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Priorities in Ethiopian Politics: Expediting the Exigencies and Postponing the Inessential Ones

Ghelawdewos Araia, PhD                                   March 1, 2019

This Article is dedicated to the 123rd anniversary of the victory of the Ethiopian people at the Battle of Adwa on March 1, 1896


Today we no longer view our mutual destruction but solemnly acknowledge our interdependence as free and equal citizens of our common motherhood.

                                                Nelson Mandela, Reconciliation Day, 1995


Almost always the men who achieve these fundamental inventions of new paradigm have either been very young or very new to the field whose paradigm they change.

                                                Thomas Khun, ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolution’.1

Ethiopia is at crossroads again, undertaking, this time, not a scientific revolution but a scientific reform; incremental at times and transformational at other times. It is in the latter sense and in the context of the two quotations above that this article is written. For the above reason, thus, the purpose of this article is three fold: 1) to make a quick glance at some relevant ideas of the past; 2) to thoroughly examine the priorities in Ethiopian politics; and 3) to furnish redeeming ideas to current Ethiopian malaise, sort of proposal in order to bit the odds and come up with a sound policy spectrum that could in turn catapult Ethiopia in the right direction and subsequently achieve a more comprehensive and viable socioeconomic strategies for change and development. Before I delve into the central thesis of this paper, however, I like to make a synoptic birds-eye-view of the above quotations. Mandela’s maxim is abundantly clear in terms of its literal meaning. Mandela gave more weight and significance to reconciliation than to the seemingly irreconcilable differences between the apartheid regime and the black indigenous Africans; in the end, he along with Bishop Tutu and the African National Congress (ANC) managed to dismantle apartheid and also launch a new democratic system. With the advent of Mandela and the ANC to power, South Africa witnessed open political debates, a robust constitution, and an independent judiciary. However, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) did not herald any bright future for socioeconomic equality of Black Africans, the majority of whom are still poor, and it is not surprising that South Africa was bedeviled by the vent of the frustrated and xenophobic young South Africans.

Thomas Khun’s ‘young and new men’ who achieve inventions and bring about change is relevant to the current movers and shakers in Ethiopian politics, and it is best exemplified by PM Abiy Ahmed, who is only 42. Most Ethiopians and the world at large perceived Abiy as the youngest Ethiopian leader ever, but this perception is wrong if examined in light of other leaders of modern Ethiopia, who, in fact, were at their prime age when they assumed state power: Emperor Tewodros was 37, Emperor Yohannes was 34, Emperor Menelik 45 (he was only 22 when he became king of Shewa), Emperor Haile Selassie 39, Mengistu Hailemariam 40 (he was 33 when the Derg took power in 1974), and Meles Zenawi was 36. All of them were young blood who came to power with incredibly diverse avenues and political policies and programs, but all of them (ranging from the good and the bad to the ugly) have attempted to build institutions of change, some reformist and transient and others radical and durable in nature. So, age won’t matter sometimes although life experience is a plus in leadership. What really matters is a combination of vision and commitment, as well as empathetic consideration for the welfare of the masses and integrity of the nation-state; it is in the latter sense that I will set the priorities in Ethiopia as follows:

1.      Rule of law, peace, and stability (very urgent)

2.      National reconciliation (immediate and urgent)

3.      Continuing the development agenda (urgent)

4.      Democracy (important in the long haul but not very urgent)

5.      Elections (the forthcoming election should be postponed)

6.      Border and Identity Commission (should be postponed)

7.      Issues pertaining to federalism vs. the unitary state (should be postponed)

8.      Witch hunting former officials for whatever reason (should be postponed)

9.      Human rights (urgent)

10.  Political education: a) in schools and universities (important but not urgent); b) mass informal education (very urgent)

Despite the above exigencies and inessential ones, however, the Ethiopian Government should seize the moment and take matters into its own hands in building formidable institutions. Ethiopia should indeed build institutions, but in order for the latter to be realizable and efficacious, the Ethiopian people must undertake an historic national reconciliation that I have been advocating for many years. On October 2010, I contributed an article entitled “National Reconciliation and National Development in Ethiopia”, in which I argued the following: “Given the reality of Ethiopian politics of the last two decades and the propensity of the foreseeable future, the patriotic group must consider the possibility of negotiating with the EPRDF. It must shed its cocoon of principles and liberate itself from the ideological tenet and resume talks with the ruling party. The fear of ‘if we do so, we will entrust legitimacy to the EPRDF and confuse our members and supporters’ is a lame rationale compared to what the opposition could favorably garner great strides in Ethiopian politics.”2

