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Ethiopia: Why PM Dr. Abiy Ahmed's First Priority Should Be Free Expression

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Though it may come with risks, it would be in the government’s own interests to encourage open dialogue and constructive criticism.

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The swearing-in this week of Prime Minster Abiy Ahmed and his promising inaugural speech suggests Ethiopia has its best chance yet to address a political crisis that has been building for decades.

This comes not a moment too soon. Youthful protesters, particularly in Oromiya, are emboldened and angry. Since 2015, security forces have killed more than 1,000 people as the government has shown both frailty and ruthlessness in the face of persistent demonstrations. Without altering its current trajectory, the country would risk a worsening conflict.

Promisingly, the promotion of Abiy looks set to ease unrest and provide space for a rethink. The young leader, still in his early 40s, is the head of the Oromo party in the ruling coalition, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). This grouping, in power since 1991, has made major achievements in nation-building and socioeconomic development. It has done this partly through the Marxist-Leninist concept of “revolutionary democracy”. This has entailed monopolising power across all tiers of government, politicising the civil service, and maintaining a weak judiciary and legislature. It has also involved prioritising material improvements over civil rights, leading to restrictions on the opposition, civil society, and media.

The EPRDF has recorded some impressive achievements in office, but it has also witnessed growing rifts between its four regional parties and a rising crisis of legitimacy. With this now reaching a head, it needs to democratise as promised.

The former rebel movement must shed some of its attachment to secrecy, control, and coercion, and convert itself into an actor in a multi-party system. The EPRDF can maintain its commitments to collective action, minority rights, and state-led development. But it needs to recognise that its vision to transform Ethiopia will not be realised if it continues to exercise complete control and therefore provoke intensifying resistance.

This can be done by borrowing from the liberal democratic playbook without straying into neoliberal territory that is anathema to the EPRDF.

The key ingredient for a new Ethiopia

The key initial ingredient will be encouraging greater freedom of expression within government and throughout society. While many point to the inflammatory dangers of social media in a polarised environment, the need for greater openness trumps such concerns.

If the EPRDF wants to signal its seriousness in pursuing change, it could reassure dissidents that they can publicise competing viewpoints without punishment. A line must be drawn under draconian actions that inculcate fear, such as the recent rearrests of critical journalists or the prosecution of the Zone 9 bloggers.

The party-affiliated media could be empowered to investigate issues rather than perform a government public relations service. There is already a promising example of this new possibility in Oromiya, where the regional broadcaster has reported on corrupt lands deals. Newly-empowered national journalists could start by looking into the state-owned Sugar Corporation contracts that are suspected to have been mismanaged by a military enterprise. Only through accountability for those perceived as untouchable can the EPRDF begin cleaning out its stables.

Elements of EPRDF doctrine see private media as the potential tool of capitalist elites. However, the weakness of Ethiopia’s press is a hindrance to progress. The vacuum of reliable information makes space for conspiracy theories to dominate, as they have during the discontent.

The absence of a strong media means a disillusioned public is fed competing narratives by state organs and partisan online activists. Meanwhile, events such as the state repression of Qimant activists demanding greater autonomy or the Konso people’s protests over their loss of self-rule in the south go virtually unreported. Before such fraught challenges can be addressed, facts need to be established.

The mechanics for strengthening the press are a matter for debate, but there is a case to be made for measures such as tax breaks for new outlets. Existing responsible-but-critical media in Addis Ababa provide useful precedents for future development. Western donors who spend more than $3 billion annually can surely find ways to help too without being accused of fomenting a “colour revolution” or contravening former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s stipulation that democratisation has to be homegrown. One route could be backing a stalled initiative for an independent press regulator to monitor abuses, such as the anti-Tigrayan hate speech published in 2005.

Levelling the playing field

Some experienced observers have called for a snap election to address Ethiopia’s crisis, but a level playing field does not yet exist. There have been discussions with opposition parties on altering the first-past-the-post system and adjusting repressive legislation, but significant actors did not participate, and the forums were held without EPRDF commitment to systemic change.

Implementing a long-standing call for electoral board autonomy is a prerequisite for meaningful elections, and there is a clear case for refining some catchall provisions of the terrorism law. While such initiatives are hashed out, the EPRDF could give more interviews and publicise more of its deliberations. It is as vital that freedom of expression is enhanced within government as well as wider society.

The backbone of EPRDF rule is an ethnonational federation that accommodated different entities during a fragile transition in the early 1990s. This arrangement, which allows for the secession of groups with shared traits, was made with the historic oppression of minorities by mainly Amharic-speaking highlanders in mind. However, some opponents allege the system was devised by the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) to divide and rule more populous groups. While that’s a distortion, there are justified concerns that it has led to communities growing apart rather than together, as evidenced by extreme violence between Oromo and Somali factions last year.

