A month after Prime Minister (PM) Abiy Ahmed took office, Ethiopia’s future remains unclear. On the day of his inauguration, the PM painted a vision for the country that was received overwhelmingly positively. Unfortunately, he has not followed it with a clear, well thought out plan to get the country to that vision. A month may be a brief time in normal times, but it is a life time for a country in a deep crisis and under a state of emergency (SoE).
Setting fundamental policy direction aside, there are many practical matters he continues to ignore. For example, freeing political prisoners must have been done the day after his inauguration. Those prisoners, many of whom are in poor health conditions from tortures, ill-treatment or terrible prison conditions, cannot afford to spare a month.
The SoE should have been lifted by now too, because it was illegally evoked for the sole purpose of keeping a minority regime in power.
A legislative process to revoke the notorious anti-freedom laws should have been underway by now.
He simply does not seem to feel any urgency to deal with any of these or the myriads of other dire problems.
Still many hold on to the hope that the PM will bring fundamental political and economic changes once the country stabilizes and he has sorted out things. Some say he may be delaying certain actions and keeping certain details close to his chest for strategic reasons; they say he deserves more time and we need more patience.
Others empathizes with the challenges he could face from TPLF to undertake a radical change, all of which may sound reasonable thoughts, except that they are not. First, no one has offered a logical or practical reason why delaying actions will bring better results. Secondly, there is no indication, let alone guarantee, that the PM is personally committed to bring fundamental changes.
On the second point, it is important to make a distinction between the change process that in has taken/is taking place within EPRDF and the change process that is happening outside EPRDF driven by the popular uprisings. These two change processes may have intersected, even benefited from each other, during of the past three years, but for the most part are distinct from each other. This distinction is important because what the PM may have as a goal for the EPRDF change process may not square with the goals of the popular change process.
The change process within EPRDF is driven by an internal power struggle where, after loyally serving TPLF sucking up its excesses and abuses for a quarter of a century, the junior partners, OPDO and ANDM in particular, finally demanded more autonomy and less interference. This power struggle probably started right after the death of Meles Zenawi even though it intensified in the past two to three years alongside the popular uprising. This change process has already produced some fruits – including the election of a new EPRDF chairman and prime minister who was not TPLF’s first choice. The lion’s share of this success is owed to the popular uprising that not only weakened TPLF politically but also created the condition for an alliance between OPDO and ANDM which TPLF has failed to break.
TPLF has since backed off somewhat and is very unlikely that it will regain its hegemonic position within EPRDF, even though it still controls the security forces and intelligence apparatus, not to mention a huge economic empire. The power struggle within EPRDF is far from over, although the change proponents, so-called Team Lemma, have not stated or implied the ultimate goal of this change process.
By contrast, the popular uprisings of the past three years have articulated definitive goals including an end to the current political system. Even though these uprisings ignited spontaneously and lacked visible organized leadership, their target was unmistakable – a cruel, oppressive, divisive, and corrupt regime that kept millions poor and hopeless for far too long. This change process is currently punctuated by the SoE, but there can be no doubt that it will pick up as soon as the SoE is lifted.
The question arises if the two change processes will merge. Some seem to think they already have and see the new PM as the caretaker of the popular change process while the SoE is in place. As argued above the PM has not given a clear indication if this is true. The true test will come when the SoE is lifted and people try to organize and mobilize themselves freely and resume their demand for true democracy, rule of law, justice and equality. I have a nagging feeling that the PM will not have good answers to their demands, perhaps the reason he is not keen on lifting the SoE.
One way or another, the PM cannot delay actions forever. He will have to lift the SoE and release more political prisoners. Then comes the hard choice: what kind of reform will he pursue and how? He has three options, the first two of which are the options he would pursue if he is committed to bringing a real change.
The first option is to unleash the popular uprising, co-opt the EPRDF change process into it and facilitate a transition process out of the current political crisis. There have been various suggestions on how to do that including organizing an all-stakeholder convention with the goal of establishing a transitional government.
The second option is to continue to democratize EPRDF and the entire government system including by removing TPLF’s control over the security forces, while at the same time fully opening the political space for all opposition parties to organize and operate legally and freely; ensure unfettered freedom for independent press, civic society and individual citizens, and prepare for a free and monitored election in two years’ time.
The third option is to undertake the bare minimum reforms, i.e., amend the draconian laws; make limited reforms in the areas of education and the economy; implement new policies to fight corruption and improve government efficiency; and may be liberalize one or two state controlled areas (e.g., telecom). None of these reforms will bring sustainable solutions because they will not address the systemic problems tied to the current political and economic system.
Option one would have been the most effective but its time has probably passed. If the PM were to pick this option, he would have lifted the SoE sooner and use the ensuing popular uprising as a negotiating leverage to force TPLF to relinquish its powers in exchange for some kind of safe exit. I don’t believe this option even crossed his mind.
Option two may appear easier but in reality more intricate. Without democratizing EPRDF, the rest of the political system cannot be democratized. Democratizing EPRDF would mean cutting TPLF to its size in every respect. Curiously, that would also mean the end of EPRDF as we know it, since, in a democratized EPRDF, there would be little incentive for the other three members to stay in a coalition with TPLF that will become a political liability with very little to offer.
Of course, TPLF will not allow this kind of reform willingly, but it could be forced if the PM chooses to exercise the full extent of his constitutional and political powers. TPLF is politically weak and in disarray at this point. The only card it has at its disposal is its control over the security forces, but even this power need not be exaggerated because as a politically weak party, TPLF is bound to lose its control over the ethnically diverse security forces.
In any case, if the PM were to choose this option, he would not succeed without the backing of a popular uprising. Ending TPLF’s tyranny and domination in one form or another would require a negotiated settlement because TPLF is a criminal organization that would be justifiably concerned about its fate once it loses power. The only leverage the PM can use to force TPLF to come to the table for a peaceful negotiation is a popular uprising.
Option three may be the easiest choice for the PM which he might even justify as a peaceful, gradual reform. However, it will be the most unfortunate choice that would discount the death of thousands of young Ethiopians that made him a PM.
As important as the PM’s choice may be, the reaction of the Ethiopian people will be even more important. It is hard to believe Ethiopians will settle for a reform that will fall short of ending TPLF’s tyranny and ensuring their full freedom, democracy, and equality.
We shall see as soon as the SoE is lifted.