Abiy Ahmed’s Perplexing Transition
Updated: Jun 27, 2021
Ethiopia embarked on a rare transition, riding high expectations on a very rough road.
Propelled by public revolt against the high-handed rule of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which dominated the ruling Ethiopian People Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and the intense power struggle within the EPRDF , PM Abiy Ahmed Ali, buoyed by his team of reformers, assumed the premiership of Ethiopia in 2018. His soaring speeches, his tantalizing promises of reform, and the bold actions he took during his early days in power were enthusiastically received by Ethiopians and friends of Ethiopia abroad. This promising start not only earned him the nickname of a God-sent “Prophet” among Ethiopians, but it also enabled him to win the Nobel Peace prize in 2019. Fast forward, three years later, and you will find many observers scratching their heads as to why PM Abiy’s support base is dwindling by the day, and wondering what his real intentions for the transition were in the first place. This article will describe how PM Abiy has managed the transition, examine the steps he has taken to date and the missteps that have accompanied them, and suggest ways to avoid complete failure.
PM Abiy Ahmed’s Ascension to Power
Ethiopia is a nation of paradoxes: It is endowed with abundant natural resources, yet it is unable to feed its people; it successfully defended itself against European colonialists over the centuries, but it has yet to grant basic freedoms to its citizens, and its long history of statehood notwithstanding, it has not succeeded in nurturing a semblance of democratic governance. Indeed, in the past half century, Ethiopia had made two attempts at transitioning to democracy, but both fell short of living up to their promises: The first attempt was the Provisional Military Government (the Derg), established in 1974, after the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie. Although the military government promised to transfer power, without any bloodshed, to a democratically elected government, it quickly morphed into a brutal military dictatorship which tyrannized the country for 17 years, until it was ousted by TPLF/EPRDF in 1991.
The fall of the military regime in 1991 was quickly followed by the TPLF/EPRDF’s transitional government. Astutely hiding its devious intent, TPLF/EPRDF unveiled its transitional road-map, and outlined cleverly packaged policy objectives which managed to hoodwink the people for a short while. This transitional regime advocated establishing an ethnic- and linguistic-based decentralized government, which championed a free-market economy, and multi-party democratic governance as its official policy objectives. It managed to establish a decentralized, ethnic-based administrative system, achieve some economic growth, and introduce a multi-party system. However, graft and nepotism became rampant, and the country ended up at the mercy of a few ethnic-Tegaru elites for the next 27 years. This corrupt system marginalized the vast majority of Ethiopians, unleashing sharp divisions along ethnic lines. Predictably, the people were back in the streets, calling for meaningful and sustained change. The unrest and intense pressure forced Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, the leader of TPLF/EPRDF party, to resign in February 2018, paving the way for political reform within the ruling coalition, hence ushering PM Abiy's era.
Even though there was no formal policy directive to elect a successor to PM Hailemariam from a specific ethnic group, there was some consensus among members of EPRDF to select the next leader from the Oromo People's Democratic Organization (OPDO), one of the four dominant parties which comprised the EPRDF. This move was partly designed to calm the anger and frustration of the Oromo youth, along with Amhara youth, who were protesting TPLF’s brutal rule, and partly to address the age-old vocal complaint of Oromo nationalists that they had been marginalized from power despite being one of the largest ethnic groups. Of the four dominant members of the EPRDF, the TPLF was the least enthusiastic about this arrangement, since it preferred a candidate from the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM), whom they hoped would remain less assertive like that of PM Hailemariam over whom they had exercised absolute control over the power structures.
Having orchestrated the adoption of such a consensus, the OPDO next deftly moved to get an Oromo candidate elected as the next Ethiopian prime minister. They made backdoor deals with the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM), the fourth member of the ruling EPRDF, and some members of the SEPDM, to elect PM Abiy Ahmed Ali as the next Prime Minister of Ethiopia. In a pre-arranged move, the candidate from the ANDM withdrew his candidacy for the premiership at the last minute, and all the votes from the Amhara group were given to the candidate from the OPDO. In addition, some voters from the SEPDM defied their party and voted for the Oromo candidate as well. Thus, PM Abiy Ahmed Ali was elected Chairman of EPRDF, on March 27, 2018, which automatically entitled him to claim the premiership of Ethiopia, pending the rubber-stamp parliament's endorsement.
