Ethiopians from all walks of life gave a nod of approval when the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the ruling bloc that had been in power after it overthrew the communist Derg junta in May 1991, was formally dissolved upon the merger of three of its four constituent members— the Amhara Democratic Party, the Oromo Democratic Party and the Southern Ethiopian Peoples’ Democratic Movement—in November 2019 and formed the Prosperity Party (PP). Parties that despite being considered as “partners” had never been allowed to join the EPRDF — the ruling parties in the Afar, Benishangul-Gumuz, Harari, Somalia and Gambella regions — also decided to dissolve and merge with PP. Though Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) is regarded to be the brains behind the formation of PP, the EPRDF had already deliberated on becoming a united party some years back. It’s after Prime Minister Abiy came to power in April 2018 however that the merger picked up speed.
EPRDF’s fragmentation was set in motion soon after the death in 2012 of Meles Zenawi, the former Prime Minister and its long-serving leader. Although the EPRDF had admitted on several occasions that it had become rotten to the core and undertook a series of “renewal” measures even before Meles passed away, it failed miserably at reforming itself. This prompted the public’s discontent driven by political and economic marginalization, which had been simmering for years, to boil over and trigger a wave of protests across the country that culminated in ending the Front’s dominance by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the sole party which declined to join PP. The establishment of the Prosperity Party was vehemently opposed by the TPLF and even some in senior positions in Prime Minister Abiy’s own administration. Nevertheless, the majority of Ethiopians were supportive of the merger in the belief that it represented an opportunity to unite the country and resolve the multi-faceted and deep-rooted problems confronting it.
The Prosperity Party claims to be a pan-Ethiopian party, arguing its creation marks a clear departure from the ethnic politics espoused and implemented by the EPRDF. During its founding Prime Minister Abiy said the party was committed to strengthening and applying a true Federal system which recognizes the diversity and contributions of all Ethiopians. The party has vowed to lead Ethiopia along the path of democratic progress and economic prosperity; address past mistakes and injustices as well as put an end to divisions and a legacy of resentment. Even as the broadening of the political space that began immediately following the PM’s assumption of office continued apace after PP’s, it embarked on adopting centrist policies and attempting to forge broader consensus on key developmental goals. Only time will tell if its vision for Ethiopia will be realized.
Sadly the Prosperity Party is sliding back on the gains it says it has made since its inception. As a party which by and large inherited the members and organizational ethos of the EPRDF it is reverting to the old wicked ways of its predecessor. Despite the oft-repeated assertion that the party is committed to moving away from pro-ethnic federalism past to promoting Ethiopian national identity, bringing about political inclusivity and allowing vital institutions to flourish, its track record leaves much to be desired. A significant chunk of the party’s leadership and rank and file still subscribe to and defend Ethiopia’s ethnic-based brand of federalism. There are worrying signs that such fundamental human and democratic liberties of citizens as the rights to life, security of person and liberty; equality before the law; and the right of assembly, demonstration and petition are once again being trampled. Furthermore, the distinction between party and government continues to be blurred, perpetuating the dominance and abuse of state structures by the ruling party. The mismatch between what the party says but does on the ground has left many confused and suspicious of its real intentions.
It cannot be denied that during the reign of the EPRD, Ethiopia made commendable strides in healthcare, education and the alleviation of extreme poverty. Unfortunately, the constitutional aspiration of creating one political and economic community remains a pipe dream owing to the proliferation of undemocratic attitudes and bad governance. As such it’s of the essence that the Prosperity Party re-dedicates itself to ensuring the fostering of a broad-based political system. This lofty goal cannot be achieved without adapting its organization, structure, and membership to keep pace with rapidly evolving local and global realities. Neither can it be attained by succumbing to the temptation to view everything through ideological prisms instead of being clear-eyed pragmatists. But most of all it cannot be accomplished without building truly independent and inclusive institutions that act as counterweights to the forces of polarization and fragmentation. At a time Ethiopia’s very survival is on a knife’s edge it’s incumbent on the party to walk the talk and dispel the doubts as to what it actually stands for. Will the real Prosperity Party please stand up?