The Faltering Transition and the Prospect of keeping it alive: Making Sense of what went wrong, where, and what can be done, in Ethiopia, Tsegaye Ararsa



1. Introduction

Winds of change have been blowing in Ethiopia. They have been doing so since the start of the #Oromoprotests in 2014. But it began to be more evident in late 2016 when, in the wake of the the Grand Oromia rally and the 2016 #Irreecha_Massacre, the protest entered another phase, forcing the regime to declare a prolonged state of emergency before finally resulting in the resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn. And since late 2017, political prisoners have been released. Exiled politicians have been allowed to come home. The non-governmental (“independent”) press and media have experienced a level of freedom although the restrictive laws are still not amended or repealed. Climaxing this stride towards change, a change of leadership occurred at the helm of the EPRDF power pyramid, and a new Prime Minister, Dr Abiy Ahmed, replaced Mr Hailemariam Desalegn.

This being as much about the obviously positive developments so far witnessed, these winds of changes have yet to yield a genuine democratic transition.

Given the enfeebled situation of opposition political parties at home (owing to the repressive detentions and years of incarcerations) and the banishment of those in exile (owing to their being labelled and prosecuted, in absentia, as terrorists) at the time, it became clear, especially since late 2016, that if there is going to be a peaceful and orderly transition, it will have to come from within the system. Soon enough, as OPDO’s ‘Team Lemma’ (so named after Lemma Megerssa, the President of Oromia) asserted itself for leadership in the EPRDF coalition and as they tactically outmaneuvered TPLF to bring the ANDM to their side, ‘the hope of transformation from within’ [1] became more and more palpable. This, and the fact that the change was forced onto the scene primarily by the protests of the Oromo youth (aka Qeerroo) in Oromia, made it possible, perhaps for the first time in history, to consider the ‘Oromo alternative for Ethiopia’. [2] In late 2017, an intense internal power struggle for leadership started within the EPRDF. In 2018, OPDO’s new leader, Dr Abiy Ahmed, was elected as the Chairman of the EPRDF, thereby becoming the first ever Prime Minister of Ethiopia who identifies himself as Oromo.

On the aftermath of Abiy’s investiture as Prime Minister in April 2018, Ethiopians everywhere started to discuss, and hope for, a genuine transition to democracy. All eyes were set on the youthful prime minister. For once, the country was united in anticipation. The Oromo youth, for their part, felt that they have prevailed (at least partially) as their protests have yielded for them an Oromo Prime Minister. This was in part because one of their demands in the course of their protest was that Oromos should have a larger share of federal political power as they are the single most numerous group in the country although they have been excluded therefrom for far too long. People in other regions also hoped that, TPLF’s hegemonic rule having been brought to an end, they will now be more included, heard, and empowered in a just, equitable, and fair democratic order. The new Prime Minister’s inaugural speech and various other gestures only reinforced this growing hope. But, as indicated above, the winds of change in the air have yet to translate into a more substantive and genuine transition to democracy. Today, ten months after Abiy took office, it is still uncertain if Ethiopia is going to experience democratic transition. Even to PM Abiy’s well-meaning supporters, the hope is looking more like a mirage.

What exactly went wrong, and where?

In this piece, I address myself to this question as part of an attempt to make sense of what seems to me a faltering transition (or a transition going adrift). Accordingly, in what follows, I will, first, sketch out the state of affairs as they stand now. I ask: Is the transition progressing? Is it going too slow (as some transition enthusiasts suggest), or is it going too fast (as Prime Minister Abiy would certainly assume), or is it totally derailed (as some more disillusioned observers would point out)? Then, in the third section, I will consider the challenges facing the transition (from within the regime as well as from without). In the fourth section, I will present the possible trajectories of this process and what can be done to salvage the change and steer it (back) to the direction of genuine democratic transition.

2. The Current State of Affairs: change without transition: Where are we now?

The new Prime Minister, Dr Abiy Ahmed, started with a promise that he will lead the transition to take the country into democracy [3]. But he never spelt out exactly how. Other than the pledge to reform EPRDF as a party (through a program they variably referred to as ‘Deep Reform,’ or ‘Deep Renewal’), and apart from bits and pieces of reform ideas randomly dropped in disparate Prime Ministerial speeches, they have not brought forward any sustained program of reform, or any substantive change package, that:

a) addresses the immediate demands of the protesting public;

b) facilitates the conduct of a competitive, free, fair, and credible democratic election; and

c) sets out a vision for transforming the polity and the state-society relation that has ailed the Ethiopian state for so long.

Is the transition happening at Too Fast a Pace?

As the initial optimism fades and reality settles in, opinions differ as to what is happening to the transition. The regime, and most certainly the Prime Minister, believes that change is happening and happening too fast for us to comprehend. To his credit, the Prime Minister had made numerous good will visits to various parts of the country and had several discussions with people in various localities in almost all of the Ethiopian states. He has also had a series As the initial optimism fades and reality settles in, opinions differ as to what is happening to the transition. The regime, and most certainly the Prime Minister, believes that change is happening and happening too fast for us to comprehend. To his credit, the Prime Minister had made numerous good will visits to various parts of the country and had several discussions with people in various localities in almost all of the Ethiopian states. He has also had a series of tours to various Ethiopian communities in the diaspora such as those in Washington DC, Los Angeles, and Minnesota (in the USA), Paris (in France), and Berlin and Frankfurt (in Germany). The speeches in these places emphasized unity, love, and reconciliation. He also paid visits to Rome and the Vatican, after which he also attended the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum at Davos 2019.

Close to home, he did a whirlwind of visits to all the neighbouring countries (Eritrea, Djibouti, Sudan, South Sudan, Kenya, Somalia, Rwanda, etc) and to those far out in other parts of Africa. He exerted personal diplomacy to break the deadlock with Eritrea on the border issue. He also paid a visit to Egypt, the country with whom Ethiopia has a strategic entanglement in relation to, although not limited to, the construction of the ‘Renaissance Dam’ over River Nile. In a move that seemed to warm up relations with the Middle East, visits have been made to Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (although little is known about the details of the agreements—apart from the desire to have Ethiopian born Saudi tycoon Mohammed Al Amoudi released from a Saudi prison [4] and to secure some trade and loan agreements from the Emirates [5]).

Alongside the goodwill visits to communities at home and abroad and the whirlwind of diplomatic tours, there were many appointments, reshuffles, and reappointments of officials. For the first time in the country’s history, a female President, Sahlework Zewde, was appointed in the place of Dr Mulatu Teshome. [6] For the first time, a female Chief Justice, Me’aza Ashenafi, was appointed to the Supreme Court. [7] For the first time, female ministers constituted half of the federal government’s cabinet. The PM also moved to form some commissions (e.g., on law reform, on borders and identities, on reconciliation, etc). More interesting in relation to the cause of democratic transition is that, for the first time, a female Chairperson, Birtukan Mideksa, has been appointed to the National Electoral Board (NEBE) although only after a secret consultation with her former party colleagues of the now defunct—except in name–Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) such as Dr Berhanu Nega. Seen from the perspective of the Prime Minister who is at the centre of all these activities, it is natural if it feels like the transition is happening too fast.

