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Deepening and Widening Crisis in Ethiopia - The Zero-Sum Game Politics and Losing Strategy of the Abiy Government

Deepening and Widening Crisis in Ethiopia - The Zero-Sum Game Politics and Losing Strategy of the Abiy Government

Makonnen Tesfaye; October 6, 2019


To paraphrase the late PM of Great Britain, Harrold Wilson, a month is indeed a long-time in Ethiopian politics, for a lot of change has happened in a short time, the resultant of which is the deepening of the generalised crisis and the widening of the principal and fundamental political divide between the democratic federalist and the One-Nation-Culture hegemonist camps in the country.

1.     The General Election.


The PM’s strategic ambivalence on whether to hold the upcoming General Election on schedule or not has been one of the major issues that has divided federalists and unitarians. The chauvinists fought hard for a postponement with a view to delegitimising the “EPRDF” and the Abiy Government. This is with the goal of calling for a “Transitional Government” and the abrogation of the Federal Constitution. The PM wants to postpone the election in order to consolidate his power but has been deterred (so far at least) by the overwhelming opposition from majority political parties, political elites as well as the general population that want the Election on schedule.Although one can never sayit is a foregone conclusion in politics, the struggle of the federalists in forcing the PM to hold the election as scheduled is a tentative victory, in particular when viewed against the strategic calculation of unitarians who seek regime failure.


2.     The InevitableDemise of the EPRDF.

The demise of the EPRDF has been written on the wall for some time now. What has transpired recently is its formal doom. The usurpation of power within the Front and Government by the One-Nation chauvinists has proved fatal. The hide-and-seek political game amongst the constituent parties has almost ended. The divide between the democratic federalist faction that seeks to build a non-aligned developmental state and the dependent neo-liberal group has deepened. This is positive in politics since it clarifies politico-ideological positions and consequently the alignment of forces.

3.     The Formation of the Democratic Federalist Front.

The EPRDF is Dead, Long Live Democratic Federalism. Better late than never, the federalist forces have just begun to come together. The stealthy attack on federalism by the PM has been such that it is not an exaggeration to say that most of the democratic federalists have been dumfounded for a while.This is because incumbency provides the PM with power and authority to use the organs of the state, the media and party apparatus to supress federalist voices at all levels, including banishing and imprisoning opponents and installing supporters in the Regions, except in Tigray. Who will come together in sufficient numbers to win and form the next government is an open question. What is crucial to underline though is to think strategically beyond the next election. What is vital is that whilst fighting a rear-guard action against regime failure and defending Federalism, in particular Regional Autonomy (including opting for “a confederal arrangement” if push comes to shove), federalists need to form strategic and sustainable alliances in order to guarantee the continuation and development of the federal constitution and the state order for successive elections on the belief that there is a solid, natural and majority constituency for democratic federalism in Ethiopia. To use a military analogy, winning or losing one election is like winning or losing a battle, a short-term, tactical issue. What matters decisively is winning a war, which is a long-term, protracted and strategic matter. Short-term, tactical political expediency of winning an election should be subordinated to and serve the long-term strategic goal of safeguarding and consolidating democratic federalist politics in Ethiopia.

4.     Alliance of Unitarians - The “Ethiopian Prosperity Party”.

Failing to lead the whole of the EPRDF along his unitarian,neo-liberaland presidential direction, the PM appears to have concluded of the need to set up a “new party” (dressed-up as a unification of the existing Front with the exception of the TPLF and with the inclusion of other Regional parties). This has gathered momentum recently in part as a knee-jerk and tit-for-tat reaction to the TPLF’s and Southern parties recent call for a federalist front.

There are a number of issues regarding the setting up of the so-called “Ethiopian Prosperity Party” (alternative name proposed is “Ethiopian National Democratic Party”). Notwithstanding the legal implications (that is if the PM adheres to the Law, which is doubtful) of the breaking up of an existing “EPRDF” and the legal requirements of forming a new party months before the General Election, which are many and formidable, there are a number of observations that characterise the politics of the PM. True to his undemocratic and increasingly dictatorial actions, the PM has not brought up the agenda of the unification of the EPRDF parties even to the Central Committee, let alone the General Congress of the EPRDF, which is the supreme authority of the Front(This is a breach of EPRDF’s internal party democracy/bylaw). He has not even brought up the agenda to his own party’s, OPDO/ODP, Central Committee or the Party Congress. Similarly, the other parties within the EPRDF have not discussed, or brought up the agenda of “unification” of the EPRDF to their respective Central Committees, or Congresses.This is because the PM knows well the unification proposal will not pass at least in the TPLF, SEPDM and OPDO Congresses, hence in the EPRDF Congress. In the same vein, the agenda of unification has not been brought up for discussion to or decided by the Elected Parliamentarians of the EPRDF, which shows the PM’s contempt for the most sovereign organ of the Federal State. Imagine, a Western party political leader breaking up his/her party without the approval of his/her party Executive, Council/Central Committee or Congress? This is unique in Ethiopian history of party politics, perhaps globally as well, but what is supremely ironic is that the neo-liberals wish to portray the PM as a democrat and change-maker. We can, of course, surmise as to the reasons.

