Ethiopia’s Transition Challenges and Policy Options

Vision Ethiopia is a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit organization incorporated in Washington, D.C. EIN 81-0729204

The Board of Vision Ethiopia
May 25, 2020

Had it not been for a complex set of events, the month of May 2020 would have witnessed Ethiopia’s first post-conflict and transitional election. 

Two years have passed since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power in the aftermath of a popular uprising that demanded political reforms, protection of human rights and establishment of law and order. He raised the hopes and aspirations of millions of Ethiopians back home and abroad with tantalizing measures that included the releases of political prisoners, amnesty for political dissidents, and a peace settlement with neighboring Eritrea. 

These bold steps earned the prime minister all round commendations and the 2019 Nobel Prize for Peace. 

To the dismay of many Ethiopians, no sooner had glimpses of these signs of change been caught than the specter of anarchy and chaos ominously descended on the land. Ethnic conflicts got worse, resulting in countless deaths and massive internal human displacement. Minorities (especially the Amharas and Christians) in the various regions were targeted and persecuted, while university campuses became centers of political agitation, violence and killings. Defenseless students of the Amhara ethnic group, mostly young girls, were abducted and tortured by extremist Oromo fighters, and several places of worship, including heritage institutions, were burned down. The governor of the Amhara region and his colleagues were assassinated under mysterious circumstances, as was the Chief of Staff of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces. 

The frequent reshuffling of the cabinet, dominance of the political scene by non-state actors, and pervasive conflicts between the government and the armed wing of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) added to the atmosphere of insecurity and instability in the country. The “de facto independence” of certain regions of the country, and the blatant appointments of government officials based on ethnicity rather than competency, the growth in illicit trade that included small arms, and the general breakdown of law and order in many regions contributed to the fragility and dysfunctionality of the government. 

These unsettling developments have captured the attentions of observers, such as the International Crisis Group, to ponder over the dooms and glooms of the transition and the precariousness of the very survival of the country as a united entity.

At its meeting of May 10, 2020, the Board of Vision Ethiopia discussed the contemporary issues affecting the country and identified the following four thematic areas that are believed to be legitimate threats to the people and to the survival of the country: 

  • The Covid-19 pandemic and its social, economic, political, and national security implications;
  • Egypt’s coercive and kinetic diplomacy towards the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD);
  • Elections and government accountability, transparency and rule of law; and 
  • The Eritrea-Ethiopia relationship. 

In what follows, we present a brief assessment of each of the above topics and propose relevant policy alternatives, informed by papers and abstracts submitted to previous Vision Ethiopia conferences, as well as by relevant academic and policy literature, with a view to helping the transition of the nation into a post-conflict and stable country in the otherwise troubled region of the Horn of Africa. Consistent with the overarching mission of Vision Ethiopia, the objective is the promotion of the well-being of all of the country’s 110 million people, and the sanctity of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the nation.

  1. The COVID-19 Pandemic and Its Implications

The coronavirus epidemic has inflicted unprecedented damage to countries that were once thought to be invincible. For Sub-Sahara Africa (SSA), the poorest part of the world, the challenge is even more immense. The low rates of infection reported thus far in most parts of SSA may not be cause for comfort. According to many predictions, Africa, with its relatively weak healthcare systems, may be the next epicenter of the pandemic outbreak. 

Unsurprisingly, Ethiopia is bracing itself for its share of the global storm. Only time can tell the degree of success or failure of Ethiopia’s response to the anticipated assault. The economic, educational, social and political effects of the virus in the country are staggering. The economy is in a standstill, while exports and tourism have frozen, and remittances have declined. Except for the few and privileged, schools and universities are shut. The landlocked country is under serious distress, with the GDP growth rate reported in the past falling from the cliff. The gloomy picture has been elucidated by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed using notable international media outlets such as the New York Times and Financial Times.

There have been a few encouraging developments in terms of alleviating the looming catastrophe in these otherwise uncertain times. Ethiopians in the Diaspora who are themselves affected by the virus have generally responded affirmatively in sending much needed personal protection equipment; and the World Bank, IMF, European Union and the United States have released modest funds to fight the plague. 

