Politics, World, Africa

1 year under new premier, Ethiopia's path still unclear

Forces of unity in Ethiopia getting weaker while forces of division grow stronger, warns one politician

Addis Getachew Tadesse,Seleshi Tessema Mulata   | 11.04.2019
1 year under new premier, Ethiopia's path still unclear


When Ethiopia’s new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, came to power a year ago this month, he promised reforms that would touch on the military and security, the economy, and electoral politics. He enjoyed widespread support.

One year on, some promised reforms are in the pipeline, but many were left unaddressed, and people are growing more impatient.

Regassa Bayssa, a lecturer in federalism and conflict management at Addis Ababa University in the nation’s capital, blames the deflated hopes on baggage from the past.

“Ethiopian ethnic federalism was designed to bring about justice and equity among the nation’s ethnic groups by devolving power. However, the federal system was undemocratic, centrist, and corrupt from the very beginning,” Regassa told Anadolu Agency.

The Tigray People’s Liberation Front’s (TPLF) “total domination of the system coupled with a parasitic oligarchy related to the dominant group has created public discontent that has triggered reform from within the ruling party.”

The TPLF, one of four parties in the ruling coalition, had been a mover and shaker until a year ago, when it lost clout to the Oromo and Amhara, two groups pressing for reform as three years of anti-government protests shook the nation.

“The reforms spearheaded by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed had put in place several measures aimed at democratizing the federal system which could work for all sectors of society,” explained Regassa.

“Despite challenges, the reform is succeeding and will succeed because it has won the hearts and minds of Ethiopians across the nation.”

“Simmering ethnic nationalism, ethnic attacks and displacements are the work of those who lost their dominant political and economic status,” he added.

3M displaced

More than 3 million people have been displaced due to ethnic attacks that flared up in various parts of Ethiopia over the past year.

Abiy, however, contests this figure, saying there had been a backlog of more than one million people displaced before he even took office.

There were large-scale displacements in rural Ethiopia during the three years of anti-government protests, and the reform period is by no means the only time people got displaced.

Displacements continued over the course of the year as ethnic tensions got strained, with in-fighting flaring up more often than usual, stoking fear in peoples’ hearts and minds of a time worse even than that. People in Ethiopia are mindful of what happened decades ago in neighboring Somalia – a much more homogenous society – as a result of clan-based politics.

Ethiopia has long been plagued by ethnic tensions, sometimes sparking into clashes as with the Oromo and Somali communities, and most recently between Amhara and Oromo speakers in the Amhara regional state.

As the 25th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide (against Tutsis by the majority Hutus) is fresh in people’s memories, one might wonder why people still propagate ethnic politics – politics of exclusion and division in a country that for ages has maintained its independence and unity.

Yet despite that, social media is replete with hate speech, forcing the Ethiopian parliament to draft a bill sanctioning hate speech (up to five years in prison and fines of 5,000 Ethiopian birr, or $173). And there have been many activists riding on ethnic federalism – a system that has been becoming entrenched in Ethiopia since 1995.

Unity threatened

Tigistu Awelu is a prominent politician who leads a national party called the Unity (Andinet) Party.

“So far the forces of unity in Ethiopia are getting weaker while the forces of division are rearing their heads stronger,” he told Anadolu Agency.

According to Tigistu, the multifaceted, far-reaching reform drive cannot be successful if the government fails to unify the nation.

“But conditions seem to favor proponents of ethnic politics rather than citizen-focused politics,” he said.

But Abiy, the reform’s architect, contends that clashes will begin to die down at some point as the pushing and shoving witnessed across the country was the result of longtime repression, during which the people were gagged and dragged along a prescribed political line.

“People tend to let off their emotions in various ways when they suddenly find themselves at liberty to express themselves freely,” he told a press conference last week, playing down a spate of comments – some criticizing the government – that could damage social cohesion.

Since taking office on April 2, 2018, the reformist leader has achieved many things, and perhaps too quickly. He opened up a political space that had been non-existent in the country, and he helped armed groups hitherto dubbed terrorists to the political fold – all of them, such as the OLF, ONLF and PG7, are now back home from the desert in neighboring Eritrea from where they waged war against the now-defunct repressive system.

The reform also saw the release of political prisoners, as the prime minister promised to hold free, fair, and democratic elections in May 2020.

A fine balance

Africa’s youngest leader has had stellar achievements in foreign relations as well. He made peace with Eritrea and also brought the leaders of Djibouti, Sudan, Somalia, and Kenya – countries long accustomed to eyeing each other with suspicion – together for a regional integration drive.

He struck a fine balance between Ethiopia looking East or West by following a policy that tilts to neither the U.S. and Europe nor to China, and most important of all he met with the leaders of Middle East superpowers the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Egypt.

Many daunting challenges remain in the domestic field, though. And these challenges may threaten to unseat him if the charismatic, humble scholar-leader keeps ignoring them, as he has so far.

At a recent press conference, Temesgen Tiruneh, Abiy’s security adviser, said over the past year 10,000 political prisoners have been released and 7,000 exiled politicians came back home or were absolved from abroad from trumped-up charges.

The army leadership has been fundamentally changed to reflect the country’s ethnic diversity, he said. “The army is no longer dominated by a single ethnic group.”

He said: “The most real threat to the security of Ethiopia to date is ethnic politics.”

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