The promise and peril of Ethiopia’s democratic revolution
If any single event sums up the confusion, danger and enormous opportunity posed by the change sweeping across Ethiopia it was when dozens of armed soldiers marched on the office of Abiy Ahmed, the new prime minister, in October. As the troops moved closer, the government shut down the internet, leaving the capital awash with rumours but little information. It looked to many Ethiopians like a coup.
But when the soldiers arrived, Abiy approached them and listened to their complaints. Within a day videos were circulating showing the 42-year-old former army officer doing press-ups with the grinning troops. Abiy later said the protest had been part of a plot to kill him by opponents of his reforms. Yet with boldness and charm he turned a possible military coup into a public-relations one.
Across Ethiopia, Africa’s second-most-populous country, scenes that were unimaginable a year ago are now commonplace. On a recent Friday morning in Hawassa, a regional capital, crowds of young men draped themselves in the white, red and blue flags of the Sidama Liberation Movement, a rebel group. Chanting and singing, they gathered to welcome its leaders home from exile.
Farther along the highway to the capital, as the road crosses an invisible ethnic border, the colours of the flag change to yellow, green and red—those of the Oromo Liberation Front, another rebel group that has been allowed to return and contest elections, scheduled for 2020.
If the democratic uprisings that swept across the states of the former Soviet Union in the early 2000s were “colour revolutions”, then Ethiopia’s counts as a multicoloured one, with flags of many hues representing its more than 80 ethnic groups.
There is no mistaking the excitement that has gripped the country since April, when Abiy took office and embarked on the most radical liberalisation in Ethiopia’s history. He has made peace with neighbouring Eritrea, freed thousands of political prisoners, welcomed back armed opposition groups and promised to open up the state-dominated economy.
But he faces big challenges. As he lifts the heavy hand of the state, ethnic nationalism and violence are spreading. The economy is slowing. Much will depend on whether Abiy can use his enormous popularity to unite the country and shepherd it towards fair elections.
No dirge for the Derg
Ethiopia has had two previous revolutions. Neither worked out well. In 1974 students and soldiers toppled the feudal empire of Haile Selassie and replaced it with the Derg, a Marxist junta that forced peasants onto collective farms, where they starved. Seventeen years later the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (eprdf), a coalition of ethnic liberation movements, overthrew the Derg.
Although professing to be democratic and representing all of Ethiopia’s ethnic groups, the eprdf ruled harshly and was dominated by Tigrayans, who are 6% of the population. It adopted a constitution that promised to protect human rights, then ran roughshod over it, shooting or arresting protesters and installing party loyalists at even the most local levels of government. The former strongman, Meles Zenawi, who died in 2012, boasted that the eprdf’s “writ runs in every village”.
Because Ethiopia’s economy expanded rapidly, many came to see it as a model of authoritarian development, similar to China’s. gdp grew by an average of 10% a year over the past 15, the government says. That figure is probably overstated, but the growth, from a low base, was certainly swift. In recent years, however, questions have been raised about whether the Ethiopian model is sustainable. Much of its economic growth came from state spending on roads, industrial parks, giant dams and Africa’s biggest airline. This was financed largely through borrowing abroad. The binge has pushed foreign-currency debt to the equivalent of 350% of annual export earnings. The imf says it is at high risk of “debt distress”. Foreign exchange is scarce. Inflation is 14%.
The authoritarian regime also proved fragile. Oromos, who are about a third of the population, long resented the Tigrayans’ control of the government. Protests, which began in late 2014 in Oromia, gathered pace a year later after elections in which the eprdf so thoroughly suppressed opposition parties that it won 95% of the vote and all the seats in parliament. A ten-month-long state of emergency was imposed in October 2016 after protesters burned foreign-owned factories and blocked roads.
The crisis sparked a coup within the eprdf. Oromos aligned with Amharas, who are about a quarter of the population (and ruled the roost under Haile Selassie and the Derg), and shunted aside the Tigrayan elite. Abiy was named chairman of the party and the country’s first Oromo prime minister.
