Commentary: After a bloody Saturday of 22 June Ethiopia needs a new national consensus, urgently 

From left: General Seare Mekonnen, Chief of staff of the National defense force of Ethiopia, Migbaru Kebede, the Attorney General of Amhara regional state Ambachew Mekonnen (PhD), President of Amhara regional state, and Azeze Wasse, Amhara regional state administration’s public organization advisor all in their respective coffins ready for burial  

Solomon A. Dersso, PhD, For Addis Standard 

Addis Abeba, June 26/2019 -Like millions of my fellow country women and men, I am shocked and saddened by the events of Ethiopia’s bloody Saturday. Yes, the killings that took place in Bahir Dar and Addis Abeba are outrageous and tragic on their own. As we mourn those killed and condemn these atrocious acts, we need to mobilize our emotions, if only for the memory of those killed, for changing the condition that has made these acts possible.

Thus, we need to probe what these killings represent and what they tell us about the state of health or lack thereof in our political system, perhaps more accurately in the transition that the country has embarked on. In the paragraphs that follow I try to probe these questions, perhaps as a sequel to Ethiopia’s spring of hope and winter of despair, which I wrote almost a year ago.

The emergence of PM Abiy Ahmed as the leader of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and Ethiopia’s Prime Minster ushered in a new era of politics. It became an era that marked the end of the politics of criminalization of dissent. It opened the prison doors and let political prisoners and dissidents free. It rescinded sentences imposed on journalists and political dissidents in exile.

In this new era of politics, PM Abiy’s government also invited back to the country exiled political forces of all colors and persuasions. In an act demonstrative of how far the new politics traveled to depart from its past, this new politics even went as far as sponsoring by government of the return of political opposition, including armed opposition groups. On their arrival, all those political movements and armed opposition groups were greeted with a red carpet treatment with high level government officials including at times PM Abiy himself welcoming them from the airport.

In a departure from the politics of paranoia of the past that treated many politically active non-EPRDF Ethiopians as suspects, this era of politics has become one that accepted Ethiopians outside of the ruling EPRDF as members of society who can be entrusted with roles in various areas of public life. It has accordingly brought to the various institutions of government individuals with diverse background and professional pedigree.

Signaling an intention to institutionalize the political reforms that the country embarked on, PM Abiy reformist government also initiated a law reform process. To this end, it tasked a new law reform advisory council made up of independent and highly competent legal minds of the country with the task of reviewing the draconian laws that silenced all voices outside of the EPRDF mold. Of particular note in this regard are the anti-terrorism law, the press law and the charities law. With this initiative, it facilitated legislative changes for removing from statute books these laws that stifle civic and fundamental freedoms of citizens. Beyond these, the law reform initiative also addresses democratic governance laws and institutions, including most notably the review of the electoral law and the electoral commission.

In a move that took many by surprise, the new era of politics saw the removal from power of the leaders of two of the most powerful security institutions in the country, the army and the intelligence. In both these institutions, various reform measures have also been introduced. As part of the reform of the security sectors and in an attempt to change abusive institutional cultures, the leadership of prison administrations accused of heinous acts of violence against inmates were also removed from their positions.

In an attempt to mend social divisions in the country, PM Abiy also initiated efforts of reconciliation among the followers of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and of Islam in Ethiopia.

All of these and similar other initiatives have completely transformed the political landscape of the country. They principally changed the power architecture of the country. The balance of power in the EPRDF in particular witnessed a shift that saw the emergence into prominence of the Oromo Democratic Party. Political actors and forces that were in exile are establishing themselves, with some of them already showing themselves to be felt on the ground, albeit often for the wrong reasons. New political forces such as the Amhara National Movement, have also been formed and unleashed.

On the part of the public, the rise to position of power of PM Abiy and the various political reforms his administration introduced have been greeted with jubilation. The unique level of public goodwill extended to PM Abiy have made many observers to contemplate that his is a popularity unprecedented in the country. Indeed, the support that PM Abiy galvanized transcended his political home base of Oromia. He has also attracted the support from people from various all walks of life across religious, gender, generational, political and ethnic boundaries.

So, this reform has presented Ethiopia a unique opportunity for overcoming its political decay and start a new chapter for achieving an inclusive, rule based and democratic political order. Ethiopians have rightly and understandably have their hopes high, although there were many who were cautiously optimistic. Indeed, this has been a new era of politics for dreaming big and high.

Not surprisingly as well, for the transition to succeed and these reforms to yield their ultimate results, they would certainly have benefited from the involvement of various sectors of society. They would also have benefited from the application of certain democratic principles, notably transparent and participatory decision making process. It would also have benefited if it was driven not only by PM Abiy Ahmed and his team but also by all the key members of the ruling coalition. Perhaps, more than anything else, the transition and the reforms would have also benefited if they were founded on a political settlement.

It can be gathered from the foregoing, the changes that have been introduced in the country under PM Abiy Ahmed have affected the political and security power dynamics and structural set up of the country. In other words, the changes swept away the elite bargain and compromise on which the past balance of power was organized. They have also brought to an end the political settlement or consensus on which the politics of the country has been premised for about a couple of decades. Also thrown out of the window have been some of the fundamental rules that governed the conduct of business of the ruling coalition. Democratic centralism was no more. Thus, the reform measures were initiated through the sheer and audacious political will of the PM and his team.

