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Vol 60 No 22

Published 7th November 2019


Prize fight

Selected as a Nobel Peace Laureate, the Prime Minister faces mayhem in his home region

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is pushing to merge all the ruling Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front's regional member organisations, as well as affiliated ruling parties from other federal states, into a single unit, dissolving their particular national, or ethnic, identities. The structure under formation, whose working name is believed to be the Ethiopian Prosperity Party, would then discard the EPRDF's Leninist cladding and instead follow Abiy's Medemer ('synergy') theory, a personal philosophy he has enshrined in a book which he offers as a road-map to Ethiopia's political future. Critics have called Medemer an ideological mish-mash coated in self-help evangelism. 

Supporters assert that the merger, which Abiy wants completed before the polls set for May, would ensure true multinational federalism by integrating representatives of the five peripheral regions into national political decision-making. But that is not how hold-outs like the Tigray People's Liberation Front, once-dominant within the EPRDF, see it. The TPLF, lead architects of the 25-year-old federal system managed by the EPRDF, says now is not the right time to try and consolidate a coalition. The EPRDF is currently an alliance only in name, they say. They are afraid that removing constituent members' regional identities would be the first step towards ending devolved, ethnic self-rule, which is enshrined in the constitution. That, says Abiy's office, is mere fear-mongering. 

Perhaps more problematic for Abiy than yet another TPLF gripe is the fact that his dream scheme has already aroused opposition in the most populous region, Oromia, nominally his home turf. A dispute related to the issue in late October led to violence there that claimed around 80 lives.

Regional opponents
There may also be popular opposition from the second-largest region, Amhara, despite formal support for the merger by the ruling EPRDF Amhara constituent party, the Amhara Democratic Party. Recently emerged ethnically based opposition groups, like the National Movement of Amhara, and some which recently returned from exile, such as the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), and Somali region's Ogaden National Liberation Front, already enjoy strong support in their regions. If the EPRDF fuses into one party, it may not be able to compete with political opponents who prioritise protection of their communities' rights and interests over national goals. In febrile Amhara, NaMA may eventually consider a merger with the ADP, having rejected calls from Abiy do so in late 2018 in order to re-invigorate Amhara's ruling party. If this moves ahead, it could widen a rift between hard-line Amhara nationalists and Abiy-aligned groups within the ADP. 

Recent events suggest that the TPLF is unlikely to board the Abiy train. The ostensibly 'consensus'-based EPRDF Secretariat, headed by an Amhara politburo member, condemned TPLF criticism of the merger as misleading and premature and said that unspecified members of the EPRDF would decide on the process.  

Meanwhile, the Abiy-chaired Oromo Democratic Party Central Committee agreed in October that TPLF's 'Revolutionary Democracy' ideology would be supplanted by Medemer, although some ODP heavyweights are reportedly squeamish about the prime minister's merger scheme.  

An increasingly spiky Abiy made the doctrinal dispute personal in October by saying at the launch of the book Medemer, 'If someone is not satisfied with Medemer idea and has another idea called "Mebazat" ["Multiplied"], let him put down his whisky and write a book.' This was assumed to be aimed at the loquacious Getachew Reda, a critical TPLF politburo member, who has also been mulling a book (AC Vol 57 No 24, New faces, old tactics). 

Medemer's critics do not just lie in the disgruntled ranks of the downwardly mobile TPLF. Oromo activist Jawar Mohammed, who runs the powerful Oromia Media Network, also slammed the merger, which he thinks could undo the Oromo struggle for autonomy and reduce groups' bargaining power at the centre. His comments appeared to elicit another barb from Abiy, who told Ethiopian lawmakers on 22 October that foreign-owned media – Jawar is a United States passport holder – needed reining in. We hear that the TPLF likes Jawar's moves and is quietly opening up communication through intermediaries (AC Vol 59 No 19, Rallies shatter fragile peace). 

One upshot was a mêlée at Jawar's house in Addis Ababa the same evening after an attempt was made to remove his security detail in the middle of the night. The next morning, Jawar posted that there was a government plot to facilitate an attack on him. His supporters rushed to his defence in the capital and onto the streets across Oromia. At least 86 people were killed, 10 of them security force personnel, according to Oromia police. Over 200 people were injured and properties were damaged as Oromo mobs attacked passers-by and local minorities, while fighting erupted with rival Amhara groups marching in urban centres such as Adama. 

The mayhem showed how deep-rooted ethnic nationalism is and how removed Abiy is from his own constituency. The Jawar controversy was the final trigger for protests spurred by anger at Oromia's ruling party and especially Abiy, as many believe the ODP has finally abandoned the Oromo people and aligned with Amhara interests. The Oromia ruling party was despised until Abiy and other professed reformists joined forces with protestors – and with Amhara coalition partners – and forced a power shift in the EPRDF last year, but Abiy has not pursued the protestors' Oromo-centric agenda.