However, as it will be obvious from the following paragraphs, not all of these activities contributed to the democratic transition sought, and hoped for, by the populace. May be, most of these activities have little to do with reforming the regime and leading the country to democracy. Or, maybe, all these activities are indicative of misplaced priorities on the part of the PM. Or, maybe, these are calculated, sinister moves intended to divert the attention of the public (from the itching and groping for democracy) to other conservative concerns residing However, as it will be obvious from the following paragraphs, not all of these activities contributed to the democratic transition sought, and hoped for, by the populace. May be, most of these activities have little to do with reforming the regime and leading the country to democracy. Or, maybe, all these activities are indicative of misplaced priorities on the part of the PM. Or, maybe, these are calculated, sinister moves intended to divert the attention of the public (from the itching and groping for democracy) to other conservative concerns residing only in some neo-imperial sections of the society that, consumed with “the desire to be recognized as superior,” [8] proclaims nothing short of a megalothymia [9] thereby derailing and rerouting the transition altogether. Which one of these possibilities it is that we have on the table, time will tell. But where are we now?

Is the Transition happening at too slow a Pace?

There are those who believe that transition is indeed happening but happening at a pace that is a bit too slow to be satisfactory. These people take delight, for example, in the release of all political prisoners, in the diplomatic gesture to make and build peace in the Horn of Africa neighbourhood, and in the attempt to bring back all the political parties that had been banned and on exile. However, even these people believe that the change is not happening in areas where it is needed the most, as in the area of electoral reform, for instance. So far, there is no clear roadmap, agreed upon by all parties, on how to reform the electoral system (i.e., its norms, institutions, and processes) so that a free, competitive, fair, and credible election come 2020.
To date, only two inter-party meetings were conducted on the issues of transition. The first one was one in which parties and their leaders were introducing themselves to each other. The second was a forum on which the leaders presented papers, or their positions, on key areas of concern to be taken account of in the transition process. However, these two meetings are far from a more solid and binding inter-party consultative forum where they build consensus on the directions and steps of the transition to come.

The electoral laws are yet to be revised and amended. The rules on campaign funding, use of media air time, modes of debate, etc, are yet to be amended as appropriate on the basis of inter-party consensus. The selection and appointment of impartial members of National Electoral Board (NEB) has yet to be done. The law on communications services, hopefully expanding, not restricting, the use of communication devices and the horizons of free political speech thereof, has just been drafted a few days ago. [10] The repressive press law and the counter-terrorism law, especially the provisions alluding to some press activities as acts of terrorism, have yet to be amended or repealed in order to secure the constitutionally guaranteed right of free expression, speech, and writing (art 29). The law on assembly (free political rallies and meetings, indoor and outdoor)—Proclamation no. 3/1991–has yet to be relaxed (especially the part relating to the duty of notification, which is too often taken to be a requirement of permission by the officials).

The laws on association, particularly the rules on political party registration, permission, and participation in elections (as befits an open, free, pluralistic, and democratic society) are yet to be amended (in such a way that the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of association, as per art 31 is properly exercised). Alongside this, the law on civil societies (Charities and Societies Proclamation, Procl. No. 621/2009) is yet to be relaxed in such a way that such civic organizations are free and independent enough to, among other things, observe The laws on association, particularly the rules on political party registration, permission, and participation in elections (as befits an open, free, pluralistic, and democratic society) are yet to be amended (in such a way that the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of association, as per art 31 is properly exercised). Alongside this, the law on civil societies (Charities and Societies Proclamation, Procl. No. 621/2009) is yet to be relaxed in such a way that such civic organizations are free and independent enough to, among other things, observe elections, monitor human rights violations, and engage local peoples to lend voice to them and empower them at community and household levels through appropriate humanitarian and human rights interventions. [11] For most people who seek a fast-tracked transition to democracy, change is indeed happening, and it is a good one at that. However, it is happening at too slow a pace as, to date, it is not even clear that there will be election in 2020. This uncertainty and the not so fast pace the change is happening at, is testing their patience.

Is the Transition Derailed?

The most disillusioned of all observers maintain that there is change but, so far, it is a change without transition, a change that is not even clear if it is for the better. According to such observers, the transition is not only NOT happening but it is also derailed and misdirected (or redirected) by OPDO’s self-serving endeavours. More unkind observers maintain that it is actually hijacked by the Prime Minister and is going in a direction opposite to the aspirations of the protesters that sought and forced the very change we have been witnessing, including the rise of the Prime Minister himself. And they do so for a reason.

In explaining why they believe that it is derailed, they point to the current state of affairs regarding the change in Ethiopia. In particular, they point to the unmet demands of the long protesting public, namely the demands of abbaa biyyummaa (the demand for voice over the governance of their country); the demand for land and protection from eviction and displacement; the demand for the Oromo right to the city of Finfinnee (the city that is also the capital of the State of Oromia, which has a constitutionally recognized, but as yet unimplemented, ‘special interest’ as per art 49(5)); the demand for recognition of Afaan Oromo as one of the working languages of the Federal Government; the demand for restoration of peace in Oromia by pulling out the Federal military and police forces; the demand for respect for the integrity of the State borders (alias, protection from TPLF-orchestrated aggression on borders from all corners of the region); the demand for a full autonomy and self-rule in the region; and the demand for better provision of economic and social services including access to jobs, education, housing, and land. In short, all the demands raised during the season of the #Oromoprotests remain unmet. These demands can easily be encapsulated in the age-old demands of the Oromo people for agency, autonomy, and authority to fully take part in the public affairs of the country. Despite high popular expectation that the so-called ‘Team Lemma’ will address these demands, and despite the fact that there were promises to do so at the start, so far, the regime is at best evading them.

Too often, the regime seems to be acting only to counteract these legitimate demands by taking measures that revaluates them often to sidestep, or to delegitimize, them. For example, there has been an attempt on the part of the Prime Minister to dismiss ‘Oromo nationalism’ (and other similar nationalisms such as that of the Sidama) as dangerous to the country. [12]

Too often, the regime seems to be acting only to counteract these legitimate demands by taking measures that revaluates them often to sidestep, or to delegitimize, them. For example, there has been an attempt on the part of the Prime Minister to dismiss ‘Oromo nationalism’ (and other similar nationalisms such as that of the Sidama) as dangerous to the country. There has been incessant valorization of the old state orthodoxy of ‘national unity and sovereignty of Ethiopia’, ‘restoring Ethiopia to its glory of olden times’ (sounding more like ‘making Ethiopia great again,’), etc, albeit too often masked by a more innocent sounding word the PM frequented for a while before it quickly fell into disrepute and disuse: meddemer (literally, meaning ‘to add up’ but rendered by him as ‘coming together’ or ‘synergy’).

