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Abiy Ahmed paddles Ethiopia’s Prosperity Party towards elections

By Morris Kiruga, in Nairobi
Posted on Thursday, 5 March 2020 16:47, updated on Friday, 6 March 2020 07:38

Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed
Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

With just five months to the August elections, Ethiopia's PM Abiy Ahmed's 'new' party is working to popularize itself, even as it battles with other parties on multiple fronts.

Just three months after rebranding EPRDF, the former ruling party which brought him to power, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister is facing up to the many battles on multiple fronts his new party faces, as he tries to steer the ship towards the August election.

The Prosperity Party, now one of the country’s 130+ political parties, was always going to be PM Abiy’s way of setting a different political agenda other than that of the party of Meles Zenawi.

  • But the former ruling party did not go quietly. The TPLF, the founding member of the former coalition, argued last year that the change was unconstitutional.
  • After a failed reconciliatory meeting last November, where PM Abiy threatened to not only blockade Tigray, which the TPLF rules, but also threatened to rig the August elections, he formed the new party without them.
  • In January, he also fired the TPLF’s deputy leader, Fetlework Gebregziabher, from the cabinet.

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In the first days of February, Ethiopia’s election board mediated between the Prosperity Party and the TPLF on asset sharing, giving the former three quarters and the latter a quarter of the net worth of the former ruling party.

  • Within a few weeks, the new party opened new offices in Tigray and is training its mid-level leaders there and across the rest of the country.

With the Prosperity Party now a reality, PM Abiy has adopted a slightly more conciliatory tone with Tigray, explaining that his administration was not sidelining the region.

  • “There are still over ten state ministers and officials who are from Tigray, according to PM Abiy. “One minister is sacked from a position…But the number of people from Tigray is still the same…”

The Ethiopian leader still needs Tigray for several reasons, almost all of them important.

The most important one is existential: after holding power for three decades, Tigray is the military bastion of the Eastern African country, and its economic web cuts across the country.

  • The second main reason has to do with the Ethiopia-Eritrea peace pact, for which the Prime Minister was named the 100th Nobel Peace Prize winner in 2019.
  • Tigray is the frontier region to Eritrea, and therefore the main route to Asmara. The TPLF, which led the country when Ethiopia and Eritrea fought a two-year war at the tail end of the 20th Century, still maintains hostile relations with Eritrea.
  • It also still occupies some of the disputed lands that led to war in 1998, returned to Eritrea in a peace pact that PM Abiy has said Addis Ababa will honor.

Eritrean strongman Isiais Afwerki said on the country’s state TV4 that “The real reason why the occupied territory [the town of Badme specifically] has not yet been returned is because of TPLF’s adamant refusal”; and that the former ruling party is instead redistributing the land to its supporters.

This has stalled the effects of the peace pact between the two countries, with most, if not all, land borders remaining closed. But there are still flights between the two capitals, which marks progress, but not the kind either leader wants or needs right now.

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PM Abiy is banking on the fervor of the campaign process to solve, or at least stall, some of the problems for him. While the TPLF is in a historically strong position to oppose him, for example, it is still now looking for partners for a new coalition, while facing opposition in Tigray as well.

  • The bad taste of the TPLF’s time in power also works well for Addis Ababa, by making it harder for most parties to consider a coalition with them a good idea.

But PM Abiy still faces critical questions of how he can navigate the multiple issues on the regional level, especially for the parties he merged, to mount a national campaign with (more) violence.

Jawar, an immensely popular figure in Oromo politics at the moment, and other leaders are also working on a loose coalition on the issue of self-rule.

The alleged attempt to remove his security detail in late 2019, and the tens of deaths that followed, proved to Abiy that further harassment would escalate things. He is likely to use the bureaucracy to frustrate his efforts, which is already happening.

  • In Amhara, the security situation since the attempted coup in June has only worsened and there are many issues for the new regional administration has to deal with.
  • In mid-February, the issue of ‘brain drain’, as the Abiy taps the region’s leaders to positions in his administration and party, came up during an emergency council meeting.

The council’s refusal to accede to the regional head’s proposals exemplify, in a way, the region’s resistance to either PM Abiy’s strategy or speed.

Like other regions, Amhara is likely to be caught up in its regional issues far more than national ones, as its leaders try to placate its citizens’ and solve security, ethnic, and even generational tensions.

For Addis Ababa, the main challenge for the next few months is to build the center, with the Prosperity Party as its main vehicle, while keeping the regions not just together within Ethiopia, but even as intact regions within themselves.

It also has to battle rising political figures in Oromia, which hosts the capital and whose leaders are demanding self-rule, to keep it within the federation.

Bottom Line: Giving many of these issues time to fester would only worsen them, which might explain why both the Prime Minister and the electoral board have repeatedly said the election date is cast in stone.

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