Ethiopia’s power, security and democracy dilemma

By Semir Yusuf 
Institute for security studies

The road to democracy requires security and a strong state, alongside an opening of the political space.

Recent assassinations of senior political and military leaders in Ethiopia sent shock waves across the country, casting another shadow over the transition process. These incidents are just one reflection of the deep problems facing the country, despite political reforms.

Political change has come rapidly in Ethiopia, raising expectations that the country is finally on the road to democracy. That journey was never going to be easy though. The challenge is Ethiopia’s legacy of a strong state that is currently perceived as fragile and unwilling to restore security and the rule of law.

After taking office in 2018 Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed initiated a series of ‘high-octane’ political reforms. Media freedom has expanded with the unblocking of 264 news sites. Thousands of political prisoners were released and all banned political parties allowed to operate freely. Repressive laws – such as those on counter-terrorism and civil society organisations – are being replaced by more liberal ones.

Democratic reform faces several challenges, however. The main one is the legacy of a dominant state. Ethiopia has a long history of a relatively powerful state with formidable capacity to repress its challengers and mobilise resources to achieve its goals.

This is the state inherited by the military junta (the Dergue) in 1974 and the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) in 1991. The two regimes enhanced the repressive levers of state power. Multiple formal and informal methods of surveillance and control were put in place, and government was kept highly centralised.

This didn’t stop a serious challenge to the Dergue by a host of ethno-nationalist forces such as the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front and Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, the architect of today’s EPRDF. Rather than open the political space, this contestation led to civil war that prevented the emergence of the levers of democracy – a strong civil society, middle class and peaceful political opposition.

After defeating the military regime, the EPRDF increased the coercive apparatus of the state, securing control over the entire country. The ruling party was more accommodating of demands by ethnic groups than its predecessor. But it maintained a centralised state system through a hierarchical, omnipresent party structure that didn’t allow contenders to emerge.

The legacy of a strong authoritarian state now presents Ethiopia with its biggest obstacle to political change. It has enormously weakened civic engagement, independent economic activity, critical and free media, and peaceful political competition.

The fate of democratisation lies in the hands of the very entity that rule of law needs to protect citizens from. A slide back to authoritarianism is unlikely due to nationwide support for liberation, but the shift to democracy is not necessarily in safe hands, either. It largely depends on the will of the ruling party.

With Ethiopia’s legacy of a strong state, it is ironic that state fragility is the second major challenge facing democratic transition. Over the past 27 years, the EPRDF has ruled through two opposing systems: a highly centralised state together with an essentially ethno-linguistically crafted federal structure. Decades of autocratic rule combined with ethnically organised politics fuelled widespread ethnic-based dissatisfaction that simmered for as long as the central grip was firm.

As that centre slackened when the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front’s power over government diminished – to which ethnic movements partly contributed – the genie was unleashed and political control began to wane. In the absence of a strong state willing and capable of ensuring security throughout the country, the aspirations of different ethnic groups have led to intense clashes.

Since Abiy took office, Ethiopia has been rocked by several unbridled ethnic conflicts. Constituencies have been mobilised to demand self-determination and proportional political representation. Violent clashes have erupted in different parts of the country, costing many lives and causing massive displacement of ethnic minorities. As stability has deteriorated, government has failed to repackage Pandora’s box.

Re-ordering Ethiopia’s politics is difficult for four reasons. First, the state has lost some autonomy as the line between government and party structures – and the protest networks that pushed it to liberalise – has blurred in some areas. This has complicated the provision of security and resolution of inter-ethnic tensions.

Second, the balance of power between the federal government and its constituent units has recently been upset, without any negotiated replacement. As a result, the prerogative of the federal government to influence politics and security in the regions is far from clear. Third, the ruling EPRDF coalition is internally divided about its philosophy and methods, and is being pulled apart by contending ethnic constituencies.

Finally, government’s new line between upholding the rule of law and sliding back to authoritarianism is not yet clear. This causes ambiguity about how and when to enforce the law. In some cases, violence between warring groups has not been contained by security forces due to concerns about a relapse to the repressive ways of the past.

For Ethiopia to achieve democracy and maintain security and the rule of law, control needs to be reasserted in the face of contending ethnopolitical forces. This involves radically re-organising the EPRDF to achieve internal agreement on a new democratic vision. Negotiations among all major political leaders are also needed, to achieve political settlements and a common understanding on how to secure the country.

