Opinion & Analysis

Ethiopia Will Explode if It Doesn’t Move Beyond Ethnic-Based Politics

Oromo nationalism helped bring Abiy Ahmed to power, but it could also be his undoing. To hold the country together, the Nobel-winning prime minister needs to convince various ethnic groups that he and his new party represent all Ethiopians.

On Oct. 11, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed received the Nobel Peace Prize for ending the long stalemate with neighboring Eritrea. Paradoxically, Abiy enjoys only fragmented and diminishing popular support in his own country. Even in his home region of Oromia, his leadership is seriously contested by the ethnonationalist forces represented by the social media activist Jawar Mohammed.

This became painfully evident on Oct. 23, when the Oromia region was shaken by a deadly wave of violence following a series of Facebook posts from Jawar. The activist, who also heads a TV channel called Oromia Media Network, announced that the police were about to detain him, an allegation that was later denied by the government. Around 70 civilians were killed when his angry supporters took to the streets, setting off an intercommunal conflict that took on an ethnic and religious dimension.

This tragic incident is emblematic of the volatile nature of ethnic politics in Ethiopia, which has started to crack the foundations of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition. The EPRDF, which has ruled the country since 1991, is a coalition of four parties that represented the country’s major ethnic groups (Amhara, Oromo, Tigrayan, and southern groups) of which the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front was the most dominant party until recently.

Decades of authoritarian rule, forced displacement, and the perceived dominance of Tigrayans within the coalition led to widespread discontent that sparked a series of protests in 2015. The protests started in Oromia and subsequently spread to the Amhara region, and they were led by grassroots-based ethnic youth groups, most particularly by the Qeerroo movement in Oromia.

In April 2018, the EPRDF buckled under the pressure of the protests, and its chairman, Hailemariam Desalegn, resigned. A fractious internal reshuffle brought Abiy to the chairmanship, the first Oromo ever to hold the position. Abiy represented a younger generation of reformists within the EPRDF, and he immediately commenced with conciliatory gestures and a promise to widen the political space. His swift measures of making peace with Eritrea, releasing thousands of political prisoners, and welcoming banished political parties gained him significant popular support.

This didn’t last very long, however. Abiy’s measured tone and search for compromises in a country where politics is severely polarized immediately disappointed a large share of his supporters. The Oct. 23 violence in Oromia has further divided his support base and impaired his plans to unify the EPRDF coalition. As the country prepares for a national election in May 2020 with a weakened ruling party and fragmented electorate, the risk of radical ethnonational forces inciting violence is worse than ever.

Ironically, Abiy found it much easier to make peace with Eritrea than to unify his own country and party. In fact, his peacemaking sojourns in Sudan and Eritrea are best seen as efforts to bolster his profile before embarking on the much harder task of making peace at home.

Abiy must find a way to avoid repeating the perilous history of previous experiments in ethnic federalism in countries such as Yugoslavia. That will require bringing in more order and transparency to the process of political transition. At this point, the transition process is nebulous without any consensus on desired outcomes or a clear timeline.

This could be intentional on Abiy’s part. The root causes of the current political crisis come from a system that awkwardly weds ethnicity to electoral politics. Devised to ensure greater ethnic representation and equality within the confines of democratic centralism under the EPRDF, ethnic politics in an era of social media is inflaming ethnic extremism and undermining the very foundations of the federal system upon which it rests.

A lasting solution will necessitate a constitutional reform that establishes new checks and balances that mitigate the risk of ethnic politics exploding into downright violence. This, however, will require an extensive process of consensus-building around a bargain that reconciles the interests of federalists with those advocating for a more unitary state.

Unfortunately, creating a mechanism that can support this kind of reform is all but impossible in the current political atmosphere, which is highly polarized, fragmented, and unstable. Having gone through decades of repression and then an abrupt opening, Ethiopia’s political sphere is awash with the irreconcilable demands of various ethnic parties and other interest groups.

Moreover, efforts to subdue the role of ethnicity in politics will inevitably anger large parts of the country. Regional power brokers who have financially and politically benefited from ethnic politics could easily resort to the kind of ethnic violence that shook the country on Oct. 23 to protect their turf.

In the meantime, Abiy seems keen to work around institutional constraints to temper the divisive forces of ethnic polarization that are endangering the country’s survival. His rush to unite the ruling EPRDF coalition into a single party seems part of that strategy. Abiy thinks that its unification will make the EPRDF inclusive to ethnic groups that are not represented by the current four member parties. It could also halt the trend of smaller ethnic groups forming their own parties and demanding regional self-rule.

This is not a welcome news for everyone and is strongly rejected by actors whose power comes from playing the hardball of ethnic politics. Abiy’s dash to unify his party is a major factor behind his deteriorating relationship with Jawar, who is vigorously opposed to the plan. Jawar tends to view Ethiopia’s politics and history as a field of ethnic contestation and hence prefers a system where political representation is organized along ethnic lines.

The unification of the EPRDF seems to already be underway, and Abiy is pressing ahead in laying out the guiding philosophy of the upcoming unified party, which is to be rebranded as the Ethiopian Prosperity Party. His recently launched book Medemer (Amharic for “Addition” or “Synergy”) expounds Abiy’s doctrine of the same name. If all goes as planned, this liberal-tinged philosophy will replace EPRDF’s 30-year-old ideology of revolutionary democracy.

The Medemer philosophy rightfully recognizes the limits of ethnic politics and the need to reorient toward a politics of civic nationalism. More important, it emphasizes the need to reconcile ethnic differences and build national unity. Abiy has deep personal motives for advocating ethnic and religious harmony; he was born into a family of mixed ethnicity and religion, as his father was a Muslim Oromo and his mother a Christian Amhara.