In the mind of these more sceptical observers, the PM has repeatedly showed his distaste for (Regional) States’ sovereignty (perhaps in part because of the resistance of Tigray to trudge along with him in to what, to them, is uncertain, threatening, and precarious future). He also showed no strong commitment to the protection and enforcement of the constitutional right of peoples to self-determination, or to the preservation of the constitutional criteria of state formation on the basis of ‘settlement pattern, language, identity, and consent of the peoples concerned’ (as per art 46(2)). The desire to redraw the map of the regions, seen in the establishment of a borders and identities commission, betrays this disinclination towards the preservation of the federalist constitutional order (that has so far remained more an aspiration than a lived reality at any rate.[13] He also showed his distaste by suggesting that the House of Federation (the supposed ‘house of nations’) and its ‘expert’ advisory body, the Council of Constitutional Inquiry (CCI), are not doing enough in managing relations among states and among national groups. Furthermore, he did so by repeatedly insisting that the Sidama demand (and other demands) for statehood and for recognition of separate identities be deferred until the ‘Borders and Identities Commission’ completes its studies. His reluctance to acknowledge that Finfinnee is an Oromo city and his disinterest to take measures so far towards recognizing Afaan Oromoo as one of the federal government’s working languages also reinforces the impression that he disapproves the existing constitutional frame for group rights and federalism. The result is that there is a degree of agitation among the Oromo and the peoples of the wider South that the collective rights to self-determination, the federalist principle of self-rule and shared rule, and the rights of sub-state identities in the plurinational state that Ethiopia is, may be watered down or abrogated in toto.

Instead of arresting the ever more expanding land theft by dispossessing, evicting, and displacing Oromo farmers, the ‘Reform Team’ is acquiescing in, or perhaps encouraging, new evictions and allowing more land theft to occur under their watch. The recent revelation of the horrors of the farmer residents of distant peri-urban villages such as Koyyee Faccee, Bole Bulbula, Ejersa, Laga Xaafo, and the Sabbata-Buraayyuu-Alem Bank continuum came as an evidence that the regime is either unwilling or unable to stop the stealing of land from Oromo farmers through illicit, and ostensibly licit, methods. Consequently, there are now continuing illegal settlements and pseudo-legal/contractual sales of land stretching into about a hundred kilometre around Finfinnee.

Moreover, there seems to be total indifference on the part of the Prime Minister and his team to the plight of the Oromo. To date, the PM has neither addressed the concerns of the over 1.5 million displaced Oromos nor has he even made a single symbolic gesture (such as visits) to their makeshift resettlement camps.[15] More Oromos (and others) were displaced from the border areas of Benishangul-Gumuz National Regional State, and the regime’s response was sub-optimal. The onslaught on the Oromos in Moyyale and the death, injury, and displacement of many more civilians there did not get as much attention from the otherwise ostentatiously ‘compassionate’ PM. In general, the regime seems to manifest a deficit in compassionate governance.

There have also been more ‘border wars’ since the ‘Reform Team’ took over the reins of power in April 2018. In addition to the aggression by the Somali Liyyu Hayl (which was exacerbated since in Boranaa and Gujii Zones, in Cinaaksan, and, most recently, in Dirree Dhawaa), there has been an attack from the Benishangul-Gumuz region in the West and from Afar on the Kamisee Oromo of Walloo in the ANRS in the North. There are countless episodes of spontaneous acts of violence in Oromia towns such as Assallaa and Gobbaa.

More importantly, there seems to be a reluctance to broaden the political space, particularly in Oromia. This is seen in the recalcitrance to make peace with the Oromo Liberation Front (aka ‘Shanee Group’) in the region and in what is increasingly becoming an overt act, on the part of the OPDO, to push OLF out of the transition process. The altercation over disarming and demobilizing the soldiers of Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) seems to be a mere pretext for forcing political exclusion. OPDO’s creation of a pseudo “state of war” in Western Oromia in the name of securing peace and order and enforcing of a de facto state of emergency seems to be a mere pretext for eliminating and excluding the OLF from the transition process. The mobilization and massive deployment of the Federal Military forces in localities that are perceived to be the strongholds of OLF-Shanee and the mass arrest (and occasional arbitrary killings) of civilians for supporting the OLF (such as through waving the Oromo resistance flag on one’s Bajaj, or through providing or selling food for persons suspected of being members of the local OLF regiment, etc), apart from causing bitter regional rifts, indicated to some that the regime is not interested in relinquishing even local powers to a contending party. The attempt to co-opt the Oromo youth (aka Qeerroo) into OPDO’s ranks by enrolling them massively as members, or by offering them government jobs and benefits, while putting pressures on those who do not support OPDO (as in Jimma zone, for example) reinforces the view that the OPDO’s interest is more to stay in power than to democratize the system in which all parties take part in the election uninhibited.

The above examples of dashed hopes, including the hope of ‘transformation from within,’ unmet popular demands, unaddressed humanitarian conditions, further unfolding humanitarian crises (of evictions, displacements, border wars, forest fires, etc), the reluctance to be inclusive of political forces that potentially pause a threat to the regime come Election 2020, make people suspect—or tentatively conclude—that the transition is derailed. The creation of new issues through, for instance, rethinking the federal arrangement in such a way that it hedges down the rights of States and national groups, the establishment of seemingly extra-and/or un-constitutional institutions to bring back the old order of imperial hierarchy among groups in the empire (if only to accommodate one group’s desire to become, or remain, superior to other groups) seems to further exaggerate the suspicion/conclusion that perhaps the transition is hijacked altogether and is being put to use for the regime’s self-preservation and preservation of OPDO-EPRDF from the existential threat once paused to it by the Oromo revolution.

3. What is hindering the Transition?: Key Challenges

Transition anywhere is bound to be challenging. More so in an immensely complex country such as Ethiopia. What are the factors that are posing difficulties to the work of transition? In this section, I try to mention a few of these factors by classifying them into four broad categories. These four categories of challenges are: a) challenges of mismanagement of change; b) internal structural limitations that inhibit the transition; c) the difficult nature of the State; and d) lack of clarity of vision on the part of the OPDO and lack of cohesion and strength of conviction on the part of the other political parties.

