Sunday, June 16, 2024
In DepthEthiopia's elusive search for a shared national vision

Ethiopia’s elusive search for a shared national vision

Ethiopia has long struggled to establish a cohesive and durable national vision that can align its diverse political forces behind shared economic and social objectives, a challenge that some analysts argue has hindered progress and stability.

Over successive regimes from the communist Derg to the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition to the current Prosperity Party (PP) government, fractious politics and an absence of overarching priorities rooted in democratic governance have propagated division and curbed coordinated development.

For decades, leaders of the EPRDF, a coalition of four parties that led the country for over two decades, touted eradicating poverty as their top priority. From local bureaucrats to diplomats representing Ethiopia on the world stage to the party leader, reducing poverty was ostensibly the shared goal, at least publicly.

The EPRDF took power in 1991 after ousting the communist Derg regime, which aimed to build a socialist one-party state. Under their developmentalist doctrine, the coalition and allies sought modernization through agriculture, industry, and equitable growth. The government aggressively invested in roads, clinics, and schools under two prime ministers. However, the EPRDF’s authoritarian governance and ethnic federalism framework that divided regional authority drew opposition over time.

Still, some credited the administration with forging a limited sense of collective purpose through ambitious investment nationwide. “They established common ground on development, despite flaws,” noted Oromo opposition figure Bete Urgessa.

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But after Meles Zenawi’s death in 2012, distrust intensified toward his successor Hailemariam Desalegn as reforms stalled. Critics said the ethnic federalism experiment unwittingly inflamed grievances by prioritizing subgroup identity over national cohesion.

Following mass protests that erupted in Oromia and Amhara regions in 2015-2018 over political exclusion and economic marginalization, in April 2018, Hailemariam resigned and Abiy Ahmed (PhD) assumed leadership of the ruling coalition, pledging sweeping democratic and economic changes.

Many hoped Abiy would bring the nation out of ethnic division that have caused mistrust among communities and political elites, with the expectation that he would be able to create a common objective shared by all. At first, his acceptance stretched from north to south, from Mekelle to Hawassa, as he was welcomed by the majority of Ethiopians craving change.

He even went beyond his nation and ended the two decades of no war no peace deadlock with Eritrea by making peace with the tiny neighboring nation that used to be part of Ethiopia before its independence in 1991. He also made inroads with the diaspora community who partly played a big role in the resignation of Hailemariam Desalgen and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)-dominated administration.

Just two years after assuming power, he has dismantled the EPRDF and established a single party now governing the nation, the PP, which led to disagreement with even his close friend, Lemma Megersa, who left the party, and the TPLF.

To make things worse, just two years after assuming power, a bloody civil war broke out as he became unable to resolve his differences with the TPLF, and last year in November, a peace deal in Pretoria ended the year-long civil war, which claimed the lives of over 600,000 people, if not more.

And recently, before the blood of those lost in the north even dried, another war broke out in the Amhara region between the Fano militias and the ruling government, which had once been allies but were now turned foes.

Renowned political economist Francis Fukuyama highlighted Ethiopia’s lack of a shared national objective as a major impediment in a 2019 analysis. He argued the absence of consensus on overarching economic and political goals undermines development and stability.

Fukuyama posited that without a common national objective, it’s difficult to unify stakeholders or track meaningful progress. He explained why Ethiopia’s developmental state model had failed to emulate the success of Asia’s tiger economies. As he observed even then, political actors instead vie for influence through ethnic, clan, or parochial interests if higher priorities are ill-defined.

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This fracturing directly inhibits Ethiopia’s potential for robust growth, according to Fukuyama. Fragmentation discourages long-term planning and deters investment from both domestic and international partners who see risk in an unstable policy environment with unpredictable changes.

While Fukuyama’s assessment addressed the defunct EPRDF regime at the time, his analysis is consistent with critiques from contemporary Ethiopian analysts who cite ongoing discord within the PP over establishing clear priorities.

“The Tigray war is a clear manifestation that the lack of a common objective is leading the country into the abyss,” said Hayalu Godifay an opposition figure from Tigray.

The issue of establishing a shared national objective in Ethiopia’s complex political landscape poses serious challenges. While Prime Minister Abiy argues the country is moving in the “right direction,” realities on the ground tell a different story according to analysts.

Internally, there is discord within the ruling PP itself over defining clear objectives, as power struggles and factionalism hamper efforts to align priorities. Competing interests see party members promote personal or regional aims over larger national goals.

The brutal two-year civil war in Tigray highlights how this fragmentation can spill over violently, says opposition figure Bete. Ethiopia’s fractured political environment, with numerous parties holding diverse views, also makes consensus difficult to attain.

Achieving cohesion requires transcending ethnic and regional divisions through a cooperative national vision, but this has proven elusive. Hayalu argues true agreement can only emerge through meaningful democracy and participation.

Awegetchew Malede, chair of the Kimant Democratic Party, contends the governing administration must promote inclusion and discussion. “Only collective effort through open dialogue can restore national purpose and build prosperity,” he asserts.

“Strong, rights-respecting institutions must take priority to prevent power abuses from undermining national goals,” says political observer Erssido Lendebo (PhD).

Historically, Ethiopia’s understanding of common objectives has shifted with regimes from the communist Derg to EPRDF to the current PP party. However, absent rule of law and accountability, analysts warn desired goals may remain out of reach.

At present, observers agree internal PP crises and a lack of unified vision driving policy represent grave threats. The newly established National Dialogue Commission aims to foster wider talks to reconcile competing interests through principled discussions.

Regional and international actors welcomed this initiative, hoping it could stabilize tensions and begin resolving long-standing ethnic divisions. Ultimately, experts argue a consensus view is pivotal for both capable governance and social cohesion in Ethiopia’s complex political environment.

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