By Arne Wulff, Emelie Braun, July 29, 2020
Source: Germany (Konrad Adenauer Stiftung)

The Democratization Of Ethiopia On A Fine Line Between Success And Failure

Parliamentary elections were supposed to be held in Ethiopia in August 2020. But in view of the Corona pandemic, these have been postponed indefinitely. Thus, the question of democratic legitimacy for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali’s ambitious reform policy remains outstanding. True, the reforms that have begun seem to have put the country on the right track in many ways – and they are receiving a lot of international support and support. But, however promising the projects may be, the country continues to face major challenges.

In addition to the peace with Eritrea, the continuation of democratization, and the fight against high poverty, these concerns above all the continuing strong ethnic tensions. Most recently, these escalated again when violent clashes broke out in the wake of the assassination of a popular Oromo singer, in which more than 200 people died. Ethiopia is at a crossroads: is Abiy succeeding not only in opening up the country but also at one another? Or does its failure threaten the nation’s disintegration?

Early laurels for the hopeful

Since Prime Minister Abiy took office, he has worked his plans to reform the country – not only domestically, but also with regard to external relations. In the summer of 2018, just a few months after taking office, neighboring Eritrea signed a peace agreement that, after decades of hostility, was supposed to normalize the relationship between the two countries – starting with the opening of borders. In foreign policy, Abiy also acts as a peace broker in the region, for example in the maritime dispute between Kenya and Somalia and in the commitment to a peaceful transition of power in Sudan.

In December 2019, Abiy was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, in particular, because of the peace deal with Eritrea. Many wondered if the award ceremony was not too early. The border with Eritrea has since been closed again, and Ethiopia’s transition to democracy is on a fine line between success and failure. The ever-increasing ethnic tensions with a large number of deaths threaten to jeopardize the country’s progress.

Democratizing a multi-ethnic state like Ethiopia with more than 80 different ethnic groups while at the same time peacefully unifying it is a mammoth task. For more than 30 years, Ethiopia was ruled by a socialist, repressive regime, dubbed by some as a “development dictatorship.” Ethiopia was a long way from true democracy until the political upheaval of 2018. To date, the opposition, the press, and civil society have been severely repressed. Opposition candidates and their supporters were intimidated, political opponents were deliberately denied ballot papers, and voter fraud was commonplace. Abiy is committed to changing this. But his reform course seems to have stalled, and in the context of current developments, skeptical voices are growing – and with it, the fear of the consequences of a failure of the reform agenda is growing.

The political upheaval

Ethiopia is experiencing a political upheaval under Abiy with the potential to set the course for sustainable democratic development. The upheaval was the result of ongoing protests against the previous government, which began in 2015 and culminated in 2018. People took to the streets mainly because of the unequal balance of power. The anger was directed in particular at the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which represents only a small part of the Ethiopian people ethnically, but dominated the ruling coalition of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).

More and more, many Ethiopians rebelled against the oppression of ethnic minorities and political opponents and were willing to fight for the right to freedom of expression and freedom of the press. Added to this was growing economic dissatisfaction against the background that few benefited from Ethiopia’s economic boom. Hundreds of people were killed in these protests. Former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn finally resigned in February 2018, and Science Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed Ali was elected as his successor a short time later. As a result, many representatives of the old regime were replaced, and the new president became a woman with the experienced diplomat Sahle-Work Zewde for the first time in the country’s history.

Ambitious reform course

After Prime Minister Abiy came to power in the spring of 2018, he initiated profound changes. Especially in his course of democratization and reform, he surprised with his courage in rapid reforms, some of which had already been implemented and which included, above all, the following innovations:

  • The opening up of the multi-party system
  • The commitment to freedom of expression and freedom of the press
  • Lifting the strict blockades of the press and the Internet
  • Review of media legislation
  • Easing strict rules for NGOs
  • The release of political prisoners and invitation to exiles to return to Ethiopia
  • Liberalization and industrialization of the country
  • Market economy opening (instead of the previously strictly state-regulated economy)
  • Privatization of state-owned enterprises
  • Gender equality
  • Filling important positions with women
  • Important changes at management level
  • A comprehensive reform of the judicial system
  • The peace agreement with Eritrea.

“The centrifugal power of liberalization”

The Prime Minister’s reform ambitions are undoubtedly promising and have been very popular from the outset. But they also face significant risks and numerous obstacles. Perhaps the greatest challenge, despite liberalization, is to ensure the cohesion of the people and to avoid fragmentation of the country. Because there are still strong ethnic tensions and conflicts within the population. To date, these have been nipped in the bud by arresting and isolating government opponents. But the new political freedom that has been won risks ethnic groups pursue regional autonomy and the ambitious prime minister slips away from political control.

Many of the ethnic groups do not feel equal or adequately represented. Although the Oromo ethnic group is the largest in the country with 34 percent, the Amhars (27%) dominate and the Tigray (6%) political life. With Abiy, an Oromo (in fact, his father Oromo, but his mother Amhara) came to power for the first time, but according to his own information – probably also against the background of his mixed lineage – he sees himself as an Ethiopian and not as a representative of a certain ethnic group. As much as this self-image characterizes him, it seems difficult for him to integrate the Oromo, whose anger stems from more than a hundred years of political oppression, into a policy of national unity without ethnic patronage or preference.

