What Happens Next in Ethiopia’s Political Turmoil

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This week Ethiopia’s government entered the controversial sixth year of its five-year mandate. But the administration of Abiy Ahmed isn’t going anywhere… not even after a particularly violent summer. Covid-19 has produced plenty of political drama these last few months, but Ethiopia has experienced more than most—here’s why.

Why It Matters:

Ethiopian politics operates in a system of “ethnic federalism”—while there is a central government to this federation, its constituent parts are carved out along ethnic lines and jockeyed over by parties promising the best deal for the ethnicities within them (of which there are dozens throughout a country of 112 million). Yet for all its diversity, political power in Ethiopia has long been concentrated in the hands of the few—first a string of emperors and eventually a Marxist military junta that attempted to centralize power and homogenize the country. When the junta was overthrown in the early 1990s, the ethnic federation prevented the breakup of Africa’s oldest nation state. Enter current prime minister Abiy Ahmed, who ascended to power in 2018 on a wave of activism spearheaded by his own Oromo—Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, accounting for roughly a third of the population—seeking to finally have one of their own hold the premiership after years of feeling marginalized.

But while ethnic federalism might have helped propel Abiy to the premiership, it was also holding the country back… at least from Abiy’s perspective. Abiy is a reformer, but to enact those political, economic and social reforms he had in mind for one of Africa’s most repressive nations, he needed the central government to have more power. To that end, Abiy began pushing a national political vision, dissolving several ethnic parties into his pan-Ethiopian Prosperity Party last year. What may seem intuitive—the less ethnic politics in federal government, the better—divides Ethiopians, many hailing from ethnic groups wanting greater recognition and a bigger seat at the table. Abiy’s pan-Ethiopian orientation was particularly frustrating to the Oromo, who had high expectations for the Abiy government and the windfall it would bring them.

There were more frustrations to come. With the eruption of Covid-19, the election board postponed elections indefinitely, beyond the expiry of Abiy government’s mandate in October 2020. To regularize the decision, the government proceeded to use parliament’s ruling party-dominated upper house to extend Abiy’s mandate. In what the opposition considered a power grab, it was now up to the administration to decide when elections would be and for how long it would govern. The backlash was felt strongest from those parties representing the Oromo and the Tigrayans (the political leaders of whom had long played an outsized role in the country), which had hoped Abiy would enter into a power-sharing agreement to help bridge the gap between the expiry of the mandate and next elections. The government had other plans.

Unrest was the predictable result. But the fallout reached fever-pitch with June’s assassination of well-known Oromo singer and political activist Hachalu Hundessa. For its part the government has bungled messaging around Hachalu’s death and went on to accuse a variety of figures and groups as being behind the plot. As the protests swelled, Abiy’s government began arresting opposition figures it accused of fomenting the unrest and ensuing communal violence. His Oromo rivals were joined behind bars by other party leaders, leading people to accuse Abiy of using the upheaval as pretext to solidify his hold on power.

Elections have been tentatively postponed until next year, but certain ethnic groups like the northern Tigrayans refused to recognize Abiy’s extended rule; Tigray defiantly went ahead and held regional elections last month, producing a regional government Addis Ababa doesn’t recognize and which doesn’t recognize Abiy’s government in turn. Which is pretty much where the situation stands today.

Electoral officials open a ballot box at a polling station on the day of Tigray’s regional elections, on Sept. 9, 2020 in Mekele

Eduardo Soteras—AFP/Getty Images

What Happens Next:

For now, the government will try to keep a lid on future flare-ups until the country can hold national elections, most likely in the second half of 2021. Opposition groups are already calling for the Abiy government to enter into a “national dialogue” to find a common way forward through compromise, overtures that have already been rebuffed by Addis Ababa. In the interim, the federal government will withhold budget transfers earmarked for the Tigray to squeeze what it sees as a “rogue state,” but will for now avoid seeking outright confrontation.

The pandemic—and the election postponement it led to—has turned out to be a mixed blessing for the Abiy administration. It’s managed to use the unusual circumstances to sideline opposition leaders while also cracking down on critics, producing an election environment it can be comfortable with. But the longer the current political climate persists—and the longer opposition leaders remain locked up—the more likely it becomes that the election is dismissed as illegitimate by the Ethiopian people. Make no mistake; Abiy’s reforms require serious political capital for his government (and by extension, himself), but lasting reforms will also need buy-in from the Ethiopian public. A sweeping election victory is half the story; finding acceptance for it is the other. Hence the mixed blessing.

The One Major Misconception About It:

You might be surprised to see these developments in a country whose leader just won a Nobel peace prize in 2019 (for pushing forward a peace deal with neighboring Eritrea) and is regarded as a genuine reformer. But while Abiy is a true reformer, a lot is missed about what he’s trying to reform. He’s done a much better job laying out what his goals are with economic reforms and has made progress towards that end, but his political reforms were always much more hazy. The reversal of some of his early victories in reforming one of Africa’s most repressive countries, like re-arresting journalists and undermining opposition groups he only recently welcomed back from exile, was a disappointment for many looking for “reforms” as commonly conceived of in the West.

Abiy’s ultimate goal is to move Ethiopia away from ethnic politics, closer to the kind of secular federalism that exists elsewhere. The problem? It’s not clear that’s what Ethiopians want, and it’s not clear he can drive that in a democracy.

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