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Transitions in the Horn: Between Optimism and Caution

The November-December 2018 issue of the Horn of Africa Bulletin (HAB) on political transitions is broaching one of the most critical and contemporary political developments in the region. Over the course of 2018, the HAB has tried to generate perspectives and create the space for debate on key politico-security dynamics in the region as exemplified by the March-April 2018 issue focusing on maritime security dynamics and the July-August issue titled, “Imagining Peace: Ethio-Eritrean Rapprochement”. The HAB editorial committee has demonstrated commendable determination to ensure that the HAB remain topical and relevant, both through its choice of themes, and by striving to provide space for a diverse range of perspectives on issues.

The recent political transformation in Ethiopia and the rapprochement process between Eritrea and Ethiopia have generated immense media coverage and attention from a wide range of actors. The optimism and enthusiasm generated by the transformation within Ethiopia and more generally in the region have raised expectations of a democratic transition in the most populous country in the Horn and hopes for enhanced inter-state peace and stability. The international community, going beyond verbal expressions of support, has also committed considerable financial resources to lend support to economic stabilization and developmental efforts in Ethiopia.i

The articles in this issue of the HAB focus on current transitions in the Horn. Inevitably, three out of four articles focus on Ethiopia, with one article addressing the potential for political transition in Uganda. The jointly authored article by Ferras and Bach addresses the interface between the momentous political developments in Ethiopia and shifting regional dynamics in the Horn. Their article also analyses the prospects for the upcoming local and national elections in Ethiopia and presents several possible scenarios. The ambitious scope of the article by Ferras and Bach and their exploration of the linkages and dialectic between internal political dynamics in Ethiopia and larger shifts in inter-state and regional relations will be very useful and interesting reading for analysts seeking to understand and make sense of current events.

Noah’s article on the prospects and potential pathways to a transition in Uganda is insightful in its exploration of transition in a country poorly explored when speaking about the Horn as well as its focus on the youth dimension to transitions.. The article argues that the extreme personalization of power in the Ugandan context has weakened key state institutions (such as the judiciary, the legislature and security apparatus) and paradoxically also rendered the possibility of a ‘pacted’ transition highly unlikely.Noah’s article is also highly pertinent in discussing an increasingly important trend across the Horn, in the form of the emergence of new political movements with a youthful leadership and animated by youth activism. The article discusses the movement led by Kyagulanyi Ssentamu better known as ‘Bobi Wine’ and showcases the potential for political change, led by and embedded in the youth.

Gebissa’s article is a panoramic and comprehensive overview of the key issues and challenges that may obstruct or roll back the current wave of political change in Ethiopia. His article should be mandatory reading for all those with a stake in understanding of the current transition in Ethiopia and who envisage a role for themselves in driving or facilitating the process. Gebissa argues that the current transition is an invaluable opportunity and that failure risks plunging the country into conflict, which necessitates urgent action in several spheres such as electoral reform, the revitalization of the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) administration, reform of the judiciary and the security apparatus and shifts in economic policy.

The final article in this issue of the HAB by Daba focuses on the role of faith-based organizations in conflict resolution and peacebuilding in Ethiopia. The article argues that faith-based institutions in Ethiopia are uniquely well placed to take the initiative in conflict resolution and reconciliation activities. The author argues that while they were not able to fulfil their potential in the past, the new political context in Ethiopia and the recent spate of conflicts presents another opportunity for faith-based organizations.

The complexity and unpredictability of transitions has tended to generate more questions than answers. Transitions have varied so much in terms of the precise concatenations of drivers, participants and sequencing of events, that theorization and generalizations invariably lag behind reality. This is a point that has also been alluded to in two articles of this issue of the HAB. Conventional transitology often assumes an implicit teleology in expecting a single end-point i.e. liberal democracy. The possibility of open-ended transitions or reversals is not widely acknowledged. A very similar criticism also points to another implicit assumption that transitions are inevitable.

Radical political ruptures are polarizing and destabilizing by definition and recent events in Ethiopia and the Horn are no exception. However, a striking aspect of the dominant discourse and narratives on the current transition in Ethiopia and the recent shifts in inter-state relations in the Horn is the tendency to marginalize or react defensively to critical voices and perspectives. Critique and opposition have often been equated with support for the previous power-holders which has had the unintended consequence of downplaying or ignoring evidence (in the form of events and dynamics) that do not fit pre-conceived expectations or biases.

The conventional narrative often emphasizes the positive in terms of the political transition in Ethiopia and the larger region but often at the expense of downplaying the implications of several worrying developments in the form of heightened ethnic and political polarization in Ethiopia, rising tensions and frequency of local level inter-ethnic clashes which have led to the displacement of millions.

Similar to transition experiences in the rest of the world, legal reforms to open up the political-civic space are a central component of the current transition in Ethiopia. Institutions have also been revamped (the Ministry of Peace) and the Ethiopian government has issued draft legislation to create new institutions such as the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission (NPRC). While there is no denying the need for reconciliation and mediation efforts to deescalate emerging tensions and clashes and in the longer term bridge political divides, decisions such as the establishment of the NPRC could have benefitted from wider consultations with the public regarding their remit and activities. It should also be pointed out that the emphasis on reconciliation clashes with other imperatives such as the politically expedient pattern of selectively arresting and charging high ranking officials in the state apparatus for human rights abuses and corruption. The argument could be made that the future of the transition may very well depend on how consistently the government adopts reconciliation as a strategy for defusing political tensions.

The articles by Noah and Gebissa share a similarity in seeing the economic dissatisfaction of the youth as a driver for transitions in the Horn. Gebissa’s article also recommends shifts in economic policy that would more directly focus on employment creation for youth as a necessary measure and also commends the abandonment of the ‘developmental state model’. The articles by these authors do not ignore the economic dimension but there is an overarching omission (also shared on the part of mainstream media and analysis of the transition in the Ethiopia and Horn), that is the elephant in the room. The transition in Ethiopia has been accompanied by the abandonment of the ‘developmental state’ model and the commitment to widespread privatizations and economic liberalization, a state of affairs which paradoxically has not generated any public debates or discussions.ii What is surprising is also that this shift in economic policy is happening, fully two decades after the neo-liberal wave had crested globally.

Readers of the HAB will find the articles in this issue highly relevant and topical especially in regard to the current political situation in the Horn, and potentially also useful analysis regarding windows of opportunity to support the transition across the Horn.

i Most recently the government of Denmark signed a grant agreement with the Ethiopian government for an amount totaling 135 million Danish Kroner to support the Ethiopia government’s efforts to address the refugee crisis and also to support the rural safety net program. This follows similar agreements with the governments of the United States, United Arab Emirates, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The World Bank has also concluded a substantial grant agreement with the Ethiopian government.

ii In a statement issued on June 5, 2018, the executive committee of the ruling coalition in Ethiopia, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) committed to widespread partial and complete privatizations of several state-owned enterprises.

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