The Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Front (EPRDF) is reported to be long overdue to hold one of its eventful national congresses. The party Congress is the third tier of assembly in EPRDF structure where more than 1000 members representing the four parties and the various wings of these parties sit down together once every two years, discuss various issues and elect a central committee and audit committee members. But, given the current state of the party, commentators argue that it is in no shape to conduct its national congress; while others even question if the meeting would even take place. Nevertheless, the most important concern is what the congress could mean for the Front and the country it rules, writes Asrat Seyoum.
Born out of a harsh armed struggle to topple the military regime in Ethiopia, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Front (EPRDF) has been a dominant political force in the country and the region during the last 30 years. Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) is where it all started in the late 60’s, with a handful of members starting an armed struggle in Tigray and later growing in membership and military might. Later on, the TPLF was joined by Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM) (then called Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (EPDM)) giving birth to the entity EPRDF.As the struggle progressed and perhaps gets much closer to take over the nation, another party was born and joined the Front: Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO) making the Front stronger and inclusive. Yet again, the genesis of the party was not complete without the birth of another party: Southern Ethiopian Peoples’ Democratic Movement (SEPDM).
Long story short, the combination of the four parties maintained a strong hand in the political landscape of Ethiopia for close to three decades. In that time, writing a constitution, establishing government institutions, reconfiguring the security apparatus of the nation, and presiding over an impressive double-digit economic growth. Save the problems in the struggle days, thus far, EPRDF as a ruling coalition, has sailed through three major crises: the split of TPLF in 2001, the most contested election in 2005 and ensued violence afterwards and the recent political turmoil in the nation’s two highly populated regions.
The jury is still out on which of these crises were more challenging to the party; but the most recent one certainly brought forth a change unprecedented in EPRDF’s 27 years rule. The turmoil also ushered in a new leader to the top of the Front: Abiy Ahmed (PhD). For a party that stayed in the shadows of its leader, the late Meles Zenawi for decades, PM Abiy is certainly a shock. The new Prime Minister climbed to the top of the party ladder in the eventful national congress held in May.
Just as his rise, Abiy’s tenure so far has not been easy. In a manner unseen in the party’s history, the PM is facing opposition voices now even from within the Front itself: mostly from the TPLF’s old guard. According to some social media commentators, the fact that the executive committee of the Front (a powerful body made of 36 members each party contributing 9) is not meeting frequently is one indication to the loose internal unity.
According to the same arguments, the executive committee of the Front and each party is one body that meets regularly; this is how the party keeps the head of the executive body of the government in check with regard to major policy issues. Given its past experience, with political and security problems seen in many part of the nation, commentators speculate that this would have been the time where executive committees would be at their busiest.
This brings to question if the almighty EPRDF with its seven million members around the country is as strong as it was in the past. If the PM’s speech in Minneapolis, Minnesota is something to go by, EPRDF has never been as strong, after the reform.
The debate notwithstanding, the EPRDF executive committee did have its meeting this week and issued a statement which seems to defy the above assertions. The statement, almost contrary to social media debates, said that the committee has taken stalk of the reform process and expressed deep appreciation to the successes, so far. It listed down what it said were positive reform agendas: from Eritrea to the Diaspora, the unification of the Orthodox Church and the reform in the economy. The statement further appreciated the implementation of the reform agendas set out by the committee.
Nevertheless, even the committee could not completely deny a fallout between the parties in the Front. In this regard, the statement asserted that there is work to be done to forge a deeper unity among member parties of the EPRDF. In fact, it did not provide further details as to why unity is the focus for the party at this time, nor did it admit to the speculated fault lines between TPLF/ANDM old-guard and the new leadership in OPDO/ANDM.
