Ethiopia: Federalist façade for centralist front

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Despite TPLF efforts to snap Ethiopia out of political stalemate, an incoherent ruling front staggers sluggishly towards reform. More destabilizing jostling looks likely, as the Prime Minister tries to cobble together a centrist alliance.

With its unprecedented public attack last month on the Amhara Democratic Party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front appeared to be trying to bring Ethiopia’s political impasse to a head by exacerbating the existing crisis.

By aiming a firm kick at the heart of the anthill — by provoking its sister party; announcing it wants an alliance of forces that share its stance on federalism; and by pushing the ruling front and federal government to take a position on elections and the constitution — TPLF may have been attempting radical paroxystic crisis management. The ADP shot back with a denunciation of its accusers, but without addressing the broader questions raised by TPLF.

The TPLF attempt to force a systemic breakdown laid bare the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front’s crisis, and thus heightened the sense of a power vacuum. But, while it did not yet have the desired radical effect, it did trigger genuine debate inside the front’s Executive Committee.

Of course, in early August, in the first meeting since the bitter exchange, EPRDF leaders, again, primarily kicked the can down the road. Each party was left to sort out their own considerable problems and positions on the issues raised by TPLF, and a discussion paper was distributed on the expansion and unification of the front, a plan which is likely to be initially rejected by TPLF. The Executive Committee did resolve to hold parliamentary elections on schedule next year. For sure that outcome was partly the result of TPLF pressure, but by no means all of the Tigrayan party’s prayers were answered.

With its July 10 statement, TPLF evidently decided to re-enter the national scene. The intervention was not made at that particular time by chance. It was a response to the June 22 assassinations; the surreal declaration of Deputy Prime Minister and ADP Chairman Demeke Mekonnen that it was business-as-usual in Amhara; and his implicit suggestion to the public that TPLF was involved in the June 22 carnage.

If TPLF did not want to precipitate an escalating crisis, it could have simply ignored  Demeke’s provocations and let the tragedy in Bahir Dar speak for itself. After all, by assassinating their own regional leaders, former security chief Asaminew Tsige’s loyalists had already exposed once more a chunk of the Amhara establishment’s embrace of a dangerous brand of ethno-nationalism, thereby confirming long-held TPLF concerns.

Instead, Tigray’s ruling party accused ADP of being “instrumental in creating a fertile ground for extremist forces”. And when Getachew Reda, TPLF Executive Committee member, followed up to tell Reuters that “TPLF would have difficulty working with its so-called sister party (ADP), which hasn’t even dared to stare the killer (Asaminew) in the eye,” he was either trying to force the EPRDF to confront its demons, or, failing that, beginning to dig the grave of its current incarnation.

ADP’s response a day later kept pace, calling TPLF an “anti-democratic” party… working with hidden forces to destabilize Ethiopia”, saying it suffered from an “incurable disease”. Essentially, it blamed TPLF for the overall crisis, a viewpoint that has plenty of nationwide support.

Federalist façade

Once such unforgiving stances are aired, it is hard to reverse them, as TPLF surely knows well. Meanwhile, its statement was ambiguous, as if it wanted to keep two irons in the fire, so revealing its uncertain strategy. On the one hand, it condemned ADP harshly, and, by talking of a new ethno-federalist alliance, suggested EPRDF was disposable. But by appealing to EPRDF to clarify its positions on key issues, TPLF gave the impression it maintained support for the front’s resuscitation.

The broader context is Ethiopia’s shifting political landscape, with the unitarist camp all but disappeared. There are instead now two federalist rifts. The diminishingly significant one is between supporters of non-ethnically defined “geographic” federalism against those who maintain that self-determination and ethno-regional autonomy will be defining features of the constitutional architecture for the foreseeable future. For example, returned opposition leader Berhanu Nega, the spiritual head of the “geographic” camp, reportedly could not even hold a meeting in Bahir Dar in March, one of his former party’s strongholds.

The other fault line, which TPLF struck at, is more prominent and volatile. It is between those that promote a softer federalism with a strong central government, and those that prefer a harder federalism with reinforced regions. This second rift divides not only the rising hardline opposition ethno-nationalists — primarily the National Movement for Amhara (NaMA) and Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), who otherwise hold diametrically opposed views of Ethiopian history — from centralist groups, but also drives a wedge between the EPRDF parties, and splits factions within three of the four EPRDF members.

