Political Reform in Ethiopia; From Promise to Perils
Jemal Muhamed Adem
Ethiopia, a country in the Eastern Edge of Africa, often called the Horn of Africa, possesses longstanding statehood genealogy from its emergence as an empire under the Aksumite Kingdom in 1st century AD to its current form as the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. With about 110 million population, the country is home to diverse ethnolinguistic and religious groups to which Italian historian Carlo Conti Rossini once referred as ‘a museum of peoples’. The historical accounts of the country’s statehood formation and progress demonstrate that the relationships between different ethnic and religious groups and the state have highly varied. Territorially, the present form of the country was achieved in the second half of the 19th century through aggressive subjugation of various ethnic and territorial groups that had autonomous and administrative existence and with their historical memory, distinct ethnolinguistic and cultural values to the Abyssinian Empire. As a result, Ethiopia is not a nation-state as per the Westphalian order, but a multinational and multiethnic extension of the empire system that constitutes lots of ethnonational groups with their defining factors such as language, common descent, history, and orientations towards the state and its history. Culturally, successive imperial regimes adopted policies of assimilation, marginalization, and exclusions towards numerous ethnic groups and religious communities into the hegemonic cultures of imperial Ethiopia, hoping a country unified under the umbrella of mono linguistic and mono religious and cultural insignia.
In 1974, the Marxist-socialist regime, often called Derg, overthrew the last king of imperial Ethiopia; Emperor Haile Selassie and declared the official divorce of state from religion i.e. Ethiopia become a secular state ever in history under the ideological foundation of socialism. After 17 years of ruthless military rule, the socialist regime withered away by an ethnic coalition government known as the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) in 1991. The EPRDF government has adopted the political and constitutional orders of multicultural ethnic federalism and secularism as remedies for what it calls ‘historical injustices’ and established constitutional recognitions to diverse ethnolinguistic and religious group’s rights. The government restructured the country as a federation of nine main regional and numerous ethnic and territorial units mainly based on ethnolinguistic elements appealing to the rights of self-administration to different groups. The country’s current constitution also allows ethnic-based political mobilizations and party formations to run ethnically drawn administrative units. Although the Ethnicity serves as the rule of the game to Ethiopian federation and religion as a political means has been forbidden through constitutional order of secularism, ethnicity and religion are highly intertwined and have undisputable roles in Ethiopian politics, both in historical and contemporary terms.
Despite such political and structural rhetoric, the federation has no De jure implementation for the past three decades. The Tigrian People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the vanguard party in the fight against the military regime, had become the core party of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition government. Representing Tigray region that constitutes only 6% of the total Ethiopian population, TPLF has dominated the country’s political economy and security sectors for nearly three decades until it was sidelined from power in 2018 by internal reforms following intense popular revolts led by Oromo Protest (the country’s largest ethnic group) that started in 2014/15.
Ethiopian politics after Abiy Ahmed’s ascension to power as the country’s prime minister in April 2018, marked by blended hopes and despairing developments. The initial periods of his rule featured new waves of national optimism due to the new leadership’s commitment and promise to change. The new premier has taken several steps against the maladministration and oppressive activities of the regime including the release of several thousand of political prisoners, opposition political party memberships and leaderships, media persons and human right activists, religious leaders who were victims of the regimes draconian anti-terrorism law for the past thirty years, reform justice and security sector institutions and leaderships, held dialogues with religious communities to solve the problems in the previous years, increasing women’s representations in key government positions and so on. On the Other hand, the country has been hosting a range of political crises i.e. killing of high-ranking government officials and high-profile individuals, communal violence, mass murders and killings by security forces, and massive internal displacements that resulted in widespread unpredictability during two years of the premier’s leadership.
Amid of these developments ideological and power disputes raised between the new leadership, often called itself reformers, and the TPLF, the party that rules Tigray region and dominated the country’s politics for the past three decades. The ideological battle when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s formed a new national political party called the prosperity party by merging the former ethnic-based parties, except TPLF from all regions in November 2019. While some appreciated the Premier’s move as a pan Ethiopianist headway that would save the country from divisive ethnic politics, many proponents of multinational federalism have been criticizing the move as a return to old imperial and unitary rule that favours historically hegemonic group to dominate the country’s politics, economics, and cultural domains. While the PM’s idea got support from elites of Amhara background who advocate centralized strong government to secure the country’s territorial integrity, elites from other ethnic groups mainly Oromo(PM Abiy’s social base), Tigre, Somali, Sidama, Afar, Wolaita coveted for democratic multinational federalism and regional political, economic, and cultural affairs free from the central government’s encroachments. Thus the ideological battle is between the centripetal and centrifugal political forces, each represented by new Abiy’s party and ethno-nationalist political forces (i.e. OLF, TPLF, and ADP) respectively.