What is bizarre about the stealthy proposal to establish the new party is the lack of rationale/clarity about its value and ideology, vision, mission, or objectives, not least about its lack of even an outline party policy, strategy or programme. What is being offered is the PM’s political slogan, which is presented as “Medemer” (literally means Addition in Amharic). What the PM means by Medemer probably is unity/unify, which is/can be a useful, effective and articulate political messaging. But, can a plain, basic or literal idea or a universal slogan of unity constitute a political economy concept, let alone a theory,ideology, or philosophy in that order?  More interestingly, the PM talks about Medemer/unify in Amharic as his idea when speaking to general Ethiopian audiences, where as he attributed the Medemer idea to OromooGadda System when talking to Abba Gaddasin Afaan Oromoo (this is according to a prominent member of the Oromo Intelligentsia, Dr Tesgaye Ararsa, in his recent interview with the Sidama Media Network). Never has the PM in his numerous Amharic speeches to the Ethiopian people onMedemer over the last two years ever referred to Oromo Gadda system being the sourceof the idea. Why different/ two-faced narratives/messages to different audiences to sell, or coin a political slogan? Perhaps, this is a staff for a political satire, such as the “Min Litazez”,an Amhara elite satire no friend of the PM (which apparently was taken off the air by the Government and its supporters)that appears to expose, though chauvinistically, the hollowness of some of the PM’s rhetoric and practice.


5.     The Intermingling of Politics and Religion, and the Irreechaa Festival.


The One-Nation-Culture-Religion supremacists camouflage/hide behind the Flag and the Bible as in other countries. The Neftegna ruling classes and elites in Ethiopia have always sought to create equivalence (Identity)between the Amhara Nation, Ethiopia and the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. This is with a view to justifying their hegemonic rule and perpetuating the oppression of other nationalities. Their political descendants have gone to the extent of claiming themselves as “creators” of Ethiopia (according to recent public statement of the Chairperson of the Amahra National Movement). With the establishment of a federal democratic order and the separation of the state and religion, the chauvinists went to the extent of dividing the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Churchfor 27 years by establishing a separate Synod outside the country and by flagrantly using religion as a tool to overthrow the EPRDF Government without success.


With the advent to power ofDr Abiy’s Government and the coming together of the “two” Synods (the Church can only have one legitimate Synod at any time), and following the legitimate grievances of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church pertaining to the persecution of its adherents in the South-Eastern and Western parts of the country, the chauvinistshave sought to whip-up public sentiment, in particular among the Amhara people, in order to taint Oromo nationalists as anti-Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church even though there are tens of  millions of Oromos who are adherents of the Church. A proposal to set up an “Oromia-wide administrative” office of the Tewahedo Church has been castigated as a conspiracy to divide the Church and as a forward plan to assist in the eventual secession of Oromia from Ethiopia. Notwithstanding the motive of the proposal and its legitimacy (and more importantly given it is an internal ecclesiastical Church matter and not conducive to political analysis) what we can only infer from this episode is the flagrant attempts by the chauvinists to stir-up (through the social media and on the ground) religious conflicts and opportunistically use the Church’s legitimate grievances for their political ends.

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Similarly, the utter disdain for cultural diversity and religious freedom by the chauvinists is manifested by their virulent campaign against the religious and cultural festival of the Oromo Irreechaa, which has been celebrated in Addis Ababa. As a religious festivity, it has been castigated as “Pagan” worshiping. Similarly, as a cultural festivity, it has been questioned or condemned for taking place in Addis Ababa in the first place, as if the Capital is a strange place to the Oromos. Some have gone so far as to characterise and admonish the Irreechaa as a political demonstration of Oromo identity. What is the problem if and when a nation, nationality or people use the symbol of its cultural and religious heritage to celebrate and positively signify its identity without undermining others? Of course, the chauvinists are being consistent because they do not believe in self-determination, which is about democracy; respect for others’belief systems; recognising psychological-political self-awareness;andthe acceptance of the significance and values of cultural and linguistic diversity.


6.     The Internal Politics of the Oromo Nationalist Parties.


The Oromo nationalist parties (OPDO/ODP on the one hand and the OLF and others on the other) have disagreed to unify as a single united front (the substantive issue) but have signed a Memorandum of Understanding with a view to working together, in particular to co-operate towards the Election by creating a “peaceful and democratic” environment. The details and modalities of the MoU have not been made official yet. In principle, the coming together of the Oromo nationalist parties in order to safeguard the legitimate rights of the Oromo people and their agreement to create a peaceful and democratic environment towards the coming General Election is to be applauded because peacefully contested politics in Oromia impacts positively in Ethiopia.


