Move fast and break things - Ethiopia Insight

The Prime Minister’s tactics of populism, appeasement, and disruption have gone as far as they can in this complex political landscape

A few months after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed assumed office, a BBC journalist asked him “are you the man to unite Ethiopia?” He breezily replied, “of course I am, no doubt about it.”

Subsequently, he injected Ethiopia with hope, and undertook a bold program of renewal. Yet despite his messages of optimism and unity, the country remains divided, maybe even more so, and major challenges remain.

Abiy is a leader of multiple characters rather than a steady manager like his predecessor Hailemariam Desalegn. In his inaugural speech he promised to transform governance and transition to genuine democracy. He brought a different flavor to EPRDF Ethiopia where narratives were repeated consistently at every level of the state structure. He spoke differently, he acted differently.

The period, however, has been complex. Amid the euphoria, it provided space for old grievances to re-emerge, fundamental contradictions to surface, and created a different type of conflict.

One year on, it is time to take stock of what went well, what did not, and consider what the future might hold.


Abiy was fast in fixing urgent problems. He was quick to admit past state human rights abuses and he went far further than Hailemariam’s apology, even calling his own government a “terrorist”. He acknowledged the constitution was not respected and abuses rampant. He released the vast majority of political prisoners, allowed exiled dissidents to return, sometimes to a hero’s welcome, and promoted women and opposition leaders.

Quick fixes buy time, and that is what the Prime Minister got.

His actions convinced diverse actors, or at least sufficiently confused them, to give him a chance. The pan-Ethiopian camp embraced him for his unity rhetoric and anti-TPLF positions. Oromo nationalists considered him one of their own. Ethno-nationalists appreciated his perceived commitment to federalism. The West embraced him as a liberal reformer. The public liked his populist messages, freshness, and easy-going style. And with that, he was able to effectively avert, or perhaps delay, a worsening crisis.

Integral to his initial consolidation of power was a series of bold measures to oust TPLF from power, including from the military and national intelligence (NISS). His popularity soared. He was portrayed as the only viable leader, by his party, the public, and activists.

Popular support is fickle

His appointments and appeals to the diaspora and others gave him currency among groups that felt sidelined or had been dubbed hostile, including the business elite and intellectuals. Lidetu Ayalew, former opposition leader, said at a public discussion: “Dr Abiy has become the leader of the country, the leader of the ruling party, and the leader of the opposition all at the same time.”

Still, popular support is fickle, and elite support even more so, especially when based on motivated reasoning. We are already witnessing impatience and Abiy’s popularity diminishing. Furthermore, there is a serious risk that Abiy has permanently alienated potential strategic allies in exchange for short-term support. He has done very little to co-opt TPLF whose experience, at least, could have been an asset. His condemnation of EPRDF rule, calling it 27 years of darkness, negatively impacted the morale of party cadres and its machinery. Opportunist support from an urban elite with no political base is proving to be inadequate compensation.

His big-tent politics risk emboldening everyone without a clear set of rules, including Derg remnants and secessionists that were more or less neutralized. Getachew Reda, TPLF Executive Committee member, recently said such actions “have deprived the on-going transition moral foundation, because people who came back with pardons are acting like victors with limited incentives to act and behave democratically.”


The problems that Abiy confronts are wide-ranging and complicated. They include a closed political space, rampant unemployment and inequality, intense competition for power and resources, and the politicization of ethnicity in a poorly managed federation. These issues, underpinned by increased social media use, and an intra-EPRDF power struggle, are grave.

EPRDF was committed to address them through deep renewal, but this only became real after Abiy took charge.

The peace deal with Eritrea is his most eye-catching success so far. Although much remains to be done to ensure the agreement is sustained, it could transform the region. The decision to revise repressive laws, including infamous anti-terrorism, civil society and media legislation, are tangible, much-needed measures. Equally important is how the legal reforms are being carried out. Ethiopian professionals, including activists that suffered from former laws, are drafting the revisions. While this is positive, it runs the risk of marginalizing the officials tasked with implementation.