Nonetheless, the arrangement suits many groups, including the Oromo, and will remain while the EPRDF is in power. While differences over ethnic federalism and identity politics represent a deep schism, dialogue might soften those fundamental disagreements that poison the national discourse.

On the ground, efforts to bolster national citizenship rights might improve cohesion, while a constitutional court has been mooted to better handle identity claims. A more open government, a less politicised bureaucracy and autonomous institutions would make it harder for elites to mobilise along ethnic lines to claim a greater share of the pot. At the same time, devolving mechanisms such as tax-revenue generation could make regional governments more accountable to their citizens.

In general, a stronger judiciary and more democratic scrutiny would help counter excessive and arbitrary government action and improve the federation’s functioning. In time, language issues, the secession clause, and the system’s ethnolinguistic underpinning might also be discussed. Oromiya has implemented an important measure by removing ethnicity from identity cards, a move that could be replicated. EPRDF tolerance of flags from previous eras would be another worthwhile gesture.

Generally, progress should be possible if critics forward constructive suggestions that deliver autonomy while protecting against further outbreaks of ethnic rivalry.

Decentralising power

Deeper federalism could challenge certain elements of Ethiopia’s Developmental State model, which has relied on centralised policy control and often prioritises national development schemes over local concerns. However, there are in fact few opponents to EPRDF’s approach of protecting strategic industries and investing heavily in infrastructure, often using Chinese loans. If decision-making was decentralised, it is likely that regions would adopt, and increasingly adapt, national strategies. They do this already in many policy areas, notably in Oromiya recently.

As with many problems, calls for the liberalisation of closed economic sectors or privatisation of state-owned enterprises are often treated as zero-sum calculations. In reality, partial steps can be taken without selling out to global capitalism. For example, a telecoms monopoly has extended mobile-data networks nationwide, which is impressive, but given that the service is inadequate and expensive, a degree of rethinking is needed.

Efforts to attract foreign investment into energy have been lacklustre, while the state-controlled fuel supply results in frequent shortages. The financial model protects the economy and crucially allows state banks to provide cheap loans for public enterprises to construct infrastructure. But more needs to be done to promote lending to the private sector. The growth of private businesses will help alleviate mass unemployment and boost a low tax take.

So far, the EPRDF has treated the corporate sector either as a source of cronies or rent-seeking corruption. A relaxation of control will mean a more conducive environment for business to operate and lobby, which could lead to more balanced growth.

At times, the problem has not been state control but failures of implementation when liberalising. This was the case with the bungled introduction of large-scale commercial agriculture or an inadequately administered construction boom. Similar errors can be prevented by more inclusive policy-making and the encouragement of constructive feedback, rather than maintaining the impression that officials who speak out will be branded “anti-development”. To improve outcomes, thorough probes of projects and strategies will reveal which are working and which need work – this again means giving the media and civil society expanded freedoms.

Opening up for the opposition

If the EPRDF and Abiy build on their pledges, an assertive but responsible response from the opposition will hopefully be forthcoming. To build trust, while they turn their focus to mobilising at the grassroots, opponents should eschew violence, acknowledge government achievements, and denounce the targeting of Tigrayans or any other groups.

Western actors have few cards to play given how the Ethiopian government has diversified its international support and cast itself as irreplaceable. However, if the EPRDF introduces more meritocracy into civil service appointments, maybe donor funds can be utilised to attract more of the brightest Ethiopians into key positions. This has already been tested at institutions like the Ethiopia Commodity Exchange and Agricultural Transformation Agency.

More radically, foreign diplomats should end their virtual silence on political issues. Rather than direct, the West rightly respects and supports government strategies, but it is wrong to not express justified disapproval. To be true partners, donors could show the way in publicly engaging in constructive criticism.

Ethiopia’s crisis is arguably centuries in the making and there’s little chance of it being resolved quickly. However, recent events offer promise. If all sides take conciliatory steps to discover common ground then dangerous grudges may be defused through dialogue.

The first step in this must be the EPRDF encouraging those conversations by increasing the opportunities for freedom of expression. With more groups from within the EPRDF pushing for enhanced democracy than before, and the clamour from outside growing ever louder, perhaps the best hope is that forthcoming struggles are conducted more democratically than they generally have been in Ethiopia’s long history.

Read the original of this report, including embedded links and illustrations, on the African Arguments site.