Since taking charge, he has ordered the release of thousands of political prisoners. For the first time in 13 years there are no journalists in jail. Censorship of the media has ceased. The army and police, who shot scores of people in 2015-16, now rarely use lethal force to contain unrest. Confrontations between them and protesters have declined by more than 80% since April.
The shift away from authoritarianism has been accompanied by a push towards democracy. Abiy has promised a free and fair election. He nominated a respected opposition figure to head the electoral board and a renowned human-rights lawyer as chief justice of the supreme court. Experts are rewriting the statutes that all but criminalised peaceful opposition.
But the revolution risks spinning out of control. The wave of protests that brought Abiy to power also exposed the degree to which many Ethiopians do not regard their government as legitimate. District officials across Oromia and Amhara were often the first targets of violent unrest before Abiy took office. Tens of thousands have been replaced, but many are powerless in the face of young protesters. “The lower administrative structure has almost completely collapsed,” says Jawar Mohammed, an Oromo activist with vast clout.
In the vacuum young men have taken to vigilantism. “Every citizen should be a policeman,” says Abdi Abkulkdar, a leader of an Oromo youth organisation in Shashamene, a town near Hawassa. In August a mob there lynched a man wrongly suspected of carrying a bomb.
If they go, there will be trouble
A greater threat to Ethiopia’s stability comes from ethnic tension. Since 1995, when the current constitution came into force, ethnicity has been a central feature of politics. The constitution created nine ethnically based, semi-autonomous regions, but also gave each of Ethiopia’s more than 80 recognised groups the right to form its own region or to secede. In practice the eprdf kept the federation together by shooting anyone who tried to break away. Now separatists are trying again.
In recent weeks four ethnic groups have demanded plebiscites on self-rule. There have also been attacks on minority groups and ethnic cleansing, which is made easier by the fact that in most regions ethnicity is recorded on identity cards. “They had a list, they called my name,” says a middle-aged Welayta man, whose house was destroyed by a Sidama mob in June. Several Welayta men were burned alive and 2,500 were forced from their homes in Hawassa, a cosmopolitan city in the heart of what the Sidama claim is their homeland.
Almost 1m mostly ethnic Gedeos, a small group living south of Hawassa, have been homeless since April. In recent weeks hundreds of thousands have been displaced along the border between Oromia and Benishangul-Gumuz. More than 1.2m Ethiopians were forced from their homes in the first half of this year.
Some are stockpiling weapons. “The people in this region are buying machine-guns like crazy,” says a young man in Bahir Dar, the capital of Amhara. Young Tigrayans have also been calling for weapons and training. “The risk of chaos, anarchy and state collapse are within the realm of possibility,” says an official.
Abiy may see no choice but to use the police and army to separate the factions and restore order. A more lasting solution is likely to involve strengthening state institutions. That would mean curbing the powers of his own office and ensuring that the state itself is bound by the law. At times, though, Abiy has acted as if he is above it. In August he deposed the tyrannical president of Ethiopia’s troubled Somali region. This was welcomed, but unconstitutional. In September the police in Addis Ababa arbitrarily arrested thousands of young men suspected of being involved in violence. Abiy later apologised.
He also needs to revive the economy so as to create jobs for millions of young school-leavers. Many now have nothing better to do than join ethnic youth groups, such as the Oromo “Qeerroo” or Sidama “Ejjeetto”, which look like militias-in-waiting. A good place to start economic reform would be to allow competitors to Ethio Telecom, a state-owned monopoly that is responsible for one of Africa’s lowest rates of phone and internet penetration. He should also lift restrictions on banks that force them to give cheap loans to the government while starving private firms of credit.
Most of all Abiy must show Ethiopians that democracy need not mean anarchy. “Historically we are not used to reforms,” he has said. “All we know is revolutions.”
This article appeared in the Middle East and Africa section of the print edition under the headline “A colourful revolution”