Transformation from Within : Prospect of Reform or Another False Start in Ethiopia?

Tsegaye R Ararssa

1. Introduction

Years of peaceful protests in Oromia, later also amplified by strong flashes of resistance in Konso and the Amhara region, seem to have shaken the Ethiopian regime to its core and have once more brought the country to a crossroads. Many have started to wonder if this situation is going to be an opportunity for the regime to, finally, transition to democracy and for the state to, at last, transform itself into a fairer, more just, more equitable, and more peaceful—if only redeemed—polity. The recent gesture of the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO) to reach out to the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM) in the spirit of people-to-people solidarity and collaboration has raised a renewed hope and opened up the possibility of a much sought after transformation.
What does this gesture of solidarity promise? Will the democratic transformation promised in these gestures, the emergent ‘coalition of majoritarian’ forces, and the democratic aspirations expressed throughout the season of the protests be delivered, or will they remain a mirage? Prospectively, beyond these gestures of alliance and the populist rhetorical flourishes in favour of democratic change in the two regional states, what can be done to ensure that the promise of the protests is delivered, or the hope is turned into reality? The following is a reflection pointing in the direction of a transformative change mediated through democratic transition in Ethiopia.

2. The OPDO-ANDM Alliance: What does it mean?

Many view the OPDO-ANDM gesture of alliance as a positive first step towards a peaceful and tolerant multinational state. It is seen as engendering the hope of pursuing a conscious plan for democratic transformation from within. To be sure, more than anything else, it is a political alliance forged expeditiously to edge out the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in the raging power struggle within the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition. Yet, the act has brightened the possibility of harvesting some democratic dividends if—beyond the political parties—the elites of the two most populous regional States start to work together in the spirit of strengthening democracy and transforming the state-society relations. Beyond and above sending the message to the hitherto dominant TPLF that it is not alone in resisting the former’s hegemony within the EPRDF the OPDO is also trying to calm down the Amhara elite’s obsessive suspicion and persistent phobia (albeit largely irrational and groundless) of the (perceived) ‘Oromo threat to the unity and territorial integrity of Ethiopia.’ Notwithstanding the appearance of a tacit endorsement of the (warped) attitude that the Amhara elite is the sole guardian of Ethiopia’s ‘unity’ and integrity, the gesture can be viewed as this generation’s resolve of Oromo to take the bigger responsibility in trying to bring others into the fold of (a better, fairer, and more inclusive version of) the Ethiopian state.

The alliance can also be taken as an attempt on OPDO’s part to do what is required on their side and beckon others to theirs. The other-regarding political ethics implied in this gesture has also a far-reaching consequence for the future of the country. As such, OPDO’s carefully ‘calculated’ choice to focus on and consider others’ fears rather than dwelling on the injustice inflicted upon their people, now and in the past, is a signal that they want to be larger than their resentment of their ‘present-absence’ in Ethiopia thus far. Their act of claiming the country’s problems (and natural endowments) as their own (saying “Xaanaan keenya”)–or even the more reckless rhetorical excess in saying that they are “addicted to ‘Ethiopianism’”–is suggestive of the place of the Oromo in the Ethiopia to come. In a sense, this could as well be a way of ‘presenting’ (or bringing back to the present) those who have so far been rendered absent. It is a way of making themselves legible in the political vernacular of the country to which they have been illegible so far.

For ANDM, its acceptance of the OPDO’s initiative is a political tactic to edge out TPLF in its gambit for power within the EPRDF. It also signals the choice on the part of the Amhara elite to move on by accepting the present reality on the ground. For them, just as for the OPDO, it is also a recognition that the demands of their people at the grassroots level are legitimate and that they can be met only democratically. It seems they have finally realized that in order for them to hear the voice of their people and to concede to the democratic demands thereof, they must first realize democracy within their party (EPRDF) in which TPLF has so far been the undisputed decision maker. They seem to understand that common sense—and elementary understanding of democracy as decision-making by a majority vote–suggests that the parties with the larger number of members and vaster potential constituencies deserve more say and hearing than they have been getting so far. And they do not see a political overreach in raising this simple question of fair hearing and treatment both in Oromia and in their own region.