These varying attitudes to federalism can be seen, for example, in an incipient struggle over the autonomy and paramilitary firepower of regional security forces. Abdi Iley’s formerly rampant Liyu police in Somali state, Asaminew unruly Amhara forces, and Tigray’s reinforcement of its defenses have all aroused the concern of federal officials and centrist commentators. In the interests of reversing incipient balkanization, they would like to see regional special police reined in. But that would mark a fraught tussle between the center and the states at a time of increasing inter-regional friction; who would disarm first?

Thirst for power

Generally, the fact that all regions rely on the federal government for as much as four-fifths of their expenditure heavily tilts the balance of power in favor of the center in such discussions, although that may shift as the cohesion of the ERPDF system continues to fray. Not surprisingly, support for a strong Addis Ababa generally seems to correlate with a regional political movement’s share of federal authority.

For example, when TPLF dominated Arat Kilo, autonomy demands such as the Sidama’s were suppressed for decades and derided as “narrow nationalism.” Now that TPLF’s influence emanates from Mekele only, it all of a sudden sees the Sidama’s pursuit of their own region as a legitimate articulation of their constitutional self-determination right.

Meanwhile, those closely allied with the Prime Minister, in the upper echelons of the Oromo Democratic Party and close by, traveled in the other doctrinal direction after they occupied the federation’s core — of course, after embracing hardline ethno-nationalism to forge a route to the center. It appears, therefore, that the frequent declarations of dedication to federalism are largely opportunistic: it is more a thirst for power, than ideological commitment, that dictates shifting stances on the appropriate layering of authority and autonomy in the federation.

Regardless of the raw politics behind refined principles, it looks like TPLF’s provocative strategy is to expose potentially seismic cracks over the practice of federalism to try and compel the major political forces to take a position. If that led to its departure from the front, a commitment to stronger regionalism would, in theory, allow it to create the new alliance of the more ethno-federalist parties. Such a platform has been advocated for months by the Tigrayan front’s web of cheerleaders.

This is all hugely risky.

TPLF’s tightrope 

ADP’s increasingly aggressive stance towards TPLF since around 2014 forms part of an existential crisis for the Amhara ruling party, which, as with all EPRDF member organizations, was widely discredited among the public, possibly even more so than the others, although the Southern party’s recent travails make it a strong competitor. With NaMA snapping at ADP’s heels, ethno-nationalist outbidding is the name of the dangerous game.

Therefore, it appears unwise for ADP to make major concessions to its opponents now, as they are likely to prove electorally suicidal — with NaMA on hand to perform euthanasia. And nor can TPLF realistically cede contested ground after pushing so hard, and especially so when it is pressured by an emerging Tigrayan opposition which argues for secession from the federation.

Amid the consequent public head-butting, ADP and TPLF appealed for support to the people of the regions they rule. The parties have for years now been in open dispute over the Wolkait and Raya districts. Could heated rhetoric finally bubble over into sustained armed clashes? Both sides have dramatically increased their regional forces to prepare for such an eventuality, and such a disastrous course should not be discounted.

One reason for reassurance is TPLF confidence that the overwhelmingly Tigrinya-speaking disputed territories are more the rhetorical concern of urban Amhara than a practical consideration of the rural masses in Gondar, Gojjam, Shewa, and Wollo.

Another is that even NaMA has toned down its irredentist rhetoric in the last few months. This opens up the possibility that Amhara’s new president, Temesgen Tiruneh — a federal securocrat, confidante of Abiy, and moderate with an anti-ethnic identity politics hue — could somehow balance popularity and authority with responsible leadership, and so turn the tide. This certainly is his stated intention, as he pledges to resolve border disputes peacefully and improve neighborly relations.

In theory, if Temesgen could overcome the considerable obstacles he faces, it might open the way for a renewed, albeit narrow, alliance between ADP leaders and the Oromo elites gravitating around Abiy, but at least one that this time was based on trying to establish a stable governing bloc, rather than merely downsizing TPLF.