3.1. Mismanagement of the Change

The process of transition to democracy generally starts with the relaxation of authoritarian use of power and its practices. That is to say, it starts with relaxing the incumbent’s grip over the reins of power. More often than not, this is seen in the regime’s release of political prisoners, unbanning of outlawed political parties; fostering of basic instrumental political freedoms such as that of press, assembly, and association; desecuritizing group identities; reforming security institutions; taking baby steps to hold officials accountable for abuse of power and perpetration of atrocities such as torture, arbitrary execution, illegal detention, and forced disappearance; and taking first steps to encourage depoliticization of the institutions of rule of law such as courts, prosecutions, and the office of public defenders. Needless to say, the rule of law is critical to effective management and sustenance of the transition to democracy. This is done not just through a gesture of respecting judicial independence and its operational autonomy, but also through distancing oneself from a political weaponization of the law in such a way that it serves the incumbent’s grip over power and the political space thereof. Too often, the law is complicit in consolidation and conservation of authoritarian power in part because it is always part of the constellation of ideas, discourses, and practices of legitimation and in part because its malleability is exploited by cunning dictators who deploy it strategically to suppress and repress their opponents. One of the things one needs to do in the early phase of transition to democracy therefore is to relax the authoritative rules and provisions of the legal machinery by repealing or amending them as appropriate and as befitting a would-be democratic dispensation. In some contexts (such as South Africa, for instance), incumbent’s willingness to share power with the leaders of the revolt that forced the transition is also part of the gesture of relaxation.

This phase of the transition process (i.e., relaxation of the grip over power) is then followed by measures of inclusion of all stakeholders in the process. This phase brings about pluralization of the political actors to be involved in the transition process. In the literature on transition, this second phase is also called liberalization (although the term is also used to encompass relaxation of the regulatory regime in the economic sphere, at times even leading to privatization of key economic resources). One of the common liberalizing gestures is engendering the emergence and evolution of independent civic society organizations that empower communities and local populations.

The third phase, which often focuses on the conduct of election, is broadly called democratization. This is so because election is central to democracy and the transition that leads there. Everything done in the process of transition gravitates towards the conduct of a competitive, free, fair, and credible election because, without such an election, it is impossible to talk about democratic transition. For this to happen, the process of ‘levelling the playing field’ should be undertaken in earnest through, for instance, revising the electoral system (the rules, the institution and its membership, and the procedures thereof). And this has to be done in the context of an all-inclusive deliberation, negotiation, and consensus on what becomes the agreed upon rules of the electoral game to come.(Rules pertaining to political party registration, campaigns and conduct of public rallies, electoral code of conduct for parties, rules on public political debate, rules on access to and use of public media, allocation and utilization of public funding for political campaigns, rules on election observers, etc, should all be properly discussed, ironed out and agreed upon at this stage of the process.)

Once a competitive, free, fair, and credible election is conducted and a peaceful political transfer is achieved, with the handover of power from authoritarian rulers to the elected rulers, then we say that the work of democratic transition is accomplished, and democratization is fully launched. But because democracy building is more a process than an incident—and because there is always the possibility of sliding back—the work of democratic transition continues until democratic power is consolidated and the practice of democratic election is repeated and its future is secured. Transition is hardly achieved (and democracy is hardly consolidated and secure), Ali Mazrui is reported to have said, until we see a peaceful transition of power at least twice.

The winds of change blowing in Ethiopia showed some unequivocal signs of transition when the regime took measures of relaxation by releasing political prisoners, unbanning and inviting exiled political parties, freeing the use of internet and social media, tolerating a degree of free speech, etc. However, given the fact that the platform of political action is still far from being pluralized, and because there is so far no significant move to revise the electoral system (with a clear commitment to organize a competitive, free, fair, and credible election in 2020), the regime seems to have lost focus and the transition process seems to be going adrift.

Owing to the disorganized and enfeebled state of the opposition political parties at the time of the protest, the responsibility to manage the transition in Ethiopia had been (tacitly) given to the so called ‘Team Lemma’. But as we shall see herein below, there has been several episodes of mismanagement of the change on the part of this team of top leadership in the OPDO-ANDM led EPRDF coalition. Some of this is the result of lack of sense of priorities. Some of it is the result of OPDO’s insecurity about winning a genuinely competitive election come 2020, especially in Oromia where the incumbent can be challenged by other parties such as Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) and/or Oromo Liberation Front (OLF-Shanee Group). Let us now turn to some of the specific signs of mismanagement of the change.

One of the things OPDO-EPRDF should have done, but hasn’t done so far, in order to manage the transition well was to form a multilateral interparty platform, a regular dialog forum, at which to engage the political parties constantly as they facilitate the work of the transition. This platform is necessary because, although OPDO-EPRDF was tacitly entrusted with the wok of managing the process, given the fact that it was the regime that the protesting public have been openly defiant of, it was obvious that it lacked the moral authority (as well as the capability) to manage the process alone. In addition, it is necessary because such participation in shaping the process helps enhance the credibility of the election. Thus, instead of acting unilaterally in what it believes is the proper mode of preparing for the election to come, it may use this platform to absorb the concerns and ideas of the opposition political parties into the work of facilitating transition, if need be taking their proposal as an input for the necessary legislative reform to improve the regime of laws pertaining to the electoral system. This in turn will make the parties own the process as their own as they also stake see their interests therein. Unfortunately, though, so far, such an inter-party platform is not created. To date, only two meetings were convened and nothing of consequence for the betterment of the process has stemmed from it. The OPDO-EPRDF government seems to go it all alone doing (or not doing) reforms purely according to their party’s whims and conjectures.

Consequently, there is so far, no sign of genuine interest to negotiate and collaborate in managing the transition. Every indication is that OPDO seems to see itself (as already) the change to come. In PM Abiy’s mind, OPDO’s team Lemma is already the transition. Although he did repeatedly say that he will lead the transition, he always seems to suggest more: that he is the transition. It is probably from this perspective that one can explain OPDO’s ever defensive and insecure behaviours, especially in Oromia, often jealously guarding its power and desperately wanting to secure the future for itself. No surprises here as the anxiety of the incumbent is understandable. What the people need to beware of is the incumbent’s tendency to hijack the process and make it purely self-serving. Signs of this are everywhere. The consequence is that OPDO, having reduced the political parties to willing and unwilling cheerleaders, languishes under the burdens of managing the vagaries of transition alone

Another challenge OPDO is facing is the increasing loss of people’s trust to take the country into a democracy. The factor that is eroding trust in OPDO’s efforts to achieve the much sought transition is that, to date, there is no genuine effort to respond the demands of the people that were raised in the course of the protest. For example in Oromia, instead of responding to the questions of land (Abbaa biyyummaa), language (making Afaan Oromo a working language), and the right to the city (Finfinnee), too often diversion tactics are used. Nin this way, non-issues are turned into issues. The attempt to build Empress Taitu’s statue in Finfinnee; building a large set of condominium buildings in Koyyee Faccee (23 kilometers beyond the administrative jurisdiction of Finfinnee administration) and starting to allocate them to 50, 000 urban residents (without any regard to the rights and interests of the farmers evicted from the locality); the widespread and unchecked sale of the land of Oromo farmers to investors from Laga Xaafoo to Kinbibit and Shanoo, from Buraayyuu to Sabbataa, from Entoto to Sulultaa and beyond), etc are only examples. A robust attempt to push back against the gains of the protest by the OPDO in Oromia, especially in the area of land surrounding the city of Finfinnee, reminds people of the continuation of the dispossession via the Masterplan. OPDO’s insolence, or prevarication on the implementation of the constitutional ‘Special interest’ clause makes the populace question if OPDO is genuinely seeking the change the people sought or it is just jumping onto the Oromo revolution’s band wagon to consolidate its power over TPLF and reverse every little gain Oromos and the other peoples of the South secured through decades of struggle. Moreover, to date, PM Abiy has been reluctant to respond to the Sidama demand for statehood, or the demands of the Qemant, the Agaw, and Walqayit for recognition of their distinct identities.