Abiy’s government opened up the state for citizens, not just cadres. He invited professional elites to join government. He boldly appointed personalities that were previously not even allowed into the country as members of commissions and committees. This created a new wave of inspiration for budding technocrats, something EPRDF failed at. A young university student told me a few days ago that now she can imagine herself in public service, even as a minister.

There is no unity of purpose and action

Still, it is difficult to describe the character of the change. One year in, the reforms are confusing. There is no consensus among proliferated actors on what the process and goal is. Many have called for a roadmap, although Abiy has dismissed the idea. Mesfin Negash, a formerly exiled journalist, wrote in August the need for a blueprint that states the goal of the transition, the process, and the rules of the game. He argued that it is not enough that we trust Abiy and his team; we need the roadmap for accountability and predictability.

Abiy presents the reform and his role differently depending on the audience. At times, he asserts that he has a mandate to rule; at others he acts like leader of a transitional government, ushering the country to free and fair elections. He gives the impression that all issues are on the table for negotiation, including constitutional ones, such as the parliamentary federal system itself.

This lack of clarity creates inefficiency. There is no unity of purpose and action throughout the various tiers of party and government. It also creates different expectations among the opposition, who all seem to support the change, but have varying understandings of it.

Abiy with former Foreign Minister Workneh Gebeyehu and Oromia president Shimelis Abdissa; Feb. 20; PMO

Institutionalization is another issue. True, Ethiopian institutions are weak, inefficient, and lack public trust. So Abiy has created commissions and committees instead. The boundary commission has a mandate-conflict with the House of Federation, and the peace and reconciliation commission could have been established under the new Ministry of Peace.

He has created a very strong Office of the Prime Minister, at times compromising the role of other ministries. Experts are hired with donor funds, with some signs of nepotism, rather than motivating existing staff, which compromises morale. Evidence suggests that political transitions are most sustainable if done through institutions. The government needs to fix misfiring institutions such as the House of Federation and Ministry of Peace, ensure they regain public trust, reorient them to the new settlement, and empower them.

The other serious risk is political liberalization without the required components for liberal democracy, or a clear plan for achieving it. Ideologically, EPRDF always claimed that liberal democracy is the end goal. Meles argued that, as Ethiopia does not have the social and economic base for Western-style democratization, a piecemeal expansion of rights and liberalization should be pursued. If the EPRDF led by Abiy believes that it is time, then safeguard measures need to be taken.

Many agree that certain norms, values, and functioning institutions are needed for liberal democracy to work. Components include a culture that promotes pluralism, the rule of law, respect for human rights, and limited government. Few suggest the Ethiopian politics is imbued with this ethos; instead, the opposite. Just in the past year, in a moment of hope, we have also seen plentiful hate speech, ethnic tensions, and politically sponsored violence.

Andreas Eshete cautioned that the move to rapidly open up the political space would complicate already fraught and complex relations between the federal and regional governments. He called for a sincere agreement, especially within EPRDF, regarding the objective and process of opening up. If not, he warned, different understandings of issues like elections, rule of law, and free speech might jeopardize stability, with the federal government in a dilemma about how to respond.


The fact reform came from within EPRDF led some to believe that the transition will be less disruptive and that economic and societal gains of the past two and a half decades would be carried forward. Political upheaval is normal, even desirable, when systems and institutions decay. However, Abiy disrupted the status quo at an unexpected pace.

His most significant disruption was to his own party, EPRDF, affecting how it operates and its role in the political arrangement. His critique of its ideologies, actions, and inaction, has weakened the central role the Front played in the state. If EPRDF bargained for deep renewal when electing him, Abiy gave it more of a deep rejection.

Analysts such as Alex de Waal advise that EPRDF’s institutional transition under Abiy demands special care and its structures need to be maintained in some form, since the party was extensively coterminous with the state. The Front was a platform for power-sharing, decision-making, and conflict management. Policies and strategy were set at that level and coalition members and affiliate parties were foot soldiers that implemented decisions locally.

