Ethiopia’s Great Rift

Will a power struggle within the ruling party lead to reform — or more repression?

Anti-government protesters demonstrate in Bishoftu, Ethiopia on Oct. 1, 2017. (Zacharias Abubeker/AFP/Getty Images)
Anti-government protesters demonstrate in Bishoftu, Ethiopia on Oct. 1, 2017. (Zacharias Abubeker/AFP/Getty Images)

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — On the day that Bekele Gerba, a prominent Ethiopian opposition leader, was released from prison, thousands of people took to the streets in celebration. It was a scene unlike any other in Ethiopia over the last quarter century, during which the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has kept a tight lid on dissent. On Feb. 13, jubilant crowds thronged into the streets and over soccer pitches, waving political flags and chanting Bekele’s name. Two days later, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn abruptly resigned. After nearly three years of sporadic anti-government protests, demonstrators in Ethiopia’s disaffected Oromia and Amhara regions finally appeared to have gained the upper hand. Then on Feb. 16, the tide seemed to turn against them once again, as the government announced the imposition of a national state of emergency, the second of its kind in as many years.

Bekele’s release was the culmination of a three-day standoff between the government, which had previously announced its intention to release some of its many thousands of political prisoners, and the protesters, who had grown impatient with the slow pace of the promised amnesties. For nearly a month, the wind has seemed to be at the protesters’ backs: More than 6,000 political prisoners have been freed since January, meeting one of the demonstrators’ most central demands. “Within a month, the political environment has completely changed,” says Hallelujah Lulie, a political consultant based in Addis Ababa.

But a newly announced state of emergency, which will mean federal troops patrolling towns across Oromia and a curfew in parts of the country for the next six months, threatens to stall momentum for reform.

Behind the drama of the last week lies a radical shift in Ethiopia’s political landscape, one that has the potential to lead to genuine reforms. The EPRDF, a coalition of four nominally ethnic parties that has ruled the country single-handedly since taking power in 1991, is in the midst of a vicious internal power struggle. At issue is the question of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which has long been the dominant of the four ethnically based coalition partners, despite representing only a small minority of the country (Tigrayans make up about 6 percent of the population). Yet the influence of the TPLF is waning as two rival factions, the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO) and the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM) — which represent Ethiopia’s first- and second-most populous regions, respectively — vie with the TPLF for control over the coalition and, with it, the country.

The most remarkable changes have occurred within Oromia and the OPDO. In the early years of the protest movement, the OPDO — derided by critics as both a pliant tool of the TPLF and a den of corruption and incompetence — was a consistent target of popular anger in Ethiopia’s largest and most restive region. Local offices were burned and OPDO officials attacked. But since the appointment in late 2016 of a new regional president and party chairman, the young Lemma Megersa, the party has enjoyed an astonishing reversal of fortunes.

Under Lemma, the OPDO has reinvented itself as a quasi-opposition party, despite being part of the ruling coalition, and won the overwhelming support of activists at home and in the diaspora. Lemma, meanwhile, has emerged as something of a cult icon in Oromia and even in parts of Amhara — where assertive Oromo ethnic nationalism is usually regarded warily — thanks to his stirring oratory and unusual candor in addressing the country’s predicament and his party’s flaws. In parts of Oromia, his face is emblazoned on taxis and buses. Songs, chants, and even prayers are dedicated to him.

His administration has made significant steps toward reforming the party and the regional government. Thousands of local officials have been replaced. The revamped regional broadcaster, the Oromia Broadcasting Network, has been transformed from a government mouthpiece into an investigative watchdog, covering, among other things, land grabs, ethnic violence, and the release of Oromo political prisoners. The regional security forces seem to have changed some of the worst of their ways, too: Oromo police, once despised for beating up civilians, are now widely seen as allies in their political struggle, at times even posing for photos with protesters. The party has also launched a left-wing economic program, known as the “Oromo economic revolution,” involving land redistribution and higher taxes on foreign investors.

All this has put the OPDO on a collision course with some of its partners in the EPRDF, especially hard-line members of the TPLF. Partly in response to the newly assertive OPDO, the TPLF replaced its own leadership at the end of last year, elevating younger, supposedly reformist members to the executive committee in a bid to shore up its popular legitimacy while also healing long-standing internal divisions. Meanwhile, the ANDM — which in recent months has drawn closer to the OPDO as both seek to curb the TPLF’s dominance — meets this week and may also decide to purge its own ranks.

It is in this context — demonstrations on the street and endless bickering in the ruling coalition — that Hailemariam resigned. The move opens the door to a bitter succession battle. Most in Oromia believe it is time for Ethiopia to have an Oromo leader, and Lemma’s name is on many lips. “The one thing he has is the acceptance of the country, especially in Oromia and Amhara,” says Seyoum Teshome, an academic and blogger based in Ethiopia. “The majority of the people in Oromia want it to be Lemma.”

But for now, at least, that seems unlikely. Lemma is not yet a member of the national parliament (though this is not an insurmountable problem) and may not even have the unqualified support of his colleagues in the OPDO, which, like the EPRDF, is riven by factionalism. He would also have to win the acquiescence of the other coalition members, and many in the TPLF in particular might prefer a less divisive politician. In the last few days, eyes have turned toward Lemma’s deputy, Abiy Ahmed, as a possible alternative. Ahmed is a key power-broker in the party but lacks Lemma’s star power. A factor that could work against any OPDO candidate is the perception that the new administration has turned a blind eye to a worrying spate of attacks on non-Oromos living in the region.

Yet the pressure to appoint an Oromo prime minister is building, and expectations in the region are sky high. “The people want [the OPDO leadership] to move faster and be more decisive in their push,” Hassan Hussein, a Minneapolis-based academic and activist, says of Lemma and his colleagues. “The EPRDF made a huge error in 2012 by not appointing an Oromo prime minister. I hope they won’t commit the same error again. Luckily, if they did, it will be the last mistake they would make as a ruling party.”

An Oromo prime minister might do something to contain the anger of protesters, at least in Oromia. But it would not be the magic solution to the country’s woes. For now, the EPRDF, backed by powerful forces in the security apparatus, is still in charge, and the rising demand for more democracy shows little sign of abating.

“The demands of the protesters are legitimate and constitutional,” warns Hallelujah, the analyst. “They are not going to stop anytime soon.”

Tom Gardner is a journalist based in Addis Ababa, covering Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa.