Ethiopia’s dual path: Unity or more federalism?

Haitham Nouri , Saturday 30 Nov 2019

In the next six months leading up to parliamentary elections, will Ethiopia move towards more federalism, or will its premier be able to unite its political and ethnic groups, asks Haitham Nouri

 Ethiopia’s dual path
A voter prepares to cast his vote in a referendum on a new federal state in Hawassa, Ethiopia (photos:AFP)

Ethiopia’s political scene is divided in two opposite directions, one seeking the merger of three of its four ethnic-based parties into a single national coalition, and the other planning for more autonomy, which has been the state’s policy throughout the past three decades.

The drive to unite was manifested in the approval of Ethiopia’s ruling coalition to merge the parties of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front under one umbrella, to be named the Prosperity Party.

The new party will open offices across the country and adopt the national languages preferred by each region individually, reported Ethiopia’s official news agency.

The Prosperity Party will hold a convention to develop its programme and register itself and its members as candidates in the legislative elections, slated for May 2020.

The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front is made up of four political parties; namely, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the Amhara Democratic Party, the Oromo Democratic Party and the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement.

According to 2007 figures of the Ethiopian Central Agency for Statistics, the Oromo Democratic Party represents the Oromo ethnicity, which makes up 34 per cent of Ethiopia’s population, the Amhara constitutes 27 per cent of Ethiopians, the Tigray 6.2 per cent, while the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement represents 56 ethnicities.

Ethiopia comprises 80 ethnic groups, many of which want to form federal regions and seek autonomous rule.

Founding the Prosperity Party received the approval of three of the four parties making up the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front. The fourth party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, announced neither its approval nor rejection.

This unity drive is an “implicit declaration of the failure of ethnic policies” the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front adopted since assuming power in 1991 following the fall of late colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, said Hamdi Abdel-Rahman, professor of African studies at Cairo University.

“This is the first step to establishing autocratic rule under the leadership of [Ethiopian Prime Minister] Abiy Ahmed and the victory of his neoliberal views that earned him the affection of the West and paved the way for his Nobel Peace Prize,” added Abdel-Rahman.

Ethiopia’s charismatic premier is promoting the opening up of the large market of the country that has tried for decades to establish a welfare state since Mengistu’s communism (1974-1991) and the socialism of Meles Zenawi (1991-2012).

The young leader is facing enomous challenges, however. The Tigray ethnicity — which has been in power since Zenawi, one of its own, rose to the helm — will not give up the privileges it has in the security and military institutions.

Moreover, a large number of the Oromos, from which Ahmed hails, have stood in solidarity with Ahmed’s opponent Jawar Mohamed, who has surrounded himself with much controversy.

Mohamed’s supporters have been calling for more rights and privileges for the Oromos who never assumed power before the rise of Ahmed as Ethiopia’s premier.

The largest region in the country, comprising Addis Ababa and the Oromos’ areas, witnessed large-scale protests that led to the death, injury and displacement of many.

It looks like going back on the “ethnic policy” will not be easy, particularly after the Sidama ethnic group, in the southern region, voted in a referendum this week on the creation of Ethiopia’s 10th region. The results came in with 98 per cent of the Sidama approving the formation of a federal region.

The Sidama population is a little over four million people. The referendum will encourage smaller ethnicities to do the same, starting a snowball of tens of regions requesting the fulfilment of their aspirations for independence. In this case, Ethiopia’s southern region will disintegrate.

Ethiopia’s south has had a difficult time due to ethnic conflicts that claimed the lives of hundreds, injured thousands and led to the displacement of over a million Ethiopians who fled their homes to escape the bloodshed, according to government figures. Independent bodies didn’t release the number of those arrested.

These ethnic conflicts hit the second most populated African country. Ethiopia’s population stands at 110 million, and it is only preceded by Nigeria, whose population numbers around 200 million people.

Larger than the Sidama population is the Somali group, that is not a part of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front. The Somali ethnicity takes home in Ogaden, the region where the war between Ethiopia and Somalia took place in the 1970s.

These are some of the challenges facing Prime Minister Ahmed, whose Nobel award will not be of much help in this situation. The country needs much more investment than it has already attracted.

According to government estimates, Ethiopia’s growth rate between 2003 and 2015 stood at 10 per cent, due to direct investments from China and Europe in textiles, leather and livestock. These investments helped tens of millions of Ethiopians out of extreme poverty the country has been suffering from for the majority of the past century.

Western reports indicated that the Ethiopian government’s figures were exaggerated. The figures, however, have a solid base. Ethiopia’s GDP increased, and so did the individual’s average income. The quality of education and health services notably improved.

Nonetheless, Ethiopia started losing its large investments following tensions that occurred with the 2015 elections, in which the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front claimed all the parliamentary seats and more than 90 per cent of the popular vote. The country known for its extreme diversity no longer enjoyed political openness.

On the other hand, it’s undeniable the regime has rejuvenated itself by selecting Ahmed to head the government. He is the first Oromo to be in the strongest position in Ethiopia.

Upon rising to the helm, Ahmed immediately embarked on a series of reforms, starting with the historic reconciliation with Ethiopia’s two-decade enemy and neighbour, Eritrea.

Ahmed released political prisoners, and “for the first time in decades Ethiopia’s prisons didn’t hold a single journalist”. He allowed the return of the exiled, whatever their ethnicity, which gave room for more tensions to erupt in the country.

“Not all those leaders [who were exiled] are well-intentioned. Many of them are seeking political and personal gains,” said Gamal Gibran, an Ethiopian journalist residing in Beirut. “Some of them have already started inciting” the public, Gibran added, referencing Jawar Mohamed.

Mohamed’s opponents believe he is fomenting strife, while his proponents see him as a leader driving the country towards democracy.

“Democracy needs a long time to materialise, but Ethiopia is expected to hold elections next year,” said Gibran.

Decision-making circles in Addis Ababa have been busy with discussions about the practicality of “putting off the elections”. Gibran believes the team winning this debate is the group calling for the elections to be held as scheduled.

“Postponing the elections will exacerbate tensions between ethnicities, because every group will claim it can win the ballot. They will not have solid ground to prove their claims, but it is enough to blow the situation out of proportion,” stated Gibran.

Ethiopia faces difficult challenges in the six months prior to elections. Some of these challenges will consolidate Ahmed’s position, but many more will lead the country towards federalism.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the title: Ethiopia’s dual path

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