Mebratu D Kelecha, For Addis Standard

Addis Abeba, January 15/2019 – There are diverse experiences of “democratic transition” around the world, as well as the causes that lead to such transition and its outcomes. As the factors of “democratic transition” are inherently diverse and complex, the current transition in Ethiopia also cannot be explained by one factor, as shown below.

Factors that cause transition

The ruling EPRDF rejected changes for a long time. Curbing reformist elements within the party and suppressing the oppositions were rampant. These practices forced some groups to take up arms against the regime because they believed that there was no alternative to moving to a democratic system except through armed struggle. But the current transition is not linked to any of these arm struggles waged against the regime by rebellions. It must be clear that none of the armed forces solely caused the ongoing changes in the country except to play a role in popular protests and solidarity movements organized by the lead organizers. In fact, many of them were invited to come to the country after the protest movements forced then prime minster Hailemariam Desalegn to resign and brought Abiy Ahmed to the helm of the national power. Opposition forces have not been able to meaningfully challenge the EPRDF because of its extreme polarization and fragility partly as a result of its own repressive policies. Thus, no political parties, their leaders or ideology can fake political history and claim victory for a political current that they have not precipitated, controlled or delivered.

However, there are many other interrelated and essential factors that have caused the transition. First, there are factors that aggravated the regime’s crises and the inability of the EPRDF to confront them effectively. These crises include economic, cultural, social and political. The regime could not effectively cope with these crises, despite public tolerance, so it further lost its legitimacy as the public opposition intensified against it, supported by largely non-violent movements. After being plunged into a constant crisis, EPRDF embraced the political openness to overcome its problems and seem to be following the path of democratization to accommodate the opposition.

Second, since the death of the late Meles Zenawi in August 2012, there have been concerns about the relative balance of power among political actors in the constituent parties of the EPRDF. In addition, public protests threatened the cohesion of the ruling elite, empowering those in need of change, gradually joining popular protests. This strengthened the public support of the popular protests and increased the perseverance of the grassroots social movements and their effectiveness in fighting the heavy-handedness of the government. With the intensification of protests, the rift between the hardliners and the soft-liners in the EPRDF has widened, and eventually the reform wing of the ruling elite has come to the conviction that moving on the road to democracy is the safest way to avoid the possibility of regime change by force. On the other hand, the absence of strong opposition forces capable of coordinating and leading the transition has increased the bargaining capacity of the reformers within the ruling party to continue incumbency during the transition period to avoid the possibility of regime change that they feared would disintegrate the country.

Third, the popular protest that shocked the country for more than three years is the main trigger of the transition. It is argued that the current transition took place based on an agreement reached through bargaining and negotiations between the reform wing of the ruling party and the lead organizers of the popular protests, especially after the twin politicians, Lemma Megersa and Abiy Ahmed, were appointed to the office of president and vice president of the Oromia regional state respectively. The reform group was also convinced that it is unable to continue the closed policies and repressive practices due to the pressures from popular protests. Thus, the option of political openness and the transition to a democratic system agreed with the lead organizers of the social movements.

As noted here, the current reform is triggered by a combination of factors, mainly pressures from popular protests and the political leadership of the reform wing of the EPRDF regime. Thus, it is a transition from within the existing system and the grassroots social movement. The process began when the group known as TeamLemma has come to the conviction that the cost of opening up and democratization was less than the cost of continuing the two and half decades authoritarian practices. Since then, this reform wing has played a key role in shifting the balance of power within the EPRDF and in engineering radical reforms.

The transition process so far corresponds to a gradual transformation of the political system into several stages: from movement to political openness, a promising democratic transition through the promise of free and fair elections in 2020 and another stages of consolidation of democracy. Despite inspiring reform initiatives, the unprecedented developments in the country require a political road map and appropriate institutional support. From this perspective, the creation of a new democratic system is facing a major test.

Decompression of authoritarianism

Today in Ethiopia there are signs of a more liberal and open political space than ever before. This includes the release of imprisoned journalists and political prisoners, the easing of restrictions on public expression, the decriminalization of armed opposition groups previously seen as terrorists (save for latest developments involving the OLF, which requires its own analysis), and the commitment to respect human rights. The open rejection of the “messianic” ideology of revolutionary democracy by ODP and ADP, much to the chagrin of the TPLF, is another sign that seems to be moving in the right direction. These are bold steps to correct past mistakes. And, the new prime minister has expressed his desire to create a durable democratic space of a wider spectrum in his inaugural speech in parliament on April 2, 2018, and at the consultative meeting held on 27 November 2018 with more than 80 political parties registered in Ethiopia as well as those that returned to the country at the invitation of the Prime Minister.