PM Abiy’s Transition in a Nutshell
The absence of a clear road-map to guide PM Abiy’s transition and communicate his vision to the Ethiopian people has made it difficult to pin-point the type of change or political goals he has been pursuing since he assumed leadership. In fact, one can hardly find an official document which states that PM Abiy’s government is a transitional government. Perhaps, by reading between the lines, one might find clues, such as PM Abiy’s oft-repeated statements, such as “I will transition you,” which might lend credence to the claim of a prime minister in a transitional government. Therefore, in order to objectively assess PM Abiy’s achievements, and the challenges he has faced along the way, one has to closely look into what his government has accomplished so far, vis-à-vis the expectations of the Ethiopian people he had aroused when he first came on the scene. To do this, we believe that global best practices in the management of transitions might perhaps provide a frame of reference, and a source of pertinent benchmarks.
A political transition means “the interval between one political regime and another”. The outcome of a political transition depends on the way the transition is managed. Overall, a political transition might be considered as “successful” if it leads to the “downfall of an autocracy and the establishment of electoral democracy,” or as a “failure,” if “existing autocracy is challenged but remained in power... or replaced by a new autocracy rather than a democracy”.
A transitional government can take various forms, depending on the underlying problem that necessitated the transition itself and its desired goals. After reviewing six cases of post-Second World War transitional government models, Shain and Linz (1995) identified four models of transitional government: 1) revolutionary provisional government, 2) power-sharing interim government, 3) incumbent caretaker government, and 4) international interim government. PM Abiy’s transitional government in Ethiopia resembles the third type, incumbent caretaker government. The change of government originated from within the ruling party to respond to mounting public pressure. As such, the reform focused more on re-purposing the ruling party to overcome the ruling party’s loss of legitimacy than to seek a power-sharing or consensus-building arrangement that engages opposition groups in a meaningful way.
The Ethiopian public has some core expectations: ending inter-ethnic violence, stopping land-grab moves by malign actors, ending apartheid-style discrimination in the ethnically-carved regions, ensuring proportional representation at the federal level, and establishing a government system in which Ethiopian citizenship and self-governing rights are respected. In his acceptance speech, PM Abiy emphasized the need for change, and he promised to introduce sweeping reforms. “Ethiopiawinet”, Ethiopian nationalism as compared to ethno-nationalism, was his central message, and the people were wildly enthusiastic about it, since they had not heard that word used by government leaders for almost 30 years.
The tasks of any transitional government are generally limited to, 1) administering the country, including maintaining law and order during the transition period, and 2) preparing the country for the future. PM Abiy’s government was expected to fulfill its pledge within the parameters of this widely accepted norm. Upon ascending to the helm, he started taking measures which raised the expectations of the Ethiopian people, irrespective of their political or ethnic backgrounds. He brokered a peace deal with Eritrea, released political prisoners and jailed journalists, and invited opposition groups and individuals to contribute to the country’s transition to democracy. He also took measures against corrupt officials and members of the old guard, and replaced some of them with young and well-trained technocrats. In doing so, he also tried to widen the representation pool, by appointing officials from previously underrepresented groups, such as women, members of ethnic minorities, and even opposition party members.
The changes PM Abiy initiated demonstrated the government’s respect for freedom of expression, guaranteeing citizens’ access to previously blocked websites, renewing permission for formerly-banned and exiled media outlets to operate freely in Ethiopia, and granting regional-government status to the formerly Sidama zonal administration in the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples region. He introduced different measures to revamp the economy, such as by solving the problems with bloated projects, like the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), Metals and Engineering Corporation (METEC), the Sugar Corporation, and so on, which had wasted public money for several years. PM Abiy also took tough measures to liquidate the hated EPRDF coalition and to replace it with the Prosperity Party (PP), and, finally, he foiled the treasonous attempts to destabilize Ethiopia by the former Somali and Tigray regional governments.
Having been told these notable achievements, the question one ought to ask is whether the transition is going in the right direction—in terms of ushering in peace and stability into Ethiopia, and laying the foundation for the government's planned national election that the people are eagerly awaiting to make their dreams a reality. As stated above, for PM Abiy's transition to be successful, he should maintain law and order during the transition period and create favorable conditions for establishing a government for the people by the people.
The changes highlighted above were undertaken during the past three years of the transition period. In all fairness, the political crisis in Tigray has been a major distraction for PM Abiy’s administration. Notwithstanding this caveat, it is fair to assert that PM Abiy’s government is far from maintaining law and order. In fact, lawlessness has become a critical issue for many citizens. Formerly unknown or meagerly-armed groups are becoming imminent threats to peace and stability in diverse parts of the country, notably Wollega, Benishangul Gumuz, Kemise, and other places in the South. Furthermore, the Tigray region is in complete disarray, with TPLF starting a guerilla-style movement. In today’s Ethiopia, thousands of civilians are killed, and millions are displaced, mainly on the basis of their ethnicity or religious affiliation in the latest epicenters of ethnic strife. Nor have cities like Addis Ababa by any means been immune to similar violence, including targeted killings, kidnapping, and displacement.
