Commentary: Dangerous interregnum: The anatomy of Ethiopia’s mismanaged transition

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed during a press conference on August 25/2019 in Addis Abeba.

Ezekiel Gebissa, for Addis Standard

Addis Abeba, December 05/2019 – In his Selections from Prison Notebooks, Antonio Gramsci famously wrote in 1930: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”1 He was writing about the late 1920s, an era epitomized since by economic recession, the rise of fascism and an imminent world war. In his concept of “interregnum”, the old order had lost authority, and its successor had yet to re-engender a properly functioning society. During such an interregnum, society could experience myriad problems, even chaos, and, in some cases, political violence.

In December 2017, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), impelled by a persistent popular uprising in the Oromia region, embarked on a program it described as “deep renewal.” This ushered in a process exemplifying Gramsci’s “interregnum”. The EPRDF-designed political system, anchored by institutionalization of a dominant party in exchange for rapid economic growth, is dying. A new system remains unborn or even unimagined. Previously banned political forces remain inactive or unable to offer alternative models.  Morbid symptoms have begun to appear.

What diagnosis do these symptoms suggest? Interregnums are dangerous — particularly if accompanied by unwillingness to imagine new power structures. In Ethiopia’s case, leaders of the “reformed” EPRDF have proven unable to manage the difficult process of democratization. Political authority has fragmented; a general feeling of national drift has raised the specter of state collapse. That would be the greatest geopolitical catastrophe in the Horn of Africa.

There was indeed an unmistakable reformist shift, and relaxation of political tension; the specter of state collapse faded.

Morbid Symptoms

EPRDF’s embrace of “deep renewal” promised a new political dispensation. In Ethiopia, power-holders would henceforth be accountable to citizens through regular free elections, protecting rather than violating human rights; state institutions would provide good governance rather than function as an arm of the dominant political party. There was indeed an unmistakable reformist shift, and relaxation of political tension; the specter of state collapse faded. 

In March 2018, the ruling EPRDF designated a new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed; he was sworn in in April. He implemented reforms with speed and gusto, gaining a receptive audience among Ethiopians. He visited nearly all regions, and diaspora communities abroad, preaching love, forgiveness and national reconciliation. He won over Western leaders with fashionable reform measures (e.g. appointing women) and occasionally expressing endorsement of liberal economic tenets. There was a deep reservoir of public support for the expressed commitment to reform and effort to ensure a transition to democracy.   

Twenty months later, those glimpses of liberalization and democratic transition have proven a mirage.  Symptoms of dysfunction are multiplying. The ruling party of the last three decades has lost its cohesion. Centrifugal forces and jockeying for power have soured relations within the EPDRF coalition, as each member resorts to a separate identity. As a party, the EPRDF is suffering an identity crisis, unsure of the political ideology that once gave it the coherence to govern effectively.

Because the party is essentially moribund, governance has collapsed. The prime minister holds on to power by deploying the military and the politicized state machinery. The regional states are in disarray, each with distinct challenges. Tigray is isolated, Oromia largely ungoverned and experiencing violence, the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Region (SNNPR) is unsure of its future, and the Amhara Region is the scene (and source) of political violence

Contrary to the official portrayal of robust growth, the economy is in trouble. Increasing unemployment, runaway inflation, a foreign currency crunch, mounting debt, and credit difficulties characterize the current economic landscape

Contrary to the official portrayal of robust growth, the economy is in trouble. Increasing unemployment, runaway inflation, a foreign currency crunch, mounting debt, and credit difficulties characterize the current economic landscape. The newly unveiled Homegrown Economic Reform, sporting the language of the discredited Washington Consensus, has not addressed existing economic challenges. Will it ever work? Its only purpose seems to be to repudiate the developmental-state model of the prime minister’s predecessors.

The worst features of EPRDF rule, which precipitated mass uprisings in recent years, have now returned with a vengeance. Mass arrests, lengthy detention without charge and other infringement of citizens’ rights, including illegal searches, restrictions on assembly, expression and movement, are commonplace. Security forces use threats, online filtering and other forms of harassment to intimidate opponents. Political party leaders and their supporters are subjected to illegal detention, with allegations of physical beating, and torture. In its 2019 annual report, Freedom House ranked Ethiopia as “not free,” with an abysmal record on political and civil liberties. Ethiopia today looks less like an example of successful political transition than of how democratization fails.  

