Simon Allison in Addis Ababa
For the past four years, ever since the first serious rumblings of discontent began, it has been difficult to appreciate the scale of the political crisis in Ethiopia.
Africa’s second-most populous country maintains an extraordinarily tight grip on information. Local journalists are routinely harassed, intimidated and censored, and foreign journalists are closely watched and prevented from going anywhere too sensitive. Local nongovernmental organisations and opposition parties operate under similar restrictions: under draconian laws, NGOs must tow the government line or risk losing their operating licences; opposition sympathisers are locked up in their thousands.
The international NGOs and think-tanks that operate in Ethiopia are complicit in maintaining the veil of silence. Many agree to refrain from any criticism of the Ethiopian regime in exchange for unfettered access to the African Union, which is based in Addis Ababa. Others turn a blind eye to the government’s routine human rights abuses because of its relatively good record on delivering socioeconomic development — although that record has been called into question by the sheer volume of protest action over the past few years.
In this climate, building an accurate picture of the unrest — and getting any of the usual suspects in the international community to raise the alarm — becomes nearly impossible.
There were plenty of clues, however, that not all was right. The odd massacre made international headlines — such as the dozens, perhaps hundreds, mowed down by security forces at an Oromo religious festival in October 2016. Reports of co-ordinated protests across the restive Oromia and Amhara regions suggested that resistance to the regime ran far deeper and was much better co-ordinated than the government was willing to admit.
Now, the political crisis has exploded into the open, with the resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn — always little more than temporary successor to Meles Zenawi, who died in 2012 — and the imposition of Ethiopia’s second state of emergency in under two years.
This new state of emergency, valid for six months pending parliamentary approval, will give sweeping powers of search and arrest to the security forces and restrict freedom of movement, protest and association. It gives licence for another crackdown on all forms of political opposition.
In this context, it is clear that recent political reform, including the release of hundreds of political prisoners, was not a symptom of more progressive policies but the desperate act of a government increasingly fearful for its very survival.
But the rapturous reception received by the freed opposition leaders, especially the Oromo Federalist Congress’s Merera Gudina and Bekele Gerba, seems to have convinced the hardliners in the country’s ruling coalition to remove the velvet glove and revert to the iron fist, which has served the regime so well for so long.
Now the country waits to see who will replace Desalegn. In another bid to placate protesters, it is almost certain to be someone from the Oromo region, either Lemma Megersa or Abiy Ahmed — both senior officials in the Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organisation, one of the four ethnically based parties that make up the ruling coalition. The Oromos are Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group but have been long marginalised both economically and politically.
Somehow, the new prime minister will have to find a way to balance the demands of the protesters, who will expect immediate, demonstrable change, with the needs of the powerful securocrats in the ruling coalition who are manoeuvring for their own political futures, especially senior figures in the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, who have long monopolised power and are not anxious to share.
“Whoever ascends to the top post will have much to prove but they should begin by following the advice of the United States embassy in Addis Ababa, which warned recently that the answer to growing unrest is ‘greater freedom, not less’,” wrote Mohammed Ademo, founder and editor of OPride.com, for African Arguments. “Indeed, Ethiopia sorely needs national reconciliation and an all-inclusive dialogue, and the next leader must act swiftly to make good on pledges of widening the democratic space.”
The alternative is too frightening to contemplate.
“[The ruling coalition] is at a historic crossroads and the options are clear. It can choose to genuinely reform or it can implode under the weight of a bitter power struggle and popular discontent,” said Ademo.