What is Causing the People’s Unease with PM Abiy’s Transition
A transition without a road-map: One of the apparent shortcomings of the current transition is the absence of a clear-cut road-map, a situation which raises a number of questions such as the following: What are the specific objectives of the transition? What strategies have been formulated to attain those objectives? How long will the transition period take? Unfortunately, the government has yet to provide a position document which addresses these crucial questions. PM Abiy often tries to laugh such questions off, and move on, or he simply responds: “I will transition you” (አሻግራችኋለሁ) when he is confronted with questions pertaining to the “how”, “what” and “when” aspects of this transition. In a country where politics is based on ethnicity, observers find such lack of transparency on the part of the government unsettling.
Unabated Ethnic-Cleansing: Targeted ethnic attacks have become commonplace in the Oromia, Southern, and Benishangul-Gumz regions. Per PM Abiy’s testimony to the Parliament, Ethiopians endured about 130 ethnic-based clashes during the last three years alone. Thousands have been massacred and millions displaced throughout the country. The number of incidents is increasing everyday, and killings and displacements are continuing with no end in sight. Such developments have elicited a legitimate sense of apprehension among Ethiopians regarding what the future holds for their country. These attacks are usually blamed on external entities, but this does not absolve the state of its responsibility to maintain law and order.
Status Ambiguity in the Oromia and Tigray Regions: What is happening in Oromia and Tigray regions is hard to understand and out of the norm. TPLF declined to join the Prosperity Party, and retreated to Tigray. Once in Tigray, it started to defy the orders of the Federal Government and to act independently. It conducted its own election, formed its own regional special force (which rivals the national defense force), started initiating relationships with foreign nations, and began to openly campaign for an independent Tigray. The Federal government tolerated all these provocations until TPLF crossed a ‘red-line’ and attacked the North Command of Ethiopian National Defense Forces. In response to the attack, the federal government unleashed what it termed a law-enforcement campaign in Tigray, and removed TPLF from power. However, TPLF is currently waging guerrilla warfare in Tigray, ultimately with the aim of seceding from Ethiopia. Although the response of the Federal government to the treasonous act of TPLF was swift and just, which also gave a boost to PM Abiy’s legitimacy as a leader, some observers question why the government tolerated TPLF as long as it did in the first place. They contend that all the damage caused by the surprise attack of TPLF, and the crimes committed against civilians could have been averted if coordinated measures had been taken early enough. Currently, no one knows how or when the guerilla warfare in Tigray will end, raising uncertainty in the minds of many Ethiopians.
What is happening in the Oromia region is even more ambiguous and complicated than what we see in Tigray. Oromia is the linchpin of the ongoing ethnic-based massacre in Ethiopia. Amharas, Somalis, Gedeos, Guragies, and Gamos are being driven out of fraudulently designated parts of “greater Oromia”. Formerly unknown military groups are becoming visible in rural parts of this region, and these armed groups are believed to be behind the displacements and killings in the region. Some observers suspect the unknown armed groups are units of the army of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). This terrorist group had limped along as a guerrilla movement, with no visible military achievements, for over 50 years, and so it decided to engage in a peaceful struggle, rather than through violence. However, some contingents of the group are believed to have been carrying out an insurgency in different parts of Oromia. Somehow, the OPDO regional government allowed this OLF, which had been based in Eritrea, to enter Ethiopia, following the TPLF’s ouster. What is even more inexplicable is why the OPDO leadership allowed the armed wing of the OLF, the Oromo Liberation Army( OLA) to enter Ethiopia fully armed, and permit an insurgent movement to flourish.
There is also an informal “Oromummaa'' movement orchestrated by extreme Oromo elites, which advocates an “Oromo-First'' policy in all economic, political, and social spheres of Ethiopia. The movement wants an Ethiopia which is dominated by the Oromo ethnic group; failing that, it would secede and establish its own country. This strategy of straddling such nefarious options is an existential threat to Ethiopia, and as the lesson learned from what transpired in Tigray shows, the OLA and its “Oromummaa'' ideology should be dealt with sooner rather than later.
