Ethiopia at a Crossroads

Ethiopia faces unprecedented uncertainty. In February, for the second time in as many years, the government declared a state of emergency in response to ongoing protests. Its prime minister resigned, paving the way for its first head of government of Oromo descent, the ethnic group at the heart of calls for lasting reforms. What happens next will shape the course of one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies, its second-most populous country and a key U.S. ally.


For more than three years, Ethiopia has teetered on the edge of chaos. After relentless nationwide protests, the government declared a state of emergency in October 2016, which lasted for 10 months and resulted in mass arrests but few reforms. In February, ongoing calls for change led to the abrupt resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, who had held office since 2012.

The nomination of a new premier in March, Abiy Ahmed, renewed hope for meaningful change. Ahmed delivered an upbeat acceptance speech focused on reconciliation. He has since carried out the former primer minister’s plans to close a notorious prison where dissidents were toturted, released some jailed protesters, removed restrictions on internet access and reshuffled his cabinet to improve political representation among the Oromo and Amhara ethnic groups.

In a national tour following his nomination, Ahmed has promoted a message of unity and growth.

Former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, during press conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018. Desalegn announced that he had submitted a resignation letter after the worst anti-government protests in a quarter-century, saying he hoped the surprise decision would help planned reforms succeed and create a “lasting peace.” (AP Photo)

But deep-rooted grievances linger. Many protesters, dissidents and opposition members remain imprisoned, and a fresh state of emergency, in effect since February 16, gives broad authority to the powerful federal government to squelch dissent.

The effects of Ethiopia’s unrest have been profound. More than a million people have been internally displaced due to conflict, with children accounting for more than 40 percent of those displaced, according to data from the International Organization for Migration.

Hundreds have been killed in protests and other clashes with security forces, and thousands more have been arrested, according to Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other rights groups. But those responsible for the killings have not been held to account, and no formal investigation into potential crimes has commenced.

After a tightly guarded nomination process and repeated delays, in late March, the executive committee of the ruling EPRDF coalition selected its new chairman and prime minister, Ahmed, from the underrepresented Oromia region, in the hopes of healing the nation’s many fissures.

Ahmed’s ability to lead will depend on how well he navigates complex politics while assuring people in the restive Oromia and Amhara regions that he will advocate for them, despite deep ties to the current regime.


On the surface, Ethiopia’s government appears to be representative. The ruling coalition — the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) — consists of four political parties. Each represents a different region and ethnic base, with its own factions in the federal legislature and regional state councils.

Those four parties — the Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organization (OPDO), the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM), the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM) and the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), along with EPRDF officials without a party designation — won 500 of 547 seats in the House of People’s Representatives in the most recent national election, in 2015. Candidates in allied parties won an additional 46 seats in that election, and a candidate without a party affiliation won the last seat.

Within the EPRDF, parliamentarians from the OPDO hold the most seats — 180, followed by the ANDM, with 138 seats, and the SEPDM, with 123 seats. The TPLF holds 38 seats.

Both the president and the newly minted prime minister are Oromo, as are many ministers. And Ethiopia’s constitution, adopted in 1995, provides broad power to the House of People’s Representatives, the prime minister and his council.

But the distribution of representatives belies the real power of the TPLF, which, despite representing a minority ethnic group and holding just 7 percent of seats in the House of People’s Representatives, dominates Ethiopia’s political landscape.

This has resulted in what Jawar Mohammed, the executive director of the Oromia Media Network, a news organization based in Minneapolis, in the United States, called “symbolic power” for the Oromo people. “Oromos are nowhere in the federal government — even those who are holding positions have no real power,” Mohammed told VOA.

The TPLF created the EPRDF coalition in the late 1980s as a means to expand their influence beyond the Tigray region. They established the coalition’s parties and selected their members.

