EthioPoint: Ethiopians Analysis | Research Articles

Prime Minister Abiy’s closing window of opportunity

17 mins read

By Shiferaw Abebe

abiy 1 3Fifteen months ago, Prime Minister (PM) Abiy was received, from one end of the country to the other, like a messiah sent by God to save the troubled nation. Significantly less number of Ethiopians feel that way today, not necessarily because they think less of him, but as reality checked in, they have come to see the problems of the country are much bigger than what he has offered to solve them.  In the past few months, in particular, the PM’s leadership has been put to the test and his performance has fallen short of expectations.

The tragic incidents in Bahirdar and Addis Ababa four weeks ago have not only exposed a worrying deficiency in his government’s security intelligence, the bungled up communication in the aftermath has left the public confused, some even becoming suspicious of a nefarious scheme of sorts which the federal government has a hand in or is covering up.  Rightly or wrongly, this has created a serious credibility gap. No one more than Amharas received the PM with much enthusiasm over a year ago. Today a great many of them are having doubts or are on the fence at best.

There appears to be a semblance of calm in the Amhara region at this point, but no one can say the kilil is at peace fully. Besides raw emotions still simmering in relation to the Bahirdar tragedy, there is a broader uncertainty about the future of the country, how Amharas will fare in that future, and the role of Amhara nationalism in shaping that future.

To add salt to wound, Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF) has ignited an open hostility with Amhara Democratic Party (ADP), which has garnered a trashing response from the latter. These are delicate times that if not handled carefully the confrontation between the two could degenerate into unchartered territories.  But even if this hostility remains as war of words, it will descend in history as the last straw that broke EPRDF’s back, which is not a good thing for the PM at this point in time as it will complicate matters for him in several respects.

Interestingly, not long ago, in a meeting with opposition parties, the PM had boasted how strong and internally cohesive the Ethiopian People Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) was, apparently an exaggeration if not an entirely made up narrative.  Today, TPLF aside, the other three coalition partners are not on a strong footing individually or with each other.  It seems the only option the PM, as the Chair of EPRDF, has is to expedite the transformation of what will be left of EPRDF into a national party, something he should have given more attention and time to.  Adding the so-called partner parties into the coalition could inject some vitality into it, but doing so may not be as easy as it would be, say, six months ago, because few may see little incentive to jump into a sinking ship.

The Sidama kililhood crisis is another instance where the PM and his government is caught flat-footed. They saw it coming, they knew the kilil government would not be match to it, yet no more than a warning from a parliament pulpit was offered to avert it.  If a total catastrophe has been averted, the number of lives lost and the magnitude of property destroyed is still staggering.  It is not hard to imagine how much more will be lost as more and more zones take their turn is this destructive project.

The Sidama demand for kililhood is not just a simple matter of a democratic procedure sanctioned by the current constitution. It is one episode in a crude realty show of tearing a country apart. Ten or more episodes are already lined up in that region alone and, in fact, nothing under the current political system or the constitution can prevent from running an entire ninety some episodes as every ethnic group in the books stages its own drama.  The country may not hold up to the end, but even if it does, the human and material cost of this craziness will cripple her for generations to come.

Sadly, nothing seems to be in the works to stop this craziness.

The handling of instabilities should also be a matte of concern.  In the absence of a clear and concrete plan for political transition in the country, politically motivated conflicts and unrests are not prevented or handled proactively.  Instead as these get out of hand, because all kinds of players exploit them to advance their narrow political agendas, the federal government is forced to use the military, which by definition should be the last resort to deal with domestic matters. The more routinely this force is used to control politically motivated instabilities, the higher the chances for using excessive force and the faster power slips out of civilian hands.

So, no wonder, Abiy’s government lately found itself on the receiving end of international condemnation. Freedom House and Committee for Protection of Journalists recently issued statements accusing the government for applying repressive tactics including the use of the much discredited anti-terrorism law to arrest and try journalists. Interestingly, the government’s defense to these charges have been exactly the same as the ones TPLF/EPRDF used for 27 years. True or not, they simply don’t sound right and are not going to help keep the PM’s/his administration’s favorable international image in the long term.

The fallout from the so-called ownership or special interest issue tied to Addis Ababa will only get worse as election time gets closer. True, the PM has said more than once that Addis Ababa belongs to its residents, but what remains wanting is his direct condemnation of the incendiary ownership propaganda by Oromo nationalists.  Meanwhile, his public censure of the Baladera Council has no basis of substantive except, perhaps, for an understandable irritation with its name.  Because, what the Baladera Council stands for in Addis is something similar councils should be established and advocate in other cities throughout the country.  “Ownership” and administration of cities will be a key frontline in the fight between democracy/peace/unity, on one hand, and out-of-control ethno-nationalism/instability/division, on the other. Ideally, a national democratic political transition would resolve this conflict; at the very least, the PM needs to put forward a clear plan on how all cities, not just Addis Ababa, will govern themselves going forward.

