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Op:Ed: Ethiopia in transition is facing critical challenges

Mukerrem Miftah, for Addis Standard

Addis Abeba, November 05/2018 – A political transition connotes a shift from authoritarian rule to democracy. Recent literature in the field, however, made it clear that there is not a strictly direct and straightforward path leading from authoritarian rule to democracy. Rather, one may experience a “political limbo” lying in the midst of the two. This “hybrid” or “grey zone” generally displays certain features of democratic political elements as well as authoritarian characters. The old and dominant “transition paradigm” underscores that transition can take three ways: reform, compromise, and overthrow. In the first case, authoritarian regimes take the lead in the transition of the political organization and rule. Already wielding significant power, they can determine the choices that will ultimately condition the way the emerging system functions and, subsequently, take shape.

Compromise is another way through which political transition takes place. In this case, the old authoritarian elites (and their power and legitimacy) and those who oppose them, mainly opposition political parties or armed groups, are matched, thereby paving the way for compromises, of interests to facilitate a peaceful transition. Like the first, a given authoritarian rule going through the transition by compromise has some power having important ramifications in the evolution of the upcoming, hybrid or democratic, political system.

Finally, the last course of action involves overthrowing the old authoritarian regime from power through violence or power. This usually happens in countries wherein the old regime refuses to undergo changes, reformative or transformative, and/or when the opposition reaches a point where it can evidently outmaneuver the already crumbling and fragile authoritarian leadership inside out.

A Transition by compromise?

Of the many ways in which political transition takes place, the Ethiopian recent experience is by no means fundamentally different. Arguably, the current political condition in Ethiopia largely appears to show the characteristic feature of a transition by compromise. However, unlike the above pure theoretical construct, the conditions leading up to this transition in Ethiopia were not necessarily the sole product of compromises by strong political oppositions and EPRDF’s readily accepted willingness for change or transition. In fact, to the contrary, informal networks and communication channels venting accumulated grievances, which were simmering beneath decades-long cultural, economic, and political hegemony and injustice, played indispensable roles. Yet, undoubtedly, this was “accompanied” and “channeled through” by opposition groups, political parties included, which, for obvious reasons, were unable to withstand EPRDF in their own ways (peaceful or otherwise) for the last two and a half decades. Again, taking this to its logical extreme, one could go as far as to argue that these two political actors in the public sphere, the authoritarian EPRDF regime and opposition political parties, were abundantly passive enough to initiate any observable change in the country. In other words, if it had not been for the unsettling shock therapy the people gave to these actors, having opposite effects though, we would not probably have “achieved” what we enjoy today in Ethiopia.

Overall, it is at least safe to extrapolate that, measured by consequences, a certain degree of compromise characterized the overall power transfer from the TPLF dominated EPRDF to the current EPRDF leadership under OPD (the former OPDO). Besides, the nature, intensity, and motivation of popular dissatisfaction (protests and demonstrations) in Ethiopia have evidently gone through significant transfiguration once “Lemma’s team” and like-minded groups came to power, making the transition relatively peaceful and meaningful. Yet, while it succeeded in achieving a certain degree of peace and stability in the country, it did not necessarily remedy the entire wrongdoings and punish the wrongdoers of the last twenty-seven years. Among other things, many of the political operatives of the TPLF led EPRDF accused of causing and committing crimes largely remain “unjust + ified”. Compromise, as a strategy of transition management, may have played some role in choosing peace for the country, at least for the time being, over justice, restorative or otherwise.

Critical Hurdles

Many wrote, including myself, about some of the positive and highly desired consequences of the transition, at least the effects of the mere act of shifting away from authoritarianism, if not necessarily the ongoing moves toward a full-fledged democracy. However, despite some of those encouraging steps taken either in Ethiopia or in the Horn of Africa, the “transitional” government (whether it conceives itself as such is another issue) is patently facing some existential challenges, threatening Ethiopia as a country of above 100 million population and a state. What are some of these serious causes of concerns that need the urgent heeding of the existing political leadership and those who consider themselves agents of change in the country?


An impasse that has not yet been fully diagnosed as a cause of concern and that did not really receive treatment of any kind so far, but essentially threatening Ethiopia, is the invariability of unpredictability. Unpredictability in today’s Ethiopia can mean two things. On the one hand, by its very nature, unpredictability stands for uncertainty, in life, identity, politics, and many more. Uncertainty in these fields, in turn, can beget (and it does beget) despair and this ultimately leads to chaos and disorder. This can, at least theoretically, explains much of the inconveniences and crises facing Ethiopians and Prime Minister Abyi Ahmed’s led government today.

