The recent reports that Amhara regional state leaders and people have “the rejected the federal system” must be a wake-up call for Ethiopians. The response of the Ethiopian Federal Government to this trend is laudable, not a weak response to forces bent on reviving feudalism or ethnic supremacy in Ethiopia.
When EPRD came to power in May 1991 it had persuaded its alliance of opposition groups to pragmatically adopt ethnic federalism for Ethiopia. This choice was partly based on bitter political experience under Emperor Haile Selassie and Mengistu Haile Mariam — one was a feudal monarch who justified his reign scripturally; the other was a brutal dictatorship, who in his last year in power described the opposition as “fundamentalists”. Both regimes had one thing in common: their policies caused famines in Ethiopia several times.
Contrary to the accusation that EPRDF honed ethnic identities at the expense of the national identity of Ethiopians, Ethiopia adopted a developmental state not on a whim but by fusing national political experience under successive regimes, and theoretical postulations based on the experience of other nations that embarked on developmental state journey before the phrase became fashionable in the academia.
The phenomenal economic growth in Ethiopia enabled many citizens to improve their living standards. Economic policies of Ethiopia under EPRD are not perfect; they can be improved on the basis of empirical studies, not knee-jerk reaction. Paying attention to the country’s recent economic history will serve EPRDF under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed well.
In Globalization and Its Discontents, the Nobel Laureate, Professor Joseph E. Stiglitz of Columbia University, shares the story about the challenge the late Meles Zenawi faced as a result of IMF pressure to open up “financial markets to Western competition but also to divide its largest bank into several pieces.” . There may be wealth creation opportunities in privatisation but for a country recovering from break-up ( Eritrea seceded from Ethiopia in 1993) and a long civil war, development agenda for a multi-ethnic society demands of leaders to tread carefully without resorting to failed statist policies. The economic growth Ethiopia has registered since 1991 is viewed by many analysts as a vindication of the ruling party’s economic deliberations.
When Professor Stiglitz visited Ethiopia in 1997 per capita income of the country was US$ 110. According to the World Bank Ethiopia’s per capita income is $783. “Ethiopia’s government aims to reach lower-middle-income status by 2025.”
Prime Minster Abiy Ahmed faces two challenges: economic and political. The economic challenge is less about changing EPRDF economic policies but more about the urge to dilute the developmental state. There is no a guarantee that diluting developmental state policies will yield any positive results without bringing into existence rent-seeking elites Meles Zenawi feared might hijack the State for personal enrichment.
Ethnic violence poses more of a threat to the Ethiopian polity than economic challenges do. Through ethnic federalism EPRDF introduced elections that made it win more than 90% of votes. Pronounced ethnic identities of Amharas and Oromos will test the resolve of Abiy Ahmed. Their campaigning for reform risk being viewed as a plot to reap the benefit of demographic advantage to rule Ethiopia, particularly when demonstrators target Ethiopians from other ethnic groups . Politics based on ethnic identities cannot be a foundation for state-building in a country with a history political oppression and ethnic supremacy of one group over others. Politicised ethnic identities trump citizenship rights. How Abiy Ahmed handles those contradictions will determine the direction Ethiopia will take in the coming months and years.
Abiy Ahmed should not break with the EPRDF tradition of discussing policies. Ensuring harmony of ethnicities and promoting equality are corner-stones of a modern state. More than anything else Abiy Ahmed should keep in mind that the onus to propose changes also lies with the forces advocating change. Advocating abolition of the federal system or waving Derg flag shows that pro-reform camp lacks the vision to move Ethiopia forward. Ethiopia needs a national conversation about deepening citizen rights and preventing ethnicity-driven civil war. The release of prisoners and the lilting of terrorist designation on OLF, ONLF and Ginbot 7 presents with Ethiopia’s pro-reform elites with an opportunity to craft policies that will build on positive aspects of EPRDF government and address shortcomings of the party that has been ruling Ethiopia since 1991.