Reforming the Ethiopian polity: Another false dawn or a hopeful start?

By Zemelak Ayitenew Ayele, 20 June
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed speaks at a reception organised in honor of Paul Kagame (photo credit: Paul Kagame/Flickr)
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed speaks at a reception organised in honor of Paul Kagame (photo credit: Paul Kagame/Flickr)

In addition to certain ad hoc confidence building measures, the Ethiopian government has indicated plans for institutional reforms. If pursued, the introduction of term limits on the prime minister could ensure regular leadership renewal. The proposed intergovernmental relations forums could replace the party structure and reinvigorate the hitherto latent federal arrangement. Nevertheless, continued reliance on the principle of democratic centralism would undermine the impact of these forums – writes Dr Zemelak Ayitenew Ayele.  

Following his formal ascension to power in April 2018, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia has led a reconciliation drive by announcing the release of prominent political prisoners, to be rolled out broadly once a planned amnesty law is adopted, meeting with leaders of opposition groups, including those that were imprisoned, and visiting various parts of the country. In addition, the Ethiopian government has announced plans for institutional reform, specifically with regards to term limits on the prime minister and the fast-tracking of the establishment of formal forums for intergovernmental relations (IGR) to coordinate relations between the federal government and the regional states, and amongst the states.

Democratic centralism blurred the constitutional division of powers between the federal and state governments.

The Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) - a coalition of four ethnic-based regional parties - controlled the drafting of the 1995 Ethiopian Constitution, which formally established the country’s ethnic-based federal arrangement. Despite the federal arrangement, the party, which exclusively controls all levels of government, adheres to the principle of ‘democratic centralism’, where decisions of the party’s leadership are implemented at all levels, including by the states. Moreover, the constitution does not establish or anticipate the establishment of IGR forums. Because of a pervasive state-party overlap, the party superimposed its structures over the federal system. In the absence of constitutional IGR forums, decisions were channeled from the center to the regions through the party structure. This has meant that policies and major decisions adopted in the party’s politburo were unquestionably implemented by regional/state and local governments, which are controlled by the regional and local structures of the party. In addition, the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who was at the pinnacle of the party leadership for over two decades, expelled his political rivals from the party following a political division in the early 2000s and became a dominant figure with uncontested political authority. Meles, who was from Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF), the nucleus and until recently the most influential member of the EPRDF, skewed state institutions and used the party structure and security apparatuses to impose his will. Democratic centralism and Meles’s dominance, while giving a semblance of cohesiveness to the party, blurred the constitutional division of powers between the federal and state governments, thereby undermining the federal set up. It also discouraged the formation of IGR forums where different levels and units of government could meet and confer on common issues.

In the absence of IGR forums, government institutions at federal and state level lacked the capacity and the necessary coordination to deal with the situation.

With the death of Meles in August 2012, the ruling party increasingly lost its cohesiveness. His handpicked replacement, former Prime Minister Haile-Mariam Desalegn, proved unable to fill Meles’s big shoes. Apparent divisions within the party emerged, particularly following sustained protests since late 2015 first in the Oromia region and subsequently in the Amhara region, two of the largest ethnic groups in Ethiopia. TPLF’s political authority gradually receded and the Oromia and Amhara factions of the party became more assertive. The Oromo Peoples Democratic Organization (OPDO) in particular kept challenging decisions made in the party’s central structure, which was presumably dominated by the TPLF. The internal discord worsened due to alleged heavy handedness of the military - the leadership of which is often associated with the TPLF - in dealing with the popular protests in Oromia and Amhara. The party thus seemed to be on the verge of breakdown. Federal and state government institutions, which had no life independent of the party, also became inept in the face of the popular resistance, which was unprecedented both in extent and intensity in the past two decades. In the absence of IGR forums, government institutions at federal and state level lacked the capacity and the necessary coordination to deal with the situation. The solutions to the country’s political crises, indeed to the continued existence of the country, seemed to hinge on the very survival of the party itself.