Former Prime Minister Haileamariam Dessalegn, right, hands the Ethiopian flag to Abiy Ahmed, left, Monday, April 2, 2018, symbolizing the transfer for power. Ethiopia’s legislature elected Amhed as prime minister amid hopes that he will be able to quell sustained anti-government protests in Africa's second-most populous nation. (AP photo/Mulugeta Ayene)

Alex de Waal is the executive director of the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He’s studied Ethiopia since the 1980s and says the EPRDF came into power with a three-part strategy focused on economic development, ethnic identity and democratic reform.

The EPRDF has delivered on its first promise, according to de Waal.

“Ethiopia was once famous as the ‘land of famine,’ and the Ethiopians, as they traveled the world, were ashamed and embarrassed by this tag. And Ethiopians are no longer tarnished by this,” de Waal told VOA by phone.

To address ethnic tensions across the country, the EPRDF created a federal system based on ethnicity. Intended to empower groups that had long felt marginalized, even before the EPRDF’s rise to power, ethnic federalism nonetheless resulted in unintended consequences.

“This policy of identifying Ethiopians primarily by virtue of their ethnicity has itself become a problem. It’s become the principal means by which Ethiopians domestically recognize themselves and organize, and so in many respects some ethnic or linguistic identity is overriding national identity, which is very problematic," de Waal said.

“Ethiopia was once famous as the ‘land of famine,’ and the Ethiopians, as they traveled the world, were ashamed and embarrassed by this tag. And Ethiopians are no longer tarnished by this.”

— Alex de Waal

Play Audio

Democratic reforms have proved most elusive, according to de Waal. “Of course, they did abolish the previous dictatorship, but the record of democratization is extremely weak.”

In present-day Ethiopia, despite holding few parliamentary seats and ministerial posts, the TPLF wields considerable power, particularly within the military and security forces and across the business sector.

“The group that was the political and military backbone was the Tigray People’s Liberation Front — the TPLF. And in certain sectors the Tigrayans still dominate such as the senior commander of the army,” de Waal said.

“Of course if one travels to Tigray and you actually see what's happening in Tigray, it’s not different — it's not as though the Tigrayans are prospering and the rest of the country is all suffering. The Tigrayans are also deeply discontented with this leadership which they feel has not delivered for the ordinary people of Tigray,” he added.

In this Sunday, Oct. 2, 2016 file photo, Ethiopian soldiers try to stop protesters in Bishoftu, during a declared state of emergency, in the Oromia region of Ethiopia. (AP Photo, File)


Many Ethiopians and outside observers believe the TPLF has misused its power, achieving impressive economic growth at the expense of country’s largest ethnic groups.

Ethiopia boasts one of Africa’s fastest growing economies, but not all Ethiopians have benefited. According to Power Africa, a U.S.-funded initiative to increase access to clean energy across the continent, 14.6 million Ethiopian households have no electricity, with an access rate that drops to just 10 percent in rural areas.

For many Ethiopians of Oromo and Amhara descent, oppression has been felt most acutely in the form of violent government crackdowns in response to protests, many of which were led by students in Ethiopia’s countryside.

“Oromos are nowhere in the federal government — even those who are holding positions have no real power,”

— Jawar Mohammed

Play Audio

Since 2014, protests and violence against civilians have spiked twice, according to a country report published last June by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Dataset. From November 2015 to March 2016, hundreds of protest and violence against civilian events occured. After a brief lull, hundreds of additional events were recorded from July to October 2016. Human rights groups documented hundreds of deaths and thousands of detentions during these periods based on eyewitness and media reports.