What is interesting according to some Oromo intelligentsias’ analysis is that the OPDO/ODP is in a panic mode as it approached the Irreechaa.  The PM appears to be losing traction and support in Oromia (in particular amongst the youth who fought for real bread-and-butter issues);perhaps is confronted by divided leadership on tactical/strategic direction of the OPDO; has lost control of the rank and file of his party; and is worried by the resurgence of the OLF and the other Oromo nationalist parties. This is despite his increasing suppression of Oromo federalists, in particular the OLF (read OLF recent communiques). The PM feared the demonstration of opposition at the Irreechaa to the unitarian and anti-federalist direction he has been leading the country to date. Moreover, he feared a massive demonstration of support for the OLF and other Oromo nationalist parties (who are staunch supporters of federalism) at the Irreechaa, which has been viewed by several millions of Oromos close to a General Election. Hence, his desperation to sign a MoU, which among other things, agreed not to use party slogans, or banners, and show only Oromo Regional Flag and solidarity.This appeared to have been managed at the Irreechaa as per the MoU. Will the Oromo organisations revert to the status quo after the Irreechaa? Time will tell.


The Oromia Region President’s, Shemlis Abdissa, powerful speech at the Irreechaa alluding to the “breaking-up of the Neftegna hegemony in Addis Ababa/Finfine after 150 years” has rightly sent shivers down the chauvinists’ spines, exposing the political opportunism of the  OPDO/ANDM “Senior-Junior Power Alliance”. The question is whether Shimelis’ rhetoric is a genuine celebration of the positive outcome of democratic federalist experiment (the equalities of nationalities in Ethiopia), or whether it is an appeal to latent Great Nation Oromo Chauvinism.Is it a forward looking optimism to unite and assert genuine democratic Oromo nationalism, or is it a backward looking, historicist, undelineated/undifferentiated (between the ruling classes/elites and the broad masses) political and historical litigation against the Amharas in toto, preaching undemocratic nationalism and chauvinism? Alternatively, is Shimelis’ pitch an opportunist attempt by the OPDO/ADP to become the standard bearer of Oromo nationalism in the face of stiff competition from the OLF and the other Oromo nationalist parties? How do we contrast Shimelis’ rhetoric with Addisu Arega’s apologist denial of Menelik’s genocidal wars in Oromia in order to appease Amhara chauvinists? The jury is out and time will unravel the true motive behind such political messages. What is clear is that the OPDO/ODP (like ANDM/ADP in the Amhara Region) is severely challenged by rival nationalist parties in the struggle for the mantle of Oromo nationalism; hence the need be more criticalof what it says for political consumption.


7.     The Ongoing Pogrom of the Qemant Minority Nationality.

General Asamenew is Dead and Long Live Chauvinism.The General’s public genocidal declaration to “Cut the Qemant Hands Once and for All”is sadly in progress. The heinous massacre of the Gumuz people by the supremacists and the LuYu Hail (Special Forces) of the Amhara Region is being repeated against the Qemant people where scores of people have been killed in brood day light. It seems that the ANDM/ADM believes that there is political currency in this in order to be a credible nationalist party, in particular close to a general election. Its narrative is that the legitimate rights of the Qemant people for self-determination is nothing but the work of external anti-Amhara enemies, the usual suspects being the TPLF and the OLF. The ANDM/ADP is truly a one-trick-pony party. With weak and divided leadership; internally challenged by its mal-governance and the break-down of law and order in the Region; the wide-spread dissatisfaction of the youth and people;its lack of social base and popular support; and its fear of the Amhara Nationalist Movement, the ANDP/ODP is in a deep political quagmire. The only political game they appear to play is to dig deeper holes and externalise all the challenges of the Region by appearing the defender of Amahra interests.If there is, perhaps, a Machiavellian short-term political expediency in this, it is surely a losing strategy in the long-run.

What is more shameful is the Abiy Government’s (and its foreign supporters and media) total silence and complicity in the massacre of the Qemant people. The Amhara LuYu Hail is poised to fan its onslaughts against the Oromos in the Kemisie Zone in the Region. It is the duty of all peace-loving people to expose the ongoing war against the Qemants and demand an end to it; and hold the Amahra and Federal Governments responsible for the atrocities being committed.

8.     What Next - The Balance of Forces and the Way Forward.

The political, economic and social crisis in the country has deepened and the principal and fundamental fault line has widened. Despite having the advantages of incumbency, the Government and its hegemonist supporters are retreating but are not yet defeated. Moreover, the anti-federalists command all the coercive state apparatus; control the majority of the media as well as having the support of external forces. Yet, there is a natural majority for federalism in Ethiopia, which is a fundamental foundation for ultimate victory. Contrary to his rhetoric of Medemer, the PM is playing a classical zero-sum game politics, which is ultimately a losing strategy. A welcome development, though belatedly, is the coming together of federalists, the on-going crystallisation of the contending politico-ideological positions and the continuing realignment of forces.  The way forward is to think strategically and long-term beyond the next election whilst acting locally, tactically in the short term. The balance of forces is currently finely posited and is bound to be protracted, but the odds are that democratic, progressive and federalist forces will ultimately prevail provided they are united, mobilise and organise their natural constituencies, and keep winning the political and ideological arguments.

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