Ethiopia: “Deceptive Facelift” or “Full-Blown Change”?
The election of Abiy Ahmed, the Muslim leader of the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO), by the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) as the party’s chairman and presumably the country’s next Prime Minister could be more than just a “deceptive facelift” and might hint that full-blown change is on the horizon so long as Ethiopia properly applies the lessons of the Soviet-Russian precedents.
The ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) emerged from an extraordinary meeting following Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn surprise resignation to announce that Abiy Ahmed, the Muslim leader of the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO), was elected as the national party’s new chairman, a position of power that likely means that he’ll eventually become Ethiopia’s next Prime Minister as well. This symbolically represents the first time that both an Oromo and a Muslim is leading the civilization-state, and this prudent decision was obviously made in response to the recent wave of Oromo unrest (which at times took on Hybrid War dimensions) and the resultant “deep state” crisis that it catalyzed within the governing coalition.
It’s plain to see that this is a visibly cosmetic change to the country’s leadership, seeing as how a relatively young Oromo Muslim is now poised to be the state steward following the post-civil war premiership of the comparatively older Tigrayan Christian revolutionary leader Meles Zenawi, with the transition between these two totally different men being smoothed somewhat by the rule of Southern Christian Hailemariam Desalegn in the interim. From the looks of it, Ethiopia has entered into an entirely new era of governance characterized by its largest ethnicity finally gaining control of the country and empowering its second-largest confessional group in the process.
There’s a “populist” perception among some Oromo that the late-imperial period of the 19th century was marked by this southern lowland people’s “colonization” by the northern highland Amhara, which sometimes also takes on a Christian-Muslim dimension depending on the narrative. Critics of this interpretation point to the parallels between the Ethiopian Empire and the Russian one when it comes to their incorporation of newly acquired ethnicities and faiths into the imperial framework, with the structural similarities between these two empires in the geo-historic sense of their expansion providing yet another reason apart from the overall strategic one as to why the Tsar helped his Horn of African counterpart in the First Italo-Ethiopian War by sending him military supplies and advisors.
The comparison between the two countries doesn’t end there, however, since the argument can convincingly be made that modern-day Ethiopia is experiencing its own forms of “glasnost” and “perestroika” (“openness” and “restructuring”) as it seeks to manage the growing unrest in the Oromia Region, though the precedent set in the twilight years of the USSR is instructive in showing Addis Ababa that the pace of change must be controlled in identity-diverse states such as itself and the former Soviet Union in order to avert an unintended collapse. Just like the USSR “Balkanized” along the lines of its administrative regions and then some of the them experienced “second-degree Balkanization” within their post-independence borders, so too could the same scenario unfold in Ethiopia as a result of Article 39 of its 1995 constitution.
That’s why Addis Ababa will try to learn from Moscow’s example in attempting to avoid the pitfalls that befell the Soviet Union during its dying days as it belatedly sought to reform its stagnant system, with the primary difference being that Ethiopia is presently exhibiting one of the world’s fastest rates of growth whereas the late-1980s collapse of the USSR’s economy was a precursor to what would ultimately happen to the state itself. In addition, while the Soviet Union was beset with an ever-widening array of ethno-regional conflicts within its borders prior to its fated dissolution, Ethiopia has kept its domestic disturbances largely under control through the use of its military and the related promulgation of states of emergency.
The Chechen Precedent
Another difference is that Ethiopia has yet to carry out a “federal intervention” on par with the two that the Russian Federation commenced in Chechnya, which eventually ended in the bestowment of broad autonomy and de-facto sharia law in the republic, but it can learn from this experience by understanding the need for actual decentralization and “compromise” in zones of simmering identity conflict so long as the state’s security interests can also be guaranteed. The Russian Federation relies on loyal Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov to keep the peace in his region and provides him full financial and other forms of support to this end, which is an example that Addis Ababa could emulate by applying it to Oromia’s unique conditions if new EPDRF leader Ahmed can find a trusted individual to fulfill this role.
The final difference between Russia’s Chechnya and Ethiopia’s Oromia is that the former comprises a sliver of sparsely populated territory in a geographic extremity of the country while the latter is the state’s largest and most populous region located smack dab in the center of the country. This geopolitical fact means that Ethiopia can’t give Oromia any “special status” like Russia did with Chechnya and treat it as an “exception to the rule” but must consequently reform the entire state structure if it’s serious about sustainably resolving the legitimate problems that are giving rise to unrest in that region and tempting foreign forces to exploit it for their own reasons.
Bearing all of this in mind, Abiy Ahmed’s election by the EPDRF as their new chairman and most likely the country’s next Prime Minister appears to be more than just an insincere and hasty “band-aid solution” of elevating a “token” Oromo Muslim figure to power and seems to truly indicate that the country is on the cusp of full-blown change, albeit a transformation that will take time to unfold as security considerations are given the utmost attention during this crucial transitional phase. Addis Ababa’s municipal expansion, which triggered the Oromo violence that led to the 2016-2017 state of emergency, might still remain a non-negotiable issue for the state due to the national interests involved, but apart from that, observers can expect the government to be a lot more flexible towards mostly any other topic of significance as it works to reform the system and consequently turn Ethiopia into one of the Multipolar World Order’s newest Great Powers.