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Opinion: Putting Humpty Dumpty together again: The restoration of EPRDF?

As of yet, EPRDF remained a coalition of four major parties led by (in order of appearance): Abiy Ahmed, ODP; Debretsion Gebremichael, TPLF; Demeke Mekonnen, ADP; and Muferiat Kamil, ESPDM.

Kjetil Tronvoll (@KjetilTronvoll), For Addis Standard

Addis Abeba, March 26/2019 – The Ethiopian government, and its regional states’ authorities, are increasingly facing challenges to enforce order and security control over the territory of the federation. Several areas are allegedly not administratively ‘connected’ to the center, but run by local groupings who have either kicked out or breached with the party network of the ruling EPRDF coalition. Exacerbating the governance crisis is the fact that Ethiopia was the world’s biggest producer of IDP’s in 2018 due to domestic conflicts in several parts of the country; a situation that does not seem to abate entering 2019.

The key to understanding the governance crisis in Ethiopia is the broken EPRDF party coalition. The question now is whether EPRDF can be ‘put together again’, or if other alternatives will emerge as the crisis deepen. 

The EPRDF crisis

Obviously, the new Abiy administration has severe governance problems, and is challenged both from within and from outside of the ruling coalition. It seems increasingly less likely that Prime Minister Abiy will manage to maneuver the ship under its current ‘reduced’ crew towards the promised land of free and fair election in May 2020. Metaphorically speaking, the captain and the officers of the original crew on-board the EPRDF vessel experienced a mutiny and was abandoned on an isolated island (TPLF); parts of the current crew are looking towards the horizon to seek out potentially better ships to sail (ADP); while another section is in disarray due to the loss of their drill sergeant (SEPDM); leaving the command of the vessel in the hands of mostly in-experienced rookie sailors (ODP). So, what can be done in order to secure a ‘smooth sailing’ towards 2020? As the situation currently stand, one option would be to put the shattered EPRDF crew back together again, no matter the political concessions (from all fractions) needed to achieve it. Why this seemingly impossible scenario may come true? Because all EPRDF parties and affiliates understand that if they stay divided, they may all (but one) fall.

In order to rise to the top and assume power over EPRDF in early 2018, the “team Lemma” in ODP allied with ADP to crush TPLF’s grip over the coalition. As known, ODP’s representative Dr Abiy Ahmed were successful in obtaining the chairmanship of the coalition and hence the Premiership of the federation. The manner the succession and the subsequent reform initiatives have been handled, however, has further dissociated the TPLF from power, as they first and foremost view the process as a breach of long-established party procedures and bylaws. PM Abiy’s rush to reform the system led him to by-pass or short-cut institutionalized party procedures on how such matters had previously been handled. Most importantly, the consensus aspect of decision-making and the principle of democratic centralism were arguably discarded when new reform policies were announced. Likely, Abiy and his team understood that it would be impossible to reach a consensus on these issues in a short term, and to avoid being bogged down in endless intra-party debates (which has been a hallmark of EPRDF ‘policy development and reform’ earlier), the Prime Minister relied on a majority support within EPRDF executive committee, backed by a popular demand for change by the people at large.

From authoritarianism to instability

It should come as no surprise, however, that by dismantling overnight the authoritarian structures and polices of the state (and, noteworthy, a state which has been suppressive and authoritarian throughout its existence), concomitantly as inviting back all disparate opposition fronts, political parties and disgruntled exiles, the relatively calmness experienced as a consequence of suppression, would turn into a chaotic, and at times anarchic, territory. Long-held conflicts and grievances held in check by suppression are re-surfacing; alongside new conflicts fueled by fresh power struggles over ethnic demographic representation, control, and hegemony at local, regional, and federal levels.

Until recently, ‘team Abiy’ was apparently in the belief that they could ride the storm off, reach the 2020 elections, and obtain a long-term democratic mandate to reform the Ethiopian state in their image. The immediate inebriation of power and popularity served as blinkers to the reality unfolding around them. As the rest of the country, PM Abiy is now emerging from the honeymoon-haze and is becoming aware that the power – or ultimately the country – may slip out of his hands prior to elections, if not the ship is turned around. This is observable in some notable changes of attitude over the last few weeks, and also stressed in his recent ‘one-year’ in power speech.