Unfortunately, his mixed identity could also be his Achilles’ heel. In a country where ethnicity is the fundamental political variable, having a mixed ethnic background can be easily construed to imply being an outsider. For his own Oromo party, Abiy’s ethnic profile is a mixed blessing: While he is likely to bring in support from non-Oromos, he could also be seen as not sufficiently Oromo by his own people, thus risking loss of popular support in a contest against ethnonationalists.

Although the emphasis on national unity in Abiy’s Medemer might prove contentious in some circles, it has elements that appeal to supporters of ethnic federalism and those favoring greater national unity. Abiy’s approach will likely be to maintain regional ethnic federalism for administrative purposes, while relying on national-level parties for political organization at the federal level.

This aspiration seems to enable a pluralist political contest among a few national parties that transcend ethnicity. This hybrid model would appeal to both unitarists who emphasize Ethiopian identity (through united national parties) and federalists who emphasize ethnic autonomy (through ethnic self-rule).

The Medemer doctrine also entails a significant pivoting of political and economic doctrine from left to right. The cornerstone of EPRDF’s ideology, which was articulated by its late leader Meles Zenawi, envisioned a developmental state led by a dominant vanguard party. In a radical departure, Abiy appears to espouse liberal democracy and a free economy that confers greater role to the private sector and foreign investors.

The violence on Oct. 23 has illustrated a deterioration of law enforcement, which is rooted in decadeslong processes of political devolution along ethnic lines. This has strengthened regional and local power brokers who use violence to signal political strength by exploiting the power vacuum during periods of political upheaval. Addressing it will require putting in place a proactive and coordinated law enforcement strategy at the federal level to preemptively predict, abort, and de-escalate conflicts.

Ensuring immediate and transparent recourse to justice in the aftermath of violent incidents should also mitigate the sense of uncertainty and helplessness that is overtaking the public. That requires bestowing greater autonomy upon an independent and impartial judiciary to persecute perpetrators of violence regardless of their political or ethnic affiliation.

A litmus test will be the manner in which the government handles the Oct. 23 violence related to Jawar. Citizens outside of Oromia perceive Abiy’s lenience toward Jawar as an irrefutable example of double standards that favor the Oromo. Especially in the Amhara region, activists have bitterly contrasted Abiy’s lack of response after the violence in Oromia against his swift measures following a purported coup attempt by Brig. Gen. Asaminew Tsige in June. After that bloody incident left four high-level regional and military leaders dead, Abiy took a forceful approach and detained the leaders of the budding ethnonationalist party called the National Movement of Amhara, effectively defanging the movement.

Some activists worry that Abiy’s acquiescence toward Jawar presages a future of Oromo dominance. They fear that Abiy and his party have no commitment to genuine democratization but are only interested in replacing the old hegemony of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, or TPLF, with a new form of Oromo dominance. Despite being the largest ethnic group with more than a third of the country’s population, the Oromo have historically been marginalized from central roles in national politics and, many say, borne the brunt of historical injustices. Abiy carries the full burden of satisfying the expectations of Oromos who expect national emancipation as a result of his rise while also remaining credible enough among other ethnic groups who fear increasing Oromo dominance.

Abiy indeed bends over backward to accede to Jawar’s demands. But this is most likely out of a fear of alienating the passionate Oromo youths who rally behind him than out of the desire to cement Oromo dominance. Having come to the premiership by riding the waves of Oromo protests that were spearheaded by the Qeerroo movement, he needs Jawar’s tacit approval to legitimize the claim that he represents the forces of change that brought him to power.

But while Jawar’s only challenge is appealing to the Oromos through radical populist demands, Abiy is torn between two competing challenges: appealing to the Oromos and appealing to the rest of Ethiopia. His current approach is unsustainable, not least because Jawar’s demands are far-reaching. In a media interview, Jawar had said that there are two governments in Ethiopia, the second being the Qeerroo youth movement that seems to follow his bidding.

To effectively address these challenges, Abiy should focus on putting his own party in order. The upcoming EPRDF congress, which is expected to take place sometime this month, should provide him with an opportunity to recalibrate his party’s internal alignment.

It appears almost certain that the newly unified party will not bring the TPLF into its fold. The TPLF views the plan to unify the EPRDF and Abiy’s Medemer philosophy as repudiation of its conception of ethnic federalism. Absent a happy marriage, Abiy should strike a bargain with the TPLF that permits a working partnership. Granted, the two do not like each other. But it is equally true that they cannot exist without each other, and their squabbles will only end up weakening them.

In many ways, this episode presents a unique opportunity to craft a political system that accommodates competitive politics in Ethiopia. The TPLF and Abiy’s upcoming unified party could put their heads together to create a system in which they can peacefully coexist rather than trying to destroy each other. Just as the two-party political system in the United States emerged after a political and constitutional contest between federalist and anti-federalist forces in the 1790s and early 1800s, this occasion provides Ethiopia with a chance to adopt a new political system that accommodates competing views. That can only happen if the major parties agree on a clear and enforceable set of conventions and volunteer to subject themselves to an independent legal mechanism for resolving their disputes.

In the short run, a binding deal with the TPLF will go a long way toward quelling ethnic tensions. Member parties could agree to stop tacitly undermining one another and devise a joint strategy for tamping down ethnic extremism within their ranks and respective regions. Considering that the country is preparing for a lengthy and tortuous path of political transition, the presence of a functioning relationship among member parties of the EPRDF will make the road ahead smoother for everyone.

Abiy has not yet found the formula for creating a legitimate, inclusive, and functional mechanism for deeper political change. It is also not clear if such a change should happen before or after a general election that is expected to take place in May 2020. The best way forward is to create a functioning political order that transcends ethnic divisions.

Via Foreign Policy by Addisu Lashitew, a research fellow at the Brookings Institution. Twitter: @AddisuLashitew

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