For Getachew Nigatu, a former journalist and a political major, the source of the problem in the EPRDF can be traced back to what he called the “ERA of the Late Meles Zenawi”. The four members of the Front had the custom of directly reporting to the chairman with almost little to none horizontal relationship among the parties. “I could say the late Meles never labored to building intraparty democracy. Politicians from EPRDF were well linked with Meles but not to each other,” he told The Reporter. Even worse, he argued further, the relationship between the parties was not positive; there was a wide range of mistrust and at times lack of respect. “Following the untimely death of Meles, these four parties were faced with the harsh realities of dealing with each other; they had to have a dialogue,” he said.
As far as Tsedeke Yihunie, political/economy commentator and founder of Flintstone Real-estate, is concerned with the apparent political wrangling within the EPRDF is nothing more than an intergenerational power transition and struggle. Admitting that the party is “in crisis of considerable proportions,” he says that the future of the EPRDF as a Front depends on the capacity of the new generation and the old-guards to narrow down their differences and find a common ground; with the public being an important third party player in this interaction.
In Getachew’s opinion, the mother of all the problems is this new interaction and how this exchange began to expose the internal power dynamics which eventually led to other parties expressing frustration over a “longstanding domination of TPLF” in the Front and subsequently in the government. The fact that all four parties are organized in ethnic lines and all have “somewhat independent economic base, constituency and administrative regions” only compounds this division by providing an incentive against coming together and finding common ground, he added.
Tsedeke, however, is not worried since intergenerational power transitions tend to be bumpy. He believes no parent (old guard) has ever handed down power without some level of friction. But, as is expected, the time has come for the EPRDF old-guards to show grace and the new generation magnanimity; and together move forward with common political agenda for the future.
In the meantime, the front is reported to be long overdue to hold one of its eventful national congresses. The party Congress is the third tier of assembly in EPRDF structure, where more than 1000 members representing the four parties. The various wings of these parties sit down together once every two years (slight variable as per the bylaws of the front) and discuss various issues and elect a central committee (out of which executive committee members are elected) and audit committee members. According to WubishetMulat, a legal expert and a political commentator, the EPRDF congress is now due; if not overdue. Some party sources are anticipating the Congress to be held as late as mid-September after repeated postponements. For Wubishet, it is an unrealistic timeframe since individual member parties are far behind in conducting their central committee and party congress meetings.
True to form, EPRDF’s Congress is not a meeting that takes place likely. It is always preceded with an excruciating vetting process where members who will participate will be selected together with the issues. “It is only ANDM that has conducted its central committee meeting as of now; TPLF is scheduled to hold its meeting shortly, but not the others. However, all the member parties are yet to conduct their congress before the front conducts its,” argues Wubishet.
Meanwhile, the Front could not conduct its congress at its convenience since it is expected to abide by the political parties registration proclamation as is all other political organizations in the country. In this regard, stipulation of the bylaws of the party alludes that September is the maximum that the congress can be pushed back.
According to a recent interview he gave to a local Amharic Newspaper Adiss Admas, Tsadkan Gebretinsay (Lt. Gen) – TPLF fighter in the struggle days and subsequently chief of staff of the national army and now a private consultant – says that the mid-September schedule might be all too real. According to him, in TPLF constituency, participant vetting process for the congress is already complete and the meeting will take place in a manner of weeks.
For Tsadkan, this might spell disaster for the TPLF and the Front’s reform process since there is no ample time to grind out all the issues to resolve the strong forces of resistance in the party machinery. “I know the reform process is accepted and in fact needed by the TPLF constituency; may be far more than in the other parts of the nation since there are widespread repression in Tigray,” he said to the paper. There are enough forces of reform in the region and the party, Tsadkan argued, “But they need time to consolidate their positions and garner adequate support to sway the tides in TPLF,” he maintained.