Of course, the implication is far-reaching for their people, their region, and the larger country. The demand simply unleashes “the logic of equality” in the political party thereby signalling the beginning of transformation from within.
Consequently, both OPDO and ANDM seem to have finally realized that in order for them to effectively respond to the democratic impulse knocking at their doors daily from outside (from their peoples), they need to answer the inner democratic urge from within, bypassing, or setting aside, the hierarchic tradition of EPRDF politics that made them subservient so far. Seen in this light, the alliance is already a signal for more democratic mandate for these hitherto ‘junior partners’ of the TPLF to act more autonomously with a larger space to manoeuvre. At another level, the alliance may be seen as ‘an immanent critique’ of the state and advocacy on behalf of democratic transformation. But it is more. It may be a sign that effective democratic transition and state transformation may finally be coming from a corner least expected to be a site of democratic performance, i.e. from within (from within the constituents of the EPRDF machine), rather than from without (i.e., the opposition political organizations cum the pressures of the international community).
The question now is what can the two parties do to make this hope of transformation real? What of this ‘internal reform’ can be done right in order to bring about the much sought transformation? If this gesture of inter-party alliance (an alliance in favour of giving democracy a chance) is going to yield anything more substantive, what should the public expect them to do in the near future?

3. What is to be done? And Quo Vadis, EPRDF?

The key question on the mind of the public now is what should be done in order to achieve deeper change that will subsequently yield democratic transformation? And where should the work start? The following are submitted as tentative points of departure. Top in the to-do list is the introduction of democracy to EPRDF as a party. Or, to be more precise, the OPDO-ANDM alliance must start pushing back against the anti-democratic instincts of TPLF, which must be resisted, tamed and put it in its proper place if a relatively smooth transition to democracy is sought. Their anti-democratic adventures and excesses must now be in proper legal check (within the constitutional framework). That should be followed by the alliance taking their deserved position of prominence to seek more mandate in Parliament. What remains after that, as we will see in the sections to follow, is a mere concatenation of this basic premise of democratization.

3.1. Democratize the EPRDF, or Free it from the TPLF Suzerainty

The first task is to push this democratizing impulse in the two organizations to the level where it can effectively democratize the broader EPRDF internally. That means enhancing and reinforcing internal democracy within the EPRDF coalition. Which means the parties with a larger membership and larger constituency base ought to be given the voices and the votes they deserve in proportion to the population they purport to represent. This in turn leads to the democratization of the key political institutions such as the Federal Parliament (the House of Peoples’ Representatives, alias HPR). The parties that have the largest number of seats in the Parliament will come to seize positions of prominence. This makes the OPDO-ANDM alliance a veritable force in the formation of a new government chiefly from the ranks of the OPDO and ANDM but also the SPDM, the TPLF and the affiliated parties (in proportion to the number of their seats and in the spirit of inclusiveness). In this process, they may choose to assign the premiership to one of their members or keep it in the hands of the SPDM in the interest of continuity and of not alienating the SNNPS all too quickly. (All this needs to be done through an intense process of negotiation, keeping an eye all the while, on the ultimate democratization of the entire country.)

3.2. Free the Parliament and the Government from TPLF Domination, but keep the Government accountable to the Parliament

Once the OPDO-ANDM alliance achieves a position of prominence in the Parliament, what follows is freeing the Parliament itself from TPLF’s repressive—and arguably unconstitutional–rules of procedure that muzzled Members of Parliament (MPs) in the name of ensuring party discipline and practising ‘democratic centralism’ (in practice more centralism than democracy). They must understand that MPs know their priorities in the hierarchy of their loyalties: to their conscience, their constituency, their country, and their party in that order. The MPs in turn must ensure the government’s accountability to the Parliament in line with the constitutional provision that the HPR is “the highest authority” in the country thereby effectively subordinating the executive to the legislature without prejudice to the principle of ‘separation of powers’ inherent in the Parliamentary system such as ours.

3.3. Free the People from Fear: Restore order and the ‘rule of law

Next, the newly configured Parliament should lift the TPLF-imposed rule by Command Post by bringing an end to the undeclared state of emergency. It is to be recalled that this last de facto state of emergency is imposed formally by the National Security Council, an advisory body with no binding legal authority to take such drastic measures. The decision must be formally rescinded as unconstitutional and the Council must, henceforth, be made to operate only within the ambit of its legal mandate. The Parliament must also resolve to restore inter-regional state peace, especially around the borders. It can do so in close collaboration with the House of Federation (HoF) whose duty it is to seek understanding among peoples and States and to resolve disputes when they arise. The Parliament should act decisively by issuing an urgent resolution in favour of reinstating and/or resettling the over 600, 000 persons evicted from the Somali region. In this, they should demonstrate a compassionate governance the time demands.

