Ethiopia's democracy dilemma
In the year since he took office, Abiy Ahmed Ali has instituted a raft of reforms to turn Ethiopia around. But his intentions may yet be undermined by the democratic space he has opened up
A little over a year ago, Africa’s youngest leader came to power in the form of Abiy Ahmed Ali — and with that, Ethiopia pitched into its most dramatic attempt yet at democracy. But fears are mounting that Abiy’s attempt to straddle the country’s ethnic divides will fail, igniting a murderous civil war.
When Abiy stepped into the prime minister’s office at the age of just 41, the continent was agog at the rapidity and ambition of his reforms. Politically, his election marked the end of an authoritarian system still deeply marked by the Marxism of the Derg military junta, which ruled from 1974 to 1987. Economically, he set the country on a liberal trajectory that is expected to result in the economy growing at 8.5% by July — arguably off the back of the agrarian revolution of Soviet-backed dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam.
But the primary danger for the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front — a coalition that won the civil war against Mengistu in 1991 — lies in the ethnic faultlines of Ethiopia. These social cleavages are deepened by "ethnic federalism" — a system used to balance ethnic powers and so reduce tensions in a handful of countries, including South Sudan, Pakistan and, disastrously, Yugoslavia.
Under this system, Ethiopia is divided into nine ethnic regions and three multi-ethnic urban enclaves, including the capital, Addis Ababa. The problem, says Professor Kjetil Tronvoll, Ethiopian expert and director of Norwegian think-tank Oslo Analytica, is that this divide-and-rule structure was held in check by the heavy surveillance of the authoritarian system; democratisation may cause the control mechanisms to fail.
Tronvoll says each ethnic region has its own militia, which reports to a regional president and is backed by regional military units and regional police forces.
The three largest such militia are those of Oromia (with perhaps 400,000 under arms), Amhara (300,000) and Tigray (250,000). Together, they vastly outnumber the federal defence force, which can muster just 162,000 soldiers.
"This security plurality is extremely dangerous, with each region having its own force, and with territorial claims all over the country," Tronvoll says. "The Amhara-Tigrayan border is one of most securitised in Africa — and that’s an internal border. You could have a severe civil war in Ethiopia fought by public military forces; it’s a scary scenario."
But any demobilisation decree from Abiy would likely be seen as "an act of war" by the Tigrayans, a powerful ethnic minority.
Regional militias have done more than rattle their sabres: an Amnesty International report notes that the Liyu police — a special force in eastern Ethiopia — and local Ethiopian militia "extrajudicially executed hundreds of Oromos … Among those killed were infants as young as six months."
Tronvoll says these killings have "a semblance of ethnic cleansing in some areas".
Ironically, two drivers of ethnic tensions can be laid at the door of Abiy.
First, his purge of the securocrat hierarchy — about 60 old-guard generals and many lesser ranks were dismissed and some face criminal charges — has involved a partial dismantling of the national intelligence apparatus, which previously kept a close watch on social tensions.
The result, says Tronvoll, is that many ethnic Tigrayan field agents have refused to report, leaving Abiy, an ethnic Oromo, blind in one eye.
Speaking to the FM from Addis Ababa, The Reporter journalist Samuel Getachew calls the purges "a cosmetic change" at the top that has left a "bureaucratic and incompetent" base untouched, and trouble brewing even within ethnic groups.
What it means:
The young prime minister’s neoliberal agenda and democratic reforms may be inflaming divisions
Second, the very democratisation of politics has allowed views that were previously considered criminal — including those of ethnic separatists and al-Shabaab fanatics — to be heard publicly for the first time. The political fabric has fragmented with the release of political prisoners, the unbanning of opposition parties branded as terrorists, and the return of the first thousands of about 23,000 political exiles.
The ruling coalition is itself expected to splinter. While Abiy commands popular goodwill, he will probably not be able to take the widely hated coalition into a truly democratic election scheduled for May next year. Also, the regime’s leading ally, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, is highly critical of Abiy’s neoliberal divergence from a state-driven developmental model, and may well split off.
The first concrete step towards democratisation has been the passing of a law that allows journalists, human rights defenders and activists to organise openly for the first time in decades.
But Tronvoll warns that far too little of Abiy’s programme has been formalised in law — and, perilously, he has refused to outline a clear and achievable roadmap to democracy. A defined, multiparty negotiation process is necessary, Tronvoll says, just to secure agreement on the form of state from ethno-federalists, geographic federalists and those who want a unitary state.
But some observers have noted in Abiy’s appeal for a "new Ethiopianism" more of the preacher than the statesman.
As in SA, the envisaged new system would bring together one-person-one-vote electoral politics with proportional representation. But the necessary census has been postponed, new electoral laws have yet to be passed, and a purge of suspect electoral officials and redrawing of electoral districts have not yet begun.
Critics say there is not enough time to put everything in place for free and fair democratic elections to be held in a year. And parties returning from exile complain they will not have time to set up the necessary machinery and reach out to constituents — though Getachew says they have been provided with "funds, access to resources and a chance to mobilise, opening the elusive diplomatic dialogue to the population".
Even the much-vaunted peace with Eritrea seems to be unravelling. In recent weeks, Eritrea has unilaterally shut all border crossings, stemming a loss of about 7,000-8,000 refugees a month. But Getachew says that while the border closure "is and should be a concern, the diplomatic relationship is still a work in progress and one with much promise". Besides, he says, air access to Asmara is still open, and twice-daily Ethiopian Air flights to the Eritrean capital "are almost always sold out".
Factor in the US and China manoeuvring for influence over the Red Sea and regional powers being drawn into a civil war in Yemen, and the Horn of Africa is experiencing belligerent geopolitical posturing of the order last seen in the 1970s, says Tronvoll.
Yet Getachew says Ethiopia under Abiy "has gone a distance to play a big brother role within the region". Its involvement in South Sudan and Sudan and in a conflict between Kenya and Somalia, and its attempt to close a tragic era in Yemen, form "the new diplomatic blueprint of Ethiopia’s role as a peace advocate in the region".
Nonetheless, Abiy’s neoliberal agenda may be inflaming divisions at home.
The prime minister — who told the Financial Times that he’s "inspired by capitalism" — has started the process to privatise 49% of multibillion-dollar Ethio Telecom. But he is moving carefully, saying the process will be studied in detail before anything similar is attempted with the state’s energy, shipping, aviation and sugar enterprises.
Though domestic capital is too lightweight to buy out the major state-owned entities, Getachew says the hope is that the loss of government oversight and national pride — the government plans to sell off Ethiopian Airlines — will be offset by high international standards and healthy competition.
Abiy is trying to assuage Tigrayan hostility to his reforms by managing key relationships abroad. During a visit to China last month he managed to get Ethiopia’s repayments of $12bn in debt rescheduled to 30 years.
But the honeymoon is largely over. With the prosecutions of the old guard tilted against ethnic Tigrayans and, in Getachew’s words, "conflicts in all corners of the nation", Abiy is hedging his bets. Concerningly, he’s forming a new republican guard — said to be staffed mostly by ethnic Oromos — to defend him as he treads an increasingly unclear, hazardous path.