The desire of this ethnic group in particular for more autonomy and political influence is gaining momentum and seems to be breaking ground in the course of the newly gained freedoms, even on threatening paths. In the first year and a half after the new prime minister took office alone, more people are said to have been victims of politically motivated violence than at the time of the riots before. Abiy’s idea of liberalizing and democratizing the ethnically divided country, on the one hand, and as a nation on the other, is a ride on the razor blade. If he succeeds in this step without violence, he could go down in history as a trailblazer for a new Ethiopia. If, on the other hand, he fails, the disintegration of the state and the violence that accompanies it could be hard to stop. The political art of the Prime Minister will have to be to steer the ethnic centrifugal forces of liberalization in the direction of a sense of common belonging. Doubts are growing as to whether this can really succeed.

Challenges and dangers of current developments

However, these are not the only challenges facing the government. The weak institutional capacity makes it difficult to implement the reform projects. It is also problematic that many positions of the government apparatus continue to be made up of people from the old repressive regime. Their loyalty to the new course seems dubious.

The country’s industrialization and infrastructure improvement are high on Abiy’s reform agenda. In return, the country has accumulated enormous debt in the past: the national debt amounts to USD 52.57 billion (of which USD 26.05 billion is external government debt). This is about 66 percent of gross domestic product (average sub-Saharan Africa is about 57 percent of GDP). Ethiopia is particularly indebted to China. This has led to dependencies that could strain the course of reform. This is one of the reasons why the new government is seeking greater ties with Europe, the US, and the Arab states.

It is clear that Ethiopia can no longer afford the greater debt. Instead, Abiy must focus on attracting foreign investors. In principle, Ethiopia has the potential for an attractive growth market and, above all, the rapidly developing industrial sector offers many opportunities. But it remains questionable whether economic transformation can keep up with high population growth and whether sustainable economic prospects emerge for the majority of the population. Economic and political transformation are interdependent. The necessary investment requires political stability and reliable constitutional structures. At the same time, acceptance of the course of political reform can probably only be guaranteed if the economic situation is positively perceived.

Although some successes and progress are already clear, the mood of the Ethiopians is only partially optimistic. Because of their historically poor experience with political leadership, popular impatience is on the increase. The small successes do not always seem to be perceived and appreciated at home. Many are already lamenting, after only two years, the slowness of reforms and the lack of jobs and career prospects. The pressure on Abiy to translate his visionary announcements into tangible successes is thus growing. The fact that, in these times, the Corona pandemic is bringing public life to a virtual standstill is likely to prove to be another obstacle for the Prime Minister.

The planned elections in 2020 and the Corona pandemic

The first truly democratic elections in Ethiopia have so far failed to take a good turn. Parliamentary elections were originally scheduled to take place in May 2020. At the beginning of the year, they were postponed to 29 August 2020. The reason for this was the too short preparation time for the National Electoral Commission in view of the necessary voter registration and efforts by politicians to regroup in the course of liberalization in the form of new political parties and possible coalition alliances. While the EPRDF still has all 547 seats in parliament, other parties and party alliances now have the opportunity to come to power or participate politically through democratic elections in Ethiopia.

The holding of general, equal, and free elections is extremely important for the democratic legitimacy of the Prime Minister. Only then can he succeed in continuing his reform course. In order to reinforce this, he has also worked hard to free himself from old party alliances such as the EPRDF and to form a new party. The Ethiopian Prosperity Party (EPP) is to stand for the political goals of the Prime Minister in the future and pursues above all an economically liberal programmatic. However, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), formerly dominant of the EPRDF, has chosen not to join the new party. Overall, the political opposition in the country, which exists in particular in the Oromo and Tigray ethnic groups, deplores not being involved in politics. They feel increasingly excluded from the transformation of Ethiopia into a true democracy promised by Prime Minister Abiy.

The prolonged pause in political competition, now prescribed in the light of the Corona pandemic, further increases frustration. The course of democratic renewal through elections is interrupted for the time being. After the first Covid-19 case was registered on 12 March, the general election, now scheduled for August, was postponed again – this time for an indefinite period.

Ethiopia now has more than 14,500 infected people and more than 200 deaths (as of 28.07.2020). However, it is assumed that the number of unreported cases is much higher, as there is little testing capacity in the country. And although the number of infections seems quite low compared to other countries such as South Africa (over 450,000 cases, as of 28.07.2020), it has to be noted that the treatment capacities (according to the government about 1,500 intensive care beds and about 400 artificial ventilation options) are very low, at least for seriously ill people, and are now at their limits. The situation is particularly critical in Addis Ababa. In addition, as a result of the brain drain, many well-trained Ethiopian doctors work abroad for the benefit of earning opportunities. Qualified staff to treat Covid-19 are available to a limited extent.

As early as 8 April 2020, Abiy declared a national emergency for an initial period of five months, which is associated with a number of restrictions. Among other things, land borders were closed, more than four people had gathered, schools and educational institutions were closed, travel restrictions were imposed in the country and strict quarantine regulations were imposed, and an obligation to wear masks in public spaces was introduced.