New Appointments to Ethiopia’s Cabinet of Ministers

Region of birth is based on information from the Ethiopian News Agency.
Title Name Region of Birth
Minister of Communication and Information Technology Ouba Mohammed Hussien Addis Ababa
Minister of Trade Melaku Alebel Addis Amhara
Minister of Health Amir Aman Amhara
Minister of Industry Ambachew Mekonnen Amhara
Minister of Urban Development and Housing Jantirar Yigzaw Abay Amhara
Minister of Labor and Social Affairs Hirut Woldemariam Amhara
Attorney General Brehanu Tsegay Abera Oromia
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Oromia
Minister of Culture and Tourism Fozia Amin Aliye Oromia
Minister of Defense Motuma Mekassa Oromia
Director General of Ethiopian Revenues and Customs Authority Omer Hussien Ouba Oromia
Minister of Government Communication Affairs Office Ahmed Shede Oromia
Minister of Agriculture and Livestock Sheferaw Shegute Wolasa Oromia
Minister of Mines, Petroleum and Natural Resources Melese Alemu Erboro Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples
Minister of Transport Siraj Fagessa Sherefa Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples
Minister of Public Enterprises Teshome Toga Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples
Minister of Women's and Children's Affairs Yalem Tsegay Asfaw Tigray

Ethiopia’s powerful central government maintains tight control over various aspects of society.

Internet in the country comes from a single, state-controlled service provider, and the government routinely blocks content, arrests bloggers, and spies on dissidents and journalists, according to Freedom House, a watchdog organization focused on freedom of speech and democracy around the world.

Nongovernmental organizations struggle to operate, journalists face intimidation, harrassment and jail, and U.N. special rapporteurs have been regularly denied access to the country, according to Human Rights Watch and the U.S. Department of State.

A woman walks on bridge to a light railway station, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Monday, Oct. 10, 2016. (AP Photo/Mulugeta Ayene)

Ethiopia’s constitution emphasizes the importance of human rights, equality across society and open discourse. But human rights groups see contradictions in how the ruling coalition runs the country, and the ongoing state of emergency shifts additional power to the federal government, allowing it to act with impunity, even when its actions are at odds with the letter and the spirit of the law.


On April 10, the U.S. House of Representatives introduced a resolution calling on the Ethiopian government to improve the human rights situation in the country and lift the state of emergency.

The resolution also calls on the Ethiopian government to investigate alleged abuses, hold those responsible to account, and open access to journalists and international observers. The U.S. remains a key ally for Ethiopia, characterizing its relationship with the East African country as “important” and “complex.”

Each year, the U.S. provides Ethiopia with aid worth hundreds of millions of dollars. In the past five years, the U.S. has contributed more than $3 billion in assistance to Ethiopia, mainly in the form of health services, economic development and humanitarian assistance.

If the resolution becomes law, it could guide U.S. policy toward Ethiopia, providing pressure — or pretext — for Ahmed to carry out additional reforms.

“Power and resources will be more fairly shared between the different regions. That’s one aspect of the future.”

— René Lefort

Play Audio

Ahmed has held office for less than a month, but expectations continue to grow that he will follow high-profile, symbolic changes with deeper and more-lasting reforms, including the lifting of the months-old state of emergency, which many observers see as the greatest impediment to addressing human rights concerns.

But a return to normalcy would also mean deactivating the federal Command Post responsible for overseeing the military’s role in the state of emergency, shifting power back to Ethiopia’s regional authorities.

That will test the EPRDF’s commitment to pluralism and its willingness to relinquish power for a greater good.

René Lefort is a journalist and author who has written about sub-Saharan Africa since the 1970s. He predicts major shifts in power in the coming years.

“We will have redistribution of power and resources between the different regional oligarchies, which was not the case before. Before, the TPLF elite or the Tigrayan elite was clearly at the top of the country. Now, this situation is not sustainable,” Lefort told VOA by phone.

“Power and resources will be more fairly shared between the different regions. That’s one aspect of the future.”

Ethiopia’s newly elected prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, attends a rally during his visit to Ambo in the Oromia region, Ethiopia, April 11, 2018. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

For de Waal, power and resource sharing will come when dissent is tolerated and everything happening in the country comes into the light.

“There’s nothing wrong with protests and dissent and any democratic or reasonably open society should have protests and dissent. You don’t have to agree with the government to live in a democratic society. The key factor, as I’ve said, is in opening up and dialogue, and the key element of that is a proper examination of what is going on.”