Despite these real hopes, however, it does not mean that it as simple as a walk in the park. The challenges remain immense and range from political, security, economic to social problems all of which requiring quick and appropriate responses from the Government. If not properly managed, the current political opening may take several dangerous routes. Returning to some form of authoritarian regime or engaging in an internal conflict is not impossible, as deadly conflicts persist. It is too early to comment on Ethiopia’s course in this regard, but there is some evidence that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s reform programs are being seriously tested. However, a non-violent transition, the kind of transition initiated by the reformist group within EPRDF and supported by the non-violent popular uprising, is often accompanied by a higher degree of democracy and better opportunities to continue and strengthen the emerging democratic system. Organized political parties should be able to take advantage of this opportunity to advance democratic governance on the horizon. So far, the one thing so clear is that the old authoritarian elements of the regime have collapsed, but building a new democratic system faces a serious challenge.

Obstacles and Challenges facing the transition

After a year of political openness, one of the questions that has yet to be answered by the group leading this transition is what should be the next step after the release of dissidents and the decriminalization of armed opposition parties to create free and open democratic space? Central to this is the strength of the opposition forces to engage in the transition process and the ability of the Government to ensure respect for the rule of law while accommodating diverse views on the programs of transition. These points are elaborated as follows. 

The popular protests that have endured heavy government crackdowns for more than three years in a row led to the collapse of the old EPRDF as we know it and opened the transition to democracy in the absence of a viable and alternative opposition force to participate. As it appears in the transition process, the opposition parties are weak and therefore have limited capacity to influence the management of the transition process. This is the main reason why the popular protests did not pose a major threat to the ruling party’s continued incumbency to lead the transition to democracy. Not surprisingly, activists and individual figures appear to have a greater influence on the transition process than organized opposition parties. The influence of the opposition forces is weakened even after the collapse of the undemocratic elements of the regime. As a result, the structure of the current transition reflects a significant power imbalance between the Government and the opposition in favor of the former. The opposition and their leaders are lagging behind in bargaining and negotiating with the Government on the steps and actions necessary to create a democratic system on the ruins of the old regime. The continuing fragility of the opposition could lead to yet another stage of EPRDF dominance in the political settlement of Ethiopia if the opposition forces remain weak and cannot form a viable alternative to negotiating the rules of the democratic game. In addition, the public is concerned that if there is no consensus on the rules of the democratic game before the elections within EPRDF and among the opposition forces, the electoral process and the possible consequences of electoral violence will pose a serious threat to the survival of the Ethiopian state. 

On the other hand, everyone now understands that the decompression of authoritarianism does not in itself lead to transition to a democratic polity unless the rule of law is respected. A look at change and continuity in the political life of Ethiopia tells us that the release of dissidents and a thriving press at the beginning of the 1991 transition period did not lead to a new democratic dispensation, except that they first raised public expectations, a kind of euphoria that we have been witnessing lately. However, the failure to fulfill promises led to growing frustration over the next 27 years of the EPRDF rule. Respect for the rule of law should be the top priority of the government. In this regard, the continued conflicts in different parts of the country is worrying, since the likelihood of such events to trigger a return to some form of authoritarianism or might escalate into the disintegration of more than 100 million population of the country is not unlikely. Such a scenario may plunge the entire region into chaos. The collapse of the current Ethiopian state is tantamount to committing collective suicide, and therefore political parties, particularly the youths, have a vested interest and moral responsibility to prevent such a tragedy from happening by deescalating the conflicts. Thus, ensuring peace and order should be a priority for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed by establishing the rule of law to resolve conflicts that spread throughout the country. It also helps create a sense of citizenship and belonging to a political community without political affiliation or membership in ethnic communities, which will have a positive effect on reducing tensions.

Citizen perseverance is also key to the success of democracy in any country, so the Ethiopian public is no longer satisfied only with the holding of an election but will also be very interested in what happens to their votes after the elections. In other words, new generations of young people want to do whatever the law allows, so that their votes have real impacts, unlike in the past. As elections are too close, can the government put in place institutional backing to the expanding democratic space to meet the growing expectations? There are several things that must be wisely managed to deal with this concern.

First, on the way to building democracy, it is necessary to clarify the short-term and long-term agendas. The question is, of course, “how”? It is necessary to organize the rules of political engagement and participation. A clear political roadmap is needed to support the impressive measures aimed at creating a transitional order. Thus, the new political leaders must proceed by distancing themselves from self-praise triumphalism. They will have to be courageous, show political imagination and tolerance for differences in order to create a solid democratic order. Clear vision and purpose are needed to tread the uncharted waters of post-authoritarian construction.

Second, institutional and political reconstruction are required to entrust people with all sovereign checks and balances. There is need for strong civil society organizations dedicated to promoting the values ​​of democracy, voter education and constructive engagement with key actor such as the electoral commission, political parties and the security agencies.

