Ethiopia Plans for New Prime Minister, But Crisis Has Deep Challenges

Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, during a press conference in Addis Ababa on February 15, 2018. Desalegn announced his resignation after the worst anti-government protests in a quarter-century. (AP Photo)

The Executive Committee of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has met over the last few weeks to chart a strategy for Ethiopia’s future, replace key people in visible positions, and elect a new prime minister. The choice was to be made public during a subsequent meeting of the 180 member Executive Council towards the end of this month. The meetings come at a time of extraordinary crisis in the country, with ongoing protests around the country and disarray in the ruling party. Hundreds of people have been killed in the past year, most of them civilian demonstrators or innocent bystanders.

The re-imposition of the state of emergency (SoE) last month after the unexpected resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn has done little to quell the unrest. The prime minister’s resignation was accompanied by a promise to release all “politician-prisoners”—the term “political prisoners” was explicitly avoided—and others arrested for protesting and damaging property. More than 6,000 people were subsequently released across the country. This welcome gesture did not stop the turmoil either, and rather led to broader protests and new demands.

It seems that Ethiopia’s politics are, yet again, at a crossroads—as during the 1960 attempted coup d’état, the 1974 revolution, the end of the civil war and entry of ethnic parties in 1991, the divisive elections in 2005, and the 2012 death of ruling party leader and Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. International observers, the ruling party elite, and the Ethiopian public may underestimate how much is at stake this time, and how the current precarious socio-political order is under siege.

The atmosphere got grimmer with the recent announcement of the defense minister and head of the “Command Post,” the executive organ overseeing the SoE, that all necessary measures could be taken by the security forces to “restore order.” The list of prohibited activities was even longer than that of the previous SoE in 2016–17 and meant to quell every possible public gathering or expression of discontent. Rather than calming the situation in the country it seems that the declaration of the SoE has inflamed people and sparked more protests.

Since violence in the country began in 2015, much advice has been given to the regime in Addis Ababa on handling the mounting crisis—from “basic political-economic reform” to installing a “transitional government” to “leaving office”—all to little avail. The underlying causes of economic inequalities between ethno-regions, land confiscation with little compensation, displacement of thousands of rural and urban people from their lands, tensions and violence between regions and ethnic groups, and, most of all, the stifling of political rights and lack of structures for political dialogue with the people, have been left unaddressed.

At the same time, the EPRDF—the sole ruling political party—has brought economic improvements, up to a point. The party’s fundamental problem has been its strongly centralized and hierarchical system of governance, its inability to resolve property and land issues, and its policy bias towards some groups or regions. The perception that the ethnic Tigray group that dominates the EPRDF has more control and resources has served as the catalyst that protesters have acted upon. It is no longer undelivered promises of ethnic self-rule that primarily rile the protesters, but discontent over the lack of political freedoms, economic unfairness, and disrespect for socio-cultural norms.

The system of undemocratic, unresponsive governance is visible in the practices of power and deeply resented. Numerous examples could be mentioned but a characteristic one was a recent incident last month in Welkite, in the Gurage Zone, where demonstrations took place with violence and property damage. A delegation of elders of the community went to the ruling administration and offered to mediate, as they play a customary and influential mediatory role in Ethiopian culture. They asked for restraint by the security forces and said they would work with the youth to get them to stop their street protests. But they were rebuffed with the words: “Who asked you to come? We do not need you.” Such a rejection of any civic initiative or dialogue aggravates already tense situations, and reveals regime distrust towards core social values of ordinary Ethiopians.

What is ultimately preventing a more rapid solution to the political crisis in Ethiopia today is the entrenchment of basic group oppositions, and too much identity politics, distrust, and resentment that has solidified along ethnic or ethno-regional lines. As a result of the politicization of ethnicity created by elites, citizens have internalized ethnic group difference and often act on perceptions of ethnic rivalry. There have been various incidents of what looked like ethnic revenge killings across the country, for example in Zeway last year, where some twenty people from minority ethnicities were killed. Also, the massive conflict in 2017 along the border region between the Somali and Oromiya Regional States was is a prime example of the ethnicized conflict, with more than 700 people killed and over 400,000 displaced.

Meanwhile, the EPRDF regime in place feels “compelled” to continue with its policies, because opening up and working towards, say, a transitional government, would be “defeat” and might result in accusations of corruption and power abuse. For the protesters—most of them youngsters—there is no way back because they feel blocked and marginalized. Granted, in its December 2015 meeting, the ruling party EPRDF decided to pursue “deep reform,” and in his resignation speech, the former—and still “acting”—Prime Minister Hailemariam said: “I see my resignation as vital in the bid to carry out reforms that would lead to sustainable peace and democracy.”

But the government has not shown new initiatives or pathways towards “deep reform.” It is becoming increasingly clear that simply replacing people in leading positions is not a viable solution, and that the EPRDF—a “coalition” of four parties formed by the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in the last two years of its armed struggle against the Derg regime—is showing serious signs of internal tension. There is the matter of the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO) constituent, and to a lesser extent the Amhara National Democratic Movement, desiring more autonomy for their regions. The dominant Tigray TPLF section at least realized that it cannot impose a new prime minister from its ranks, as they lack a suitable candidate, and because such a step would generate huge resentment in the population and perhaps fuel even more protests.

It is unfortunate that the EPRDF—fueled largely by the TLPF—is reverting to old methods of control by force, surveillance, and repression via massive securitization. This may be the tragedy of the TPLF. Though the party played a historic role in overthrowing the regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam, fueled economic growth, and attracted significant foreign donor funds and investment, its current model of rule is outdated. Even supposing that the government can “restore order,” what kind of order will that be?

Many observers and several ruling party insiders have underscored that though the use of force is sometimes necessary, a second key element of rule is consent of the governed. Of the latter there is very little left. It is thus unlikely that the path followed by the EPRDF Executive Committee, namely attempting to show change while maintaining the status quo, will work. A new prime minister from the OPDO might be the best choice—to both dampen unrest in the largest region, Oromiya, and to begin a tentative reform agenda. Debates in the EPRDF Executive Committee were, however, not encouraging and show an effort to continue the old ways. With this course it is likely that Ethiopia’s instability is going to be a stable feature of its future political landscape. It will lead to more human suffering, and will discourage investment, damage the economy, erode trust, and perpetuate social rifts. The stakes require an overhaul of the Ethiopian political experiment—lest the worst case scenario unfolds.

Jon Abbink is a professor of Politics and Governance in Africa at Leiden University’s African Studies Centre. He has carried out anthropological-historical field research in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa since 1990, on socio-political history, ethnicity, political culture, and religion and politics.