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In-depth: How Ethiopia’s transition to democracy derailed: Reflections by Jawar Mohammed

By Jawar Mohammed

Introduction

Addis Abeba, October 28/2020 – For the last half-century or more, there has been a continuous struggle to establish a democratic system in Ethiopia. Starting with the Neway brothers’ aborted coup to the latest Qeerroo victory over the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) regime, these struggles have induced regime changes but have not led to a democratic system. The handful of changes in government can be described as “missed opportunities.” Ironically, we do not seem to have learned from these missed opportunities, and we keep missing new ones despite the heavy sacrifices we have made to bring about such opportunities.

The latest such opportunity for democratization—the change brought about by the non-violent struggle of the Qeerroo movement—has all but been met with the fate of past changes, whether we call it a hijacked revolution or a mismanaged transition. It is evident that any prospect of transition to a democratic system has been thwarted.

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How and when did we lose this latest opportunity? How did this opportunity come about in the first place? What can be done to salvage any remaining chance of putting the transition back on track? In this piece, I would like to offer some insights as one of the frontline participants in the movement that produced the change and the two-year “transitional period.”

From #OromoProtests2014 to #GrandOromoProtests2016

The movement that brought the current change, which first erupted in late April 2014, has its roots in the Oromo protests against the Finfinee “master plan” (Addis Abeba Integrated Development Master Plan). The protests that began in universities quickly spread to towns. The EPRDF government predictably responded with extreme violence, killing protestors, particularly in Ambo, the epicenter of the #OromoProtests movement. Yet the government, seeing that the protest action was gaining momentum, issued statements indicating that it was backing down and promised to halt the implementation of the master plan. In response, the protests subsided.

However, the protests erupted for a second time on November 12, 2015, this time in Ginchi, a small town 80 kilometers southwest of Ethiopia’s capital. This was due to the government’s decision to clear a forest and football field for an investment project as a continuance of the master plan. From November 12th onward, the protest action continued, expanding and spreading across Oromia, bringing on board farmers and other sectors of society. The violent response by the government fueled the intensity and magnitude of the protests rather than suppressing them.

Although the immediate cause of the protests was the “master plan,” the ultimate goal was obviously to end the repressive system as a whole and bring about a transition to democracy. However, whether this goal of inducing a transition to democracy would be attainable did not become clear until the summer of 2016. As the protests grew stronger in the face of the regime’s repressive methods, a tactical decision was made to test and measure the depth and width of the movement.

Toward this end, the call for an Oromia statewide rally, hashtagged #GrandOromoProtest, was initiated on August 6, 2016, with the singular aim of measuring the strength of the movement so that realistic plans could be devised for the next phase of the resistance.

When the idea for the rally was brainstormed, the planners and organizers were unsure and in fact fearful of the damaging consequences if the rally did not materialize as hoped, but the decision was made to take the risk nevertheless. The rally was scheduled to take place within a week. The government panicked and denounced it, informing and threatening the wider population through local channels. On Sunday August 6, 2016, protests erupted in over 200 towns across Oromia, surpassing even the best-case scenario predicted by the planners and organizers. In keeping with its brutality, the regime gunned down over 200 protestors—a particularly heavy death toll for a single day.

The grand rally became both a major milestone and a decisive turning point; it proved that the movement had the power it needed to mount sustained nation- and statewide pressure. It signaled that it was possible to move to the next phase of the movement with a reasonable degree of confidence in its success.

From #GrandOromoProtest2016 to Forecasting Transition Scenarios

It was with this confidence that the concrete planning for the implementation of the transition began. Even before the grand rally, the planners and organizers were already thinking about, discussing, and debating how the transition could, or indeed, should be brought about. During this process, Samuel Huntington’s theory on the three possible ways of transitioning from a dictatorship to a democracy were deliberated. Each option was carefully weighed against the objective and subjective conditions in Ethiopia.

Option 1: A transition via the overthrow of the regime (replacement) was thought to be attainable but too dangerous. In a country where the state, government, and party are merged, bringing down the all-controlling party would risk collapsing the government and even the state. Particularly in such an ethnically fragmented polity with mobilized, polarized, and heightened competing nationalisms, the possibility of the collapse of the state was too risky to take a chance with a transition via regime overthrow. This option was therefore ruled out as too dangerous.