TPLF lost ideological control

Abiy has shown little interest or strong leadership as EPRDF chairperson. Instead he challenged the ideological positions of the party. Revolutionary Democracy seems to be out of favor and democratic centralism abandoned. He repeatedly said in public that EPRDF policies and thinking, including the Developmental State model are dated and need revision, even declaring himself a capitalist; a heresy for a Marxist-Leninist-structured party that prided itself as focusing on the welfare of Ethiopia’s poorest. It is not clear yet if his Medemer philosophy is substantive or a populist slogan. He promised that it will be published soon, but so far it appears too simplistic to solve Ethiopia’s complicated problems.

Coalition members admitted opposition activists as members and merged with former opposition groups without clarity on the shared ideological grounds. They are becoming regional parties distinguished more by a common ethnicity than ideology. As the TPLF has criticized, Abiy made appointments and announcements without following party procedures, and has been reportedly reluctant to call regular meetings. An insider told me that he did not show up in the party secretariat office for about four months, showing how dormant the EPRDF is under Abiy.

This bypassing of the party meant TPLF lost ideological control and also its formal positions in the federal structure that would give it ground to fight back. Abiy also delegitimized them through a strong negative narrative, implying that they tried to assassinate him. This has effectively sidelined TPLF.

However, the unity of purpose and action of EPRDF has also diminished. Mistrust and division between coalition members is at its height. The tactical alignment of the Oromo and Amhara parties within EPRDF meant that the Front is no longer a coalition of four. Alliances have become short-lived, backstabbing common, especially in Addis Ababa’s increasingly fractious debate.

Getting his house in order should be the priority

There is tension between and among coalition members. ODP is pulled between Oromo nationalists and ADP/TPLF. ADP is competing with ODP and threatening war with TPLF. The Southern party is in disarray facing imminent disintegration of not just itself, but also the region it rules. TPLF has retreated to Tigray and maintains a defensive line.

In a system where party and state are intertwined, all this has undoubtedly weakened the ability to deliver peace, development, and mature democracy. Ethiopia has been experiencing a spike in inter-communal violence in the past year that led to mass displacement, loss of life, and property damage. The ability of the state to implement has been compromised, as evidenced by postponement of a national census and lack of a commitment or plan to conduct overdue woreda, kebele, Addis Ababa, and Dire Dawa elections. As long as the mistrust and infighting continues, stability will remain elusive.

The decreased role of EPRDF as a functioning front has emboldened regional states, leading to escalated tensions among them and with the federal government. Over the years, the EPRDF center has been stronger than the constituent parts. This seems to be changing. The year saw intensified boundary disputes and increased abuses within states, with the federal government response inadequate, to say the least.

Although his measures against core EPRDF tenets might have a positive effect in the long run, in terms of bringing about genuine federalism, it is clear that it was done too fast and without a viable replacement in the short-term. He is either unable or unwilling to solve the internal infighting and bring the party together. Getting his house in order should be the major priority in the coming year. That might even mean making the hard choice of disbanding EPRDF as a front and finding new allies. But it has to be done if we are to have any chance of a peaceful election by May 2020.


One thing that has become clear is that the honeymoon period is over. The tactics of populism, appeasement, and disruption have gone as far as they can in this complex political landscape. They are no longer sufficient to address the more significant issues affecting the stability and development of the country. Abiy’s leadership needs to evolve to be more principled, pragmatic, and statesmanlike.

He has to make sure, as Samuel P. Huntington wrote in The Third Wave, that the principal political elite, the EPRDF, work together to deal with the problems confronting their society, and refrain from exploiting those problems for their own advantage. Ethiopia’s political problems are complicated and need well-planned, short- and long-term solutions; there are no quick fixes. Ensuring stability is an emerging priority. It is a precursor for the democratization and inclusive development that Abiy promised to deliver. His government needs to quickly find the right political and institutional solutions to address that.

Filed in: Current Affairs / News