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In-depth analysis: Can Ethiopia make the transit to stability?

Mehari Taddele Maru, For Addis Standard –@DrMehari 

Addis Abeba, March 05/2019 – This has been an eventful year for Ethiopia’s politics. Under Abiy Ahmed Ali, who became Prime Minister in April 2018, the government has eased its previous authoritarian stance on various central issues. A national state of emergency imposed by Abiy’s predecessor has been lifted and thousands of prisoners have been released.  Exiled opposition leaders and armed groups have been allowed back into the country; media outlets now operate relatively freely; rapprochement with Eritrea is in full swing; and initiatives for national reconciliation are under way. Women received half of the positions in the October 2018 Cabinet and many others have been appointed to high office. In the light of the history of repression, human rights violations, decay and corruption of the ruling party, the BBC remarked that it was “almost like observing a different country.” Hence, the dominant narrative has been that of an emerging openness and transformational leadership.

Of course, hope comes readily to mind as positive narrative floods the news outlets. Though there was positive general drift across the political elite, the nub is that now no single dominant narrative explains the recent developments. Granted their positive effects, the government’s transitional reforms should not, however, be allowed to obscure the critical challenges the country faces. If those problems come to be shrouded in a blanket of positive spin designed to reinforce the current dominant narrative, they may well return to haunt the country later.

It is true that transitions such as those now being implemented in Ethiopia are often characterized by bloody conflict; after all, their aim is to deliver a new era that represents a break with the past. But unless their birth is attended by professional midwifery, such reform programs can spell the death not simply of the reform program but of the very nation itself. Merely shaking the system without a clearly defined end, simply to bring about a clean break from the past regime, hardly constitutes a structured program.  There therefore remains a concern as to whether or not the reform process is indeed informed by a conscious roadmap for the delivery of a new Ethiopia.

Needless to say, there has been stiff resistance to some of the reforms. Before it commences, the newly established Boundary Commission faces a crisis of legitimacy due to strong opposition from Tigray and some political parties in the Amhara regional state. People in the border areas also protested the government’s plans to hand over to Eritrea border areas in Badame and Zalambessa.  Abandoning a neutral foreign policy stance – which involves forging closer ties with the UAE sphere of influence was not welcomed either. Hesitations in the construction of the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, and privatization of some public enterprises, in particular Ethiopian Airlines, remain unpopular.

Governed by a highly divided four-member national coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the country at present resembles  a de facto confederation. To contain sporadic violence and avert further fragmentation, the military has been deployed in four regional states — Somali, Benshangul-Gumuz, parts of Oromia (Wollega, and Moyale), Amhara (Gondar). Though not officially declared and approved by the Parliament, some regional states are effectively under a de facto state of emergency. The country is also facing massive displacement due to ethnic and religious violence. Increasing tension between forces of centralization and decentralization continues to cause strains in the federal system. Internal boundary disputes between regional states, and arms proliferation and militarization of civilians and regions are also causing concern. Economic slowdown and youth unemployment remain formidable challenges. With new labor force entrants standing at two million per annum, job seekers will surge; the current nation-wide capability for job creation, including newly established industrial parks, covers less than half this number. The conflict between centralizing and decentralizing forces could not be more pronounced. While Sidama demands for the right vote in referendum for statehood, others call for a total abolishment of such constitutional rights.

A transitional road – but is there a map?

The present situation is one that defies simple characterization. Some observers think that current reforms follow a clear and well-designed transitional road map towards a democratic nation. Others, however, suggest that it is a transition designed somewhat impulsively, even though the reforms have been carried out in good faith, their approach have been questioned. Indeed, many political groupings, and citizens generally, see the response to the challenges the country is facing as not without dictatorial, sectarian and dogmatic elements and usually with limited reach to key political constituencies affected by them. Some actions appear naïve or, at any rate, imprudent and poorly thought through. A good example would be the decision to allow political groupings such as the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and its armed wing the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), to return to Ethiopia without some arrangement for disarmament and demobilization. This policy is widely seen as gravely endangering the country’s stability.

