Ethiopia’s Successes Under Abiy Ahmed Constrained by Ethnic Divisions

Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed delivers a speech during an event organized to mark International Women's Day on March 8, 2019. (Minasse Wondimu Hailu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

This week marks one year since Abiy Ahmed took over as prime minister of Ethiopia. In that time, significant political changes have taken place that deserve close scrutiny and encouragement. While one of the most authoritarian and politically-stifled countries in Africa has been turning toward openness and increasingly democratic processes under Abiy, it is becoming clear that there are limits to what can be achieved.

That a momentous period of transition has been initiated in Ethiopia is without question. In domestic politics, a process of democratization was undertaken, accompanied by an unprecedented new discourse on reconciliation and connectedness. In the first months of his tenure, Prime Minister Abiy began rapprochement with Eritrea on the intractable border dispute and worked toward normalization of relations with Somalia and Djibouti. He also reconnected with donor countries and with countries in the wider region, including Sudan and Saudi Arabia.

Abiy secured new political and financial support from a number of parties, including the United Arab Emirates, the European Union, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. The extent of goodwill that his policies received from the Ethiopian diaspora has also been remarkable. The chances of structural change and reform towards democracy are unique, and when given substance, may have positive repercussions in Africa as a whole.

While Abiy emerged from the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPDRF), he has made a serious break with the party’s political practices. Censorship of the press and of the internet was abolished, opposition parties—even those with armed wings—were invited back to the country to participate in the political reform process, torture prisons were closed, repressive laws were reviewed, large-scale corruption and bribery in state projects and companies have been investigated, and reforms of the army and national security services begun.

But the ultimate success of these developments and any further reforms will depend on the government being able to address important domestic issues, including: keeping the federal machinery in place, tackling the economic and political challenges of youth unemployment and political representation, moving toward a more productive, export revenue economy, and navigating real or perceived ethnic grievances and group competition.

Complicating all this is the country’s rapid population growth, which has so far not seriously been addressed via policy measures and has become politicized in that changing ethnic group demographics impact heavily on disputes regarding district boundaries. For this reason, and due to the mounting insecurity, the national census announced for 2019 was recently postponed until after the 2020 elections.

The challenges now facing Abiy are complex and result from the country’s recent political history. The ideas of “ethnic federalism” developed under former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and his Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) movement are the most pervasive and important to address. The ideas have led to a situation where ethnic rivalries are entrenched and resentment against the ruling EPDRF widespread. The brutal crackdown on protests by disenchanted ethnic groups, or rather their youngsters or activist elites, under Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn further exacerbated grievances and ultimately contributed to the decision-making process in which Abiy became prime minister.

Currently, the leadership of the TPLF—before April 2018 the leading party in the EPRDF—is ambivalent about Abiy’s course, mostly because they feel threatened that vested party and business interests are at stake. The current policies aimed at addressing ethnic narratives and group claims are reflective of the tenacious underlying problems of regional disparity, entrenched corruption, population pressure, and contestation over natural resources such as land and water, especially in border areas. These problems are predominantly defined in ethnic terms, although they are demographic, environmental, and geographic (e.g., different resource endowments).

The political opening provided by Abiy has shown that measures taken by charismatic and aspiring leaders are often insufficient for addressing the legacy of deeply-rooted challenges. In the case of Ethiopia, people are still employing language used by the previous regime: “ethnicity,” or in local parlance, “nationality rights” (behéreseb mäbt in Amharic). The political system in Ethiopia has been corroded by these ethnic divisions for many years, such that identity politics in the form of ethnic group-think is almost overriding everything else. In some sense it defines citizens’ public identity above notions of civil and political rights. Territorialized ethno-nationalism became the framework of politics, from Meles Zenawi’s time into Hailemariam’s, resulting in the formation of new local ethnic elites and an internalization of identity thinking by the general population. This is impeding compromise thinking and issue politics.

The need to overcome this thinking is great, given the reality of Ethiopia’s environmental and economic problems on the national level.  A recent 2019 humanitarian aid appeal, for example,  calculated that a staggering 8.86 million Ethiopians are in need. Economic growth has been promising but there have been, border conflicts such as in the Afar-Issa area, and mass displacements in the Oromo-Somali Region boundary area, in Beni Shangul-Gumuz Region, and in the Guji-Gedeo area. Communal clashes were even seen in cities, like in the usually peaceful Hawassa, in Moyale, and even in Addis Ababa, where dozens were killed in August 2018 in the Burayyu suburb, causing shockwaves throughout the country. Ethiopia also recently became the country with the most internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the world, some 950,000—although it seems that many recently returned to their homes.

In this context, the formula of “ethnic empowerment,” developed by the TPLF in the 1980s and 1990s based on Stalinist ideas of “nationality rights”—perhaps originally well-meaning—is insufficient. Moving beyond thinking in primarily ethnic terms will require many changes, one of which is political imagination on the part of leadership outside of Prime Minister Abiy to think of new approaches based on the ideas of a civic democracy. The shift needed for this type of thinking will not come easily.

For example, reform-minded leaders at the regional state level have so far been ambivalent overall about making changes and are under pressure from activists—both local youth movements and those who have returned to the country. Their response to pressure and change has tended to be a recommitment to ideas that brought them into power. The leaders of opposition parties, some previously banned or active abroad but now all invited back, also seem stuck in the past. Some leaders are even emphatically exploiting ethnic divisions. There are also clear indications that sidelined parties in the EPRDF are actively supporting dissent and encouraging certain groups to militantly claim their “rights,” and allegedly even providing arms support.

Ultimately, government authorities on the federal and regional levels have to play a law-enforcing and a new facilitating role. Next to tackling a major economic reform program for employment creation and private sector development, the primary task is to gradually de-emphasize ethnicity as the primary identity for political organization and action, and to work towards restating national civic and political rights. This will require changes to the system of property rights. Paradoxically, while ethnic identities of people have been territorialized, thus becoming the prime idiom of conflict, no one has the right to own land in Ethiopia.

These comprehensive reforms would, of course, have to occur without denying the existence or relevance of ethnic origins and traditions as part of the heritage and background of Ethiopia’s diverse populations. But for Ethiopia to develop any kind of “normal politics,” the ethnic sub-text of national politics needs to be de-emphasized as the facts show that the results of “ethnic politics” have been quite dramatic. Reform can only be a gradual process and could be done by focusing on very concrete local political, economic, and environmental problems that demand a non-sectarian approach, this while each region addresses their specific challenges. This will be central to any attempt to build a political system that meets the needs of the people. Despite the hurdles ahead, Prime Minister Abiy’s incremental democratic adjustments and economic restructuring led by a strong federal state have begun to pave the way for a historic opportunity for positive change.

Jon Abbink is a professor of Politics and Governance in Africa at Leiden University’s African Studies Centre.