IN-DEPTH ANALYSIS: CAN ETHIOPIA MAKE THE TRANSIT TO STABILITY?

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Mehari Taddele Maru, For Addis Standard –@DrMehari

Addisstandard:March 05/2019 – This has been an eventful year for Ethiopia’s politics. Under Abiy Ahmed Ali, who became Prime Minister in April 2018, the government has eased its previous authoritarian stance on various central issues. A national state of emergency imposed by Abiy’s predecessor has been lifted and thousands of prisoners have been released.  Exiled opposition leaders and armed groups have been allowed back into the country; media outlets now operate relatively freely; rapprochement with Eritrea is in full swing; and initiatives for national reconciliation are under way. Women received half of the positions in the October 2018 Cabinet and many others have been appointed to high office. In the light of the history of repression, human rights violations, decay and corruption of the ruling party, the BBC remarked that it was “almost like observing a different country.” Hence, the dominant narrative has been that of an emerging openness and transformational leadership.

Of course, hope comes readily to mind as positive narrative floods the news outlets. Though there was positive general drift across the political elite, the nub is that now no single dominant narrative explains the recent developments. Granted their positive effects, the government’s transitional reforms should not, however, be allowed to obscure the critical challenges the country faces. If those problems come to be shrouded in a blanket of positive spin designed to reinforce the current dominant narrative, they may well return to haunt the country later.

It is true that transitions such as those now being implemented in Ethiopia are often characterized by bloody conflict; after all, their aim is to deliver a new era that represents a break with the past. But unless their birth is attended by professional midwifery, such reform programs can spell the death not simply of the reform program but of the very nation itself. Merely shaking the system without a clearly defined end, simply to bring about a clean break from the past regime, hardly constitutes a structured program.  There therefore remains a concern as to whether or not the reform process is indeed informed by a conscious roadmap for the delivery of a new Ethiopia.

Needless to say, there has been stiff resistance to some of the reforms. Before it commences, the newly established Boundary Commission faces a crisis of legitimacy due to strong opposition from Tigray and some political parties in the Amhara regional state. People in the border areas also protested the government’s plans to hand over to Eritrea border areas in Badame and Zalambessa.  Abandoning a neutral foreign policy stance – which involves forging closer ties with the UAE sphere of influence was not welcomed either. Hesitations in the construction of the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, and privatization of some public enterprises, in particular Ethiopian Airlines, remain unpopular.

Mehari Taddele Maru, For Addis Standard –@DrMehari

Governed by a highly divided four-member national coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the country at present resembles  a de facto confederation. To contain sporadic violence and avert further fragmentation, the military has been deployed in four regional states — Somali, Benshangul-Gumuz, parts of Oromia (Wollega, and Moyale), Amhara (Gondar). Though not officially declared and approved by the Parliament, some regional states are effectively under a de facto state of emergency. The country is also facing massive displacement due to ethnic and religious violence. Increasing tension between forces of centralization and decentralization continues to cause strains in the federal system. Internal boundary disputes between regional states, and arms proliferation and militarization of civilians and regions are also causing concern. Economic slowdown and youth unemployment remain formidable challenges. With new labor force entrants standing at two million per annum, job seekers will surge; the current nation-wide capability for job creation, including newly established industrial parks, covers less than half this number. The conflict between centralizing and decentralizing forces could not be more pronounced. While Sidama demands for the right vote in referendum for statehood, others call for a total abolishment of such constitutional rights.

A Transitional Road – But Is There A Map?

The present situation is one that defies simple characterization. Some observers think that current reforms follow a clear and well-designed transitional road map towards a democratic nation. Others, however, suggest that it is a transition designed somewhat impulsively, even though the reforms have been carried out in good faith, their approach have been questioned. Indeed, many political groupings, and citizens generally, see the response to the challenges the country is facing as not without dictatorial, sectarian and dogmatic elements and usually with limited reach to key political constituencies affected by them. Some actions appear naïve or, at any rate, imprudent and poorly thought through. A good example would be the decision to allow political groupings such as the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and its armed wing the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), to return to Ethiopia without some arrangement for disarmament and demobilization. This policy is widely seen as gravely endangering the country’s stability.

In a similar vein, the recent clashes in various parts of Oromia between the armed forces and the OLA  may be the result of a poorly-planned and implemented peace deal between the OLF and the Ethiopian army – a deal that defies logic and disregards lessons from history, including that of recent Ethiopia. Peace cannot be expected to last when an armed group outside the purview of the state functions in parallel to the national army, the federal police and the regional state police; although in this particular case the government’s logic is clear. The national army aims quickly to swallow the armed groups presently operating beyond its remit, either through integrating them into its own structures or demilitarizing and demobilizing them, while the groups themselves invariably try to stay intact so as to enhance their political clout and continue to deploy their armed wings as bargaining chips on the political counter. One consequence has been that subsequent to some armed clashes, the OLF and its supporters have accused the leadership of the Oromo Democratic Party (ODP), part of the ruling coalition, of failing to honor an agreement signed in Asmara between the ODP and ODF before the latter’s return to Ethiopia. The altercation between the OLF and ODP in the regional state of Oromia was symptomatic of a deep mutual distrust, mainly due to competition between the parties ahead of the upcoming state elections.

