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Abiy Ahmed

Facing mounting security and economic challenges, will Abiy Ahmed democratise Ethiopia or take advantage of its vulnerabilities to become the next strongman?

Ethiopia is a multilingual, multi-ethnic, and multi religion country characterised by a history of intermittent political, religious and ethnic conflicts. While delayed democratisation aggravates ethnic conflicts, poor economic policies especially land, causes deterioration of social welfare; making the country dependent on aid.

After a long history of authoritarian rule, the new leadership brought optimism to transitioning the country to democracy. Despite public optimism, security and stability remain a challenge. Increased ethnic conflicts led to nearly three million of internal displacements and became detrimental to social mobility. Can the new leadership bring hope?

Politically, Ethiopia is characterised by recurrent armed conflicts between regional and central forces and civil wars due to government’s failure to democratise and accommodate diverse interest groups.

Despite a short past of separation of state and religion, religious tolerance is a hallmark of Ethiopia. However, there have been increasing numbers of religious conflicts in recent decades among the Orthodox, Muslim, and Protestant communities. Religious values are believed to be causes of conflicts, but actors often lack sustained motivation that are inherent in religious conflicts, suggesting transitory incidents.

The Ethiopian economy has seen rapid economic growth with a gradual shift away from agriculture to industrial and service sectors in the past decade. The government has improved health and education services, although malnourishment and maternal mortality remains a challenge.

Some argue that ethnic conflict is rooted in the Ethiopian state formation and expansion, but others oppose that idea arguing that the conflict is multifaceted. The introduction of ethno-linguistic federation in 1995 to address historical ethnic grievances resulted in the proliferation of ethno-nationalist movements with political and legal foundations. As ethnic politics became the modus operandi, ethnicity emerged as the sole organising principle with which political actors mobilised their bases. Unclear administrative ethnic boundaries brought countless claims and counterclaims on land and water sources. Demands for statehood and fair federal representation and investments, cultural, and language policies keeps growing. Ethnic rivalries have been eroding social harmony and leading to protracted public protests that brought the new leadership to power earlier in 2018.

The new leadership of Abiy Ahmed showed genuine commitment to democratisation and lifted restrictions on media, legalised outlawed political parties, invited exiled politicians, reconciled with Eritrea, promoted gender parity in cabinet, promised free and fair elections, expanded political space, and established boundary and reconciliation commissions as well as legal reform councils and working groups to address the sources of ethnic conflicts and promote civil and political rights.

Despite promising reforms and public optimism, however, ethnic tensions and violence are on the rise at an alarming rate. The core areas of contention that brought the new leadership into power such as the constitution, equitable resource distribution and development, form of federalism, distinction between self and shared rule, land ownership, and inclusive governance remain outstanding. There are nearly three million internally displaced people (IDP) caused by security and political instability and there are strong signposts that the trend may continue. Human rights advocates complained about arbitrary detentions, forced displacements, and crackdown on some opposition groups who failed to lay down arms in recent conflicts. The government has allegedly hindered relief efforts and disrupted internet access to resettle the IDPs and quell unrest, respectively.

No doubt, that addressing protracted conflicts in a divided society takes time and resolving conflicts require understanding of contexts, causes, the dynamism under which the conflict persists, including triggering and mitigating circumstances.

Yet, despite the political will of the new leadership, the change we have observed remains more of a personal ingenuity of the premier than policy oriented institutional approach. The public and pundits alike continue demanding for clarity in domestic and foreign policies. Lack of a roadmap about the political transition brought dissatisfactions and public anxiety due to increased violence. The problem with foreign policy stems from the administration’s increasing partnership with the Gulf and Horn countries with no clear direction.

Ethiopia’s stability should be evaluated within the larger framework of the Horn, Red Sea, and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development region where growing radicalism, porous border, transnational crime, conflicts, poverty, and delayed democratisation are the key features. Ethiopia participates in African Union and United Nations missions in Sudan, South Sudan, and Somalia and hosts nearly a million refugees, mainly from neighbouring countries.

The effect of rivalries among China, Russia, and the recent partnership of Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (UAE) versus Qatar and Turkey on the Red Sea and Yemen remains unclear although countries are leveraging on emerging dynamics to enhance their own interests. The reconciliation with Eritrea improved regional stability and interstate relationships. However, the on-going negotiations for a comprehensive agreement is reportedly hindered by Eritrea’s agreement with the UAE, the trade liberalisation required to attract Ethiopian investment, and the difference in currency imbalances. Continued animosity between the ousted Tigray People’s Liberation Front leaders and Eritrea undermines further the pace with which relations could improve. Currently, all four routes of road transportation between the two countries are closed with no clear direction of future relationships.

Ethiopia laboured to improve the relationships of Eritrean with Somalia and Djibouti and collectively hold multiple summits, open diplomatic offices, and agree to remove trade and economic barriers. Although the motivation behind the new integration effort remains unclear, the engagement brought hope to reverse tensions among countries and improve on their complicated relations. However, there are no clear agreements or strategies on how they will promote investment, enhance economic growth, and fight al Shabab in the Horn of Africa. The political situation unfolding in Sudan has serious repercussions on transboundary crimes and illegal arm smuggling that could aggravate Ethiopia’s security challenges and undermine further Ethiopia’s capability to participate in peacekeeping missions.

In addition to the lack of clarity about reform efforts, Ethiopia has wide ranging vulnerabilities that could be detrimental to the democratisation effort. Weak institutions, fragmented opposition groups, proliferated ethnic based media outlets, increasing size of ethnic based regional militia, and deep entrenched authoritarian political culture pose a risk of reversal. Lack of democratic culture and poor economic conditions are real challenges for Ethiopia’s journey towards democratisation.

Domestically, despite the administration’s promise to hold democratic and acceptable elections in 2020, the ruling party remains divided with a much more fractured opposition group. Exactly one year away from its scheduled time, it is unclear whether the election will be rolled out as opposition groups continue demanding more time of preparation due to security concerns. A recent increase in publishing costs for print media only adds a pain for the burgeoning media outlets and further undermines the much-acclaimed press freedom the new administration professed.

The country continues facing major economic challenges, among others, increasing debt, limited competitiveness, foreign exchange shortages, inadequate tax collection, and an underdeveloped private sector. Increasing population further depletes its aid dependent economy and worsens social welfare. High youth unemployment, if accompanied by drought, could become a humanitarian crisis and a fertile ground for radicalism, aggravate ethnic conflicts and instability with a spill over effect to the Horn region.

In the absence of peace, deteriorating economic condition, increasing ethnic media outlets, growing regional militia, and inability of the central government to maintain security, democratisation could be difficult, if not impossible.

Facing mounting challenges, will the new prime minister resolve the ruling party’s internal contradiction to appease ethnic tension, restore security, promote stability, and bring economic prosperity? If unable, what assurance could we have that the new prime minister will not manipulate the country’s vulnerabilities and exploit the geopolitical advantage to emerge as the next strongman? If the new administration is unable to democratise as promised, the question would be “Could Ethiopia remain a viable federation in the absence of democracy?”

The international community could encourage Ethiopia address its vulnerabilities by revising its land and market policies and promote inclusive governance through constructive engagement. As there is no short cut to democracy, Ethiopia must work with its partners and engage in negotiations among its elites and make a tough compromise on contradictory desires. The country must also build resilient institutions, promote democratisation and the rule of law, and bring social harmony and economic prosperity through ethnic and political reconciliations.

*Metta-Alem Sinishaw writes on Ethiopian and African affairs.