Surely, the sweeping away of the previous elite bargain was not unexpected. After all, PM Abiy’s ascent to power came as a result not only of the internal power struggle within the EPRDF but also of the protest campaign and pressure for change mobilized in the country since at least 2015. Not also surprising was the coming to an end of the political consensus/settlement on whose basis the politics of the country have operated. Given the unprecedented manner in which PM Abiy was elected in the EPRDF, there was also little surprise that the ruling coalition silently allowed its long standing decision-making doctrine of democratic centralism to go out of use.

Arguably, more than the reforms highlighted above involving the wide opening up of the political space in the country, which was greeted with a great deal of understandable euphoria, the sweeping away of the previous elite compromise and the accompanying political settlement as well as the established way of operating of EPRDF have been most consequential for the system and the country.

For any political system to continue performing optimally and delivering for the public, it needs to operate on the basis of an existing bargain hammered out among major political forces and the political settlement emerging from that. In the absence of a political consensus required for its optimal functioning, a society unavoidably faces major uncertainty. In the absence of such consensus, no sector of society can be sure of its future in the political system. In a context of reforms, such uncertainties often lead to a classical situation of prisoners’ dilemma and hence leading to miscalculations and misperceptions. The situation becomes even more volatile if there are new forces unleashed into the political arena in which the political consensus on which the system has thus far operated has unceremoniously collapsed. Making matters worse would be the resurgence of ultra-nationalist forces who, emboldened by the new openings, have come to assume disproportionate influence in political mobilizations and rhetoric. In such a context, ethnic polarization, tension and violence become unavoidable.

With the pre-existing political consensus brought to an end while no new elite bargain and political consensus has been hammered out, the power struggles that the political changes have induced tend to create the conditions for instability and violence, more so in a context such as the one described in the preceding paragraph.

It has been within the above context that along with the popularly supported and widely acclaimed political changes the country has come to experience various incidents of violence. The tension between neighboring regional states, the communal violence that displaced millions of Ethiopians, the use of force by armed militia groups or the training and arming of new regional militia groups, the loosening of the effective enforcement of law and order, the emergence in some of the security institutions of highly politicized characters are all expressions of the fact that power relations in the country continue to be in a state of flux, accentuated by the end of the old political consensus and the lack of the emergence of a new one.

Yes we don’t still know enough about the tragic events of the bloody Saturday. Yes, the tragic events are outrageous and we all thus condemn them. Yet, these tragic events, viewed through the prism of the foregoing, are not totally surprising. While those events certainly raise major questions about the reforms in the army and security sectors of the country, at their core they are political. They are in a way manifestations of the country being in the gray zone of the end of the pre-existing political consensus and the delay in the establishment of a new consensus. The experience from the past one year has demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt that political reforms not founded on a new national political consensus are susceptible to the vagaries of power struggles that the absence of political consensus makes inevitable.

Incidentally, it is not impossible to anticipate that the reforms that are currently aggressively being pursued in the economic realm as well are sure to accentuate the uncertainty and instability. These changes are being pursued in a context that is devoid of any public participation and consultation. Despite the impact they would have not only on the economic policy space of the country but also on the positioning of various sectors of the public in the economy, they are being pursued as purely technocratic exercises, accessible only to those in the know and those that are part of and campaigning for market forces. Given that these are being implemented in the absence of a national political consensus on the transition and the direction of the country and with the public largely left out, they can even carry more impact on societal power relations and expectations about delivery by or through the state.

In the absence of an elite bargain and a new political consensus, even the political forces that returned to the country almost by default tend to operate on the basis of their own play book. In their eyes, the absence of a bargain and a new political consensus reached with their participation amount to a lack of a shared rules of the game, hence their inclination to use their own play book.

While clearly a lot of progress has been achieved since PM Abiy came to power particularly in the political space, both the transition and these changes face major risk. The source of this risk is the fact that the transition and the changes are not grounded in a new national political consensus. Indeed, much of the troubles the country has experienced which threaten to undo all the great achievements registered are tied to this absence of a national political consensus. Thus, if the current trend of eruption of various incidents of tension, instability and violence are to be reversed and for the transition to succeed it is critical that a process of political dialogue for hammering out an elite bargain and achieve a new political consensus is urgently initiated.

This can be accomplished on the basis of what I proposed in the article on Ethiopia’s spring of hope, namely a peace plan, ‘a plan whose starting point should be addressing the troubles in the EPRDF, which have been spilling over to trigger the insecurity affecting various parts of the country. It should establish a new inclusive consensus between the members of the ruling coalition. Such a plan should also involve stabilization of regional and local governments that experienced insecurity and violence. Additionally, the country needs such a peace plan that creates a platform for inclusive national dialogue as vehicle for truth and reconciliation and for building a rule and values based national consensus.’

The debate should not thus be whether the glass is half full or half empty. Indeed, it may as well be that there is a lot pouring into the glass & the glass may as well be filling up. In a context of absence of political consensus, the issue is that the glass itself may as well have cracked. If the crack is not fixed, the glass will break and all that is being poured into it spilt. As important as pouring new wine into a glass is thus the need of fixing the crack on the glass. AS


Editor’s Note: The author can be reached at

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