The Ethiopian reform, the Horn of Africa and the orphan Somalia
By Prof. Abdi Ismail Samatar
Ethiopia’s deep and enduring authoritarian political culture dates back to premodern times when the country’s area was limited to a northern fraction of the current territory.
For the past 200 years, several authoritarian regimes dominated the country as contemporary Ethiopia consolidated its present form. These regimes were highly centralized and conquered by certain ethnic groups. The vast majority of the Ethiopian people was either serfs or politically subjugated by an Amhara and Tigray elite.
Such suffocating political order has come unstuck as the democratic movement of the largest ethnic and marginalized group, the Oromo, has put up non-violent and stiff resistance to their subjugation over the past three years. People from Amhara region followed suite and progressively the old political order began to falter.
Former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn declared a state of emergency, but it failed to restore political calm. This led to his sudden resignation and two months of behind the scenes political negotiation within the ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front or EPRDF.
It soon became clear that the old guard in Tigray People Liberation Front, or TPLF, was attempting to stage a comeback, but in an astonishing move, the majority of the ruling party lawmakers voted for a senior member of Oromo People’s democratic Organization, or OPDO, as the leader of the coalition, paving the way for Dr. Abiy Ahmed to become the first Oromo and Muslim political leader in modern Ethiopian history.
Dr. Ahmed has embarked on historic political reform unlike any other leader in Ethiopia’s long history. He rescinded the state of emergency, freed political prisoners, allowed opposition members in exile to come home, removed internet blocks and initiated a seemingly radical reconciliation with neighboring states of Eritrea and Somalia.
This essay assesses three issues that are central to the reform process and its possible ramification for the Horn of Africa. The core challenges are: Domestic economic and political reform, relations with Eritrea, and engagement with Somalia. How these are reconstructed will have far reaching implications for the entire Horn of Africa.
Although the Ethiopia economy has been growing rapidly over the last 15 years, nevertheless, the vast majority of the population is mired in abject poverty. The contrast between a very small segment of the mainly urban population, connected to the state, which have disproportionately benefited from this growth, and the political marginalization of the Oromo and other ethnic groups, fueled the rebellion that has energized the reform.
The challenge for the reform team is how to do three things simultaneously: Open up the political process, de-ethicize political identity and advance civic belonging, and induce sustainable and widely-shared economic revitalization.
These are towering challenges for any country, let alone Ethiopia, which has such modest social and political capital.
To give this agenda a chance to succeed, the reform team must have the courage to set a date for new elections in the country within a year in order to give confidence to those who long have struggled against the dictatorship that this opening is for real.
To jump start the electoral democracy and to protect the integrity of political process, there is a need to set up a new independent electoral commission. Such a commission will guide the process to curtail further political polarization, ban ethnic parties, and limit the number of political parties in the country to four, each of which must have significant representation from five of the country’s nine regions.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Ahmed has to translate his statements about reforming the economy into a practical strategy. He announced the need to open up the economy through deregulation. Herein lies the danger. If this is not done