Commentary: Can Abiy Ahmed Continue to Remodel Ethiopia? (expanded version) 

PM Abiy Ahmed during a speech delivered at Millennium Hall in Addis Abeba celebrating his first year in office

Abel Abate Demissie & Ahmed Soliman

The prime minister has made great strides at reforming the authoritarian state in his first year. But how will he confront the hurdles ahead?

Addis Abeba, April 17/2019 – It has been a whirlwind year for Ethiopia since Abiy Ahmed became prime minister. He has initiated a raft of reforms to overhaul Ethiopia’s authoritarian government structure, significantly improved relations with neighbors and received widespread international acclaim, including a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize. But the same period has seen a sharp increase in lawlessness, intensified domestic conflict, heightened identity-based violence and huge internal displacement.

The fervor of ‘Abiymania’ has waned in recent months, as the reality of the monumental tests that lie ahead hit home. Having created massive expectations among competing constituencies, there are growing fears that Abiy’s reforms might end up achieving neither good governance nor stability. To date his accomplishments far outweigh his shortcomings. But significant tests lie ahead.

For his government’s undoubted successes to be built on, the prime minister needs to re-double focus on the domestic agenda. This includes dealing with the growing unrest, revitalizing the ruling party under a common vision and detailing a strategy for institutionalizing political, judicial, security, economic and social reforms. This restructure will require well targeted and sequenced plans, along with his unifying philosophy of Medemer, especially given continued institutional capacity constraints.

Domestic challenges abound

Ethiopia’s political landscape shifted on its axis when Abiy Ahmed came into power in April 2018 following large-scale anti-government demonstrations and the resultant crackdown that had brought the country to the verge of national collapse. Prior to Abiy’s election, the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), nominally a coalition of four ethnically based parties, had been dominated by the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) for over 25 years. The prime minister is the country’s first leader from the Oromo Democratic Party (ODP), representing around 35 per cent of Ethiopians. For many, being ruled by an Oromo redresses a historical imbalance in power dynamics that had favored the people of the northern highlands. His election to lead the EPRDF averted further national breakdown and the prime minister is now arguably as popular in some opposition camps as he is in his own party.

More immediately, there are questions about the future of the EPRDF under Abiy Ahmed’s stewardship. He has largely discarded the revolutionary ideology and developmental state economic model that glued the party together and favors Western educated technocrats over loyal cadres for senior positions. He has ensured that half the cabinet are women and that there are prominent ministers from marginalized regions and different faiths. Many see the party as an empty shell and the prime minister has done little to dispel notions of the country being in a post-EPRDF era, recently saying “I have never paid attention… whether the EPRDF is together or not. But I don’t think we’ll split apart.” However, the party has a membership of nearly 8 million people – a vast network that cannot simply be abandoned – despite its numbers waning in the last year as uncertainty looming about the party’s future. The argument that it is essential to make EPRDF work is not based on the notion that the party has popular legitimacy, but because member parties have the capacity and willingness to inflict further damage to the dwindling power of the state.

Disputes have also intensified between member parties (as well as within the regions led by those parties), amid a widespread perception that ODP is replacing TPLF as a hegemon. The reasons indicated for this are the increasing dominance of ODP within the executive, at the federal government level, as well as within Addis Abeba city administration. Strains have begun to show in the alliance between ODP and the Amhara Democratic Party (ADP), particularly over representational issues and the jurisdictional status of the capital city Addis Abeba, which is also the capital of the Oromia region, known as Finfinne in Oromo language.

In addition, ADP faces its own serious discontent in the Amhara region and a severe challenge in the next election from the ethno-nationalist National Movement for Amhara (NaMA), as well as to a lesser extent unitarian parties like Ginbot 7. The ODP itself faces a stern test and extremely divided loyalties in Oromia between prominent personalities, activists and opposition parties like OLF (Oromo Liberation Front) and the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) despite the popularity of Abiy Ahmed and his ally Lemma Megersa, President of Oromia.

The Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ (SNNP) region is in the process of balkanization. Dozens of zonal administrations have formally requested to hold referendum to split from the region and form their own regional states. The most notable demand is from Sidama region, with a population of more than four million people.

