Can Ethiopia still make structural political reforms?

Street demonstrations in Addis Ababa 2018
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Decades of polarizing ethnic politics and conflict have increased public disdain for elites and the country’s constitution, yet the Abiy government is losing political capital needed for reforms.

Ethiopia’s controversial constitution, with its system of ethnic federalism has been a boon for demagogues and conflict merchants seeking power using identity-based propaganda. Even outside powers with interest in Ethiopia have long figured out how to exploit Ethiopia’s ethnic divisions, exacerbated by this system of governance. For instance, the State Department regularly confers with diaspora groups and organizations carefully selected by their ethnic affiliation, while regularly shunning or avoiding multi-cultural and multi-ethnic Ethiopian national organizations. Historically the collective West has promoted destructive identity politics in Africa. Leveraging the growing African diaspora in the West for this purpose is thus a natural extension of this policy. Regional powers in the Middle East have used a similar approach. In a bid to slow the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, Egypt has long supported ethnic based insurgencies in Ethiopia.

It was hoped Ethiopia’s constitution adopted in 1994, would bring equity to its many nations and nationalities, whose culture and language was suppressed by successive regimes seeking centralism for fear of losing power to ungovernable separate entities. Ethiopia had been a more centralized state for a century before. Proponents argued the new constitution would bring unity and stability to a nation beset with separatist liberation movements. In hindsight, after three decades, fundamental questions of nationhood, culture, language, identity, boundaries, and equity remain unanswered, and arguably worst off. In practice, federalism in Ethiopia has led to fragmentation, not equality or democratization.

Many had argued freeing up political and civil liberties too quickly would be unsustainable, given the country’s divisive identity politics, as well as its underdeveloped economy. In light of this argument, democracy was not compatible with Ethiopia’s socio-political circumstance. In retrospect this argument seems to have been vindicated by the insurrections that followed. The way to keep a lid on Ethiopia’s discordant ethnic political discourse, encouraged by the country’s constitution seems to have been by repression. But that only buys more time, without resolving the underlying issue. Sooner or later, Ethiopia will need structural political reform, one that can accommodate and nurture unity, democracy and civility.

This trend towards ethnic balkanization in Ethiopia enshrined in the constitution has become particularly stark ever since 2018, when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s new administration introduced a relatively more open political discourse in this country of 120 million. Previously, Ethiopia had been a security state, whereby free speech and political organization was heavily curtailed, but the country enjoyed relative peace, stability and economic development. During this period, the Government of Ethiopia (GoE) espoused a “developmental statist” approach akin to East Asia, whereby fast economic growth was given priority, as human rights deteriorated.

In the early months of Abiy Ahmed’s administration Ethiopians aspired for a truly reformist new regime. At the time, it was hoped keeping the pressure valve slightly open, while making significant reforms to the system of governance could prove to be a successful strategy. Nonetheless, political reforms were delayed by conflict, particularly by the crisis in northern Ethiopia, and the war with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), an entity that had every intention of maintaining the existing status quo. A precipitous loss of grace for its leaders does not seem to have changed minds so far, but increasing numbers of people in Ethiopia are realizing the futility of a perpetually divided nation.

Addis Ababa, a city of 7.5 million is one of the largest cities in the Horn of Africa. It’s also the seat of the African Union and an air transportation hub for Africa. Addis Ababa is expected to grow into one of Africa’s mega cities in the next decade.

TPLF is not alone is trying to derail the reform agenda in Ethiopia. Support for maintaining the current constitution and governance can also be found among members of the ruling party, although it is difficult to determine the exact extent of this support. A generation of ethnic elites have emerged in Ethiopia. These heirs of the system have a tangible interest in forestalling change. Although small in number, they provide the inertia for keeping things as they are, thanks to their key positions within the establishment as either political cadres or business persons in regular collision with them. Ethiopia has been on a path dependency towards more fragmentation, one that is beset with strife and even wars. Only a determined and unashamedly reformist political leadership can reverse course on this trend.

