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Efforts to End Ethiopia’s Ruling Party Draw Criticism from Within

Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed speaks during a session with the Members of the Parliament in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, October 22, 2019.

A decision by Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to dissolve the ruling party months ahead of the 2020 national election has prompted criticism from the upper echelons of his own government.

In an interview with VOA’s Afaan Oromo Service, Minister of Defense Lemma Megerssa said unrest in the country means it is the wrong time to create a new political party.

“Merging this party is not timely as there are many dangers. We are in a transition,” he said, speaking in Afaan Oromo. “This is borrowed time; it is not ours. We are facing several problems from different places during this borrowed time.”

Lemma is currently visiting the U.S. with a delegation aiming to strengthen the two countries’ defense partnerships.

In November, Abiy announced that the country’s ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, EPRDF, would dissolve and become one unified party called the Prosperity Party.

The decision came after a vote by coalition members in support of the change. On December 1, the prime minister held a ceremony in the capital celebrating the new party and saying it “has also prepared a clear program and bylaws as well as a 10-year plan that leads Ethiopia to prosperity,” state-media reported. Previously the EPRDF had been a coalition of four ethnically based parties.

Unrest: Ethiopia at a Crossroads

But the decision has prompted a backlash. The Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) refused to take part in the vote to form the new party. Debretsion Gebremichael, the TPLF chairman and acting regional president, told reporters in a press briefing that the move “weakens the federal system and takes away the rights of people to self-administration. The drive to form a united party does not consider the existing situations in the country.”

And though the Oromo Democratic Party, formerly the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization, voted in favor of the change, prominent Oromo leaders have voiced displeasure. Lemma, who is from the Oromo ethnic group, said the party has not yet delivered on its promises to its people and therefore should continue to exist. “The [Oromo Party] leaders have promised to answer some of the big questions the Oromo people have entrusted us with,” he said. “Doing this without answering questions is not right, and it’s failing to deliver on the promises we made.”

Over the last three to four years, Oromo people have protested what they view as unfair treatment over a host of issues, including land rights in and around the capital city, Addis Ababa. Protests in late October over an alleged threat to the safety of Oromo activist Jawar Mohammed led to the deaths of 86 people.

Lemma and others argue that a change now will do little to quell the ethnic violence spreading in Ethiopia. “It’s not the time to come up with something new, but a time to solve problems that we should be focused on,” he said. “We should focus on maintaining peace and stability and focus on macroeconomics, especially people’s struggle with the rising cost of living.”

But Fekadu Tessema, a spokesman for Abiy’s governing coalition, said the change was not a hasty decision. “We don’t think that the process has been sped up. It has been in the works for a year and a half, and the change has to be led with a clear flow chart and vision,” he said.

He also said the unified party is in line with Abiy’s guiding philosophy known as “medemer,” or “addition.” The philosophy seeks to erase the division between people and create a nation that is greater than the sum of its parts.

“What ‘medemer’ means is to highlight our knowledge, our thinking, and putting all the good attributes in one place,” Fekadu said. “And things like hate, violation of human rights, the question of injustice, and the issues of lack of democracy and lack of freedom and other issues that people have been pointing out, and issues that were seen during the time of EPRDF, have to be corrected.”

This story is based on interviews that originated in the Horn of Africa Service. VOA Afaan Oromo service’s Jalene Gemeda conducted the interview with Minister of Defense Lemma Megerssa in Afaan Oromo, and Tizita Belachew translated the interview in Amharic. Muktar Jemal interviewed Fekadu Tessema, a spokesman for Abiy’s governing coalition, in Amharic.