Recent Developments in Ethiopia: The New Normal or a Pre-Transition Moment?

Mahmood Mamdani once said “without the experience of sickness, there can be no idea of health. And without the fact of oppression, there can be no practice of resistance and no notion of rights.” This is not less true for Ethiopia and Ethiopians. After over two decades of ethnic based federal experiment, Ethiopia is once hit by political and governance crises. The legitimacy of the government run by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) is seriously questioned. And people are openly rejecting the dominance and interference of the Tigrian People Revolutionary Front (TPLF), the dominant member of the EPRDF, in Amhara and Oromia regions. Protestors in Amhara and Oromia region have used their own flags which they consider is reflective of their identity and collective consciousness although it is outlawed. The intensity and duration of the protest and the resistance, and the government’s response is unprecedented in Ethiopia’s recent history. As a result, the future looks very precarious. And it will be contingent on a number of factors. First I will present the causes and triggering events and then will proceed to the factors which may be relevant in shaping the future and determining the outcome.

Causes of the Current Crises

Unlike the pre 1991 period where the state and the government were in crises, the current protest and resistance is related to a government and political crises attributed to the ruling party, EPRDF. This is due to the fact that the triggering events both in Oromia and Amhara are the alleged violation of the constitution. The Integrated Addis Ababa master plan and the identity question of the people of Welqayit are the triggering events for Oromo and Amhara protests respectively. And these claims are constitutional claims which presuppose the acceptance of the constitution and the constitutional order. Thus, the Ethiopian state as such is not in crises. Neither its integrity nor unity is questioned by the protestors.

Although these are immediate factors, there are decade’s long marginalization, discrimination, and persecution which the Oromo and Amhara face in the socio-economic and political order of the day. They have been political minorities, despite constituting more than half of the country’s population, since 1991. Their voice has been considered as a challenge to the unity and diversity of the Ethiopian state and accordingly silenced through legal, political and institutional mechanisms. The Oromo’s are considered as ‘Narrow Nationalists,’ while the Amhara’s are labelled as ‘Chauvinists.’ And narrow nationalism and chauvinism is the twin challenge of the constitutional order. Therefore, the Oromo and the Amhara are problems to be solved than voices to be heard. As such, the current protest and resistance is part of a quest to be heard and to have a proper place in the socio-economic and political system of their country.

Government Response

Since the 2005 election crises, the government have been using effectively its laws and institutions (parliament and courts) to contain dissent voices of any sort and has established the system of rule by law. Nevertheless, since the death of former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, the government have been using its security and military apparatus to deal and handle mundane civil matters. The security and military force are being used in Amhara and Oromia to contain and smash peaceful protests. In the process, many have been killed, arrested, and disappeared. Nonetheless, the protest and the resistance have continued in great scale across Oromia and Amhara.

Unfortunately, the EPRDF government is not willing to address the genuine demands of the people so far. In the government’s assessment, the causes of the crises are mainly external anti-development forces. And the problems at home, if any, are related to good governance and corruption. And once again the government shows that it is not ready to accommodate the demands of the Oromo and Amhara people.

Unsurprisingly, the TPLF/EPRDF is trying to contain the unrest and bring ‘peace’ by emotive appeal. First, the government is framing the popular demands of the Oromo and Amhara in terms of racial hatred towards others. By doing so, it presents the ‘other’ as a victim and tries to shame the genuine and just demands of the Oromo and Amhara. Second, the government is using religious and traditional leaders to silence the people from asking and peacefully protesting. And all this is done in addition to the security and military forces which can do whatever they like with impunity.

Is the Current Status Quo the New Normal?

It has been around nine months since the Oromo protest began. The questions of the Oromo people and the response of the government remain the same. Although there are some cosmetic reforms from the side of the government, such as stopping the implementation of the master Plan and firing some Oromo People Democratic Organization (OPDO) higher leaders, the main demands of the people are unaddressed. The Amhara protest or resistance is a recent addition and still developing and how the government respond will be seen in the future. But as the case with the Master Plan which the government were saying it will be implemented despite strong opposition amid the Oromo Protest, the government is saying there is no identity question in Welqayit as it was answered twenty five years amidst protests in many parts of Amhara region. Thus, arguably, the intensity and continuity of the Amhara protest or resistance will determine the fate of the identity question of Welqayit.

Aside from these triggering events, the government seems to be firm in its stand to fight what they call ‘narrow nationalism’ and ‘chauvinism.’ Given the legal and military resources they have at their disposal, their choice is to destroy and smash anything which comes in their way, as decades of experience tell us. Also, a serious re-arrangement within EPRDF is expected. A more submissive OPDO and ANDM may be manufactured to deliver the goods and services of TPLF. Given OPDO’s and ANDM’s alleged attachment to their people, TPLF may revise membership rules to EPRDF in order to bring partner parties from Somali, Afar, Gambella and Harari to the Front. By making these cosmetic changes within the EPRDF, and effectively utilizing its abusive legal system, security and military personnel, the government may try to contain and silence the Amhara and Oromo as chauvinistic and narrow nationalist voices for some time. And protest and resistance will be life and government brutality will be the practice as the new normal in Ethiopia.

Is it a Pre-Transition Moment?

This moment has also a great potential in transforming the country to a more inclusive and democratic Ethiopia. And all the resources for a successful transition are in order. The fundamental resource is the will of the people to live together. Although TPLF/EPRDF presents Amhara and Oromo as historical enemies, a generation grow up hearing this story of animosity says no to this state propaganda. The Oromo and the Amhara youth have stood together in a spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood. Protestors in Gonder, Bahirdar, Debre Markos and other areas in the Amhara region stand in solidarity with the Oromo cause and question. Similarly, protestors across Oromia region stand in unionism and solidarity with the Amhara. They have spoken the same language. That they need freedom, justice and fair share in the socio-economic and political system of their country. This is a nuclear which can disarm the EPRDF government.

The second pillar which set the stage for transition is the loss of legitimacy of EPRDF in Amhara and Oromia regions. Due to sustained and continues brutality and cruelty, the EPRDF could not function as if things are normal after this. It will be difficult to perform traditional governmental functions in these areas which in turn create further marginalization and neglect as a matter of fact, which re-energizes resistance anew.  In addition, it may be very cumbersome to do government functions at the federal level. Suffice to mention here is the leaking of national examination questions.

The third is the existence of huge political resources for the opposition political forces, whatever they are, from the people, on the one hand, and the military and security resources of EPRDF, on the other. This dynamics creates a forum for negotiation. On the one hand, it is difficult for the opposition political forces to engage in warfare with EPRDF, on the other, EPRDF could not rule with the help of the military without the political resources. This is one of the dynamics which makes South African transition from Apartheid to democracy possible. The National Party had strong military and security but the African National Congress has a large angry black mass.

However, a strong opposition political force or coalition is required to capitalize the political resources available from the people. How these political forces act will be crucial in shaping how the people and EPRDF behave. The more inclusive the coalition is, the more effective it will be in setting the moment for peaceful transition. Knowing that other options will be disastrous, peaceful transition and negotiation will be the choice of all. And we may have a new beginning.




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