Arguably, there are many things about which no one seems to have any clear idea: the nature and future of inter-ethnic relations, youth unemployment (particularly the educated youth unemployment), peace and security in the country, and most importantly, the procedural, institutional, and regulatory mechanisms molding the upcoming, long waited, and potentially democratic election in the year 2020. Along with this last point is also included the visibility and participation of opposition political groups in the organization of the upcoming election in Ethiopia. In the final analysis, however, as many empirical evidence from around the world testify, a relatively free and fair election defines (and serves as a litmus test for) the true nature of any political transition from authoritarian to democratic leadership. As many political activists, including Jawar Mohammed, repeatedly emphasized on various occasions, the current political leadership appears indifferent and unresponsive to this very issue.

Unpredictability, on the other hand, may also stand for a deliberate tactical move aiming, through doctoring a chaos-in and chaos-out scenario, to facilitate ways to the eventual uncontested reemergence of Prime Minister Abiy in Ethiopia’s long-term political scene. Put differently, this unpredictability could be appraised as an outcome of failed or probably deliberate management of transition in Ethiopia. There are many, although largely anecdotal and circumstantial, evidence snowballing in this direction. Some critics (from the unity school, in particular) of the “transitional” government point out that PM Abiy’s government appears to strengthen, covertly, his room for maneuver in the currently evolving political landscape in Ethiopia. Reyot Alemu, a political activist turned journalist at ESAT TV (a media accused of close affiliations with the Ginbot 7 opposition group and, largely, to the unity school), had questioned the integrity of the Prime minister. Quoting his interviews with the national TV channel, ETV, she deduced that he appeared inconsistent and, thus, unpredictable. (Especially see time between 11-20 minutes).

In his earlier interview with the national television, PM Abiy seemed to give the impression that the soldiers who had marched into his office in Addis Abeba were only looking for a pay rise and reforms in the military complex. In addition, he unequivocally pointed out that this was regardless of rumors on social media, of soldiers planning to undermine his government. However, in his later speech in the house of people’s representatives, he made it clear that what the soldiers did was “not only unconstitutional and dangerous, but also intended to abort the reform . . . without any genuine intention.”

Moving beyond the apparent inconsistency here, one needs to focus on the ultimate message of the incident: the need for, as PM Abiy clearly underscored, “mature and decisive leadership”  in Ethiopia. This, rather, his brilliant, so to speak, leadership quality was expressed through his meticulously executed skill of “anger management.” This entailed, as he generously qualified it for us, taking the soldiers through a journey of managing discontent, which started with what he called “release,” followed by “relief,” and, finally, culminated in “rethinking.” He “confessed” that this was behind his tactical use of the press-up exercise to engage with the soldiers. Well, to take all these at face value and ignore all the implications, frankly speaking, demands a great leap forward. It is, thus, a patently genuine question to ask, even for those of us supporting his reforms, which version of Abiy’s recollections outweighs and, ultimately, what this may mean for the future of Abiy’s political career in Ethiopia.

Another instance of this kind of unpredictability is the recently popular move to mainstream gender in today’s Ethiopia. No doubt, gender equality is a very serious cause of concern for all countries in the world: underdeveloped, wealthy, authoritarian, or democratic nations. The recent move by the government of PM Abiy to remedy the already androcentric political organization in Ethiopia have taken the world by surprise. This unprecedented decision to gender-leveling through allowing, in his cabinet, 50 percent of female ministers; his pick for the first female president of the republic; and the first female chief justice, garnered him worldwide applause and commendation. An article on Al-Jazeera English website even went so far as to claim that this proves “patriarchy can be beaten in Ethiopia.” The Washington Post, on its part, characterized the move saying, “Abiy Ahmed pulls off an astonishing turnaround for Ethiopia.”

Now, it is true that one can obviously see the possibility of doing what PM Abiy’s government has just done in Ethiopia. It is indeed a good start, encouraging, and a relevant message to all, Africa and the world. The question, however, which cannot be simply downplayed as “publicity stunt” is whether the temporality of this move serves any purpose in today’s Ethiopia in transition or not.

Since taking office, Abyi’s leadership has faced, despite the general level of peace and stability, many and sometimes disconnected disruptions and chaos in different parts of Ethiopia. This, obviously, made many Ethiopians suspicious of the lasting nature of peace and security in the country. The killing and eviction of thousands of citizens in different regions, including Addis Abeba, of the country are directly relevant instances. It was in the midst of this unpredictability that Abiy’s government came up with this grand and transformative agenda new to Ethiopian political history. However, one cannot simply understate the fact, measured by its achievements, that it played an important role: attention diversion, of local and international media. Furthermore, it is in the midst of this chaotic and “transitional” moment that the government felt “gender mainstreaming” should be taken seriously. Understandably, this should be (and should have been) a serious cause of concern for all political and other actors at all times in the country. Yet, regardless of these female politicians’ competences, the timing of this intervention raises an eyebrow. Why now at this “transitional moment” where there is essentially no “elected” government or party ruling the country? On top of this, while the old system and structure of the EPRDF are in place and deep-rooted, changing the gender of individuals who will, ultimately, function within this change-resistant relic platform may not necessarily yield the outcome many thought it would.

