By Prof John Harbeson
Afrobarometer recently proclaimed that an “overwhelming” majority of Ethiopians support democracy and “seek accountable governance.” The surveys’ findings revealed that 90 percent of Ethiopians preferred democracy over the main alternatives: one-man, one-party, and military rule.
They ranked governmental accountability to citizens expressed wishes over a government that might actually “get things done” as well as one that fulfills citizens’ wishes over what their elected officials themselves might prefer.
The report (afrobarometer.com) is stunningly important news in a country that has never known democracy in its two millennia history of independence under imperial, authoritarian rule nor in the nearly fifty years since its last emperor, Haile Selassie I, was deposed in 1974.
Ethiopian aspirations actually seemed about to be realized when, in April, 2018, new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, electrified the country by immediately and comprehensively opening up political space by releasing political prisoners, inviting exiled opposition figures and parties to return home, broadly allowing unprecedented media freedom, naming a principal opposition leader to leadership of the national election board, electing of a woman to the presidency, naming women to half of his cabinet posts, and other measures, all in preparation for historic, unprecedented free and fair elections within two years, in 2020.
As 2021 approaches, however, preparations for the promised elections, now provisionally rescheduled for mid-2021, have been effectively preempted, overshadowed by intense, to date unstructured contestation over the shape and future of the Ethiopian state that Abiy’s democratization initiatives unleashed. Since November, Abiy’s government has been at war with its predecessor, the Tigre Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF), leader of a four party Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Front (EPRDF) regime which ruled the country from 1991-2018.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in the country, ethnic and regionally based conflict has been pervasive, often violent, notably in the prime minister’s home region, where an Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) has split from the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) to continue a violent insurgency with neighboring ethnic communities while the OLF has remained committed to civil political competition after several decades of low-level violent opposition to the preceding regimes since its founding in 1973.
The heart of the problem has been that Abiy’s government failed promptly to exercise leadership that its own democratic initiatives granted its citizens in order to how to democratize the Ethiopian state before conducting initial free and fair elections to establish a government.
Most of the many communities comprising today’s Ethiopia were incorporated therein by the late 19th Century conquests of emperor Menelik II (1889-1913). After more than a century, those communities have a unique, historic opportunity to determine on what terms, if any, they are prepared to continue to be governed together as one state. Elsewhere, most African, nationalist movements independence achieved the power to govern within colonially established state structures effectively finessing the question Ethiopians have the opportunity and obligation to address.
By not exerting leadership to focus democratic debate on the core question of the state through some mechanism such as constituent assembly that the EPRDF fashioned shortly after it come to power, Abiy’s government projected no alternative to today’s substantially untrammeled ethnic contestation. Had it done so, it is possible that the war between Abiy and the TPLF in Tigre could have been averted.
In the wake of Eritrea’s secession in 1993, the EPRDF determined that, in order to discourage other ethnic communities from attempting to follow its example, its 1995 constitution afforded large measures of autonomy to ethnically defined regions, including an option to secede in an orderly way.
In its 27-year rule, the EPRDF achieved high annual GDP growth rates and significant progress on United Nations Sustainable Development Goals but, with its heavily centralized, autocratic governance, it undermined the legitimacy of its own Constitution, defining its rule and not its document as effectively the Ethiopian state.
But its unilateral initiative to expand the ordained boundaries of the capita city, Addis Ababa, at the expense of Oromo regional state proved to be the spark that ignited protests of unprecedented scope, strength and persistence that brought Abiy to power in April 2018.
Meanwhile, the regions have created their own security forces, augmented by informal militias that have complexified as much as controlled continuing disorder in the regions, prompting the Abiy regime’s resort to repressive measures reminiscent of its predecessor, thereby weakening its democratic legitimacy.
At the time of writing, Abiy has prevailed, although guerilla warfare continues, Eritrea’s support of Abiy in question. The war has greatly exacerbated an ongoing humanitarian crisis, including up to 50,000 war refugees decamped to Sudan, 100,000 endangered Eritrean refugees in Tigre, as many as a million displaced persons throughout the region and hundreds of thousands of food aid-dependent Tigreans, plus unknown numbers of war victims.
The long-term implications of all this for a fragile Ethiopian polity and Horn of Africa region could be dire.
— Author is a professor of Political Science Emeritus as well as a professorial lecturer for the African Studies Program, Johns Hopkins University.