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Ethiopia trapped in the shadow of its democracy

19.07.2019
Article from AFRIC Editorial
Many would have thought that Ahmed Abiy’s democratic reforms introduced in 2018 when he took office was a green light towards resolving the years of the political crisis in Ethiopia. But the June 2019 coup attempt is a glaring indication the East African nation is not experiencing a smooth political transition. Ethiopia’s switch to democracy has hit a rough spot with the proliferation of ethnic tensions and violence. Analysts have noted that Abiy’s current reforms have come up against the principle of ethnic federalism enshrined in Ethiopia’s Constitution. Thus, stringent measures are needed to prevent one of East Africa’s fastest-growing nations from a state collapse.

In 2016 and early 2018, Ethiopia declared a state of emergency in a bid to curb political uprisings. A glaring indication that these years have not been an easy one for the government which is currently facing one of the biggest political crisis since it took power.

There was a glimmer of hope when Abiy Ahmed in April 2018 took office as Prime Minister and transformed the human rights and political landscape of the country. Abiy introduced reforms which at that time set the pace for a new beginning in Ethiopia. However, some sources indicate that the reforms which have been described as controversial clashes with the flawed Constitution in Ethiopia and could push the country towards an interethnic conflict. It is believed that the swift transition from authoritarianism renewed the atmosphere of discontentment which had been subdued by the ruling party over the years.

The June 2019 attempted Coup that led to the assassination of several senior government officials sent another bad signal to the administration. Factions of Amhara security forces attempted a coup d’état against the government in the region which led to the killing of the Amhara Regional President Ambachew Mekonnen and Gen. Seare Mekonnen. Close to 250 people were thereafter arrested in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa after the coup was foiled. According to the authorities, the recent violence was part of a plot by a general and his militia to take over the Amhara region. Several media outlets reported that this latest development has exposed how ethnic tensions threaten the reform agenda of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Ethiopia’s transition process.

Ethiopia is now in a dire situation as recurrent mass protests, riots and ethnic conflicts over the past two years have claimed the lives of thousands and displaced hundreds of others. Analysts, as well as members of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), have indicated that the recent happenings in the country are reason enough to conclude that the survival of the Ethiopian state is at stake.

Understanding Ethiopia’s political impasse

Former Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front governing coalition, EPRDF, introduced a constitution in 1994 which reorganized the country from a unified republic to a federation of 9 regional ethnic states with 2 federally administered city-states.

A census carried out in the country recorded more than 90 ethnic groups with only nine ethnically defined regional assemblies. However, the non-indigenous minorities were given special districts and rights of self-administration. The system of ethnic federalism brought about by the constitution was later faced with inconsistencies given that ethnic groups in Ethiopia do not live in a mapped out territory but are dispersed across the country.

Hence, this system led to the battle for supremacy among the Big Three groups: the Tigray, the Amhara, and the Oromo. With the EPRDF made up of 4 main parties, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front was at the helm of leadership since the 1991 revolution while the Amhara’s had been in control before 1991. The Oromo which makes up the largest ethnic group in the country complained of being treated as subordinate minorities.

Mass protests began in 2015 when the Oromo and Amhara people, who make up about 61 percent of the country’s population began to press for greater political inclusion as well as an end to human rights abuses. This was partially caused by the government’s announced plans to expand Addis Ababa into bordering Oromo lands. The regional leaders later accused the federal government of denying them the right to partake in the urban development planning which could have economic implications.

The demonstrations met with a brutal response from Haile Mariam Desalegn, who took over a Prime Minister in 2012 after the death of the Tigray leader Zenawi. An estimated 500 to 1,000 protesters were killed in a year.

Given that the four constitutive parties which make up the EPRDF are organized along well defined ethnic lines, party officials are now inciting disputes and mobilizing their ethnic constituencies in the process of competing for power and resources. Hence, a bulk of the violence that has occurred in the country has been linked to clashes between groups within the ruling EPRDF. This has widely promoted communal conflicts leading to mass violence and subsequent displacements.

Abiy’s reforms are tainted by continued violence

In April 2018, Abiy Ahmed, a former military official and a leader of the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization, rose to the rank of Prime Minister after Haile Mariam Desalegn in February 2018 stepped down as Prime Minister and head of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition due to persistent unrest in the country. He noted that this was a vital move that will permit the implementation of reforms that would lead to sustainable peace and democracy.

During his first 5 months in office, Prime Minister Abiy rolled out a series of political reforms in a bid to stabilize the country. In September 2018, he signed a historic peace deal with Eritrea, Ethiopia’s long-time enemy, bringing an end to a decades-long stalemate between the two East African neighbors. He successfully released political prisoners and appointed a gender-parity cabinet with women occurring key positions. In June, Ethiopia’s Parliament lifted the ban on 3 opposition groups, Ginbot 7, Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), and the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF).

Furthermore, he sent long-serving politicians and security officials into retirement and arrested others. Abiy condemned past human rights abuses carried out by the EPRDF and promised free and fair elections as well as a more legitimate and inclusive political system. Repressive laws like that on counter-terrorism and civil society organizations are being replaced by more liberal laws while he equally pledged to liberalize Ethiopia’s tightly controlled economy.

These reforms were largely welcomed and Abiy’s moves were applauded by Ethiopians as his early achievements made many believe the country was finally departing from the age-old politics of authoritarianism.

Unfortunately, public trust in the government started declining a year into Abiy’s first term. Despite the reforms introduced, some ethnic groups continue to defy the call for pan-Ethiopian unity.

In September 2018, Abiy canceled his trip to the UN General Assembly due to unrest in the capital Addis Ababa which left at least 58 dead. Communal violence is still very rampant as various groups keep pressing for the right to form their own states under the federal system. It can be noted that by December 2018, close to 2.9 million people had fled their homes due to violence in the country.

Even within the EPRDF, there is disagreement from various factions over how much power should be decentralized to federal regions as regional leaders push for greater autonomy. This poses a serious threat as it may deepen ethnic politics and push the country toward an interethnic conflict. Thus, Abiy may be forced to make changes to his governance style to resolve these ethnic tensions.

Ethiopia needs stringent measures to quell inter-ethnic violence.

The heirloom of a strong authoritarian state which had previously existed in the country now stands as a challenge to Ethiopia’s political change. The transition to democracy now requires a strong state and rule of law with much attention to security. A possible retreat to authoritarian rule is very unlikely due to the national call for liberation. Thus if Abiy is unable to uphold law and order and develop plans to address the origins of these ethnic conflicts without repressive measures, the country may sink into more violence.

According to a write up on Managing Ethiopia’s political crisis published on Aljazeera, resolving the stalemate in the country will require a different resource and power-sharing mechanism which will encourage new support structures that cut across ethnic lines. It equally suggested delegating more power to the regional states as per the constitution and de-ethicizing elite competition at the federal level. This is a result of the fact that ethnic politics is not only an evil that Ethiopia must deal with, but it is also an existential threat. Equally, a report by Crisis Group noted that the Ethiopian prime minister must have as priority the restoration of security by quelling ethnic tension and violence. It called for inclusive governance by working closely with state institutions on reforms and involving civil society in reconciliation efforts.

Pundits also noted that there is a need for constitutional change to be considered as a means to drag the country out of the quagmire as it provides an opportunity for the articles that have foiled ethnic divisions to be amended.

Summarily, Ethiopia which is at a dire state of ethnic conflict which continues to spark a wave of violence throughout the national territory must look deep into the root causes of the problems plaguing the country to proffer adequate solutions.

Article from AFRIC editorial

Photo credit: google images/ illustration

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