Ethiopia’s Democratization: A New Regime Faces Old Challenges



Since the election of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in April of 2018, Ethiopia has been transformed by a series of energetically executed democratic reforms. Ahmed, a young 42-year old politician who was pushed into office thanks to the support of popular forces, made ambitious promises to his people regarding the liberal transformation of the country’s historically authoritarian style of governance.

In just under 7 months, restrictions on Ethiopian politics have been dramatically loosened as Ahmed ordered the release of former political prisoners, welcomed back exiled political leaders, and legalized opposition political parties. Additionally, popular participation in political affairs has increased as Ethiopian people now feel safe speaking openly about government and politics. In September, a massive rally was held in Addis Ababa, welcoming the return of the exiled leaders of the Oromo Liberation Front – an event which would have once been unthinkable. Protests and rallies have become commonplace as people are increasingly comfortable with the idea of making their voices heard. Ahmed has made it clear that he intends to see democratization through, as he promised that Ethiopia will hold truly free and fair elections in the year 2020. This is an ambitious goal with a relatively short time frame, implying that Ahmed is committed to maintaining his current rapid pace of reform.

Ahmed’s election was seen as a major victory for the Oromo people, the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, who had spent the previous three years protesting against their marginalization at the hands of the government. His ascent to power threatened the political prominence of the minority Tigrayan ethnic group, whose representative political party, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, previously dominated Ethiopia’s coalition government. The upset has inflamed existing tension between the two groups, bringing Ethiopia a new twist on an old challenge: addressing its familiar ethnic conflict without the stabilizing effect of authoritarian rule.

In recent months, Ethiopia has seen an increase in ethnic-based violence, with the total number of internally displaced people increasing by 1 million in 2018 alone. Much of the violence is concentrated in southern Ethiopia, particularly on the border between two regional states, Oromia and Benishangal-Gumuz, as well as around the Somali state. The surge in conflict has arguably been enabled by the recent liberalization of the media. Since internet access was restored to the country after months of shutdown, social media has seen itself become a platform for hate speech, particularly directed at the Oromo and Tigray ethnic groups. Discontented individuals are able to use social media to spread explicit calls for violence, causing a corresponding spread in active clashes between groups.  

Political tension has severely aggravated the situation: an outbreak in September was attributed to the reemergence of key Oromo opposition leaders. Some claim that the political victory of the Oromo has had a destabilizing effect as certain members of the group, especially the youth, have been given the confidence to push back against what they see as historical marginalization. Others accuse the Tigray political group of instigating violence as a protest against their relative loss of power in government. However, the Tigrayans have also been the subject of social media slander, as their former ruling status makes them subject to blame for the current state of the country. In general, social media has not necessarily increased the vulnerability of any one ethnic group, but rather magnified and made visible the complex state of existing conflicts.  

The rise in ethnic conflict has been accompanied by a simultaneous increase in dissent against the current regime. While Ahmed is extremely popular among a majority of Ethiopians, there is growing uncertainty over the status of his legitimacy. The government’s sparse management of social media has been widely criticized, as many claim that the online buildup to violence should have been obvious enough for the government to notice and take preemptive action.  In a separate incident that occurred on Oct. 10, an organized protest against Ahmed, conducted by a group of Ethiopian soldiers, indicated a bold willingness to confront the head of government. This protest was nominally for the sake of wage increases, but Ahmed fears that the true source of discontent was disapproval of his democratic reform. Democratization in Ethiopia maintains widespread support, but significant concern has begun to surface that Ahmed’s actions have been unjustifiably hasty.

Despite the conservative pushback, there remains a key segment of Ethiopian society who believe that reform has not gone far enough: the Oromo youth. After years of participating in protest and struggle to push Ahmed into office, these successful revolutionaries are impatient to see the results of their efforts. These active members of Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group have the potential to be highly influential in shaping the country’s future reforms.

One of Ahmed’s prized accomplishments is the formation of diplomatic relations with neighboring country Eritrea, with whom Ethiopia had been engaged in a territorial dispute since 1998. Ahmed’s peace has relieved anxiety throughout the country and inspired further diplomatic efforts across the region, but it did not come without sacrifice. In order to resolve the dispute, Ahmed surrendered the border city of Badme to Eritrea. This city, which was a key battleground in the 1998 war against Eritrea, is now inhabited by many Ethiopian veterans who fought to keep it in their country’s possession. Many of these veterans consider Ahmed’s sudden relinquishment of the city to be a callous move, and many more refuse to acknowledge that they are now residents of the former enemy state.

Peace with Eritrea is further complicated by the state’s historically tense relationship with the Tigrayan people. The Ethiopia-Eritrea border cuts through Tigrayan land, meaning that the minority group has suffered marginalization at the hands of both governments. Additionally, the northern Tigray region, where Badme is located, was disproportionately impacted during the 1998 war with Eritrea. The loss of political power combined with the insult of making concessions to an enemy has caused turmoil to spread beyond Badme and throughout northern Ethiopia. In order for Ahmed to preserve the currently favorable status of Ethiopia’s international relations, he will first need to stabilize domestic affairs.

If Ethiopia were still ruled by a fully authoritarian regime, the typical response to these many situations of unrest would be to stifle them using sheer force. Indeed, Ethiopia has already been forced to resort to familiar tactics, as tear gas, mass arrests, and internet shutdowns have all been employed on various occasions in an attempt to clamp down on active violent clashes. Although such action runs contrary to Ahmed’s democratic mission, it is not unexpected of a country only six months into a transition away from deeply entrenched authoritarianism.

While reform in Ethiopia is still quite young, the country has demonstrated a remarkable capacity for change, due in part to their rapidly expanding economy. Ethiopia, which has attracted impressive amounts of foreign and domestic investment in industry and infrastructure, is projected to expand its GDP by 8.5 percent – the highest growth rate in the world. The implications of this growth are optimistic: Ethiopia has the resources that it needs to support the demanding process of democratization. However, as one of the youngest countries in the world, there is fierce competition for these resources among the overwhelming number of young people entering the labor market. Economic fortitude may help Ethiopia to overcome its demographic challenge, but the demographics themselves provide an additional hurdle to further growth.

If Ahmed is committed to the goal of bringing a full and flourishing democracy to Ethiopia, as he seems to be, he will need to find a way to promote coexistence and stability within his divided country. In this relatively fragile transitional stage, a delicate balance must be struck between liberalizing the country and maintaining a level of control sufficient to prevent further violent escalation. Ethiopia has the resources, the leadership, and the willpower to not only build democracy within their own state, but to become a spearhead of democratization in the Horn of Africa. If the country is able to maintain their current political and economic trajectory, the transformational consequences will be unquestionably significant.

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