The Puzzle of Ethiopian Politics

Apr, 2020

Political Parties Series — Episode: Ethiopia

More often than not, there’s more to a country’s domestic politics than classic pre-election oversimplifications and rigid dichotomies such as reformists vs conservatives, or ruling coalition vs the opposition. A new episode of Political Parties Series takes us from Iran to Ethiopia.

This episode was not supposed to be published now, but as Ethiopia’s electoral commission has just decided to postpone elections because of the coronavirus outbreak, it may be useful to the current debate on the political implications of the pandemic (especially in Africa, as Judd Devermont points out, but not only). While a pandemic seems to be a valid reason for postponing elections, the risk is to trigger a constitutional crisis (or even social unrest) in the middle of a humanitarian emergency if such a decision is taken without political consensus between the ruling party and the opposition.

Episode: Ethiopia

The date is uncertain, but Ethiopia will sooner or later hold its 2020 general election, the 6th since the 1991 transition but the first without the EPRDF (Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front), the coalition which has ruled the country ever since. At the end of 2019, three EPRDF parties — all but the TPLF — and its former five regional affiliates (agar parties) coalesced into the new “Prosperity Party”, a move endorsed by PM Abiy Ahmed and one of the major political reforms he has pushed through since taking power in 2018. Scholars disagree on the impact such a move may have on the country’s stability, making this 6th electoral appointment quite interesting, but also feared. Bloody clashes have already broken out in many regions, but more especially in OromiaData show that political violence events have decreased in the past two years but, despite being lower than 2015-2016’s levels, they are still higher than pre-2015’s. If not wisely managed, the postponement of the elections may compound this unrest.

Ruling coalition vs “the opposition”

Postponement aside, as April 2 marks the 2nd anniversary of Abiy’s premiership, it comes natural to wonder how things have changed in Ethiopian politics since he took power two years ago. This includes also a reflection on the concepts of “ruling coalition” vs “the opposition”. Often conceived by casual observers as unitary, static, and completely detached concepts, the Ethiopian example proves that’s hardly the case:

• ruling coalition: for almost 30 years, Ethiopia was led by the EPRDF — everything but an ordinary political party. The EPRDF was a coalition of four different and unequal ethnically-based political parties: the Amhara Democratic Party (ADP), Oromo Democratic Party (ODP), Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM), and Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). A “vassal configuration” assembled towards the end of the 1980s by the battle-hardened TPLF (since the very beginning with the help of the EPDM, precursor of ANDM/ADP) to broaden the TPLF’s appeal beyond the sole Tigray region, bringing in non-Tigrayan constituencies and undercutting other more autonomous political parties at a time a new postwar political order was being built. The TPLF dominated the ruling coalition, especially in the early years. Over the years the Front co-opted into the ruling coalition also five affiliate parties (agar) representative of all the other ethnic regions making up the country beyond those already represented in the EPRDF: the Afar National Democratic Party (ANDP), the Benishangul-Gumuz Democratic Party (BDP/BGPDUF), the Ethiopian Somali People’s Democratic Party (SDP/ESPDP), the Gambela People’s Democratic Movement (GPDM), and the Hareri National League (HNL). This system was everything but really unitary. It managed to survive the 2016 crisis, but eventually broke up in late 2019. Capitalising on opportunities arisen with the change of leadership the year before, three EPRDF parties (all but the TPLF) and their five affiliate parties agreed to coalesce into a new, inclusive, pan-Ethiopian party: the Prosperity Party. As any top-down and centrally-driven move, it bears risks. Among them, a reactionary upsurge in the salience of ethnicity and identity politics, causing some intra-party rifts, encouraging the emergence of hyper-nationalist groups (just like the Nationalist Movement of Amhara, NAMA), or pushing those which are not like that yet towards the same direction, in order to defend their region’s interests against the growing pressures coming from other more nationalist parties.

• the opposition: far from being undefined or static monoliths, party oppositions in authoritarian states do exist, are much diverse in their characteristics, and are powerful agents of change. It’s indeed also thanks to the competition faced from some regional states’ opposition parties that in Ethiopia the ruling coalition’s constituent parties were forced to adapt over time. Despite being overshadowed for almost 30 years by an overwhelming ruling coalition, the Ethiopian opposition has undergone some considerable changes in the past few years. As a consequence of Abiy’s recent legal reforms, many political prisoners have been released and some former “terrorist” groups (Ginbot 7, the Oromo Liberation Front, the Ogaden National Liberation Front) have been reintegrated in the country’s party system, further enlarging the political space. As a consequence of growing intra-party tensions within regional ethnic-based parties but also multiethnic Pan-Ethiopianist fronts, new groups or splinter factions have emerged, hence also fractionalising the newly-enlarged opposition front. Many attempts to create cross-ethnic fronts have been made over the years (Medrek, CUD, EZeMa, UEDF), although a common front which can challenge the EPRDF/Prosperity Party still remains out of the question. The latest attempt to challenge the EPRDF/Prosperity Party is now being made by the very TPLF which, having just left the ruling coalition, is now leading the ethno-federalist resistance against Abiy’s Pan-Ethiopianist political revolution by trying to form an alliance of federalist forces which can challenge the new order. Abiy recently declared that he wants these elections to be free and fair, but his latest reforms, including the reintegration of former rebel groups into the official party system, do not suffice to ensure that outcome. The numerous clashes which are already affecting many areas of the country do not bode well for the elections. Nor does an electoral postponement managed without the consultation of the different components of the diverse opposition front.

So, although a lot has changed since two years ago Abiy swore in as Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, social and political fractures continue dividing the country. Ethiopian politics has been for 29 years a fascinating puzzle*, and still remains so today, also visually. Below, a non-exhaustive map of its main political groups as of early 2020, beyond classic pre-election oversimplifications.

As of March 2020

The Puzzle of Ethiopian Politics (Lynne Rienner, 2019) by Terrence Lyons is the title of likely the best, recently-published book on the Ethiopian political system. Ethiopia is a country with many diverse communities, ethnically defined parties, and autonomous regional states. But also a country which, over the past 29 years, has been ruled by a strong and centralised ruling coalition, the EPRDF. A contradiction, or a puzzle — how could an ethno-regional rebel group (TPLF) create a national political entity (EPRDF) that could appeal Ethiopia’s many diverse communities? — which the author masterfully pieces together throughout the book.

• Terrence Lyons’ “The Puzzle of Ethiopian Politics” (2019)
• Addis Standard, various blogs, and also Wikipedia (…)
• Jason Mosley’s “Ethiopia’s Transition: Implications for the Horn of Africa and Red Sea Region” (2020)
• Jean-Baptiste Gallopin for being a source of inspiration when in early 2019 he published a map about Sudan’s domestic actors

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