The TPLF itself also walks a tightrope: what if Abiy succeeds to move EPRDF ever further away from its revolutionary democratic preferences, and TPLF’s mooted new federalist coalition is stillborn? Officials say there are no substantive talks underway, although high-level Oromo-Tigrayan consultations and lectures in Mekele by Oromo activist-academic Ezekiel Gebissa and politician-academic Bekele Gerba indicate that is not the whole story.

Prime Minister Abiy plants tree with Republican Guard members; Aug 4; PMO

But TPLF is still reviled from all parts of the Ethiopian political spectrum as the party that either created a despised ethnic federalism to divide-and-rule in its narrow ethnocentric interests, or the control-freaks that refused to allow true multinational federalism to breathe through its authoritarian blanket. Whether ethnic federalist or opposed, there is little political capital to be earned in today’s Ethiopia by allying with TPLF.

It is by no means clear, however, that this sort of thinking has permeated the fog of TPLF groupthink, or perhaps the party, impatient with the lengthy impasse, is simply dangling the bait for allies in the absence of better options. Either way, it may have miscalculated, unless circumstances force political enemies who are also ideological bedfellows reluctantly into its embrace.

Also worth considering is that, as often in highland Ethiopian political culture, the first impression of the TPLF position may be less important than its underlying thrust. The frontal lunge was directed at ADP, but its ultimate target was arguably ODP in general, and Abiy Ahmed in particular. By summoning them to clarify their positions on ethnic federalism and elections, TPLF put them on the spot.

This may prove fertile ground for the Tigrayan party, as there are press reports — which were broadly confirmed by well-placed sources — of dissent over the current trajectory from Abiy’s erstwhile comrade Lemma Mergersa; a development that has the potential to fundamentally reorder alliances in ODP and the front.

In the confrontation between soft and hard federalism, TPLF could have been poking at such existing and potential splits in the Oromo bloc, with one section rallying wholeheartedly behind Abiy and the centralists, so potentially allying with Amhara leaders, even if some reject chunks of the federal settlement; the other with growing reservations about Abiy, and more ideologically inclined to side with OLF and TPLF that consider the 1995 constitution sacrosanct.

Until now, Abiy has not decisively chosen a side in any of Ethiopia’s multi-polar disputes, partly because his overall strategy has been to gather political forces—even those irredeemably opposed to each other—under one big wobbly tent, with himself then appearing center stage as the irreplaceable broker, or even, if the turmoil persists, as the country’s savior. TPLF wanted to stop this hedging. So it is nudging Abiy to choose.

Transitional trepidation

Perhaps partly due to TPLF’s roll of the dice, the Prime Minister and fellow EPRDF executives pledged to keep to the electoral timetable last week, which, because of the political volatility and accompanying unrest, is going to be tricky regardless of their stated intentions.

Pushing ahead with elections next year increases the pressure, which could lead to further fraying. For example, an overwhelmed electoral board eventually stuck its neck out on the thorny question of a referendum on Sidama statehood. But the primary consequence of this was controversy, and then fatal violence, for which various parties are to blame, not least Sidama agitators. The board’s next big task might be to provide a justification to postpone the polls, which Abiy and political leaders would then ‘reluctantly’ have to accept.

What this highlights is a key transition problem: time. There is a multi-year mismatch between a realistic reform schedule — legislative, security sector, the judiciary, democratic institutions, opposition, media, civil society — and the electoral schedule and pressures created by the impatient political ambitions of a multitude of actors in a liberalized environment.

The authorities’ ability to manage what is likely to be an increasingly fraught process is in question given the failures so far that have been evident in the major regions: Tigray is defiant; Oromia divided; Amhara borderline insurrectional; and security in a fragile Southern Nations is handled by soldiers. All could and should have been dealt with better via improved prioritization (Southern Nations), strategic thinking (Tigray), and political management (Amhara and Oromia).

Entrenched, deep, and unstable

Additionally, Ethiopia’s political challenges probably cannot actually be solved through even truly free elections — and especially not polls held next year — as the rifts are too entrenched, deep, and unstable. What happens, for instance, if OLF ends up in control of Oromia’s government, NaMA Amhara’s, and Berhanu’s Ezema takes Addis Ababa’s council, but no party or stable coalition controls the minimum of 274 seats needed for a governing majority in the federal parliament?