The tightening of Oromia’s grip on Addis Ababa during this transition period is another issue which worries many observers. Oromia paramilitary forces are reported to be stationed in camps on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, while some units are already in Addis, under the guise of protecting Oromia buildings and interests. Federal, and Addis Ababa’s government offices are increasingly being staffed by Oromos. There are also allegations that well-placed Oromo officials in Addis Ababa’s City Hall are issuing hundreds of thousands of identification cards to youths residing in Oromia as if they were bona fide residents of Addis Ababa. It is further alleged that some homes in a housing project built for Addis Ababans were illegally transferred to Oromos. There is, thus, a worrisome effort to make Addis Ababa part of Oromia.
The combined effect of all these events being instigated by the Oromummaa movement while we have an Oromo prime minister bothers many Ethiopians, and some people are wondering if all these events happened with the full knowledge of the prime minister.
Misplaced priorities: If PM Abiy Ahmed’s actions reflect his priorities, then that is not what the country is crying for. Despite the killings and displacements of thousands of people in different parts of the country, PM Abiy is reluctant to condemn these dastardly deeds. Nor has he taken the necessary steps to maintain law and order. To the contrary, he devotes a great deal of time and resources to develop parks and recreation centers. Those who sense the danger of the country descending into chaos see such acts as irresponsible and reckless.
Mismatch between action and intent: Some wonder whether PM Abiy is championing Ethiopiawinet to begin with. The “reflecting self” in PM Abiy is telling us what is probably inside his head and heart. Although PM Abiy is eloquent at delivering scripted speeches, he makes questionable statements when he makes unscripted speeches or when he gets confronted on the spot. Below are some examples that made even some of his vocal supporters cringe, and scratch their heads.
In an on-camera interview, following the illegal march to the Prime Minister’s palace by some disgruntled members of the Army, to do God knows what, PM Abiy said, “Querros (the Youth) from Sululelta and the surrounding Oromia cities were already marching to Addis to rescue me when they heard the news”. People wonder why he did not appeal to the people of Addis Ababa, since almost all of the City was supporting him at that time.
Around 800,000 ethnic-Gedeos were displaced due to ethnic-based attacks by Oromo extremists, and they stayed in the wilderness for almost a month--with no food, shelter, and medical care. PM Abiy visited the displaced people only when the pressure from within and abroad to take action became intense. On his first visit a month after this displacement, PM Abiy said to the Gedos, “Why are you exposing us to the world?”. This hardly squares well with his support base, which sees him as the “Savior”.
In a speech he delivered in the Oromo language in Balie, he stated, “We are gathering momentum; Oromo is not yet in power; Oromo will rule Ethiopia once in power.” This raises suspicion that he might have the intention to follow the TPLF path to ethnic-based dictatorship. Ethiopians want a government for all, not a government for this or that ethnic group. In response to Eskinder Nega’s decision to establish a movement which would monitor what the Oromo-dominated Addis Ababa administration is doing regarding the City's fate, PM Abiy warned, “We will go into an open war”. He has never used similar expressions to denounce groups or individuals that are displacing and killing Ethiopians.
Responding to a question, on the spot, as to whether the Ethiopian Constitution was going to be amended to ease ethnic-based clashes, PM Abiy said, “We will not change the Constitution just for the sake of a single Region.” This statement raises suspicion about PM Abiy’s depth of understanding of the problem. While TPLF’s and OLF’s animosity toward ethnic Amharas informed the spirit of the Constitution, ethnic segregation that is encouraged by the Constitution has adversely affected nearly every ethnic group, especially in recent months. Thus, many Ethiopians believe this Constitution is the source of all inter-ethnic conflicts, and they would like to see it amended.
Will the Transition Work This Time around?
If PM Abiy takes decisive action regarding the changes he promised to implement, and proceeds in the right direction, the transition will succeed; alternatively, if he continues to follow the hitherto unclear path, it will fail disastrously! The last emperor of the country was dragged out of his palace and eventually assassinated, because he ignored early warnings about the urgent need for change. The Derg (the military dictatorship that was overthrown by the TPLF) committed all sorts of atrocities in a desperate effort to stay in power, but it was eventually removed disgracefully. TPLF perpetrated all kinds of economic and political crimes to make Ethiopia only for the group it claimed to represent (or dissolve it and establish their own nation). Because of its hubris, it has put the whole people of Tigray in grave danger.
The first group to lose from a failed transition are the leaders of the transition. Of course, there is always collateral damage, and national security may be in jeopardy in any failed transition. Sadly, there will be a big price to pay if Ethiopia undergoes another failed transition.
