In one of the most famous opening lines in literature, Charles Dickens wrote, in his famous novel A Tale of Two Cities,
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.
These are perhaps the lines that best capture the present conditions that Ethiopia finds itself in. All at once, we seem to be having the best of times and the worst of times, the season of light and that of darkness. It appears as though Ethiopia is pulled by ‘the winter of despair’ as it has embarked on a path of ‘the spring of hope’. It is as though hope and despair are in fierce and violent wrestling for outright victory or crushing defeat. As we march direct to heaven, the path seems to turn direct the other way.
Since coming to the helm of power in April 2018, Ethiopia’s new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has put Ethiopia on a path of a breathtaking and groundbreaking changes. These are changes that have shaken the political landscape and the power structure of the country. The air of euphoria and positive energy is such that it is almost impossible to recognise that this is the same country that was on the edges of precipice only a few months back. It is not just the substance of changes he launched, Abiy’s style also marks a break from the past. As opposed to the dominant political vocabularies such as ‘democratic centralism’ ‘anti-peace or anti-democratic forces’, he introduces a new discourse preaching love, inclusivity and unity, widely applauded among the wider public, particularly the youth.
In His maiden speech that marked a fresh breath of air heralding unprecedented hope, PM Abiy said
I ask a forgiveness from the bottom of my heart for the many advocates of freedom and justice and politicians and the many change-seeking youth whose lives were cut short before they were able to enjoy … the primes of their lives and for the many individuals and families who were exposed to both psychological and bodily trauma during the past many years.
In so doing, he not only recognised the responsibility of the government but also affirmed that the cause for which people paid the ultimate price was not wrong. This also marked a break from the past in acknowledging publicly the suffering that the government caused to those killed, maimed and tortured or otherwise traumatised by the death and violence their loved ones suffered.
In the months that followed, PM Abiy put Ethiopia on a transformative rollercoaster. As his first order of business, he ventured on a stabilisation tour of the country. He first went to the Somali region sending a clear signal on the imperative of mending fences between the Somali region and Oromia, that witnessed some of the most brutal violence along their common border that claimed the lives of many and displaced hundreds of thousands. He criss-crossed the country stoping in Ambo, heading north to Mekele, Gondor and Bahir Dar, then South to Hawassa and east to Afar allaying the fears of some, galvanising supporters and urging national cohesion and togetherness.
As part of the stabilisation effort, he proceeded to have the state of emergency that was in force lifted before the end of its expiry. He kick started the reform of the security sector with the closure of the notorious Maekelawi prison (known for the brutal treatment of those being held there), the retirement of the most powerful heads of the army and the intelligence services, Samora Yunis, and Getachew Assefa. Subsequently, the chief of prison administration and four colleagues were dismissed for failing to stop violations perpetrated in prisons.
In the political front, the country has witnessed unprecedented levels of the opening of the political space. In a departure from the practice that criminalised political opposition and dissent, the PM declared that ‘we will look at political parties outside of EPRDF as competitors rather than enemies (opponents); their supporters as brothers and sisters who have alternative ideas and who love their country’. He hosted a dinner for opposition party leaders operating in the country at Minilek II Palace during which he reiterated his point that opposition parties are competitors not enemies. He went on to extend an open and unconditional invitation to all political groups not in the country for returning to the country.
Not only that he affirmed the imperative of multiparty politics but also initiated measures that would enable political parties to operate more freely. He lifted bans on political parties, website and various media outlets and political activists that were deemed terrorists and affiliates, and even invited them to operate locally.
Imprisoned opposition politicians, activists and journalists were released. Those released include Andargachew Tsege, Andualem Arage and Eskindir Nega. The Parliament removed the listing of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) and Gnbot 7 as ‘terrorist’ groups. Going further, the Parliament adopted an amnesty law that removed the designation of certain groups as terrorist organisations and the charges and convictions against, among others, journalists and activists. The PM also reached out to various sectors of society. Most notable in this regard is a meeting he convened with large number of youth at the Millennium Hall.
Beyond the political realm and in an effort to address social divisions, PM Abiy also initiated efforts for promoting social harmony. He facilitated the process to reconcile the differences between the Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Council and the Committee for the Solution of Ethiopian Muslim Affairs. Similarly, as part of his visit to the US, he initiated a process that culminated in the reconciliation of the synod of the orthodox church in exile and the one operating in the country.
In a step that has dramatically changed the political landscape of the Horn of Africa, PM Abiy extended firm offer for peace with Eritrea. Promising to implement the Algiers agreement, not only that he repeatedly urged on Eritrea to positively return the call for peace but also on a televised address on Martyrs Day in Eritrea he addressed President Isaias Afeworki in Tigrigna. The initiative successfully ended the two decades of onerous stalemate between the two. The peace that was beyond the realm of the possible suddenly became a reality unleashing unprecedented expressions of joy on the street of Asmara, which according to one Eritrean quoted on the BBC was more than the one displayed upon assumption of independence. This historic event did not come from the application of politics as usual. Indeed, breaking this intractable deadlock could not have been possible without extraordinary political imagination and zealous determination of the PM.