In the nick of time, in February 2018, Haile-Mariam declared his resignation. Abiy Ahmed was appointed chairperson of the EPRDF and later Prime Minister of the country, becoming the first person who officially identifies as an Oromo to occupy the position.

Term limit for prime ministers

The issue of a term limit for ministers, including for prime ministers, has been on the agenda within the EPRDF since the 2005 elections. Having been in power for over 20 years, Meles was often asked by members of the international media if and when he would leave power. He pledged that he would leave office at the expiry of the 2005-2010 parliamentary term. However, in 2009, the party began a process dubbed in Amharic as metekakat (succession) in which not only Meles but all of those who took part in the armed struggle against the former Derg regime would leave office and be replaced by new and younger leaders. It was also decided that Meles would be the last one to leave office, which meant he would remain in power after the 2010 elections. As part of the succession process, term and age limits for the prime minister and other ministers were discussed. However, Meles died on 20 August 2012 before a final decision on the matter was made. On 17 September 2012, three days after Haile-Mariam was elected chairman of the EPRDF, the EPRDF Council decided to put a term limit on all ministers to a maximum of two five-year terms and an age limit of 65 years.

A term limit for all ministers, including prime ministers, was already in the ruling party’s internal rule.

A term limit for all ministers, including prime ministers, was therefore already in the ruling party’s internal rule, but was not included in the constitution. Abiy seeks to constitutionalize the intra-party rule, specifically in relation to the prime minister. Constitutionally entrenching a term limit is important as the internal party rule was not applicable to other parties, though they have a slim chance of winning elections and forming government. Importantly, the mere inclusion of a term limit in the party’s internal rule was not sufficient since the party might have a change of heart on the subject matter. This concern was not unfounded since some of the ministers and senior party leaders, who were initially forced to leave office in accordance with the age and term limit, were reinstated after Meles’s death. Moreover, many within the party saw the term limit and the succession process as an excuse that Meles used to get rid of his political rivals and not a decision emanating from a genuine desire to ensure succession and leadership renewal. 

The issue of constitutionalizing term limits was not discussed within the party before Abiy made the announcement.

Whether Abiy’s statement regarding the term limit for prime ministers is a serious promise is not entirely clear. Abiy made the above announcement in Hawassa, one of the regional capitals, while meeting members of the public in which he covered several other issues. Moreover, it appears that the issue of constitutionalizing term limits was not discussed within the party before Abiy made the announcement. Desalegn Ambaw, a State Minister and a member of the EPRDF Council, told this writer that the constitutionalization of term limits was not on the agenda in the EPRDF Council, and this is the organ of the EPRDF with the power to decide on this matter. In fact, according to him, the issue was not even raised in the EPRDF Executive Committee. Abiy’s indication in the above regard thus seems more of an off-the-cuff remark and the constitutionalization of a term limit for prime ministers may not materialize any time soon.

System and forums of IGR  

The Ethiopian Constitution does not establish a forum to facilitate IGR. Nor does it anticipate the adoption of a law to constitute and regulate such forums. As noted, the interaction between the federal and state governments largely occurred within the framework of the EPRDF under the principle of democratic centralism, a hierarchical system that gave state governments limited roles. To abolish the pitfalls of a breakdown of party channels and elevate the status of state institutions, the Ministry of Federal and Pastoralist Development Affairs (MoFPDA) and the House of Federation (HoF) have jointly prepared a draft policy framework on IGR. According to the draft policy document, a system and forums of IGR are critical to achieving the constitutional ideal of establishing one economic and political community, preventing and resolving intergovernmental disputes, facilitating the exercise of concurrent legislative competences of the federal and state governments, and sharing experiences. The policy document is limited to federal-state government relations and does not envision the involvement of local government in this arrangement.

An IGR framework is seen as necessary to abolish the pitfalls of a breakdown of party channels and elevate the status of state institutions.

What is envisaged in the document is a cooperative IGR based on equality of the two levels of government, as opposed to coercive IGR which is based on hierarchical relations between different levels of government. Thus, the document provides that IGR would be based on equality, partnerships, brotherly relations, mutual respect and trust.

