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Is Ethiopia Heading Toward a One Man-Show Politics or One Party Dictatorship?

Ghelawdewos Araia, PhD                                  September 22, 2019


This brief article will candidly and critically address the present complex and complicated Ethiopian politics and systematically analyze the political trend of paving the way for the establishment of an oligarchy that would govern beyond the legislature and constitutional order.

A year and half ago, Ethiopia, under the leadership of Dr. Abiy Ahmed, was in a festive mood of celebrating the emergence of new hope and new promises of democratic governance and freedom in the country. In fact, back in July 2019, I argued as follows: “When PM Abiy assumed power, the Ethiopian people welcomed him and embraced his bright and promising administrative and political policies, including open political debates and reforms aimed at restructuring the government; some of the significant steps taken by Abiy Ahmed are his newly constituted cabinet of ministers composed of ten women and ten men; above all, he appointed a woman president, first female president in recent Ethiopian history, although Ethiopia had many women head of states from Queen Saba to Queen Zewditu.”1    

Contrary to the promises of the PM and bright hope of Ethiopians, however, in no time and under the watchful eyes of the present government, Ethiopia encountered political mess and instability unparalleled in its modern history. Millions of Ethiopians were displaced from their turf, hundreds upon hundreds killed and their property looted and burned down. The political discomfort and chaos that Ethiopians have encountered now is a result of EPRDF’s nature and characteristics that effectively muzzled democracy, although the EPRDF also scored major success in foundational economy and maintaining peace and order for two and half decades; Abiy and his regime are byproducts of the EPRDF and could not be solely blamed for all Ethiopia’s problems, but they will shoulder a big chunk for the cause of the political mess. On top of this chaos, the Ethiopian economic growth has dropped from 10-11% growth per annum during the heyday of Growth and Transformation Plans to 7.7% and below after PM Abiy assumed power, and now that the major foundational projects are either delayed or halted, further economic crisis has bedeviled the Ethiopian nation-state. 

As stated in the above paragraph, Abiy Ahmed, after all, is the brainchild of the EPRDF, but his recent anti-EPRDF tendencies and practices could perhaps make him the step-child of his own party, whose alien father deliberately abandoned him to find his way up in the hierarchy ladder of the EPRDF. In other words, as already clearly put above, it is the rigid and corrupt bureaucracy of the EPRDF and its undemocratic political culture that created Abiy Ahmed and the plethora of other officials that have now betrayed their own comrades and are pretending as change agents.

Some Ethiopian observers like Finian Cunningham, early on, that is when the Abiy regime was installed, have detected political and economic problems that could grip Ethiopia as a result of losing its sovereignty and becoming dependent on foreigners in the construction of the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) that was solely initiated by Ethiopians and financed by Ethiopians. Cunningham states, “…for Ethiopia which stands alone as the one African nation historically not colonized by foreign powers, such proud history of independence could be soon lost.” The author further tells us that “the new prime minister has embraced Washington’s Arab allies in the region, in particular Egypt, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates.” “The nation [Ethiopia], which was seen up to now as an African role model for independent development, is being shifted from its erstwhile independence and partnership with China to become a client of Western capital and Washington’s regional allies among the Arab states.”2     

Finian Cunnigham was mainly concerned in the breaking of the GERD and subsequently burdening Ethiopians with Western debts, and he quotes former World Bank economist Peter Koening, who argued, “This will lead to debt slavery. All money from Western-controlled financial institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund is to be avoided at all cost. Their lending of money is simply a cynical way for Western capital to gain control over national economies.”3 

In one recent conference in Addis Ababa, the Prime Minster ensured the audience who were concerned by the delay of the construction of the GERD, by saying “We will finish constructing the Dam.” Given the current double standard in Ethiopian politics, however, it is impossible to trust the political leaders on the Government side and the so-called opposition party leaders in regards to accomplishing the delayed and postponed projects. Unfortunately the deliberate reversal of the foundational economy under the guise of privatization is against all powers of reason and history, but it is beyond the scope of this Article to discuss the Ethiopian economy in depth and in some length.

