Responses to Unrest in Ethiopia Require Reckoning With Long-Standing Issues

An Ethiopian religious festival transformed into a rare moment of open defiance to the government on October 1, 2017 in Bishoftu. (ZACHARIAS ABUBEKER/AFP/Getty Images)

Waves of protests and at times ethnic clashes have continued to roil Ethiopia in recent months. While there are legitimate security concerns that the government is seeking to address, the situation is more complex than approaches to national security account for. Despite the successes of the Ethiopian federal republic since its founding and the perception that the country is an “island of stability in a troubled region,” much of the population feels left behind. This sentiment, expressed in the form of protest, is the result of a country that has struggled to deal with its internal social and political upheavals and challenges.

At the heart of the issue is discontent among the numerically dominant ethnic groups who sense that ethnic Tigrayans, who make up some six percent of the population, control most of the government. Protests began in 2015 and were sparked by a development plan intended to integrate Addis Ababa and neighboring towns and villages in the state of Oromia. In 2016, a deadly clash between the federal security force and members of a committee promoting Amhara identity set off protests in the north. Close to 1,000 people have been killed thus far and the government was forced to institute a ten-month long state of emergency for the first time in over twenty-five years. The worst of the recent violence was the conflict between Ethiopia’s Somali and Oromia regions. Conflict on the borders of the region has happened before, although in this instance hundreds of people were killed and and an estimated 400,000 people displaced in perhaps the largest exodus since the Ethio-Eritrea war.

What changed in the country that has received accolades for its economic growth and diplomatic role in Africa?

First, it is important to consider the power dynamics within the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) party, a coalition of the four ethnically defined parities representing these core regional states: Oromia; Amhara; Southern Nation, Nationalities, and Peoples; and Tigray. There is a widely-shared opinion that EPRDF is unfairly dominated by the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). TPLF’s rise in the early periods of the EPRDF may not be surprising as they were the pioneer among all political parties in the struggle against the military regime. Its outsized role for over twenty-five years, however, has now become seemingly unacceptable to the ethnic Oromo and Amhara.

Furthermore, political power in Ethiopia is fused with economic benefits, and the TPLF controls significant portions of the economic sector through parastatal companies. According to Rene Lefort, a long-time observer of Ethiopia, the public and para-public companies that are affiliated with the party control two-thirds of the modern economy, outside of agriculture.

Second, there are a few long-standing criticisms of the central government. Many associate the current political quagmire with the ethnic federalization efforts of EPRDF that started in 1991, which reconstituted the state into a federal model based on ethnicity and language. Some argue that the source of discontent is not the federal political arrangement per se, but rather that the arrangement is disingenuously characterized as the solution to socio-political and economic woes. The frustration stems from the undelivered promises of self-determination for ethnic groups in terms of devolution of power and regional autonomy. Dr. Merera Gudina, a vocal critic of the ruling regime who has been languishing in prison since last year, rightly captures the gulf between the letters of the constitution and the practice when he describes the arrangement as “decentralization on paper and centralization in practice.”

A related issue is the politicization of ethnicity. The drawing of new regional borders along ethnic lines resulted in protracted conflicts—the long-standing Oromo-Somali dispute being a case in point—and also unleashed majority-minority tension within the ethnically defined territories in the form of constant threats, killings, harassment, and expulsion. The Amharas were, for instance, victimized in most regional states including the recent attacks in Oromia and Benishangul-Gumuz.

The way the federal government instituted development policy has also caused major setbacks. The ruling party adopted a “developmental state” approach to fast track economic growth and poverty alleviation. In the Ethiopian context, this is carried out through a centralized and fundamentally top-down approach. The last decade has witnessed growing intervention by the federal executive on matters that are inherently regional and even local. The party’s democratic centralism—where decisions made by party elites are strictly implemented down to the lowest administrative unit—further buttresses the approach. This trend is at odds with the federalist foundation for the government and the historical quest of ethnic groups for self-rule.

Third, the democratic rollback and authoritarian nature of the government has dashed the hopes and aspirations of citizens for democracy. Laws such as the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation and Charities and Societies Proclamation, both enacted in 2009, crippled the activities of opposition political parties, civil society, and press. In effect, there is little or no political space for dissenting opinions in the country, rendering protest as the only form of engagement with the government.

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, a large youth population coupled with high rates of unemployment created fertile ground for political upheaval. Research has demonstrated the relationship between youth bulges and political violence if accompanied by structural conditions such as high unemployment, an absence of political space, and social fragmentation.

The political turmoil is the result of multi-layered political and socio-economic grievances and the political leadership should be cognizant of the complexity of the problem. The crises, however, can offer opportunities for reform, but only if they address the structural issues. In this connection, the party’s “deep reform” that aims to remove incompetent and corrupt officials will not be sufficient. Cosmetic reforms such as reshuffling cabinets or purging officials may enable the party to contain the situation in the short term, but will not remedy the current turmoil.

The centralization of authority in the ruling party has resulted in a system ripe for corruption; resources that are needed for development are being siphoned by corrupt officials. As long as the government structure remains, social upheaval is essentially inevitable. The TPLF should accept the need for greater parity in the government by forming a more balanced coalition. This coalition should reform the policies and institutions that brought the country into a deadlock through, for example, easing restrictions on the media, opposition political parties, and civil society. Releasing political prisoners would be another positive gesture in this regard. Returning to the old unitary system is not a viable option, but some reform to the existing federal arrangement may also be necessary.

The current political system capitalizes on that which divides society over that which unites, with clear negative outcomes. The government’s development policy has achieved fast economic growth at the expense of self-determination for ethnic groups, which has done more harm than good. Bridging the divides between the diverse peoples of Ethiopia and realizing the founding vision for its government are goals that will require determined effort over a number of years, but is the ultimate answer.

Zekarias Beshah Abebe is a fellow at the African Leadership Centre. He has conducted research on the areas of Peace and Security Council of the African Union, Environmental Impact Assessments, prisoner’s rights, and Accessibility of Buildings for Persons with Disabilities.