America’s Ethiopia Problem
Elias Dawit 01-05-20
The 2020 Ethiopian election is looming ahead of us under a cloud of uncertainty and confusion. There seems to be a general consensus among internal and external political actors that the election must take place, but this consensus is tainted by a nagging premonition that the election might represent a propitious event in Ethiopia’s future. Will the 2020 election be the tipping point for state collapse?
Ethiopia’s Prime Minister has stated on a number of occasions that the 2020 election will take place as planned. As recently as a month ago, the Prime Minister said, “Democracy needs exercise. If we cannot hold elections now, it will bring a lot of problems.” However, holding the elections in May 2020 will have problems as well, particularly for the United States. The United States has placed its bets on Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and now the question is raised—how can the Prime Minister hold a free and fair election and win at the same time?
It is ironic that within the cacophony of voices surrounding Ethiopia’s political future, dismantling the system of ethnic federalism is at the heart of the so-called reform agenda promoted by the Prime Minister and his allies. No matter that it was the rise of Oromo and Amhara ethno-nationalism that precipitated the violence that eventually led to the downfall of the EPRDF and the retreat of its anchor party, the TPLF. No matter that it seems clear to everyone that the next Prime Minister must be an Oromo, despite the existence of over 80 ethnic groups, in a political calculus driven by numbers. No matter that ethno-nationalism has become the currency of today’s political elites seeking power.
And so what happens in Oromia during the next several months, and more specifically on election day, will decide the future of Ethiopia’s now teetering federal system. The rise of Abiy Ahmed was directly related to the historical marginalization of the Oromo people despite the fact that they hold a plurality in Ethiopia’s multiethnic arrangement. Unfortunately, there was a miscalculation by external political actors assuming a heterogeneity of political views within the Oromo people. The Prime Minister is battling a triad of forces in Oromia—each representing a formidable challenge to his power base.
It comes as no surprise that the OLF holds a special place in the hearts and minds of many Oromo people, given its long and storied history fighting for Oromo self-determination. Jawar Mohamed, owner of the Oromia Media Network and master of social media, has immense appeal to Oromo youth who are willing to take to the streets with the call of one tweet. His decision to run for office in the upcoming election, once he makes a decision about his U.S. citizenship, represents a significant challenge to the Prime Minister’s support in Oromia. Even members of Abiy’s own party, led by the voice of Defense Minister Lemma Mergersa, has expressed its opposition to the formation of the new party and, in effect, the Prime Minister.
In any other country under a parliamentary system, once the Prime Minister has dissolved the majority party, the government is considered illegitimate and an election is called. Ethiopia gets a pass on this, however, given the outsized role played by the United States and its Middle Eastern oligarchical allies.
This brings us to the question of what the U.S. is willing to do to tip the scales in favor of Prime Minister Abiy. It seems clear by now that the script provided to Abiy was the brainchild of the U.S. His vision of reform—marginalizing the TPLF, abolishing ethnic federalism and eradicating the developmental state—mirrored the aspirations of the U.S. policy community. For many years, American diplomats have tried to bring the Ethiopian government into the fold but was met by the impenetrable wall of the TPLF.
Prime Minister Abiy has been put in the unenviable position of overseeing an election that, if free and fair, most probably will push him out of office. It might work to his advantage to make a case now that the election will be flawed. After all, there was no census and violence continues to create vast pockets of instability and insecurity throughout the country. This might give him room to maneuver out of an awkward situation of accusations of vote fraud and election irregularities—marring victory but maintaining his hold on power to carry out the promised reforms of external actors.