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After Two Years of Transition, Ethiopia Still Has a Difficult Path Ahead

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed during the 11th Extraordinary Session of the Assembly of the African Union.

The Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has ruled the country since 1991. Since then, the party has brought commendable economic growth and development including improvements in health, education, electricity, road, telecommunication, and other infrastructures. The same cannot be said on the governance front where the party has demonstrated shortfalls. Over the years, there have been problems associated with human rights abuses, corruption, narrowing of the political space, and unfair distribution of resources and power. In combination, these led to political protests across the country in 2016, 2017, and 2018.

In December 2017, the EPRDF held a special meeting on the causes of ongoing protests across the country and the way of the crisis. In the meeting, the party admitted its governance shortcomings and decided to undertake political reform to address the challenges including opening of the political space, releasing political prisoners, and increasing media and internet freedoms. Still, a month and a half after the meeting, there were three days of intensive mass protests that blocked roads leading to Addis Ababa. The protests indicated a rejection of the party's reform agenda which some felt was not possible without a change of regime. As a result of these protests, a state of emergency was declared across the country, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn resigned, and Abiy Ahmed Ali assumed the position of Prime Minister in April 2018.

Prime Minister Abiy forged ahead with the promised reforms including allowing formerly exiled political parties to return to Ethiopia and repealing a law that had labelled some political parties as terrorist groups. The state of emergency was lifted and laws that were seen to be tools of state oppression were either amended or are currently in the process of being amended. Furthermore, Prime Minister Abiy went out of his way to mend the tense and difficult relationship between Ethiopia and Eritrea and its longstanding "no war, no peace" situation. The international community acknowledged his effort to forge a relationship between the two states and the move towards peace in the Horn of Africa by awarding him with the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize.

These developments notwithstanding challenges to state security and stability have emerged, including a lethal grenade attack at a rally organized to support the Prime Minister on June 24, 2018; the assassination of the chief executive of the Ethiopian Grand Renaissance Dam on July 26, 2018; the assassination of the chief of staff of the Ethiopian National Defense Force and the Governor of Amhara Regional State and his colleagues on July 23, 2019; the internal displacement of nearly 3 million people; and the deaths of 86 people in a November 2019 protest following a social media statement by Jawar Mohammed — a prominent Oromo activist who has now become a member of the Oromo Federalist Congress — in which he suggested that the government, or someone in government,  was out to kill him. Also, there is ongoing conflict between the Ethiopian National Defense Force and the militant wing of the Oromo Liberation Front in Western Wellega. Further, the kidnapping of female university students in December 2019, and the deaths of civilians in the cities of Harer and Dire Dawa following a disagreement about the Epiphany holiday in January 2020 have exacerbated the situation.

Moreover, tensions among different ethnic groups have spiked, religious institutions have been attacked, and roads were blocked in several areas of the country. In the southern region of the country — a region that is composed of more than 56 ethnic groups — there are more than 12 demands for regional statehood, especially following the referendum of Sidama to become a regional state. Initially, the Sidama's people regional statehood request was handled with force, and western Oromia and some parts of the southern region of Ethiopia are now essentially under military rule. In addition, some citizens have complained that the talks and agreements between Eritrea's president and Ethiopia's prime minister lack transparency and this has created suspicion among citizens of both countries. Initially, the roads that connect the two countries were opened but for reasons unknown, closed instantly. Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki's February 7, 2020 interview in which he stated that the Eritrean government would work with the Ethiopian government to abolish its ethnicity-based political parties and ethnic-based federalism only served to further aggravate the situation.

Recently, the three-sister parts of the EPRDF (the Oromo Democratic Party, Amhara Democratic Party, and the Southern Ethiopian People Democratic Movement) and five partner parts (Afar, Benshangul/Gumuz, Gambella, Harari, and Somalia) merged into the Prosperity Party (PP). However, the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF), the founder of EPRDF, officially rejected the merger. In an election that was characterized as unfair and undemocratic by international human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch, the EPRDF was elected to rule the country until August 2020. However, in November 2019 the EPRDF was replaced by the PP, 9 months before its term was supposed to end. This move created controversies across the country.

While PP proponents have hope that the party could help the country escape its ethnic divisions and tensions, its opponents, specifically the TPLF and other federalist forces, argue that the PP is an illegitimate party and it is acting against constitutional principles and provisions. The PP has replaced some representatives of the TPLF in the federal government and Addis Ababa City Administration offices, a move that has exacerbated tensions between the TPLF and PP. Likewise, in other parts of the country, especially in Amhara and Oromia, there are tensions between PP and ethnic-based political parties. On top of this, government institutions — especially, the security apparatus — seem very divided, weak or fragile, and unable to absorb the shocks that the country is facing. The political tension coupled with growing instability may lead the country into an economic crisis. Amid these pressing problems, the country was prepared to conduct a national election in August 2020 but this was postponed indefinitely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ethiopia has a lot of work ahead if it is to realize the promised reforms. To this end, Ethiopian policymakers should work to maintain the rule of law, mitigate ethnic and religious tensions, and provide space for open dialogue on the country's deep-seated political culture (such as a winner-take-all political system and the mind-set of that "an enemy of my enemy is my friend"). Doing so would support the creation of a free and fair environment for the upcoming elections. Moreover, more could be done to improve relationships between federal and state governments, and among state governments.

Messay Asgedom Gobena was a Southern Voices Network for Peacebuilding (SVNP) scholar with the Wilson Center Africa Program during the spring 2020 term. He is a Ph.D. Candidate studying Peace and Security Studies at Addis Ababa University's Institute for Peace and Security Studies (IPSS). 

About the Author


Messay Asgedom Gobena

Former Southern Voices Network for Peacebuilding Scholar;
Ph.D. Candidate in Peace and Security Studies, Addis Ababa University Institute for Peace and Security Studies, Ethiopia
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