But in examining what’s happened, de Waal said, there’s a risk in becoming consumed with past transgressions.

“There is a danger that the agenda actually shifts to whatever repressive acts that the government may have taken. And that’s a step towards polarization that is unhelpful.”

Part 5: Coverage Explorer

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July 14, 2017'Live Aid' Concert for Ethiopia Marked Use of Celebrity in Responding to World Crisis

July 22, 2017114 Somali Prisoners Released From Ethiopia Arrive in Mogadishu

July 30, 2017Young Ethiopian Immigrant Returns to Help Ethiopian Children

August 03, 2017US to Give Additional $169 Million in Aid to Ethiopia, Kenya

August 04, 2017Ethiopian Parliament Lifts State of Emergency Imposed Last Year

August 07, 2017South Sudan Army Capture Rebel Headquarters Near Ethiopia

August 15, 2017Oxfam: 700,000 at Risk of Starvation in Ethiopia

August 17, 2017Deepening Drought Hits Ethiopia Herders as Millions Go Hungry

August 20, 2017Smugglers Target Ethiopian, Somali Teens for Deadly Trip to Yemen

August 30, 2017US-funded Ethiopian Abattoir Hopes to Help Herders During Drought

September 04, 2017Rights Group Urges Saudis Not to Expel Ethiopians

September 06, 2017Somalia: ONLF Member Transferred to Ethiopia Was Terrorist, Regional Threat

September 13, 2017Ethiopia's Regional Tensions Spill Over, Leaving at Least 18 Dead

September 17, 2017Ethiopia: 55,000 People Displaced Amid Ethnic Clashes

September 19, 2017HRW Urges Ethiopian Government to Exercise Restraint at Irreecha Festival

September 29, 2017What’s Driving Clashes Between Ethiopia's Somali, Oromia Regions?

October 02, 2017Ethiopia Frees Eritrean Journalists After Nearly 11 Years

October 07, 2017From Dishwasher to Millionaire, Ethiopian Refugee Achieves American Dream

October 08, 2017Speaker of Ethiopian Parliament Submits Resignation

October 12, 2017Government Forces Kill 4 in Ethiopia's Oromia Region

October 26, 201710 Dead in Ethiopia After Security Forces Fire on Protesters

October 30, 2017Party: Detained Ethiopian Opposition Chief Bailed 2 Years After Protests

November 01, 2017Ethiopian Troops Enter Somalia, Back Offensive Against Al-Shabab

November 02, 2017Ethiopian Runner Wants to Be 1st Female New Yorker to Win City's Marathon

November 09, 2017Billionaire With Deep Investments in Ethiopia Arrested in Saudi Anti-corruption Sweep

November 18, 2017Egypt Warns Ethiopia Nile Dam Dispute 'Life or Death'

November 18, 2017Report: ONLF Rebel Leader Illegally Extradited to Ethiopia

December 01, 2017Ethiopia Plans to Close 27 Refugee Camps

December 07, 2017Report: Ethiopia Targeted Dissidents, Journalists With International Spyware Attacks

December 14, 2017As Violence Flares in Ethiopia, Internet Goes Dark

December 26, 2017Egypt Wants World Bank to Help With Ethiopia Dam Impasse

December 28, 2017Ethiopians Deported En Masse by Saudi Arabia Allege Abuses

January 03, 2018Ethiopia to Release Political Prisoners, Close Detention Center

January 05, 2018Ethiopia to Consider Pardoning Some Members of Opposition Parties

January 10, 2018Ethiopia Approves Ban on Foreign Adoptions

January 15, 2018Ethiopia to Free 528 People Arrested During Anti-Government Protests

January 15, 2018Ethiopia Adoption Ban May Curb Trafficking, But Poorest Families Need Support