Option 2: A transition via negotiations (transplacement) between the opposition and ruling parties was the other possibility that could potentially be attained with sufficient pressure through protest action and a push from the international community. It was thought that the ruling party could be induced to sit for a negotiated transition with the opposition. The result would be a transitional period jointly managed via a mutually developed roadmap. Although the option was attractive, it was deemed not viable for two reasons. First, there was a lack of credible and viable opposition political parties operating in the country as their leaders were either exiled or in prison. Second, after the death of strongman Meles Zenawi, the ruling party was itself too fragmented, which made reaching a binding and securable deal with opposition parties difficult to imagine. This option was therefore also ruled out as too risky.

Option 3: A transition via reform (transformation) happens when the ruling elite initiate a transition to democracy on their own, either as a result of a fear of revolution or internal and/or external changes that make their authoritarian rule unsustainable. We knew that the changing circumstances had created a schism within the ruling party that had separated the hardliners from the moderates. We postulated that once the moderates gained the upper hand, they would initiate and push through a transition.

Based on these Huntington theories and a working history of case studies, a decision was made to choose the last option. This choice was further strengthened by the Arab Spring and its aftermath. The collapse of Libya, Syria, and Yemen into civil war strengthened our belief that attempting a transition by overthrowing the regime would be too dangerous for Ethiopia as it could plunge the country into civil war and lead to the collapse of the state; hence, aiming for a transition via reform was openly and strongly advocated for with confidence.

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Plotting the Reformists’ Takeover

After the movement passed the test of the August 2016 grand rally, the reformists within the regime were encouraged to start seizing power from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) hardliners and their loyalists. This comprised two phases: the first was to capture Oromia’s state power where the protests were strongest, and the second was to build an alliance of moderates from among the ruling EPRDF members, notably members of the Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organization (OPDO) and Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM), to finally wrestle federal power away from the hardliners.

Accordingly, a soft coup brought Lemma Megersa to Oromia’s presidency. Loyalists of the TPLF hardliners were swiftly pushed aside and replaced by reformist personalities. The reformists’ takeover of Oromia shocked the hardliners. Alarmed, they made the decision to impose more violent crackdowns and attempted to stop the momentum. On October 2, 2016, they openly undermined the new reformist president of Oromia by sending security forces to massacre attendees of the Irreecha festival. This was followed by the declaration of a state of emergency (SOE) and the intensification of the crackdown over the next six months.

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However, the SOE did not yield the intended result of stopping the protests and weakening the reformists; to the contrary, it strengthened them. Within weeks of lifting the SOE, the protestors were back in action with boycotts, demonstrations, and so on. It became clear that the movement had not only survived the SOE, it had also used the time to build a better organizational structure and was therefore able to return with greater strength and confidence. The reformists, particularly Lemma, began openly siding with the protestors. They validated the protesters’ narratives, blamed the government for the crisis, and indicated that the only solution was to address the grievances of the protestors. By the summer of 2017, the rift between the reformists and the hardliners was widening to the point of no return.

The reformists’ takeover therefore had to be rushed, and to consummate this phase of the struggle, the promotion of the Oromo–Amhara alliance (then called Oromara) at party and societal levels followed. As the protests grew and the reformists’ alliance solidified, the TPLF hardliners began to lose confidence and showed signs of relenting.

Divergent Perspectives on the Transition Leader

By late 2017, an assessment showed that both the objective and subjective conditions for the takeover of the entire government by the reformists were ripe, far sooner than had previously been predicted. In September 2017, the key coordinators of the reformists’ team traveled abroad to converse with diaspora activists. The most important issue that was discussed was the importance of agreeing on a designated candidate for the premiership. This was meant to avoid a possible power struggle in the last critical phase, which would allow the hardliners to exploit the power struggle within the reformists’ camp. Initially, the choice appeared obvious—Lemma Megersa, most notably because he had already emerged as the unifying figure in the reformists’ camp and among activists and protestors. However, the core team within the Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organization (OPDO) proposed an alternative candidate, Abiy Ahmed. Their reasoning was that Lemma Megersa was not a member of the federal parliament and was hence ineligible for the prime minister post. This was not accepted by either the diaspora-based activists or the local protest coordinators. Abiy was sent to the diaspora to lobby those opposed to his candidacy. He traveled abroad in October and November 2017, spending two weeks trying to persuade academics, activists, and intellectuals but achieving only partial success. After his conversations with me over these two weeks, I grew even more skeptical about him. I informed him of my assessment upon his departure and sent a report to the coordinators of the reformists’ team back home to explain my opposition to his candidacy.

