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Ethiopia’s Year of Reckoning

Ahead of elections in 2020, Ethiopia has many problems to address. Here are our top reads on how Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power and what comes next.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed attends a rally in Ambo, Ethiopia, on April 11, 2018.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed attends a rally in Ambo, Ethiopia, on April 11, 2018. Zacharias Abubeker/AFP/Getty Images

On April 2, 2018, Abiy Ahmed became Ethiopia’s prime minister after the ouster of his predecessor, Hailemariam Desalegn, amid widespread protests. Early in his tenure, Abiy promised fair and competitive elections in 2020. As that date nears, however, Ethiopia appears to be in increasing danger of collapse, with a retired general and several others shot dead late last month after allegedly planning the assassination of three officials as part of what the government called a coup attempt.

As tensions in Ethiopia simmer, we’ve collected our top reads on how the country got here—and what will come next.

Back in January 2018, it was already clear that Desalegn was in trouble. After vowing to release political prisoners in an attempt to quiet protests, the prime minister backtracked. Why remains uncertain. But what is clear, write Mohammed Ademo, a journalist, and Jeffrey Smith, the founding director of Vanguard Africa, is that “following three years of escalating anti-government protests — mostly by the Oromo ethnic group and to an extent the Amhara, who together comprise two-thirds of the country’s 100 million people — Ethiopia can no longer afford to ignore demands for political reform.”

Compounding the government’s problems, they explain, was an economic crisis including “massive youth unemployment, high public debt, rising inflation, and a shortage of foreign currency.” Altogether, Ademo and Smith warn, “these burgeoning crises have raised credible concerns about the risk of state collapse. And there are good reasons to be worried.”

The next month, things had reached a boiling point. The government released a prominent opposition figure from prison, which drew thousands of people into the streets in celebration. Then two days later, recounts Tom Gardner, the Ethiopia correspondent for the Economist, the prime minister abruptly resigned, making anti-government protestors across the country believe they had won. By Feb. 16, however, the government announced a state of emergency, dimming hopes of real reform.

Even in those dark days, though, there were signs that real change was coming. “Behind the drama of the last week,” points out Gardner, “lies a radical shift in Ethiopia’s political landscape, one that has the potential to lead to genuine reforms. The [Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (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.” The influence of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which had long dominated the other three players in the EPRDF, had waned. The battle among the other factions to replace it, Gardner hoped, might create room for change.

And change Ethiopia did. In March, the EPRDF elected Abiy, part of the Oromo Democratic Party, of one the smaller factions in the coalition, as its leader. Soon thereafter, he was sworn in as prime minister, writes Nizar Manek, the Addis Ababa correspondent for Bloomberg News.

Around Ethiopia, Abiymania was everywhere. But one point of criticism, Gardner argues in a later piece, was that the new prime minister would be a populist “in the mold of Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, India’s Narendra Modi, and U.S. President Donald Trump.” For Gardner, though, that accusation rang false: “If Abiy has a buzzword,” he writes, “it is ‘medemer,’ an Amharic term which more or less means ‘unity,’ or ‘adding together.’ It suggests reconciliation, not division.”

Others worried about potential violence. “In this transformation, ethnic conflicts might increase in intensity and number, both as a result of a backlash by conservative forces rejecting the rapid reforms or due to the sudden liberalization of the public space,” warn Florian Bieber, a professor at Austria’s University of Graz, and Wondemagegn Tadesse Goshu, an assistant professor at Addis Ababa University, in a comparison of present-day Ethiopia and Yugoslavia in the 1990s. “These conflicts might in turn precipitate ill-conceived moves, including secession, which could have deadly consequences in communities where violence has been the principal means of settling communal disputes.”

Indeed, competition among ethnic groups could even be seen in one of Abiy’s early major achievements: peace with Eritrea. As the Atlantic Council’s Bronwyn Bruton explains, both countries are “united by the presence of a still-potent mutual enemy,” the Tigray People’s Liberation Front along their shared border. Striking a deal was a way for Abiy to weaken the rival party, whose holdouts “are the key impediments to political reform in Ethiopia.”

Concerns aside, argues Daniel Benaim, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, Abiy is still a natural ally for the United States: “While troubling repression persists, Abiy has taken formidable steps in the right direction. He ended the legal state of emergency put in place by his predecessor, closed an infamous jail, and spoke frankly about the abuse political prisoners had endured there. He welcomed home exiled ethnic rebels.”

A little over a year into his rule, though, and Ethiopia has taken a turn. In an interview with Foreign Policy’s Jefcoate O’Donnell just after June’s assassinations, Felix Horne, of Human Rights Watch, remarked that “under Abiy’s leadership there’s been a lot of very positive human rights reforms, but one of the ongoing concerns has been the breakdown in security across wide parts of the country. And I think so far that insecurity has manifested itself in a lot of ethnic violence.”

By attempting so many reforms, Abiy may have “unleashed forces he can no longer control,” as Manek puts it in a recent piece. “The severe strain that Ethiopia’s regional and grassroots security organs are now facing is rooted in myriad power struggles that have rippled out from the core of the ruling coalition during the political opening. … The violent events in June are a warning that Ethiopia’s political opening, with elections and a national census slated for next year, could end in a bloodbath.”

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