After Decades of Authoritarian Rule is Ethiopia Really on the Path Toward Democratic Renewal?

Ethiopia has been getting quite a bit of attention in the news lately for taking seemingly significant shifts towards becoming an open democracy.

Earlier this year, intensifying protests led to the sudden resignation of the prime minister, who took office following the death of Ethiopia’s longtime ruler Meles Zenawi in 2012.  Parliament made a surprise pick to replace the outgoing prime minister with Abiy Ahmed, a member of the Oromo ethnic group that long claimed to be excluded from decision making, despite being the largest single ethnic group.  Since taking office, he’s embarked  on an ambitious set of reforms.

The government of Ethiopia has faced international criticism for some time, particularly in the months leading up to the resignation of Abiy’s predecessor, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn. In 2015 and 2016, security forces killed over 500 demonstrators at peaceful protests in the Oromia and Amhara regions, according to Human Rights Watch. Reuters reports that “The government of Abiy’s predecessor… detained around 30,000 people, often under harsh anti-terrorism laws, in response to three years of protests. Detainees included students, opposition leaders, journalists and bloggers.”

In late October, after the resignation of the president, members of parliament elected Ethiopia’s first female president, veteran diplomat Sahle-Work Zewde. Soon after, on November 1, Parliament appointed and swore in the first female Supreme Court chief, human rights lawyer and women’s rights activist Meaza Ashenafi.

So are these recent changes simply a ruse to improve the country’s international image and reputation?

Whether or not the reforms will have their desired effects beyond the short term remains to be seen, but the intentions behind them appear to be genuine.

The new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, is Oromo, with an Oromo Muslim father and an Amhara mother who converted to Islam from Christianity. The Oromo are the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, but – like the Amhara – have been politically and economically marginalized for decades. It is therefore a promising sign that the ruling coalition broke with historical tradition and chose him as the first Oromo prime minister.

Furthermore, the pace of change has been swift as Abiy began to put his promises into action as prime minister. Almost as soon as he assumed the post, he ended an internet blackout that had been in place for three months. In February the ruling coalition imposed a six-month state of emergency, which banned public protests and what the defense minister called speech that could “incite and sow discord,” according to Al Jazeera – Abiy lifted it two months early.

Abiy admitted that Ethiopian security forces tortured their own citizens, and enacted an amnesty to free political prisoners. According to Reuters, “Local journalists say tens of thousands of detainees have been released since April… Parliament also ruled that the Oromo Liberation Front and the Ogaden National Liberation Front, two secessionist groups, and the ‘Ginbot 7’, an exiled opposition movement, were no longer terrorist groups.”

In mid-October, Abiy announced his new cabinet, which is ethnically diverse and 50% female – including the new national defense minister, Aisha Mohammed. Abiy also made great strides toward peace with Ethiopia’s neighbor, Eritrea. Just a few months after assuming the post of prime minister, he reached out to Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed of the United Arab Emirates to help him establish diplomatic contact with Eritrea. The New York Times describes the rapid transformation of this decades-long conflict:

In early June, [Abiy] agreed to hand over a disputed border town to Eritrea, a sticking point for 20 years. The next month, the two countries officially declared an end to their war. By mid-July, the longtime Eritrean president, Isaias Afwerki, visited Ethiopia for the first time in two decades. In a gesture of good will, Mr. Abiy gave him a camel, Eritrea’s national animal. In September, border crossing points reopened, paving the way for trade.

Finally, Abiy has initiated economic reforms, loosening state control of the economy and encouraging donors and investors to return to the country. In 2005, after a disputed and problematic election where some 200 people were killed in the aftermath, donors suspended direct budgetary support. But in August, after Abiy announced his reforms, the World Bank agreed to provide Ethiopia with $1 billion in direct budgetary support.

Moving away from Abiy himself for a moment, the election of President Sahle-Work is also a promising development. She is obviously not just a token – she is an experienced, high level diplomat with years of experience representing her country in international forums. The presidency in Ethiopia is essentially a ceremonial post; but Sahle-Work will be the face of the country on the international stage, so it is hard to imagine a better person for the job.

Something similar can be said for the new Supreme Court President, Meaza Ashenafi – a former advisor on gender and women’s rights at the UN Economic Commission for Africa, former High Court judge, and founder of the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association. With such a background, she will surely be a powerful force for the promotion of gender equality in the country.

Fitsum Arega is Prime Minister Abiy’s Chief of Staff


The Challenges Ahead

The new leadership in Ethiopia has inspired a lot of hope, internationally and in the country itself, but there are still some major challenges to deal with.

For one thing, Prime Minister Abiy has promised that free, fair, multi-party elections will go ahead on time in 2020 and the myriad reforms taking place in the meantime will not delay them. This sounds great, but as Maggie Fick reports for Reuters, “Some in the ruling coalition oppose Abiy’s reforms because they could lose from a planned sell off of state enterprises… Abiy could also face a stiff test at elections in 2020 from opposition parties empowered by the reforms.”

Also, like most places in the world, ethnic identity and politics in Ethiopia comes with a lot of historical baggage. In September, at least 23 people were killed in violence targeting non-Oromo minorities in an Oromo stronghold just outside the capital. This was shortly after members of the Oromo Liberation Front, formerly exiled, returned from Eritrea at Abiy’s invitation. Some 200 people were arrested, and angry protests erupted in Addis Ababa shortly after. Despite being Oromo himself, Abiy responded that the government would not tolerate lawlessness. While it is promising that he is not kowtowing to ethnic allegiance, these developments highlight the work that has yet to be done if Ethiopia is to realize a greater degree of national unity, cohesion, and positive peace.

As Abdur Rahman Alfa Shaban reported for Africa News in August: “Abiy’s talk of reconciliation and inclusiveness has largely calmed the tensions but a spike in internal insecurity has gotten some political watchers and human rights groups worried… Human Rights Watch in a recent statement noted that Abiy’s reform ambitions could be gravely affected by the rising insecurity situation.”

The Upshot

Yohannes Gedamu, lecturer of political science at Georgia Gwinnett College, is, I think, right to be skeptical that the new leadership in Ethiopia will be able to stay the course with reforms while simultaneously ameliorating land conflict and dealing with federal representation and ethnic politics: “the ruling coalition is still a conglomeration of four ethno-nationalist parties. Despite Ahmed’s newly adopted reforms, which lean towards the rights of the individual and citizenship politics, the ruling coalition remains fixated on the group-rights agenda. This agenda has always privileged division over unity.”

Despite all these challenges, I remain optimistic (for the moment). I am hoping 2020 multi-party elections will indeed go ahead on time and that they might usher in a new constellation of diverse viewpoints that will lead to sustainable, inclusive, and conciliatory solutions to the country’s most pressing ethnic and political dilemmas. And I am interested in seeing how this new direction of Ethiopia will influence political dynamics elsewhere on the Horn.