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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.”
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.”
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