Can Ethiopia Make the Transit to Stability?


This in-depth analysis is an extension of my piece for Ethiopia Insight titled ‘The old EPRDF is dead, can its system be saved?’ which you can read here.

This has been an eventful year for Ethiopia’s politics. Under Abiy Ahmed Ali, who became Prime Minister in April 2018, the government has eased its previous authoritarian stance on various central issues. A national state of emergency imposed by Abiy’s predecessor has been lifted and thousands of prisoners have been released.  Exiled opposition leaders and armed groups have been allowed back into the country; media outlets now operate relatively freely; rapprochement with Eritrea is in full swing; and initiatives for national reconciliation are under way. Women received half of the positions in the October 2018 Cabinet and many others have been appointed to high office. In the light of the history of repression, human rights violations, decay and corruption of the ruling party, the BBC remarked that it was “almost like observing a different country.” Hence, the dominant narrative has been that of an emerging openness and transformational leadership.

Of course, hope comes readily to mind as positive narrative floods the news outlets. Though there was positive general drift across the political elite, the nub is that now no single dominant narrative explains the recent developments. Granted their positive effects, the government’s transitional reforms should not, however, be allowed to obscure the critical challenges the country faces. If those problems come to be shrouded in a blanket of positive spin designed to reinforce the current dominant narrative, they may well return to haunt the country later.

Nevertheless, there has been stiff resistance to some of the reforms. Before it commences, the newly established Boundary Commission faces a crisis of legitimacy due to strong opposition from Tigray and some political parties in the Amhara regional state. People in the border areas also protested the government’s plans to hand over to Eritrea border areas in Badame and Zalambessa.  Abandoning a neutral foreign policy stance – which involves forging closer ties with the UAE sphere of influence was not welcomed either. Hesitations in the construction of the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, and privatization of some public enterprises, in particular Ethiopian Airlines, remain unpopular.

Governed by a highly divided four-member national coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the country at present resembles  a confederation. To contain sporadic violence and avert further fragmentation, the military has been deployed in four regional states — Somali, Benshangul-Gumuz, parts of Oromia (Wollega, and Moyale), Amhara (Gondar). Though not officially declared and approved by the Parliament, some regional states are effectively under a de facto state of emergency. The country is also facing massive displacement due to ethnic and religious violence. Increasing tension between forces of centralization and decentralization continues to cause strains in the federal system. Internal boundary disputes between regional states, and arms proliferation and militarization of civilians and regions are also causing concern. Economic slowdown and youth unemployment remain formidable challenges With new labour force entrants standing at two million per annum, job seekers will surge; the current nation-wide capability for job creation, including newly established industrial parks, covers less than half this number. The conflict between centralizing and decentralizing forces could not be more pronounced. While Sidama demands for the right vote in referendum for statehood, others call for a total abolishment of such constitutional rights.

Ethiopia’s five pillars

For decades, five main factors have determined Ethiopia’s peace and security. These are first, a collective social psychology of uninterrupted statehood and state strength; second, the 1991 accession to power of the EPRDF coalition and its advocacy of a consensus-based federalism of cultures; third, economic delivery that brought performance popular legitimacy; fourth, support from the international community; and lastly, the threat posed by forces hostile to Ethiopia. Ethiopia’s history has not been without its epochal moments but in fairness, since 1991 its leadership has tried to steady the national ship and has done much to correct critical historical injustices and reduce poverty. Arguably, however, in an attempt to redress the authoritarian legacy of the old EPRDF, the ongoing changes have shaken several of the pillars of the state’s stability.

These are respectively a cohesive social psychology of uninterrupted statehood, the strength of the security sector (applied also for repression)– army, police and intelligence – and the corrupt and authoritarian EPRDF as unified ruling party. In reality, save for the first, these pillars have already been weakened. How and why did this happen?

But, what trajectories may the country take?

Five scenarios

Although many aspects of Ethiopia’s situation remain fluid it is still possible to build five scenarios that may come about over the next couple of years: they are respectively Consensus Federalism, Transitional Government, Dictatorship, Confederate Ethiopia and Fragmentation.

Amid death and displacement, a solution must emerge.

Though the current narrative is delivered artfully with continual energy and speed, it is however measured against the past. Plenty symbolic promises need to be backed up by concrete delivery. Ethiopia needs inclusive democracy, inclusive economic delivery, stability and strong international support. The last two— stability and international support, will be largely determined by inclusive democracy, and economic delivery.  

The future therefore offers three realistic scenarios: the first is that Ethiopia will transition to a consensus federal democracy of a kind it has never previously had; the second would be a move to a confederate system with a weak central government; the third suggests a fragmentation of the state due to hostility between mutually antagonistic popular movements. The first of these scenarios cannot sustain itself without economic growth, which in turn requires political stability. The only viable options for now therefore are either to maintain the existing consensus-based federalist democracy, or to continue with a version of it – what is developing in practice as a form of confederated system under which the federal government is increasingly weakened and exercises limited powers. As previously noted, in the latter case leaders of the federal government would act as coordinator rather than commander.   

Despite the brutishness of their nation’s politics, Ethiopians need to keep in mind that only a progressive “pan-Ethiopianism” blueprint anchored in equality between cultures, respecting the human rights of individuals and empowering citizenship can offer a peaceful, stable and prosperous national future.  

Five fundamental factors are necessary to ensure Ethiopia’s stability and development. They are respectively economic development (and economic pro poor delivery); constitutional federal democratic governance (federal democracy); law and order (security); financial and human resource development (revenue and resource mobilization); and state implementation capacity (state capability). Policy sovereignty, including neutrality in foreign relations, is a further crucial issue for the country’s internal stability and its neighborhood and global diplomacy.

Read the full analysis here