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August 19, 2020


ETHIOPIA: Cabinet reshuffle highlights fragile transition, conflict potential

BY Anne Frühauf

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( 5 mins)
  • Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s 18 August cabinet reshuffle may further fuel tensions in his Oromia home region, with potential implications for stability and the elections (postponed until 2021).
  • Domestic tensions may also complicate Abiy’s ability to compromise with Egypt and Sudan over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), over which a fresh round of negotiations is under way.

The most significant change in Abiy’s reshuffle was the removal of defense minister Lemma Megersa. Tensions between the minister and prime minister had been building for months after Lemma publicly criticized Abiy’s merger of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (ERPDF) into the Prosperity Party (PP) and the prime minister’s “Medemer” (synergy) national project with which he aims to unite a nation at a time when demands for greater regional autonomy and decentralization are on the rise. The removal of Lemma (once Abiy’s superior in the Oromia government and seemingly more popular in the region than Abiy) may further diminish Abiy’s support in his home region, coming on the heels of the killing of popular Oromo protest singer Haacaaluu Hundeessaa in late July, which triggered mass protests, the arrest of influential Oromo media personality Jawar Mohammed and the incarceration of thousands of protesters.

The Oromia tensions present a serious challenge for Abiy and the performance of his PP ahead of landmark elections, which have been postponed until 2021 due to the pandemic. As explained previously, Oromia holds the largest share of members (one-third) in the 547-seat House of People’s Representatives. Yet the gulf between Oromo nationalists and Abiy’s moderates is widening over the prime minister’s perceived failure to advance Oromo interests. Demands include influence over Addis Ababa’s administration and equal status for the Oromo language alongside Amharic, which reflect broader grievances over Oromo marginalization dating back to the reign of Menelik II (1889-1913).

No different from his predecessors?

Instead of aiding his home region, Abiy is accused of resorting to repression much like his predecessors, via the security apparatus, legal means such as the Hate Speech and Disinformation Prevention Proclamation, and by using a constitutional interpretation process to extend the federal and regional governments’ terms in office due to the pandemic. (Elections were due this August, but the ruling found that no elections can take place until 9-12 months after federal health authorities deem the pandemic under control, giving the Abiy administration considerable leeway over the timing of the elections in 2021.)

These grievances are unlikely to be calmed by Abiy’s choice of Lemma’s replacement, Kenea Yedeta, Oromia’s former security chief. He will likely be eyed with suspicion, given that many opposition leaders hold not just the federal government but the regional administration responsible for a new crackdown on Oromo nationalists. A recently created wing of the regional police, the Oromia Special Force, is allegedly involved in killing, arresting and intimidating people suspected of links with the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) and the rebel Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), an OLF splinter that emerged after a failed attempt to integrate the group into regional security forces in 2019.

Election postponement to stoke tensions

Of the many issues and grievances boiling over, the election postponement looks set to stoke further tensions, not only with Oromia but also with the Tigray region. Electorally speaking, the Tigray administration led by Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which once dominated the EPRDF and is the main loser of Abiy’s political transition, is already a lost cause for Abiy, but is straining federal relations by threatening to carry out the postponed national elections within its region in September.

Both the election issue and accusations of repression against the Abiy government highlight the serious nature of the threat to national stability, the cohesion of the security apparatus and the conduct of what were once billed to be landmark elections.

Projecting its troubles abroad

Deepening domestic tensions also undermine Abiy’s ability to compromise in negotiations with Egypt and Sudan over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), where fresh negotiations – chaired by the African Union – are under way this week. After all, the hydroelectric mega project is one of few issues around which most Ethiopians can rally and is thus badly needed in a time of domestic turmoil. The extent to which Ethiopia’s diplomatic struggles are interlinked with domestic tensions is underlined by official insinuations that Egyptian agents could have been behind the latest Oromia unrest. Ethiopia also took a hard position in July when it announced the first stage of the filling of the GERD reservoir, which provided a new flash point in a nine-year diplomatic struggle to secure an agreement.

After a brief hiatus, Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia agreed to resume negotiations on 16 August and were due to present draft proposals for the GERD’s management on 19 August. Although officials in Sudan and Egypt have signaled that a final draft agreement is in the offing, the devil will be in unifying the details of the proposal texts. Fundamentally, while Egypt is seeking a legally binding agreement on filling guidelines and operations, Ethiopia seeks a more flexible arrangement, particularly for drought periods.

It is therefore difficult to judge whether the talks – which have vacillated between promises of major progress and abrupt breakdowns over recent months – are close to a lasting accord. It is not clear what pressure points could force a quick deal. Egypt’s occasional warnings that it could resort to military force might only harden Ethiopia’s stance at a time of domestic turmoil. Similarly, US threats to withhold aid to Ethiopia over the GERD standoff might only reinforce the Abiy administration’s perceptions of the US’ bias towards Egypt and its attempt to assert Ethiopia’s historically denied water rights. Like on Ethiopia’s home front, volatility and brinkmanship therefore seem the only certainty in the current combustible context.

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