Inherent Dangers

Transition requires skillful management. Liberalization, the opening up of an authoritarian order, if not managed competently, can quickly foment insecurity, sacrificing the very legitimacy a new regime needs most. In Ethiopia’s case, fateful mistakes were made at the outset.  Inherent dangers were ignored.

Rejection of a Roadmap

There were several reasons for the failure of democratic transition. One was lack of a clear agenda for the post-authoritarian period. The history of successful democratization attests that broad agreement among elites on transitional guidelines and on procedures for popular participation is essential. Without a program that bridges the receding and emerging political orders, there is little chance of successful transition from authoritarian rule to democratic governance.  

At the beginning of the Ethiopian transition, the prime minister was implored to convene the major political parties to design a roadmap for the complicated process of change.  His initial response? “I will be the bridge that ensures a successful transition.” When the calls increased, he dismissed them: “the term roadmap has no meaning in political economy.” In the absence of guidelines, every political actor acted to maximize their political fortune. Supporters clashed, with fatalities and destruction of property. Cases in point are the incidents of September 2018, following the return to the capital of the Patriotic Genbot 7 and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF).

Despite these warning signs, the prime minister showed no inclination to offer a program of transition, though he always talked about peace, forgiveness and love as a way forward. These notions have now coalesced into “meddemer” (addition), offered as the ideology of reform and transition. Such as it was, it came too late. The transition had drifted rudderless, producing more conflicts. Neither personal “bridge” nor infantile philosophy could substitute for a roadmap for transition.  

Return of the Old Guard

Another danger the EPDRF leadership ignored has been the old guard’s determination to return to power. Democratization is naturally redistributive of political and economic power; it threatens elite power and dominance. In 2014-18, when a revolutionary protest movement of the disenfranchised threatened EPDRF’s monopoly of power, the political elite joined the movement for change rather than continue to confront it. However, they remained focused on regaining their grip on power.

The new leadership assumed responsibility for leading the transition but did little to guard it against counter-revolution. With decision-making concentrated in the prime minister’s office, the old elite in the capital easily returned to dominance, filling key positions with political loyalists and party apparatchiks admittedly opposed to democratization. The business elite bought a place at the table, and donated millions to the prime minister’s favorite projects in exchange for kickbacks in government contracts. The business and political elites have indeed successfully mounted an internal coup d’etat, hijacking the revolution and dislodging genuine agents of change.2   

Strategic mistakes

Popular protests toppling authoritarian systems do not always succeed in establishing democratic systems. To succeed, the first order of business is assembling forces of change in support of transition. In Ethiopia’s case, either political miscalculation or failure to heed its importance was a strategic mistake, resulting in lack of support from the forces that brought about the transition.

In a speech at Bahir Dar University in April 2018, the prime minister retorted: “Amhara nationalism is growing at an alarming speed. Please study it. Oromo nationalism has taken [Ethiopia’s] largest population and diminished it. Instead of thinking at a national or continental level, it has reduced the Oromo to village level politics.” This failed to endear him to Amhara nationalists, whose objective was to ride the wave of rising Amhara nationalism to regain their long lost power. On the other hand, the supercilious description of Oromo nationalism enraged Oromo nationalists. In effect, the prime minister alienated the Amhara nationalists he sought to restrain and antagonized the Oromo nationalists who had catapulted him into office. The forces of counter-revolution were ushered in to take the reins of power, thus jeopardizing the transition at the outset.

A second strategic mistake was the failure to recognize that the goal of transition was a state fulfilling longstanding demands for liberty, equality, justice and human dignity. For half a century, political struggle had focused against a centralized political system that excluded, marginalized and oppressed the majority of Ethiopians. But instead of envisioning a reconstructed state, EPRDF’s “reformist” leaders thought in terms of restoring Ethiopia’s “glorious past as a state.” In political terms, the prime minister’s “vision” of return was tantamount to repudiation of the sacrifices of the last five decades. Worse, glorification of the horrid Ethiopian state became an impediment to moving forward to a democratic state.

A third strategic mistake was the failure to recognize that the mandate is to serve as either a caretaker or a transitional government. Crucial to the caretaker function was rebuilding the state apparatus damaged during the protests. Whatever the reasons, the government proved unable to reconstitute the lower rungs of administration and failed even to gain control over the territory it was meant to govern. Public security, the most important responsibility of any government, broke down. Violence proliferated. For the first time in more than two decades, the regime itself looked vulnerable to implosion.