The essence of national reconciliation, of course, is compromise and ironing out differences via dialogue and peaceful means, and by sitting on a round table and looking at each other’s eyes. Moreover, the metaphors embedded in national reconciliations, as Fanie du Toit aptly put it, is “the pragmatism of enemies surviving together in a lifeboat on the open ocean.”3 Toit furthermore argues, “Yet the promise of reconciliation to deliver transitions ‘that work’ lies precisely in its ability to turn this imposition of interdependence into an aspiration, into hope, and into a set of possibilities with concrete benefits for those on both sides of the conflict.”4

On top of negotiations, ironing out differences, compromises that characterizes national reconciliations and subsequent results of hopes and aspirations by the people - a peace dividend that is maintained -, other important outcome of the project is the three criteria of inclusivity in relation to who participates, fairness in terms of all participants having equal opportunities to be heard, and a commitment to concrete outcomes that advance the promise of justice for all.”5 

It should be known that the national reconciliation agenda, though entrusted with forgiveness and “Live and Let Live” motto of toleration and mutual strategy, it is not entirely guided with religious overtones that completely overrides the sins of some crimes committed by some members of the ruling elite. In fact, wittingly or unwittingly, this project could expose corrupt and criminal officials which could be viewed as losers in the transition period. However, in the spirit of criterion number 8 above, it would be prudent to postpone the case of corrupt and criminal elements at least for now.

If Ethiopia successfully sets its priorities as suggested above, it should then put in right order the exigencies of peace and stability and national reconciliation while at the same time continue the national agenda of development, and also enforce the rule of law which is intimately related to the three criteria mentioned above. With respect to development policy, I have repeatedly argued on behalf of the developmental state (DS) and the continuation of the Ethiopian foundational economy projects in many of my research papers, including “Transposing Ethiopia While Concurrently Preserving its Institutional Heritage and its Political Economy Achievements”, and also in my most recent book, Ethiopia: Democracy, Devolution of Power, and the Developmental State”.

It seems to me it is much easier to continue the DS development policy than to build a robust democratic system in Ethiopia, but it is not impossible to lay the ground work for the political cultures of democracy, especially if we begin installing institutions for the sole purpose of establishing a democratic system. For this apparent reason, I have extrapolated ‘institutionalizing democracy in Ethiopia’ as follows: “Institutionalizing democracy in Ethiopia could simply mean laying the foundation for the edifice of a democratic system, i.e. forging democratic institutions as prelude to preconditions for the consolidation of democracy in the country. …Ethiopia could emulate other countries’ experiences and some of their vision (theoretical constructs) and paradigms, but it should also depend on its own historical experience, which could be amalgamated with what the country can best emulate from others. Incidentally, no country can develop on its own without external input but a nation that excessively depends on foreign prescriptions alone cannot effectively and meaningfully realize a genuine transformation in democracy and/or economic development.”5

Part I of my book is entirely dedicated to democracy and what Ethiopia can learn from American and European democracies, from some African countries, and from its own historical experience. In all the learning experiences that can serve as models for Ethiopia and as paradigms for Ethiopian scholars and policymakers, institutions take center stage. Stephan Haggard and Robert R. Kaufmann argue that “the answers are to be found in the nature of political institutions. We focus particular attention on two variables: the constitution of executive authority and the nature of the representative institutions that mediate between contending political and social groups and the government.”6  

Haggard and Kaufmann’s argument is very relevant to the current Ethiopian politics, especially to the initiatives taken by Dr. Abiy Ahmed in engaging diverse groups such as teachers, leaders of contending parties, and the leaders of the so-called EPRDF-affiliated groups from various regional states, and also in effectively utilizing his executive powers. While these debates and exchange of ideas are important in and of themselves, it is equally important that the government of Dr. Abiy realize that it would be to its advantage to preserve the constitutional order and attendant institutions that could facilitate the ongoing discussions, negotiations, debates etc. above all, when the current government (and succeeding governments) initiate reforms and changes by first delineating priorities, they must understand that “Institutions create elements of transparency and imperfect order and historical continuity. They [institutions] give rule communicable meaning so they can be diffused and passed on to new generations. Indeed, institutions are unusually associated with routinization and repetition, persistence and predictability, rather than with political change and flexibility, agency, creativity, and discretion. Surviving institutions seem to stabilize their reforms, rules, and meanings so that procedures and forms adopted at birth have surprising durability”7 

Once Ethiopia sets its priorities, it should seriously consider the building of institutions that, in turn, can greatly contribute to state and nation building in general, and accountability and transparency in particular. The state and nation building is not novice to Ethiopia; the country indeed is one of the sites of early states and nation-states with spectacular civilizations in Africa. The Ethiopian civilization of late antiquity witnessed formidable states that were competing and collaborating with contemporary states such as the Roman and Persian. Functional laws and constitutional orders were Ethiopia’s main features since the Aksumite period, to the medieval period, and the modern times. But, Ethiopia had major shortcomings in transparency and accountability from modern governments of Emperor Haile Selassie to present.

