Ethiopia’s transition has stirred hope at home and abroad but it has also unleashed dangerous and divisive forces. As Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government has opened up the country’s politics, it has struggled to curb ethnic strife. Mass protests in late October in Oromia, Ethiopia’s most populous region, spiralled into bloodshed. Clashes over the past 18 months have killed hundreds of people, displaced millions and fuelled tensions among leaders of Ethiopia’s most potent regions.
Abiy’s remake of the ruling coalition, which has monopolised power for almost three decades, risks further deepening the divides ahead of the elections scheduled for May 2020. The premier and his allies should move cautiously with those reforms; step up efforts to cool tensions among Oromo factions and between Amhara and Tigray regional leaders, who are embroiled in an especially acrimonious dispute; and, if conditions deteriorate further, consider delaying next year’s vote. External actors should call on all Ethiopian leaders to temper incendiary rhetoric and offer increased financial aid for a multiyear transition.
First, the good news. Since becoming prime minister in early 2018, after more than three years of deadly anti-government protests, Abiy has taken a series of steps worthy of acclaim. He has embarked on a historic rapprochement with Eritrea. He has extended his predecessor Hailemariam Desalegn’s policies of releasing political prisoners and inviting home exiled dissidents and insurgents. He has appointed former activists to strengthen institutions such as the electoral board and accelerated the reform of an indebted state-led economy. His actions have won him both domestic and foreign praise, culminating in the 2019 Nobel peace prize.
But Abiy’s moves to dismantle the old order have weakened the Ethiopian state. They have given new energy to the ethnonationalism that was already resurgent during the mass unrest that brought him to power. Elections scheduled for next year could turn violent, as candidates compete for votes from within their ethnic groups.
Four fault lines are especially perilous. The first cuts across Oromia, Abiy’s home state, where his rivals — and even some former allies — believe the prime minister should do more to advance the region’s interests. The second pits Oromo leaders against those of Amhara, Ethiopia’s second-most populous state: they are at loggerheads over Oromia’s bid for greater influence, including over the capital Addis Ababa, which is multi-ethnic but surrounded by Oromia.
The third relates to a bitter dispute between Amhara politicians and the formerly dominant Tigray minority that centres on two territories that the Amhara claim Tigray annexed in the early 1990s. The fourth involves Tigray leaders and Abiy’s government, with the former resenting the prime minister for what they perceive as his dismantling of a political system they constructed, and then dominated, and what they see as his lopsided targeting of Tigrayan leaders for past abuses. An uptick of attacks on churches and mosques across parts of the country suggests that rising interfaith tensions could add another layer of complexity.
Adding to tensions is an increasingly salient debate between supporters and opponents of the country’s ethnic federalist system, arguably Ethiopia’s main political battleground. The system, which was introduced in 1991 after the Tigray-led revolutionary government seized power, devolves authority to ethnolinguistically defined regions, while divvying up central power among those regions’ ruling parties.
Although support and opposition to the system is partly defined by who stands to win or lose from its dismantling, both sides marshal strong arguments. Proponents point to the bloody pre-1991 history of coercive central rule and argue that the system protects group rights in a diverse country formed through conquest and assimilation.
Detractors — a significant, cross-ethnic constituency — argue that because the system structures the state along ethnic lines it undercuts national unity, fuels ethnic conflict and leaves minorities in regions dominated by major ethnic groups vulnerable. It is past time, they say, to turn the page on the ethnic politics that for too long have defined and divided the nation.
Abiy’s recent changes to the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the coalition that has ruled for about three decades, play into this debate. Until late November, the EPRDF comprised ruling parties from the Oromia, Amhara and Tigray regions, as well as a fourth, the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ region. Already it was fraying, its dysfunction both reflecting and fuelling ethnic animosity. Abiy’s plan entails dissolving the four blocs and merging them, plus five parties that rule Ethiopia’s other regions, into a new party, the Prosperity Party.
