By Bakri Bazara
The spotlight has been shining on the prime minister, Abiy Ahmed. He has been on the receiving end of criticisms levelled against him by domestic detractors. Domestically, he has been denounced for the deteriorating security situation. Is Abiy the fall guy on which all the blame for the current political problems are heaped on? It seems so, and some of the rebukes are unwarranted.
Although Abiye is culpable for some of the current chaotic political situation in Ethiopia, most of the existing political problems are a legacy of previous governments.
One thing we must not forget is that Ethiopia has always had security problems. Historically, the state has been challenged by restive regions that were not amenable to central control. Starting with Tewdros who had ambitions of bringing the diverse ethnic communities under one central rule, all the ensuing leaders had to contend with pockets of resistance to central rule. This has been the case in all previous governments since Tewdros. Prior to that, warlords busied themselves for seven decades (Zemane Mesafint) fighting each other to expand their territories and gain hegemonic power. Until Tewdros came to power, none of those warlords managed to have hegemonic power over the others.
The second thing we need to remember is that security was already compromised during EPRDF/TPLF rule. Ethnic and religious clashes were happening then, most of them instigated by TPLF, and whenever or wherever it happened, they basically turned a blind eye.
It is true that under Abiy ’s watch the general security situation in Ethiopia has been deteriorating. Ethnic conflicts have been gaining momentum, especially in the Amara , Oromo, and Beni-shangul-Gumuz regions. The rise in ethnic and religious chauvinism in those regions is disheartening. The atrocities on all sides have been carried out mercilessly and relentlessly. There are no indications that the mayhem is abating or ceasing. Sadly, those ethnic and religious conflicts have caused mass killings of innocent civilians and displaced many families who have been living in the area for generations.
Abiye as head of state could have done more to bolster security in the country, but he has not, for some reason. However, it is speculated that Abiye may have been overwhelmed by the increase of problems cropping up all over the country. It seems like he may not have the wherewithals to address all those problems.
There are a number of things going on simultaneously that have been a challenge for the state. Firstly, There is the “law and order” enforcement mission in Tigray, which is proving to be more of a counter-insurrection campaign than a law enforcement effort. Initially intended to be a short-duration military operation is now in its sixth month, and it seems that the military conflict with TPLF is unlikely to stop soon. The Ethiopian government is bent on crushing the insurgency in Tigray and it has been pushing the military mission forward till it achieves its goal of vanquishing the rebels. How long will the counter-insurgency continue and whether the insurgency will be completely annihilated is anybody’s guess. In the meantime, the ramifications of this counterinsurgency on Tigrayan civilians is taking its toll and there is no end in sight.
Secondly, the armed wing of the Oromo Liberation Front(OLF), the militant group known as Shanay, is causing havoc in the Oromia region. They have been targeting minorities in their region, mainly Amaras, carrying out ferocious attacks against innocent Amara civilians. There has been systematic mass killings and forced evictions. These incidents have increased lately, possibly because of the perception that the Ethiopian National Defence is out-stretched, and that its capacity to fight two or more insurgents at a time is limited. Shanay may also think that this is an opportune time to escalate their terroristic attacks on civilian minorities in their region and military activities against the state in order to foil the coming national election.
Having monopoly of coercive power—to have the power of enforcement of the laws of the state and ensure the security of citizens—is a sine qua non function of the state. Unfortunately, the state has failed in providing this basic function. Part of the reasons for the state not being able to fully secure the country, without accounting for the historical antecedents that led to ethnic strife, is the state’s very own weakness.
The ruling party, the prosperity party, is weak. It is saddled with internal problems, mainly in Abiye’s inability to consolidate his power and bring aboard all or majority party members behind his vision that stresses unity of Ethiopia. Some of the Oromos within the prosperity party have been more vocal in trying to stifle Abiye’s narrative of what Ethiopia should be and promote their own ethno-nationalistic narrative with dreams of controlling the state or autonomy through an ethnically-based Federation with option to secede, as stipulated in the current constitution. So far, Abiye’s narrative of a unified Ethiopia that transcends ethnic politics seems to take hold and overwhelm the competing narrative of some of the Oromos in the prosperity party. Whether Abiye would be able to bring all or majority of the Oromos in his party to align behind him only time will tell. It is hoped, though, that he doesn’t go in the other direction and align himself with the Oromo nationalists. If that happens, it will be the heart-breaker most Ethiopians pray won’t happen.