Ethnic based evictions have been rampant in the past two years. In light of their magnitude and spontaneity in many cases, one may agree that they were an inevitable outcome of the divisive ethnic politics of 27 years.  However, systematic evictions have taken place in towns surrounding Addis Ababa that could and should have been stopped before they ruined the lives of thousands.  The reaction from Abiy’s administration in these cases was rather muffled or delayed, especially in view of the ethnic divide in the eviction process, namely the evictors being Oromo officials and the evicted, in most reported cases, Amharas.

So, here we are, 15 months later than a highly promising start of political reform, not sure of the road ahead or if the destination will be better than the one in the past.  A year ago, the PM was leading and appeared in control of the nation’s affairs. Today, he is making missteps and playing catch up on so many fronts.

What went wrong?  The following are my conjectures:

First, a year ago, almost every change the PM effected came naturally. Not to take any thing from his accomplishments, but most of the measures he took– releasing political prisoners, reinstating press freedom, etc. –  were too obvious and highly expected that  any other reformer would have accomplish them.  Ending hostilities with Eritrea was perhaps his own signature accomplishment which still is a major achievement. He has also done commendable immediate things to stabilize the economy and reorg the military.  However, he seems to be struggling as he is faced with the structural problems that would require a clear plan and some risk taking.

He probably has no plan or is unsure about reforming the system fundamentally.

So, second, he dithers on the hard choice not just in terms of taking actions, but also in making his convictions or positions known.  For example, we don’t know what he thinks of the current constitution – what is bad and what is good about it.  He has offered opinions how the constitution may be amended but not why or which parts of it should be amended from his perspective.  He has spoken highly of democracy but not about the constraints the current ethnocentric political system has put on its implementation. He has insisted kilil boundaries are administrative in nature, but has not openly challenged the constitution’s mandates for ethnic self governance that by definition requires boundaries, or the provisions that bestow land ownership on nations and nationalities which is at the root of the ethnically motivated evictions.

He dithers on less fundamental issues too, for example, the timing of the upcoming election. Aside from its technical feasibility which could be said is in the purview of the Election Board,  the current hostile political environment will not change sufficiently enough in the next ten months to allow for any civilized, democratic process, let alone one as elaborate as a national election.  There is, therefore, a widespread opinion that holding the election at its scheduled time would be a recipe for disaster. Those who insist on keeping the scheduled timeframe are either the ones who hope to benefit from the uncertainty and chaos or those who think more preparation time will not work in their favor. The PM for his part has implied but not stated officially that the election will take place at its scheduled time, which in itself has added to the overall political uncertainty.

Third, while the PM continues to engage opposition parties, intellectuals, the business community, civic and religious organizations and citizens at large on topic of national importance,  he does so without an apparent commitment to use their inputs and feedbacks to any effect. Most of these engagements are not formal consultations, so no hard expectations, which implies he may not feel obligated to do much more than listening to what others think. This, I think, goes to the crux of his leadership challenge, namely the lack of appreciation in the distinctive natures of his role as a PM and his role as a leader of a political transition.  In his role as a PM, it is his prerogative to ignore or listen to inputs from any group outside of his own party.  In his role as leader of a political reform, however, he is expected, indeed required, to take the opinions and inputs of stakeholders outside of his party.  Because, whereas his PM role is given to him by his party, his role as a political change leader is entrusted in him by the people who rose up, suffered, and died protesting against the very party that made him a PM. Even though the pro-reform group within his party played a significant role in bringing the political change witnessed so far, it must not lost on him that the heavy lifting was done outside of his party.

What this means is, while his position as a PM, with all the resources of a federal government, may make him the most powerful person in the country, it does not make him the most resourceful or the singularly legitimate person to lead the political change process.  Without a doubt, the PM is a very resourceful leader whose intentions of making Ethiopia a better place for all I don’t doubt.  But, he must admit sorting and charting out the road ahead for the country and reforming the current system requires a broad and active involvement of many stakeholders and players including from outside of his own party.

The PM has a very narrow window of opportunity to turn things around, put the democratization process back on track and ensure stability and peace in the country. To this end he should immediately call a national convention of all major stakeholders to:

  • Discuss and agree on the way forward in the short term, including on the timing and conducting of the upcoming election, and,
  • Develop a roadmap for true political transition in Ethiopia including the rewriting of the constitution.


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