There was high-level talk of pivoting to proportional representation as far back as 2016, but nothing has materialized, and if Abiy wants to become the federal republic’s first executive president, constitutional amendment is needed — and there is a fairly high bar for that, and even higher risks.

The predicament speaks to the fact that most observers, including powerful international ones, would much prefer to see a comfortable majority for an Abiy-led EPRDF than chaotic coalition politics tearing at the constitution, but that, of course, requires the front to stay alive long enough to act as an electoral vehicle for Abiy, or to be upgraded for a new sleeker model.

Centralist front 

The prospect of EPRDF transformation makes sense as the eventual demise of the front has seemed inevitable for months given the pressures created by its internal conflicts, Abiy’s aspirations, and the opening of the political landscape. “The EPRDF staying in its deathbed for so long is frustrating. Somebody has to come up with courageous and creative ideas, including agreeing on past mistakes and committing to rectify them,” said a former senior federal official from a party other than TPLF.

Many say that EPRDF is de facto defunct already, and senior TPLF officials fear — or perhaps threaten — that the coalition’s de jure collapse could lead to the federation’s. This suggests that, despite the deep wounds, and widespread public antipathy, a tentative first step towards stabilization is still an attempt to patch up EPRDF.

But with TPLF set to stick to its guns on matters such as equal regional votes, whatever the size of the population; hard federalism; revolutionary democracy; and democratic centralism, the breach does not look patchable. If it indeed isn’t, TPLF will have to go its own way. And it may find the path it has laid for itself is as an outcast from the federation, under siege by local radicals.

Still, a TPLF exit, although possibly increasing the turmoil, would at least clear the way in theory for the EPRDF becoming a single expanded national party, as backed by Abiy. This would herald the much-needed realignment of ideological forces — yet it would also open up three new challenges that will be critical to overcome to restore stability.

Rampant mistrust

First, to be successful, the refashioned EPRDF would have to bring on board much of the current Amhara and Oromia political elite, many of whom embrace competing ethno-nationalisms, and then balance them in the center. While Abiy and moderate Amhara and Oromo allies may be willing to cut a deal, Oromo nationalists who fought long and hard to gain ascendancy are not willing to cede control of the federal capital or government again to their northern compatriots, whether Tigrayan or Amhara.

Meanwhile, among Amhara activists, there is now rampant mistrust of Abiy’s Oromo-led government, as June 22 conspiracies swirl, and Amhara elites increasingly fulminate against Oromo rather than Tigrayan domination.

Second, there would be a post-TPLF political program to thrash out, including a position on ethnic federalism, and apparently little progress has been made, while the work that has been done is unconvincing, especially with the Prime Minister largely fixated on his ephemeral Medemer concept.

Third, in order to bring the bulk of the leadership from Afar, Benishangul-Gumuz, Gambella, Harari, Somali and parts of Southern Nations on board, there will have to be fresh mechanisms for ethno-regional power-sharing, even within the streamlined party, particularly as the parties will be giving up their distinct regional identities.

While an EPRDF official claims that 90 percent of the front supports consolidation, they admit that substantive talks on new decision-making mechanism have yet to begin, and only say that voting weight will neither be proportional to population, nor, as now, will it be split evenly between regional factions, regardless of their demographic heft. Such discussions could be testy and protracted, and the national census delayed since 2017 is necessary to establish starting positions; particularly between the Amhara and Oromo blocs.

Martial flaw

Whatever the final outcomes of what promises to be more bruising, turbulent politics, it is set to exacerbate a perilous state of uncertainty. Already buckling federal and regional authorities will probably weaken further, with knock-on effects on ethnic tensions and law and order.

In the event that the fierce rhetoric, paralysis, and festering grudges leads simply to worsening relations, rather than a rethink and realignment, there will only be one ultimate obstacle to a downward spiral: the Ethiopian National Defense Forces. It looks like at least part of it foresaw this role. Samora Yunis, the former chief of staff, said in 2016 that the country has managed to build competent force that safeguards the constitutional order.