I raised two critical concerns:

  1. In my conversations with Abiy, it became clear to me that he lacked experience in both the complicated politics of Ethiopia and administration. Since managing the transition would require well-tested leadership, I concluded that Abiy was not ready for the role.
  2. Abiy demonstrated a startling lack of appreciation for the complexity of transition politics, which is particularly critical in such a fragmented polity as that of Ethiopia. Entering into transition politics meant that the country would be in a very precarious situation. I found his understanding and proposed mechanism for managing the transition to be too simplistic. His simplistic view, when coupled with the extreme personal ambition that I sensed during our conversations, led to my concern, and I concluded that he was unsuitable for the transitional leadership position.

I feared that Abiy’s inexperience, excessive personal ambition, and lack of appreciation of Ethiopia’s complex politics and the required transitional leadership would imperil not only the democratic transition, but also the delicate politics and even the survival of our divided country as it entered its most precarious phase. I therefore proposed that Lemma Megersa take the helm for the two-year transitional period, Gedu Andargachew be appointed the deputy prime minister, and Abiy himself be given the role of the chief of staff to the prime minister. While many in the OPDO central committee and military commanders agreed with my assessment, key members of the reformists’ camp did not. This included Lemma Megersa himself who vacated his post as the OPDO party chair to pave the way for Abiy’s premiership position and persuaded/coerced the central committee members to accept Abiy as the candidate for the prime ministerial post. Eventually, I aired my opposition publicly, not in the hope of stopping what had already been decided by the reformists’ camp, but rather to leave my opinion on the public record.

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After the reformists officially took over the center in April 2018, I came under pressure to support the prime minister for the sake of unity and the success of the transition. I reluctantly decided to show measured critical support even though I could see my fears regarding his leadership materializing from the outset of his premiership.

Meeting in the United States

In early August 2018, four months after taking over the federal government, the reformists’ leadership flew to the United States to converse with the diaspora community. They were welcomed with huge excitement. In our private meeting in Minnesota, we discussed three issues that I believed were critical for a successful democratic transition.

  1. Demobilization, Disarmament, and Reintegration of Rebel Groups

The rebel movements and organizations that were engaged in armed struggle needed to be assured and persuaded to disarm and participate peacefully in the transition process. To this end, I pointed out that these political organizations and their leaders should be approached and assured of a safe return home so that they could mobilize their forces accordingly. I emphasized the role of international organizations in providing financial and technical assistance to successfully demobilize and reintegrate these combatants and to support the senior and elderly leaders of these organizations with means of living in order for them to reintegrate into a peaceful political life after decades in exile. I also strongly emphasized how crucial this demobilization, disarmament, and reintegration (DDR) process was to building trust between the opposition and the government as I firmly believed it was critical for a successful transition to democracy. I forewarned that failure to undertake successful DDR would not only derail the transition to democracy, but also endanger security at the crucial time of the political transition when stability was most needed.

  1. Rapprochement, reconciliation, and reintegration of TPLF

After dominating the authoritarian system for 27 years, TPLF finally saw the writings on the wall and relented, opting to leave power before it faced total defeat. Their decision was partly based on a promise given to them by protest leaders and reformists to not seek revenge, be it in the form of prosecution or a punitive redistribution of wealth (through nationalization, confiscation, judicial seizures, or other processes). Since dealing with the previous dominant ruling group was one of the most crucial factors determining the success or failure of the transition, the issue of TPLF needed an urgent and well-thought-out solution. While reducing TPLF’s influence, I advised that the reformists should not present a retributive threat to them given TPLF’s influence in the security and economic sectors, which they could leverage to destabilize the transition if they perceived a threat to their party or political base. Hence, my counsel was that we should approach them to diffuse the tension built during the protests, reconcile them with the rest of the country, and reintegrate them into the country’s political process. I envisioned that this could be done formally through the party or government officials and assisted informally through elders, intellectuals, and business leaders.

  1. Developing a Transition Roadmap

Case studies of successful transitions to democracy show that a roadmap developed based on negotiation and consensus among the contending political forces is important. This roadmap, at the minimum, should contain the rules of engagement for the political parties, the election timetable, and the pathway for the drafting of a negotiated election rule. The roadmap should also consist of a mechanism for conflict management and a plan for national reconciliation.

