Ethiopia is experiencing a turbulent transition. The uncompromising approach of political forces threatens to tear the country apart and reverse the hard-won gains made in recent years.
Violent unrest in Addis Ababa and the surrounding Oromia region has led to the loss of over 177 lives, with the detention of thousands and widespread destruction to property. The rise of identity-based conflict and related political tension is the most severe test of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s leadership since he came to power two years ago.
Protests erupted after the assassination on the 29th of June of Hachalu Hundessa, a prominent Oromo singer and activist. They spiralled into widespread rioting, looting and arson which devastated some towns. Targeted attacks and killings, particularly against ethnic minorities in Oromia, have damaged communities’ social fabric and heightened regional tensions.
The motives behind Hachalu’s murder are not fully understood. Suspects linked to a militant faction of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) have been arrested, while the government has blamed the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and certain prominent activist-politicians for inciting ethnic violence and attempting to derail Ethiopia’s fragile political liberalization. With investigations not yet concluded, any exploitation of this tragedy for political gain and without adequate due process is likely to further erode trust in the government and public institutions.
Ethiopia’s progress halting under Abiy Ahmed
The prime minister came to power with a vision of national unity – encapsulated in his ideology of Medemer – and implemented a raft of reforms aimed at strengthening institutions and increasing political space, inclusivity and freedoms. Abiy was awarded the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for Ethiopia’s rapprochement with Eritrea, alongside domestic progress. He was lauded for mediating within the region, including in Sudan following the ouster of Omar al-Bashir.
However, Ethiopia’s simmering ethnic and political divisions have deep roots, with structural problems that have been insufficiently addressed under Abiy’s helm. These include conflicting narratives about Ethiopia’s history, an unfinished federal project and tensions over the division of power between the centre and the regions.
There is also the desire for better representation from various ethnic groups, linked to the pursuit of greater autonomy in many places, notably in the ethnically diverse southern region. Reforms have increased expectations among competing constituencies, heightening tensions further.
There are signs that Ethiopia is sliding dangerously backwards, particularly on security and democracy. The country has seen worsening levels of militant ethno-nationalism and inter-communal violence, a dangerous standoff between the federal government and Tigray region, and an increase in politically motivated deaths.
This has been compounded by the government turning to familiar, heavy-handed and securitized responses to law and order challenges, including intimidation and mass arrests of civilians, opposition politicians and journalists, and shutting off the internet. The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission called for security forces to refrain from punitive measures and pursue conciliatory approaches in implementing the state of emergency measures brought in to deal with COVID-19.
The country is also facing a triple economic shock caused by the pandemic, renewed instability and devastating desert locust swarms. The IMF recently reduced Ethiopia’s GDP growth projections for 2019/2020 to 3.2 percent down from 6.2 percent and the country has estimated that 1.4 million workers will be affected by the pandemic, particularly in the service and manufacturing sectors.
The impact on agriculture, which accounts for a third of GDP and on which most Ethiopian’s depend for their livelihoods, is expected to be severe. In addition to shaking investor confidence, the likely impact on livelihoods, food security and poverty levels makes it harder for the government to maintain public support and could add to instability.
Political turmoil caused by election delay
The situation has been exacerbated by the indefinite postponement of elections that were due in August 2020, as a result of COVID-19.
Efforts to avoid a crisis of legitimacy for the government caused by the end of parliament’s term in October 2020, led to a decision on the way forward being taken by the Council of Constitutional Inquiry (CCI). This group of legal experts led by the President of the Supreme Court, gave the ruling Prosperity Party (PP) an open-ended extension of their term, rubberstamped by the House of Federation, with no limits set on their powers during the interim period.
This decision sets a dangerous precedent and is a missed opportunity to achieve compromise and advance the democratic process. The lack of inclusion has angered opposition groups, with whom the government has had little genuine dialogue. Many in the opposition had advocated for a transitional or technocratic government during the interim, despite risks of further divisions and a vacuum of authority, and accuse the PP of manipulating institutions to stay in power.
Furthermore, the TPLF, the ruling party in the Tigray region and formerly the dominant national political force, is pushing forward with its intention to hold unilateral regional elections. It formed a new regional electoral commission, in spite of objections from the national electoral board and the government, which has implied it could use force to stop the elections. This rising enmity between the PP and the TPLF is extremely worrying and requires immediate de-escalation.
A pathway to genuine dialogue and reconciliation
Ethiopia’s problems can only be resolved through dialogue, compromise and reconciliation. Escalating tensions, particularly between the federal government, Tigray and Oromo opposition groups risk furthering instability and fragmentation. One way to establish confidence would be for a group of respected Ethiopian personalities (elders and religious leaders) to lead a political dialogue, with actors carefully chosen and vetted to ensure the buy-in of government, opposition parties and the public, and supported by Ethiopia’s regional and international partners.
Once established, an initial goal of such a platform would be to induce elites, populist leaders, activists and influential regional media to stop exploiting division and violence for narrow gain. Priority agenda issues include the election timetable and required institutional and legal reforms, the role of the opposition during the interim period, strengthening reconciliation efforts, and the need to carefully manage autonomous security forces within regional states.
The prime minister can still weather the storm and implement his vision of a unified multinational Ethiopia based on the values of democracy, rule of law and justice, but only if the government and other stakeholders do all they can to reduce tensions and preserve peace at this critical juncture. COVID-19 and the associated economic impacts have deepened the country’s multifaceted problems, which can only be resolved by political actors committing themselves towards inclusive dialogue and reconciliation, as they seek to forge a shared common future.
Abel Abate Demissie is an Associate Fellow, Africa Programme, and Ahmed Soliman a Research Fellow, Horn of Africa, Africa Programme, Chatham House.