Monday, March 19, 2018

Resignation of the Prime Minister: Beginning of Collapse to EPRDF or of Reform?

(Recap the Past Decades of EPRDF's Rule)

It all started when the Ethiopian national election ended in crisis 13 years ago. But, it became very interesting when the beginning of an end of an era gives a hint with the resignation of a Prime Minister for the first time in Ethiopia's experience. 

On the 15th of February 2017, expected yet surprising breaking news hit Ethiopian media. The Prime Minister wrote a letter of resignation from both his premiership of the country and chairmanship of the ruling coalition of Ethiopian People's Democratic Revolutionary Party, EPRDF. Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn's resignation was expected because it was rumored; and, it was also surprising because the news came earlier than the long-awaited EPRDF conference which is a feast of reshuffle. The resignation is a combination of both lack of his competency and manifestation of internal dispute within the coalition. 

Thirteen years ago, the contested national election in 2005 ended in crisis when the government jailed leaders of major opposition group - Coalition for Unity and Justice (CUD), civil society members and journalists. It was followed by massive closure of the free press and civil society. What started in a de facto repression became de jure when the House of People's Representatives (HPR) that was overwhelmingly dominated by EPRDF passed two proclamations in 2009. One of the proclamations is the infamous Anti-Terrorism Proclamation (ATP), which used as an excuse to jail thousands of politicians, activists, journalists and bloggers. The other is Charities and Societies Proclamation (commonly known as CSO law), which restricted the working space and finance source of civil societies consequently forcing out many civil rights organizations. 

In this way, the incumbent in Ethiopia could easily dominate narrations, infiltrate opposition groups and split them apart, eliminate popular opposition figures, shut independent news outlets and destabilize civil societies - all to eventually win periodic elections. As a result, EPRDF took control of 99.6% of HPR seats in 2010, and all seats of HPR and regional parliaments in 2015. This, however, couldn't buy the government legitimacy. Six months later to EPRDF's declaration of a landslide victory in May 2015, protests erupted in the most populated region of Ethiopia, Oromia, in rejection of an expansion plan of the capital city, Addis Ababa, which was feared to displace and acculturate farmers surrounding the city. But, the protests continued even after the plan was revoked a few months later, in January 2016. 

After these waves of protests reached all over each zone of Oromia region, the second most populated region, Amhara, has joined the wave of protests for a separate reason. The immediate cause for protests in Amhara region was detention of committee members of Amhara Identity Question of Wolqayt Residents. Wolqayt is an administrative district under Tigray region since 1991, when TPLF, a Tigrian group in the ruling coalition, wins an armed rebellion to take central government's power as EPRDF. The Amharas reclaimed ownership of Wolqayt's administration. The protests in Amhara forged a loose unity with protests in Oromia and strengthened the pre-existing anti-TPLF sentiment. This put the federal government that was dominated by TPLF under the highest pressure than ever before. 

EPRDF is a coalition of four ethnic based political parties that claim to represent four of nine ethnically demarcated regions. TPLF is the oldest and dominant in terms of power base; however, the rest three, regardless of the numbers of population they claim to represent, each have equal number of votes in the central committee with TPLF. Oromia and Amhara regions alone constitute 65% of the total population of Ethiopia. Neverthless, OPDO and ANDM, member parties from Oromia and Amahara respectively, have equal says to TPLF, which represents 6% of Ethiopia's population, in a principle they call equality principle as per the democratic centralism philosophy of the Front. Even though, Ethiopia is a federal republic according to its constitution, almost all relevant decisions are made centrally. In the past two decades, whatever is decided in the central committee of EPRDF, becomes law of the country.

Hailemariam is from SEPDM, the ruling party in the Southern Nations Nationalities and Peoples (SNNP) region and member party of EPRDF. It is the youngest and least powerful of all in the Coalition. SEPDM is usually considered a TPLF card to dominate the central committee of EPRDF. This, added to the established control of TPLF to the security apparatus since the time of armed struggle, gave TPLF dominance over the federal government. TPLF used the federal apparatus to further interfere in regional affairs. 

'Down Down Woyane has become a common chant of protestors since the religious festival of Irrecha in 2016, when it ended tragically. Woyane is a Tigran name for TPLF. This has clearly framed the rejection of TPLFs dominance and the question for regional autonomy in addition to the demand to be proportionally represented in the Federal government. In the mean time, the federal government declared a state of emergency in October 2016 that lasted for ten months.  Mass detentions, extrajudicial killings of protestors and the state of emergency could not stop the public protests.  Rather, it has erupted protests of EPRDF member parties against TPLF. 

OPDO unusually restricted the power of federal security apparatus acting in the region. Newly appointed officials of the party started to speak the languages of the protestors. Furthermore, OPDO led a team of Oromo representatives into a people-to-people conference conducted in Amhara region with ANDM. This was popularly accepted as a step to further strengthen the Oromo-Amhara alliance who have been protesting in the past few years. Lemma Megersa, President of Oromia, received overwhelming praise to have challenging TPLFs dominance; however, the internal division between member parties of EPRDF came clearer when the officials start to throw over words on each other.

The internal party division displayed in public with resignation of officials. Former president and current speaker of HPR, Abadulla Gemeda, resigned from his speaker of the house position in October 2017, protesting dishonor of his party and of his people. Abadulla Gemeda is now back to his position after unexplained negotiation behind closed doors. But, the internal division within party kept widening meanwhile protests erupt here and there across the two most populous regions. In a desperate move to resolve the challenge within and without, Prime Minister Hailemariam, in a joint presser with other leaders of the ruling coalition, promised to release political prisoners in a promise to widen the political space and create national consensus. Now, even though, many are still languishing in jail, most of prominent political prisoners are released but the pressure from the public and the reformists within EPRDF couldnt survive PM Hailemariam.

PM Hailemariam has always been considered a powerless leader. When he took power following the death of the late Meles Zenawi, he vowed to resume Zenawis Legacy, strong central government with a single dominant party and developmental narration. Now, Zenawis legacy has crumbled over Desalegn and he has to go. What is worrisome, now, for Ethiopians is the question: who is replacing him? And, EPRDFites knew it is gonna be a big decision. The next day the PM resigned they declared State of Emergency in fear of massive protests that may erupt assigning of the new PM apparently. Fast forward a month ahead, they couldnt pick their leader even after a month since the Hailemariam resigned.

EPRDF is now stacked in between two deadly alternatives: Reform or Collapse. If the party is willing to undergo democratic reform it is most probable that popular waves of protests will put it down; if it is failing to undergo reform, the party will collapse due to the pressure from within and without. The next chairperson, and presumably the countrys prime minister, should be someone who can balance the need for change from without and reform from within. The burden on the coming Prime Minister would be how to manage the impatient public pressure reach, without turmoil, the next national election to be held in 2020. 

My recommendation for the next Prime Minister is to make reconciliation by making a call for outlawed groups to peacefully run for the next election and give them guarantee that they won't be persecuted for that.  This will change it all for the better. 

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