January 17, 2018Ethiopia Releases Top Opposition Figure from Prison

January 17, 2018Ethiopian PM Arrives in Egypt for Talks on Sharing Nile

January 18, 2018Egypt Raises 'Extreme Concern' About Nile Dam With Ethiopia

January 20, 2018Ethiopia Should Release All Political Detainees, UN Says

January 22, 2018Ethiopia Leader Rejects Call for World Bank Arbitration in Dam Dispute

January 26, 2018Ethiopia Announces Pardon of More Than 2,000 Prisoners

January 29, 2018VOA60 Africa - Ethiopia: United Nations and African leaders meet at African Union Summit

February 08, 2018Ethiopia Releases Blogger, Opposition Figure

February 09, 2018Prominent Ethiopian Prisoners Won't Sign Pardon Letters

February 11, 2018Conflict in Yemen Does Not Deter Ethiopian Migrants

February 11, 2018Ethiopia Opens Three-Day Talks With Somali Rebels

February 12, 2018Ethiopia to Drop Charges Against Top Dissident Bekele Gerba

February 13, 2018Ethiopia Frees Opposition Leader Amid Protests

February 14, 2018Ethiopian Blogger Eskinder Nega Among Released Prisoners

February 15, 2018Ethiopian Prime Minister Resigns

February 16, 2018Little Change Expected in Ethiopia Despite PM Resignation

February 16, 2018Ethiopia Declares State of Emergency After PM Resignation

February 17, 2018US Embassy in Ethiopia "Strongly" Disagrees with Country's State of Emergency

February 20, 2018Ethiopian FM: No Security Concerns in Country

February 20, 2018Tsvangirai, Ethiopia, South Africa & Bobi Wine - Shaka: Extra Time

February 22, 2018Another 1,500 Prisoners Released in Ethiopia

February 27, 2018South Africa, Ethiopia Tanzania, Kenya, Rwanda & Uganda - Shaka: Extra Time

February 27, 2018Ethiopia's Huge Dam Causes Worry in Egypt

February 28, 2018Ethiopian Jews Threaten Mass Hunger Strike over Israel Move

February 28, 2018Concerns Mount in Egypt as Ethiopia's Renaissance Dam Nears Completion

February 28, 2018The Future of Ethiopia - Straight Talk Africa [simulcast]

March 05, 2018Ethiopia Ruling Coalition to Nominate New PM

March 06, 2018Sierra Leone Elections, Ethiopia, Democracy - Shaka: Extra Time

March 07, 2018Tillerson Stops in Ethiopia on First Official Visit to Africa

March 08, 2018Ethiopia Reports Arrests Over Anti-Government Protests

March 09, 2018Ethiopia Holds Circus to Promote Performance Arts, African Culture

March 09, 2018Ethiopia Deports Journalist, Arrests Blogger

March 12, 2018Ethiopian Town on Edge After Security Forces Kill, Injure Unarmed Residents

March 12, 2018Ethiopian Disability Rights Advocate Champions Opportunities for Women

March 13, 2018About 5,000 Ethiopians Flee to Kenya After Botched Military Operation

March 15, 2018Ethiopian Immigration on Hold After Israeli Budget Passes

March 20, 2018Ethiopia Signs $600M Loan, Grant Deal With World Bank

March 22, 2018Nearly 8 Million Ethiopians Need Emergency Food, Water

March 26, 2018Prominent Dissidents Re-Arrested in Ethiopia

March 27, 2018Ethiopia’s Ruling Coalition Paves Way for Abiy Ahmed as New PM

April 02, 2018Abiy Ahmed Named Ethiopia's New Prime Minister

April 02, 2018Ethiopia's New Prime Minister Pledges Reforms to End Violence

April 08, 2018Ethiopia Closes Infamous Prison, But Activists Await Deeper Reforms

April 16, 2018Ethiopia's Web Blackout Ends, Raising Hopes of Reforms Under New PM

April 22, 2018Israeli Minister Vows to Help Ethiopian Jews Move to Israel