In a similar vein, the recent clashes in various parts of Oromia between the armed forces and the OLA  may be the result of a poorly-planned and implemented peace deal between the OLF and the Ethiopian army – a deal that defies logic and disregards lessons from history, including that of recent Ethiopia. Peace cannot be expected to last when an armed group outside the purview of the state functions in parallel to the national army, the federal police and the regional state police; although in this particular case the government’s logic is clear. The national army aims quickly to swallow the armed groups presently operating beyond its remit, either through integrating them into its own structures or demilitarizing and demobilizing them, while the groups themselves invariably try to stay intact so as to enhance their political clout and continue to deploy their armed wings as bargaining chips on the political counter. One consequence has been that subsequent to some armed clashes, the OLF and its supporters have accused the leadership of the Oromo Democratic Party (ODP), part of the ruling coalition, of failing to honor an agreement signed in Asmara between the ODP and ODF before the latter’s return to Ethiopia. The altercation between the OLF and ODP in the regional state of Oromia was symptomatic of a deep mutual distrust, mainly due to competition between the parties ahead of the upcoming state elections. 

There can be no purely military solution to this imbroglio because to be successful, counter-insurgency operations must always function in tandem with, and in a supportive role to, civil powers. In truth, the Ethiopian army probably could effectively deal with the OLA outside the cities and towns, yet, such insurgencies are seldom defeated by armed force alone, but only by winning popular support, and through acquiring performance legitimacy. Hence the national army is only one subsidiary element in a broader political process. To the extent that they take precedence over politically based peace initiatives, military operations in Oromia or anywhere else in Ethiopia only exacerbate the social and political problems. Military deployment and emergencies are temporary pain reliefs for the necessary political intervention necessary to address the root causes. Though still facing some challenges, the agreement between OLF and Oromia Regional State (ruled by ODP) and OLF decision to hand over its armament to traditional leaders in Oromia (Abba Gedda) was welcome development.

Death and displacement: Ethiopia’s new normal

Reports of conflicts, violence, death, and displacement have become the new normal in Ethiopia. With more than to 2.8 million IDPs, the crisis monitoring group IRIN names Ethiopia as one of ten countries to be singled out for special attention in the context of global humanitarian crises.  Inter-ethnic carnage in the border town of Moyale, for instance, resembles a mini-civil war in which communities with a tradition of conflict are encouraged to fight one another – and are given heavy weaponry to do so, usually by external actors. Recent violent clashes between Oromia regional state on the one hand and on the other, Somali, Benishangul-Gumuz, and the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ Region (SNNPR), have ended in dozens of people dead and nearly millions Internally Displaced People (IDPs).  Faced with these realities the federal government has been forced to introduce what is in effect state of emergency in some regional states and to re-deploy elements of the army from Eritrean border areas. As a result, federal interventions characteristic of a state of emergency are taking place in Somali, Benishangul-Gumuz, Moyale, parts of Amhara and Oromia regions.

The federal army, the regional police and various armed groups have all been accused of involvement in killings of civilians.  The army also faced widespread protests in Shire City, in Tigray region, as local communities blocked the movement of heavy army equipment from Eritrean border areas, while the army was accused of attacks on civilians around Gondar. Nor has Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa been spared deaths and displacements. More than 23 residents of Burrayu in the city’s outskirts have been killed and thousands displaced due to ethnic violence.  Nationwide, other acts of violence have become daily occurrences. Assassination attempts,  roadside bombings, hostage taking and organized robberies are on the rise even in the cities, including Addis Ababa. According to the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, 17 banks have been robbed in western Oromia.

Large numbers of IDPs and an ineffective response by the state to avert the displacements could soon create enclaves of disaster.  According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Ethiopia hosts “at least 2.8 million [IDPs] … of which 82 per cent are conflict-induced IDPs and the remaining 18 per cent are climate-induced IDPs.”  In Oromia and SNNP regions, inter-ethnic conflict displaced 800,000 people in June 2018 alone. In Benishangul-Gumuz, more than 250, 000 people have been displaced due to inter-regional conflicts.  It is estimated that Ethiopia’s 1.47m registered IDPs include 15,000 solely from December 2018.  Clearly, the interest of Ethiopia’s neighbors are jeopardized by spillover of this humanitarian crisis.  Such large displacements point toward not merely the population’s vulnerability to recent conflicts between various forces, but a serious level of lawlessness and elements of state failure in general; More importantly perhaps, they are indicative of the Ethiopian state’s inability to fulfill its primary responsibility to protect its citizens, and of its   inability to control illegal armed elements.