At this juncture, what Ethiopia should do is cleanse its bureaucracies with professional detergent that could possibly enable the country to install vertical and horizontal accountabilities. However the fundamental question is, “how is Ethiopia going to make these accountabilities effective? As Guillermo O’Donnell convincingly argues, “This hasty tour d’horizon of several important and complicated issues, each of which merits a huge bibliography, provides a necessary context for my discussion of horizontal accountability. This kind of accountability depends on the existence of state agencies that are legally empowered – and factually willing and able – to take actions ranging from routine oversight to criminal sanctions or impeachment in relation to possibly unlawful actions and omissions by other agents or agencies of the state.”8    

To recuperate the sick and badly damaged Ethiopian bureaucracies and other government agencies is a daunting task, involving major challenges; and it will also require a reasonably long time to realize both vertical and horizontal accountabilities in Ethiopia, and for this apparent time-sensitive undertaking and other important tasks that must be given priority, I like to propose that the May 2020 Ethiopian election be postponed. As O’Donnell puts it, “Elections, however, occur only periodically, and their effectiveness at securing vertical accountability is unclear, especially given the inchoate party systems, high voter and party volatility, poorly defined issues, and sudden policy reversals that prevail in most new polyarchies.”9 

In his recent meeting with the so-called EPRDF-affiliated parties of Afar, Somali, Benishangul-Gumuz, and Gambella, the Prime Minister announced that a new one party of all Ethiopia, not of Amhara, Oromo, Somali, etc. will be formed. Although I was perplexed to hear that relatively bizarre announcement, I first had the impression that the new party is meant to replace the EPRDF and thereby get ready for the forthcoming election. If this is the case, it will be counterproductive and the election will be messy, to say the least. On second thought, however, I have perceived and interpreted the new forthcoming party, as a party that includes Dr. Abiy and his close associates and the various opposition groupings that were invited to come to Ethiopia from the Diaspora. The new party may not include the majority of the legally registered home-grown parties, although it may include some as token for the sake of positive image and legitimacy; at the other end of the spectrum, the new party may alienate other parties like the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the Tigray People’s Liberation Party (TPLF). But, most importantly, my view of the new future party that it is going to be essentially an elitist party and a superimposition from above and not a grassroots political party that could duly respect the rights of the average Ethiopian in the electoral process. If this is going to be the nature and characteristics of the new party, it will grossly violate the criteria of inclusivity that we have discussed above and may find itself in contradistinction with the nationalities that make up the majority of the regional states.

Sometimes, Dr. Abiy unwittingly falters when he utters words that are not of his own measure. For instance, when he addressed the teachers, frustrated by the recalcitrant OLF, said, “I am on the verge of becoming a dictator”. Ethiopia have had enough dictators and autocrats, some firm and other soft, but irrespective of the variety of autocrats, what we need now is a broader democracy that would take root via institutional capacity building, and, in turn, that serves as vehicle in building institutions. However, Ethiopia is not going to overhaul everything from scratch; it has already a robust constitution and a federal structure that, in my opinion, should be preserved, and if necessary reformed and/or renovated, but not disturbed by unnecessary injection from seemingly “research and investigative” bodies such as the Border and Identity Commission. Additionally, some of the appointed people in the Commission have already made up their minds and they are biased against some Ethiopian regional states and could be a liability instead of an asset. It is for these reasons that I am suggesting the postponement of criteria 5, 6, 7, and 8 as shown above.  

On the other hand, criterion # 9 on human rights is urgent and the government has an obligation to ensure the human rights of Ethiopians. In the last ten months, due to lack of peace and instability, millions of Ethiopians were displaced from their homestead; some were attacked and killed by unknown forces and obviously we have now a humanitarian crisis. The enigma vis-à-vis the disturbances is the fact that the Federal Police and the Defense Forces remained silent, but at long last they officially embarked on quelling the disorder and infighting in western and central Gondar of the Amhara Regional State, but even this initiative was circumvented. The eerie silence of the Government is also quite disturbing at a time when the Ethiopian people are desperately seeking help in the redress for the violation of their human rights. As an extension of Criteria # 1, I appeal to the Ethiopian Government to ameliorate the condition of the internally displaced Ethiopians by taking action not only at rehabilitating the affected population but also by apprehending the dark forces that are disturbing the whole of Ethiopia.

Like the criteria that I labeled ‘urgent’, Criterion # 10 is also very crucial and it could galvanize (in the sense of inspire, stimulate, or arouse) the political consciousness of Ethiopians. All higher institutions in Ethiopia must include ‘political education’ in their respective curricula, and it must be reinforced and/or supplemented by workshops and mini-conferences. Political education in schools is long term objective in laying the kernel of political culture, the commonalities of historical heritage, and the significance of unity in diversity. This kind of political education, by its very nature is slow and steady but not urgent. On the other hand, mass informal education is very urgent and can be conducted effectively via the official Ethiopian Television (ETV) and other media outlets, and to make it more successful, it should be supported by series of town meetings for the sole purpose of educating the Ethiopian people.