Furthermore, there is an inability (and perhaps lack of care or will, too) to stabilize the restive region of Oromia. If anything, there is a renewed military action and a de facto state of emergency in parts of Oromia. The displaced are still out there in camps and hardly getting support other than biweekly ration of food in the make shift resettlement camps. More displacement is witnessed every day. No normalization of the border conflicts is in sight, apparently. Cinaaksan, Baatee, Moyale, Guji, Beegii, Bambasi, Kamashi, parts of Qeellam, etc still remain flashpoints of armed skirmishes. Contrary to Oromos’ expectation (and their demands for peace and stability of their borders), there is, as yet, hardly any sign of stability or stabilization. OPDO’s modus operandi is still the tactic of evading a problem by creating another problem if only to complicate and confuse everything. Instead of demarcating the jurisidictional limits of the Finfinnee city administration in Oromia, arresting the expanding land theft in the name of investment or sale of land, they build buildings in places such as Koyye Faccee and create further discord in the rural-urban relations. Instead of implementing the so called constitutional “special interest clause,” they try to build a Tayitu statue almost inciting the Oromo public into street protests. Instead of making Afaan Oromo the co-working language of the Finfinnee city council (as promised by Lemma Megerssa and Mayor Dirribaa Kumaa in late 2017 and early 2018), they seek to promote Amharic as the working language of the African Union and install a statue honouring Haileselassie in the Finfinnee compound of the AU thereby unleashing another political debate on what was not an important political issue before. Likewise, instead of facilitating the referendum to let the Sidama determine their statehood (as they have been demanding for years all the while attending to all the procedural requirements of the law), they establish a ‘commission on borders and identities’ which will help ‘resolve such issues’[read, reconfigure the regions]. Instead of starting an intense, honest, and transparent inter-party discussion and negotiation on the laws, procedures, and composition of the National Electoral Board, they appoint a former CUD chair, Birtukan Mideksa, only after secret negotiation with Ginbot 7’s Berhanu Nega (a former CUD colleague of Birtukan) thereby compromising the neutrality of the NEBE. Instead of hastening the transition process after which the country deals with issues of reconciliation through transitional justice, they set up a ‘Reconciliation Commission’ and appoint personalities who are themselves involved (or implicated) in acts of violation of human rights and perpetration of atrocities for a long time (e.g., former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn).

As every student of transition to democracy (and transitional justice) knows, the language and institution of reconciliation are matters of a post-transitional moment. They face a country on the aftermath, not on the eve, of transition. Reconciliation is the end result of the process of transitional justice (a process of facing, coming to terms with, and steering away from the atrocities of the past). Reconciliation happens after:

a) the lived experiences under atrocities are reckoned with;

b) truth is established and acknowledged by all;

c) apology is offered by perpetrators;

d) forgiveness is granted by the survivors;

e) the suffering is mourned by all, together, as a country (and the nation is confronted with the imperative of atonement); and

f) the country comes to terms with its past.

Transitional justice cannot be done without (or before the achievement of) democratic transition. There cannot be a transitional justice while we are still under the same authoritarian regime (albeit a regime that is relaxing its grip). To try to do reconciliation under authoritarianism is only to exculpate the very authoritarian regime we are just trying to electorally replace by a democratic regime. The reconciliation talk becomes a farce, especially when, as we see in PM Abiy’s ‘Reconciliation Commission’, some of the very people who perpetrated the atrocities are made the commissioners.

It is also important to note, incidentally, that if the ‘Reform Team’ is entrusted with the responsibility of taking the country to democracy, the bridge to the democracy to come can only be the constitution under the imperatives of which this regime operates. That is to say, Team Lemma, can only lead the transition in the light of the constitution, not outside, or against, it. To go unconstitutional is to risk a complete replacement of this team by a properly negotiated Transitional Government. To side step the constitution while professing belief in it is not just duplicitous but creates confusion about the rule of the game—and the proper actors–for the transition. To seek to change it through other means than the amendment procedures—such as through the so called ‘Border and Identities Commission’—is even worse. However sceptical you are about the constitution that you have taken a solemn oath to “observe, protect, and defend”—you need to respect it if you want to reform and transform the system from within. And if you want to go unconstitutional (because you have no faith in it anymore), then you need to resign and let the revolution take over. Anything else is tantamount to redirecting the transition by conspiring to take the change, possibly, to directions the people had not sought.

3.2. Internal Structural Challenges: EPRDF is in shambles, and the others are less than ready

OPDO-EPRDF faces some internal structural limitations as well. Internally, as power struggle (with TPLF) continues to rage, the Party lacks cohesion as an organization. As a result, there is no coherent vision coming from the party or its leader. To date, EPRDF is not yet completely dead. But as it is not having regular meetings to make a collective decision and to give direction as it used to do, we can hardly say it is meaningfully alive, either. Since the resignation of the former Prime Minister in February 2017, the EPRDF, as a coalition of the four regional parties, seems to be in a comatose state. In the absence of a collective party decision, the new Prime Minister seems to be deciding and acting alone. This is because, the Prime Minister has never gathered his own party, OPDO, for a meeting to generate a collective decision at that level. (In fact, the senior OPDO officials are reported to have started to grumble because the PM has never met them as his party since he was appointed PM except at the annual EPRDF summit of Jimma in September 2018.)

As things stand now, OPDO and ANDM could not reform the party except at the superficial level of changing their names from Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO) to Oromo Democratic Party (ODP) and from Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM) to Amhara Democratic Party (ADP). OPDO and ANDM failed to renew themselves as per their promise. Any change that there is, is only a change of the names. And, of course, a change of rhetoric at the top. Not a change of the work of the lower level administrative OPDO and ANDM. To date, their program (of ‘revolutionary democracy’ and of becoming a ‘developmental state’) remain the same. Their decision making procedures (of ‘democratic centralism’) remain the same. Each member party’s role, share of decisional power, and votes in the EPRDF remain the same. The regional ODP and ADP have yet to be reformed. In most local districts, their party structure and the local government structure had collapsed completely under the pressure of the protests, or barely there as signpost for what used to be a local government. New appointments in the name of reform ended up recycling the same old corrupt or/and incompetent members and transferring them from one locality to another. Continued regional and local protests to these appointments and relentless popular unseating of these new appointees have left power vacuum in many localities. The ‘deep reform’ (or ‘deep renewal’) in these parties did not materialize—except at the very top (and that strictly at the level of Abiy Ahmed and Lemma Megerssa or Demeke Mekonnen and Gedu Andargachew). The OPDO-ANDM tactical alliance continues to exist, so far, merely on the basis of personal trust and confidence of these four leaders in each other.