For instance, the Prime Minister and his government representatives and spokespersons have backtracked on earlier claims that there were no IDP crisis in the country. The PM was recently compelled to visit (after a massive social media campaign) – for the first time – the Gedeo IDP camps to display an interest in the dire humanitarian crisis at his hands. The increasing crisis awareness among the government however goes deeper than addressing the IDP situation. More significantly is the announcement to postpone the implementation of the long-awaited population census only some four weeks before it was supposed to start. As has been warned by many for some time now, the struggle over demographic (ethnic) representation in several administrative units at various levels of the federation may turn into proactive ‘demographic engineering’ in places as for instance the Qemant area at woreda level in Amhara regional state; the Gedeo-Guji crisis at zone level in Oromia / SNNPR; cities like Hawassa who aspire to become the capital of the new Sidama regional state; special administrative units as Dire Dawa and Addis Abeba; as well as regional states as Harar, or border areas between regional states as Afar-Somali, and Oromia-Benishangul.

By postponing the population census, the government has only re-winded the timer on a ticking bomb; it did not disarm it. At the same time, by postponing the census, the government has made it even more difficult than it already is to possibly organize and conduct a ‘free and fair’ election in May 2020. To establish a credible re-designed mixed electoral system (as is promised), a new electoral map (to accommodate possibly new electoral constituencies at various administrative levels, as for instance Sidama regional state), and a new electoral roll (to accommodate the millions of new potential voters), are all dependent upon an updated census. What the postponement of the census would entail for the electoral preparations are however yet to be known; but most likely this will contribute, together with a set of other factors, to a postponement of the elections altogether.

EPRDF challenged by opposition forces

In addition to the ‘technical’ challenges of governing, Abiy’s administration is also confronted by strong political forces targeting the narrow EPRDF base he is relying on to stay in power. In particular, ADP is placed under the spell of NAMA, a new party in Amhara regional state, and ADP’s former leadership was forced to turn to a more radical Amhara nationalistic rhetoric in order to try to stem the grass-roots support to NAMA. Whether the new leadership in ADP will continue along the same strategy to desperately try to win the 2020 elections, or reassess its options moving forward, is too early to assess. For sure, they must be hesitant to enter the electoral race under the current circumstances, facing a possible electoral defeat in 2020.

A weakened ADP also implies a weakened foundation for PM Abiy to govern. But also his own ODP is challenged in Oromia, not only by an organized Oromo opposition, but in particular by political demands put forward by the Qeerroo. As I noted last year, it was obvious that if ODP claimed the premiership, they would face difficulties of balancing Oromo demands expressed by the Qeerrro who brought them to power, with the needed to govern the country that any Prime Minister must exhibit. The splits Abiy is currently forced to perform, preaching medemer at the federal level, concurrently as accepting the Oromo question on Addis Abeba and at regional level, is likely not a sustainable gymnastics exercise which would take him safely to 2020 and beyond.

Restoring EPRDF?

So, what are the options for PM Abiy to secure a better equipped crew to navigate the troubled waters ahead of the 2020 elections and beyond? He must, as any good commander, learn from his mistakes, restore his genuine authority among all sections of the crew, and chart a new course to bring the ship safely back to port. In other words, he needs to restore EPRDF as a coherent and robust governing block. Meaning, he need to turn around and pick up the deserted old crew of TPLF. It is possibly dawning upon ODP that they need TPLF in order to secure the sustainability of the federal model and face off the challenges posed by the Unitarians; as well as to avoid that TPLF exits EPRDF and allies with OLF/OPC and by that may eject them from power by the ballot box in Oromia. Likewise in Amhara, ADP would need to secure its electoral support by hook and crook and a consolidated EPRDF to back their mandate to rule in Amhara regional state would greatly help in this endeavor.

