Few changes on the horizon

The current crisis in Ethiopia is the expression of a whole legacy, that of a political system governed by a minority to the exclusion of other ethnic groups, characterized by violence and separatist inclinations.

Since 1991, Ethiopia has been governed by the Revolutionary Democratic Front of the Ethiopian Peoples (FDRPE, in power). It brings together four political parties representing the Tigers, Amharas, Oromos and Peoples of the South. The ruling coalition has always been dominated by the Tigers. They thought they would find a docile partner in the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (ODPO), a party much less popular than the Oromo Liberation Front, known for its separatist intransigence. The Tigers have also managed to soften the Amharas, demographically and politically influential. Finally, to dilute the weight of the Oromos and Amharas, the Tigers included in the coalition a fourth party, the Democratic Movement of the Peoples of Southern Ethiopia (MDPSE).

Despite the demographic disproportion of these ethnic groups, they obtained equal quotas in public office, which increased the representation of Tigers from 6% (their demographic weight) to 25%. A power that is not likely to diminish as their party, the Tiger Peoples Liberation Front (FLPT), has blocked the road to any coalition with other ethnic groups like the Afars or Somalis. The Tigers’ grip on the ruling coalition was evident in the appointment of Meles Zenawi, a member of the FLPT, as prime minister, a position he held for two decades. Since the sudden death of Zenawi in 2012, the Tigers have chosen to exercise indirect control over the country through the appointment of Hailemariam Desalegn, from the “peoples of the South”, at the head of the government. A choice that has been fraught with consequences. In autumn 2015, protests erupted in the Oromia region, officially against a plan of urbanization of Addis Ababa that threatens to encroach on the territory of the Oromos. But in reality, these protests were primarily motivated by the deterioration of the economic and social situation, as well as by the under-representation of this community in key positions at the federal level.

To stem the protests, the government chose the strong way, multiplying the arrests, cutting off communications and firing on protesters. Seeing the Amharas join the demonstrations, the government declared a state of emergency in October 2016. But as the waves of protest did not stop, the FLPT decided to change strategy. To give itself time to put its order in order, the ERDF has postponed its biannual congress from September 2017 to March 2018. The day after the announcement of this postponement, FLPT began a series of meetings to put end to the divisions that had been undermining him for several years. In November 2017, FLPT got rid of several influential members, including the former chairman of its executive committee, Abay Weldu, and the widow of former prime minister Azeb Mesfin. Then Minister of Telecommunications Debretsion Gebremichael was elected President of FLPT, as well as MP Fetlework Gebregziabher.

However, this year has witnessed a notable change in the policies of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, who fired Deputy Chief of Staff General Samora Yunis. His status as supreme commander of the Armed Forces could not justify this decision, since in fact it is the Tigers who control the Ethiopian army. But Desalegn went even further by decreeing the release of thousands of detained opponents. Until then, Desalegn offered political coverage of the mass arrests made by the security services in the ranks of the opposition. On Thursday, February 15, Desalegn submitted his resignation and the state of emergency was decreed for six months.

A revealing choice

Today, the choice of a new prime minister is the top news item in Ethiopia. This choice will reveal the policy that the Tigers will choose to maintain their political hegemony.

The Peoples Liberation Front of Tigray will have to choose between efficiency and representativeness. A prime minister from the Tigray would be effective to the extent that he would have the support of this ethnic group that monopolizes the economy, the army and the police, which would enable him to improve the living conditions of the disaffected (the Oromos and Amharas) and restore calm in their regions.

If the FLPT favors representativeness, it could accept a prime minister from another ethnic group, probably Oromo, while imposing a series of restrictions on him to prevent him from challenging the Tigray’s grip on the economy. But without the support of the Tigray, an Oromo head of government would find it difficult to change the current situation for the better. A compromise would be to look outside the communities represented in the ruling coalition (the Tigray, Oromos and Amharas), but the failures of the resigning prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, (who belongs to the Wolayta ethnic group) do not encourage to repeat the experience.

With the Tigers determined to preserve their political, economic and military hegemony, the chances of political change in Ethiopia remain insignificant. The future prime minister will have to perpetuate the status quo.

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