The changing face of Ethiopia’s politics and the dissolution of EPRDF as an ethnic coalition

The long awaited dissolution of regional ethnic parties that make up the Ethiopian peoples revolutionary democratic front ( EPRDF) seems to be on the corner. If it happens, its a major victory for people who have been calling for an end to regional politics but its also a calculated move to keep the domination of rebel veterans of the Tigre peoples Liberation front. The following is what this latest move means for the general Ethiopian politics and how it’s been in the making. 

By Betemariam Hailu

TPLFLast week, the official state newspaper Addis Zemen published an interview with Shiferaw Shigute whose title is quoted as “head of EPRDF’s office” by local media reporters ( that title is not clear and not sure if it means secretary of EPRDF). But anyway, during the interview Shiferaw talked about dissolving the ruling coalition EPRDF’s member parties which are the Tigre peoples liberation front ( TPLF), The Amhara national democratic movement (ANDM), The Oromo peoples democratic organization (OPDO) and The Southern Ethiopian peoples democratic movement (SEPDM). According to Shiferaw, the proposal will be discussed in the ongoing EPRDF meeting. He also said the new move will include the so called partnering parties in Gambella, Benishangul, Afar and Somali regions of Ethiopia. This is the first time the ruling elite has publicly raised the idea. But why now?

Former top regime communication officer now turned opposition figure, Ermias Legese wrote in his first book about how dissolving EPRDF was raised by Tefera Walwa, one of the faces of the rebel movement who played a key role in the formation of the coalition and how the deceased dictator Melles Zenawi downplayed the idea. This was a decade ago. By that Melles Zenawi and co. were not yet done with EPRDF’s services. So they did not accept the idea.

The EPRDF was originally formed by the powerful TPLF and the now defunct EPDM ( the Ethiopian peoples democratic movement) in the late 80s after the former militarily “liberated” Tigray and some parts of the now Amhara region from the control of the Mengistu Hailemariam regime. Its true purpose was to give TPLF an Ethiopian coat to rule for the upcoming three decades. Then the EPDM gave birth to three regional parties (OPDO, ANDM and SEPDM) and died. This is how we got today’s EPRDF, a coalition of four regional parties. The man mentioned earlier, Tefera Walwa was a founding leader of EPDM and later joined ANDM.

For three decades EPRDF served its purpose. TPLF dominated Ethiopian politics under this mask coalition. Melles Zenawi himself, the engineer of the idea, made the best of EPRDF for his personal gains as he crushed rival TPLF leaders in the 2001 with the help of the other member groups. so it served both purposes. But Melles died on power in 2012. the death of its God father was almost like a death for the coalition itself. Soon after, member parties seem to be standing out of TPLF’s control. Later violent pro-democracy protests erupted in the Oromo region followed by the Amhara in the north. The protests took the lives of so many and tarnished the regime’s image. Even worse, directly or indirectly, the protests were supported and sympathized by the regional parties. So EPRDF’s genesis has now become obsolete. Its not surprising  that dissolving it is raised now.

This time, it sure came from TPLF. And it came to shoot back at a resurgent OPDO and Oromo nationalism. After its leading two became the faces of the organization, the OPDO has launched a national propaganda about leading Ethiopia both in Amharic and Afaan Oromo. Its regional TV, OBN campaigns without the influence of the central state about Ethiopia’s great history and the role Oromo played. It slowly came out on its own, registering its biggest victory so far on TPLF, ideological.

The Oromo no more looks at Addis Ababa from a distance but wants to walk into the Minilk palace and rule over it. Some ten days ago, the regime admitted OPDO’s surge for power in an old friendly way. Siraj Fergesa, Defense minister and spokesman of the military command post, formed to rule the country under the state of emergency, said events in the country mainly in the Oromo region have shaped up like a color revolution. Its true meaning is OPDO is trying to grab power from the hands of the central government. So in addition to cracking down with military force, dissolving OPDO as a regional party is taken as a long standing cure. The fact is though, just like Esepa ( Workers’ party of Ethiopia) was known as a mask for colonel Mengistu  Hailemariam’s clique in military junta Dergue, the new party EPRDF will only be a hiding place for TPLF. But what does it mean?

Implications of the Move

Even though, today’s ruling elite in Ethiopia is forced by the situations to remake EPRDF as a national party, its messages are significant. Ethiopia’s current problems mainly flourished from polarized regional ethnic identity politics which was glorified, celebrated and effectively used by engineers of TPLF. So when a ruling elite (even though tactfully and only in structure) abandons its long standing shape, its a big psychological and symbolic victory for millions of Ethiopians who believe people better organize based on their views not regional ethic identities. And its been in the making for the a while.

