The Quandary of Ethiopia’s Bicephalic Government

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Prod Mesay Kebede

By Messay Kebede

In posted interviews and write-ups as well as in informal discussions, the debate is raging between supporters and detractors of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Among the detractors, we find supporters of the TPLF openly accusing Dr. Abiy of reversing Ethiopia’s existing political order and ideological direction. We should ignore them, were it not for their alarmist message surreptitiously calling for some kind of coup de force against the newly elected leader. Most interesting, however, is the position of those who criticize the Prime Minister for doing nothing more than empty talks, with little or no will to implement them. Among this group, some go further by adding that the empty talks are a deliberate and concerted attempt to demobilize the popular uprising by false promises designed to buy time for the EPRDF to reorganize and consolidate itself. There is a third much larger group that speaks of Ethiopia’s engagement in the path of difficult but inevitable reforms following a notable decline of the TPLF’s hegemonic position.

My own assessment of the situation leads me to adopt a different position. I do not share the optimism of the third group, not because I am suspicious about the authenticity of Dr. Abiy’s reformist commitment, but because I do not believe for one moment that the hegemonic position of the TPLF has declined. We can speak of setback, not of an inevitable and irreversible loss of power. To the extent that I do not question the authenticity of Abiy’s reformism, I equally disagree with those who reduce his speeches and promises to empty rhetoric.

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I maintain that the characterization of the speeches as hallow promises is misguided for the reason that they challenge and in some way reverse the ideological stand of the TPLF. In addition to renewing the government’s commitment to Ethiopian unity, the speeches alter the Woyanne reading of Ethiopian history, notably by moving the perception of Ethiopia as a culprit to that of survivor thanks to the sacrifices paid by all its people. Hailing Ethiopia and its unity in this fashion after a quarter of century of systematic debasement and poisonous divisive policy is not just talk; it is rebirth, resurrection. Moreover, traveling to the various regions and making speeches that raise hope and renew national unity are for now the only game at which Abiy can beat the TPLF. In these speeches, he presents himself as a committed reformer and a leader who can listen to the people instead of putting a leash on them, thereby increasing his legitimacy and his indispensability. The speeches are like campaign promises, with the difference that the outgoing government is not willing to abide by the rules.

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Evidently, critics are right when they demand concrete reforms, which can only begin by the lifting of the state of emergency. But where they are wrong is in their appreciation of the situation. Strange as it may seem, Abiy is blamed for the lack of concrete reforms even as everybody knows that the real culprit is the TPLF. Blaming Abiy would make sense if he promised reforms but at the same time blocked their implementation. Such is not his case. Even though he was elected Prime Minister according to the very rules of the EPRDF, the most influential member of the coalition, namely the TPLF, refuse to recognize the powers invested in the prime minister by the Constitution, of which it is––need I remind––the chief architect. Take the case of the previous Prime Minister. We criticized Haile Mariam Desalegn, not because we thought that he had real power like his predecessor, but because he became the spokesperson of the TPLF but without the power. With Abiy, we have a dissenting Prime Minister whose reformist agenda is now blocked by the TPLF, which it can do––oh, cruel irony––only by going against its own Constitution.

Hence my position: the present situation of Ethiopia is neither one of imminent reform nor the preservation of the status quo, disguised or otherwise. It is best described as a situation of bicepalic government, as a result of which the country is pulled in two different directions. One may question the accuracy of the description: the idea of a two-headed government does not sound accurate in view of the fact that the TPLF holds a power system unmatched by that of the Prime Minister. Where one head is much smaller than the other, there is in effect only one government.

The objection overlooks a major factor, namely, the extensive power that the Constitution grants to the prime minister. Among other things, it is said that the prime minister is “the Chief Executive, the Chairman of the Council of Ministers, and the Commander-in-Chief of the national armed forces.” Even a superficial look at the Constitution is enough to show that the whole structure and component parts of ethnic federalism cannot operate without a prime minister invested with extensive power. He/she is to the federated ethnic groups what the conductor is to a symphony orchestra. As such, the prime minister is altogether the unifier, organizer, and exclusive leader of the Ethiopian state. Given this extensive role, any marginalization of the prime minister entails malfunctioning at all levels of the government. It is because the system works only if it has one uncontested and powerful leader that the government of Haile Mariam was not only besieged with so many problems, but also proved incapable to deal with them.

Imagine what will happen if the prime minister wants to take the country in a different direction while another part of the same government is trying to block it. Either the opposing pole will have to mount a coup d’état or it will be dragged willy-nilly by the other pole of the government. Doubtless, the possibility of a coup is quite reel, but it will have dire consequences for all the players and the country as a whole. The popularity of the Prime Minister and the hopes he has raised are now a fact of Ethiopian political reality. His removal harbors the risk of triggering a chaotic situation of massive uprisings that no state of emergency can cope with, thereby plunging the country into an uncertain and uncontrollable future. The only win-win way out for most people, including for many of those who support the status quo, is the path of gradual reforms.

In light of the defining feature of the situation, what we need to do is also clear enough. It is not to count the failures of Abiy in the hope of exposing his powerlessness or his hidden agenda. That his constitutional power is curtailed, we know it. As to his hidden agenda, the assumption completely overlooks the disparity inherent in the government, notably the fracture in the ideological makeup of the regime. A conference recently held in Addis Ababa rightly noticed that the election of Abiy seems to trigger a shift from revolutionary democracy to more liberal principles. Consequently, in a situation defined by poles pulling in different directions, our question must be what we need to do to tip the balance in favor Abiy and the reformist group. The answer is obvious: the struggle must continue, for only thus can we show that there is no other solution than the path of reform. The continuation of the struggle demonstrates to TPLF members that the best they can do for themselves is to follow Abiy because the implementation of reforms, and that alone, can abate the expression of discontent and prevent the reaching of a situation of complete breakdown.

 

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