The creation of the pan-Ethiopian Prosperity Party will reverse fragmentation, boost political inclusivity, and allow vital institutions to flourish, argues a senior federal government official writing in his personal capacity
After three decades of rule and misrule under EPRDF, Ethiopia is undergoing a political transition. The key objectives of it are to direct the nation along the path of democratic progress and economic prosperity; to correct mistakes and injustices as well as heal divisions and a legacy of resentment.
Looking back, it was only three years ago that Ethiopia was on the brink of a precipice. Unequal distribution of wealth, lack of freedom, widespread unemployment, corruption and self-enrichment on a grand scale were rampant. Weak institutions in the face of mounting challenges, combined with the inability to match the rising aspiration of the public, tested the political system as never before. The compounded effect of these problems not only posed a serious threat to the fabric of society, they also presented an unprecedented opportunity for transition into a just and equitable society. Change was not just desirable, but a necessity.
Without political reform, there was no hope of breaking the vicious cycle of protest and oppression. Without pragmatic and inclusive economic reform, the macroeconomic imbalances could easily have degenerated into a financial collapse, with a consequent risk of social breakdown. Therefore, the new leadership had to introduce profound changes to avert the possibility of falling apart.
The truth is that reforms of such magnitude are never easy. Progress is often hard won. Let alone transformational change, even smaller adjustments are anathema to those who want to maintain the status quo at any cost. Even when the going gets rough, far-sighted leaders must press on against the current, knowing that turning back would be worse.
A logical extension of the current political transformation program is to remake the ruling coalition—the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). Reforming EPRDF essentially has two key objectives: the first is to reinvigorate it through centrist policies and programs that will meet the rising demand of the public. A generational change is taking place, and it is imperative to confront the reality on the ground. To put it starkly, a party that lags behind the times, a party that does not learn from its mistakes, will in the end harvest bitter fruits. The second goal is to bring together all members of EPRDF and the affiliated ruling parties into a single national entity.
EPRDF—an organization that has dominated Ethiopian society for long—is unique in many respects. While comprising four parties, it led Ethiopia for close to three decades as a front with little change in its structure. Yet, the parties that form EPRDF—Amhara Democratic Party (ADP), Oromo Democratic Party (ODP), Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM), and Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)—subscribe to the same ideology of revolutionary democracy and to the same party program. Between them, they administered Oromia, Amhara, Southern Nations and Tigray Regional States. The five other regions are governed by affiliate parties of the EPRDF.
So, what were the essential features that motivated the reform of EPRDF?
True to the tradition of leftist parties, a core tenet of EPRDF is “democratic centralism”—this meant that that there was open discussion until a decision has been reached, but thereafter the decision of the higher party organ (often the Executive Council) was binding. A final decision had to be adhered to and implemented in a strictly disciplined manner throughout by member parties. In practice, democratic centralism has been a cover for a top-down system based on unconditional obedience. A combination of the party’s “vanguard role” and its highly centralized character meant that vast power was concentrated in the party’s highest organ. While this approach arguably facilitated the creation of a tightly disciplined party, it generated and sustained local party officials without genuine popular roots given that they are sustained by the powers granted to them from the above. Even worse, democratic centralism effectively eroded the constitutionally established federal structure as the states were mere implementers of what was decided at the center. Prosperity Party, by recognizing the true autonomy of the federal units, will create more room for regional governments—a step towards genuine devolution of power.
EPRDF’s declared aim of delivering economic growth—often to the benefit of a class that serves as its putative social base—is considered to be the ultimate, legitimizing goal. Clearly, in everyday politics, respect for citizens’ rights and individual freedoms were largely left by the wayside when civil and political rights were perceived to conflict with the vision for rapid economic development, and as a consequence were trampled upon. The heavy involvement of the state in the economy led to considerable wastage and self-enrichment at a grand scale, as occurs anywhere when the discipline of competition is removed and scrutiny is minimized.
Finally, EPRDF’s doctrinal system mobilized supporters and recruits in a dichotomous way by establishing ‘an opposing reference group’ and demonizing this other group. EPRDF’s lexicon, for example, is replete with ideologically laden labels such as “rent seekers”, “narrow nationalists”, “chauvinists”, “parasitic elements” and other “unproductive” elements. And these ill-defined “social groups”, the ideology dictates, are to be defeated by any means necessary. The unfortunate effect is that the binary party outlook tended to constantly divide the country into irreconcilable groups.
Because of the failings, the party needed to conduct genuine internal reform that is reflective of and consistent with the wider democratization of society. For the last decade or so, remarkable things have been happening in Ethiopia. Thanks to smartphones, social media, and the internet, nearly everyone has access to details of others’ lives and this has in turn amplified social aspiration. While it may be true that social media misinforms as much as it informs, the youth used it effectively to demand both equality of opportunity and as an avenue for political participation.
The next stage of development therefore requires a more open economic and political order that fosters innovation and creativity. This is an urgent task and we have no time to waste. Accepting the need for political participation would require a change in mentality for a party that has acted mainly as a development vanguard party—often approaching issues with ideological rigidity. The old ways of top-down plans and ideological prescriptions that pretend to have all the answers to complex problems no longer work. Instead of ideological certainty, there is a need for Prosperity Party to embrace a more pragmatic, reflective mode of inquiry.
