia will disintegrate without their dominance—to vindicate the legacy of TPLF’s “revolutionary democracy” and developmental state model. Therefore, the subversive action of TPLF elements is an act of vengeance more than a hope to return to power. Sooner or later, this plan will likely backfire on them from their own constituency in the Tigray region, and they will be compelled to reform and conform to the ongoing transition. The aspiration of the Tigrians is no different from the rest of Ethiopians. It must be underlined that a new counterrevolution can find roots among one or more of the opposition parties who may fear a precarious future in a free and fair election at the end of the transitional period. Regardless of where the counterrevolution comes from, its impact on the democratization process can be minimized or eliminated by unveiling a well-structured transitional process, where all stakeholders and the public are brought on the same page.

Navigating the uncharted territory

The ‘election’ of Dr. Abiy Ahmed as the prime minister of Ethiopia has introduced unprecedented reforms, including the unfettered opening of democratic space. Some of the reforms were unexpected and eyebrow-raising, and nearly all of the reforms were accomplished in the absence of a clearly articulated and negotiated transitional roadmap and without the participation of all stakeholders. Although there is a general public approval of most of the reforms already undertaken, the lack of a structured transitional governance roadmap has failed to frame the public’s expectations and has left politicians and activists uncertain about their specific roles. Stability and successful democratic transition are likely to be achieved by unveiling a structured roadmap, which communicates the government’s step-by-step and time-bound transitional agenda predicated on reasonable and achievable goals, and allows the reasonable participation of key stakeholders. PM Abiy has had the unique fortune of accumulating a tremendous amount of political capital in a short period of time, but without framing the transnational agenda that will manage the public’s expectations and outline the rules of engagement of political parties, the democratic transition may face perilous challenges. Transition from authoritarian rule to democracy is not an “on-and-off” switch; it’s an inherently  turbulent time. Understanding this inherent shortcoming, the country’s politicians, activists, and the general public must continue supporting the transitional process by responsibly treading across the uncharted territory of this post-autocratic construction. Any fair appraisal of PM Abiy’s performance will undoubtedly capture his dynamic and unique style of leadership that has the potential to transform not only Ethiopia but the Horn of Africa region and beyond. Given Ethiopia’s important geopolitical importance, the international community must support Ethiopia’s transition. Ethiopia cannot afford to squander yet another opportunity for a democratic transition. AS

Editor’s Note: G. Teressa is an assistant professor of clinical medicine based in United States. He can be reached at

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