In this Sunday, Oct. 2, 2016 file photo, protesters chant slogans against the government during a march in Bishoftu, in the Oromia region of Ethiopia.

Amid fragile calm, Ethiopia's government faces critical juncture

After widespread protests, a six-month state of emergency started in October. Now, much depends on the next move of leaders who have long used their track record of economic development to paper over widespread human rights abuses and political repression. 

For nearly a year, mass protests surged across Ethiopia – and stormed across the world’s headlines – as a movement that began with farmers fighting land grabs outside the country’s capital mushroomed into the country’s most sustained and widespread period of dissent and protests since its ruling party came to power more than two decades ago. 

Then, suddenly, it all appeared to stop. 

In October, the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) announced a six-month state of emergency, banning protests and social media and arresting thousands of demonstrators in mass sweeps. The desired effect was almost immediate – demonstrations previously rocking the country’s two most populous regions subsided, and a fragile calm returned. 

But the state of emergency now leaves Ethiopia at a critical juncture. 

How long the current calm holds – and where the country’s politics goes next – will depend largely on the next move of the EPRDF government, which has long used its track record of economic development to paper over widespread human rights abuses and political repression. 

If it takes heed of the protesters’ calls for more transparent, democratic governance, however, that would go a long way, observers say, to establishing a sustainable peace, giving the country a chance to repair its brand as the safest and most reliable country in the volatile Horn of Africa. 

But if it does not, protests may not only resume, but escalate, setting the stage for possible dangerous scenarios ranging from an even more brutal governmental crackdown to more widespread and extreme ethnic conflict, or the rise of another strongman dictatorship. 

And for a truly long-term solution, observers note that the government must take much larger steps to release political prisoners, bring opposition groups to the negotiating table, and reform key institutions such as the judicial system.

“The oppressed stay silent but eventually you reach a critical mass and then it boils over,” says Yilikal Getenet, chairman of the opposition Blue Party. “Hundreds have been killed but they keep protesting. They go to protests knowing the risks. So what does that tell you?”

For 25 years, since the 1991 revolution swept the EPRDF into power, Ethiopia has been east Africa’s development darling. Thanks to partnerships between local government and international partners, millions of people have been lifted out of extreme poverty. The EPRDF, meanwhile, has also presided over the most impressive economic and development boom in the country’s history, with average annual economic growth being sustained at more than 10 percent for the last decade, according to the World Bank, and shaped the country into a crucial bulwark of peace and stability in a region studded with conflict. 

But statistics that wowed the international community have masked a more complex reality on the ground. During its rule the EPRDF has forcefully and repeatedly cracked down on opposition parties, jailing their leaders or forcing them into exile. The 2015 election produced a parliament without a single opposition representative. Freedom of expression is strictly curtailed, and there is little civil society to speak of. Meanwhile, Ethiopians have grown increasingly angry over government corruption and mass youth unemployment. 

At the same time, beneath the surface of the EPRDF’s calls for a united national identity, many here see a transparently ethnic politics. The face of government oppression has become the country’s Tigrayan elite, who come from an ethnic group who form only 6 percent of the population, but played a pivotal role in the 1991 revolution and have gone on to dominate government, business deals, the economy, and the security services. 

“The people feel deeply hurt by the corrupt ways of the government that has sought to enrich its officials at the expense of the larger society,” says Alemante Selassie, emeritus law professor at the College of William & Mary and Ethiopia analyst, by email. “They feel left out the so-called Ethiopian economic miracle that the Western press touts ad nauseam despite the grinding poverty all around the country, especially the Amhara region.” 

Taking heed?

Last November, such frustrations burst open when government announced plans to expand the boundaries of Addis Ababa into surrounding Oromo villages and farms. The plans touched off massive protests, which soon spiraled outward to include the Amhara, Ethiopia’s second largest ethnic group after the Oromo (together the two groups represent about 60 percent of the population). Numbers killed during protests so far range upward of 600, with thousands more imprisoned, according to the likes of Amnesty InternationalHuman Rights Watch, and opposition groups. 

But there are also halting signs government may be taking heed of protesters’ demands. At the end of October, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn conducted a major cabinet reshuffle, changing 21 of 30 ministerial posts, including bringing in 15 new appointees. Some heralded the move, arguing that the selection of technocrats without party affiliation is a positive signal the party is serious about delivering changes, while others argue the new appointees are just different models of the same old oppressive elite. 

“People need to be calm and patient,” says Abebe Hailu, a human rights lawyer who lived through the 1974 downfall of Emperor Haile Selassie and the ensuing military dictatorship that eventually fell in 1991 to the EPRDF’s founders. The events of 1974, he explained, illustrate the bloodshed and danger that can accompany too-rapid regime change here. At the same time, however, the government must accept that it has to make real reforms to satisfy the demands of the population. 

The government has promised a long list of further reforms to solve the root causes of the protests, like fighting corruption, reforming the electoral system, and creating a $500 million fund to tackle youth unemployment (though how exactly it will work has not been full explained). 

But after a generation of EPRDF rule, many here remain skeptical that change is possible at all from within the ruling party.  

 “This government has failed the people not once but 1,000 times,” says Merera Gudina, chairman of the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress Party, and who at the start of December was arrested for allegedly violating state of emergency rules. “They’ve broken promise after promise.” 

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