Ethiopia’s five pillars

For decades, five main factors have determined Ethiopia’s peace and security. These are first, a collective social psychology of uninterrupted statehood and state strength; second, the 1991 accession to power of the EPRDF coalition and its advocacy of a consensus-based federalism of cultures; third, economic delivery that brought performance popular legitimacy; fourth, support from the international community; and lastly, the threat posed by forces hostile to Ethiopia. Ethiopia’s history has not been without its epochal moments but in fairness, since 1991 its leadership has tried to steadily stir the national ship and has done much to correct critical historical injustices and reduce poverty. Arguably, however, in an attempt to redress the authoritarian legacy of the old EPRDF, the ongoing changes have shaken several of the pillars of the state’s stability.

These are respectively a cohesive social psychology of uninterrupted statehood, the strength of the security sector (applied also for repression)– army, police and intelligence – and the corrupt and authoritarian EPRDF as unified ruling party. In reality, save for the first, these pillars have already been weakened. How and why did this happen?

Security sector paralysis

The first pillar – the fundamental collective social psychology of Ethiopians arising from their uninterrupted statehood– is in turn dependent on the security sector:  essentially the military, police forces at federal and regional level, the intelligence agencies and the leadership at federal and regional government from the Prime Minister to regional presidents. The general relationship between the federal government and regional states has weakened and, in some cases, has become broodingly confrontational.

Given weak linkages between the federal government and some regional states, the federal police have been unable to function properly as a federal institution and has been undermined by extreme politicization of its actions and by frequent changes of leadership. Some of its enforcement missions have been frustrated and their members detained for weeks when they attempted to arrest individuals in regional states. The army has not been spared similar kinds of confrontation and violence. Regional police forces, too, are politicized and the possibility exists that they could be deployed by regional states for any purpose, including actions against the interests of the federal government. It should be said that although in theory the federal government could regulate the nature and supply of regional police armament, forcible disarmament of regional police would be in violation of the federal constitution.

As for the intelligence apparatus, the National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA) has been hit hardest by the transition and needs to be rebuilt ab initio. An instrument of political repression, the agency was heavily exposed to pressure from the EPRDF leadership during mass protests that took place in the period 2015–2018. It has been institutionally paralyzed, first in Somali state, then in Amhara, and Oromia and then now in Tigray. As a result, NISA, although a key part of the federal government, at present does not have the reach it once enjoyed in many parts of the country.

Strong and disciplined, the army remains the only solid pillar supporting the security of the country. It might crack, however, if it were to become involved in massive operations that were publicly perceived as attacks on a specific ethnic community or popular movement (as are current interventions in Oromia or ongoing confrontations in Somali, Afar, Tigray). Though long overdue, the reform of the Security Sector should have been carried out with utmost care.

EPRDF: dead beyond resuscitation

The challenges in the security sector are partly a result of the paralysis within the ruling party EPRDF, which has been the third factor responsible for stability in Ethiopia. Under the EPRDF’s earlier relatively cohesive and well-managed party, Ethiopia enjoyed relative peace and security; the ruling party’s strength stemmed from its democratic centralism that ensured indirect control and command over the regional states. The legitimacy of its performance in terms of economic delivery and constitutional protection of cultural communities constituted an additional source of strength.

Now, however, the old coalition system is ideologically dead beyond resuscitation and its capacity to serve as pillar of stability and national unity is over. This may be a blessing in disguise, in that the waning principle of democratic centralism that kept the EPRDF cohesive may give way to genuine federalism. The key challenge for the new leadership of the coalition lies in resolving longstanding tensions between the need for internal democracy in the EPRDF and the necessity of maintaining a cohesive, ideologically driven and accountable EPRDF with an effective command, control and communication system. Recent internal reforms in the EPRDF were intended to allow opposition parties to engage in peaceful competition with the governing coalition but it may well be that the group’s fight for survival instead becomes an internal one between its own members. In a nutshell, the EPRDF is on a march towards self-immolation and it needs progressively to give way to a new party offering a new ideology and a new modus operandi.

Game plan?

