Ethiopia: Change must be genuine and quick

By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Twitter: @DrRafiqRaji

This Saturday past, as I was reflecting on the situation in Ethiopia, I checked my archive of tweets on the matter; as I must. Imagine my displeasure when I discovered those of outgoing prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn were suddenly unavailable. Being quite familiar with how technology can fail you at the most crucial times, I quickly took a screenshot of the only two that “survived”; even though the source pages had been deleted. Thankfully, they were the two crucial ones that underpinned my ruminations. The first one was the announcement by Mr Hailemariam that he had been nominated for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. The second was his revelation about “…a longstanding disagreement with some in the [Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)] leadership about their strong desire for the secession of the Tigray Region and to break up the rest of Ethiopia in the…”. (If my recollection is correct, Mr Hailemariam seemed quite determined to prevent this from happening, ending his tweet thus: “…I know what to do.”) As I already thought this openness of his to be quite unusual, it was not totally surprising to me that this and other revealing tweets would be subsequently deleted, though.

No more secrets
The ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) party thrived hitherto in part because of its secretive culture. Africa economists and analysts that cover Ethiopia have some of the hardest jobs in research precisely because of this. In meetings, officials are usually friendly but taciturn. Simply put: Mr Hailemariam broke the code. But then he has been breaking a lot of establishment rules lately. This context is important. Not too long after the prime minister announced his resignation, Ethiopian authorities declared a 6-month state of emergency. The last one, which lasted for 10 months, was only lifted in early August 2017. And even as it was palpable that Mr Hailemariam’s surprise resignation was aimed at allowing for a more representative leadership to appease the aggrieved majority Oromo and Amhara population, there were no recent uncontrollable incidents to warrant another emergency action so soon after the last one. Many sense foul play. This intuition would be validated when the Americans issued a strongly worded statement against the emergency action. The immediate reckoning was that perhaps the Tigray-dominated security forces had decided to take matters into their own hands; validated subsequently by Mr Hailemariam’s tweet about the secession desires – or perhaps, just posturing – of the Tigray elite.

An analysis of news in the public domain confirms the following: One, Mr Hailemariam and a few others within the EPRDF seem genuinely interested in mending fences with aggrieved ethnic groups in the country. Two, not all EPRDF members, especially those from the TPLF, are willing to do so self-destructively; albeit they recognise the self-preservation imperative of appeasing the majority Oromos and Amharas. Three, to avoid a likely harsh backlash by the politically ascendant Oromos and Amaharas when they eventually secure power, the Tigrays are considering a pre-emptive secession move. Four, the state of emergency that was declared likely did not emanate from the prime minister’s office. It is important to bear in mind the tremendous amount of leadership shown by Mr Hailemariam thus far [See earlier columns: “Time for Hailemariam to lead” (11 October 2016) and “Hailemariam must do more to build trust” (23 Jan 2018)]. Giving up power voluntarily is an anomaly on the African continent. One so inclined was not likely to then do such an about-face by resorting to the very forceful measures that proved ineffective. So, tremendous international pressure must be put on the security establishment of the still largely donor-dependent country to ensure that not only are the reform measures already put in place by Mr Hailemariam succeed but that his successor, who is expected to be chosen in a week or so, is able to sustain and build on them.

Antsy neighbours
Much more must be done than just a cosmetic change at the top, though. The security forces and public service must also be reflective of the country’s diversity; and proportionately so. Currently, they are not. Besides, Ethiopia can ill afford a crisis at this time. Tensions with neighbouring Egypt over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) are building up. Now two-thirds complete, the clout the GERD gives an already quite powerful Ethiopia – being as it is an upstream country of the River Nile – over downstream countries like Egypt and Sudan, would become almost larger than life when it is finished. The Egyptians are understandably quite nervous. Sudan is not, however: longsuffering from floods whenever the River Nile overflows its banks, Sudanese tend to be grateful for any event or measure that controls the river’s flow; especially as they would also be availed of cheap electricity when the dam is completed. Understandably, fears that Egypt might take unilateral military action against the GERD remain. Doing so while the Ethiopian leadership grapples with a political crisis might be considered sweet revenge in some quarters: Egyptian authorities allege their Ethiopian counterparts took advantage of the “Arab Spring” protests and consequent political crisis to unilaterally start construction of the dam. How likely is it that Egypt would bomb the GERD, though? Judging from the rhetoric of its officials, not very much. But it is definitely not out of the realm of possibilities. Clearly, Ethiopia needs to get its act together.

Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria newspaper column (Tuesdays). See link viz.

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