II. Understanding Ethiopia’s transition
The profound changes that are underway are deeply rooted in and guided by the internal political transformation of the EPRDF to the EPP
Ethiopia is in the midst of a major political and social transition, with important but uncertain impacts for its economy, security and position in the wider region. The profound changes that are underway are deeply rooted in and guided by the internal political transformation of the EPRDF to the Ethiopian Prosperity Party (EPP); the process, which was completed in early 2020, saw Ethiopia’s leading coalition replaced by a single party.5 Recent turning points and their cascading after-effects have been informed by this political context and in turn radically reshaped it. Two of the most prominent of these turning points being the political protests in 2015–16 and Abiy Amhed’s ascendance to power.
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From the EPRDF to the EPP: Transforming a coalition to a political party
The EPRDF coalition dominated Ethiopian politics and economic planning since its overthrow of the Marxist military dictatorship in 1991. Four long-standing members constituted the EPRDF: the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM), the Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation (OPDO) and the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM)—parties that correspond respectively to four Ethiopian states.6 However, even before the EPRDF took power in 1991, the internal balance of the coalition was already dominated by the TPLF: the TPLF (along with the separatist Eritrean People’s Liberation Front) were the liberation movement at the core of the conflict that saw the collapse of Mengistu Haile Mariam’s Derg regime, the military dictatorship that had been ruling Ethiopia since deposing Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974. Under TPLF leader and EPRDF chairman Meles Zenawi (transitional president 1991–95, prime minister 1995–2012), the coalition oversaw the establishment of Ethiopia’s new federal constitutional framework, which was seen as a means to resolve political and economic tensions within the country.
The EPRDF dominated elections in 1995 and 2000. During its first decade in power, the EPRDF struggled to make progress on its economic agenda with its primary focus on boosting agricultural output, given the predominance of smallholder agriculture.7 As a coalition with a dominant constituent party (the TPLF), the EPRDF struggled to articulate and execute its vision for the country’s future. However, after the TPLF’s split in 2001, Meles’s dominant position within the TPLF led to the centralization of power in his hands as head of the party, coalition and government. However, Meles and the EPRDF were caught off guard by a surprisingly strong showing by opposition parties in the 2005 election, followed by protests in Addis Ababa which were violently repressed.
After 2005 the EPRDF massively expanded its membership, tightly restricted the media and the role of civil society, and introduced a draconian security framework to control dissent.8 This tighter control facilitated the implementation of the government’s economic agenda, producing on a macro level rapid gross domestic product (GDP) growth (averaging 11 percent between 2004–13) and dramatic reduction in its headline rate of poverty (from 44 percent in 2000 to 24 percent in 2016). However, the combination of a tightly controlled political and civil society landscape and the state’s dominance of the economic agenda fueled increasing resentment among the country’s youth. The expansion of social and physical infrastructure and increased economic opportunities, including employment outside the agriculture sector, could not keep pace with the growth in society’s expectations and aspirations.9
Popular pressure and political transition
The proximate driver of the current transformation in Ethiopia was a major wave of protests between November 2015 and October 2016, when the government declared a state of emergency that lasted until August 2017. In the 2015–16 protest movement, those factors found a release valve which the government could not successfully shut off until it declared a state of emergency, detaining tens of thousands for ‘re-education’. More than 1000 were reported dead in violence related to the protests, mostly from crackdowns by security forces.10 Although the initial spark for the protests centered on resistance to more centralized urban planning for the expanding footprint of Addis Ababa, by 2016 protests had spread across Oromia and into Amhara and the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Region (SNNPR). This was coupled by renewed violence along the boundary between Oromia and the Somali Regional state.
Although the October 2016 state of emergency allowed the government to restore order, it brought existing tensions within the EPRDF to a head and precipitated a rebalancing between and within the coalition’s parties. From late 2017, unrest started to re-emerge amid an internal review process by the EPRDF of its four members. Tensions within the EPRDF over the future direction of political reform led to the resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn (2012–18) in February 2018. He was succeeded in April 2018 by Abiy Ahmed.
Abiy, leader of the OPDO, emerged as EPRDF chairman, leading to the decline of the TPLF’s relative influence within the coalition. Although the EPRDF (and now EPP) has remained in control of the state at the federal, regional and local levels, it is important not to understate the significance of the political shifts underway.
The transformation of the EPRDF from a coalition to a single party is bringing political tensions over the balance between a pan-Ethiopian identity and the various national identities empowered by the ethnolinguistic structures created under Ethiopia’s federal institutions to a head
In November 2019 Abiy pushed through the start of the formal process of merging the EPRDF’s four member parties and the five ‘allied’ parties (the ruling parties in the Afar, Benishangul– Gumuz, Gambella, Harari and Somali regions) into a new national party: the Ethiopian Prosperity Party. The transformation of the EPRDF from a coalition to a single party is bringing political tensions over the balance between a pan-Ethiopian identity and the various national identities empowered by the ethnolinguistic structures created under Ethiopia’s federal institutions to a head. In late 2018, two parties renamed themselves: the OPDO changed its name to the Oromo Democratic Party (ODP) and the Amhara National Democratic Movement to the Amhara Democratic Party (ADP). They did this in part to distinguish themselves from a past in which they had been perceived as rubber-stamp members of the EPRDF under the TPLF’s direction and in part to cement gains in local legitimacy gleaned from the protest movement.
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