The recent pronouncement of fusion of the current members of the EPRDF coalition, and merger with the affiliate political parties in Afar, Benishangul, Gambella, Harari, Somali regional states could provide new face, method and equilibrium for EPRDF.  However, fusion requires high degree of trust which in turn is function of commonly shared vision. Even more than before, in the current EPRDF both trust and shared vision are in short supply. For the new leadership of EPRDF, neo-liberal free-market capitalism could be the model for economic governance, while significant number of opinion makers within EPRDF may not share the same view.

The reason why many political forces were mobilized and formed on ethic basis in the first place was the deep distrust among elites of different cultural communities. Talks and plans of fusion within EPRDF aside, inadequate trust among EPRDF coalition members was the real reason why EPRDF was constituted, and why it remained, a coalition. More essentially, EPRDF applied parity in representation and voting in its governance structure to address this mistrust. Unless the very factors that lead to ethnic mobilization are addressed, such mutually assured distrust will remain. Some current trends such as reliance on majoritarianism as opposed to consensual decision-making in federal institutions would only widen and deepen the mistrust.    

Economic performance and popular legitimacy

With all its associated shortcomings – including rampant corruption – economic delivery has been a further source of legitimacy and thus stability in the country.  It includes infrastructural development such as the construction of roads, air corridors, railways and buildings, energy generation, housing, provision of health and education, and associated job creation. It is only three years since the World Bank designated Ethiopia “seemingly most in control of its destiny in its march towards [becoming] a middle-income country by 2025”. This assessment confirmed the rightness of the government’s developmental state approach while embracing the need for dynamic and pragmatic economic reforms.  With a weakening ruling party and the dwindling effectiveness of the federal government, however, economic delivery is slipping and forecasts by the IMF and the World Bank may not be realized. Delivery protests arising from grievances over the government’s failure to provide basic services such as electricity, water could greatly increase.

While the EPRDF has established strong protections for cultural communities and has enjoyed some performance legitimacy, its limited social base has meant that it lacks a degree of popular legitimacy. Consequently, the past three decades have been marked by recurrent protests and associated social instability. The present, enhanced transition process could help promote openness and assist in addressing the root causes of the disruptions, but only if it does not spawn new protests or even open conflict.

The waiting game of political elites

The current changes were designed to be less than revolution, and more than reform. They may end up in instability. Pushing their luck, political leaders both in the ruling and opposition parties are playing the waiting game for most opportune moment.

The new EPRDF leadership is attempting to work out a compromise between demands for democratization on the one hand and maintaining itself in power on the other, but it is difficult to satisfy both requirements. Whereas, the old EPRDF was allergic to protests and opposition groups; the new seems to be  in a hurry to adopt most of the positions of the protesters and the opposition.

As a consequence, the official policy of the present government is melded with that of the opposition so that the differences between the social base and political constituency of the EPRDF and those of the various opposition groups are not clearly delineated. Some of the positions held by opposition parties such as the OLF are closer to those of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) than to those of the latter’s fellow coalition members, the ODP and the Amhara Democratic Party (ADP). Further complicating the issue, the current leadership of ODP shares more common political platforms with Ginbot 7, than it does with its old ally, the TPLF. This makes for something of a political quagmire and it becomes difficult to differentiate opposition from the ruling party. Against this background, the current EPRDF leadership has two options: To continue to focus on electoral reforms regardless of their implications for the future of what is left of EPRDF; or to reconstitute EPRDF based on a new social base and constituency before the election. Either course would have serious implications for various elements in the EPRDF, mainly for the ODP and the ADP, which would be the most affected due to stiff electoral competition they face in Amhara, Oromia and SSNPR. TPLF may face totally insignificant competition in urban areas but this would not offer a serious challenge to its dominance.

International support: how long will it last?