The reactions to these three points I had proposed we focus on were indicative of what was to come: they, particularly the prime minister, were quick to agree with me, but it was apparent that he was not interested in serious deliberation. He just wanted us to move on. One particular utterance was quite revealing about his thought processes. He asked me, “Why are you so worried about the election? We are sure we will win; look at all the support we are getting.” After I explained how support during the honeymoon phase could be deceptive and could evaporate quickly, he commented, “I can recruit 500 doctors and engineers and defeat any party.” I responded that a rival party could recruit 500 farmers, dress them in popular flags, and beat him. Our conversation did not progress further, and we scheduled a continuance of our discussion upon our return home.

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Initial Conversations at Home

The reformist team was uncomfortable with my return to Ethiopia. They had been signaling this from the moment I had indicated my desire to go home. Finally, they sent five elders to the U.S. to persuade me not to return. Their official reasoning was a concern for my safety, but it was clear that they feared I could be their rival or a challenger to their newly acquired power. I understood their concern, and I assured them that I had no desire for political power. I expressed to them that my return was motivated by my desire to assist with the transition by using my influence as an activist and that I intended to eventually return to academia after the two-year transition period. I politely turned the elders away and affirmed my decision to return.

I set out three roles I could play to assist with the transition upon returning home:

  1. Advisory role: I could use my theoretical training, experience, and ability to coordinate intellectuals to provide the reformist leaders and opposition groups with strategies on how best to navigate and manage the transition.
  2. Constructive criticism and pressure: I could use my influence to exert pressure on both the government and opposition leaders to stay on course toward the transition.
  3. Asset for stability: Given that the transition period would weaken government control, I aimed to use my influence to assist with stabilization in the face of potential restiveness during the transition, particularly among the youth.

Starting the day I arrived in the capital with my speech at the Millennium Hall, I began tirelessly playing these roles over the next few months. I held numerous meetings with federal officials to discuss the ongoing transition and how best to manage it to usher in a new era for the country. In several cases, I submitted memos containing theories and case studies of successful and favored transitions. Although I toned down the severity and frequency of my critique of the leadership, I continued to use the social and traditional media to raise certain concerns and point out glaring mistakes in the management of the political transition.

Believing stability to be the most important challenge, I traveled across the country to plead with the public, especially the youth, to calm down and give the reformist leadership a chance so that they could focus on managing the transition. One of my efforts included an attempt to facilitate negotiations between armed groups and the government so as to enable successful demobilization. Unfortunately, these efforts did not produce the intended results because the government had different plans from what we had assumed and hoped for.

As time went on, it became increasingly clear that the leadership, particularly the prime minister, was aiming to consolidate a new one-party, one-man rule rather than lead a transition into a multiparty democracy.

Downward Spiral

While opposition groups and the youth increasingly became disillusioned and disappointed as the government veered off the path of a transition to democracy, a more troubling development was brewing within the reformist camp itself. The removal of key members of the reformist camp such as Gedu Andargachew, Workeneh Gabeyehu, and Lemma Megersa sent a strong signal that the prime minister was eliminating even potential internal challengers with the aim of consolidating personal power and had no intention of  inviting and cooperating with opposition leaders as needed for a proper democratic transition.

The Formation of the Prosperity Party: The Stick That Broke the Camel’s Back

The transformation of the coalition EPRDF, together with the dissolution of the constituting member parties, into the centralized Prosperity Party (PP) placed further roadblocks in the path toward a successful transition to democracy. First, the rushed process and unwillingness to build an internal census widened the divide within the reformists’ camp: some openly rejected the decision while many silently withdrew. Second, the process in which the PP was founded further intensified the tension with TPLF, which was contrary to the notions of reconciliation and reintegration that the transition needed. The formation of the PP was accompanied by a sudden ideological shift in the ruling party from left to right, both in terms of politics and the economy, which heightened the contradictions within the country. Politically, the clearly signaled shift away from multinational federalism to a centralized state, coupled with the infatuation of the prime minister with past kings, generated a polarizing discourse, particularly among the Amhara and Oromo political communities, at a time when narratives that bridged the gap were most needed.

