Amidst instability, Ethiopia’s Abiy wants to strengthen the ruling alliance

By Morris Kiruga, in Nairobi

Posted on Wednesday, 3 July 2019 17:13
Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has moved to partly liberalize the financial sector. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

As Ethiopia moves on from the attempted coup last month, the future of its ruling party has never been shakier.

During his performance report to parliament last Monday 1 July, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed vowed that “anyone who threatens Ethiopia’s sovereignty” will be fought “with a Kalashnikov, not with a pen”. The wide-ranging report covered many facets of Ethiopia’s current state of affairs, but the most gripping were those related to security and the political situation.

He emphasised “the only way to come to power in Ethiopia hereafter is through an election.” The next elections are less than a year away, and the main question is whether the ruling alliance can resolve its internal differences in time to win at the ballot box.

  • In recent weeks, Ethiopia appointed the four remaining members of the electoral board, new heads of the judiciary, a new army chief and a new head of the human rights commission.
  • Legislators who voted against the appointments to the electoral board said the ruling party had not consulted its allies before nominating the four individuals. The government claims only 20 parties responded to the process that began in April.

Opening up

Abiy’s democratic reforms granted many opposition parties formal recognition, thus challenging the dominance previously enjoyed by the parties in the ruling alliance – the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). His ascension marked the end of the Tigrayan monopoly on power but almost broke the alliance.

Although members of the Tigray wing of the EPRDF lost several of their political and military positions, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) retains considerable influence on the ruling party’s future. The Amhara Democratic Party (ADP) and Oromo Democratic Party (ODP) publicly accused the TPLF of supporting conflicts in those regions. Tigrayans are also Abiy’s most vocal opponents. His decision last year to form a Republican Guard to guard him and other top officials, for example, was described  by some as “SS Nazi type” and “the final stages of preparing to become a full-fledged military dictator”.

Internal ructions

Meanwhile, the individual parties that make up the EPRDF coalition are facing challenges of their own. The attempted coup in Amhara was a direct challenge to the ADP, which is desperately trying to manage what has quickly become a crisis. In January, journalist Mastewal Dessalew correctly predicted that the National Movement of Amhara (NaMA), a party he described as “the youth branch of the reformed ADP […] could become the [ADP’s] Frankenstein”.

  • Among the more than 200 people arrested in connection with the coup attempt are 56 members of NaMA, including its spokesperson, Christian Tadele.
  • In Oromia, the ODP is facing a resurgent Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and other opposition groups, whose growing support places the Prime Minister’s party at risk of an electoral loss.

The TPLF’s long legacy

Part of the problem for both parties is that they were essentially built by the TPLF. The TPLF’s tumultuous relationship with the OLF, which ended when the latter withdrew from the government in 1992, created a gap that needed to be quickly and effectively filled. The ODP, like the ADP, was formed with support from the TPLF in the early 1990s as part of the Tigrayan-led revolution’s strategy to build other ethnic parties.

  • The TPLF’s 1970 manifesto stated that its struggle was “anti-Amhara and anti-imperialism”. Later, it supported the formation of the ADP, originally a pan-Ethiopian movement known as the Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement.
  • Effectively, this made the parties subservient to the TPLF and often led to a failure to address key issues in their constituencies. For example, the territorial flash points between Amhara and its neighbours include Wolkayt-Tegede and Raya, which went to Tigray region, and Metekel, which went to Benishangul Gumuz region. During the recent coup attempt, 37 people were killed in Metekel.

Pressure on unity

Abiy and his key allies have expressed plans to unify the EPRDF. The internal differences, lack of a unifying political ideology and growing opposition, however, stand in the way.

Belachew Fikre, a former commissioner of the Ethiopian Investment Commission (EIC), tells The Africa Report the unity of Ethiopia is at stake:

“At the moment, the foundations that kept Ethiopia as a multinational/multi-ethnic state are shaken, not so much by the political differences which too are plenty, but mainly because of a heightened economic class struggle that is instigating each unit of the federation to want to emerge as a nationally dominant player at the expense of others. The EPRDF is the architect of this condition through constitutionally entrenched misdeeds and perhaps the only body that can lead us out of it. But it can only happen if it works and delivers as one by re-engineering its fractured shape, by becoming a more inclusive national party and by significantly diluting its extremely ethnicised modus operandi.”

To do this, the EPRDF must overcome not just its own history, but also the differing interests of its constituent parties. In his performance report, Abiy emphasised that the only way to change the constitution would be through legal means.

Constitutional change up for debate

One major concern for many non-Oromo political groupings is that a potential constitutional change could be a switch from the parliamentary system to a presidential one. The idea has had support among the Oromo, primarily because they are the most populous in the country and such a system could directly benefit them.

  • One of the central arguments against the current constitution among the Amhara, on the other hand, is that they were not represented when the existing constitution was made.

While these are issues the emerging ethnic-nationalist parties are building on, they are no less important to the internal competition within the EPRDF. Abiy is still navigating the layered differences with less than a year to the elections.

Berhanu Tsega wrote “It would have paramount importance for the country as a whole, for him [Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed] and OPDO [the former name of the ODP] in particular, to line up with TPLF and stick with this party’s cardinal political-economy principles which are already proven to be effective.”

Abiy has made it clear in his actions that he intends to break with the country’s former economic model, even at the risk that an EPRDF loss next year could see a new government taking a different direction.

To former EIC commissioner Fikre though, the EPRDF’s fortunes are deeply connected to how it responds to the prevailing economic issues. “Every political reform agenda that overlooks the ways and means of bringing the youth back to the productive use of its time by engaging in decent jobs may hardly be sustained,” he says. “This remains the number 1, 2, and 3 challenge that the current administration and EPRDF, both in its current and future stronger united national party, face.”

Bottom Line:

While Ethiopia’s ruling alliance has an obvious advantage of incumbency going to the 2020 elections, the changing fortunes of its constituent parties make it paramount that it finds a unifying political ideology. A unified national party of its size would not only enhance its position in the May 2020 elections, but it would also provide the kind of political environment necessary for the central government to succeed.

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