Ethiopia’s deep and enduring authoritarian political culture dates back to premodern times when the country’s area was limited to a northern fraction of the current territory.
For the past 200 years, several authoritarian regimes dominated the country as contemporary Ethiopia consolidated its present form. These regimes were highly centralized and conquered by certain ethnic groups. The vast majority of the Ethiopian people was either serfs or politically subjugated by an Amhara and Tigray elite.
Such suffocating political order has come unstuck as the democratic movement of the largest ethnic and marginalized group, the Oromo, has put up non-violent and stiff resistance to their subjugation over the past three years. People from Amhara region followed suite and progressively the old political order began to falter.
Former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn declared a state of emergency, but it failed to restore political calm. This led to his sudden resignation and two months of behind the scenes political negotiation within the ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front or EPRDF.
It soon became clear that the old guard in Tigray People Liberation Front, or TPLF, was attempting to stage a comeback, but in an astonishing move, the majority of the ruling party lawmakers voted for a senior member of Oromo People’s democratic Organization, or OPDO, as the leader of the coalition, paving the way for Dr. Abiy Ahmed to become the first Oromo and Muslim political leader in modern Ethiopian history.
Dr. Ahmed has embarked on historic political reform unlike any other leader in Ethiopia’s long history. He rescinded the state of emergency, freed political prisoners, allowed opposition members in exile to come home, removed internet blocks and initiated a seemingly radical reconciliation with neighboring states of Eritrea and Somalia.
This essay assesses three issues that are central to the reform process and its possible ramification for the Horn of Africa. The core challenges are: Domestic economic and political reform, relations with Eritrea, and engagement with Somalia. How these are reconstructed will have far reaching implications for the entire Horn of Africa.
Although the Ethiopia economy has been growing rapidly over the last 15 years, nevertheless, the vast majority of the population is mired in abject poverty. The contrast between a very small segment of the mainly urban population, connected to the state, which have disproportionately benefited from this growth, and the political marginalization of the Oromo and other ethnic groups, fueled the rebellion that has energized the reform.
The challenge for the reform team is how to do three things simultaneously: Open up the political process, de-ethicize political identity and advance civic belonging, and induce sustainable and widely-shared economic revitalization.
These are towering challenges for any country, let alone Ethiopia, which has such modest social and political capital.
To give this agenda a chance to succeed, the reform team must have the courage to set a date for new elections in the country within a year in order to give confidence to those who long have struggled against the dictatorship that this opening is for real.
To jump start the electoral democracy and to protect the integrity of political process, there is a need to set up a new independent electoral commission. Such a commission will guide the process to curtail further political polarization, ban ethnic parties, and limit the number of political parties in the country to four, each of which must have significant representation from five of the country’s nine regions.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Ahmed has to translate his statements about reforming the economy into a practical strategy. He announced the need to open up the economy through deregulation. Herein lies the danger. If this is not done prudently, it can trigger crisis. Much of the wealth in the country is being held by certain groups associated with the state and privileged ethnics. If by deregulation he means a neoliberal strategy, then that will certainly enrich those who have unduly benefited from the old system. What is needed instead is a state-guided market that puts a premium on economic justice and growth. Positive lessons can be learned from the many countries that have done this rather than get trapped in discredited cage-like models from the West.
The reform regime must also take the security establishment out of politics. This will allow these sectors to develop into autonomous law-governed professional establishments of the kind Ethiopia never had. These reforms have the potential to create a more stable Ethiopia that has the resources to invest in development.
Prime Minister Ahmed’s reform agenda has gone very far in relation with Eritrea. His team made the incredibly generous offer of abiding by the binding ruling of the International Boundary Commission, whose verdict previous Ethiopian governments refused to honor. The dispute was centered on the small town of Badame.
Eritrea did not expect the offer and it jolted the regime in Asmara into realizing that a new dawn was possible with Addis Ababa. This led to Mr. Ahmed’s visit to Eritrea, followed by Afewerke’s visit of Addis Ababa, and the subsequent re-establishment of diplomatic and economic relation between the two countries.
Many observers and citizens of the two countries are wondering what the improving relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea might mean for politics and governance in the latter. Critics of the regime hope Ethiopia’s reforms might nudge the leadership in Asmara into embarking on its own dawn. This is quite unlikely, but if it happens, it will certainly give Eritrea a chance to reduce its unsustainable military cost and use the windfall to reinvest in human capital and job creation.
Unlike his overtures to Eritrea, Dr. Ahmed did not offer Somalia the same generosity as he did to Eritrea. Nor did he offer the apology he offered to his own people. Prime Minister Ahmed apologized to the people of Ethiopia for their suffering at the hands of security forces.
Given that Ethiopia invaded Somalia and significantly destroyed Mogadishu and the lives and livelihoods of many and supported warlords and other non-democratic forces in that country for nearly two decades, it’s sad that no such generosity was forthcoming. Instead, Prime Minister Ahmed flew to Mogadishu for a few hours and extracted an agreement from the Somali President that stipulated greater economic cooperation (euphemism for domination) and the possibility of political union in the long run.
The Somali public’s reaction was swift and unfavorable, forcing the Somali Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khaire to backpedal on the joint communiqué released by President Farmajo and Prime Minister Ahmed. It appears at this stage that Somalia cannot expect to gain much from the Ethiopian reforms as Eritrea and others have or will.
More recently, the Eritrean President invited his Somali counterpart to Asmara, which he accepted with a very minimum preparation. In addition, Mr. Farmajo failed to inform President Ismaïl Omar Gelleh of Djibouti — who has been an unflinching supporter of Somalia and its people for nearly two decades and whose country has border conflict with Eritrea — about the development.
The decent thing would have been for Farmajo and Prime Minister Khaire to play a statesmen-like role and press the Eritrean President, Isaias Afwerki, to accept Somalia to mediate the conflict between Djibouti and Eritrea. Instead, and very characteristic of the leadership in Mogadishu, Farmajo jumped the gun and accepted the invitation without having a Somali agenda (it appears they’re desperate for such invitations). Subsequently, he accepted the key Eritrean ‘request’ that Somalia endorse the call on the United Nation’s Security to lift the sanctions, including weapons sanction on Eritrea.
The Eritrean request was a legitimate one but Somalia would have gained a bit long overdue respect if Farmajo and his team insisted on tying the peace with Djibouti to their endorsement of lifting the illegitimate UN sanctions on Eritrea. Tragically, Somalia is a project as former Foreign Minister Abdirahman Duale Beyle – the current finance minister – once said.
The Ethiopian reforms spearheaded by the Oromo people and now led by Dr. Ahmed are nothing short of a titanic shift in the Ethiopian history. If the disgruntled elements of the old order do not engage in a rearguard revolt and the political shift moves decisively in a democratic and not in a neoliberal fashion, then a new dawn is on the horizon and the Horn of African might have a chance of becoming a better place for ordinary lives than it has never been. But If the Ethiopian government continues to take advantage of Mogadishu’s political and security vulnerabilities, the Somali enigma might, as ever, spoil Addis Ababa’s promise.
By Prof. Abdi Ismail Samatar
Samatar is a professor of Geography at the University of Minnesota and research fellow at the University of Pretoria, South Africa.