Will it be possible for PM Abiy to put Humpty Dumpty together again, after the bitter in-fighting we have observed over the last 3-4 years? I believe so, but it will cost him at least two concessions and one guarantee. Whether EPRDF stays as a coalition, or merges into a unitary party, TPLF would need secure guarantees that the old revolutionary democracy principle of ‘one people, one vote’ will be maintained as the modus operandi within the party. If Abiy, and his current crew, is pushing for a liberal democracy representational model within the party, TPLF is likely to exit and try to forge alliances with competing parties in Oromia and Amhara regional states to unseat the rump-EPRDF in the election. The second guarantee TPLF would need is to be included and heard in the Eritrea-Ethiopia peace process. Tigray constitutes the key border to Eritrea in terms of the sensitive issues of a peace process (most crucially the Irob people), and they would need reassurances that their concerns are heard and accommodated in the process. As the institutionalization of the peace process has already partly stalled, exactly due to the fact that the federal government has come to understand that they do not control the border on the ground but TPLF does, to bring TPLF into the fold would be needed in order to consolidate a sustainable peace. Finally, the TPLF would also need a guarantee that the federal system and autonomy for regional states are protected and sustained more or less as is. Any encroachment on regional autonomy or enforced revision of regional boundaries, will be perceived as a declaration of war. 

In terms of substance politics and reforms, there are not necessarily such big differences between the various component parties of EPRDF. Yes, PM Abiy’s team has surly a more neo-liberal inclination than the ‘old guard’ in Mekelle; but the ongoing economic reforms resonances better among the new reformist-friendly generation of TPLF. To reach a consensus on a mix of “developmentalism” and “neo-liberalism” (read social democratic economic model) seems feasible. Other policy sectors, as the new foreign policy agenda of PM Abiy, would also be needed to be “re-tuned” in order to base it on a consensus model. But, as both TPLF and the Tigrayan constituency has also changed over the last year, it does not seem like a hopeless endeavor to realign EPRDF on a consensus policy platform again. 

An added value of bringing TPLF in from the cold would likely be that their own political reform process, which was stifled due to the breakdown of trust within EPRDF and the collective security needs of the Tigrayan people, would resume. If the perceived security threats against Tigray and Tigrayans are alleviated, the Tigrayan people will be more inclined to demand continued governance reforms and accountability at home too.

As the situation now stands, EPRDF under ODP/ADP is more in need of TPLF, than the other way around. A restored, cohesive, and confident EPRDF would likely manage to impose a semblance of security and order prior to the elections. As such most Ethiopians would welcome it. A consolidated and confident EPRDF, with a reinvigorated security apparatus, will on the other hand be a formidable opponent in the election process. Whether this would be conducive to fostering genuine pluralism and allowing free and fair elections – considering the history of electoral politics under the EPRDF – is doubtful. Comparative politics indicates that for genuine democracy to develop in post-revolutionary societies (as Ethiopia), the resistance movement needs to break down and fragment from within. In such a perspective to foster long-term pluralist democracy in Ethiopia, and keeping security and stability concerns aside, one may rather hope for an ending as the one in the old nursery rhythm: “Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall. Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men, couldn’t put Humpty together again.” AS

Editor’s Note: Kjetil Tronvoll is Professor of peace and conflict studies, Dep. of International Studies, Bjørknes University College, and a former professor of human rights at University of Oslo. He holds a PhD in political anthropology from London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and a post graduate research degree in social anthropology from University of Oslo. He has researched political developments, conflicts and human rights in Eritrea and Ethiopia since the beginning of 1990s. Tronvoll has published 9 books, dozens of journal articles and numerous reports on issues pertaining to Horn of Africa and East Africa. His books on Ethiopia include: Contested Power in Ethiopia: Traditional authorities and multiparty elections, (2012,co-editor); War and the Politics of Identity in Ethiopia: The Making of Enemies and Allies in the Horn of Africa (2009); The Ethiopian Red Terror Trials: Transitional Justice Challenged (2009, co-editor); The Culture of Power in Contemporary Ethiopian Political Life, (2003, co-author); Ethiopia Since the Derg: A Decade of Democratic Pretension and Performance (2002, co-editor); Brothers at War: Making Sense of the Eritrean-Ethiopian War (2000, co-author).

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