(This is PART I of a piece about the transition process. It seeks to make sense of it and aspires to identify ways of making it work. Here, in PART I, I review the the current state of affairs to determine where the process is at. In PART II, I will discuss the key challenges hindering the transition, i.e., challenges of mismanagement of the change on the part of OPDO-EPRDF on the one hand, and challenges posed by broader structural factors constraining the transition on the other.)

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press and media have experienced a level of freedom although the restrictive laws are still not amended or repealed.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, there is also 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 outmanoeuvred TPLF to bring the ANDM to their side, ‘the hope of transformation from within’ 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’. 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 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 his well-meaning supporters, the hope is looking more like a mirage.

What exactly went wrong, where?

In this piece, I wrestle with 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. 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. But he never spelt out exactly how. Other than the pledge to reform EPRDF as a party (through a project 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 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) 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 and to secure some trade and loan agreements with the Emirates ).

Alongside the goodwill visits to communities at home and abroad and the whirlwind of diplomatic tours, there were many appointments, reshuffles, and re-appointments of officials. For the first time in the country’s history, a female President, Sahlework Zewde, has been appointed in the place of Dr Mulatu Teshome. For the first time, a female Chief Justice, Me’aza Ashenafi, was appointed to the Supreme Court. For the first time, female ministers constituted half of the federal government’s cabinet.

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.

Moreover, the PM has also moved to form some commissions (e.g., on law reform, on borders and identities, on reconciliation, etc).

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 only in some neo-imperial sections of the society that, consumed with “the desire to be recognized as superior,” proclaims nothing short of a megalothymia 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 convened 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 (NEBE) has yet to be done. The law on communications, hopefully expanding, not restricting, the horizons of free political speech, has just been drafted a few days ago. 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 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. 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, 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. 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 state sovereignty (perhaps in part because of the resistance of Tigray to trudge along with him in to what, to them, is uncertain 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). He also showed his distaste by implying 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 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 has a 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 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 kilometer 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. 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 to persons suspected of being members of the local OLF regiment, etc), apart from creating bitter regional rifts within the Oromo polity, indicated to some that the regime is not interested in relinquishing even local powers to a potential 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 (by hook or crook) than to democratize the system in which all parties take part in the election uninhibited. Its massive deployment of military force (as opposed to police force) in order to solve what is an essentially political discord also signals OPDO’s unwillingness to demilitarize the politics yet.

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.