First a concession, then a crackdown. The ruling party's divisions over how to respond to growing revolt are on show
After the most tumultuous week in Ethiopian politics for years, which included the resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, hardliners appear to be reasserting themselves in the accustomed manner.
The critical step in that process came on 16 February as the Council of Ministers approved the imposition of another state of emergency, to last an initial six months. The previous one, first declared in October 2016, was finally lifted last August (AC Vol 57 No 21, Ruling party ploughs on). The latest authoritarian measure came after mass prisoner releases were followed by further violent unrest, a strike in Oromia that choked Addis Ababa, and Hailemariam's sudden move. It created the impression of a government about to topple.
Furthermore, the increasingly argumentative four regional parties in the ruling Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) are apparently some way from agreeing who should replace Hailemariam. Given the volatile security situation, including ethnic killings, there was a strong risk that what could be a fairly open contest for the premiership would lead to further instability.
Oppositionists blame the unrest on persistent refusal by the pre-eminent party in the EPRDF – the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), which controls the military and the national intelligence agency – to relinquish power.
The first sign of the drama to come was the decision in early January to release political prisoners who had been jailed for years on paper-thin terrorism charges. More than 6,000 inmates were reportedly freed, including many who had been rounded up after fatal protests in the Oromia, Amhara and Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples' Region from November 2015 onwards. The move followed an EPRDF Executive Committee decision towards the end of last year to free opposition members to help widen democracy. It is possible Hailemariam's fate was also sealed at that meeting.
There is no clarity about what lies behind the ensuing sequence of events. Partly to express dissatisfaction at the failure to release leading Oromo figures, youth activists called a three-day market strike beginning on 12 February, which also closed off all the main roads into Addis Ababa. That appeared to trigger the release on Tuesday of Bekele Gerba, the most celebrated Oromo opposition leader, who addressed a huge crowd in Adama city alongside senior figures from the EPRDF's Oromo wing the following day.
In many ways, the timing of the release was baffling because it seemed to represent a concession to civil disobedience, suggesting government incoherence and division. It also highlighted the narrow perch occupied by leaders of the Oromo People's Democratic Organisation (OPDO), who had to shore up their newfound popular legitimacy by claiming responsibility for the release and associating with Bekele, although at the cost of upsetting some EPRDF colleagues.
Although the EPRDF recognised the need for change after years of anti-government protests, it maintained that careful management was also necessary in order not to embolden those agitating for regime change. The circumstances of Bekele's release failed that test, and the strategic error was compounded by Hailemariam's announcement two days later.
While it was widely agreed that fresh leadership was needed, the timing of the Prime Minister's departure again suggested that events were not being masterminded. The most common explanation was that first Hailemariam lost the EPRDF Executive Committee's support and then his own multi-ethnic, southern party rejected his leadership.
Although the immediate drama paused, with Hailemariam agreeing to stay on in a caretaker role, a state of emergency soon began to look likely. Yet, not only was the federal government spokesman Negeri Lencho, an OPDO member, in the United States when his Prime Minister resigned, but he then said in an interview on 15 February that there was no need for a state of emergency, again betraying the political incoherence. But even though opponents argued that the constitutional requirements for an emergency had not been met, the continuing violence convinced security actors that the measure was needed.
Last year, after the October 2016 decree was lifted, there were deaths and mass internal displacement from fighting between Oromo and Somali factions; Tigrayans were also attacked and protesters killed by security forces late last month in northern Amhara Region. Such outrages were rare during the 10-month state of emergency.
Although the new measure was backed by the multi-ethnic Council of Ministers, there is talk of substantial opposition within the Amhara and Oromo parties. It would be an unprecedented move in the EPRDF era, but those yearning for swift reforms hope that the Front's MPs will block the reinstallation of rule by the Command Post (the governing authority during a state of emergency) when a vote is held later this month (AC Vol 58 No 15, Reforms stall as unrest eases).
With the Command Post handed control of national security, and constitutional rights such as due process, freedom of assembly and much freedom of expression suspended, any immediate prospect of reform has been blocked. This makes it likely that anger will increase as even more Ethiopians give up hope that the TPLF and EPRDF will ever allow any significant moves to liberalise politics, especially in Oromia. However, the EPRDF's management of the transition will also be vital in the short term.
Many critics thought that this month's events would pave the way for an Oromo prime minister, who, it was assumed, would be the OPDO's chair and regional president, Lemma Megersa. He has been the most successful EPRDF figure in the past 12 months, managing to impress a swathe of political players and observers with his dynamism, fresh thinking and ability to connect with EPRDF stalwarts, diaspora activists and the masses across Ethiopia (AC Vol 58 No 21, Rifts in the regions).
Lemma's promotion would be seen as advancing the reform agenda. Yet that is not the whole story. By promoting the Oromo cause, he and his ally Abiy Ahmed, who shares his security background, have also capitalised to a certain extent on the open mayhem in Oromia over the past three years (AC Vol 57 No 6, Oromia erupts & Vol 58 No 22, Oromia on the edge). That has given them a popular base, and therefore leverage, but has also angered powerful figures who see maintenance of law and order as the paramount job of the EPRDF.
A source close to the TPLF said the party's leaders were willing to work with Lemma and Abiy, but the latest round of chaos in Oromia, which included further targeted attacks on Tigrayans, has made that unlikely. Still, the most obvious way of managing Ethiopia's crisis is to install an OPDO prime minister, and it now seems possible that after a change in the OPDO leadership this will be Abiy rather than Lemma.
What is clearer is that if the EPRDF fails to elect a chair from the OPDO who then becomes the next prime minister this will lead to even more serious disturbances in Oromia. Whether protesters are brave enough to do so under martial law is yet to be seen.
More uncertain, and possibly less important, is the question of which other party might hold the premiership if the OPDO does not get its way. The logical favourite is the Amhara National Democratic Movement, but it does not have a strong candidate and is about to change its own leaders. Defence Minister Siraj Fegessa could replace Hailemariam at the top of the Southern Ethiopian People's Democratic Movement and become a relatively strong contender.
Few people other than long-disillusioned Ethiopians are predicting a serious candidacy from the TPLF, as the general perception is that Tigrayans wield far too much influence.
With the clamour for change growing, and the security state buffeted by repeated crises, the EPRDF will need to listen to the people's wishes while ensuring change is orchestrated in a way that forestalls further destabilisation. Last week's chaotic events are another indication that it may be too difficult for the beleaguered ruling front to chart this course.
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