The avalanche of the seismic changes that PM Abiy’s administration has initiated have been greeted with a great deal of enthusiasm on the part of large part of the public. A support rally that was staged in Addis Ababa attracted some hundreds of thousand people at the famous Meskel Square at the centre of Addis Ababa. Similar rallies in which thousands participated were held in various parts of the country including Bahir Dar, Jigjiga, Kombolcha, Semera, Alaba and Arba Minch.
Unfortunately and not atypical of transitions such as this, the environment is not one of only hope and elation. It has rather been accompanied by clouds of doom and gloom. Indeed, given the fluidity and volatility of the political context that propelled PM Abiy to power, the clouds of doom and gloom should not come as surprise.
It is in this context that this period also comes to be a winter of despair as well. When PM Abiy was sworn in on 2 April 2018, he lamented that it ‘is regrettable that over the last few years many members of our society have been uprooted from their places of residence. They were exposed to displacement and grave loss of life and property.’ He went on to pledge that ‘we will strive to stop these unbecoming practices and ensure that such actions are never repeated again.’
Around that same period, a violence that pitted communities along the border areas of Gedeo and West Guji zones erupted. By July 2018, the UN reported that this inter-communal violence forced into displacement as many as 800,000 people. In Hawassa, the Capital of the Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s Region (SNNPR), during the celebration of the Sidama new year in clashes with non-Sidama’s particularly Wolayita as many as 40 people reportedly injured and one person dead. Violence erupted in Sodo, Wolayita with local protesters reportedly setting on fire properties such as Oromia Bank.
Despite PM Abiy’s advocacy for love and inclusive politics, ethnically motivated attacks continue to poison inter-ethnic relations and claim the lives of innocent people. Earlier on reference was made to the violence meted out against Oromos in the Somali region and retaliatory attacks against Somalis in Oromia triggering the displacement of more than a million people. More than 530 households of people of Amhara origin have been attacked and forced into displacement in Benshangul. Similar incidents have been reported from various parts of the Oromia regional state. Addis Standard reported on 27 June that lives were lost and people hurt when Tigrayans living in Bati, Kemise and Rabit cities in Amhara regional state were attacked.
This has also become a period manifesting the resurgence of ethnonationalism and centrifugal forces with the establishment of new ethnic based movements or parties. While not completely new, the demand for a status of regional statehood (as the vote by the Sidama for such status illustrate) has acquired new momentum. With the execution of the South, which suffers from major rifts and infighting, regional governments have increasingly become inward looking and consolidating their power in their respective regions.
On the day Addis Ababans flocked to Meskel Square in their hundreds of thousands staging a rally in support of the changes that PM Abiy launched, a further manifestation of a winter of despair was witnessed when tragedy struck after a blast from a grenade attack resulted in the death of two people and the injury of several others. Such horrendous act of violence visited the rally in what was meant to be an extraordinary day of celebration of national cohesion and solidarity.
Merkel Square witnessed another tragic incident when Eng Simegnew Bekele, the lead engineer of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, was found shot dead in his car. In his inaugural speech, PM Abiy referred to the GERD as a national pride and urged the public so preserve the spirit of unity and coming together shown in building the dam past the completion of the dam and to achieve new heights in the prosperity of the country. The suspiciously sudden death of Eng Simegnew is perhaps the most serious blow to what the PM called a national pride, a blow on GERD not only as mega infrastructural project but also as an idea.
In an outrageously unfathomable development, former PM Hailemariam Desalegn paid a visit to the fugitive military ruler Col Mengistu Hailemariam in Harare, Zimbabwe. To the shock and outrage of many, the former PM even posted a Face Book note wishing that ‘the former heads of government and state …contributing their parts in different capacity after peaceful transition of political power’.
What is the wisdom of such normalisation of the evil that the former Colonel continues unrepentantly to defend in the face of the pleading of PM Abiy in his maiden speech for forgiveness for the tragic loss of lives and the suffering that resulted from the past many years? Such flirtation with amnesia that pretends to present the evil as the good that it has never been would only yield foolishness, incredulity, darkness and the opposite of heaven. Instead of togetherness, it would sow division, instead of peaceful coexistence, justice and rule of law, it would reinforce abusive authoritarian rule and violence.
The latest unfolding crisis is in the Somali regional state where the federal government, prompted by clashes and major security breaches, initiated military intervention that precipitated a face off with the regional forces under the command of Abdi Iley. This was accompanied by acts of violence including killings, looting and destruction of property including Churches, triggering another displacement and humanitarian crisis. Although a negotiated settlement seems to be in the making, serious questions have been raised on the legitimacy, wisdom and constitutionality of the deployment of federal security forces and the inadequacy of well thought of political strategy.