The prime minister aims to shore up national unity, strengthen his leadership and shift Ethiopia from what many citizens see as a discredited system. His approach enjoys much support, including from Ethiopians who see it as a move away from ethnic politics. But it also risks further stressing a fragile state whose bureaucracy is entwined with the EPRDF from top to bottom. Tigray’s ruling party and Abiy’s Oromo rivals oppose the move, seeing it as a step toward ending ethnic federalism. Tigray leaders refuse to join the new party.
The prime minister has made laudable efforts to tread the middle ground and unite the country but faces acute dilemmas. Placating nationalists among his own Oromo, for example, would alienate other ethnic groups. Allowing Tigray to retain a say in national decision-making well above the region’s population share would frustrate other groups that resent its long rule at their expense.
Moreover, while thus far Abiy has tried to keep both proponents and critics of ethnic federalism on board, his EPRDF merger and other centralising reforms move him more squarely into the camp of those opposing that system, meaning that he now needs to manage the fallout from those who fear its dismantling and the dilution of regional autonomy. At the same time, he cannot leave behind the strong constituency that wants to move away from ethnic politics and, thus far, has tended to give Abiy the benefit of the doubt. But the prime minister, his government and international partners can take some steps to lower the temperature.
Abiy should press Tigray and Amhara leaders to step up talks aimed at mending their relations. He should continue discussions with dissenting Oromo ruling party colleagues and the Oromo opposition, aiming to ensure that they litigate differences at the ballot box rather than through violence. He should continue to facilitate talks between Oromo and Amhara leaders and thus ease tensions that are increasingly shaded by ethnicity and religion and feed a sense of ferment in mixed urban areas across the country, including in the capital.
The government might also make conciliatory gestures toward the Tigray, perhaps even rethinking its prosecutions of Tigrayan former officials in favour of a broader transitional justice process. For their part, Tigray leaders should reconsider their rejection of the Administrative Boundaries and Identity Issues Commission, which was set up to resolve boundary disputes such as that pitting Tigray against Amhara.
Abiy and his allies should move carefully with the EPRDF reform and seek to mitigate, as best as they can, fears that it heralds the end of ethnic federalism. They should make clear that any formal review of Ethiopia’s constitution that takes place down the road will involve not only the ruling party but also opposition factions and activists. An inclusive process would also serve the interests of ethnic federalism’s opponents, particularly among civil society, who would have a seat at the table.
The prime minister is set on May 2020 elections, fearing that a delay would trigger questions about his government’s legitimacy. If the vote goes ahead as scheduled, he should convene a series of meetings involving key ruling and opposition parties, as well as influential civil society representatives, well beforehand to discuss how to deter bloodshed before and after a ballot that he has promised will represent a break from the flawed elections of the past. But if risks of a divisive and violent election campaign increase, his government may have to seek support among all major parties for a postponement and some form of national dialogue aiming to resolve disputes over past abuses, power sharing, regional autonomy and territorial claims.
Ethiopia’s international partners should adopt a stance more in tune with worrying trends on the ground. They should express public support for the transition but lobby behind closed doors for a careful approach to remaking the EPRDF and for all Ethiopian leaders to temper provocative language as much as possible. They could also suggest an election delay if the political and security crises do not cool in the months ahead. A multiyear package of financial aid could help strengthen weak institutions, support an economy also undergoing structural reform, and reduce discontent among a restive and youthful population during a period of change.
Ethiopia’s transition may not yet hang from a precipice; indeed, it is still a source of hope for many in Ethiopia and abroad. But signs are troubling enough to worry top and former officials. Among the most alarmist suggestions made by some observers is that the multinational federation could break apart, as Yugoslavia did in the 1990s.
This worry may be overstated, but Abiy nonetheless should err on the side of caution as he walks a tightrope of pushing through reforms while keeping powerful constituencies on board. He should redouble efforts to bring along all of Ethiopia’s peoples, facilitate further negotiations among sparring regional elites, take steps to ensure that the ruling party merger does not further destabilise the country and, for now, defer formal negotiations about Ethiopia’s constitution and the future of ethnic federalism.