3.4. Demilitarize the Politics, Depoliticize the Army

In a first gesture of demilitarizing the politics —and depoliticizing the army in the long term–in Ethiopia, they should call the army back to its barracks. Granted, depoliticization of the military is not an easy task. However, once TPLF takes “its proper position” (no more no less than it deserves) in the coalition, relinquishing its undeserved privileges, then the new majoritarian government can take steps to take several measures in this vein. Of course, the first task of a new government is to appoint a new chief of staff of the Ethiopian Defense Forces (EDF) and thereby assert civilian control over the military. In changing the leadership, military cohesion and effectiveness should be given primary consideration but there should be no question that the TPLF “ownership” of the army and the intelligence should end immediately as the automatic effect of the prominence of the OPDO-ANDM alliance. Similarly, it may be necessary to dissolve the Inculcation and Indoctrination Department /Directorate of the EDF so that the army is free from TPLF political agitation in the name of “defending the constitutional order.” The Department/Directorate can continue to operate to oversee the standard civic education needed for an army in a constitutional democracy. The idea of the late Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, that the military’s endeavor is ‘politics by other means’ (and thus saddling the army with the responsibility of defending and advancing a ‘just politics’ of one’s choice of the day) should be abandoned completely.

Furthermore, the army must be made to focus on its proper work of defense and not involve in combating civilian protestors. The only exception is when, through a democratic parliamentary process, a state of emergency is declared and the army is consequently invited to intervene in the domestic civilian affairs (eg., in situations of disaster, epidemic, or breakdown of law and order). In addition, restraint is needed, especially on the part of the Defense Minister, not to bring in his civilian politics to the army except in relation to budget, administrative justice, and advancing defense policy objectives (art 86) of the constitution.

Most immediately, the OPDO-ANDM alliance should take measures to make sure that the forces that have perpetrated violence and atrocities on the people in the course of the most recent protests are made accountable politically, administratively, and legally. The leadership and members of the Liyyu Police of the Somali region who committed massacres should be brought to justice. This includes the President of the Somali National Regional Government, Abdi Iley, and commanders of the Federal Army who worked in tandem with the Liyyu Police to commit the aggression against Oromia. The institution of the Liyyu Police should be disarmed and disbanded.

3.5. Animate Constitutionalism

The OPDO-ANDM alliance must animate the constitutional institutions of dispute settlement in order for them to respond effectively to disputes over borders (Oromia-Somali; Benishangul-Oromia, Afar-Amhara, etc), local self-rule (e.g., Konso), identity (e.g., Walqayit, Qemant, Matakkal, Oromos in Harari Region, etc), minority rights (e.g. of the Raayyaa-Raayyumma, the Irob, the Kunama, the Yem, the Zay, the Donga, the Bahre-Werq Mesmes, the Denta, etc), and other forms of internal self-determination (e.g., the long-standing Sidama demand for statehood in the federation, of the Gamo to its own separate state, of the Gofa to its own zone/special district, of the Omo Valley District to be named as such, etc). This requires the active engagement of the House of Federation (and its Council of Constitutional Inquiry), the Conflict Departments of the Ministry of Federal and Pastoralist Affairs, and even the regular courts (over justiceable matters and cases that need the activation of legal-judicial accountability). It is also important to start rethinking the institutional and procedural arrangement for constitutional interpretation. In this regard, it is important to consider the formation of a constitutional court that serves as a more effective adjudicator over cases and a more neutral umpire of the Federation.

3.6. Free Political Prisoners, Repeal Repressive Laws, Counteract Corruption

Extending the work of restoring the rule of law, the OPDO-ANDM alliance in Parliament must resolve to free all political prisoners including opposition political party leaders such as Dr Merera Gudina, Bekele Gerba, journalists, activists, and other individuals detained merely for expressing dissent. They should discontinue the sham political trials and release the detainees. They should also resolve to repeal all repressive laws or the repressive provisions thereof (on the basis of legitimacy of purpose, necessity, rationality, proportionality, etc). In particular, they should revisit the overtly counter-democratic laws (counter-terrorism laws, the rules on media freedom, the laws on charities and civil society associations, rules on political party registration —all of which have long stifled freedom of speech, expression, press, assembly, and association). They should also repeal the list of political parties proscribed as ‘terrorist organizations’ purely on political grounds in order to silence dissenting voices. In the interest of further strengthening the ‘rule of law’ (forgive the Rule of Law fetishism here!) and ensuring a degree of economic justice, they should activate the antic-corruption commission in order to prosecute corrupt officials, business people, and their associates who have been complicit in a variety of illicit ‘investment and trade’ activities. The Commission must be put to a rehabilitated use of pursuing justice rather than attacking political dissidents as such.

3.7. Perform Compassionate Governance

The first act of compassion as a government is for it to extend humanitarian assistance to people displaced from hot spots of recent conflicts (over 600,000 in Oromia alone). Government at all levels, but especially, the Federal Government must heed to its constitutional duty to “take measures to avert any natural and man-made disasters, and, in the event of disasters, to provide timely assistance to the victims.”
People must get shelter and basic necessities. They should be brought out of the military training camps they have been put into. They should be provided with basic means of survival. But they should also be given their life back—be it where they have been evicted from or in a place of their choice where basic social services are effectively provided. The Federal Government has so far been conspicuously absent from the scene in regards to reaching out to the displaced—save for the interesting exception of the visit made by the Deputy Prime Minister (also from ANDM, not entirely coincidentally) to the temporary rehabilitation camp in Hammarressa.