Now, the present regime claims that it is undertaking reforms aimed at restructuring the political economy of Ethiopia, but the contradiction is abundantly clear when the regime itself is unwilling to stop disturbances and outlaw brigand operations; the Ethiopian people, in particular merchants, are still being attacked by the armed brigands. Moreover, the recent ambush of Ethiopian defense forces convey at Metema (Western Gondar in the Amhara Region) is very suspicious and tantamount to conspiracy and not simply to a brigand operation.  And for whatever complicated incidents taking place in Ethiopia, the government does not make public statements via its media, and as a result the people have become increasingly despondent and lost trust on the status quo altogether.  

So many other suspicious incidents have also taken place since the ascendance to power of PM Abiy Ahmed, some of which are the assassination of Chief of Staff General Seare Mekonnen, Major General Geza’e Aberra, and Dr. Ambachew Mekonnen on June 15, 2019; almost a year before, Engineer Simegnew Bekele, the chief manager of GERD, was assassinated. The loss of these key figures was great loss for Ethiopia and has brought pain-induced grief upon their immediate family members; sadly, until today the Attorney General did not reveal of its findings with respect to the crimes and none of the murders were brought before the court of law. For all other prior incidents that are analogous but not necessarily identical are the burning of Ethiopian Orthodox churches at Jigjiga, Kemise, and Hawasa and the many ethnic conflicts and internal displacements, the Government was unresponsive. As a result of this incredulous uncommitted or fence-setting attitude of the Government, the Ethiopian people live now in hopelessness, inexplicable fear, and diffidence as well as timidity.

Unfortunately, for all intents and purposes, the so-called Reform is now derailed and the re-emergence of open political debate and civil dialogue could altogether vanish. The government, it looks, is more interested in populist agendas of gathering people and promising all the good wishes as it happened in Bonga, Kaffa just few days ago and when the PM called the people of Tigray, “you are golden” a year ago. The populist narratives, however, are contradicted by the “day-time hyenas” rhetoric and the attempt to isolate the Tigray Regional State from the Ethiopian body politic. It may not be clear whether this is a reflection of a paradox of mental vision or involuntarily releasing the hidden true self like a deflating balloon, but what is quite astounding is the regime’s immersion in self-perpetuating cycle of dysfunction, which is manifested sometimes with some shocking revelations. At any rate, whatever interpretation we give to the promises made in a public square, the lofty statements are mechanisms of distraction from the more pressing problems that Ethiopia has encountered now.

If the overall political trend is left unchecked, and it seems it would not be counterchecked in the face of a muzzled parliament and a faltering and disappearing EPRDF, Ethiopia will be heading toward a one man-show and one party dictatorship. The regime could be heading toward a Hobbesian Leviathan type of absolute dictatorship, leveraging on the ‘state of nature’, the chaos that has afflicted much of the Ethiopian political landscape; the chaos itself could turn into a deluge and even drown the political regime. However, in the event that the regime somehow survives on top of the flood under the bridge, it could consolidate by employing coercion and violent measures against any opposing force.

The formation of a one-party system would not be surprising, because, after all and as indicated above, the fertile ground for this phenomenon was already laid down by the EPRDF. Writing on the Ethiopian election of 2010, Kjetil Tronvoll, had the following to say: “The general impression among Ethiopians was that the outcome was a foregone conclusion, so the electorate was rather passively, or perhaps reluctantly, following the campaign and election discourse. The only excitement was related to how overwhelmingly the incumbent Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) would win; the general guesstimate was that the huge opposition gains in the 2005 elections, giving them one-third of the seats in the House of Representatives, would be pushed back in order for EPRDF to secure a solid victory of between 75-85 per cent of the seats. It thus raised some eyebrows both domestically and internationally when the National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) declared the EPRDF had secured 99.6 percent of the seats in the Parliament – all but two, one going to the opposition and one to an EPRDF-friendly independent candidate.”4             