However, there are several factors that make the resource mobilization challenging. First, the usual sources of support, such as the United States and the European Union, are themselves hit hard by the pandemic. Even when promises are made, disbursements do not arrive on time. Corporate philanthropy is virtually nonexistent, since the number of transnational corporations in Ethiopia is insignificant. Internally, ethnicity and human rights violations have divided the Ethiopian society. More importantly, there is an atmosphere of mistrust of government emanating from the perception of extensive corruption, evictions, land speculation, gentrification, social engineering, unaccountability and partiality of the governance system, and the control of key positions of federal government by an inner network determined to capture the institutions of the State and the civil service under the cover of “affirmative action”. Allegations that security forces, law enforcement agencies and government institutions are partisans have eroded public trust, affecting the country’s response to the dreaded pandemic. 

There is legitimate concern that the combination of the lockdown, political instability, weak government, debt burden, outmigration, external threats, as well as the locust invasion are more than likely to make the recovery arduous and long. The ethnic cleavages, the economic hardships and the continued eviction of the poor during these trying times can only spark new unrests in and around Africa’s premier diplomatic city, Addis Ababa, as well as the entire country. 

It was in this backdrop that Vision Ethiopia in April of 2020 issued a statement on the measures taken to combat the novel coronavirus pandemic and specifically warned against potential human rights violations that accompany natural or man-made disasters. 

Vision Ethiopia believes that the Government should continue to implement data-driven measures to mitigate and suppress the outbreak, and aggressively pursue effective resource mobilization from both local and international sources. Most importantly, there should be an unambiguously stated policy that guarantees that the resources mobilized will reach the vulnerable segments of the society. Further, extreme caution should be exercised so that the State of Emergency cannot be misused to suppress human rights, influence election outcomes, or harass those who raise genuine nonsectarian transition questions.

  1. Egypt’s Coercive Diplomacy and the GERD 

Undoubtedly, the GERD has become game-changer in the hydro-politics of the Nile river system. Colonial treaties which served Egypt over the years are in tatters. In consequence, Egypt has embarked on a dangerously coercive and adventurous diplomacy. It has rallied the support of the Arab League and a few African countries, and has managed to influence the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury to issue a statement that contravened the principles of international law and the sovereign rights of Ethiopia. Recently, it has even requested the UN Security Council to intervene on the matter. 

All along, Vision Ethiopia has remained engaged and has unwaveringly supported the Government of Ethiopia in its effort to protect the sovereignty of the country and to promote the fair and equitable exploitation of the Nile river system. We acknowledge the work of the various Ethiopian diaspora networks, the technical team at the Ministry of Water, Irrigation and Electricity, and the recent leadership shown at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 

Vision Ethiopia believes that the only way of dealing with Africa’s problems is through an active implementation of the principles enshrined in Article 4 of the Constitutive Act of the African Union. Neither the Security Council, nor the Arab League nor the United States should be dictating the resolution of the transboundary water sharing problems in Africa. Egypt must have confidence in the continental institutions, return back to the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), and ratify the agreement on the Nile River Basin Cooperative Framework, and any agreement must be within these frameworks. Indeed, the Secretary General of the United Nations, consistent with Chapter VI of the Charter, has referred the matter back to the continent by asking the parties to “persevere” in resolving the dispute. 

It should be underscored that any military adventure on the part of Egypt runs the risk of igniting an endless Afro-Arab conflict. In this respect millions of Africans very well know the history of the Arab conquest of the continent and Egypt’s colonial ambitions and extractive diplomacy to control the sources of the Nile (both Blue Nile and White Nile). This matter is also vivid to the African American community in the United States and the Caribbean. 

The nefarious roles of Egypt in inciting unrest and political upheavals in Ethiopia are very well known and ranged from aborted invasions over the centuries to promoting ethnic and religious dissonance in recent times. The accession to power of the TPLF in 1991, the secession of Eritrea in 1993, and the Eritrea-Ethiopia war of 1998-2000 are all examples of traumatic events that exemplify Egypt’s relentless efforts to control the sources of the Blue Nile. 

It has been the position of Vision Ethiopia that the construction of the dam must continue in accordance with the stated timeline, making reasonable tradeoff between the principles of “equitable water sharing” and “no significant harm”, but not seeking “permission” from anyone. We encourage the continuation of the recent effort by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to reach out to the African diplomatic community in Addis Ababa, and we believe this effort should be intensified to expose Egypt’s self-centered and unjustified claims. While we note the seasoned response to Egypt’s misleading letter to the UN Security Council, we urge the government to vigilantly apprise the international community, especially its allies in the fight against terrorism, of the long history of Egypt’s effort to create political unrest and destabilization in Ethiopia.  

