In WorldAware’s Africa region, we have been monitoring sweeping changes in Ethiopia following Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s election in April. Although most of the new developments demonstrate a move away from illiberal and repressive practices, and indicate a growing appetite to build peace and security, a revival of local ethnic conflict shows that the reforms' ultimate success is far from guaranteed.
Under Abiy, Ethiopia has moved away from the systematic repression of dissent toward apparently embracing political pluralism. He has freed thousands of political prisoners and lifted a nationwide state of emergency, which had been in place intermittently since 2016. Other symbolic - yet highly significant - gestures, include shutting down Addis Ababa's infamous Maekelawi Prison, publicly apologizing for the ruling party’s previous use of torture and terrorism, and permitting exiled opposition groups - previously considered by the government to be terrorist movements - to return to the country.
The sudden normalization of Ethiopia's relations with neighboring Eritrea has completely transformed the geopolitics in the Horn of Africa, which were long dominated by the enmity between the two. Abiy's decision to abide an independent ruling demarcating the mutual border marked a clear turning point. The border has reopened, and telephone lines between Ethiopia and Eritrea have been re-established, along with direct commercial flights. Overall, the threat of armed state-vs-state conflict in the Horn of Africa is far lower now than just half a year ago.
Prime Minister Abiy has also unveiled an ambitious program of economic reforms by cutting back on bureaucracy and encouraging foreign direct investment. Entire sectors of the state-controlled economy - including telecommunications, air travel, railways, hotels and manufacturing - will be opened to private capital. The expected inflow of investment from countries such as China, India, Turkey and, to a lesser extent, the US, should help finance the construction of much needed infrastructure, notably in telecommunications which has lagged behind many other African nations.
Although mass protests in the regions of Amhara and Oromia have come to an end under Abiy, the consequent security benefit has largely been offset by an increase in localized communal violence around the country. Overall, communal violence in central Ethiopia has driven more than a million people from their homes in recent months. The capital had generally been spared, until ethnic-Oromos killed dozens of people from minority ethnic groups on the outskirts of Addis Ababa in mid-September. In this, and other such incidents, security forces were unable or unwilling to intervene. In fact, the multiplicity of local security force agencies, resulting from a decentralized approach to law and order, has only fueled conflict. Greater freedom of expression under Abiy could also be a factor, by allowing more antagonizing rhetoric based on regional identities. Abiy’s repeated calls for Ethiopian unity failed to contain the unrest, and some policies that Abiy had reversed – such as internet restrictions and mass arrests - have now been reintroduced in an attempt to combat the violence. Nevertheless, small-scale instances of communal violence will continue in several regions in the coming months, potentially including the capital Addis Ababa, prompting security, business and transportation disruptions. Tough security measures by the authorities, including localized telecommunication blackouts, cannot be ruled out.
Although Abiy's overall popularity is not in doubt, he will continue to face strong opposition from two groups. On the one hand, high-ranking members of the Tigray People's Liberation Front - the TPLF - which long dominated the ruling party, are reluctant to accept their much-diminished position following Abiy’s replacement of the heads of the army and secret service, which was meant to prevent TPLF figures from using the security apparatus to undermine his rule. Abiy also faces steadfast opposition from within his own ethnic-Oromo community, particularly among supporters of an independent Oromia, who see him as a traitor for having built his career within the ethnic-Tigrayan-dominated ruling party, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front – or the EPRDF. The Oromo Liberation Front is widely suspected of being behind a June 23rd grenade targeting the prime minister during a speech at Addis Ababa's Meskel square.
To sum up, the absence of a clear roadmap for democratization does not bode well for long-term stability. While exiled opposition movements have been allowed to return, their place in the country's political life is yet to be defined. For the time being, power remains firmly in the hands of the EPRDF, now in its 27th year of undisputed rule over the country, though uncertainty over the status and role of opposition groups, together with a heightened sense of local identity in many areas of the country, could be a recipe for internal unrest in the coming months.
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