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The formation of the PP clearly showed that the prime minister aimed to eventually transform the country from a centralized one-party rule to a one-man rule, effectively removing all the hope placed on him to lead us to a pluralistic society and a participatory democracy. Furthermore, action taken since the formation of the party indicated a dangerous trend toward the monetization and militarization of politics. The influx of money from Middle Eastern sources, the extortion-type collection of funds from the business community, and the utilization of state resources for the party and even the prime minister’s personal activities became common occurrences.

In terms of militarization, the formation of the republican guard outside the constitutionally established security forces was an ominous sign for the democratic transition. Given the fact that this republican guard was designed to serve as the personal army of the prime minister points to his desire to consolidate power and protect his personal grip on it. The institutionalization of the security forces and the training of a massive paramilitary force under the guise of the Oromia police, notably with an indoctrination process focused on cracking down on opposition activities, provided additional evidence of a plan to further securitize politics rather than liberalize it. Such a rapid and aggressive monetization and securitization of politics does not pave the way toward democratization; rather, it impedes it.

The Mistakes Made by the Opposition and Activists

Although those tasked with leading the transition from among the ruling party must take the lion’s share of the blame for mismanaging/hijacking the transition, opposition groups and activists are not without culpability. As mentioned earlier, one of the primary reasons we were forced to choose transition via reform (transformation) instead of overthrowing the authoritarian party (replacement) or transplacement was the absence of active and viable opposition parties as most of their leaders had either been exiled or incarcerated. The hope was that, during the two-year transitional period, the exiled leaders and those released from prison would use the opportunity to build a strong and viable alternative party or coalition. This was largely not realized. The most damaging consequence of this failure was the inability of the opposition leaders to present a united position aimed at negotiating a national transitional government. This inability by the opposition to present a unified front enabled the prime minister to brush aside the need to create a national transitional roadmap. In fact, it allowed him to play party leaders against one another, nullifying their positions and ability to exert sufficient pressure on him.

Activists

Activists, as well as academics, played a crucial role in guiding the popular non-violent protest movements that produced the change. Unfortunately, their roles were either diminished or their attention diverted during the transition.

Many of the activists did not have personal political ambitions and therefore did not take part in formal politics. Once the objective of inducing change was achieved, they remained on the sidelines rather than stepping forward to continue giving guidance during the transition and keeping the process on track. Most returned to their regular jobs or chose to give uncritical support to the transitional leadership based on the assumption that the responsibility for leading the transition would be left to the political leaders and organizations. Having left the responsibility of guiding the transition to the political leaders, activists turned to advocating for partisan interests that were of personal concern to each of them instead of engaging in a principled and unified activism as they did during the protest movements. This partisan advocacy polarized the activist community and weakened their influence on the political process. Some activists joined the government with the hope of assisting the reformist leadership but had no success in influencing the system either due to their inexperience in navigating government processes or simply because the ruling group had no intention of democratizing in the first place. Many were quickly disillusioned, so they decided either to withdraw or to remain quiet.

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Conclusion

By now, many domestic and international actors have sensed and started voicing their concerns that the much-hoped-for transition of Ethiopia to democracy is in jeopardy. In my assessment, the transition has already been reversed: we are no longer on the path toward a democratic transition, but rather are transiting back to authoritarian rule—from a one-party authoritarian regime to a one-man dictatorship. This effort by Abiy to build a new personal authoritarian rule does not only dash the hopes of millions who want to see and live under a democratic system; it seriously endangers domestic and regional peace. Attempting to impose a sultanistic dictatorship on such a highly polarized and mobilized society in the presence of competing nationalism could lead to a civil war and ultimately the collapse of the state. At this time, an Ethiopia engaged in civil war would have a detrimental impact on both regional and international affairs. Hence, both domestic, regional, and international actors need to place urgent and coordinated pressure on the prime minister to reverse the current course, reopen the political sphere and convene all stakeholders with the aim of developing a collective roadmap toward a transition to democracy. Indeed, any remaining hope of salvaging the democratic transition is fast slipping away.


Editor’s Note: This article was written by the author prior to his arrest on July 01/2020, where he and others arrested with him are currently defending against multiple charges, including terrorism charges at the federal court.

About Whispers from the North

Whispers from the North is an online platform that appreciates the ecological, cultural and socio-economic diversities of Northern Kenya. We also acknowledge that the lives of the communities of northern Kenya has been shaped by a number of intrinsic and extrinsic factors which have led to complex challenge that calls for a multifaceted approach.

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