  1. Government Accountability and Elections 

There is ongoing debate about whether Ethiopia has the necessary constitutional instrument or transitional charter that guides the post-conflict and transformational election. Citizens are weary about the direction of the transition, because the preceding transitional/provisional governments in 1975 and 1991 had turned out to be, respectively, a military dictatorship and an ethnocentric regime. While the measures taken by the Government to engage dissident groups is commendable, there is a lack of transparency about the agreements reached between the government and exiled groups that are now operating in the country. There is legitimate concern that groups that systematically undermine the country’s integrity, promote ethnic tensions, desecrate the national flag and vandalize precious heritages, are allowed to thwart with impunity the transition to “nonsectarian governance”. 

Research shows that elections and political parties are the cornerstones of government accountability. However, the 2005  crisis and the 2015 farcical elections in Ethiopia have resulted in more harm than progress towards government accountability. The 1995 Constitution, which excluded many, was not drawn based on the principles of separation of powers (horizontal accountability), and remained unratified by a referendum. It has no credible provisions for the creation of an independent court to interpret ambiguities, as is now exemplified in the search for constitutional “interpretation” about the postponement of the upcoming elections. 

The postponement of the election was predictable long before the outbreak of the COVID-19 outbreak. The government has not been able to conduct national census, political parties were not able to campaign freely in all regions of the country, and sectarian messages dominated the airwaves. Allegations that security forces, law enforcement agencies and government institutions are partisans have eroded public trust in the government’s ability to prepare the country for the promised free and fair election.

Remarkably, many points of view have been put forth regarding the election; however, most appear to be self-serving or dictated by ethnic agendas that do not contextualize the challenges of the day. One prevailing view, however, suggests that the transition has “failed” and, hence, the country needs to go back to the drawing board. Unsurprisingly, the airwaves and the Social Media are filled by competing opinions about the form of a transitional government, including a government of national unity, a caretaker government, and a purely technocratic one. Others opine a blank check which suggests that the government must extend its rule irrespective of how the House of Federation resolves the “constitutional crisis”.

The issue of a transitional government has been a focus of interest for Vision Ethiopia for a long time. In its third conference (October 22 and 23, 2016), the topic was extensively discussed and it was concluded that a transitional government was the best option at that time. However, given the present-day situation, Vision Ethiopia holds the view that the elections must be postponed under the stewardship of the current administration, while making a renewed and unwavering commitment to laying the ground for an unfettered and nonsectarian free and fair election within a defined post pandemic period, ensuring the rule of law, protection of human rights, and safeguarding the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country. 

  1. The Eritrea-Ethiopia Relationship 

One of the major accomplishments of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed when he assumed power was the resolution of the no-war-no-peace situation that had characterized the relationship between Eritrea and Ethiopia since the bloody border war that cost tens of thousands of lives between May 1998 and June 2000. The new relationship is yet to be fully defined, as there have been uncertainties about how much of the relationship is institutionalized. To date, there has been no official declaration of the key elements of the various agreements, including any resolutions pertaining to Ethiopia’s landlocked-ness. 

Internally, there is a lingering hostility between the TPLF and the Government of Eritrea. The TPLF leaders, who once fought together with EPLF and colluded with Eritrea to render Ethiopia land-locked, have considered the rapprochement between the leaders of the two countries as an existential threat.

The Eritrea-Ethiopia relationship has been a topic of keen interest to Vision Ethiopia since its inception. Notably, the first conference (October 18, 2015), was conducted under the theme of the then and future relationships between the two countries, and was concluded with the formulation of concrete proposals for a peaceful settlement of the conflict. 

Vision Ethiopia believes that the Government of Ethiopia should ensure that all agreements reached between the two countries be ratified by the House of Peoples’ Representatives and that the people of Ethiopia be fully informed of pertinent details of the agreements. In addition, Vision Ethiopia believes that all agreements should be framed anticipating any potential challenges in Eritrea and in the geopolitics of the Red Sea region. 

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Editor’s note : The article from Vision Ethiopia was released on May 22, 2020



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