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Unitary Elite Politics Vs Grassroots Federalist Forces in Ethiopia

Ghelawdewos Araia, PhD                                      November 26, 2019

This article intends to critically examine the present Ethiopian politics of transition from group federalist identity politics in the context of self-determination of Ethiopian nationalities to the newly inducted individual citizen identity that is geared to supersede the former. First, however, I like to clarify the two concepts of ‘elite’ and ‘grassroots’ in order to avoid misconceptions. As I use them in this text, the term ‘elite’ does not refer to the most wealthy and most powerful group who enjoy a distinct privilege in a society (e.g. the United States); it refers rather to a group in a given society (e.g. Ethiopia) that is seemingly superior in its social status and overall knowledge vis-à-vis other groups in the larger society. However, sometimes there is no neat distinction between the two types of elites; they in fact conflate and intersect as was clearly demonstrated by some EPRDF leaders who used the state apparatus to enrich themselves in nearly three decades of the Party’s rule.

Grassroots leadership, on the other hand, empowers the people by being part of them and not above them or being superior to them in social status and/or wealth. Grassroots leaders, unlike elite leaders, don’t make a huge power distance between themselves and the people; they see themselves as part of the people and they dedicate all their efforts toward enhancing and promoting the welfare of the people. One other major distinction between the grassroots leadership and the elite leadership is that the latter for the most part exhibits inconsistencies and contradictions in its political program, policies, and agendas; it is deceptive at making false promises – its leaders lie in a public square! The former, by contrast, sincerely advocates on behalf of the people and it entertains policies and programs that are doable and realistic.

It is in the light of the above explanatory notes of elite vs. grassroots that I now proceed to examine the present Ethiopian politics. I will start with the formation of the new party, the Ethiopian Prosperity Party (EPP), following the EPRDF’s Executive Committee meeting in Addis Ababa between 16 and 18 November 2019. The prior agreement reached among the four parties that make up the EPRDF was that each party of the coalition submits a report on pertinent urgent issues such as elections, rule of law, the constitution, the federal structure etc. but except for the TPLF, none of the other three parties came up with a report, and on the contrary the meeting turned into a panoply of inordinate unconstitutional declaration of a unified single EPRDF party, baptized with a new name of EPP; the TPLF rejected the idea of EPP although it has no objection to the formation of a single unified party insofar it follows the bylaws of the Party and the governing principles of the Constitution. The TPLF argued that the meeting of the EPRDF had no agenda or political program and the action taken by the three parties was a preemptive strike to hastily form the EPP. Moreover, the EPP has violated the EPRDF’s Hawassa conference of 2018, in which the ruling party agreed to continue its revolutionary democracy benchmark that served it as a principal guiding post for the most part of its governing period.

Incidentally and interestingly, nine months ago, before  I knew of the forthcoming new unified single party, I made a relevant remark based on the words of the Prime Minster, in my article entitled “Priorities in Ethiopian Politics: Expediting the Exigencies and Postponing the Inessential Ones,” I reasoned as follows:

“In his recent meeting with the so-called EPRDF-affiliated parties of Afar, Somali, Benishangul-Gumuz and Gambella, the Prime Minster announced a new single party of Ethiopia, not of Amahara, 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 was 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 Front (TPLF). But most importantly, my view of the new future party that 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 going to be the nature and characteristics of the new party, it will grossly violate the criteria of inclusivity…and may find itself in contradistinction with the nationalities that make up the majority of the regional states.”1             

What I have discussed above back in March 2019 in regards to the new party is a modicum of prediction on my part with respect to the nature and characteristics of the newly announced elitist EPP. We have to wait and see what the so-called Prosperity Party will do for Ethiopia and Ethiopians; however, at the onset, like the early bird that is desperate to eat the worms, the EPP leaders embarked on dismantling the EPRDF, but the TPLF has told its former comrades-in-arms in no uncertain terms that it would not be part of the new merged party, and the three parties, namely Oromo Democratic Party, Amahara Democratic Party, Debub, along with some affiliated parties whose leaders were handpicked by PM Abiy Ahmed, has now merged into one unitary party that is aimed at forging a new Ethiopia tainted with the liberal economy agenda that would perhaps, in turn, incorporate a Milton Friedman type of policy that is in favor of unfettered market economy. For readers who would be interested to know more on Western style capitalism, plethora of books for immediate reference are available in the librares and/or bookstores, but one that stands out is Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom. I will come back to this theme later; for now, I will focus on the future political battleground between the elite and the grassroots forces.

