An Appraisal of Ethiopia’s Road to Democracy Since 2018

Currently, economic inflation, ethnic polarization, and war are threatening the very existence of the Ethiopia state. Amid these conundrums, the Parliament proceeded to establish a National Dialogue Commission, though perhaps too late, to overcome Ethiopia’s major obstacles to democratic transition. Against all odds, the hope for peace and democracy hangs on the Commission. Moreover, complex and huge deliverables are expected from the Commission, including promotion of transitional justice, inclusiveness, truth telling, and reconciliation, to ensure the continuity of a unified Ethiopia.
By Yared Debebe Yetena  // Monday, May 24, 2022

It has been four years since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s accession to power. Back then, so much was on Abiy’s plate to address: internally, Ethiopia faced ethnic tensions, constitutional questions, ongoing protests, armed struggle, and human rights abuses, while externally, there were border conflicts with Eritrea and Sudan and international pressure regarding the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), among other challenges. The Premier began his tenure with a unifying swearing-in address to Parliament on April 2, 2018. The famous sentence from that speech, “We Ethiopians, while alive, we are Ethiopians; when we die, we become Ethiopia,” ignited optimism at home and in the diaspora. Consecutive measures taken by Abiy to open up political space, such as releasing political prisoners and journalists, lifting a draconian state of emergency, removing rebel groups from terror lists, and negotiating rapprochement with Eritrea, further strengthened his popular support and built expectations for transformational political and governance reforms.

Given the existing structural problems, various political parties insisted on the establishment of a “transitional government” and “national dialogue,” demands which Prime Minister Abiy and his party ignored as mere pessimism. Indeed, the euphoria of hope and the honeymoon were short as the structural anomalies of Ethiopian politics remained intact, ethnic violence caused a record 2.8 million internally displaced persons, and cracks in the ruling party emerged. While the underlining paradoxes in Ethiopian politics could not be mended quickly, a chance to institute the foundations and the blueprints of political transition may have been missed.

The post-2018 political developments in Ethiopia evolved out of the anti-government mass protests (2015-2018), internal party infighting between the reformers (i.e., Team Lemma) and the old guard, and pressure from the diaspora, and the international community.   In the absence of a political party or the army responding to youth protests and leading political transition (as has happened in other African countries, and happened in 1974 in Ethiopia), the ruling EPRDF party stepped up to correct its wrongdoings and bring about transition from within. This response aligns with the theory noted political scientist Samuel Huntington posited that the surfacing of reformers comes from “…the emergence of a group of leaders or potential leaders within the authoritarian regime who believed that movement in the direction of democracy was desirable or necessary.” Abiy’s rise to power and the reform measures he instituted effectively signaled a break away from the old regime administration modus operandi.

Such reform measures set a collision course between Prime Minister Abiy’s team and the Tigray Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF). A great degree of uncertainty unfolded involving further cracks within the ruling party, ethnic based violence, violent protests, and even the assassinations of the chief of staff of the Ethiopian Army, the Amhara regional state president, and his advisors. This tumult appeared to stall governance reforms, begging the question: was this moment in Ethiopia another lost opportunity for a democratic transition? Excepting the opening up of political space and beginning initiatives to liberalize the economy to quell international pressure and domestic opposition, the EPRDF (later the Prosperity Party) never abandoned its old way of governance and continued to repress protests and imprison journalists and opposition political party leaders. Indeed, an elusive term “Medemer” become the guiding principle of the ruling party. Prime Minister Abiy later explained “Medemer” in his Nobel Peace Prize lecture as a word that “signifies synergy, convergence, and teamwork for a common destiny.” However, the ultimate goal and the scheme of “Medemer” from the outset were never clear. An already fragile country encountered a political landscape in which the prospects for change were murky and even frightening.

Transition to democracy hinges on setting up strong institutions. To this end, Prime Minister Abiy appointed a former political prisoner, Birtukan Mideksa, as Chair of the Ethiopian National Electoral Board. As an independent and strong woman, her appointment was never contested. After two consecutive postponements, the national election was held on June 21, 2021 in all except the Harar, Somali, and Tigray regions of the country. The election was overall peaceful but not competitive as the Oromo Federalist Congress and the Oromo Liberation Front boycotted the election, and opposition political party leaders were imprisoned, including such well-known figures as Eskinder Nega, Jawar Mohammed, and Bekele Gerba. As expected, the result of the sixth National Election ended up in a landslide victory for the Prosperity Party, which won 410 out of 436 seats in Parliament. However flawed, the election helped to quell international pressure and ensure the legitimacy of the new government amidst the ongoing war in Tigray.

In conclusion, Prime Minister Abiy’s efforts to consolidate his power by establishing the new Prosperity Party, polarized already suspicious and fragile relations with the TPLF. Indeed, at the heart of the political problems that emerged were the TPLF’s exclusion from transitional processes and from the negotiations with Eritrea. The outbreak of war, as a result of a premediated attack on the Northern Command of the Ethiopian Defense Force, in Northern Ethiopia’s Tigray Region become another anomaly of post-2018. The war in Tigray that eventually overwhelmed the Amhara and Afar regions once again checked possibilities of peace and democracy in Ethiopia. The war has led to the worst humanitarian crises unfolding in Tigray, Amhara, and Afar regions. There are also armed insurgencies in Western Oromia and the Benishangul-Gumuz regions, proving how precarious the transition process has become across the country. Currently, economic inflation, ethnic polarization, and war are threatening the very existence of the Ethiopia state. Amid these conundrums, the Parliament proceeded to establish a National Dialogue Commission, though perhaps too late, to overcome Ethiopia’s major obstacles to democratic transition. Against all odds, the hope for peace and democracy hangs on the Commission. Moreover, complex and huge deliverables are expected from the Commission, including promotion of transitional justice, inclusiveness, truth telling, and reconciliation, to ensure the continuity of a unified Ethiopia.

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