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March 1, 2021
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PM Abiy Ahmed’s Biggest Test is yet to come

I hope and trust the prime minister will conduct true and fair elections despite the enormous challenges

by Addissu Admas

The existence of Ethiopia is our pride and honor.

“The existence of Ethiopia is our pride and honor. Do not expect an Ethiopian that will trade on Ethiopia’s existence.” Abiy Ahmed

The war in Tigray has been for PM Abiy Ahmed the biggest challenge of his relatively young premiership. Not many would have predicted that not only that an armed attack on the TPLF in their own backyard could have taken place, but that the TPLF would have vacated Mekele, its power center, to resume guerilla warfare. From all indications, it appears that it is not doing well as its famed reputation would have otherwise suggested: many of its top leaders have been killed or hiding somewhere in the high mountains of Tigray; and God knows if some have reached safer harbors abroad. Who would have predicted that the mighty TPLF, which defeated and disbanded the Derg’s armed forces, ruled Ethiopia virtually unchallenged and with an iron fist for nearly 28 years would have come to such an ignominious end? Less than three years ago, the TPLF was still the absolute master of Ethiopia’s armed forces with more than 90% of its top officers hailing from a couple of towns in Tigray. In fact, since the TPLF’s ascent to power, the military was nothing but the armed wing of the party, even if it tried hard to give the impression of not being so by opening up the lower ranks to the multitude of other ethnic groups. How PM Abiy was able to gain control of the military and turn it against its erstwhile bosses is as perplexing as it is intriguing. By this alone, PM Abiy has demonstrated an unusual strategic acumen. Whether he will continue to maintain a tight leash on the military is still to be seen. However, his success in keeping Tigray and the Tigrean people in the confederation will not depend entirely on his military success only. The prime minister knows this more than anyone. While keeping his thumb firmly on the TPLF, he must do his utmost to preserve the well-being of the Tigrean people. Let it be made clear without fail that the war is not and has never been against the Tigrean people but against a tyrannous party that has done its utmost to divide Ethiopians and pursue single-mindedly the hegemony and prosperity of its own ethnic base over others. A fact that has only exacerbated the ethnic animus that has plagued Ethiopia for much of her recent history. It should therefore be more a war to rid Ethiopia of the politics of divide and rule, of tribalism, ethnocentrism and their debilitating consequences.

This war could also be a warning to parties egging their base to rebel. What they are advocating for, or better inciting, is a very narrow-minded and destructive civil war, which can only lead to the complete fragmentation and destruction of the Ethiopian state. From here on, whatever they want to achieve, they must seek it through peaceful struggle for theirs and their peoples’ good. Haven’t they learned anything at all from 60 years of armed liberation struggle? Shouldn’t we all give peace a chance?

Be this as it may, the war in Tigray is neither the only nor the biggest challenge facing Ethiopia today. The general elections, which now are planned to be held in June this year, and the postponement of which last year was the declared reason for TPLF’s rebellion, maybe the most divisive event facing Ethiopia, and the biggest test for PM Abiy as leader. How he is going to hold them is as important as how he will accept their outcome. His legacy will not be measured by the fact that he was the first and only Ethiopian recipient of a Noble Prize, or that he decisively brought to an end the reign of the TPLF, but how earnestly and determinedly he pursued the creation of a democratic foundation for Ethiopia. Like many an undemocratic nation, Ethiopia has inserted the word “democratic” in its appellation. PM Abiy is in a unique position to render this word its true meaning to Ethiopia in the upcoming elections. It is true that “one swallow does not make a summer” as Aristotle famously said. If it were so, the elections of 2005 under the aegis of the TPLF would have been presumed to be the fairest until then. However, their results were not only utterly ignored, but provided Meles Zenawi and his government an occasion to imprison, torture, persecute and silence all opposition voices. What followed predictably was an even more oppressive, restrictive and tyrannous TPLF.

PM Abiy, being the one who personally invited all opposition parties to return from exile to engage once more in a democratic dialogue is – as one would assume – committed to a transparent and fair transfer of power. If he is not, as some of his ardent detractors suggest, then all would have been a shameless deception. Like most Ethiopians, I hope and trust the prime minister will conduct true and fair elections despite the enormous challenges the pandemic and the troublesome armed parties pose. Not only because he wants to legitimize his image of a peacemaker, but because he is, I presume, fully cognizant of his historical legacy.

Whatever Ethiopians choose to become, however they want to organize their nation, whatever laws they want to enact, whatever form of economic arrangement they seek can only be determined fairly only through a democratic process. Any ruling imposed from above will only plant the seed for future discord and strife.

PM Abiy must not only organize the most transparent and the fairest elections that Ethiopians have ever known, but should be the one to accept with equanimity and grace their results even if they do not favor him or his party. The chances are very good, however, that he will prevail; and his party, the Prosperity Party, will win at least a substantial number of seats in parliament (Meker Bet) as to be able to form his own legitimate government for the first time. On the unlikely chance that he and his party do not win the majority of votes to form a one party government, they should be ready and willing to form a coalition government, or assume the role of an earnest democratic opposition party. The test for PM Abiy consists ultimately in how he will react to the results of the elections. Will it be business as usual, or a truly new beginning for democracy in Ethiopia? It is completely up to the prime minister and his party.

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