When Abiy Ahmed was appointed as prime minister in April 2018, it was hailed as the first peaceful transition in Ethiopia’s political history. And this despite the fact that the appointment took place at a very inconvenient time: Fresh out of a four year political crisis amid persistent anti-government protests, Ahmed took over a country on the brink of collapse.
In his first months in office alone, the new prime minister brought in several reforms including a reconciliation with Ethiopia’s arch-enemy Eritrea in record time. This was an unexpected political breakthrough for which the 44-year-old devout protestant, son of a Muslim father and an Orthodox Christian mother was celebrated worldwide - and which even earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in December 2019. For the moment the country was in ecstasy and the economy was experiencing a massive upswing. Under its new bearer of hope, Ethiopia seemed to be on the right track. But appearances were perceptive. Amid the avalanche of promised changes, he averted one severe political crisis, but only to face another. In just two years and a half, and barely a year after getting the Nobel Peace Prize, Ethiopia has yet another political disaster in the offing.
There are multiple reasons that led to the leader’s failure to preside over a democratic transition, but some stand out: Liberalisation and the opening up of an authoritarian order at a breakneck speed is no easy feat; post-authoritarian periods are replete with holes and uncertainties. Ethiopia’s was no different.
One of Ahmed’s first actions as prime minister was to open the country’s hitherto highly controlled political borders to exiled political parties. For decades, Ethiopian heads of government had driven a whole range of oppositional organisations into exile. Ahmed now let them back into the country. However, he did not limit himself to those opposition parties that had been unarmed, but also allowed those who were actively engaged in military combat against the regime by the government of his predecessors. These included most notably the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), which had been fighting since the 1970s for the self-determination of the Oromo people.
But Ahmed’s political coup, which many celebrated as a radical step toward a new reconciliation policy, was not followed by concrete consolidation measures. There was no rule book outlining the political dispensation to come and binding both the government and the new political actors in town to compete in the widely opened political field fairly and peacefully. Nor was there any publicly available information on the terms of agreements government envoys signed with these political parties welcoming them home, problematic terms particularly on disarmament and reintegration of rebel groups back to the society. The Prime Minister vehemently opposed repeated calls from several coroners for a fresh political bargain and a national dialogue. Instead, he anointed himself as “the bridge” seeking to secure Ethiopia’s smooth democratic transition.
The collapse of the old system’s security structure in the early days has led to an out of control privatisation of monopoly on violence, which left the means of violence in the hands of multiple political actors. When structures – maintained for decades by the party coalition “Revolutionary Democratic Front of the Ethiopian Peoples” (EPRDF), – collapsed with Ahmed’s surprise victory, new political groups suddenly aspired to power. Several of these new political actors have begun to fiercely compete in the unruly, freshly liberalised political space, and creating an amorphous political atmosphere which has completely corrupted the art of political compromise, negotiation and dialogue.
While the new government in the capital Addis Ababa was still trying to consolidate its power, new conflicts flared up in most parts of the country mostly instigated by disgruntled interest groups seeking to benefit from the collapse of the lower level political structure. Repeated outbreaks of violence in some parts of the country, particularly in Oromia, the Prime Minister’s own turf, Amhara and parts of the Southern regions, have caused a staggering number of civilian deaths, the displacement of millions and the destruction of their livelihoods in the last two years alone. Just in Ahmed’s first year in office, around three million Ethiopians were forcibly displaced from their homes, according to the Geneva Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.
In his desire to reconfigure the old political dispensation, Abiy Ahmed ignored the imminent danger of sidestepping and antagonising the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), one of the founders of EPRDF which had an uncontested monopoly on power for 27 years. The tension that ensued between Tigray regional State and the federal government is peddled as one which would potentially lead to a breakup of the former. True to this Tigray Regional State, an administrative region in northern Ethiopia, has just conducted the first unilateral regional council election on September 09, defying a decision by Ethiopia’s upper house, The House of Federation, labelling the election “unconstitutional” and “illegal”. The political fallout of this election, if not handled carefully, could potentially lead to a split off Tigray region from the rest of the federation.
To date, dozens of civilians have been killed – and up to 9,000 people arrested
In Oromia, the largest administrative region in Ethiopia, there is an ongoing civil war, involving government forces and the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), a breakaway military wing of the OLF – one of the armed groups that Ahmed allowed to return to the country. The OLA rejected the idea of a peaceful political struggle, blaming a lack of clarity in the process, a glaring manifestation of the lack of clarity in the rules of engagement between the government and an armed opposition group.
The yet unsolved assassination of prominent Oromo activist and artist Hachalu Hundessa happened in the midst of an already fraught political atmosphere and has unraveled Ahmed’s administration. To date, dozens of civilians have been killed – and up to 9,000 people arrested.
Only two years after taking office, Ahmed is therefore now caught in a political impasse - and every wrong step can lead to further escalation. His government’s decision to indefinitely postpone the parliamentary elections, which were originally scheduled for August 2020, has come about with a costly dissatisfaction - the country is plunging even deeper into a crisis. But there is one radical place to start to reverse the unfolding crisis: release all political prisoners and commit to a genuine national dialogue, including with Tigray, an idea floated broadly over the last two years, but ignored at the expense of the country, which is now on the brink. The ball for any peaceful exit is firmly in the hands of last year’s Nobel peace Prize winner.