Ethiopia’s bewilderment amid Abiy’s reform

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New Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed reacts during his rally in Ambo, about 120km west of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on April 11, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / Zacharias Abubeker (Photo credit should read ZACHARIAS ABUBEKER/AFP/Getty Images)

By Kiram Tadesse

Ever since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came into power a year ago he has been the centre of attraction in Ethiopia’s political order. 

New Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed reacts during his rally in Ambo, about 120km west of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on April 11, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / Zacharias Abubeker (Photo credit should read ZACHARIAS ABUBEKER/AFP/Getty Images)

Abiy became Africa’s youngest leaders at 42; following a serious of anti-government protests that threatened economic instability in the horn of the continent.

The youthful prime minister has been hailed as reformist for initiating a series of political reforms and re-branding the country with ‘a new horizon of hope’. 

Under him, media freedom expanded as hundreds of news sites were unblocked, a move that positively adjusted Ethiopia from one of the world’s worst jailers of journalists to a country with growing press freedom. 

Thousands of political prisoners were released, and all the banned political parties could operate again – freely – including those formerly labeled terrorist factions by parliament. 

Repressive laws have also been under amendment, otherwise to be replaced by more liberal ones. Ushered by his swift action to bring about peaceful relations with Eritrea, which paid immediate dividends, Abiy has come up with new regional narrative by bringing neighboring countries into the fold and boosting plans for strengthened integration. 

Abiy also demonstrated keen attention to situations in South Sudan and Sudan in a bid to forge peaceful power division among rivals.  

As an astute advocate of women’s role in a nation building process; Abiy championed feminization of Africa by appointing a gender-balanced cabinet; ten of the 20 cabinet members, along with the country’s first female head of state and first female president of the Supreme Court in October 2018. Suddenly, Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame also stepped up from running the world’s highest percentage of women in parliament and installed a new gender-balanced cabinet. The move placed Ethiopia and Rwanda at the forefront of Africa’s gender parity in politics.

The prime minister amassed momentous support both at home and from the Diaspora. Warm shakes and medals have flown to him. Uganda’s President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni was among the first to accolade him with “Most Excellent Order of the Pearl of Africa medal” during a special National Heroes Day on June 2018. 

The professed peace dealer between Ethiopia and Eritrea, the Crown Prince of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Mohammed Bin Zayed also conferred Abiy alongside Eritrea’s president, Isaias Afwerki, with the Order of Zayed – UAE’s highest award “in recognition of their work for peace”. In the latest accolade, Chatham House Prize 2019 nominated Abiy for his efforts in transforming civic leadership and advancing plural politics plus paving way for free speech in Ethiopia. The award also recognized him for ending decades of hostility with Eritrea, progressing gender equality and injecting hope for a more peaceful and integrated Horn of Africa.

Rough road ahead

Despite the seemingly positive political changes in Ethiopia that raised expectations that the country was finally on the road to a better future, recent developments have, however, left many skeptical about Abiy’s path. The Prime Minister has constantly said the journey to better was never going to be easy though. Ethiopia’s legacy of a strong state has been trapped by ethno-national hard-liners, who want the country to be perceived as fragile and are unwilling to restore security or the rule of law. Recent assassinations of senior political and military leaders, for instance, sent shock waves across the country casting fears and suspicion reflecting the deep problems facing the country, despite Abiy’s mantra for buoyancy.

In June 22, 2019 gunmen burst into a meeting in Amhara regional state, killing regional chief administrator, Ambachew Mekonnen (PhD), his aid Ezez Wase and regional prosecutor Migbaru Kebede.

Shortly thereafter a bodyguard killed the army chief of staff, Gen. Seare Mekonnen, along with Retired Brigadier General. Gezai Abera, who reportedly was on a courtesy visit at the former. Few days later, security forces killed the alleged ringleader of the assassinators, Brig. Gen. Asaminew Tsige on the outskirts of the regional capital, Bahir Dar. Authorities later released a tape recording of Brig. Gen. Asaminew saying, “we have taken measures because the regional ruling party leaders have sabotaged the people’s demands.” 

Government connected the dots that the attacks in Amhara region, 560 kilometers away from the capital, Addis Ababa and the fatal shootings of the army generals that occurred hours later, were linked. 