Admittedly, Ethiopia had never had grassroots leadership in its modern history, but as is well known everything in the universe is perceived, understood, and assessed in relative terms; following this logic thus, the federalist structure and federalist forces come very close to grassroots leadership as already defined above. With all its weaknesses and drawbacks, the Ethiopian constitution and its attendant federal structure written and built by the federalist forces brought about some freedom of self-determination for the various Ethiopian regional states and nationalities.

With the advent of the Unitarian (not to be confused with the Christian theological movement)  groupings into state power, the exorcisms of the ubiquitous “demons” of the federalist forces has been going on for some time now, and the founding of EPP could be the culmination of the eradication process of the EPRDF and other grassroots federalist forces. The Unitarian elite may have successfully harnessed the consolidation of state power, but it may not enjoy the legitimacy that emanates from the Ethiopian people, and the missing link of legitimacy in power politics is a serious deficit for any government. The deficit or debacle, in fact, is the first laboratory of the elite group in introducing and installing the liberal agenda. If at all, the latter group could offer a gentleman’s coup and provide freedom of press, freedom of speech and assembly in order to enable consolidate itself, but if is challenged by the grassroots federalist forces and also senses existential threat, the freedoms mentioned above could be extinguished by political fiat, i.e. by authoritative sanction of the ruling elite.

While it is abundantly clear that the EPP has an agenda of moving away from the present federal system structured along language/ethnic lines, the opportunist high-ranking officials and obsequious elements of the Oromo Democratic Party (ODP) and Amahara Democratic Party (ADP) deceive the people in “reaffirming” the old slogans of the EPRDF, and ensuring the average Ethiopian that they are still in favor of the constitution and the federal system. Their motive perhaps is to hoodwink the masses but to their chagrin and dismay the Ethiopian people have already detected that the ruling clique have betrayed federalism and the developmental state. The Ethiopian people don’t need any explanation for this kind of betrayal; a couple of years ago, in a massive demonstration at Bahir Dar, the leaders of ADP, Demeke Mekonnen (current Vice Prime Minister) and Gedu Andargachew (former President of the Amahara Regional State and present Foreign Minister of Ethiopia) told Ethiopians in plain language that the present constitution, the federal system, and the flag do not represent them. And precisely that is what they are heading for – dismantling the federal system and abrogating the constitution; these elite are a good example of a bunch of leaders who renounce their most cherished beliefs nakedly and without any remorse to the damages they have brought to the Ethiopian people. They will continue to prune the legacy of self-determination of nationalities insofar they control the helm of power; if they do it hastily, they will falter, but if they operate gradually and with extra care, they will manage to control the reins of power for reasonably longer period of time.               

The elite unitary regime could also stay in power by co-opting local elites from the Southern Regional State, Benishagul-Gumuz, Gambella, Afar, and Somali regional states, but it will encounter stiff resistance from the most two important regional states of Oromia and Tigray, as well as Afar and Somali regions; the handpicked officials from the latter two regions would not adequately serve legitimacy to the  power brokering and they would not meet the prerequisites for consolidation; in both Afar and Somali regions, there are politicians that have opposed the formation of the EPP, and could stand along the grassroots federalist forces including Tigray and Oromia. In point of fact, the Somali Democratic Party (SDP) rejected the EPP and argued that the latter does not have the mandate to dissolve the SDP; only the Somali Regional State (SRS) Congress has the powers to decide the fate of the SDP. The spokesman of the SDP also clearly stated that the rank-and-file believe that the current proposed EPP bylaws violates at least…1) the party structure, and 2) the representation in the new party that is to be established after merger. Additionally, the SDP indicated that there is lack of clarity on the question of autonomy and self-rule.

Nevertheless, while the drafting of this article was in progress, something enigmatic and bewildering happened: another faction of the SDP announced on Ethiopian Television (ETV) on November 26, 2019 that is has endorsed the EPP and that it is going to be part of the single unified party. Who then represents the Somali Regional State? And who would represent the Amahara and Oromia regions after the ADP and ODP vanish in the making of the EPP?

The “lack of clarity on autonomy and self-rule” is symptomatic of the coming agenda of the EPP that could altogether obliterate the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (FDRE), but as a result of this new mission, Ethiopia could turn into a battleground between the federalist forces and the unitary elite group. The preferred mechanism in conflict resolution is national reconciliation conducted around round tables of dialogue, and headed by rational and seasoned leaders, but given the Ethiopian history of violence in resolving differences and/or undertaking political changes, it is unlikely that the federalist and unitary forces would iron out their ideological cleavage peacefully.

In due course of the upsurge for change and reform initiated by Abiy Ahmed a year and half ago, if the unitary elites consolidate with their free market agenda, they could still witness for themselves an artificially induced social and economic crisis that, in turn, systematically dismantle the remarkable foundational economy that had been achieved under the developmental state (DS) in the 27-year rule of the EPRDF.