TPLF has rejected Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s invitations to join the new national political party and dissolve its ethnic-based regional party reiterating that the right to self-determination is a hard-won right of Tigrians and other nations and nationalities that will never compromise for any sort of political treasures. While the new Party of Abiy Ahmed insists its confirmation to the political orientation of ethnic federalism, the stands of TPLF seems that its skirmish with the central government comes from the loss of its dominant position within the party and political economy of the state than an ideological shift of prosperity party.
The tensions and animosities between the two got bitter when the Tigray region conducted the regional election on September 4, 2020, annulling the central government’s and electoral board’s decision to postpone all national elections for an uncertain period due to COVID 19 pandemic. While a lot of people were expecting armed conflicts between the two levels of government, many others fear that Tigray’s decision to elect for regional parliament as a step towards secession.
The upper house of Ethiopian Parliament (House of Federation) declared that the elections conducted in Tigray region, Ethiopia’s Northern self-governing state ruled by TPLF, unconstitutional and the result of the election “null and void”. On September 9, the Tigray regional government announced the result of the election in which the ruling party (TPLF) won the majority of regional parliamentary seats(98%).
Reiterating that the central government’s constitutional mandate to rule has expired, the TPLF regional government withdrew its representatives at the federal level government. Amid such political ravelling between the two, the house of federation announced its decision to withhold the budgetary grants to the Tigray regional state on October 7. The frustrations between Abiy Amhed’s government and Tigray regional leaders deepens to the extent of exchanging wary words and military show ups which might end up with open confrontations.
The political deadlock of Abiy Ahmed’s government is not limited only to TPLF and its government in the Northern units of the federation but extended to many political forces in different parts of the country that viewed his centrist move as a threat to multinational federalism and in favour of hegemonic political traditions of the past. In Oromia, the largest ethnic and territorial unit of Ethiopian federation and Primer’s political constituent, many have become suspicious that Abiy Ahmed and his government is willing to address long time questions of the Oromo people and meet their political aspirations. Eventually, scruple grew up to open resistance and confrontations with political assassinations and mass arrests of prominent Oromo political figures.
Two incidents are worth mentioning here that deteriorated the relation between Abiy Ahmed’s government and his constituency, that often circulates in mainstream Oromo political sermons. On October 23, 2019, the regime's security personnel plotted to remove the security guards and attempted political assassination against Jawar Muhamed, Who was a leading figure during anti-government Oromo protests that widely ascribed to have pushed the regime towards reform which brought Abiy Ahmed to power. In the following days, the supporters of highly influential activists took the street and confronted with security forces in the Oromia region and Addis Ababa, and about 86 people were killed in related violence. The second incident occurred on June 29, 2020, when a prominent Oromo singer and activist, Hacalu Hundessa was shot dead in Addis Ababa that resulted in the outbreak of large-scale and violent protests across the Oromia region against the government and people associated with the regime. More than 300 people were killed, dozens of businesses and properties burned in a violent protest across Oromia.
According to the government the killing of the known Oromo singer associated with what officials called a combination of internal and external forces to halt the reforms in the country and indulge the efforts to fill the Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam, an accusation towards Egypt, OLF, and TPLF.
In connection with riots following the death of the artist, the government has arrested high-profile Oromo opposition leaders including Jawar Muhamed and Bekele Gerba accusing them of inciting ethnic and religious violence. The government’s actions of arresting opposition parties’ members and leaderships sparked protests across Oromia which have been forcefully cracked down on by the security forces.
Overall, Ethiopian politics after the coming of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to Power in 2018 has been tilted to more perils than hopes anchored in widespread ethnic and religious violence, massive political arrests, and widespread unpredictabilities that have tarnished the hopes of Ethiopians sowed during the initial periods of reform. The better future of the country relies on a political willingness on the part of the government to inclusive, participatory, and pluralistic politics than attempting to suppress multidimensional grievances in the country that will risk the country for external manipulation and destabilization. While this article emphasizes the domestic politics of Ethiopia, the country’s politics has always interlocked with superpower and regional geopolitical motives and actors that need serious considerations.