Since losing dominance with Abiy’s emergence to power, the TPLF has retreated to regroup in the regional capital Mekelle. Although the TPLF has maintained relative peace, its ongoing enmity with the Eritrean leadership, refusal to cooperate with the federal government on numerous issues and its border dispute with the Amhara region has isolated the region. But the party still presents itself as the custodian of the constitution and federal government.

2020 election: the litmus test

The prime minister has talked about creating a national party that moves beyond ethnic lines and altering the constitution to institute a presidential system that he argues would be more egalitarian and inclusive, enabling ‘any Ethiopian living in any corner of the country’ to become president. His short-term calculation is more likely that universal suffrage, coupled with regional alliances increase the likelihood of a populist figure like himself being re-elected. Abiy has also suggested installing a two-term limit, although this is yet to be enacted.

While the 2020 national elections could provide the mandate that the prime minister needs to deliver such changes, the parameters and the date for this vote have yet to be decided and the current security environment makes it difficult to conceive of viable elections being held.

In several regions the government parties (assuming EPRDF will stick together until then) will face divided loyalties, serious discontent and challenges from ethno-nationalist movements, as well as to a lesser extent unitarian parties. For Abiy to consolidate his power at the federal level his party ODP will need to win convincingly in Oromia, and he has put a lot of energy into courting opposition parties. Formerly banned parties which have recently returned, like Patriotic Ginbot 7, may welcome an election postponement, to enable them to reengage and strengthen their support base, while some federalist forces like the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and NaMA are demanding that the vote be held on time. The TPLF, which does not have a significant challenger in Tigray, insists that delay would amount to a constitutional breach.

A national census that was supposed to be conducted ahead of the elections has been postponed indefinitely because of security concerns and massive displacement in the regions. This delay has been contentious and heavily politicized because it influences the amount resources and power the federal regions receive. Demographics are acutely sensitive at the current juncture given the shifting political sands and the long-term significance of the forthcoming election.

Ethiopia’s security crisis

Abiy Ahmed inherited a parlous security situation. Inter-communal violence has resulted in nearly 3 million internally displaced people (IDPs), with over 1.4 million in 2018 alone, the highest numbers globally. In addition, disputes between and within regional states have worsened, with varying levels of clashes between Oromia and Benishangul; Oromia and Somali; Somali and Afar; and Tigrai and Amhara. The worst has been the Guji and Gedeo crisis, resulting in the displacement of 1 million people, many whose farms and homes have been destroyed and for whom access to humanitarian assistance has been restricted.

The security situation has worsened partly because the government’s monopoly of the legitimate use of force has been diluted among several actors. The current escalation of violence is not only directed from the government to the people (as has been the case in Ethiopia for centuries) but is also among individuals and groups as well. The fact that Abiy has targeted Ethiopia’s authoritarian security agencies (from which he hails) has arguably exacerbated the problem. Senior officials have been relieved from their positions or arrested under corruption charges. This has resulted in the TPLF and Tigrayans feeling targeted by the government. Restructuring these institutions has caused a damaging power vacuum which needs to be replaced with an effective means of exercising force in the interests of national security and stability.

The prime minister has failed to respond adequately to these complex crises beyond establishing ad-hoc commissions, including one for Reconciliation and one for Administrative Boundary and Identity Issues. The government must move beyond symbolism and empower institutions – particularly the recently established Ministry of Peace – to deliver local reconciliation efforts that are linked to a genuinely inclusive nationwide peace process.

‘It’s the economy, stupid.’

While Ethiopia boasts the highest GDP growth in Africa, it slowed below 8 per cent in 2018. Abiy Ahmed has disrupted Ethiopia’s state-led developmental model, centered on domestically financed large-scale industrialization and infrastructure projects; and instead sought to tackle Ethiopia’s debt and currency crisis by renegotiating Chinese loans, seeking financial and technical support from the World Bank, and courting new investment from the Gulf and Western partners.