Third, the significant rise in the level of access to and use of social media and modern technology and tools such as the Internet, mobile phone, Facebook and Twitter have become important means of mobilization particularly during the protests across the country. Parties and candidates have embraced them, but the influence they exert in the political field comes with treacherous possibilities. Certain aspects of the wave of ethnic conflicts spreading throughout the country can be attributed to the increasing use of social media. Moreover, the growth of “fake news” is a threat to the spread of legitimate news. An increasing number of Ethiopian journalists often use social media platforms to get news, creating the possibility of writing an incorrect story. Thus, with increasing reliance on social media to obtain news and form opinions, can the new leadership find a method of ensuring that the political news being broadcast on social media does not endanger public peace and order?

Fourth, the creation of a durable democratic space should not become hostage to the generosity of the incumbent or the short-lived passion of the population. Much needs to be done starting with the revision of the repressive laws such as the electoral laws, the anti-terrorism, cyber-security and charities legislation and proclamations. However, the most sustainable support for democracy must come from the institutional checks and balances of government power. For instance, a durable democracy needs a legislative body that can serve as a significant audit of the executive. In the past, because of the democratic centralism ideology of the ruling party, the Ethiopian parliament was a mere rubber stamp of EPRDF decisions. For the first time, ODP’s MPs have deviated from the decision of the party when eighty-eight lawmakers voted against the second state of emergency declared by the Council of Ministers in mid-February 2017. Such a different voice is strictly contrary to the discipline of the party. Thus, in the interests of a wider democratic space, can the ruling party continue to provide more room for the opposition and encourage pluralism in its own ranks?

Fifth, the existence of an independent and impartial judiciary is a fundamental requirement of democratic Ethiopia. The recent appointment of a prominent lawyer and women’s rights activist Meaza Ashenafi to head the Federal Supreme Court indicates the desire to do away with the basis of authoritarian rule in Ethiopia: executive control over the judicial system. However, creating an efficient and independent judiciary is a long-term effort.

The same holds true in reforming the electoral board. In the light of the upcoming general elections, it is urgent to take bold measures to strengthen the independence and authority of the National Electoral Commission, including procedures for a strong public scrutiny of its officials. The same applies to other key institutions, such as the Commission on Human Rights and the Ombudsman. However, given that the elections are a mere one year and a half away, can we expect that the reform leaders will be able to strengthen these institutions and institutionalize the rule of democratic game so that they play a crucial role to safeguard against authoritarian bents in the transition process? This shall be a test of time as we proceed to the forthcoming general elections.

Finally, the biggest challenges will come from competing nationalism and their potential links to organized politics. The new leaders seemed to have embraced a pro-Ethiopian nationalism and enjoy a broad based support. For some time, it seemed this support was a lasting support. But there is no guarantee that this support from the rival nationalist movements will continue, because their alliance is not strategically based on shared political visions. This exacerbates the challenges facing the current transition. On one hand the fierce rivalry between the various competing nationalist movements may not create a fertile ground for the development of a democratic culture. On the other hand, the inability of the government to tame these nationalist movements to the extent that it undermines the possibility of transition to democracy is also endangering the incumbency of the EPRDF as a governing national coalition in the forthcoming elections.

Basically, the threat to EPRDF’s survival comes from multiple sources: one from its incapability to tame the nationalist movements; two from its regional competitors; and three from its own ranks. It seems that some elements of the EPRDF and the armed opposition parties are preoccupied with their own gain at the expense of the collective fate of the country. The question and the great concern is therefore if political openness endangers the survival of the EPRDF or poses a serious threat to the survival of the state, will the new leaders remain committed to expanding the democratic space or resort to the use of force to overcome the threat? Again, the use of force to overcome this danger would undermine the aspiration to expand democratic space. One of the big risks that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed faces is also the ways in which the basic contradiction within the EPRDF and between rival nationalist movements can be accommodated in his present initiatives and future reform programs. It is therefore not easy to know where these links, competition and conflicts between political parties and varied nationalist movements will lead.

People’s power victories can be lost

The authoritarian rule is gone, but the remnants may still exist. Not much in terms of personalities, political language and symbolism of actual political power, but in terms of political chaos or even immorality. Politics must be restored as a moral project with goals beyond leaders, parties and ideologies. The critical mass that ultimately led to the defeat the old order, with the tipping-point provided by TeamLemma, should be able to prove its sustainability in the reform and transition phase. In other words, they must be able to institutionalize a new democratic order on the ruins of the old and the vestiges it left behind. But this is a tight political rope for all concerned. The presence of two divergent visions of Ethiopia — one slipping toward despotism with political regionalism rearing its head, and the other, an ambition toward a democratic future — is a delicate path to navigate by the current leadership. As recent trends go by, once again, it seems the party, the state and society are being blended in political warfare – and uncertainty is clouding the hopes for free and fair elections. The inability to overcome these challenges means that people’s power victories can be lost, leaving the stage for unpredictable fall out. No victory that began defeating the power of the people outlasts it. AS

Editor’s Note: Mebratu D Kelecha is a Doctoral researcher at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster. He can be reached at: E-mail:  

He tweets @MebratuDugda

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