Politically, the rescheduling of the elections weighs heavily on the government – this is already the second far-off in six months. In addition, the parliamentary term, and thus the government’s term of office in the summer of 2020, will end constitutionally under normal circumstances. The forthcoming elections are so crucial for Ethiopia and its future, because these elections set the course for the country’s further development; they are to be regarded as a ‘democratic premiere’. Whether the country will continue to pursue Abiy’s ambitious reform plans, and whether it continues to move toward liberalization and democracy, depends largely on these elections. They serve to give democratic legitimacy to the Prime Minister and his reform plans and are therefore seen as a test.

Artist’s murder sparks unrest

On June 29, 2020, singer and activist Hachalu Hundessa was gunned down in Addis Ababa and succumbed to his injuries a short time later. Hachalu belonged to the Oromo ethnic group and was celebrated in his homeland as a voice of protest. His songs are closely linked to the protests between 2015 and 2018 that led to the resignation of Abiy’s predecessor. In the aftermath of his assassination, violent clashes broke out between demonstrators and security forces in the capital Addis Ababa and in the state of Oromia. They were accompanied by roadblocks, several explosions in Addis Ababa, burning cars, smashed windows and looting. Over two weeks, Internet connections in the Addis Ababa area were shut down and telephone calls were also blocked. Many people were killed in the riots: according to the police, there were at least 239 dead.

The government reacted with a hard hand, arresting opposition figures, including the well-known Oromo nationalist Jawar Mohammed. The charges against him include involvement in the murder of a police officer during the riots. His supporters deny this and accuse Abiy of trying to get rid of a political opponent by arresting Jawar. The Oromia Media Network (OMN), founded by Jawar, was also closed. Meanwhile, two suspects were arrested, who eventually confessed to being involved in Hachalu’s murder. According to the Ethiopian Prosecutor General’s Office, the act was part of a conspiracy to overthrow the government. The further background remains unclear.

These recent events show how fragile the situation in the country is and the risk of escalating political and ethnic tensions. It is also striking that, in the face of the unrest, Prime Minister Abiy apparently used the same instruments as his political predecessors: shutting down all communication facilities and arresting opponents. Observers condemned the government’s response to the protests and unrest as excessive and counterproductive. They are in stark contrast to Abiy’s much-maintained image as a liberal reformer. There are now growing fears that a larger oromo protest movement could occur again. The developments strain the Oromo’s already tense relationship with the government and strengthen a mistrust of Abyi. Critics from his own ethnic group have long accused the prime minister of not doing enough to protect the interests of his home region.

View

Given the expiry of democratic legitimacy of the Ethiopian Parliament and the Abiy government, as well as the elections postponed indefinitely, political instability in the country is expected to continue. The existing ethnic conflicts have not yet been resolved by the new government. If elections had taken place in August, Abiy would probably have been confirmed as Prime Minister by Parliament as a result. Whether this will also be the case if the elections do not take place until 2021 or, at worst, 2022, is increasingly questionable.

So Ethiopia’s future remains uncertain. The horn of Africa country has enormous potential, but it cannot be called up without further reforms. Right now, positive developments, visible above all to the population, would be necessary – developments that benefit all ethnic groups. At the political level, the question also arises as to how the present and future governments can pursue the desire of the regions for greater autonomy, in order, on the one hand, to preserve national peace and, on the other, not to jeopardize national unity. A redefinition of ethnic federalism is envisaged, in which Germany could provide support and advice with its federalist expertise.

At the economic level, the country’s goal is to sustainably secure and expand the economic recovery that has been going on for years, with growth rates of between nine and ten percent per year. First and foremost, the individual citizen and his education and social position should be in the foreground. The issues of gender equality, ethnic inclusion and the scope and quality of education will determine Ethiopia’s future. At the same time, unemployment must be removed and employment and infrastructure developed in parallel with the problem of a rapidly growing young population. This requires further financial resources and programms, as well as the recruitment of investors. However, borrowing further, especially from China, seems dangerous and should be avoided in order to avoid even greater debt and dependence on the country. To make matters worse, the Corona pandemic will set the entire global economy – and African countries in particular – back for years to come.

There are two alternative scenarios for the future of the country. On the one hand, an optimistic future scenario, in which an inclusive policy change takes place, followed by further economic growth, internal and external peace and the improvement of living conditions. On the other hand, there is also a pessimistic future scenario in which the country could experience an abrupt end to political stability and the disintegration of the state order, with the result that dictatorial forces once again seize power.

At the moment, it is not possible to say which scenario is more likely. All the more reason for the democratic states of the world to give political support to the path of democratization taken by Abiy Ahmed and to help the country economically. It is also a question of strengthening all democratic forces in the country. Abiy Ahmed, as a much-praised hopeful, will not be able to implement his reform agenda on his own. It must get the various forces in Ethiopia’s multi-ethnic state at the same table and initiate a genuine national dialogue. Only then can a national sense of belonging be developed, which forms the basis for stability.