Deethnicization under ethnic federalism

Organized ethnic federalism is one of the most contested legacies of the TPLF/EPRDF rule in Ethiopia. Despite its countless defects and the crisis set in motion, it had opened, in some imperfect ways, the political space for the marginalized ethnic and religious groups, especially in such matters as language, local self-rule, and identity in Ethiopia. Yet, while under this federalism the TPLF controlled key and strategic positions in the federal arrangement, it had effectively turned almost all the regional political units, supposedly organized around particular ethnic groups, into powerless puppets capable of doing nothing. Except perhaps for the symbolic function it served, the experiment with ethnic federalism could be argued to have caused significant chaos instead of delivering on what it initially set out to “accomplish.” The TPLF dominated EPRDF rule failed in “democratization and political pluralism,” solely controlled “all federal and regional state institutions,” and restricted “press freedom” in Ethiopia. In other words, the way TPLF played it out, designed, and implemented it, must have sown the seeds of its own inevitable failure at the country level. Yet, this does not negate the fact that federalism, ethnic or otherwise, is the best way out for a country like Ethiopia with multiple ethnic groups.

Now in the ODP dominated EPRDF rule of Ethiopia, the debate about the “ethnic” part of the longstanding ethnic federalism seems to be less relevant and not emphasized, especially by the current leadership. Many of us remember Lemma Megersa’s boldly spelled out words: “Ethiopia is an addiction” (Amharic version, etiyopiyawinet sus new). A relatively similar pan-Ethiopian tendency largely clouds almost all PM. Abiy’s speeches and interviews. Quite recently, at the eleventh EPRDF congress held in Hawassa under the motto of “national unity for holistic prosperity” (hagerawi andinet lehulentenawi biltsigena), the prime minister said, “Ethiopia is an exemplary country of old civilization, freedom, harmony, history, and beauty . . . and [wherein] her children are mixed/integrated (yetedemeru) through marriage and neighborliness.” In the same Congress, he made an interesting distinction between “ende’atbiya kokob yagenenuwat meriwoch” (brave leaders) and “begeza hizbachew lay gef yefestemu ena hageritun entorotos yawereduwat meriwoch” (oppressive leaders). The former ones included those who saved the country from disintegration (meferekakes) and invaders’ theft (yewerariwoch zerfiya) while the latter included those who, for temporary gain (legizeyawi tiqim) and self-aggrandizement (legelawi kebir), surrendered the country to its enemies and made her humiliated (mezebabecha). He concluded the speech by pointing out the need for striking a balance between ethnic and national identities. However, his remedy to this question, which is actually the centripetal force of contemporary national politics in Ethiopia, was what he called “medemer” (addition, integration). Yet, what does this speech mean to others?

Being an ethnic Oromo and the source of his leadership being the protracted discontent led mainly by the Oromo Qeero that had brought the regime to its knees,  Abiy’s speech at Hawassa can potentially send contradictory messages to different individuals, institutions, and groups who claim to have a stake in Ethiopia’s future. Even though this may have the effect of loosening and lessening the quarter of a century old ethnic-based hatred and tension in the country, others may take it to mean something else, beyond a politically correct speech. TPLF started its guerrilla fight against the Derg regime mainly because it had believed many ethnic groups, mainly Tigray though, were oppressed under the rule of the Amhara. Therefore, for TPLF, it was not really about which individual leaders did what they did, but the group, the Amhara ethnic group, including the political leaders, good or bad, who should be considered the source of all the evils. This was exactly what underpinned TPLF’s game and obsession with ethnic identity in the country. As such, ethnic-based federalism was considered the ultimate panacea to this felt problem.

Probably the same thing can be said for OLF’s struggle in Ethiopia and many other Oromo-centered movements, for instance. They adopted relatively the same raison d’être to understanding and plan for reordering Ethiopia. In other words, the overwhelming political discourses, conflict of interests, narrative contours and boundaries, over which the foundations of many, if not all, political actors in Ethiopia have been built on this very issue: how one reads the past and, based on which, order the present and the future. It appears that a less rigorous discourse analysis, of the current political leadership, reveals that they tend to see the past through individual merits rather than groups.