With respect to mass political education in the context of democratic tolerance, Ethiopians missed a golden opportunity when the 1974 Revolution erupted and when the Derg military junta hijacked the initiative and direction of the social upheaval. The second golden opportunity was missed when the EPRDF assumed state power in 1991; there was high hope when the EPRDF organized the Addis Ababa Charter, but for all intents and purposes, the post-military regime also did not establish and launched democratic institutions, although the EPRDF has scored great achievement in the foundational economy.

Now again, under Abiy and his associates, Ethiopians must not miss an historic opportunity at installing the political culture of democracy. As the English maxim goes, ‘it is now or never’ for the establishment of democracy in Ethiopia, but if Ethiopia is indeed going to meet the priorities suggested above by delaying the inessential ones, it should begin by acknowledging the positive contributions of the EPRDF and by either restricting or discouraging negative attitudes and ethnic hatred as well as ethnocentric politics. A good panacea for overcoming narrow ethnic proclivities and practices is to uphold a pan-Ethiopian agenda that I have recommended numerous times by contributing articles on the subject. One good and encouraging initiative is the Lucy sojourn for peace and love and whose objective is the revival of the overarching Ethiopian brotherhood. The Lucy factor and the young Ethiopians who walked from all corners of Ethiopia to the site of the Battle of Adwa are fantastic gestures for the unification of the Ethiopian people and the revival of the Ethiopian etiquette attributed to mutual respect which is currently tarnished and disgraced by ethnic hatred. 

One other important task the Abiy Government must seriously consider is the general consensus of the majority of Ethiopians on the continuation of the current federal structure. The eight regional states of Tigray, Afar, Harar, Somali, Debub, Oromia, Gambella, and Benishagul Gumuz have affirmatively endorsed the federal system. Instead of promoting a countervailing idea/policy of a unitary state, the best bet for Abiy and his government is to strengthen and further solidify the Ethiopian state that, in turn, best serves the interests of the Ethiopian people within the framework of the present federal structure. After all, the Ethiopian state, like other successful and effective states, must realize its potential and its “capacities to create and strengthen state organizations, to employ personnel to co-opt political support, to subsidize economic enterprises, and to fund social programs.”10   That is the way to go and that is how Ethiopia must set its priorities by discriminating the essential and inessential ones and meaningfully executing the day-to-day political and administrative affairs of Ethiopia.

In addition to the priority agendas that I have discussed above, there are some important sentiments and concerns expressed by many Ethiopians from the regional states that the present regime must discuss on an open public forum. A significant number of Ethiopians from the said regional states have condemned the betrayal committed against the people of Tigray, who apparently have made huge sacrifices in dislodging the Derg government and contributing to the newly forged identity of the respective Ethiopian nationalities. Many Oromo, Afar, Somali, Gambella, Benishangul-Gumuz, and other sub-nationalities from Debub have exhibited their sympathy to the people of Tigray. The Government of Dr. Abiy, thus, is best advised to respect the wish and demand of the Ethiopian people and rethink the ongoing drama of attempting to isolate Tigray from the rest of Ethiopia, which by the way could result in disaster due to miscalculation and unnecessary provocation. Abiy and his associates are best advised to giving priority to the unity of the Ethiopian people and also to recapturing the glory of the Ethiopian nation-state that evolved thousands of years ago in Tigray.   



1.      Thomas Khun, “The Structure of Scientific Revolution”, quoted in Martin Bernal, Black Athena,

2.      Ghelawdewos Araia, “National Reconciliation and National Development in Ethiopia”, www.africanidea.org/national_reconcillation.html October 22, 2010

3.      Fanie du Toit, When Political Transitions Work: Reconciliations as Interdependence                  

4.      Toit, Ibid

5.      Toit, Ibid

6.      Stephan Haggard and Robert R. Kaufman, The Political Economy of Democratic Transitions, Princeton University Press, 2018

7.      James March and Johan Olsen, “Institutional Perspectives” in Bernard E. Brown, Comparative Politics, Tenth Edition, Thompson and Wadsworth, 2006, p. 361

8.      Guillermo O’Donnell, “Horizontal Accountability in New Democracies”, in Bernard E. Brown, p. 206

9.      Guillermo O’Donnell, Ibid, p.203

10.  Theda Skocpol, “Bringing the State Back In”, in Bernard E. Brown, Ibid, p. 88


All Rights Reserved Copyright © Institute of Development and Education for Africa (IDEA), 2019. For educational and constructive feedback, please contact Dr. Ghelawdewos Araia via dr.garaia@africanidea.org