'New chapter'
Demonstrators who support the returned OLF rebels burned Abiy's new book and chanted that the ODP had escaped its abusive, subordinate relationship to the TPLF only to abase itself before the ADP. The Oromo Liberation Army's Central Command, which has split from OLF leaders in Addis, reported over 10 clashes in western Oromia between 1 and 2 November, claiming to have repulsed 'several advances' by the military in Najo and Dembi Dollo, which signalled a 'new chapter' in 'the armed struggle'. 

The row between Abiy's government and Jawar started after the Oromia Media Network started reporting aggressively on the situation in western and southern Oromia, and in Gondar in Amhara region, where there is sporadic conflict between regional forces and the Qemant minority, who want greater autonomy. Although Jawar has struggled against the EPRDF for years, he now worries about the coalition's dissolution. On 16 October, Jawar said that nationalists in ODP are becoming 'an endangered species' referring to its tendency to align with Abiy in the centre. Amhara's government criticised Jawar's media for reporting the conflict in Gondar, which they say is stoked by the TPLF backing Qemant militia to destabilise Amhara (AC Vol 60 No 3, Mountains to climb).  

The dark backdrop to the drama of remaking the EPRDF system is the rising tension between Oromo and Amhara, which could spread into a sustained conflict if not managed carefully. Currently, anything said or done against the other has the potential to trigger more deadly confrontations, such as those that recently took place in Oromia towns with large Amhara populations, like Bishoftu and Dukem. In one recent incident, Oromo and their youth groups, known as qeerroo, reacted angrily to an online video showing Hachalu Hundessa, a well-known Oromo musician, being harassed by Amharic-speaking people resentful of the Oromo presence in the capital.

Addis clash
Earlier in October, there was a foretaste of what such confrontation could mean during a controversy surrounding the Oromo thanksgiving celebration, Irreecha, which is held in Addis Ababa, which some Oromo nationalists claim for themselves. On the eve of the festival on 5 October, Oromia's President, Shimelis Abdisa, gave a speech saying that Oromo had been humiliated by the 'neftegna' system, a form of subjugation of other nations that is commonly pinned on the Amhara during Ethiopia's imperial era, but that they had now overcome this oppression. Amhara activists criticised Shimelis's comment and accused him of hate speech against Amhara. 

Two days after Irreecha, the Baladera Council – a body set up by Amhara to contest alleged Oromo hegemony in the federal capital – called a rally in Addis Ababa. The Oromo-led mayoralty denied the request and the authorities arrested supporters of chairman, Eskinder Nega, a former political prisoner (AC Vol 60 No 5, Abiy dining dangerously). Online commentators said the ban on the rally was illegal and a sign of a new Oromo-led dictatorship. The road from the federal capital to Amhara capital, Bahir Dar, was blocked by Oromo youth in North Shewa Zone for two days from 10 October after a rumour that 200 buses full of Amhara youth militia, fano, were coming to participate in Eskinder's rally. It is unlikely to be the last such set-to related to the disputed capital, as Ethiopia's existential political crisis continues to snowball. 

With such set-pieces growing in intensity and frequency the ability of the government to contain them is being stretched too thin, insiders are saying, with resources already under strain from the effort to completely remake the ruling system.


Fortune and the five-year plan

The government is set to propose two new medium-range economic plans to parliament after the elections slated for May 2020, say sources with knowledge of work in the Prime Minister's Macroeconomic Committee, Abiy Ahmed's central economic policy organ. The new five- and ten-year plans, which are intended to ease conditions for the private sector, are being drafted by the National Planning Commission. They are expected to go to parliament next September.

Research by the Seoul-based Korean Development Institute and local counterparts for the plans began in 2018 under Abiy's predecessor, Hailemariam Desalegn. Details are scarce but the drafts so far focus on increased private sector participation in the economy, better access to private finance, insurance, an opening up of the logistics sector, and plans to add value to mined minerals instead of solely exporting them to generate foreign exchange.

In agriculture, there will be a focus on commercial farming, lowland agriculture, and irrigation. Officials also, in a sign that the 'developmental state' is far from dead, plan to favour large-scale farming at the expense of smallholder agriculture. 

The twin plans follow the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front's previous strategic economic plans: the five-year Growth and Transformation Plans I and II, which resembled the five-year plans of the former Soviet Union that were notorious for shifting targets and falsified quota outcomes. 

The new plans are being integrated with a new World Bank-supported programme called Homegrown Economic Reform. Some economic officials in Addis Ababa are unhappy with the strings attached to Bank finance, we understand, a sign that loosening the grip of the state on the economy is unlikely to be problem-free. 

Abiy's term began halfway through GTP II, which emphasises large-scale infrastructure and export-focused manufacturing. It is due to expire at the end of this year. 

'Some elements' of the Homegrown programme will be drawn from the new plans, with yearly and quarterly planning evaluations added, according to a Macroeconomic Committee source. In the five years of GTP II, construction has taken the lion's share of Ethiopia's capital. Only marginal increases in manufacturing took place each year compared to Kenya and Tanzania, said a source, explaining that Ethiopia's industrial sector remains in its infancy and requires 'huge attention to gain export earnings'.

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