According to the policy document, six forums of IGR would be established: a forum for legislative councils, a forum for executives, a forum for judicial organs, a forum for sectoral offices, a forum for the HoF and states, and a forum for the states. The first five forums are meant for vertical IGR (between the federal government and the nine states and the two federal cities), while the last one is for horizonal IGR (among the states). The forum for legislative councils would be composed of speakers and deputy speakers of federal and state councils and the councils of the two cities under federal administration - Dire Dawa and Addis Ababa. These would meet to discuss issues relating to, among others, concurrent legislative competences. In the forum for the executives, the Prime Minister, Ministry of Finance and Economic Development (MoFED), and MoFPDA would confer with state presidents and mayors of the two federal cities to discuss national economic and social policies. Presidents and deputy presidents of federal and state supreme courts would meet in the forum for judicial bodies. The Attorney General would also be a member of the judicial forum, but without the right to vote.  The draft policy implicitly provides that state and federal organs in the justice sector, which may include state attorney generals, could be invited to the meetings of this forum. Matters relating to concurrent judicial competences of the states and the federal government would be discussed in this forum. The forum for sectoral offices would serve as a platform for federal and state executives dealing with similar matters to meet and confer on mutual issues. The forum for the HoF and the states would be composed of the speakers of the HoF, state presidents, MoFED, MoFPDA, and the Internal Revenue Authority. The forum would deal with issues of intergovernmental fiscal transfers, intra-state minorities and intercommunal conflicts. Finally, in the forum for states, state presidents and mayors of the two federal cities would meet and discuss mutual issues and exchange experiences.

Following the two-year political crisis and the internal discord in the EPRDF, it was decided that IGR should be more than a mere policy framework.

Initially, the document was meant to be adopted as a mere policy framework which would be implemented once the prime minister and state presidents would sign a memorandum of understanding. Following the two-year political crisis and the internal discord in the EPRDF, it was decided that the document should be more than a mere policy framework. The HoF thus adopted the policy framework in May 2018 and forwarded it to the House of Peoples’ Representatives (HoPR) to serve as a basis for the enactment of a law. As the constitution does not specifically authorize the federal government to establish IGR forums, the adoption of such a law may require authorization from the HoF as necessary to ‘establish and sustain one economic community’. It is not clear if the adoption of the policy by the HoF constitutes such authorization. The HoPR has now asked the Attorney General to draft legislation based on the policy framework. In a meeting recently organized by the Forum of Federations, which was attended by speakers of the two federal legislative houses and chairpersons of the different parliamentary committees, a strong call was made for the incorporation of certain IGR related rules and principles into the constitution.

Concluding remarks

The recent change of leadership in Ethiopia has heralded a hopeful future for reconciliation, a widening of the political and democratic space, and may lead to a more favorable environment for more autonomous states and federalism in practice. The long-term success of the ad hoc decisions and measures taken so far requires institutionalization through constitutional and legal reform. In this regard, the proposal for the constitutionalization of term limits for the prime minister may contribute to orderly leadership renewal and a more democratic dispensation, including within the EPRDF. The extent to which the party will formally endorse Abiy’s utterances and push for reforms remains to be seen.

The long-term success of the ad hoc decisions and measures taken so far requires institutionalization through constitutional and legal reform.

Similarly, the envisioned IGR mechanism promises a more equal and collegial relationship between the states and the central government. Nevertheless, EPRDF’s continued adherence to the principle and practice of democratic centralism could undermine the value of the forums and the constitutional authority of the states. Accordingly, without a shift in party governance principles, the change in legal regime may not result in the envisaged outcome. Moreover, the proposed IGR forums will simply be creatures of ordinary legislation. The constitutionalization of core aspects of the IGR arrangement could enhance its status and strengthen the capacity of the states to work with and check the federal government.

Zemelak Ayitenew Ayele is Associate Professor at the Centre for Federalism and Governance Studies, Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia. He is also Extra-ordinary Associate Professor at the Dullah Omar Institute, UWC, South Africa.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in Voices from the Field contributions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect International IDEA’s positions.

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