The Ethiopian political landscape has changed dramatically since the 2005 elections. In the six years since, EPRDF has strengthened considerably while the opposition in Ethiopia has split and proven itself to be not well organized. We have seen opposition leaders being co-opted when possible (as in the case of Lidetu and Hailu) or being arrested (as in the cases of Birtukan, Debebe, and Andualem). The opposition’s lack of strong grass roots organization coupled with its thin leadership pool has made EPRDF’s goal of breaking it up easier.
There exists a cyclic problem where the opposition is in trouble because it doesn’t have a broad base to protect it and it can’t have a broad base since EPRDF works day and night to limit the opposition’s activities. Given the level of internet penetration, organizing over the web is not feasible. I don’t think there is an existential threat to the opposition – EPRDF is not interested in killing it completely since it serves a PR purpose, but it is also not going to let it thrive. For the opposition, there is little escape from the fact that for it to be successful, it needs to build a support base despite the narrow political space it finds itself in. While one should not trivialize the attempts of the opposition to expand its foothold so far, there are some areas of improvement that can benefit it.
A good place to start, I think, is for the opposition to take a hard look at how it has defined itself so far. Rather than any policy position, the opposition is characterized by a fervent dislike of EPRDF. Though some had attempted to temper this attitude (e.g. Birtukan, Dr. Birhanu – pre Ginbot 7), the average supporter, harbored feelings of emotional dislike*. This feeling often overshadows differences among the various opposition groups and comes at the expense of articulating well thought out positions on many national issues.
Second, while calls for democratic elections are important, these alone can not be enough. Seeing how the Kinijit leadership fractured post election 2005 despite the leaderships belief in a democratic path should be illustrative enough. The rapid fracture was the result of an opposition leadership who were united by little more than a call for open elections and their loath for EPRDF. Clearer definitions of values and goals, a clear political program, and clear positions on issues of national interest that go beyond the superficial (e.g. “privatize land!” kind of arguments**) are needed.
There is of course little doubt that the anti-EPRDF rhetoric has been useful for the opposition. It works well for election times where people are faced with a choice between something they don’t like and something they don’t know very well. But this sentiment does not create believers in the organization’s goals. When goals are not broadly shared, EPRDF’s strategy of imprisoning individual leaders works. It leaves the organizations shaken and without a clear direction on where to go next.
*I should also state that EPRDF also harbors no love for anyone – its comments and actions are of contempt and hatred for anyone who doesn’t agree with it.
** Meles is now essentially privatizing land to foreign investors and arguing that this was what the opposition had for so long wished for.