Overall, the current political leadership appears busy with defusing ethnic-based frictions that can potentially lead to a chain of events with irreparable consequences at the national level. People are struggling to survive in different parts of Ethiopia due to problems caused by their identities. The recent past Oromo-Somali conflict, the Tigray-Amhara rivalry over Qemant and Raya, conflicts among the Qebeena, Meskan, and the Gurage, the Burayu incident, and others can rationally necessitate the kind of approach Abiy’s government is pursuing. Nevertheless, the question looming is whether Abiy’s government is considering this as one tactical move appropriate for the transition, a kind of symptom alleviation, or an ultimate solution to the ethnic or identity problems in Ethiopia. If it does constitute the perfect way out, will it have any implications for the constitution? Are we going to rethink ethnic-based federalism in Ethiopia? If this is going to be the case, in what ways and under what circumstances. Whether or not this will divide public opinion or not and whether different political parties and interest groups reorder their alignment-are important questions that may need to be tackled eventually.

Unbridled activism gone wild

Political activism is a more decentralized modus operandi for political participation. A successful political activism, with clearly articulated means and ends, can serve important purposes and common goods. For our purpose here, we may divide activists into two: on the one hand stand those who have institutional affiliations, refined goals, and a certain degree of stability (a sense of directionality), and on the other hand stand those who do not necessarily have any institutional affiliations, and possess a blurred sense of goal (and direction). For the former group of activists, broadcast and print media serves as an important vent for reaching out and initiate change efforts. Here activists are personally and institutionally identifiable. This entails a certain degree of refined role and status, for any status confers responsibility. In other words, activism under this modality assumes responsible activism, making the act of activism nuanced and strategic.

Although one hardly finds a fault-free political activism in Ethiopia, let alone in the world, we may take the Oromo-centered activism, especially Jawar Mohammed, as a good example. We may also include the unity-centered activist Tamagn Beyene, representing a different strand of political activism in Ethiopia. Despite all their shortcomings, one can relatively predict the overarching discourse underpinning their activism. As it stands now, one can also see a certain degree of proximity between the two activists in the post-TPLF dominated Ethiopia in many directions. Among other things, both seem to be genuinely interested in ways that would allow for peace and stability to prevail in the country. In the final analysis, though, no one would doubt that the purpose of any meaningful activism in today’s Ethiopia would be for peace and justice to prevail in Ethiopia. I hope this will continue further and deeper than this in the future.

However, despite some fluctuations among the first group of activists, the second group of activists and the kind of activism within which they function is apparently causing more chaos, unpredictability, crisis, and identity-based frictions in Ethiopia. It should be noted, however, that some of the individual activists have been genuinely engaged in harnessing peace and stability for the country. Some are well educated with significant influences than others. Yet, devoid of any institutional affiliations, refined and specific goals and directions, individual activists inspired by their either ethnicity, religion, or group mentality, have been the major source of discontent in Ethiopia. Social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, have been the major means of their outreach. Being largely uncontrolled, it allowed for the expression of views, relevant or destructive,  affecting the way “normal” citizens think, act, and behave.

One serious cause of concern here is that activists under this category write or say whatever they want and, in seconds or minutes, reach as much as hundreds of thousands or millions of audiences. False accusations, incorrect information, misrepresentations, inciting ethnic violence, and many others specifically characterize this group. The worst thing is that since many of these activists use fake usernames and appellations, it makes it harder for the relevant authorities to take any corrective measures. In rare cases like Charkos Weldegeorgis’ (Ph.D.) inflammatory statements against the now TPLF’s central executive committee member (Kerya Ibrahim) received a corrective measure despite being shallow (“an apology”). It, nevertheless, sends the message that such kind of behavior is not only unacceptable but also not tolerated.

The current government, PM Abiy in particular, can try engaging with political activists who are willing to work for peace, security, and stability in today’s Ethiopia, regardless of their normative views of politics, as what he did with artists when he began his political career in Addis Abeba. I am not sure whether his last seminar with the Ethiopian artists delivered on any stated promises or not. Nevertheless, no doubt, the message was attractive and the atmosphere was positive. Roughly put, the participants looked satisfied in having that meeting with PM Abiy. Who knows? It could be this genuine encounter that had mattered to them. Likewise, potentially, this can have a far better, and enable his government garner, a demonstrably functional outcome, such as promoting peace and security in Ethiopia if he could do the same with the aforementioned political activists.

Trying in this field can be much better than doing nothing at all. To act on the contrary, however, can be very costly. Always accusing this group of inciting ethnic violence, misinformation, and so forth may rather end up counterproductive as it corners them. Finally, there might be some well-funded individuals or groups aiming to cause chaos in Ethiopia. This group must be dealt with unforgiving measures, even to the extent that connections might need to be established with the owners of the social media platforms and other intelligent bodies. AS

Editor’s Note: Mukerrem Miftah is Assistant Professor at African Studies Institute for  Eastern and Africa Studies Social Sciences University of Ankara, Ankara, Turkey. He can be reached at 

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