International support, including from regional neighbors, the UN, the African Union (AU), IGAD and others, constitutes a fourth factor contributing to national stability; it increases when Ethiopia is at peace with itself and its bordering countries. Although in part an outcome of internal stability and economic delivery, peace and cooperation with neighbor-countries nevertheless depends on the ability of the state to run a neutral and principled foreign policy. An Ethiopia at war with its neighbor(s) cannot enjoy domestic peace and the converse also applies. When Ethiopia faces internal instability, it frequently ends up in conflict or outright war with neighboring countries. Wars with Somalia (1977) and Eritrea (1998) and ongoing tension with Sudan are good examples of this tendency. While Ethiopia’s relation with its neighbors is built on strong economic and cultural ties, the rapprochement with Eritrea has spawned questions. Ethiopia has regularly consulted with its neighbors during the war with Eritrea and when sanctions were imposed by the UN.  Djibouti and Sudan relations with Eritrea went sore partly due to their closeness with Ethiopia. Ethiopia’s bold measures of normalization with Eritrea left Sudan and Djibouti out of the rapprochement. Recent tripartite meetings between Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia, compounded old and new concerns of Kenya and Uganda within the IGAD arrangement. 

Ethiopia’s position of neutrality and regard for multilateralism in the recent past have brought Ethiopia strong support from major powers such as the US, China, Russia and the EU and it has forged cordial relations with other regional players, including India, Turkey and the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Pursuant to the revised US 2017 National Security Strategy and the 2018 National Defense Strategy, however, US strategic competition with China (and to a lesser extent Russia) in Africa has become a central consideration in Ethiopia-US relations. While US shift of mission- is critical, other factors also make Ethiopia a significant participant in this competition. For more than two decades, Ethiopia was viewed by Western powers, especially the US, as China’s leading economic and ideological ally in Africa. In the eyes of many US officials Ethiopia was not only an outpost of Beijing but also an ideological springboard that enabled China to exercise considerable influence on Africa and the AU (which has its headquarters in Addis Ababa). With recent changes in US policy toward Africa, Ethiopia increasingly will be under pressure to take sides; hence over the long term, global power issues might serve to divide the level and nature of the international support Ethiopia receives.

Hostile outside forces

In the recent past, forces and interest hostile to Ethiopia have been able effectively to exploit the vulnerabilities the EPRDF has itself created in the form of a weak federal state and its concomitant security sector. Countries with strategically adversarial aims have also gained the upper hand in the region. Furthermore, rivalry on the Nile with Egypt and pressure from regional players around the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa and Yemen have increased, significantly undermining the sovereignty of countries in the region.

Given the current state of affairs, the future of stability fares no better. The details are too intimidating. Considerable undercurrents of turbulence beneath the unruffled surface. Stability in Addis Ababa may not endure with dissatisfied peripheries. In the near future, the mobilization of the peripheries may breed new dynamics. If managed well the key delivery of this transition could be a working Ethiopian democracy, if it goes wrong, democracy, economy or even the country will be endangered.

But, what trajectories may the country take?

Five scenarios

Although many aspects of Ethiopia’s situation remain fluid it is still possible to build five scenarios that may come about over the next couple of years: they are respectively Consensus Federalism, Transitional Government, Dictatorship, Confederate Ethiopia and Fragmentation.[i]

Consensus Federalism

The optimal outcome for Ethiopia would be a peaceful transition arising from elections in 2020 and the installation of democratically elected federal and regional governments. This process would provide popular legitimacy at both levels. Consensus-based constitutional amendments would become possible.  A real federal system espouses the principle of subsidiarity under which regional states are left more or less to fend for themselves with the federal government acting merely as a political “back-up generator” that kicks in only when regional states fail to function well.  While under this scenario, the EPRDF may collapse, new constituencies and parties would arise that would respect federalism. This is the most desirable outcome in that it ensures both stability and legitimacy; but current calls for suspension of the constitution, taken with a looming majoritarian drift, make it an unlikely one.

The “Big Tent” transition

A transitional government of national unity could be formed, as a “big tent” to bring together all political parties, including those in opposition, for a short transitional period. Legitimacy to govern would thus be dispersed among the various political parties. In Oromia, the ODP’s support base in practice would be limited to those interests associated with the state apparatus. OLF, on the other hand enjoys significant popular support; other parties in the region may have strong but geographically limited political bases in areas such as Ambo, Arsi and Bale, Hararege and others.

The security sector, particularly the army and police at federal and regional levels, would become stronger; the EPRDF might split but its members would still be able to participate in the transitional government. As different parties and interests prepared for renewed competitive electoral politics, “kamikaze” groupings of various parties would be likely to emerge to contest the elections. Devoid of an ideological basis and with a fixation on power, such coalitions would fail to offer a long-term alternative political platform. They might dissolve should they lose the elections but survive if they win.

