Security Exchange News

Ethiopia: Turning the Corner?

29 March 2018

On Wednesday Ethiopia’s ruling EPRDF coalition appointed a new leader. Abiy Ahmed, 42, is also expected to become the next prime minister, following the shock resignation of Hailemariam Desalegn last month. The move is seen as significant – Ahmed will be the first Oromo leader of Ethiopia – and there is a renewed sense of optimism that he could represent the change the country desperately needs.

Ethiopia has experience staggering economic growth in recent years. Back in 2000 it was among the very poorest nations in the world and had the highest recorded poverty rate. By 2016 Ethiopia had one of the fastest growing economies and poverty had fallen from 50 percent to around 30 percent. The IMF predicts that this trend will continue into the next decade, with an estimated 6.2 percent GDP growth through to 2022. Unfortunately, this economic boom has coincided with a wave of ethnic violence and state repression.

In August 2016 the country’s largest ethnic group – the Oromos – started mass protests against decades of perceived marginalisation and economic exclusion in the Oromia region. The unrest quickly spread to include the second largest group – the Amharas – in the Amhara region. The two groups constitute more than 60 percent of the population; however, Ethiopia’s political and security structures are dominated by the ethnic Tigrayans, who represent just six percent.  The government’s response was brutal; more than 500 people were killed by the security forces in the first three months of the protests – many at the annual Irreecha cultural festival - while countless human rights abuses were documented by activist groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW). Hundreds of people were arrested and held without trial after a state of emergency was declared in October 2016; it remained in place until last August. The government tried to blame the unrest on the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and shut down free media and social networks in an attempt to control the narrative.

The anti-government protests continued and eventually led to Desalegn’s resignation. During a speech, the PM said that the EPRDF was in the process of implementing widespread reforms. More than 6,000 opposition activists, political prisoners and journalists have been released in an attempt to appease the public. Following his resignation, the government imposed a new six-month state of emergency, stating that the ruling council “came to the conclusion that imposing emergency rule would be vital to safeguarding the constitutional order of our country”. Ahmed’s appointment should go some way to appeasing the protesters, but he will need to act decisively to address the underlying grievances of many Ethiopians. The fruits of the economic boom need to be distributed more fairly among the regions, specifically in the rural and agricultural areas of the country. Many feel that the EPRDF has lost legitimacy and are calling for structural political reforms that will give proper representation, not just to the Oromos and Amharas, but to all of Ethiopia’s ethnic groups. The reforms need to coincide with an end to repression by the state security forces and increased political freedoms: the individual’s right to free speech and to protest, and a media environment where journalists can call power to account without fear of intimidation, arrest or death. Ethiopia is at a crossroads; Ahmed must choose his path carefully.