Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, and the explosive power of change

NEWS ANALYSIS

As long as there have been revolutions, there have been counter-revolutions. Whatever the nature of political change, someone always wins, and someone always loses — and usually, the losers fight back.

Over the last six months, both Ethiopia and Zimbabwe have gone through shattering, seismic changes to their political systems.

In Ethiopia, massive popular protests against the government prompted the resignation of the prime minister and the appointment of a new one, Abiy Ahmed, a young, energetic politician from the historically marginalised Oromo ethnic group. Although he has been in charge for less than three months, the pace and scale of Abiy’s reforms has left even his supporters in shock.

He is, according to the Financial Times, ‘Ethiopia’s Mandela’.

“Mr Abiy has overseen the release of thousands of political prisoners, ended a state of emergency that was imposed to quell two-and-a-half years of deadly anti-government protests, and announced an economic liberalisation plan, including partial sale of state telecom and airline assets. More recently, he has has reorganised the once-untouchable intelligence services and admitted publicly that the authoritarian government has committed acts of torture and terrorism on its own people,” the publication wrote.

Zimbabwe’s Emmerson Mnangagwa is a little older — 75-years-old compared to Abiy’s 41 years — but his brief tenure has been no less revolutionary, not least for the simple fact that Mnangagwa is not Robert Mugabe, who ruled the country for nearly four decades and was expected to leave office only in a coffin.

Change is much slower in Zimbabwe, and not all of it is necessarily positive, but it is happening: opposition parties have been allowed to campaign relatively freely, the government is aggressively courting foreign investment, and parliament has promised to get tough on fighting corruption. Behind the scenes, Mnangagwa and his vice-president Constantino Chiwenga, the former army chief, are realigning the security forces to dilute the power of the police and the feared Central Intelligence Organisation.

So far, so smooth. But on Saturday, twin explosions in Addis Ababa and Bulawayo shattered any illusions that political change is easy.

In Addis Ababa, Prime Minister Abiy was addressing an enormous audience of supporters in Meskel Square, the heart of the capital city, when an explosion ripped through the crowd. At least two people died, and 156 were injured. Abiy himself was unhurt.

Several hours later — and 4 600 kilometres away — President Mnangagwa had just finished addressing a rally in Bulawayo when another explosion went off. He escaped unscathed, but Chiwenga’s wife and other senior figures were among the 49 injured. Mnangagwa described the attack as an assassination attempt, and hinted that his rivals within the ruling elite may have been responsible. “These are my normal enemies. The attempts have been so many. It’s not the first attempt on my life,” he said.

We don’t know yet who is behind either blast, or what the motivations of the attackers might have been. There is no suggestion that the attacks are in any way linked. But what we can conclude, with a fair degree of certainty, is that the attacks come in response to the enormous structural changes taking place in both Ethiopia and Zimbabwe. By targeting such crowded areas, in such close proximity to the new heads of state, the attackers were sending a clear message that change will not be easy; that reforms come at a price.

There will now be a temptation from both heads of state to deal with their enemies: to declare a state of emergency, or to arrest indiscriminately, or to use the violence to justify a return to the old school autocracy which has long been a hallmark of both states. This would undo all the good work that has been accomplished so far, and reveal their true intentions for their respective countries.

This, then, is the real test of both Abiy and Mnangagwa’s reformist credentials. The tragic explosions will force them to show their colours, and show us if they are genuinely committed to the change agenda they espouse, or whether their proposed reforms were simply an engine for good propaganda.

Simon Allison
Simon Allison
Africa Editor for @MailandGuardian. Also @ISSAfrica.
Advertisting

Strike-off case pulls in judge

Judge Mushtak Parker is implicated in an application to strike off his former partners. He is also involved in the fight between the Western Cape high court’s judge president and his deputy

One strike and you’re out – registrar tells unions

A municipal workers’ union is the first to be sanctioned for not following the new rule when deciding whether to go on strike
Advertising

Press Releases

Dr Mathew Moyo’s journey to academic victory

The NWU's chief director for library and information services was appointed as a board member of the National Council for Library and Information Services.

UKZN pays tribute to Joseph Shabalala, Doctor of Music (honoris causa)

The university joins the global community in mourning the passing of legendary musician and founding member of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Dr Bhekizizwe Joseph Shabalala.

South Africa to be almost R 14-billion wealthier when SAB Zenzele BB-BBEE scheme winds down in April 2020

It’s the biggest BB-BEE FMCG payout in South Africa’s history, with a new scheme to be launched

UKZN vice-chancellor calls for perspective and creative engagement on the way forward

In addition to overcoming the deadlock between UKZN and students, a way must be found to reconcile the university's financial obligations and students' long-term needs.

Survey shows South Africans’ approval of president but not of political parties

According to the survey, 62% of South Africans think Cyril Ramaphosa is doing his job well, while 39% say no political party represents their views.

Andrew Makenete joins Africa Agri Tech as an event ambassador

Makenete has a wealth of experience in the agricultural sector

Is your company prepared for the coronavirus?

Companies should consider the direct and indirect impacts of the pandemic when evaluating whether they are prepared for the coronavirus, says ContinuitySA.

Explaining the distribution of pension funds

Section 37C of the Pension Funds Act puts the ultimate decision-making responsibility in trustees' hands, says Fedgroup.