In this scenario, democracy in Ethiopia could be enhanced but economic delivery would be at its lowest level for lack of leadership on economy and requisite stability. The benefit of a transitional government would lie in its ability to bring all pockets of legitimacy together to participate in a constitutive national dialogue. Opposition groups may welcome such a transitional government; if so the scenario could deliver political stability and reduce factional violence. More than that, it might create a new equilibrium and respect for the current federal structure, which would be both desirable and practicable. Despite representing the best outcome, this scenario still remains the least probable because it is mainly dependent on the political will of EPRDF incumbent parties, in particular the ODP and the Amhara Democratic Party (ADP). In addition, a transitional government of national unity might not lead to a happy ending for those incumbent groupings and perhaps for their leaders because inevitably it would result in the erosion of monopoly of power.


A confluence of factors makes this scenario highly probable. Furious hatreds, savage malice, lies and slanders between federal authorities and regional states and between federal government leaders and armed groups are not unusual. Some elements of OLF’s armed wing may not be willing to disarm at least until the elections.  The federal government and its ODP leadership may increasingly resort to force to solve the stalemate in some parts of Oromia. The same tension is witnessed between the Federal government and regional states, particularly in Oromia, Tigray, Harari and Afar and possibly also in Somali. Already, some military actions and pronouncements have had national implications, shifting the axis of confrontation between the OLF and ODP from a face-off between the two, to one between the OLF and the federal state. The Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) in Somali may face a challenge similar to that in Oromia, resulting in a clash with the ruling EPRDF particularly during or immediately after the forthcoming elections. 

Attempts to address the likely volatility of the transition process could bring to the fore authoritarian tendencies within the federal government, helped by demands from officials representing Derg military regime and those nostalgic of unitary Ethiopia. Politically suicidal for the new leadership, dictatorial measures of this or any kind would be self-defeating for the reform process which relies on its openness and popular legitimacy. They could also face stiff resistance from federal entities in parliament and from the security sectors.  In this regard the key challenge would be the government’s ability – or lack of it – to control the country. In such scenario, the popular legitimacy enjoyed by the new leadership could dissipate. Any use of force that is perceived as targeting an ethnic community or popular political opposition will be met by a proportionate, or even an exaggerated, response from the regional states, leading to violence and fragmentation.

Fragmentation: Mutually assured destruction

Civil war (and/or fragmentation) constitutes the worst-case scenario under which the EPRDF and the federal state collapse as a result of cracks in the army structure. Both delivery and democracy will be at their lowest levels. Deep distrust and mutually assured zero-sum political games between political parties make this scenario possible. For instance, at the moment the federal government and the Tigray regional state seem to operate on a basis of minimum communication and the same could be said within the EPRDF coalition members themselves. Without appropriate interventions in the form of genuine dialogue, these tensions could manifest themselves by way of non-cooperation by regional states and unilateral actions by federal government, and possibly slip into outright violent conflict; which in turn could end in the loss of central control over events. The proliferation of small arms and militarization of regional militia and police may accelerate such scenario. Ethiopia thus might slip into fragmentation as a country. If not brought under control and if external interference were not brought to a halt, regions could soon enter into conflict with each other. 

Confederated Ethiopia

Under this scenario, national fragmentation would be avoided by settling for a loose federation that is substantively a confederate system. While the capacity of the federal state would weaken, the regional states to varying degrees would become more stable and assertive in all aspects, delegating powers to the federal government only for national defense, foreign relations and monetary policy. In the absence of an effective monopoly of the instruments of violence, the head of the federal government would act more as a coordinator-in-chief of the regional states and less as commander-in-chief of the entire country. Such a scenario might provide a better democratic space but would probably be characterized by low economic delivery. 

Amid death and displacement, a solution must emerge.

Though the current narrative is delivered artfully with continual energy and speed, it is however measured against the past, not the future. Plenty symbolic promises need to be backed up by concrete delivery. Ethiopia needs inclusive democracy, inclusive economic delivery, stability and strong international support. The last two— stability and international support, will be largely determined by inclusive democracy, and economic delivery. 

