Ever since the change of government that took place in Ethiopia last March, there have been episodes of violence and inter-communal conflicts in various parts of the country. The ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), underwent a reform process initiated by the party itself, most notably by the core leadership of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). In the self-evaluation and criticism process that took place over more than two weeks in early 2018 there was a consensus that the parties needed genuine and deep reform and that corrupt officials should be dismissed from the party. In many cases this appeared to have taken place.
There was a need for new leadership and when the former prime minister resigned, Dr Abiy Ahmed took over on 2nd April. He was not very well known although he had a reputation in Oromia as diligent, brilliant, enthusiastic and visionary.
However, the former block of the EPRDF, particularly the TPLF, did not expect to be completely displaced by a new emerging leadership team. ‘Team Lemma’, as it was dubbed, resulted in a new brand of leadership emerging from the rank and files of the EPRDF coalition. This meant that the duo, the Oromo Democratic Party (ODP) and the Amhara Democratic Party (ADP) emerged as the real new powerhouse of the EPRDF and many of the measures taken against the corrupt officials of the system resulted in the targeting of TPLF affiliates. This immediately triggered a ‘siege mentality’ and it was alleged that the coup was specifically aimed against the once dominant TPLF officials and in many instances the latter reacted negatively.
When the coalition emerged, the consolidation of the ODP in the place of the TPLF became all the more evident. Abiy was almost unanimously re-elected as chairman of the party and confirmed as prime minister. This may have left some of the top leaders of the conservative wing of the TPLF establishment uncomfortable. It was clear that there was greater change than they could anticipate or digest.
The policies of the new leadership, such as the opening up of the political space, the freeing of all prisoners considered ‘terrorists’ and the prime minister’s request for forgiveness for all the wrongs and excesses that his party committed, were met with astonishment. The most important achievement was the complete reversal of the TPLF-EPRDF policies regarding the Ethio-Eritrean stalemate. Abiy unconditionally embraced the Algiers Agreement and extended a hand to the Eritrean leadership which was promptly accepted. This led immediately to the ejection of all opposition fighters based in Eritrea and was considered a huge success.
Talks were immediately held between all rebel leaders and parties and Abiy invited all of them to join the political discourse in the country. They were given a hero’s welcome.
OMN and ESAT, two media outlets condemned as enemies of the Ethiopian government, were warmly welcomed home, as were activists such as Jawar Mohammed and Tamagne Beyen. Dawud Ibsa, the exiled leader of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), and Professor Berhanu Nega, the exiled leader of Ginbot 7, were also accorded warm welcomes. The OLF leadership were particularly welcome as it was considered that they were the ones who had been most disadvantaged during the past four or five decades.
However, not everything that occurred has had a happy ending. Extremist elements are still a huge challenge in every party that considers itself ‘opposition’. These elements seem to have doubts about what EPRDF is in the final analysis, a party albeit reformed and led by new blood, but still potentially dominated by large forces that may not have completely changed
This has sparked some suspicion and disagreement about certain matters and OLF militants have been prevaricating about their real intentions. Their fighters are resisting disarmament. Hence, there are clashes here and there in certain peripheral areas in the Wollega and Benshangul Regions, west of Addis. There have been deliberate attacks on the legitimate government forces. There are suspicions that OLF, assisted by elements of other parties who were uprooted from their original position of power, such as elements from the TPLF and ODP, as well as other ‘mercenary factions’, are engaged in destabilising the government so as to obtain some form of influence.
This is unacceptable to the government, which has the only legitimate army. There are now reports of fierce battles taking place in certain contested areas. Both the regional government of Oromia as well as the federal government have been urging these ‘splinter groups’ not to do any more harm to the civilian population by engaging in sabotage and disrupting university education. The government is vowing to take all the ‘necessary measures’ to subdue the OLF rebels and their accomplices. The fear is however that this could precipitate wider conflict leading the country into a fratricidal war.
Abiy and his associates have repeatedly warned that their patience has limits and that they have the mandate to maintain the peace and security of the nation. There can be no compromise over the sovereignty of their authority, they argue. The only way of dealing with such indiscriminate violence and provocation is to show that they have the means to put an end to it and that they have the majority of the population behind them.
In the meantime, people’s anxiety is increasing and some are losing confidence in how the matter is being handled. Slowly and relentlessly the risk is growing that the once open and democratic government of Abiy and his associates will be led to adopt a tyrannical face. Both parties need to calm down, sit down round a table and discuss the matter at length. In the end, if the population is caught between two fighting forces, no one wins.
2019 will be a key year in the Oromo Region as well as in many other areas. This includes the Tigray region, which appears to be resisting some of the federal government’s reforms. In the meantime, the reforms will continue, all corrupt and criminal elements will be apprehended and the rule of law restored. That is the promise that Abiy and his government are making and the hope is that the process will not turn the country upside down and put every reform effort at risk of vanishing into thin air.
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