In November, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed established a new pan-Ethiopian political party. It brings together three of the four ethnic-based parties that make up the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition and five other smaller parties that were previously condemned to the periphery of the country’s political scene.
The establishment of the Prosperity Party (PP) only a few months before the May 2020 general election caused much controversy across the country, with even some in the upper echelons of Abiy’s own government criticising the move.
Nevertheless, many Ethiopians appear to be pleased with the merger, seeing it as an opportunity to unite the country and resolve its many deep-rooted problems. Indeed, it is difficult to deny that a pan-Ethiopian party led by people who have ample experience and significant public support has the unprecedented potential to address major challenges like growing ethnic polarisation and violence.
EPRDF and ethnic strife
Ever since the downfall of the military regime in 1991, Ethiopia has been administered by the EPRDF coalition, which is made up of four parties, each representing an ethnic group: The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the Oromo Peoples Democratic Organization (OPDO), the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM) and the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM).
While on paper the coalition appeared to provide equal representation to all four of its members, in reality it was dominated by its creator, TPLF. This core imbalance brought the legitimacy of the ruling coalition into question and made reforms within the EPRDF an urgent necessity.
While there had been repeated attempts to reform the coalition over the years, strong resistance from the TPLF made any meaningful change impossible. Eventually the people of Ethiopia took the matter into their own hands and held widespread demonstrations against the TPLF for three consecutive years, paving the way for real change. In April 2018, Abiy Ahmed was elected as the leader of EPRDF and the prime minister of Ethiopia on the back of these protests.
From the very beginning of his tenure, Abiy worked on creating an Ethiopia where all citizens are politically and economically equal. And in the short time he has been in power, he has overseen unprecedented reforms and an unrivalled political transformation. Political prisoners were released, a landmark peace deal was signed with Eritrea, important political and economic reforms were put in place, and corrupt officials and human rights abusers were prosecuted.
Unfortunately, however, Abiy’s time in power has not been devoid of challenges. In the past year and a half, ethnic relations across Ethiopia deteriorated further and violence became the norm in many parts of the country. The fact that the political system was still very much dominated by the EPRDF and its ethnic components further fuelled ethnic strife.
Thousands of people were displaced as a result of the violence, making Ethiopia the country with the highest number of internally displaced populations in the world. The demand of the Sidama people to secede from the diverse Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region (SNNPR) was another major test for Abiy’s administration. It intensified ethnic tension and violence until it was peacefully resolved through a referendum which paved the way for the Sidama to create Ethiopia’s tenth ethnic-based regional state.
The rise in ethnic strife across the country was the direct result of the deep state’s resistance to Abiy’s political reforms and fight against corruption. EPRDF heavyweights who lost clout following Abiy’s rise to power used the influence they have over their communities to heighten tensions and challenge the prime minister’s political transformation project.
For example, in January this year, some Tigrayan youth, undoubtedly under the direction of TPLF leaders who were displeased with Abiy’s efforts to secure peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea, attempted to prevent Ethiopian army vehicles and soldiers from leaving the border area.
Nonetheless, Abiy’s government is not completely blameless in all this. It was slow to respond to the ethnic conflicts and the displacement of people caused by them. Although some progress has been made in tackling ethnic strife, it is far from over.
While Abiy Ahmed is undoubtedly committed to strengthening Ethiopia’s democracy and bringing peace, stability and unity to the country, he clearly cannot achieve this while the old EPRDF structure that encourages ethnic rivalry and empowers old political elites is still in place.
This is why the demise of the EPRDF coalition and the establishment of the PP is good news for Ethiopia, its democracy and its diverse peoples.
The promise of the Prosperity Party
Throughout its 28-year rule, the EPRDF coalition weakened Ethiopia’s bureaucracy and paralysed state institutions, leading to a major brain drain. Moreover, as each region was administered by an ethnic-based party, conflicts across regional administrative boundaries were common. To make matters worse, only four regional parties were part of the ruling coalition in Addis Ababa. This has left the other five regional governments that are administered by parties that are outside the EPRDF coalition having no say in federal decisions, reducing the Ethiopians living in these regions to second-class citizens.
By transforming the EPRDF into an all-inclusive, pan-Ethiopian, national party, Abiy is creating a political force that could bring an end to all these problems and ensure Ethiopians have the option to elect a governing party that represents all of them.
Individuals and groups that are opposed to the emergence of the PP as a new national party argue that the unified party could threaten the tenets of Ethiopia’s federal arrangement, which was designed to promote the rights of ethnic groups. This could not be further from the truth.
Ultimately, regardless of how divisive and dangerous Ethiopia’s federal structure has become, in the current climate, no political merger or transformation can threaten it. Ethiopia’s ethnic communities still value their hard-earned right to self-govern and are not willing to give that up at any cost. A PP government will not pose a threat to the country’s federal structure, as each region will continue to self-administer.
Actually, a PP government would strengthen, not damage, Ethiopia’s federal arrangement. If a national party with a wide base takes control of the federal government, this would encourage the regional states to work on their relations and increase their collaboration. Moreover, the states that did not previously have representatives in the EPRDF would finally get a say in the central government’s policies, which would increase their commitment to the federal order.
As regional states learn to work together under the umbrella of an all-inclusive central government as equal partners, a true and fair federalism can finally emerge in Ethiopia. Furthermore, once in government the PP would have the opportunity to protect the rights of individual citizens against the actions of regional states and ethnic groups.
All in all, the PP could be the political force that Ethiopia has long been waiting for to start the second phase of its political transformation. If Prime Minister Abiy manages to convince his critics to give the party a chance and ensures that it does not become a new vessel for the political elites to consolidate their power, the establishment of the PP could be a cornerstone in Ethiopia’s journey towards becoming an enviable democracy where its diverse peoples live in peace, unity and prosperity.