The government has also begun a cautious move to private sector-led liberalization, with initial privatizations planned in the telecom and logistics sectors, but have put the brakes on all-out reform after criticism of plans to sell-off profitable companies like Ethiopian Airlines. The leadership wants to avoid moving from a state monopoly to a business monopoly and this will be a staged process, starting with regulatory reform and a greater role for business in job creation.

Despite a complicated operating environment, private sector appetite to invest remains strong and the government is keen to bring in more foreign currency to help alleviate its debt stress, particularly as the country is not able to substantially increase earnings from exports in the short term. Regional and international banks are keen to enter the market and there are efforts towards banking sector reform under Yinager Dessie, the new Governor of the national bank. Parliament also ratified the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA), which is a useful step as the financial sector is one of the five areas required to be opened by the parties of under service sector liberalization. Ethiopia moved to facilitate greater inter-African mobility, adopting a visa on arrival policy for Africans in line with the African Union’s decision to improve regional integration on the continent.

Tackling youth unemployment is a critical challenge in a country of 100 million people, with two million young people entering the job market every year. Ethiopia plans to create a million jobs a year through the expansion of its industrial parks and rapid growth in the manufacturing and services sectors. But even this will not be enough given population growth pressures and the demands to reduce poverty. Cognizant of the role of youth in toppling the previous EPRDF leadership, Abiy has focused on transforming the capital city rather than rural areas, claiming that ‘if you can change Addis…you can change Ethiopia’. However, it is important to note that the protests were largely spearheaded by rural youth and in order to reduce Ethiopia’s inequalities, transformation needs to start in the rural areas, home to approximately 80 per cent of the population. It is another difficult balancing act.

Fostering regional peace

Abiy Ahmed’s major foreign policy success has been the normalization of relations with Eritrea after twenty years of discord, bringing a massive peace dividend to a vast area of the Horn of Africa that had long been undermined by proxy conflicts between Addis Abeba and Asmara. Within weeks of a landmark July 2018 meeting between the prime minister and Eritrea’s President Isaias Afewerki, essential services were restored. Nonetheless, fundamental challenges remain in the relationship, including the need to outline details of a lasting political and economic cooperation framework.

The establishment of a sub-regional trilateral committee comprised of Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia is positive; however it should not be at the expense of maintaining good relations with traditional allies Djibouti, Sudan and Kenya; or impede reforms needed to make the Intergovernmental Authority on Development a truly functional regional organization. Abiy Ahmed’s role in improving prospects for lasting peace in the Horn has created a significant reservoir of regional and international goodwill. Yet if lasting solutions are to be found, he will need to engage with multilateral organizations rather than relying on one-to-one dialogues.

Ethiopia’s relationship with the Gulf states has also significantly improved over the past year, with Saudi Arabia and the UAE playing a role in brokering peace with Eritrea, Addis Abeba partnering with Abu Dhabi and Riyadh to improve economic integration in the Horn, and several new agreements on economic and military cooperation, including the UAE pledging $3 billion in aid and investment.

Abiy Ahmed has made great strides in his first year by challenging the status quo and disrupting the authoritarian state machinery. Yet, Ethiopia remains at a cross roads, and there remains significant uncertainty about the road ahead despite the prime minister’s intentions and the force of his personality. In his second year he must strive towards building a plural, democratic and stable political order, focusing on developing lasting institutions. For the prime minister’s reforms to stick he needs to revitalize the EPRDF under a new common vision and implement a sound economic strategy that consolidates hard-won recent gains. Most importantly, Abiy needs to address a deteriorating security situation that threatens the survival of the country. The burgeoning relationship between Ethiopia and Eritrea and broader regional integration, including across the Red Sea, needs to be expanded, but not at the expense of traditional allies and regional multilateralism.

Ultimately, Ethiopia’s many challenges are far more than one leader can tackle alone, and Abiy Ahmed must trust in the expertise around him to ensure the support and goodwill generated in his tumultuous first year is not squandered. AS


Editor’s Note: This is an expanded version of an Expert Comment produced by Chatham House

Abel Abate Demissie is Political Analyst; PhD Researcher in Global and Area Studies. He tweets at @Abele_a

Ahmed Soliman is Research Fellow, Horn of Africa, Africa Program at Chatham House. He tweets at @AhmedSolHoA

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