Ethiopians want neither another king, nor the Derg, nor TPLF, to tighten its grip on power and continue to terrorize them. What they want is a just, democratic, and prosperous Ethiopia they can call home. What the people want to see in PM Abiy’s transition is to lay the foundation for the kind of Ethiopia that he and his colleagues who spearheaded the change in 2018 envisioned. Promoting Ethiopianwinet is the aspiration of a clear majority in Ethiopia.
Some Suggestions to Regain Public Confidence and Move Forward
Stop repeating TPLF’s blunders and work for real change: The majority of Ethiopians detest TPLF-style rule to be visited upon them again. They are witnessing the malignancy which TPLF left behind spreading around the nation on a grand scale. The future of Ethiopia is a multi-ethnic nation, where all citizens enjoy equal rights, wherever they are in the country, and regardless of their ethnic origin. Ethiopians have seen it all, and the last thing they want from PM Abiy is for his government to morph into another ethnic-based dictatorship.
Maintain law and order: The government has at its disposal all the means to stop the killing and displacement of Ethiopians in their own country. What this government lacks, if indeed it is not the one which is orchestrating the carnage in the first place, is the willingness and commitment to end it. The Fascist ideology of Oromummaa and its enforcers is widely believed to be the root of all these killings, displacements, and destruction in today's Ethiopia. The government should move fast to solve the problem in Oromia and Benishangul.
Amend the Constitution—do or die for Ethiopia: TPLF policies enshrined in the federal and regional constitutions are the causes of all the problems in Ethiopia. It is crystal clear that present-day Ethiopia was designed by TPLF to disintegrate and dissolve slowly. Unlike in democratic countries around the world, the Ethiopian Constitution recognizes the rights of ethnic groups (and not of individual citizens). Furthermore, this Constitution vests sovereignty in ethnic groups rather than in the country itself. This document begins, not with, "We the people of Ethiopia," but with "We the nations and nationalities of Ethiopia". Power to the Federal government is delegated by the "Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples of Ethiopia", not the other way around. Land is owned and administered by the "Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples of Ethiopia", not by the people. The Constitution gives "Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples'' the right to secede from Ethiopia if they want to, without any precondition.
Some people are more equal than others, depending on their ethnic background and the region they live in, and not everyone in the "Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples'' in the regions enjoys equal treatment. An ethnic group (or groups in some cases) is/are designated as "owners'' of a region, in which people other than those from the privileged ethnic groups are in practice labeled "outsiders", or in some cases clearly given by the regional laws only the right to live in those regions. With this official government policy, more than 30 million people have practically been rendered "country-less," even if they were born and raised in the region in question. Moreover, Ethiopia is the only country in the world where apartheid is alive and well in the twenty-first century. The root of all the violence, in which thousands have perished and millions have been displaced, is the Constitution. Amending the toxic portions of this defective document is a precondition for ending ethnic-cleansing and stopping Ethiopia's disintegration.
The new regime should continue to refine the federal arrangement: One option could be to devolve political power to the local level, thereby granting citizens the right to be represented in their kebeles and woredas (i.e., counties) and minimizing the nationhood-posture of regional states. In the Amhara region, for example, the regional government has allowed Oromos to be represented by their own local government. Smaller and dispersed groups, such as the Argoba, have a unique representation arrangement in the Amhara governance structure; why not in Oromia, Benshangul-Gumz, or in the South? Not doing so is tantamount to allowing apartheid to operate in a different form in Ethiopia, and this is a crime against humanity!
 PRDF: Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, a political coalition that ruled Ethiopia from 1991 to 2018. The EPRDF consisted of four political parties, namely Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), Amhara Democratic Party(ADP), Oromo Democratic Party (ODP) and Southern Ethiopian People's Democratic Movement (SEPDM).  Guillermo O’Donnell and Philippe Schmitter, Transitions from Authoritarian Regimes (1986), in Kathryn Stoner and Michael McFaul. Transitions to Democracy (p. 6). Johns Hopkins University Press. Kindle Edition.  Kathryn Stoner and Michael McFaul. Transitions to Democracy (2013: p. 6). Johns Hopkins University Press. Kindle Edition.  Between States: Interim Governments and Democratic Transitions by Yossi Shain, Juan J. Linz; with contributions from Thomas C. Bruneau et al. Cambridge, New York, Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1995.  Emmanuel De Groof, The Features of Transitional Governance Today (2019: p18-23), The University of Edinburgh, School of Law, Global Justice Academy.
The article represents the author’s viewpoint. Horn Africa Insight will correct clear factual errors. You can contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org