Five years after Tronvoll wrote his article, in the 2015 election, there was no such thing as “all but two” because the NEBE declared the EPRDF as the sole winner and the latter claimed that it won all seats in the parliament; this unique but strange phenomenon in electoral politics is the main factor, among other elements, that has become the main reason for a possible one man-show and a dictatorship in Ethiopian politics. Given this reality on the ground, thus, it is highly probable that the May 2020 election may be postponed indefinitely and may never be conducted; the regime in power, led by Dr. Abiy Ahmed may altogether resort to shutting down the parliament and dissolving it, and declare the constitution null and void. I say this in the context of the present modus operandi of the Government outside the Constitution. A good example of decisions and operations made outside the parameters of the constitution is the case of Sidama quest for self-determination that ended up in disaster5, but the point I like to make here is that the Sidama question was handled by the National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE), when in fact it was supposed to be facilitated by the House of Federation in accordance with Article 47, Numbers 2 and 3.

If, on the other hand, the government respects the Constitution, the Prime Minister is entitled to dissolve the parliament with the consent of the House (Article 60, Number 1), but this action may not be followed as standard procedure given the current trend of operating outside the Constitution as already mentioned above. What is then going to be the fate of Ethiopia? Is Abiy Ahmed going to create a new alliance with parties of similar mission and objectives by completely abandoning the EPRDF, “his own” party? Or, could the Prime Minister be challenged by the Federalist Forces that want to “save” (their own words) the present federal structure and the Constitution with some amendments? Could there be armed confrontations between the unitary-cum-centrist apologist forces and the federalist devolutionist forces? Anything is possible.  

I am of the opinion that both centrist and federalist forces avoid confrontation and hold rather a conference of national reconciliation and dialogue for the sake of peace and development and the welfare of the Ethiopian people. If real politic is emphasized and the two forces are interested in power politics, however, zero-sum politics accompanied by violent bloodshed could inundate Ethiopia. If the Prime Minister is really interested in Ethiopian unity (and that is the leitmotif in all his speeches), he should play the role of an arbiter and a uniting leader between the two forces. A leader of a nation can entertain his/her own political stand and embrace any ideology, but s/he cannot and should not take sides in the event the two forces quarrel. Nevertheless, the latter proposal is more of a wish than a plausible and possible accomplishment if viewed against the present ethnocentric politics and the shackles of sectarian outlook that has infested the Ethiopian political landscape for nearly three decades.

Finally, I would not mind sending a candid message to Dr. Abiy Ahmed in an effort not to appease the Prime Minister but to contribute to the sanity of the Ethiopian political culture. It is a similar message that I conveyed during my interview with the Tigray Media House (TMH) back in July, 2019. I said then that Dr. Abiy would be better-off in holding ties with his own party, the EPRDF and continue to uphold the Constitution and maintain the federal structure. Now, that Abiy Ahmed declared that “the EPRDF would not be able to continue as is” and keeps ignoring the constitution, and his overall decisions are centrist rather than abiding by the federal rules in the context of respecting the voices and self-determination of the Regional States, my old advice would become meaningless. But, I still hope that the government would maintain peace and order; revive the stalled development projects, and opens up a new era of democracy for Ethiopia. I say to Dr. Abiy accomplish the minimum so that you live in history and history always suggests caution and provides exemplary anecdotes; learn from it!

Notes:

1.    Ghelawdewos Araia, “Sinkhole Politics Ethiopian Style: The Breakdown of Law and Order and the Assassination of General Seare Mekonnen, Major-General Gezae Aberra and Dr. Ambachew Mekonnen”, www.africanidea.org/Sinkhole_Politics_Ethiopian_style.html  June 27, 2019

2.    Finian Cunningham, “Ethiopia, Breaking the Dam for Western Debt Slavery,” Strategic Culture, September 2, 2018

3.    Peter Koeing in Finian Cunningham, Ibid

4.    Kjetil Tronvoll, “The Ethiopian 2010 Federal and Regional Elections: Re-establishing the One-Party State”, African Affairs, Oxford University Press, November 26, 2010

5.    See Ghelawdewos Araia, “The Sidama People’s Self-Determination vis-à-vis the Ethiopian Constitution”, www.africanidea.org/Sidama_self_determination.html July 18, 2019

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