The consequential 2005 elections played a big part in this. Before 2005, organizing in a national party was bashed as an act of reactionary Addis Ababa based “Amhara elites” to work for the return of the “old system”. It worked until 2005. but the Ethiopianist party CUDP swept most of the votes in the election, it was just an alarming victory for the ruling elite and for some hard-line leftist groups in the opposition.  CUDP was crushed, dissolved and its leaders jailed for years. A year later in 2006, the diaspora wing of CUDP formed an alliance, the first in its kind, with ages old separatist ethnic groups, the Oromo liberation front and the Oganden front. The name of the alliance did not include the word Ethiopia but it was morally a big start.

But the biggest of all was the formation of Patriotic Ginbot seven and the rhetoric of its leaders. Even though the movement was formed as a flexible Ethiopianist movement only to replace the undemocratic system by a democracy in which people’s vote is the only source of power, its gestures were romantic to ethnic nationalists unlike decades old rigid approach by other Ethiopianist groups. Some key figures including its chairman being “non Amhara’ was also a stab for the old notion of  Amhara hiding in the name Ethiopia. The movement quickly became the most active and powerful in the Ethiopianist camp. Then, the Melles Zenawi regime officially or legally labelled the movement as a terrorist group along with OLF and ONLF. Until the formation of Ginbot Seven, no rebel or opposition was ever labelled as a terrorist group by the Ethiopian parliament. The group’s approach of balancing regional ethnic politics and center Ethiopian politics, attractive for many seriously concerned about democratizing Ethiopia, made it a target by the deceased dictator Melles Zenawi.

The group’s leader Berhanu Nega, who owes the reactivation of his political life to the Oromo political prisoners he met in 2001, somehow endorsed the existing federal structure which was a very sensitive topic for Oromo nationalists and echoed his long standing opinion of introducing Afaan Oromo as federal language in a 2013 TV appearance on ESAT.  This approach has systematically worked over the years. It has influenced Oromo politics from behind.

Intellectual God fathers of Oromo nationalism and founding leaders of the Oromo liberation front formed the Oromo Democratic front in 2013. Leenco lata for long has held this pro-Ethiopia view since the 90s. But the formation of ODF was a breakthrough. Leenco as an individual played significant role by denouncing outdated leftist politics. He has publicly said “lets move on, lets democratize the federation”.  In a 2015 interview with ESAT, Leenco lata spoke about his unsuccessful travel to Addis Ababa and their plan to form a national party ( Ethiopia democratic front) not a regional group before they formed ODF. But things were not suitable for them. Before the formation ODF, Although emotional and unseccessful, General Kemal Gelchu and General Hailu Gonfa seceded from Dawud Ibsa for an Ethiopianist OLF in 2008.

Things have slowly developed to the formation of Ethiopia national movement. The movement equally uses both afaan Oromo and Amharic in its public communications. Language is the key factor in Ethiopian politics. As Ali Birra sang Afaan Oromo hundee Oromo, making Afaan oromo a nationally  used language is very important to even a stronger unity of the country. Brave and necessary steps taken to promote the language by Ethiopianist groups like Patriotic Ginbot 7 has transformed the country’s politics. The maturity of both camps, the Oromo nationalist and the Ethiopianist is a big hope for the democratization and betterment of the nation.

Another event to mention, last year, the Ogaden national liberation front had signed a memorandum of understanding with Patriotic Ginbot 7. it was of course part of the process. the front has not yet joined the Ethiopian national movement or even was reported to negotiate with the regime in Addis Ababa a month ago. But  its assumed that the group is still on the pro-Ethiopia radar and seems to have no choice. Peoples alliance for freedom and democracy (PAFD) in which the ONLF is a member remains as another player but its been denied access to media by Oromo media activists. Plus Its approach is very outdated and seems to have been dominated by other modern Oromo voices.  So without a strong Oromo presence, PAFD is almost obsolete. Our understanding is it will eventually join the new movement.

With this all development, The ruling elite is forced to pondering the dissolution of the ethnic coalition. We don’t for sure know if it will really happen or if OPDO accepts this approach. But in general Ethiopian politics is moving to the center. The latest announcement from EPRDF is part of that. The front is due to discuss this in august. Its almost half a year before that. Given the dramatic events of the last two months, six months mean too much. So we’ll see what these six months hold for the country’s politics.

Betemariam Hailu is an Ethiopian journalist and media personality. He can be reached @betehailu on twitter

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