There can be no purely military solution to this imbroglio because to be successful, counter-insurgency operations must always function in tandem with, and in a supportive role to, civil powers. In truth, the Ethiopian army probably could effectively deal with the OLA outside the cities and towns, yet, such insurgencies are seldom defeated by armed force alone, but only by winning popular support, and through acquiring performance legitimacy. Hence the national army is only one subsidiary element in a broader political process. To the extent that they take precedence over politically based peace initiatives, military operations in Oromia or anywhere else in Ethiopia only exacerbate the social and political problems. Military deployment and emergencies are temporary pain reliefs for the necessary political intervention necessary to address the root causes. Though still facing some challenges, the agreement between OLF and Oromia Regional State (ruled by ODP) and OLF decision to hand over its armament to traditional leaders in Oromia (Abba Gedda) was welcome development.

Death And Displacement: Ethiopia’s New Normal

Reports of conflicts, violence, death, and displacement have become the new normal in Ethiopia. With more than to 2.8 million IDPs, the crisis monitoring group IRIN names Ethiopia as one of ten countries to be singled out for special attention in the context of global humanitarian crises.  Inter-ethnic carnage in the border town of Moyale, for instance, resembles a mini-civil war in which communities with a tradition of conflict are encouraged to fight one another – and are given heavy weaponry to do so, usually by external actors. Recent violent clashes between Oromia regional state on the one hand and on the other, Somali, Benishangul-Gumuz, and the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ Region (SNNPR), have ended in dozens of people dead and nearly millions Internally Displaced People (IDPs).  Faced with these realities the federal government has been forced to introduce what is in effect state of emergency in some regional states and to re-deploy elements of the army from Eritrean border areas. As a result, federal interventions characteristic of a state of emergency are taking place in Somali, Benishangul-Gumuz, Moyale, parts of Amhara and Oromia regions.

The federal army, the regional police and various armed groups have all been accused of involvement in killings of civilians.  The army also faced widespread protests in Shire City, in Tigray region, as local communities blocked the movement of heavy army equipment from Eritrean border areas, while the army was accused of attacks on civiliansaround Gondar. Nor has Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa been spared deaths and displacements. More than 23 residents of Burrayu in the city’s outskirts have been killed and thousands displaced due to ethnic violence.  Nationwide, other acts of violence have become daily occurrences. Assassination attempts,  roadside bombings, hostage taking and organized robberies are on the rise even in the cities, including Addis Ababa. According to the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, 17 banks have been robbed in western Oromia.

Large numbers of IDPs and an ineffective response by the state to avert the displacements could soon create enclaves of disaster.  According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Ethiopia hosts “at least 2.8 million [IDPs] … of which 82 per cent are conflict-induced IDPs and the remaining 18 per cent are climate-induced IDPs.”  In Oromia and SNNP regions, inter-ethnic conflict displaced 800,000 people in June 2018 alone. In Benishangul-Gumuz, more than 250, 000 people have been displaced due to inter-regional conflicts.  It is estimated that Ethiopia’s 1.47m registered IDPs include 15,000 solely from December 2018.  Clearly, the interest of Ethiopia’s neighbors are jeopardized by spillover of this humanitarian crisis.  Such large displacements point toward not merely the population’s vulnerability to recent conflicts between various forces, but a serious level of lawlessness and elements of state failure in general; More importantly perhaps, they are indicative of the Ethiopian state’s inability to fulfill its primary responsibility to protect its citizens, and of its   inability to control illegal armed elements.

Ethiopia’s Five Pillars

For decades, five main factors have determined Ethiopia’s peace and security. These are first, a collective social psychology of uninterrupted statehood and state strength; second, the 1991 accession to power of the EPRDF coalition and its advocacy of a consensus-based federalism of cultures; third, economic delivery that brought performance popular legitimacy; fourth, support from the international community; and lastly, the threat posed by forces hostile to Ethiopia. Ethiopia’s history has not been without its epochal moments but in fairness, since 1991 its leadership has tried to steadily stir the national ship and has done much to correct critical historical injustices and reduce poverty. Arguably, however, in an attempt to redress the authoritarian legacy of the old EPRDF, the ongoing changes have shaken several of the pillars of the state’s stability.

These are respectively a cohesive social psychology of uninterrupted statehood, the strength of the security sector (applied also for repression)– army, police and intelligence – and the corrupt and authoritarian EPRDF as unified ruling party. In reality, save for the first, these pillars have already been weakened. How and why did this happen?

Security Sector Paralysis

The first pillar – the fundamental collective social psychology of Ethiopians arising from their uninterrupted statehood– is in turn dependent on the security sector:  essentially the military, police forces at federal and regional level, the intelligence agencies and the leadership at federal and regional government from the Prime Minister to regional presidents. The general relationship between the federal government and regional states.

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