There are indications that the next national election, ostensibly the end of the transition process, was beset with problems even before the campaign could begin in earnest

As a transitional government, the regime had to prepare for democratic elections. There are indications that the next national election, ostensibly the end of the transition process, was beset with problems even before the campaign could begin in earnest. The new electoral law was issued only eight months before the elections scheduled for May 2020. Complaints from the opposition include difficulties with party registration, opposition to elements of the new electoral law itself, and questions about the impartiality of the electoral commission. Electoral officers are not being recruited and trained. Polling logistics are not being organized. There are, in fact, no visible preparations for elections. A constitutional crisis is in the making.

 At the federal level, the prime minister’s centralizing decision making has undermined institutional autonomy of government agencies and subverted established processes. Federal entities are tasked with acting in the public interest, and while the executive has an administrative supervising function, it has accumulated unchecked ad hoc powers. This has eroded the functional autonomy of government institutions and degraded transparency and accountability. The failure to rebuild lower-level state institutions, and the prime minister’s personal decision-making style have paralyzed the delivery of public services, rendering the government utterly dysfunctional.

Current Challenges

The model of democratic transition adopted in Ethiopia was in any case flawed from the very beginning. The process of designing and implementing a transitional roadmap did not include all political actors. It eschewed broad social and political consensus for a new political system before holding elections. Empowerment of old-regime elites in the transition process, exclusion of nationalist parties, neglect of the protest movement’s demands, and antagonistic political forces have now doomed the democratic transition. 

For many months the Abiy administration has looked for a coherent agenda for rallying the country. Instead, it has resorted to public relations stunts, including an urban sanitation campaign, a beautification project in Addis Abeba, tree planting to set a world record, palace renovation, and employing psychologists to conduct a national catharsis to cleanse citizen’s minds of “ethnocentrism”. Culminating this dreary grab bag were the prime minister’s book launch festivities. Together or alone, these do not constitute a sustainable national project.   

Flouting recognized processes and norms and circumventing established state institutions, which the prime minister has made his standard mode of operation, rewarded incompetence and destabilized the government

An ad hoc approach to governing leads to mistakes and wastes time on damage control. Flouting recognized processes and norms and circumventing established state institutions, which the prime minister has made his standard mode of operation, rewarded incompetence and destabilized the government.  Left to proceed without a program, the transition has now unraveled, further diminishing the country’s already fragile governing institutions. The state’s demonstrable vulnerability has emboldened anti-reform forces, spelling disaster for the prospect of a successful transition.

EPRDF’s constituent members and associated parties are dissolving themselves into a single multinational party organized around the meddemer ideology. The Oromo Democratic Party (ODP) and the Amhara Democratic Party (ADP) have rushed the merger through their party echelons even though there is no consensus for merger. Suffice it to mention the very public rejection of both the party merger and so-called new ideology by Lemma Megerssa, ODP’s deputy chairman.  The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) has rejected the merger for now, suggesting more pressing national issues to address. The merger frenzy has proceeded without the TPLF. This is tantamount to excluding the Tigray region, with grave consequences for the cohesion of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces. Clearly, the apparent merger is fraught with legal and constitutional problems, and is being rushed with no clear political purpose other than the party leader’s singular interest in dismantling the EPRDF before the elections.

The country is thus in a dangerous interregnum. At a time when established political groups are in flux, new alliances and counter-alliances will make the political landscape more unstable. Given that the Ethiopian state is fast losing its monopoly on violence, with armed units roaming several states, what we have now is an emerging phantom state (a state without administration), teetering on the verge of collapse. If the state fails, others will step in to provide security for themselves. There is a clear danger that political maneuverings might descend into predatory states (administration without a state) in the regions. AS


ED’s Note: Ezekiel Gebissa is a Professor of History and African Studies at Kettering University in Flint, Michigan. He can be reached at


1Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, ed. and trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1971), 275-276.

2 For a detailed account of the players, methods, conflicts and hijacking of power and the process which sidelined nationalist party leaders and eventual triumph of the counter revolution, see, Mudhin Siraj, YeTetelfe Tigil [The Hijacked Revolution], Addis Abeba: Dinsho Printing Press, Hamle [July], 2019 Eth. C. The book is a true account according to insiders I was able to interview. It has not been refuted. In fact, it rattled Abiy Ahmed and his supporters to the extent that the book was subsequently bought back from the market at very high prices.

No comments

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.