The Southern Ethiopian Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples Democratic Movement (SEPDM) seems to be largely reduced into a bystander in the national politics. Harrowed by several local political demands, it seems to be preoccupied with hot issues in Hawassa (including the demands of the Sidama and others to form their own separate States). Like OPDO and ANDM, the SEPDM has not made any change except its top leadership. Thus, there is no substantive change to its program yet. It is not clear whether (and if) the ‘Deep Reform’ can take place, or in deed has taken place already.

The Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) is an outlier in the new EPRDF power game although it has not yet formally left the EPRDF coalition. It seems that TPLF is having its Frankenstein moment as the same parties that it created in the 1990s have taken over the center stage and have come back to bite it. The OPDO-ANDM alliance has virtually sidelined it, and as it seems that the country is forging ahead without TPLF’s leadership for the first time in 27 years. TPLF’s current position in the party seems to be that of an opposition from within (and the OPDO-ANDM leaders make a veiled insinuation when they refer to some of the TPLF leaders as ‘opponents of the reform’). Indeed, the TPLF has put forward a robust opposition against PM Abiy’s so called meddemer bandwagon both in words and deeds. To wit, the TPLF in the Federal Parliament (HPR) rejected the Bill on ‘Borders and Identities’ on constitutional grounds. The TPLF in Tigray Region passed a resolution against the bill as unconstitutional and indicated that they will contest its constitutionality using all possible avenues. It is a ‘public secret’ that most of the border conflicts are TPLF’s proxy wars against the OPDO-ANDM alliance using local loyalists from the past. Also, as ANDM continues to encourage arming civilians in what seems to be a showdown with TPLF, TPLF on its part seems to prepare for full-blown war in the event that a conflict arises. There is talk of the need for national service in Tigray. There is rumour that some members of the Federal army are quietly leaving for Tigray in preparation for what they think is the inevitable showdown.

The agitation, and the sense of being under siege, is seen even in the rhetoric of Tigray’s only opposition party (called Aranaa Tigray).

All of this is to say that EPRDF is in shambles. It is dead already but not quite!

The consequence of EPRDF’s near death dysfunction is that there is now an organizational vacuum in the highest places of power. This in turn may render the transition vulnerable to self-serving manipulations by gradually (and almost imperceptibly) concentrating power in the hands of an individual rather than in the hands of a party. This situation has now invited the risk of making the PM an autocrat, or a demagogue, who is not afraid of becoming a dictator. Indeed, PM Abiy has said as much in late 2018 when he indicated that his government is on the brink of drifting into dictatorship, which he said is easier to do, in a country that has no democratic tradition to fall back on. He seems to be growing irate about criticisms of some of his measures. No doubt he is constantly under pressure being criticized (at times wrongly), but it is no reason for him to contemplate becoming a dictator unless one is a bit too impatient with the voices of discord that engulfed the country whose politics is being polarized exponentially every passing day. For, after all, his own unguarded rhetoric about the Ethiopian imperial past (and its past leaders), about nationalisms (some of which were viewed as evil by him), about state autonomy (which he believes is overridden by his federal government), federalism (which, to him, is a hierarchic mode of governance that flows from the high towers of the Federal Government to the lower hills of the State Governments), regional borders (which in his thinking, should always remain porous), right to statehood (which in his mind has to be limited despite the constitutional recognition of Ethiopia as a destructible union of further destructible units), etc, have ignited or/and contributed to this growing polarization.

EPRDF’s dysfunction has also created a lack of coherent set of ideas with which to govern the country and to steer it on the road to democracy. EPRDF’s ruling ideology until 2018 centred around ‘Revolutionary Democracy’ (which was defined in Meles Zenawi’s time as anything other than liberal democracy), ‘democratic centralism’ (a system of collective decision-making at the top and executing it top down—and also upward delegation of powers to the party’s strong man), and ‘developmental state’ (a growth model in which state is a central player in the economy and all other actors are embedded in, or associated with, the state). With the near death of EPRDF, these three pillars of the party’s ideational structure have receded into the background. They have become things of the past, although all the member parties of the coalition have vowed, at various times, that they have not renounced their ideological commitment to them.

Moreover, the EPRDF as an organization has not yet come together to recast their vision, rewrite their programs, and/or reorient their modus operandi to fit the democratic imperative that the change is calling forth. The party’s decision-making procedure (of equal votes by all four parties in the Central Committee and in the Executive Committee) remains more consociational than majoritarian-democratic. There seems to be a reluctance, or disinterest, to make EPRDF democratic. The inbuilt problem of democratic deficit in the party structure remains to constrain the democratic aspiration within the party. The democratization to come should have started by democratizing the party itself through rearranging the voting and decision-making procedures. This has not happened yet.

The consequence of all this is the emergence of a void in the structure of the idea with which to govern the country. A vision vacuum, or a vacuum of programs, has come about. In more concrete terms, this means that there is no sense of direction about what exactly we want the country to transition to. Judging from the words of the PM, there seems to be an interest on his part ‘to restore Ethiopia to its greatness of olden times and the glories thereof.’ How that is going to be achieved is not entirely clear to anyone yet.

3.3. The Nature of the Ethiopian State and the Regnant Contradictions

Beyond and above democratization, or simultaneously with democratization, (perhaps even before it), the Ethiopian state needs a transformation. The aspiration of the 1974 Revolution and EPRDF’s 1991 change was not just democratization (although democratization was key to them both) but a radical transformation of the state-society relations by changing the terrain of unequal citizenship that existed because of the imperial nature of the modern Ethiopian State. Part of the reason why (as John Markakis had once said) “democracy is overrated in Ethiopia” [16] is that even when it succeeds (if it does), it still fails to transform the State. The state itself, the very geography of the Ethiopian demos or demoi, needs to be redeemed before it is democratized. It gets redeemed by reconfiguring its imperial nature and helping it outgrow its traditional urge to sanction a ranked relationship between ‘citizens and subjects,’ or between the center and the margin, the core and the periphery, the North and the South, the Abyssinian-Ethiopian self and the non-Abyssinian other.

There is to date a refusal to acknowledge and rethink the imperial ordering of the state. There is still a resistance to acknowledge the deficit in equal citizenship. The offhand rejection of the (so far merely theoretical) sovereignty and/or self-determination right of ‘the other peoples’ in the constitution, the insistent disavowal of the multi-foundational phrasing of the preamble of the constitution (“WE, the Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples of Ethiopia…”), is merely a symptom of this deep structural constraints to democratization. The rejection on the part of the Ethiopianist political class to recognize the demand for recognition of the distinct identities of the ‘other peoples’ is an insistence on the imperial urge to efface difference (or to assume assimilation) under the hegemonic ‘habesha’ culture that operates under the implicit political imperative of homogenization (“we are all one”).