The scale of the suffering and the social damage these events are causing are nothing less than serious. In a note he posted on Face Book on July 14, Jawar Mohamed observed that conflict and destruction is happening all over the country. He further aded that ‘I have tallied over 350 death and 1.8 million displacement since the new PM came to office’. Arguing that not enough time has been given in this regard, he warned that unless a way is found to stop this, ‘it will quickly escalate into full scale crisis.’ Indeed, in terms of measures for addressing the violence and sense of lawlessness that punctuated PM Abiy’s consequential premiership, nothing major has been initiated by the PM other than an announcement for establishing a commission that will examine clashes along the borders of various regions of the country.
Given the many positive changes under PM Abiy that have raised the hopes of many people in the country, why all these events of the winter of despair? Why the appearance of the loosening up of law and order in various parts of the country?
Much of the answer lies in the division and tension that has been allowed to fester within the ranks of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Front (EPRDF). True that PM Abiy has garnered an unprecedented level of popularity. Indeed, since coming to power he seems to have gained much legitimacy from sources outside rather than from within the EPRDF. There is little indication that he won the support of those that did not support his election.
His engagements have focused more on establishing ties with the general public, the political opposition and other actors than the various elements of the EPRDF. In the changes that he has pursued at neck breaking speed, there is no indication of the contribution of the ruling coalition as a collective as before. If anything, members of the ruling coalition have been rendered nothing more than spectators. As some statements issued particularly by the TPLF illustrate, the newly alienated members of the coalition follow the changes with some apprehension.
PM Abby’s ascendancy to the pinnacle of power did not come easy. Unlike previous elections of the leadership of the EPRDF that were based on consensus, PM Abiy’s involved voting by the membership of the 180 members of the EPRDF Executive Council. While PM Abiy got the bulk of the support with 108 votes to his rival Shiferwa Shigute’s 59, the voting revealed the division within the ruling coalition. Abby’s election is for the most part attributed to support from his own party the Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation (OPDO) and the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM), the two parties representing the two largest regions that experienced much of the protests during the previous years. In a clear sign of a major division in the EPRDF, PM Abiy reportedly got no vote from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), hitherto the most dominant of the four coalition members. In what seems to signify a further trouble to the coalition, the split vote in the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM) has precipitated a division within the Southern party triggering contestations that at times escalated to incidents of violence.
The resultant ill health afflicting the ruling coalition has also become a factor in the troubles witnessed since PM Abiy came to power. The incidents of violence witnessed in the SNNP regional state and between the borders of Oromia and SNNP regional state are attributable to the division in the SEPDM and the rift that emerged between OPDO and factions in the SEPDM respectively. Similarly, the unfolding crisis in Somali region could not be dissociated from the insecurity that Abdi Iley and his group have come to experience due to the threat of loss of influence in Addis Ababa and significantly the unprecedented control that they have come to exercise in the Somali region. Despite the apparent calm, the relationship between ANDM and TPLF also remains strained, which is not without its adverse consequences for peaceful inter-ethnic relations.
Clearly EPRDF no longer has its older self. Of course this is not in itself to be mourned. What is troublesome is the fact that it is hurting; arguably it is hurting very badly. The fusion between EPRDF and the various regions means that when it hurts it does not hurt alone. Arresting the insecurity in the country should thus start with initiatives that nurse the coalition back to health.
It is difficult to expect that EPRDF would heal its divisions and achieve cohesion if it goes to its upcoming policy and elective congress without reconciliation measures ahead of the congress. If the divisions, suspicions and tensions in the EPRDF persist and the Congress concludes without addressing them, it would mean more rather than less trouble for the stability and security of the country. As the country gears up for the 2020 elections with parties and political forces of diverse orientations and persuasions expected to grace the occasion, a troubled EPRDF would under such conditions be no good news for Ethiopia.
The country desperately needs a peace plan, a plan whose starting point should be addressing the troubles in the EPRDF, which have been spilling over to trigger the insecurity affecting various parts of the country. It should establish a new inclusive consensus between the members of the ruling coalition. Such a plan should also involve stabilisation of regional and local governments that experienced insecurity and violence. Additionally, the country needs such a peace plan that creates a platform for inclusive national dialogue as vehicle for truth and reconciliation and for building a rule and values based national consensus.
Without proactive and concerted effort for such peace initiative, sustaining the momentous changes being pursued under the new PM, most of which promise to bring much needed goodness for the country, may prove to be very difficult, if not completely impossible. The manifestations of the winter of despair prevailing in the country would spell disaster that would turn the euphoria into a nightmare, the best of times into the worst of times, the light into darkness and the hope into despair.