COVID-19 and Political (Dis)Order: Abiy Ahmed’s Complex Balancing Act in Ethiopia

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented a serious political crisis in which many countries are set to suffer significant political consequences. While those with adequate resources and stable political foundations might successfully sail through the political waves of the pandemic and come out whole, those that are threatened by fragility, dysfunctional governance systems, and poor leadership risk plunging into chaos, impoverishment and further instability. In Ethiopia, the pandemic has presented a fierce political stress test, with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed thrown at the centre and confronted with a complex balancing act; managing the ongoing pandemic amidst a rapidly deteriorating political order inspired by popular unrests and civil protests across the country. His position can best be described in Antonio Gramsci’s words as one ‘characteristic of certain situations when it is hard to exercise the hegemonic functions, and when the use of force is too risky’. To survive the crisis, Abiy must work towards depolarizing the country by building national consensus on the prevailing political circumstances, and restoring trust between citizens and the government. To do this, the PM should adopt a consociational approach in responding to protests while ensuring transparency, accountability, and competence in addressing the pandemic and steering the country towards recovery.

Ethiopia, Africa’s second-most populous country, reported its first case of Coronavirus on March 13. The caseload rapidly expanded between March and April, that prompted Abiy’s administration to institute drastic measures including declaring a national state of emergency and indefinitely suspending parliamentary elections previously scheduled for August 2020, in a bid to boost the containment of the virus. As one of Africa’s busiest airline hubs, Ethiopia was listed among 13 top-priority African countries for COVID-19 preparedness by the World Health Organization. However, despite an earlier warning about the gravity of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government’s handling of the outbreak has been less inspiring, at least from a critical point of view. Initial responses were characterized by clumsy policy procedures and lack of proactiveness that ranged from indecision to stop flights from China, inadequate disease surveillance, and lack of public health preparedness to manage the impending outbreak. Given Ethiopia’s weak health system, a large population, and  a relative lack of state capacity, combined with an intensely fragile political environment, the pandemic has deteriorated into a political crisis; one that threatens to reverse  the democratic gains made by PM Abiy since his ascension to office in 2018.

State of Emergency, Elections and Opposition Criticism

On April 8, 2020, Abiy declared a state of emergency to help curb the spread of Coronavirus. In his official statement, Abiy noted, “because the coronavirus pandemic is getting worse, the Ethiopian government has decided to declare a state of emergency under Article 93 of the constitution”. Although clear details of operation under the state of emergency were not immediately revealed, according to the constitution, the declaration allows the government to use ‘all necessary power to protect the country’s peace and sovereignty’ including a possible suspension of some political and democratic rights. While a state of emergency can be effective in bolstering the coordination and management of major health crises such as the one created by COVID-19, such powers, by nature involve security heavy-handedness and absolute control, that might potentially cause further destabilization and prove hazardous from the perspective of democracy, human rights, and rule of law.

Ethiopia is not new to states of emergency. Previously, such declarations have resulted to extreme human rights violations and abuse of the rule of law. According to Human Rights Watch, a 10-month state of emergency instituted between October 2016 and August 2017, resulted in over 200,000 arbitrary arrests with nearly 1000 deaths. Although Abiy has made significant efforts to unite the country by opening the political space and championing political and economic transformation, Ethiopia is yet to become a democracy. Its transition from an autocratic system, although promising, given Abiy’s leadership and determination, has faced several constraints, mainly, in the political arena. These challenges, compounded by vagaries of the current pandemic, are pushing the country to the brink.

The current state of emergency, the first to be announced by Abiy, has stoked political temperatures in Ethiopia, with the opposition, mainly, Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), criticizing the decision. The centrepiece of the conflict is the fate of parliamentary elections, which have since been suspended indefinitely. Being the first competitive democratic elections to be conducted under new electoral rules and regulations and administered by the newly empowered and independent National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE), August elections held a highly intriguing and historic moment for Ethiopia. The suspension of elections automatically extends the term of the current government, a reality that has elicited a lot of tension between the government and the opposition parties. Particularly, members of the OLF have viciously criticised the government’s decision, terming it a corona-clouded power grab.

The suspension of elections beyond October 2020, will also create a constitutional gridlock. The current federal constitution does not provide for the extension of tenure for both the federal parliament and regional councils. With the five-year term limit of the current officeholders set to end in October 2020, Ethiopia will be thrown into a constitutional impasse with the potential to escalate the political strife, incite popular unrest and cause domestic turbulence.

Popular Unrest

The killing of the Oromo popular singer, Hachalu Hundessa, has fuelled a new wave of ethnic tensions, demonstrations, and chaos in utter violation of COVID-19 containment protocols. According to official reports from the police, at least 239 people died in the protests.  The protests broke out in the capital, Addis Ababa, and quickly spread into the surrounding Oromia region, home to the largest ethnic group, Oromo. The Oromo is a politically-aggrieved ethnic community in the country owing to alleged historical, political and economic marginalization.

These protests add another layer to the fragile peace and uneasy balance of power in Ethiopia. Although Abiy is himself an Oromo, many Oromo nationalists have challenged his leadership accusing him of political betrayal. With the arrest of high-profile opposition leaders from the OLF and the Oromo Federalist Congress, including popular politicians such as Jawar Mohammed and Bekele Gerba, the recent protests threaten the country’s ongoing democratic transition and political transformation, especially given the impending elections. Critical voices to the government have accused Prime Minister Abiy of reverting to the old tactics used by his predecessors such as political suppression and dictatorial predisposition.

Towards a Balance: Maintaining Political Order

According to Antonio Gramsci, maintaining political order can follow different pathways, involving different mixtures of force and consent. Thus, political order is maintained by a combination of three mechanisms; ideological exhortation, institutional regulation, and repression. In the case of Ethiopia, however, while all three mechanisms can be used by the incumbent government, it is imperative to underscore that repression – the use of force to silence dissenting voices – may only incite violence and cause full-blown civil unrest and breakdown of law and order.

Prime Minister Abiy must, therefore, carefully seek political order by adopting a consociational approach supported by sustained political accommodation and institutional regulation. This would entail the use of existing tools and political institutions to navigate the impending constitutional gridlock and the political impasse that might ensue. Thus, the government should consider using constitutive dialogue involving leaders of different political factions and groups to forge an agreement on the way forward.  Further, Abiy’s administration should ensure greater transparency and accountability in handling the pandemic and the associated challenges.

Joel O. Otieno is a Research Assistant at the HORN Institute.

Photo: Protesters gather in Minnesota in large numbers following the death of popular Ethiopian singer and activist Hachalu Hundessa (Photo Credit: Brandon Bell/Getty Images North America/New York Times)

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