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Abiy’s Ethiopia: Ending the Perpetual Vicious Circle

Recent headlines hint that Ethiopia is on the verge of collapse, structurally conditioned to perpetual ethnic conflict, with its latest democratic transition aborted. These suggestions are likely premature. When the charismatic technocrat Abiy Ahmed was elevated to the office of prime minister, many expected that he would calm the fervor of revolutionary socialist ideology and ethnic extremism.

Some of his recent actions have signaled a bold move in this direction, including his efforts to embrace the country’s complex but proud history, separate the military from the party-state, and reduce the political salience of ethnicity in the country. Yet, some observers now speculate whether Abiy is destined to repeat the tragic errors of Emperor Haile Selassie, Ethiopia’s last great reformer. For better or for worse, Abiy Ahmed now ‘owns’ the country’s political transition. His decisions in the coming year will determine whether Ethiopia emerges as the leader of a new decade of African resurgence, or follow the fate of some of its less fortunate neighbors in regressing towards a fragile state.

The Problem

After decades of Socialist experimentation, modern Ethiopia maintains very little institutional and cultural continuity with its historical foundations. As a result, the country is now struggling to address ethnic extremism, uncontrolled violence, and severe elite fractionalization, problems that one would expect to find in post-colonial states, rather than Africa’s sole exception to the European colonial experience.

When the Dergue came to power in 1974, it sought to dismantle what it considered Ethiopia’s imperial past. The TPLF-EPRDF regime that took over from the Dergue in 1991 was led by a man convinced that “revolutionary wisdom starts with Marxist-Leninist analysis.” Thus, consecutive revolutionary governments in Ethiopia have targeted their own imagined structural inequities, the first seeking to decimate the aristocracy, the second seeking to dismantle imagined perpetrators of ethnic oppression. Rather than instituting progressive institutional reform, both of these revolutions have implanted institutional mechanisms for rent extraction and party clientelism, often employing socialist motifs as propaganda.

President Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy greet Emperor Haile Selassie. (John F. Kennedy Presidential Library)

These institutions and propaganda have indoctrinated two generations of disenchanted youth with simplistic notions of revolutionary struggle, ethnic utopianism, and ‘Abyssinian Imperialism,’ a racially charged term that stirs ethnic grievance against the Amhara. Such ideologically-charged arguments are extremely dangerous, as was evidenced in the recent massacre of non-Oromos in the Oromia region. In fact, these ideas are based on European colonial propaganda, as stirring ethnic grievance against the Amhara was always seen as an effective means of occupying Ethiopia. Indeed, the first scholar who clearly articulated the flawed thesis of ‘Abyssinian Imperialism’ was a professor at the Istituto Coloniale Fascista.

Today, these ideas have re-emerged, cloaked in dog-whistle terms such as ‘neo-neftegna.’ Such rhetoric might introduce genocidal tensions in the Oromia region, but it is not likely to result in meaningful institutional reforms. Contemporary Ethiopia faces the same growing pains that plagued the Ethiopian Empire, an inability to reconcile its historically constructed national identity with modern instruments of governance and political order. Modern Ethiopia finds itself at the same type of critical juncture encountered by Emperor Haile Selassie.

The Promise of Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia

In 1930, Emperor Haile Selassie inherited an empire carved through personalized patronage networks between regional kings and land-owning nobles. Introducing a bi-cameral parliament, two constitutions, professional bureaucratic functioning, modern education, and professionalized military training, Haile Selassie paved the way for the emergence of modern institutions of governance.

Yet, in positioning himself as a reformist in the Imperial era, Haile Selassie faced two immense challenges. First, his more ambitious proposals for reform were repeatedly thwarted by conservative land-owning nobles in parliament. Second, decades of palace intrigue and external European aggression had placed immense strain on the emperor’s exercise of rational government. Despite advice from foreign and domestic allies, he refused to accept that the modern institutions he introduced could function in his absence.

This resulted in an attempted coup in 1960, by Haile Selassie’s own generals, who were intent on implanting a constitutional monarchy with the crown prince at the helm. The coup failed, but in tainting the fragile trust between the emperor and his ruling allies, it dashed any hopes for the emergence of a British-style Glorious Revolution in Ethiopia. When the revolution did come, at the heels of an uncomfortable alliance between a new Socialist intelligentsia and some dissatisfied lower-ranking officers in the Imperial Army, it was sudden, bloody, and deadly. The Socialist Revolution took Haile Selassie with it, along with all the institutions he sprung into existence, all the educated elites he had minted, and all the hopes and dreams of the ancient empire.

