The 28 May 1991 is a day Ethiopia recalls very well and has adopted as its National Day.
On that day, the forces of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) surrounded and shelled the presidential palace and took control of the capital city of Addis Ababa, formally declaring the demise of the communist Derg regime that had ruled since the coup d’état against the last emperor of Ethiopia in 1975.
The ensuing incidents were never easy for the man who initiated the military struggle against the Mengistu-led communist regime, namely Ethiopia’s strongman Legesse Zenawi, aka Meles, the name of his classmate who the Derg had brutally executed in 1975.
After the secession of Eritrea in 1993, Ethiopia was feared to be a failed state because Eritrea’s independence had turned Ethiopia into a landlocked country. Eritrea’s secession was a blessing in disguise, however.
The fear of a failed state made the other ethnicities rally behind Meles Zenawi’s recipe of governance: an ethno-federal system in which each of the nine regions (the 10th region is in the pipeline as Sidama votes this November for statehood) of Ethiopia has its own government. Moreover, the 1994 constitution introduced the most controversial article so far —Article 39 that grants each region the right to secession under certain conditions.
In 2012, modern Ethiopia’s godfather Meles Zenawi died, but the monster he unleashed, the ethno-federal system, did not. Fueled by their grudge against the small minority that controlled almost everything under Zenawi, namely the powerful Tigray, other ethnicities banded together for the first time in almost two decades and challenged the Woyana, or the Tigray People’s Liberation Front’s (TPLF) monopoly over Ethiopia’s political sphere.
Unable to contain the growing dissidence, particularly coming from the Oromo, the largest ethnicity and the historically most marginalised one in the country, Zenawi’s hand-picked and well-educated professional Hailemariam Desalegn, who hails from the southern nationalities, courageously submitted his resignation in 2018, a rare occurrence in Africa, hoping that this would be part of the political compromise in the Horn of Africa nation.
To quench the Oromo rebellion, it was time to pick an Oromo politician to head the EPRDF, something that had never previously happened in Ethiopia’s modern history. Hence, came the rise of the American-educated, young and charismatic Abiy Ahmed.
The man, whose first name is a shortened form of the Amharic word Abiyot, which means “revolution”, really did revolutionise Ethiopian politics. He released all political prisoners, shut down the infamous Maekelawi jail where opponents were harshly tortured and killed, lifted the ban on Oromo movements, once formally labelled terrorist organisations, and allowed the return of opposition figures and all the armed militias back home, perhaps the last being his tragic flaw.
Since their return back home, the armed militias have been stashing weaponry and getting more recruits every day. The government seems helpless in trying to control the day-to-day influx of arms into the nation. Such an accumulation of arms is the harbinger of a sad ending, however.
In the past months, armed militias have burned houses, looted shops, and seized control over territory annexed to some regions under the previous governments, forcing some two million people out of their homes and causing one of the worst humanitarian crises Ethiopia has known since the famine that hit the nation in the 1980s.
The reformist leader, who recently received a significant accolade in the Nobel Peace Prize, the first ever in Ethiopia, has reshuffled the country’s political system. He introduced Medemer, a term floated when the prime minister was delivering his inauguration speech upon taking the oath of office in April 2018 and accidently on purpose the same day on which the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam was launched.
Medemer, seemingly the peak of Abiymania, the growing sense of a personality cult of the young prime minister, is a book in which he presents his political ideology and a reminder of the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s Green Book.
The new ideology implies the national merging of all the country’s ethnicities under a powerful centralised system in which ethnicity is abandoned for the sake of “Ethiopianness”, a term that has recently surfaced as a nationalist sensation in the second-most populous nation in Africa.
By all appearances, the would-be system looks good, as it would join all the ethnicities under the banner of one united Ethiopia, except that it does not appeal even to a big portion of Ahmed’s fellow Oromo, who burnt the book carrying his image in apparent defiance of the young leader’s perceived notion of tomorrow’s Ethiopia.
Moreover, Ahmed was received with “Down with Abiy” chants by angry Oromo in the city of Ambo, the cradle of anti-government protests that brought to an end the Tigrayan hegemony over Ethiopia’s polity.
But this is not all the prime minister has to care about. Ahmed has to run the gauntlet of the opposition because lurking behind it are the Tigrayans, the once-powerful elite that swept Ethiopia’s politics and economy under late prime minister Zenawi. They have their own woes because they feel marginalised.
In June 2019, Debretsion Gebremichael, being groomed for the post of prime minister after the sudden resignation of Desalegn, uttered his ethnicity’s outcry. Gebremichael, once infamously described as the “Joseph Goebbels of Ethiopia” due to his tight grip on all branches of the security apparatus, explicitly spoke of secession. He said there was a growing feeling in Tigray to secede from the rest of the country.
In reality, Mekele, the capital city of Tigray, has turned into a hub for former intelligence and security chiefs, ministers, and media personnel who were removed from office either because of the atrocities they committed while in power or as a means to make it up to other furious ethnicities. Concurrently, fierce media campaigns have been directed against the Tigrayans, demonising the small minority and putting the blame on them for Ethiopia’s current plight.
As a response, outrage against Ahmed is rife in the region, something he has watered down by saying that democracy comes at a cost.
Banking on the support of the Ethiopian people, Ahmed has distanced himself from the ill-famed EPRDF and sought its transformation into one single party, the Ethiopian Prosperity Party (EPP). This potential party would include all affiliated parties, with representation based on an ethnicity’s size and population. No wonder the Tigrayans gnashed their teeth over the idea instantly.
The whole idea hinges on a presupposition that Ahmed will get the so-called popular mandate he seeks when Ethiopians go to the polls in May 2020. Here, there are two divergent paths. Some active political forces, including the prime minister himself, are in favour of the idea of holding elections no matter what. This camp thinks that the newly elected MPs would be empowered enough to trigger the needed changes, both political and economic.
The other camp wants a transitional period until constitutional and political reforms are introduced. Advocates here believe that the rush for elections, amid growing tensions and multi-ethnic rifts, would dearly cost the nation. They are also afraid that the nation itself may be at stake as everybody recalls the sad memories of the 2005 elections, held under Zenawi.
That time round things almost got out of control as violence erupted in Oromia and Addis Ababa itself over claims of vote-rigging. The 2005 elections ended in hundreds dead, thousands arrested, many prominent political figures forced into exile, including the famed judge Birtukan Mideksa, who now serves as the chairwoman of Ethiopia’s National Electoral Board.
Like the godfather Zenawi whose ethno-federalism, seen as the cause of each and every plight in a highly-polarised Ethiopia, helped him to tighten his grip on power, Ahmed seemingly wants to attain the same goal, unleashing what others think of as another monster, the single party system.
Zenawi’s so-called notion of “Unity in Diversity”, which the country’s ethnicities once celebrated, will be sent into oblivion given the new prime minister’s philosophy of rule. The gains of the ethnicities, most importantly their sense, to say the least, of semi-autonomous rule, may vanish into thin air.
Like turkeys voting for Christmas, to which camp will the Ethiopians align themselves: the hated EPRDF or Ahmed’s EPP? Stay within the EPRDF and ethnic rifts could overwhelm Ethiopian politics for decades to come. Accept Ahmed’s new recipe of rule, and then being Oromo, Tigrayan, Amhara will not matter, because what would matter the most would be that you are Ethiopianist.
*The writer is a former press and information officer in Ethiopia and an expert on African affairs.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.