Recently, Major General Mohammed Tessema, Director of the Indoctrination Division, was more explicit: “enforcing the rule of law” is now the military’s key mission, and he also threatened a disobedient journalist for good measure. The overall message amounts to a tacit admission that the Federal Police, intelligence services, regional security forces, and militia are unable to perform the task of maintaining security. And it was backed up once again by a meeting last month of senior army officers.

Brittle final defense

In truth, the military’s enhanced role is already apparent. It has now taken over security in a fractious Southern Nations as a shrinking EPRDF regional elite tries to maintain cohesion; since December, another “command post” has taken the fight to OLF sympathizers in western Oromia; while the armed forces are also in charge of security operations in central and western Gondar zones, where Amhara factions have fought with Qemant people seeking greater autonomy, allegedly with TPLF support.

Both TPLF and ADP appealed to the military in their war of words. But how brittle is this final institutional defense? Chief of Staff General Seare Mekonnen was assassinated by a military bodyguard at his home in June, raising questions about plots, loyalty, and vetting. On the night of the assassination, as Abiy addressed the nation in combat fatigues from a safe house, a gunfight occurred at a critical military communications post in Tor Hailoch in Addis Ababa, adding substance to the otherwise vague official allegations of a national coup attempt, and raising more queries about military unity.

A senior retired Tigrayan officer says General Adem Mohammed was appointed to replace Seare for his Amhara background rather than operational prowess, which cast a shadow over his authority. The former officer believes EPRDF’s warring parties are already infiltrating the armed forces, playing on existing ethnic networks. The bizarre mutiny last October was also alarming; it may have been precipitated by elite soldiers that lost out on the financial perks of becoming part of Abiy’s new Republican Guard, or it may have reflected general disgruntlement.

If the inter-regional power struggle does increasingly move to the military, Tigray’s relative strength within mid-level officer corps, despite the recent departures of senior Tigrayan officers, brings it back into the national picture. Prime Minister Abiy has confided to two people that he does not really control the armed forces, but we can be fairly sure that this is his objective. But, even if Abiy did establish full control, the cohesion of various units of the armed forces would be tested by any significant further deterioration of the inter-regional powerplays.

Recent dynamics, however, suggest another less dangerous scenario is perhaps more likely.

Magnetic core

If federal and regional leaders, in partnership with the military command, can continue to keep dissidents in check — as they have done ruthlessly in Sidama —that would create sufficient space for the necessary political wrangling and continuation of so far rather technocratic democratic reforms. It would also provide the necessary consensus for federal parliamentarians to vote to extend their terms early next year, although there is no constitutional provision for that, and it would likely arouse intensified opposition from TPLF and others, albeit perhaps mostly rhetorical.

Despite Abiy’s waning popularity as he begins to confront unavoidable trade-offs, his government still has strong elite support in Addis Ababa, a bottomless supply of international political capital to spend, and gains succor from the fact that no credible alternative has emerged. The highly impressive public relations success of an almost Maoist tree-planting campaign will be seen by his team as a model to be replicated to shore up national unity and deflect public attention from fractious ethnic politics.

The general structure of this transitional set-up could remain just about solid enough to carry on come what may. If there are no signs of a new consensus emerging under the current order, the result may eventually be suspension of the constitution and an Abiy-led transitional government, which would then supercharge the dissent of Amhara opponents, TPLF, OLF, and other federalist forces. More conflict would occur, but even then it may not spread.

In Ethiopian history, and particularly during the so-called Era of Princes, “mysterious magnetism” held Ethiopia together instead of provincial separatism, according to a British colonial officer quoted by historian Haggai Erlich. “Why? Because due to ‘the flexibility and the pragmatism’ of the traditional political game, it was ‘worthwhile’. The provincial leaders preferred to and could participate ‘in the life of a great Ethiopia’” rather than merely control their own narrow province.

Is this “magnetism” still a force? Possibly. Ethiopia’s theoretically federalist elite are unlikely to give up what they have for something they seek. This means accommodation and seeking influence by orbiting around the palace in Addis Ababa, rather than chancing their hand on the periphery of power.