To date, there is a refusal, or a hesitation, to resolve deep contradictions of the state. Even in EPRDF circles, there is a denial of the existence of such contradictions. There is in effect a denial of the pluri-national nature of the state that survived the empire that Ethiopia has been. There is thus a denial of the co-foundational status, and the co-eval presence, of all the groups—large and small—in this ‘nation of nations.’ [17] As some of the speeches of PM Abiy indicate, there is a desire to retrace, valorize, reify and consolidate old imperial narratives. In them, one cannot help noticing the refusal to center the margin, the inability to imagine a different, a transformed, Ethiopia. An inability to imagine an Ethiopia in which the other peoples’ demands for recognition of agency, autonomy, and authority are met as they assert their distinct selfhood as the makers, i.e., the co-constituents, of the Ethiopian polity in which each of them are also a speaking and acting political subject. This status of groups as political subjects in the polity (as ‘We, the nations, nationalities, and peoples’) ought to be taken as an integral part of allowing their individual members’ agency as voting subjects in the democratic process to come. To be fair, the 1995 constitution has laid down the ground work for such transformation. However, absent democracy, the constitutional provisions have remained inert on the issues that mattered the most although the text has been routinely used as a weapon of co-optation of the elites of the other peoples while also proclaiming EPRDF’s fantasy of achieving a “Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.”

Consequently, the issue of the identity of State is still unresolved. The debate on what defines Ethiopian identity continues to rage. What constitutes the irreducible minimum in the definition of who is and who is not Ethiopian—what the ‘national identity’ is—remains a vexed question over which views continue to be polarized. To date, Ethiopians do not agree on their flag, emblem, or anthem, or heroes, language(s), culture(s), or memories and remembrances, much less on a sense of shared destiny. Given the fact that foundational issues of ‘national identity’ unsettle the strides towards democracy, it is imperative that Ethiopia does some soul-searching on the matter in order to find “a common national purpose”. [18] A ‘national identity’ that recognizes (virtuous) diversity (that mirrors and absorbs peoples’ sense of “pride, anger, or shame”) [19] needs to be forged so that Ethiopia, at last, achieves ‘a lasting peace’ and steers away from the risk of state collapse. A shared ‘national identity’ is important also for facilitating economic growth, engendering good governance, and instilling a better sense of trust among groups in the society and between the state and the society.[20] Perhaps more important to our concern here is that a shared sense of ‘national identity’ fosters the requisite social contract that operationalizes democracy.

3.4. Lack of clarity of vision, cohesion, and strength of conviction

If EPRDF lacks organization and clarity of vision needed to facilitate the transition, the other political parties lack cohesion and a strength of conviction even to put meaningful pressure on the former. Most of these parties seem to suffer from the aftereffects of long years of repressive rule, incarceration, and banishment to exile. To date, most of the parties that came home from exile seem to seek a client-patron relationship with OPDO-EPRDF. Their mode of operation seems to have changed from politics of resistance to politics of influencing the PM through self-ingratiation. In a bid to have unhindered access to the PM, their choicest statement has become “we support the reform and the OPDO-EPRDF leadership.” To that extent, they seemed to have lowered the bar to accept the OPDO-EPRDF as the standard bearer of the work of democratization in Ethiopia. Instead of leading and empowering the protesting public in preparation for the democracy to come, they generally have resigned to sitting back and following whatever cue is being given to them by OPDO-EPRDF on what course to follow.[21] This is when you realize that the revolution has become the victim of its own success.

4. In lieu of a Conclusion: what are the prospects, and what can be done to salvage the transition?

Given the situation depicted above, what should be done now in order to return the process back to the track?

What choices do we have?

Obviously, the relapse into an unpretentious dictatorship is not an option as the people are beyond being cowed by a dictator of any sort anymore. Resort to dictatorship will only fuel further protest that may lead to a complete revolutionary change that sweeps away everything that is left of the EPRDF rule.

Conducting a snap election by dismissing the Parliament is another option. However, given the fact that we are only one year away from the general election (Election 2020), this, too, becomes a pointless exercise even if we assume the improbable prospect that such an election is manageable on such a short order.

Finding a new route to transition through forming a National Unity Government negotiated among all the political parties is not impossible but unlikely as: a) PM Abiy has ruled out that possibility early on; b) the other parties may not yet be ready to enter a power-sharing scheme even for the inter-regnum; and c) it may unduly prolong the time for election as so many things (including an interim constitution of a sort) need to be negotiated in the event that the whole constitutional framework of the EPRDF rule is set aside.

What should be done?

In the light of all of the above, the more realistic option seems to be resetting and recalibrating the OPDO-facilitated transition process.

In order to do this, OPDO-EPRDF needs to go back to the drawing board and reform itself on a short order. Considering the fact that the other option is to declare their demise as failures, they need to recreate themselves. They need to resolve on EPRDF as a cohesive party with a cohesive vision and an adequately democratic mode of operation. Before venturing on the task of democratizing Ethiopia, they need to put their house in order and inject a wind of democracy to the party’s decision-making process. As it stands now, EPRDF is structurally rigged against democracy. That should change, or EPRDF should be abandoned altogether as a coalition of four regional parties.

Also, PM Abiy’s EPRDF should resolve on whether it is EPRDF that he is leading or not. He can’t continue pretending to be OPDO-EPRDF while pandering to and/or orchestrating the politics of Ginbot 7. In particular, he should resolve on where his constituency is as the leader of OPDO: is his constituency Oromia region, or Amhara region? All indications are that PM Abiy is trying to win the heart of the Amhara heartland while ignoring (or taking for granted) his Oromo base. The result is the increasing prevalence among the Oromo of the sense of being ignored, or openly disrespected, by PM Abiy’s OPDO.

Once this is done, OPDO-EPRDF needs to reset their priorities. In particular, they ought to hasten to launch a genuine, sustained, all-inclusive, multilateral discussion on the minimum core elements of the much sought democratization. This should be done by instituting a regular consultative inter-party platform for dialog. The outcome of such regular dialog ought to augment the government’s efforts at facilitating the transition. In collaboration with all the other political parties in such platform, they should prepare and publicize a comprehensive action plan and calendar for the democratization process.

While this is being done, it is important that the country is stabilized. Removing the military from civilian sites goes a long way in this regard. In the interest of peace, all political parties (including OPDO)—and all of their political activities—should be insulated from military manoeuvres. In the interest of demilitarizing the politics once and for all, OPDO should desist from weaponizing the Federal Armed Forces to resolve its stalemate with OLF-SG. OLF-SG should demobilize its armed forces in accordance with the terms of their agreement with the Government. The latter should also resolve on a peaceful political struggle. The elders (the Abba Gadaas) should continue to broker and monitor peace as the peoples’ custodians of peace and harmony.