Most people inherently understood the challenges. Despite the setbacks and delays, the public largely wanted to see the reformists succeed, and even voted overwhelmingly in favor of the ruling Prosperity Party on that base. The Pretoria Peace Agreement, which effectively ended the conflict in northern Ethiopia, as well as relative calm in other parts of the country offered renewed belief. Yet, notwithstanding what the New York Times called “a full military victory” by the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF), Addis Ababa was unable, or as some have argued unwilling to implement a key clause of the peace deal, namely the “full disarmament of the TPLF rebels in 30 days” after its signing.

A bid to avoid another war, outstanding financial and budgetary strains, and an attempt to carry favor with the United States, a key donor with leverage on international financial institutions has come at significant political costs for the GoE. All of this is made worst by a glaring public relations and communications failure. The ruling party has waned in popularity. The prime minister has eroded his mass base of support. Key allies in Amhara, Afar, and in the diaspora, who fought alongside the national army to repel the TPLF insurgency as recently as October 2022 feel betrayed, particularly by the GoE’s failure to fully disarm the TPLF in the allotted time period, as called for by the peace agreement.

However, after months of slow moving progress, the African Union monitoring team responsible for Disarmament Demobilization and Reintegration(DDR) recently stated, “85 to 90 percent of heavy weapons used by the rebels has been handed over to their team”. The statement further noted, the next phase will encompass demobilization and re-integration of forces, whose exact size is not exactly known, given many had already deserted their post. Yet the AU’s Major General Ridan remained hopeful in the process.

On May 20, 2023, Major General Ridan of the African Union monitoring and verification team gave a press briefing on DDR progress in northern Ethiopia’s Tigray Region.

Costly political blunders of the ruling party go beyond recent attempted disarmament in Amhara region. They include its mismanagement of the crisis in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in February 2023. Parishioners were incensed by the government’s response not to immediately denounce the breakaway synod, which they correctly viewed as breaking with thousands of years of church cannon. Having sensed the political fallout, the Prime Minister quickly reversed course, and admonished the breakaway synod on television. This did not instill public confidence. On the contrary it was viewed as political expediency.

Nonetheless, its noteworthy, that amidst conflict, mishaps and unforced errors, the Abiy government has made some structural changes. This was particularly the case in its early days. These changes include reforming the loosely organized EPRDF coalition, to the more inclusive and united Prosperity Party, encompassing hitherto underrepresented regions such as Somali, Afar, Gumuz, and Gambella. This was a step towards a more united and less ethnically fragmented organization. In addition, law was passed for a new digitally integrated national ID system, whereby ethnicity or place of birth is not featured.

On the economy, GoE has started some key reforms. They include the rollback of outdated fuel subsidies that were a drain on reserve currency, and encouraged a black-market export of refined fuel to neighboring countries, where prices are higher. Banks which had previously been instructed to direct their lending towards state owned enterprises have since shifted gear towards the private sector. State-owned Commercial Bank of Ethiopia recently quadrupled its share of loans to the private sector. Digital of payments is also something that is being implemented quickly, as Ethiopia tries to catch up. Digital payments will make financial transparency easier, reduce friction, as well as help by broadening Ethiopia’s tax base.

An important step has been recent policy studies and discussions looking at systemic challenges. The House of People’s Representatives will soon review a research document by the Policy Studies Institute of Ethiopia that explores possible ways of amending the constitution. The question remains whether the GoE’s reformist camp can still muster the political capital needed to embark on an ambitious plan to make structural changes to a country at war with itself. In parallel with the National Dialogue, it could be the only offramp for a government that will likely struggle to win enough support in the coming remedial elections set for 2024. These elections will take place where the 2021 general election was not conducted due to conflict.

In light of the recent past, there is no question reformists have lost the political momentum they once had. A confluence of foreign pressure, political mishaps, and a lack of clear and consistent directional leadership, as well as a reactionary war has taken a toll on ambitious plans. Nonetheless, changes to the country’s basic political structure and the constitution is an idea that still garners significant public support, one that is likely to grow.

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