From Rhetoric to Concrete Steps: Will Reforms in Ethiopia Last?  

Newly-elected Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, left, addresses a parliamentary session along with the Chairperson of the Southern Ethiopian People's Democratic Movement (SEPDM) Muferiat Kamil, right, in Addis Ababa on July 6, 2018. (Minasse Wondimu Hailu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

The last three years of Ethiopia’s political trajectory have been tumultuous. Resilient mass protests that rocked Oromia and Amhara—the country’s two largest regional states—brought Hailemariam Desalegn’s premiership to an abrupt end in February. The ruling coalition replaced him with a young, reform-minded, and charismatic leader, Abiy Ahmed, who has enjoyed greater support across the country. While Abiy’s ascension assuaged public discontent, some pundits called for a posture of “cautious optimism,” casting doubt on the viability of fundamental reforms to the system.

Skeptics argue that despite Abiy’s will to enact reforms, the entrenched modus operandi of the ruling coalition and the enormous pushback from groups within the government to maintain the status quo are bound to obstruct any meaningful ventures. Taking stock of Abiy’s efforts thus far offers a better view of whether reforms will be lasting.

Abiy began his tenure by launching a nationwide charm offensive. Cognizant of the power of words to heal the past wounds and forge unity, he delivered speeches with refreshing, forward-looking, and conciliatory tones. He preached synergy and forgiveness for the better future of the country. He then formed his cabinet by appointing ten new ministers, while reshuffling six others. Institutions that were subjects of widespread public opprobrium got new appointees from his close circle. The Ministry of Defense, the Attorney General, and Revenues and Customs Authority are cases in point.

He also reconnected with Ethiopia’s neighbors by making nine foreign trips, including all of the bordering countries except South Sudan. Abiy negotiated the release of thousands of Ethiopians languishing in foreign prisons; struck port deals with Djibouti, Somalia, Sudan, and Eritrea most recently to diversify outlets for the landlocked Ethiopia; and called for the economic integration of the region.

Substantive measures have been taken to relax political constraints. The controversial state of emergency—a significant escalation measure during the protests—was lifted two months before its period of expiry. Three rebel groups have been removed from the terrorists list. Charges against foreign-based broadcasters and prominent dissidents have been dropped and 264 filtered websites and blogs have been unblocked. Thousands of prisoners have been released along with Andargachew Tsige, an opposition leader on death row. An amnesty bill intended to foster national unity and reconciliation has also been tabled to parliament recently.

Abiy has also alluded to the military’s top brass that the army’s guiding principles need to be reoriented. In stark contrast with the age old ideological orientation of the military rooted in the Marxism-Leninism which blurs the line between a vanguard ruling party and the army, he told the officers to shun politics and maintain their non-partisan stature.

In another measure, the prime minister replaced the long-serving army and intelligence chiefs in early June. This understandably took many by surprise. The military and the intelligence are considered the lynchpin of the establishment; as such, the shake-up in the security apparatus sends a direct message that no sector is off-limits in his reform agenda.

The executive committee of the ruling coalition, which the prime minister chaired for the first time since his appointment, decided for a full or partial privatization of the state-owned enterprises ranging from the national flag carrier, Ethiopian Airlines, to sugar factories and hotels. Economic factors such as the souring debt threshold, foreign currency crunch, and the inefficiency of state-owned enterprises certainly informed the policy shift, though people are wary of the timing of the calls for privatization and its unintended consequences.

The executive committee also decided to fully implement the Algiers Accords and accept the ruling of Ethio-Eritrea Boundary Commission to end a two decade long state of war with Eritrea. The Ethiopian government, in effect, agreed to cede Badme, the flashpoint of the 1998-2000 war between the two countries, to Eritrea. Eritrea’s sending of its high-level delegation to Addis Ababa following Ethiopia’s overture and Prime Minister Abiy’s historic visit to Asmara on Sunday herald a new era of détente between the hitherto rivals.

It is evident that Abiy has made strides thus far—indeed, serious reform is underway. But, the task of undergirding and institutionalizing these measures remains a long way down the road.

National and local elections are fast approaching—the national election is due in 2020 while the local election is scheduled for next year. It would lead to a tragic end if the country heads to election in the current political climate where there is a clear absence of vibrant and genuine civil society, media, or political opposition. The recent announcement for the establishment of a committee to revise the infamous “repressive trios”—the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, Charities and Societies Proclamation, and the Freedom of the Mass Media Access to Information Proclamation—is a positive step in this regard. Revamping the National Election Board, in consultation with stakeholders, is also required to level the electoral playing field.

The bomb blast at a mass rally on June 23 in support of Prime Minister Abiy; the West Guji-Gedeo conflict and the significant influx of internally displaced persons; the eviction of Amharas from Benishangul-Gumuz and Oromia; and community clashes in some parts of the country signal a looming danger in the face of promising starts. Unless the emerging security threats are addressed with a sense of urgency, any positive steps may be cut short and could eventually mar the prime minister’s tenure.

Finally, the reform process unleashed by Prime Minister Abiy seems to upset the old guards who previously enjoyed the privilege of being the makers and breakers of political life in Ethiopia. Given the strength of this group in the economic realm and their solid clout over the security apparatus, Abiy’s efforts will assuredly not be without major obstacles. The challenge of carving out a stable and democratic Ethiopia in the long-term thus lies far ahead.

Zekarias Beshah Abebe is a lecturer in Law at Debre Berhan University in Ethiopia. He was previously an African Leadership Centre Peace and Security fellow and research intern at the University of Cape Town’s Department of Public Law.