On Tuesday, June 5, the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front’s (EPRDF) Executive Committee began its first leadership meeting since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was appointed in April.
Three big announcements followed: 1) the state of emergency was lifted two months early on signs that the security situation is improving, 2) the government said it would cede disputed land to Eritrea that it has occupied since the war ended in 2000, and 3) it announced details of significant liberalisation of certain sectors of the economy.
In addition to the above, there have also recently been talks with opposition groups to set up a national dialogue, the release of high-profile political prisoners and promises to amend the anti-terror laws that allowed for the rounding up of dissenters. The signals are positive.
Two questions arise from the recent reform push. Firstly, how much of the change in direction can be attributed to Mr Abiy and the shift in power within the EPRDF coalition? Secondly, how far will the reforms go?
With regard to the first, it should be noted that the economic liberalisation policy was first proposed by Mr Abiy’s predecessor, Hailemariam Desalegn, last year. Thus, this does not necessarily signal a change in mindset within the EPRDF.
The fact that the liberalisation policy was supported unanimously by the 36 members of the Executive Committee (nine members from each of the constituent regional/ethnic parties), according to Addis Fortune, suggests that this was not Mr Abiy’s Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation (OPDO) and its Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM) ally calling the shots and forcing the issue thanks to its majority of seats within the House of Peoples’ Representatives.
Furthermore, Government Communication Affairs Minister Ahmed Shide made it clear on Tuesday that the move is in line with the government’s development State model rather than a change in thinking.
The decision to lift the state of emergency, likewise, does not necessarily point to fundamental change within the coalition. The intensity of conflicts has declined since February and international partners had put pressure on the government to lift the emergency measures as soon as possible. It is likely that the EPRDF under Mr Hailemariam would have made the same decision.
The decision on Eritrea, however, may point to a change in thinking.
The disputed land falls within the Tigray region and up until Mr Abiy’s ascension to prime minister the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) was the dominant party within the EPRDF. Thus, this could be a result of the power shift.
The TPLF still has significant control over the security forces, but Mr Abiy appears set to change that. In April, the prime minister emphasised the need for the military to be above the political fray when he met with generals for the first time. “It should be an army that is adaptable to regime change as long as a popular mandate elects another party should the EPRDF fail in its politics,” he told the country’s top brass, according to Addis Fortune.
But there were indications that the military leadership would be diversified prior to the change in prime minister.
In early February, the military promoted a number of officers and appointed three deputy chiefs of staff: the first time such a role has existed. It also promoted four lieutenant generals to full general rank: the first time a promotion to full general has taken place in a decade. The creation of the posts for deputy chiefs of staff and promotion of four others to the rank of full general hint that the current chief of staff, General Mohammed ‘Samora’ Yunis, may be replaced at the top of the military hierarchy in the near future.
Finally, with regard to meeting with opposition groups, freeing prisoners and changing the anti-terror law, it is likely that Mr Abiy is a more credible interlocutor than his predecessor (he is an Oromo like the majority of protesters over the past few years). On this front, his policies may have more chance to succeed thanks to the extra political capital he has with those calling for change and we should expect a fresh approach.
It should be kept in mind that the US House of Representatives adopted HR-128 – a resolution calling for the US government to support human rights and inclusive government in the country – a week after Mr Abiy took office. This indicates a change in US policy which has in the past been supportive of the Ethiopian government and downplayed rights abuses so as to keep its military ally in the region on its side.
While this may be thought of as a negative development for the prime minister, it could actually strengthen his hand if he wishes to carry out reforms. He can more easily sell the reforms as a necessary step towards maintaining relations with the US. A softer touch with regard to opposition could then be attributed to pressure from a powerful ally rather than to a change within the EPRDF.
The above analysis would suggest that the reforms announced this week are not a clear sign of a radical shift in thinking within the EPRDF.
Make no mistake, the reforms are significant and welcome, but they fall within the EPRDF’s comfort zone.
On some fronts, they really did not have much choice. The economy is in a dire state, with foreign reserves only able to cover around two months of imports. The demographics of the country, with a large youth bulge and not enough jobs to accommodate it, also mean that the EPRDF is well aware that it needs to stimulate job growth in order to ensure stability.
How far will the reforms go? That is not yet clear. Mr Abiy’s rhetoric promises much, but he is an EPRDF man and the ruling coalition sees development through its preferred approach as its mission. A sign of real change would be opening a discussion on changing the political structure (away from ethnic-federalism), dismantling the regional endowment conglomerations that fund EPRDF coalition parties (like the Endowment Fund for the Rehabilitation of Tigray – Effort) or instituting democratic reforms that give opposition a real shot.
However, we should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. This week’s news is positive for political risk and economic development.
Jared Jeffery (Political Analyst)