The wider society, especially in Oromia and Amhara regions, has been affected by a continual dislocation that resulted from the protests. Thousands have been subjected to mass arrest, detention in concentration camps, tortures, false charges, and overtly political trials. This has greatly put families in economic distress as it is mostly the breadwinners that are sent to jail or are forced into exile. Mechanisms have to be devised immediately in order to counteract the distress, to ameliorate the increasing precariousness of life, and to heal the fracture.
Moreover, in terms of performing compassionate governance and bringing about more human security—and also in terms of responding to the demands of the protests–all land grab schemes must be brought to a halt. The draft proclamation on the so called National Master Plan must be abandoned until the current state of uncertainty and insecurity subsides. All persons evicted from their land must be restored to their plots and/or given a replacement house and/or farm as appropriate.

3.8. Address all the Political Demands of the Protestors

In Oromia, addressing the demands of the #Oromoprotests is a matter of high priority. The demands are clearly articulated in the course of the last three years. No amount of cosmetic change, including in styles (such as new styles of doing public relations and communication via social media or one’s own conventional media), or a change in rhetoric, can satisfy an awakened public. The questions of abbaa biyyumma (the entitlement to rights and benefits in ones’s own country as citizens), of equitable distribution of wealth (and protection from an unfair tax), access to economic resources (e.g. to land, mineral resources, water, health, and road infrastructure) and social opportunities (e.g. education), linguistic justice (having Afaan Oromoo as one of the working languages of the Federal Government), release of political prisoners, repeal of unjust administrative and economic laws and policies (such as the Oromia Urban Development Law, the so called Addis Ababa Master Plan, etc), more self-rule at the regional level [or non-interference of the TPLF overlords from the ‘center’], etc, etc remain unanswered.

The regional government should also work more expeditiously to implement the Oromo interest in Finfinnee (the so-called constitutional ‘special interest of Oromia over Finfinnee/Addis Ababa’). The fact that the economy has come to a standstill already must be taken into consideration. Consequently, next to stabilizing the country by ‘getting the politics right’, the Government must inject a degree of dynamism to the economy in order to alleviate the suffering of the poor and improve the quality of life for all.

4. Towards a Democratic Transition and a Deeper Transformation

Simultaneously, the government must start a comprehensive dialog, engagement, and negotiation in good faith with all political parties and stakeholders to ensure that there will be a genuinely democratic election in 2020. In the course of this dialog, they should not be afraid of demands for constitutional amendments, or revisions, needed for an effective transition of the politics to democracy and transformation of the polity and its state for good. The above-listed recommendations for action will hopefully contribute to the democratization of the politics. The imperative of state transformation requires more work. Among other things—and perhaps above all–it demands that we empower the already mobilized people to assert their newly gained agency as they seek to forge a future of their own choice. Given the fact that we are working within this reformist framework for change, this demands nothing less than what, elsewhere, I referred to as “a redemptive constitutional practice.”

5. Conclusion

Where does this leave EPRDF? Obviously, these otherwise simple recommendations are hard for the TPLF-led EPRDF regime to accept and implement. Considering the privilege the TPLF has enjoyed so far, the vested interest their political, military, and business class currently have, and the powers their elite will have to relinquish in the democratic dispensation to come, this is only to be expected. This means that the OPDO-ANDM alliance must be creative in identifying ‘incentives’ that can ease the TPLF in to their prospective reform package. Some of the measures (such as freeing political prisoners and repealing the list of ‘terrorist organizations’,etc) may be viewed as a threat even to the reformist elements in the OPDO-ANDM alliance. But this is the only best choice they have. This is the best deal they can get. By way of incentives for their reformist measures, the OPDO and ANDM–apart from winning concessions for the suffering public in their currently restive constituencies–can take comfort in the legacy of being remembered as the political parties that will have made the birth of democracy possible in Ethiopia.

In this way, they can re-invent themselves (as the OPDO seems to be doing lately, at least in rhetoric) and become agents of democratization, or they may choose to perish as a party of the last authoritarian regime in the country, especially in the event that they fail to take these modest reformist decisions and actions. Their refusal to reform—as they are often bent on doing—will further deepen the current crisis and confront them, and the country, with a much bleaker future. We just hope that they choose to push for reforms in order to make themselves relevant in the future! Otherwise, the hope of transformation may as well become another false start.

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