Though Asaminew held a high position as regional peace and security head, he had been pushing for a hardline stance in Amhara nationalists — including calls to arm themselves. Asaminew was previously pardoned from life sentence as part of the latest political reforms having served some years in prison on attempting a coup against the federal government. 

Having this history in mind that the slain regional chief administrator had relentlessly enforced for Asaminew’s release and appointed him to lead the regional security coupled with ongoing investigation on the matter, many were left dumbfounded. The government dubbed the incident a “coup attempt”. This also raised questions about reforms needed to provide opportunities for divisive ethnic politics. The incident was the strongest challenge yet to Abiy’s rule as Prime Minister.

Despite Abiy’s publicity boom mostly on digital media, the spread of unfounded information on the same platform also posed a threat to his administration leading to nationwide internet blackouts. The internet disruptions and shutdown affected many businesses directly leaving the state’s sole telecommunications provider reeling from a significant loss.

Ethiopian politics over the past 28 years has been shaped by centralized leadership and more recently a constitutional system that grants regional structures to ethno-nationalist lines. Subscribers to this include the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a coalition of four regional political organisations that have been in power since 1991. 

This ethno-federalist system has contributed to tensions within and among the country’s regions. Counter arguments on other hand say the current inherited problems are not a result of the inclusion of ethno-federalism system into Ethiopia’s political space, rather are a result of not implementing the federalist constitution. 

This time around demands for statehood rose intensely especially in the southern region where EPRDF’s two major founding parties, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Amhara Democratic Party (ADP) engaged into a war of words, described the cruelest yet. 

Initially, TPLF accused ADP of having stood by while Asaminew trained and armed a militia – a ‘special force’ in the lead-up to the uprising and having failed to denounce him. In turn, the ADP accused the TPLF of being “responsible for the current political crisis in the country” and that it “has no moral or practical ground to consider itself as the only guardian of Ethiopia.” 

The TPLF viewed the remarks made by ADP Chairman, Demeke Mekonnen, also the Deputy Prime Minister, as an attempt by the party to blame them for the killings of top officials. Such fissures between the political parties were rare in the EPRDF as it hated dissent, but these cracks have been showing until Abiy took power. There are claims that the old EPRDF coalition is on the verge of collapse.

The ADP and the Oromo Democratic Party (ODP) then devised an inter-party gamble to push Abiy for the top job and reversed the TPLF’s dominance in the ruling coalition. Frictions, little though, have also occurred between ADP and ODP during reforms.

Abiy’s swift reform actions have also brought challenges in the reconstruction of security and intelligence services. As a result, uncoordinated action has yielded insecurity that escalated into many parts of the country, leaving over 2.5 million people displaced internally.

Howver, human rights groups have accused government for forcing people out of the camps yet the Prime Minister paid visits to many families who found refuge in host communities. He also held discussions on a way forward. While the number of people displaced internally has declined, Abiy’s administration face the challenge of anticipating and mitigating ethno-nationalist violence.

Although the political situation may grow intense locally, many Ethiopians who are abroad are optimistic. A London based Ethiopian diplomat posted a note saying “Someone asked me if a civil war was brewing in Ethiopia? I replied what was brewing in Ethiopia instead are fine quality coffee, beer, wine, liquors, tella and tej etc.” 

Heading into election 2020 

Ethiopia’s current federal constitution is facing challenges within both the EPRDF and the opposition. Controversy is also brewing among the coalition members, amid expectation that debate on the constitution is unlikely to be held before the coming elections scheduled for May 2020. 

Meanwhile, Abiy, Chairman of the EPRDF, announced earlier that the front will make changes and floated the idea that it may transform itself from a coalition into a party where individuals join directly rather than through membership of ethno-lingual party affiliations. Due to this, Prime Minister Abiy’s reputation as a reformer is facing a serious test as the country must be ready in time for the nationwide elections. The poll will be managed by newly reestablished institutions. 

Meanwhile the opposition hopes to capitalize on the polls and would be headed by Birtukan Mideksa, a former oppositional party leader. The appointment of Birtukan, who returned from exile is also recognized as Abiy’s utmost effort to install free and fair polls.

With over 130 registered political parties many observers anticipate that the upcoming elections will be the most competitive in years. However, the ruling EPRDF remains the dominant institution across state structures amid indications it could retain its parliamentary majority; if it continues in the manner it is, with its three-decade year old coalition.