After almost three years of deadly, sporadic crises, 2018 brought signs of much-needed change to Ethiopia when the government announced in early January that it would release many jailed journalists, politicians and protesters. But instead of opening up, Africa’s second-most populous country has returned to a formal state of emergency following the surprising resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn on Feb. 15. With an emboldened opposition, and divisions within the ruling party, Ethiopia now faces more uncertainty.
The chaotic chain of events underscores the difficulties for the ruling coalition, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front, or EPRDF, in trying to manage reforms now that long-simmering discontent has developed into a formidable protest movement. Demonstrators mainly from the Oromo ethnic group, Ethiopia’s largest, have steadily proved their influence on national politics. If their demands aren’t met in the next phase of this turmoil, unrest may intensify.
The first question for the four-party EPRDF is whether to elect an Oromo prime minister to succeed Hailemariam. That would most likely be Abiy Ahmed, the new chairman of the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization, or OPDO, the largest party in parliament. A 180-member council of the EPRDF, split equally between its four parties, will reportedly meet later this week to start deciding on the next leader. Other possibilities include two experienced EPRDF operators: Hailemariam’s replacement as the head of a multiethnic southern party, Shiferaw Shigute; and Demeke Mekonnen, the deputy prime minister and chairman of the EPRDF’s Amhara party.
After the EPRDF was slow to implement the conciliatory prison releases, the mood changed in February. Dissidents were freed, but protesters in Oromia, the largest of Ethiopia’s nine ethnically based regions, ordered a three-day strike that choked the capital, Addis Ababa. Similar actions, sometimes accompanied by violence, have been a feature of anti-government protests by Oromos since 2015. They allege that they are marginalized and exploited in an undemocratic system directed by the Tigrayan Peoples’ Liberation Front, or TPLF, which is part of the EPRDF and represents the Tigrayans, who make up less than 10 percent of Ethiopia’s population of some 100 million.
In the midst of the strike, the authorities released Bekele Gerba, a revered Oromo opposition figure and advocate of nonviolent protests. Two days after Bekele walked free, Hailemariam handed in his resignation, citing the political crisis and a desire to be part of the solution. This created the impression of a government that was about to collapse. That probably contributed to ministers approving a decree for a state of emergency, the second since 2016, which suspended constitutional rights such as freedom of assembly and granted power over regional security to the federal government, including the military and spy agency commanded by TPLF officials. The state of emergency probably forestalls political reforms for at least six months, focusing attention on the contest to replace Hailemariam.
While decades in the making, Ethiopia’s crisis accelerated when tensions burst into anti-government protests in Oromia in November 2015, months after the EPRDF and its allied parties swept an election, winning all the seats in the federal parliament. Though often fed by local grievances, the protesters rallied around opposition to a development plan for Addis Ababa and surrounding areas, which critics said would unjustly displace more Oromo farmers. The movement also drew on resistance to alleged minority rule by the TPLF, which critics say has amassed too much power, on top of longstanding complaints of Oromo subjugation at the hands of the Amharas and Tigrayans.
Civil unrest continued in Oromia in the first half of 2016, with protesters often blocking roads and sometimes torching government offices and private farms and factories. Security forces responded ruthlessly, killing perhaps over 1,000 people nationwide, and detaining many more. It wasn’t limited to Oromia. In the state of Amhara, police responded with gunfire when the minority Qimant people demanded greater administrative rights, and there were similar incidents in the multiethnic south. A territorial claim in northern Amhara led to the targeting of Tigrayans, and similar hate crimes occurred in another part of the region last month.
Following a particularly violent week in Oromia, a draconian state of emergency was enacted in September 2016, subduing the protests. Yet within weeks of its removal 10 months later, there was another schism, as militants in the region of Somali, on the border with Somalia, intensified border attacks on Oromo, leading to reprisals against Somalis in some Oromo towns. The conflict likely had a number of causes, including territorial disputes exacerbated by drought, an ambitious Somali region president and a struggle for control of smuggling networks.
Activists claimed TPLF operators used the Somali region’s special police to provoke discord in a repetition of longstanding allegations of divide-and-rule tactics against the party. But given the scale of massacres and mass displacement, it seems unlikely that anyone with a stake in Ethiopia’s stability would orchestrate such destabilization. Ultimately, the conflict exposed the weakening of central control and the dangers of a growing rivalry between unshackled regions.
The backdrop to these problems is the 23-year-old federal system that divides Ethiopia into territories based on ethno-linguistic identities. Some Ethiopians reject what they term a divisive TPLF-controlled structure, while others demand a greater degree of self-government, or complain that the EPRDF’s central authority and the TPLF’s steering of it undermine regional autonomy.
The latter has been the issue in Oromia, where activists allege that resources were exploited by non-Oromo investors. Oromia’s unrest resulted in an assertive regional government headed by the OPDO’s Lemma Megersa, Abiy Ahmed’s ally, which borrowed from the opposition narrative and advanced assertive policies, winning the support of protesters.
In recent years, the EPRDF, which prioritizes economic gains over political freedoms, has tried to deal with problems by purging inadequate and corrupt leaders. Yet factionalism remains, with the risk of further fragmentation. If the EPRDF elects Abiy as the next prime minister, it would appease protesters and quell dissent. But it may also worry hard-liners, who could view it as rewarding civil disobedience.
Even if Abiy were at the helm, reform would be difficult, and Ethiopia’s federation may face greater tests. EPRDF doctrine insists the system is democratic as it empowers minority groups. An admission by the government that ethnic federalism is a driver of conflict would be a concession to opponents who say the system prioritizes the rights of ethnic groups at the expense of national unity.
The development model championed by the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who ruled from 1991 to 2012, has made notable economic achievements through centrally driven investment, infrastructure building and poverty-reduction efforts, which are underpinned by a strong security apparatus. Rather than abandon the approach to cater to regional demands, many EPRDF leaders want it to continue until Ethiopia is a middle-income nation. So both centralization and greater autonomy face roadblocks.
In order to achieve Meles’ vision—or to maintain control, as opponents would say—there is paradoxically a need for the TPLF to loosen the reins to accommodate challengers. But that would trigger fears of more targeting of Tigrayans as concessions are read as vulnerability. One possible way forward is to grant the parties within the EPRDF more control over regional affairs and federal ministries, but with few alterations to the overarching economic and security system. This would, however, hardly satisfy those clamoring for deeper change.
For an emboldened opposition, the same challenges will remain unless the EPRDF is further weakened, or a future government can usher in reform. Despite the upheaval, opponents face a familiar task in competing in local elections set for April, when more than 3 million EPRDF-controlled seats are up for grabs. To press for changes, the opposition must compete at the grassroots, but restrictions on organizing and financing make activism difficult. If the hopes placed in the reformist ambitions of the OPDO are not rewarded, then the protests that have successfully disrupted EPRDF rule will probably resume, leading to further waves of fatal suppression.