The future therefore offers three realistic scenarios: the first is that Ethiopia will transition to a consensus federal democracy of a kind it has never previously had; the second would be a move to a confederate system with a weak central government; the third suggests a fragmentation of the state due to hostility between mutually antagonistic popular movements. The first of these scenarios cannot sustain itself without economic growth, which in turn requires political stability. The only viable options for now therefore are either to maintain the existing consensus-based federalist democracy, or to continue with a version of it – what is developing in practice as a form of confederated system under which the federal government is increasingly weakened and exercises limited powers. As previously noted, in the latter case leaders of the federal government would act as coordinator rather than commander.  

Despite the brutishness of their nation’s politics, Ethiopians need to keep in mind that only a progressive “pan-Ethiopianism” blueprint anchored in equality between cultures, respecting the human rights of individuals and empowering citizenship can offer a peaceful, stable and prosperous national future. 

Five fundamental factors are necessary to ensure Ethiopia’s stability and development. They are respectively economic development (and economic pro poor delivery); constitutional federal democratic governance (federal democracy); law and order (security); financial and human resource development (revenue and resource mobilization); and state implementation capacity (state capability). Policy sovereignty, including neutrality in foreign relations, is a further crucial issue for the country’s internal stability and its neighborhood and global diplomacy.

Five specific action points need to be considered. The upcoming elections will be fiercely fought throughout the country and there may well be a surge in inflammatory speech and violent conduct, and begin with the necessity to calm public debate and counter “hate speech”.

The second point is the need to recognize the primacy of politics over violence and military action. Political work mainly involves dialogue and consultation with local communities. Soldiers must always follow and support the civil powers. Most current conflicts, including that in Oromia, result from political crises. Some, however, are also a continuation of earlier insurgencies. The first step in countering the kind of insurgency the OLF or even other problems with regional states would be to recognize that there is no military solution. Airstrikes are especially counter-productive; aerial bombing exacerbates grievances, alienates local communities and bolsters resistance. The military may have a limited role in keeping the peace, but no permanent peace is ever brought about by force of arms. Soldiers cannot fulfill the role properly played by political and civilian officers.  The military therefore should play a secondary, subsidiary part as a back-up to create an enabling environment for political efforts by localized communities. Military engagement de-linked from – and way ahead of – political engagement only risks further disaster while politicizing the army and fostering excessive zeal among commanders. Alone among the security sector, the army stands as commanding legitimacy and its politicization by ambitious officers could endanger national unity.There is of course no quick fix. It may be that some closely-knit communities will fight back against central authority and though not on a large scale, such skirmishes could drag for long time. Dialogue and political solutions require patience and a long time-frame.

A third desirable development would be a cessation of hostilities on the part of the federal government and all regional states, political parties and armed groups.  Such a “ceasefire” might include renunciation of violence, of possession and use of weaponry, of military training and of hate speech. Should the various interests cease hostilities, engage constructively and sign a transparent agreement inclusive of all political parties and armed groups, with robust and coercive compliance mechanisms. Such an eventuality could end in the cantonment, registration, disarmament, selection and training of armed groups towards integration with statutory forces, and with the demobilization of insurgents and their incorporation into regular regional police or the federal security sector. More importantly, such a pact would take the country to sustainable peace. 

Finally, it would be desirable swiftly to distance from popularity contest and politics vain glory, appreciate the enormity the challenges and taking state power as responsibility. a genuine a process of dialogue, truth and reconciliation must commence. The federal government might also consider establishing a commission of inquiry into past violations of laws including those applying to corruption and violation of human rights. The volume of displaced individuals within and beyond the country’s borders has reached calamitous proportions and it is unlikely that this human tragedy is addressed unless and until political settlement could reached. AS  

[1] Providing five of many possible alternative trajectories, these scenarios offer grounds for reflections. In foreseeing what, these scenarios are not by any means desirable predictions.  They are meant only to help Ethiopians deliberate and prepare for any of the scenarios and swiftly act on the best scenario, which is consensus based democratic federalism.


Editor’s Note: Dr. Mehari Taddele Maru is an academic focused on peace and security, law and governance, and humanitarian and migration issues. He tweets @DrMehari

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