I have made a historical footnote on the achievements of EPRDF’s DS in my book Ethiopia: Democracy, Devolution of Power and the Developmental State (2013) although in the same book I criticize the ruling party in its miserable failure in introducing the democratic culture in the Ethiopian society. In this article, my interest is to address the significance of the DS if it manages to survive and continue; the present government may not completely seal off the DS but it could considerably weaken it in favor of privatization; on the other hand, there could be pressure on the government from the federalist forces to preserve, save, and continue the DS but this latter effort could be more effective in regional states like Tigray because this regional state, compared to other regional states, is more or less operating as an independent state.

The unitary elite group, who are obsessed with capitalism and advocate on behalf of it as free-market crusaders have a misconception that the successful DS countries around the world have impeded the promotion of the capitalist sector, but they are wrong. On the contrary, with the exception of China that is now both socialist and capitalist, other successful DS countries like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong (now part of China but autonomous) are all full-fledged capitalist states.

The major accomplishment of the DS states was best reinforced in one of my articles entitled “The Federalist and Unitary Systems in Comparative Perspective,” and here below is an excerpt from that article:     

“In light of the success stories championed and implemented by the many federal systems around the world, and also in relation to Ethiopia’s relative advancement in a span of two and half decades, it is imperative that Ethiopian politicians, elites, intellectuals, and civic leaders (including religious and business leaders) strive for the continuation of the federal system, and reform it if necessary, via dialogue and all-Ethiopia conference. Ethiopians must understand that it is much easier to build on what already exists than demolish present institutions and start from scratch.”2      

I hope Ethiopia will not start from scratch, but the current political climate in the country is not promising to warrant a double-digit economic growth that has been achieved via the Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP I) projected to score 11-15 % growth of GDP. GTP II (2016-2020) is designed to uplift Ethiopians from poverty by making Ethiopia a middle income country by 2025. Given the current political mess and dwindling economy, however, GTP II may not be realized. On top of a deteriorating economy, overall instability, the cost of living that have gone through the roof and the glaring poverty of Ethiopians, lawlessness and violence in major Ethiopian cities, it will take years for an economic recovery. Moreover, in addition to the pain of existence, the overall condition of Ethiopians has graphically proven false to the promises made by this government.

Other concern that I have is, if the unitary elites consolidate and the federalist forces lose ground, not only major institutions of Ethiopia like Telecom Ethiopia, Ethiopian Light and Power Authority (ELPA), Commercial Bank of Ethiopia (CBE), Ethiopian Railway, Ethiopian Shipping Lines etc could be out on an open auction, but the Government itself could be on sale.

“Ethiopia for sale” reminds me of the conversations made between Meles Zenawi (MZ) and Alex de Waal (AdW) in 2018 in regards to the future of Ethiopia in the context of the developmental state or the political marketplace. Here below is a tiny portion of the conversation.3        

AdW: …The danger is that the regulator will be vulnerable to capture by well-financed business or foreign governments.

MZ: You mean that the Ethiopian State could be bought? I don’t see that happening short of a counter-revolution, in which case, the rent seekers will sell anything and everything. If that happens, well, Ethiopia won’t be a failed state so it won’t be a laissez-faire open political market like Somalia. We are not a renter state so we won’t become an oil-based kleptocracy like Sudan. Or for that matter a one-man mafia-style business as in Eritrea!

The conversation between these two gentlemen manifests some prophetic trends in political economy that we have recently witnessed in Ethiopia, but beyond these kinds of exchanges of ideas and the important themes I have raised in this article, what is to be done now? What can (or must) the federalist forces do in order to save the constitution and the federal system in its present form from vanishing? I propose that all-Ethiopia political groups on either side of the aisle (unitary elitist or grassroots federalist) should call upon a historic national reconciliation conference to resolve their differences, and in the meantime the federalist forces should regroup and seize the moment under a newly established overarching organization: The Ethiopian Federalist Democratic Alliance (EFDA).


1.    Ghelawdewos Araia, “Priorities in Ethiopian Politics: Expediting the Exigencies and Postponing the Inessential Ones”, March 1, 2019 www.africanidea.org/priorities_Ethiopia_politics.html

2.    Ghelawdewos Araia, “The Federalist and Unitary Systems in Comparative Perspective,”  www.africanidea.org/Federalist_Unitary_context_Ethiopia.html June 7 2019

3.    Alex de Waal, “The Future of Ethiopia: Developmental State or Political Marketplace,” www.africanidea.org/The-future-of-ethiopia_development.pdf World Peace Foundation, August 20, 2018

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