The national election is most likely to go ahead on June 5th. Two of the main Oromo parties had announced not to participate in the election. The June election is likely to be held without them. Abiy is likely to win, and the opposition is likely to vehemently protest and condemn the election process as rigged. Most Ethiopians who want to transcend a political order that is based on ethnicity would not be too concerned about possible irregularities in the votes-count or the election process in general. They just want to see Abiye in a leadership position and secure the country from disintegrating. Progressive Ethiopians still have faith in Abiye, they are banking on him to unite the country and get them out of a political order that is based on ethnicity. More importantly, they are interested in seeing Abiye at the helm of power and use the state’s coercive power to go after armed groups that have been carrying out terrorist attacks against civilians and bring them to justice or, if they resist, eliminate them.
Despite the lack of trust in Abiy by some Ethiopians, who see him as a fickle man surreptitiously working to empower Oromos, progressive Ethiopians are willing to give him the benefit of doubt and stick by him to unite the country and bring about the necessary reforms.
Carrying out deep reforms in a state is a monumental task and it takes a lot of effort and time. The current ruling party, Prosperity party , is basically like the old EPRDF, party apparatchiks are entrenched and still operating in the same old ways. Venality and graft, which was the hallmark of EPRDF, still is prevalent. The same people who were participants in perpetuating EPRDF and benefiting from it are still around. The corruption is continuing. Some Party cadres are not enthusiastic about Abiye’s envisioned reforms. They would rather maintain the status-quo and forestall reforms in order to continue their corrupt practices and enrich themselves. Job openings in government are being predominantly filled by Oromos. Positions formerly held by Tigrayans are being replaced by mainly Oromos, just like the previous government, jobs are doled out based on ethnicity rather than merit. As it is right now, the prosperity party runs the state in a typical neo-patrimonial way. Such a government is not sustainable and would eventually collapse just like EPRDF/TPLF did.
Reforms must be carried out. This is not going to be an easy task, but Abiye must be given the necessary support to have a go at it. The alternative is to abandon the country into the hands of the Oromo-nationalists, whose underlying goal is state control, short of that of an autonomous ethnic state or separation. State control by Oromo-nationalists is unlikely. Oromo control of the state will definitely not be acceptable to most Ethiopians. If by fluke the Oromos manage to ascend to power through the ballot box or the barrel of the gun, a far-fetched occurrence, it will be like reverting to TPLF like rulers, a version 2.0 TPLF, where elite Oromos will have their turn at siphoning the state’s treasury for personal enrichment and try to perpetuate their rule for the longest possible time through subterfuges and pitting one ethnic group against another. This will be an inevitability, inherently ruled by one dominant ethnic group who always gives preference to their own ethnic group and leaves others living on the margin. It will be the usual neo-patrimonial state where the state’s resources are exploited by party officials for self-enrichment.
Progressive Ethiopians, those who want to extricate the country from parochial ethnic politics, expect a lot from Abiye once he gets elected. They are giving Abiye a short list with three core items in it. The first item in the list they like Abiye carry out is the beefing up of his coercive power and stopping armed groups from freely operating in the country. The power of the state depends on having monopoly over coercive power. Ethiopians must be protected from armed brigands and ethnic national terrorists who are uncontrollably roaming around in the country.
Another important item in the list is the laying out of the foundations of democracy. Rule-of-law and accountability are essential elements of democratic governance. Rule-of-law must be obeyed by both the governed and the governing and not be like in the previous government where the rule-of -law is flouted by some Party officials. Associated with that, you can not have rule-of-law without accountability. Those running the government should be accountable to the public and transparent in all their doings. Without these two components, rule-of-law and accountability, you can not have an effective state.
A third crucial item that needs to be considered is the existing constitution. Obviously the current constitution is problematic. Organizing the country along ethnic lines is the main reason the country is embroiled in ethnic and religious conflicts. The constitution needs to be reformed or re-written to reflect a genuine democratic order where all citizen’s rights are respected. This is not going to be accepted by the hard core ethno-nationalists, they will fight tooth and nail to perpetuate the notorious ethnic federalism. But this needs to be done if peace and stability is the goal of the nation. If there is any lesson to be learnt from some nations who experimented with ethnic federalism, it is that it is a deterrent to peaceful coexistence. There is a general consensus by a significant number of Ethiopians that most of the ills the nation is suffering from is due to a political order based on ethnic federalism. As hard as it might be to Chuck out ethnic federalism, it is a necessity that the nation must do to preserve the territorial integrity and unity of the nation.
Whether Abiy will continue the vision he promised Ethiopians, once he assumes leadership as an elected prime minister, we will know after the election. There is a lot of hope that he will do what is in the best interest of the whole country and not play into the hands of the Oromo ethno-nationalists who want to divide the country into ethnic Bantustans.
By the same author : Foreign Machinations In The Tigray War
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