Socialist Legacies and the Vicious Circle

Some contemporary analysts, especially those untainted by the racist anti-Amhara tropes of ‘Abyssinian Imperialism,’ blame the TPLF (Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front) regime as the root of Ethiopia’s contemporary ailments. As the famous anti-colonial thinker Mahmood Mamdani wrote, the public perception was that the TPLF effectively “Sovietized and Africanized” Ethiopia. This is not to say that Ethiopia was not African, but to accentuate that Ethiopia had long-evaded the institutional markers of other post-colonial states. Although Ethiopia evaded European colonialism, TPLF elites have still increased the political salience of ethnic identity to ferment ethnic grievances and sustain minority rule.

Thus, if the Dergue reconstructed Africa’s only independent empire as a third world state, then the TPLF can certainly be credited with reconstructing Ethiopia as a post-colonial state. However, the roots of Ethiopia’s contemporary institutional plights were already implanted by the Dergue long before the TPLF came to power. The TPLF simply repurposed the Dergue’s extractive institutions to administer its own ethnic patronage regime. This includes repurposing institutions of higher education as indoctrination camps for minting loyal party-cadres, nationalizing land for ease of administering ‘land grabs,’ and corrupt public contracts.

The Way Forward: Political Order and Elite Consensus

Interestingly, the current critical juncture in Ethiopia was precipitated partly through elite competition, an intra-ruling coalition revolt of sorts against the TPLF. Since taking office, Prime Minister Abiy has disbanded the old ruling coalition in favor of his new multi-ethnic Prosperity Party and placed prominent independent voices at the helm of two key institutions, the Ethiopian Electoral Board and the Federal Supreme Court. Most importantly, he has reintroduced a sense of institutional and cultural continuity in Ethiopia, embracing the country’s historical heritage while advocating for a more progressive future. This indicates that Abiy is well-aware of the debilitating institutional remnants of Ethiopia’s Socialist legacies.

Abiy’s bold approach to pursuing early reforms have earned him comparisons to Emperor Haile Selassie. Indeed, the prime minister has openly expressed great admiration for the late emperor. If this is the case, then Abiy may also be well-advised reflecting critically on the roots of Haile Selassie’s success and demise. Like Haile Selassie, Abiy is often accused of making decisions unilaterally, sometimes ignoring the very institutional frameworks he has helped create. Abiy has also made some grave tactical errors early on in his tenure.

For instance, Abiy’s government invited belligerents such as the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) into the country without pre-conditions, allowing ethnic extremists free reign to impose anarchy. In addition, Abiy’s government chose appeasement rather than power consolidation in early dealings with the TPLF, allowing the TPLF to fortress in the north, armed with heavy artillery and supplies. Now, the OLF has produced a militant offshoot that is engaged in open warfare against the government, and the TPLF is flirting with the idea of a ‘de facto’ state. These are irreversible political dynamics, but it is high time for Abiy’s government to acknowledge these failures, monopolize violence capabilities, and strategize a bargain with both ethnic and non-ethnic elites.

It was encouraging that all of these sentiments were raised at a recent national security briefing by the government, as well as a recent government meeting with political parties. In fact, Abiy acknowledged most of these dynamics in these meetings, warning secessionists that a united Ethiopian nation is non-negotiable, but also affirming the government’s principle of restraint. More importantly, Prime Minister Abiy signaled a key impediment to institutional transitions, which is the deeply entrenched clientelism that still plagues the Prosperity Party cadres that occupy Ethiopia’s bureaucracy.

The solution for this, however, is not monopolizing institution-building activities under the executive. Instead, Abiy should empower able ministers and diplomats to pursue broad independent reforms within the scope of their own portfolios. If he doesn’t trust the party cadres that are currently in government, he should replace them with capable, like-minded politicians outside the ruling party.

Abiy is well placed to succeed, as long as he places more trust in his allies and institutions, gradually removes the political salience of ethnic identity, and acts on his promise to ensure the government’s monopoly over violence.

This article is partly based on the author’s Summer 2020 Contest winning essay from The Abstract Elephant Magazine.