July 28, 2019
The prospect of Ethiopia falling apart has become disturbingly palpable for a couple of years now. While there is a broad agreement that the system of ethnic separatism is the culprit, there is much confusion about what can be done to stem the tide. We are obliged to raise three interconnected questions about shared vision, platform, and blueprint. Is the latent pan-Ethiopian nationalism strong enough to keep the ethnic politicians at bay? Are there credible roadmaps to extricate the country from the current quagmire? What are the prospects for organizing an all-inclusive national stakeholders conference to articulate a shared vision and to select an appropriate roadmap for a successful post-EPRDF transition?
The vast majority of Ethiopians wish to live in a free society and under one flag—the pedigreed tricolor. How best the country can extricate itself from the sinister web of self-perpetuating political ethnicism remains mostly unanswered. The signature achievement of a post-EPRDF political and economic transformation in Ethiopia, it should be clear by now, is nothing less than the unceremonious dismantling of the control structures imposed on the hapless population by the TPLF as victor’s justice. Most notably, it means jettisoning the polarizing Constitution in favor of a liberal one that is also mindful of Ethiopia’s peculiarities. Process-wise, this dispensation entails a serious political bargain which must begin with the establishment of a transitional administration with full representation of all stakeholders in Ethiopian society.
A shared vision is necessary but certainly not sufficient for producing irreversible change. Three considerations are worth noting in this regard. First, there has to be a recognition by the avaricious ODP-led coalition of state elites, under relentless citizen resistance, that replicating the TPLF dictatorship is politically untenable. Second, restoring peace and order in a non-partisan manner is both a paramount and an elemental responsibility of a self-respecting government. Third, the communist-like fusion of Party and State (albeit justified by primitive tribal struggle rather than post-agrarian class struggle) must be sufficiently loosened to kickstart the democratization and liberalization processes. The tribalized Party-State has long outlived its usefulness, if it ever had any.
Assuming that influential elites will miraculously recognize their enlightened self-interest to support power-sharing, the next pressing question is how to proceed with a structural reform of no losers. I can think of three credible political settlements to inform the country’s choice of roadmaps for a post-authoritarian transition. A distillation of the most salient features of the imponderable modalities involved is as follows:
Roadmap 1—A Caretaker Government (EPRDF-2)
A year ago, the high hope against hope was that the reformist wing of the EPRDF (EPRDF, version 2) would use its honeymoon period to build a formidable national coalition to terminate the exclusionary, corrupt, and inept system of ethnic apartheid. A year later, this hope has been dashed with the ODP-dominated EPRDF dead-set on unwittingly witnessing the logical conclusion of polarizing identity politics.
The ODP and the TPLF are currently vying for supremacy within EPRDF, and ADP and SNNP seem to be imploding after failing to consolidate their regional bases. The persistent demand for new regional states and the arms race among existing ones betrays existential angst about the central government. In a country without the rule of law or constitutional order, the gimmick of parliamentary elections in 2020 under the current toxic climate will inevitably produce horrendous electoral violence and even more ethnicist parliamentarians who will block constitutional reform. Nor can this be peppered over with elaborate state propaganda, indiscriminate arrests, and suppression of the fledgling independent media.
This state of affairs leaves the Abiy Administration two options for ending the EPRDF as we have known it. The first option is to try, albeit belatedly, to salvage what remains of the unprecedented goodwill it was prematurely granted by the majority of Ethiopians. It would entail dismissing parliament and suspending the Constitution in favor of a transitional administration which will oversee structural reforms. The second option is to acknowledge that parliamentary elections cannot take place under the current unstable environment and allow the term of the current parliament to expire without a replacement. This strategy opens up a few months of vacuum, under the terms of the present Constitution, which can be judiciously exploited to make up for the missed opportunity by forging a national constituency for reform under a caretaker mandate.
Roadmap 2—A Government of National Unity (GNU)
An all-stakeholders conference (a series of broad-based consultations) produces a 2-3-year power-sharing arrangement between the ruling EPRDF and the leading Opposition parties. This option, by definition, excludes civic organizations and community leaders. The GNU establishes an interim civilian administration, professionalizes or de-ethnicizes the security services, establishes several commissions (especially Constitutional and Reconciliation), and paves the way for free and fair elections under a liberal constitution.
The trouble with the GNU road is this: Ethiopia lacks, by design and poverty, a robust multiparty party system with the capability to govern and mutually restrain powerholders–the essence of constitutional order. The vast majority of the 130-plus political parties are ethnonational at both the national and regional levels. The handful of pan-Ethiopian parties have neither a firm national constituency nor a long reach beyond the big cities. So, a GNU will be little more than a version of the current ethnocentric system. The Sudan, with a more vibrant history of political parties, has a better chance of succeeding with this model of transition.
Roadmap 3—A People’s Transitional Government (PTG)
In the PTG pathway, an all-stakeholders national conference arranges for quick elections of members of a 2-3-year Transitional Shengo (TS) from each Woreda (disqualifying the senior cadres of the ruling party for now) and selectees from other stakeholders (such as the Diaspora, major civic organization, and elders from the religious establishments). The PTG establishes a caretaker government of technocrats, professionalizes the security services, oversees a number of commissions (constitutional, reconciliation, reclamation of stolen public assets, etc.), and dissolves itself following a constitutional referendum and clean national elections. A broad-based TG will by design have the legitimacy and the capability to oversee a transition process that is impartial, time-bound, and willing to destroy the networks of control and corruption nurtured by the nearly three decades of TPLF/EPRDF of misrule.
The ruling party has yet to offer a comprehensive roadmap that affirms some version of option 1, but it has undoubtedly been carrying out an evidently exclusionary political agenda. The Ethio-nationalist parties, busy forming and reforming, have yet to offer us coherent roadmaps although the Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice Party (Ezema) claims to have an undisclosed one that addresses option 2. The Citizens Charter Group, a rights-based movement, has publicly issued a thoroughgoing version of option 3. It has been published in the International Journal of Ethiopian Studies (December 2018).
Sensible scenario analysis of the balance between power and ideas is hard to make given the fluidity of developments in the country. We can, however, note that one political compromise is the formulation of two competing constitutions for a national referendum: an amended ethnic-based constitution (supported by identity politicians) and a new citizen-based liberal constitution (supported by Ethiopian nationalists). The freedom to choose the covenant most preferred by sovereign citizens will hopefully produce a legitimate authority fit for a country which boasts a long history of state-building as well as nation-building. The modern project of state-nation building needs to be completed in a robust, irreversible fashion.
The vast majority of long-disenfranchised citizens desires to see a systemic overhaul. The opportunity to do so has, however, been fleeting. Before the next one passes by in vain, the shelf should be full of well-considered and implementable plans for the country to have a fighting chance to escape the trap of poverty and despotism.
The alternative is continued atrophy and disintegration. Politics imitates Nature in almost always winning over empty moralizing and wishful thinking. Got a better exit plan?
1 Professor of Economics, William & Mary. His most recent book is A Tributary Model of State Formation: Ethiopia, 1600-2015 (Springer, 2018).
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