In general, judging by the wave of political rhetoric from party supports and members, commentators fear that the upcoming congress might push the loose alliances of the parties in EPRDF to their limits. For Wubishet, the reading of the unfolding political situation in EPRDF could be a tad exaggerated by many commentators and argues that there is no real danger that could lead to disintegration of the Front at this stage. “I think EPRDF will continue as a front, I have little doubt of that. This is because most of the problems in the Front are being solved. There are changes that happened and are happing now; for instance, the leadership reshuffle in SEPDM a while back is one example,” he told The Reporter in a telephone interview.
But, Wubishet is also critical of the perceived resistance in TPLF. In this, he goes even further than Tsadkan to claim that the purported divergence of views in TPLF might not have a strong ground to stand on. “If at all we say there are issues in TPLF, it is with the old guard of the party. And you need to ask how many of these old guards and/ or their supporters are in the top leadership of TPLF. I doubt if there are many. Most in the top position of the party looks to have no problems with the changes in the party and the Front,” he asserts. According to Tsadkan’s assessment, the so-called old guards who are not supposedly in tune with the reform might not be in the top leadership positions but have a strong network of supporters in these top party leadership positions. He goes in as far as asserting that they hold some sort of an on/off switch of these young top leaders enabling them control.
For both Getachew and Tsedeke, the chances of the Front breaking apart is very slim since it is in their own interest to stay united, especially with the national election coming in two years. Notwithstanding the unintended consequences that might come due to the internal power struggle, Tsedeke does not really see these entities parting ways so close to a national election “that is promised to be the mother of all elections (not to mention the more impending local elections)”. Tsedeke argues further that without clear ideological and policy shift forwarded by any of the parties and the Front, one can safely conclude that the parties have ample ground to stay united.
Nevertheless, this very ideology is something which is being questioned by commentators these days. In fact, going by the continuous political rhetoric from parties like OPDO and ANDM, Revolutionary Democracy (Guiding ideology for the Front and the four parties) looks to be on the back burner. Wubishet attests to the fact that the revolutionary democracy is no more in the vocabulary of the Front leaders. “It is as if the leaders of the reform are not enchanted with this ideology and are slowly relegating it out to the back seat. Getachew agrees. He believes that the new generation of leadership in EPRDF almost thinks that revolutionary democracy is “outdated”.
But the most important question is what this all means to the post-convention EPRDF and the country it rules. Getachew says it could be one of two outcomes: stay united under the new leadership and reform or reconfiguring of the political landscape with formation of new alliances and groups. For Tsedeke, there are various scenarios that could unfold. The first is the old guard accepting the new leadership and moving forward. This might necessarily mean agreement, he elaborates, but gracefully conceding to prevailing realities and live to fight another day.
The second scenario, he says, is the break of the Front to the fragment ethnic based political units it is made-up off and reconfiguration of the political landscape into new alliance power corners. This might lead to a very “fragmented democratic parliament”.
Meanwhile, there is a third option which involves moving the Front to a different direction where the four partiers and five affiliate parties could see a way out through unification. Tsedeke admits that this option could necessitate a whole “constitutional and federal system rearrangement” at the least. Wubishet sees further complications in the unification of the parties and in them moving out of ethnic based arrangement to civic nationalism.
“The Front has four parties with different level of maturity when it comes to ethnic advocacy. In some of these regions, the issue of ethnic nationalism has matured and hence transition to a unified national party (civic nationalism) might not be a problem; parties like OPDO, TPLF and to some extent SPDM are in this category. But for ANDM, this means a problem since its ethnicity is on the rise in Amhara region and it needs to mature; the region is a late comer to the game and it needs to take its course in this regard before it can transition,” Wubishet states.
Getachew says in the event of disintegration, he expects OPDO and ANDM to be “partners in crime”. They have now Somali Regional State leadership along with the SEPDM leadership. “I don’t see Afar, BenishangulGumuz, Harari and Gambella forming alliances with TPLF, due to their geography plus they will see joining the majority makes more sense for their survival,” he argues. He further foresees the rise of a new national party giving the Front a run for its money. “Nevertheless, it is unlikely that the Front will choose this route,” he concludes.