Ethiopia, the most populous country in the Horn of Africa and the second most populous in Africa, has been at a critical political crossroads since 2014 when sustained protests by members of the Oromo people, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group (#OromoProtests) were set off. The Oromo protests began in May 2014 in response to the government’s plan to expand the country’s capital city, Addis Ababa, through the Integrated Development Master Plan, which would expand Addis Ababa to 20 times its original size and engulf nearby Oromia towns and farmlands.
The protests turned Oromo streets into epicenters of resistance against a regime they deemed “authoritarian,” calling it a violent “counter-protest state.” Ultimately, pressure from the Oromo protests and other largely youth-led movements in different parts of the country prompted the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) regime to introduce several internal reforms and begin a political transition in the country. The momentum generated by these reforms contributed to the election of Abiy Ahmed as chairman of the ruling EPRDF coalition, thereby making him prime minister in April 2018. This transition within the ruling party and the realignment of political forces has set off a chain of events amid rising expectations among Ethiopians. This article examines the dynamics of political reforms and popular expectations for change, and the implications for stability, peace, and security in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa.
The “Transition” under Abiy Ahmed and a Clash of Interests
Sustained waves of Oromo protests and other resistance movements in different parts of the country forced one of Africa’s strongest authoritarian regimes to its knees and opened the door to internal political reforms. Prominent among these were the resignation of former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn on February 15, 2018, and Abiy’s election as the country’s prime minister on April 2, 2018. When Abiy, the chairman of the Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Party (since renamed the Oromo Democratic Party), became prime minister, Ethiopians, including the Oromo, were mostly optimistic about the prospects for change. Such hopes were further boosted by the contents of his eloquent inaugural speech.
However, in spite of the prime minister’s promises and some positive actions thus far, many critical observers are increasingly skeptical, with some of the PM’s actions and are describing the transition as “derailed” or “hijacked” by specific interest groups.
First, the core demands of the Oromo protests are yet to be addressed. These include: (1) resolving the contested relationship between Oromia and the city of Addis Ababa (known as Finfinne in the Oromo language), (2) making Afaan Oromo a working language of the federal government, in addition to Amharic, and (3) resolving issues of equitable resource distribution and economic questions, including poverty, marginalization, exclusion, and overall development. The fact that Abiy has so far chosen to remain silent on these demands in his public speeches has led to growing concern.
Second, the prime minister’s vision of Ethiopia that overemphasizes “Ethiopianism” has frustrated many ethno-nationalist groups.1“Ethiopianism“ refers to the notion of advocating the old Abyssinian glory that was built by forcefully subjugating different groups and forging the state through the imposition of one culture, language, and religion. In this context, Ethiopianism denotes the exclusion and rejection of diversity whilst propagating unity based on uniformity. In many of his public speeches, including his inaugural address, Abiy appears to focus mainly on Ethiopia’s past “glory,” which tends to contradict the views of many nations and nationalities within the country. Such fixation with notions of Ethiopianism only pleases those aspiring to reverse the existing multinational federal system in favor of a unitary centralized government system or geographical federalism.
Third, the number of inter-group conflicts and the population of internally displaced persons (IDP) has increased over the past few years, making Ethiopia the country with the largest number of IDPs globally in June 2018. Peripheral regions, including the Benishangul-Gumuz region, Somali region, Afar region, some parts of the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ region, some areas in the Oromia region along the Amhara-Tigray border, and even some universities, became epicenters of inter-group conflicts. However, the government was unable to respond swiftly. All of these conflicts are considered security concerns for Abiy’s Ethiopia.
Fourth, the government’s ongoing political reforms are yet to result in the establishment of institutional frameworks or a new consensus around a national roadmap for resolving inter-group conflicts and grievances. This is creating serious concerns ahead of the forthcoming elections in May 2020. If unresolved, such issues may fuel post-election violence in some parts of the country.
Fifth, the government is yet to seriously engage in talks with the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) as part of Abiy’s initiative to engage all political parties and movements in the ongoing reforms. Although Oromo traditional leaders, Abba Gadaas (leaders of Gadaa system), elders, and scholars have taken the initiative to resolve the conflict which has raged for over twenty-five years—using indigenous mechanisms—the government not demonstrated much support.
Sixth, regional states of the Ethiopian federation are increasingly asserting themselves. For example, the state of Tigray is openly in disagreement with the federal government. Amhara is set to follow in Tigray’s footsteps. The Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Regional state is not undertaking any reforms. There is a perception that the only regional state with strong representation in the federal government is Oromia, which, given the diminishing legitimacy of ODP (one of the parties in the ruling coalition), may begin to loosen its ties to the center.
The foregoing political conundrum should be understood within the complex power dynamics and political evolution of the country. This involves a close knowledge of current relations between the competing political forces within the government, between the government and opposition, and by certain actors seeking to manipulate Abiy’s government for their narrow interests. Unlike the period when the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) asserted hegemonic power over other parties within the ruling EPRDF coalition, the current EPRDF is not a coherent party. The cleavages between member parties of the EPRDF and competing factions within the EPRDF government, and between the government and diverse opposition groups, further complicate the political reform process.
This scenario has serious political, economic, and security implications for Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa at large. If not carefully addressed, it could lead to another wave of protests. Any further escalation of such protests could, in turn, lead to violent conflict is some regions and pose grave risks to the Ethiopian state and the Horn of Africa.
The Way Forward
For the ongoing political reforms to lead to meaningful transformation and peace, several steps need to be taken to address core concerns and ensure consensus around inclusive nation-building and the consolidation of a democratic developmental state. In this regard, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed should take the lead in establishing institutional frameworks and a national roadmap for addressing the grievances that provoked the Oromo protests, as well as resistance by the opposition and other groups demanding political reforms. Political parties, activists, and civil society organizations should engage the government and one another to foster a culture and practice of open dialogue and tolerance so that conversations relating to ongoing political reforms can be constructive and respectful of divergent views.
The government should also exercise some measure of moderation in its Pan-Ethiopian rhetoric, which risks alienating certain sections of the country that worry this may lead to a return to a hegemonic unitary system being imposed on the country with disastrous consequences. It is also critically important for the government to prevent conflict by revisiting plans to expand Addis Ababa. Authorities should adopt a participatory and transparent approach in demarcating the boundary between Oromia and Addis Ababa, and in renegotiating relations between the regions and the political center within the country’s federal framework.
Regional organizations and the international community should be supportive of dialogue between the government and the various groups in the country. Supporting constructive engagement and popular participation in the ongoing political reforms will contribute towards stability, democratic consolidation, and development. This will help guarantee the country’s survival and peace in the neighboring sub-region.
- 1“Ethiopianism“ refers to the notion of advocating the old Abyssinian glory that was built by forcefully subjugating different groups and forging the state through the imposition of one culture, language, and religion. In this context, Ethiopianism denotes the exclusion and rejection of diversity whilst propagating unity based on uniformity.