In order to rally everyone behind it in support of the transition, the government ought to regain (or re-earn) the trust of the people. To win trust, the OPDO should exert genuine efforts to address at least some of the outstanding demands of the Oromo protestors. At the very least, it should set up a parliamentary commission under the Caffee Oromiyaa to seek solutions to the outstanding demands of the people. The PM, on his part, should recast himself as their PM, too.

Given the fact that the transition is derailed largely because of the activities (and the many off the cuff speeches) of the PM, there are things the PM should do in order to reset the process. Most of these have to do with getting his priorities right. The matter of constitutional reform, especially the matters pertaining to federalism, state autonomy, identity, etc are very delicate issues. The PM does well not to unilaterally, or extra-constitutionally, tinker with these matters during this season of transition. The untimely (and unconstitutional) formation of commissions such as the one on Reconciliation (before transition) and the one on ‘Borders and Identities’ needs to be remedied through repeal or suspension until a government with the necessary democratic credentials is in place.

Appointing problem people (people aligned with, or against, particular groups on partisan grounds, people implicated in past atrocities, people with controversial track records in relation to ‘the other peoples’ of Ethiopia) to positions of vital importance such as the National Electoral Board, or to the so called ‘Reconciliation Commission’ and the so called ‘Borders and Identities Commission’ casts doubt on the PM’s judgement and erodes people’s trust in him to lead the transition judiciously. Making divisive speeches pitched to please one section of the country’s population (as opposed to the other) feeds into and intensifies the polarization in the country—and the PM needs to desist from making such speeches.

While the other political parties need to start exerting more effort to (re)mobilize, organize, and lead the people, the people also should remain alert to protect the gains of their protests. They should not be cowed by OPDO-EPRDF’s call to demobilize them through co-optation or other pacifying schemes. They should continue mounting pressures on the powers that be so that they see the day when their calls for voice and representation, their desire for redistribution and equitable share of resources, and their demand for recognition of their dignity are finally honoured, respected, and realized in the democratic election to come. The young people (the Qeerroo and the Qarree) who gave up their lives, limbs, and liberties for the sake of the social justice they sought deserve nothing less than achieving the democratic system they aspired for. The achievement of one competitive, free, fair, and credible election come 2020—and the paving of the way towards a democratic order of accountable rulers, empowered citizens, an open society, and an equitable and transparent economy–will go a long way to inaugurate the work of transforming the polity. Such transformation may, eventually, remove the spectre of disintegration that haunted it since its emergence as an (ever evolving) imperial state. This in turn may keep alive the hope of building a more inclusive, more just, more equitable, and a freer polity at peace with itself and its historical others.

[1] Tsegaye Ararssa,”Transformation from within: Hope or Mirage?—the OPDO-ANDM Alliance and the Prospect of Reform,” Addis Standard (22 Nov. 2017), available at: .

[2] Ezekiel Gebissa and Jawar Mohammed, “The Oromo Alternative: Freedom, Equality, Justice, and Dignity in a Participatory Democracy,” Horn Arguments (17November2017), available at:

[3] See PM Abiy’s speech to his Ethiopian supporters in the USA at: There was an indication of this promise already in his inaugural speech in the Ethiopian Parliament in April 2018. See

[4] The motivation here is said to be more about getting a hold of the money the TPLF officials, allegedly, have long deposited in his account than about getting his rights respected.

[5] According to a version told by the Prime Minister, Ethiopia secured a loan agreement of about 3 billion US dollars, 1 billion of which was directly injected into the economy immediately. Later, it became clear that even that 1 billion was not fully released as there was a rethinking on the part of the UAE because of Ethiopia’s poor reading of the competition of several gulf actors for dominance in the Horn region.

[6] No reason was given for Dr Mulatu Teshome’s (an Oromo) replacement by Sahlework (an Amhara) except the unstated desire to appease the Amhara elite’s ambition to regain all power lost during the 27 years of TPLF hegemony.

[7] Again, no reason was given for the replacement of the preceding chief justice, Judge Dagne Melaku Mehari (possibly a Tigrean) by Me’aza Ashenafi (an Amhara from Asosa).

[8] F. Fukuyama, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment. London: Profile Books, 2018, p. xii, 20-24. According to Fukuyama, most of what passes for identity politics in contemporary societies is driven by a desire to be recognized as equals (isothymia), or as superior (megalothymia).

[9] Fukuyama (2018), p. 24.

[10] See Addis Standard news, 04/02/19 at:

[11] The CSO law (Proclamation No. 621/2009) is now revised recently with the aim of allowing them to operate freely. There are still some restrictions such as the limitation on foreign funding (at 20%). The revised proclamation has been adopted in parliament although it is yet to be come into force on publication in the official legal Gazette. There is, in addition, a law reform commission that the PM has unilaterally formed for the purpose of revisiting repressive laws. However, the selection of its members (which was not consultative, transparent, and participatory) and the lack of diversity in the political and ideological background of the membership undermine its legitimacy. Be that as it may, the commission has yet to produce its report so that the parliament can make the necessary amendment and/or repeal as appropriate.

[12] PM’s speech in Bahr Dar (about Oromo nationalism) and Hawasa (re Sidama nationalism) early into his series of good will visits to the regions.

[13] The text of the law setting up the commission indicates that it is a commission on ‘identities and borders’ which studies issues relating to identities and borders and submits its recommendations. However, all indications (preceding the secret submission of the draft to Parliament) were that the primary motivation is to reconfigure the borders, revise the constitution, and by pass some of the standing demands over identities and borders. This is seen repeatedly in the PM’s allusion to the commission whenever he is asked about the various demands for recognition of identities and demarcation of borders.

[14] Only once since his rise to the PM’s position did he say that the urge to make Afaan Oromoo a federal working language is not objectionable to him as “this desire shows that Oromos, rather than wanting to secede from Ethiopia, are seeking ‘to own up’ the country as their own.” Never mind the patronizing tone regarding what the Oromo should, and shouldn’t want, but he did say this to a group of journalists on his first extended press conference he had on 25 August 2018.

[15] Some of those displaced by the Somali-Oromia border conflict are encamped in Buraayyuu and other localities in and around Finfinnee. To date, most of the children have not started going to school because there are no schools in their language in those areas.

[16] John Markakis, interview with ESAT, 2012. See

[17] To use Fasil Nahum’s felicitous phrase used in his book Constitution for a Nation of Nations: The Ethiopian Prospect. Asmara/Lawrenceville, NJ: Red Sea Press, 1997.

[18] On the importance of sense of common purpose, see Fukuyama (2018): 126.

[19] Note that this kind of ‘national identity’ is an identity that is different from the content-free ‘constitutional patriotism’.

[20] Fukuyama (2018), 126-129.

[21] Exceptions are there but they are exceptions that prove the rule.