Related to this, EPRDF failed to get wider support for its policies through engagement with the private sector, civil society, intellectuals, professionals, and workers. Without sufficiently engaging significant segments of society through ideologically centrist policies and attempting to forge broader consensus on key developmental goals, it would indeed be difficult to mobilize society sufficiently to complete transformative projects.
Second, the reform of EPRDF is aimed at the realization of the constitutional promise of building and consolidating one economic and political community. The reforms affirm the right of all nationalities to develop their languages and promote their culture. It acknowledges and builds on past achievements of devolution of state power to self-governing sub-national communities. Yet, in the absence of strong and inclusive institutions, political mobilization around ethnic cleavages leads to increased tension and polarization among groups. The fragility of the current transition is ultimately due to a failure to establish strong pan-ethnic institutions that restrain elites so they are not driven by insecurity, greed or lust for power to try and manipulate primordial loyalties.
The solution lies in an all-inclusive national political party that serves as a counterbalance to the risk of fragmentation, while at the same time providing the space for preservation and promotion of all languages, cultures, and identities. It should be to these inclusive institutions that we assign all political, economic and other matters of democratic governance without blurring their roles and eroding the separation of powers. The courts really should be courts. Parliament really should be parliament. And, above all, the party really should just be a party.
Third, it is imperative to reform EPRDF in a manner that provides a platform for inclusive political participation for every Ethiopian. One of the glaring weakness of EPRDF was that its membership was confined to four parties with little accommodation to other Ethiopians. The so-called “Agar” or affiliated Parties representing communities from Somali, Benishangul-Gumuz, Gambella, Afar, and Harari regions were not voting members of EPRDF and so had little role in the national political decision-making process.
Since they did not have seats at the table, their interests and aspirations were not properly voiced. They were mere spectators in their own affairs. The decisions of the ruling party that concerns all citizens are often sent for implementation with little or no input from the “Agar” parties. Needless to say, it was necessary to move away from this outmoded political culture of “center” versus “periphery” and bring together all Ethiopians, forge a common cause in one all-inclusive political party and usher in a new political culture of equal rights and responsibilities.
Another manifestation of the non-inclusivity of EPRDF relates not only to the Agar parties but also to many more Ethiopians who are left party-less because they do not subscribe to any ethnic identity and are of complex ethnic makeup. It is not just that ethnically unaffiliated citizens are left out of political representation, but that EPRDF’s mode of representation arguably delegitimizes them. The ideological rigidity of EPRDF means these Ethiopians were excluded, which required change.
Fourth, the unification of all the members of EPRDF into one inclusive political party creates an opportunity to address the self-destructive secrecy and inter-party mistrust by streamlining decision making. The current structure of legally separate and often fractious political parties makes collective action difficult as member parties could be taken hostage by the ulterior motives of leaders. Central to the success of the new reformed political party will be its ability not only to articulate common goals to which all members of the party will be committed, but also to establish a transparent and democratic structure through which these goals could be achieved. Prosperity Party leaders will find that their positions are conditional upon their ability to deliver on policy promises.
Finally, reforming EPRDF will create the conditions to address past shortcomings in defining and articulating a collective identity that ties all Ethiopians together. Over the course of the past three decades, one of the recognizable features of the current administration was the effort made to appreciate and accommodate the cultural, ethnic, and linguistic diversity of this mosaic nation. However, there is an urgent need to give sufficient attention to the task of balancing it with the promotion of our collective identity that embrace the best of our traditions. Doing so would lessen the impact of rigid views and polarized cleavages that inhibit social integration.
Critics contend that the current reform efforts seek to bring back the centralism of past authoritarian regimes. Some even go further and argue that the proposed merger provides an institutionalized platform for imposing supremacy of some groups over others.
These arguments are absurd.
The first obvious point to make is that the reform pertains to reform of a political party and not of the constitutional order. Nowhere in the process has there been an attempt to re-introduce the centralized and unitary state as the political structure of Ethiopia.
Second, the party believes there is no alternative to federal system that accommodates our diversity within the framework of a single, multi-ethnic Ethiopian state. The multinational federal arrangement cannot be tampered with by the program of a single political party even if it were to attempt this change. Indeed, the main threat to the continuity of the Ethiopian state does not come from the federal character of it, but is because of the lack of democracy and absence of strong and inclusive national institutions.
The current reform recognizes that Ethiopia is a highly multilingual society and there is no reason why language diversity should undermine national unity. On the contrary, Prosperity Party is committed to making all regional languages its official languages.
Under EPRDF rule, Ethiopia made impressive gains in healthcare, education, and the eradication of extreme poverty. But the constitutional promise of one political and economic community had been undercut by a lack of democratization. The most urgent task now is for EPRDF to transform itself and preside over a successful transformation of the political system. This goal will not be achieved without adapting its organization, structure, and membership to fit a rapidly changing economy and society. The goal will not be achieved without expanding the parameters of political participation. The goal will not be achieved without resisting the temptation to view everything through ideological blinders instead of being clear-eyed pragmatists. Above all, the goal will not be achieved without creating inclusive institutions that counterbalance the forces of polarization and fragmentation. The objective of creating a revitalized party for the new era involves these tasks and more.
By: Melaku Habtewold