To confirm its commitment to democracy, consistent engagement is needed among Abiy’s government and the middle class, civic organisations and political parties. For their part, business, civil society activists and opposition politicians should bolster their public presence and help build a peaceful political environment. Civic organisations could create cross-ethnic platforms to lessen the intense competition along ethnic lines.

Ethiopia’s democracy and security dilemma requires the state to be assertive and inclusive at the same time. Failure in either task will jeopardise the transition to democracy. Decisive and strong leadership is needed to push for political liberalisation and forge coherence in the ruling party and government. Given the current schism in the EPRDF, a major shake-up of the party may be needed.

Semir Yusuf, Senior Researcher, ISS Addis Ababa



    Stop incarcerating Amharas!!

    Stop incarcerating Eskinder and Cos.

    Justice to General Asaminew, Dr.Amachew and Cos.!!!

    Amhara nationalism is spreading like a wild fire because of the anti-Amhara campaign by the TRAITOR

  2. All regional governments of Ethiopia including the Federal government could learn a thing or two about power , security and democracy from the Gambella region’s government recent Swift action that removed four senior government officials including the Mayor of Gambelka city, from their duties.

  3. I just read a shameful story a video on another website where two opposing groups(so-called pro vs against the Abiy administration).

    This just makes my heart bleed in utter sorrow. It saddens me because we who are supposed to be well educated and exposed to democracy that shows us how far tolerance go have not taken in such blessed attitude toward each other. After more than 45 years of trash talking to each other and reckless name calling we are still in the same rotten mud!!! In the meantime, those poor Oromo and Amhara farmers are still going about tending to their farms together. They are raising their families together. But We, us, the worst kind of human refuse are getting high from calling each other derogatory names that those noble farmers in the Chercher highland will never allow in their midst. You must be ashamed of yourselves. I go as far as saying I wish you were not even born. You are a disgrace to those dignified people who produced us all. You are a disgraced of the colored!!! You are a disgrace to humanity!!!

    Some of you who claim to be Amharas are as of late trying to justify the killings of regional officials and two other government officials in the capital in front of the daughter of one of the victims. That was carried by none other than cold blooded thugs just because they had this runaway hatred toward the victims. That is nothing but a heinous crime only frequented by demonic terrorists. You should be ashamed of yourselves for condoning this un-Ethiopian(un-Amhara) savage act.

    Those of you who claim to be Oromos who are having a fit to call every living, breathing and protesting Amhara a racist or a ‘neftegna’ you should also be ashamed of yourselves. You should know better that such reckless and bigoted name calling is the one that led to the massacre of those innocent peasants in Bedeno and other areas in the 1990’s. You are doing this just because you have been ravaged by this bug of yanking a territory from harmonious neighbors to call it your personal fiefdom. You are showing yourself as the worst bigots that ever crawled on this good earth. You must be ashamed of yourself. I wish you were not even born. That fantasy of a fiefdom is gonna remain just as such, a pipe dream, the story in the Wiz of Oz. You are being taken for a long ride by smart alecks in your midst, who are devoid of self respect by being busy scavenging at the dumpsites in Asmara until September 2018. In your and my name, I may add.

    Now this is for the dear editors of this website. My previous plea to you and your colleagues still stands. You must not allow bigots to have an easy walk in the park on this waterhole. You owe it to those noble people we all left behind. These bigots are spewing lethal poison from their comfy homes here in the USA and the rest of the Western world. They don’t give a damn if that old country, that gem of the colored goes up in flames. I don’t have to tell you this because they themselves had said it already that unless their objectives are met they don’t give a flying tickling if the whole country goes up in flames. You Amhara this, you Oromo that, you Tigre this and you whoever you are that. That has been the romance of the day, every day for these hate mongering demons. I hold you in the name of our forefathers who shed their Allah created blood so we can live in peace and harmony. We should remember that one day we will all stand in front of The Almighty Our Creator to answer for our actions, every one of them!!!

  4. RIP!!



    Ethiopias security apparatus is unable to perform it’s duty of securing , even after an early warning given to the federal government because the federal government had directed it’s resources on capturing FANO , NAMA , BALADERA and Getachew Assefa totally .
    Currently FANO , NAMA , BALADERA AND GETACHEW ASSEFA are most wanted draining the resources of Federal police and Federal military.

    what was going to take place in Awassa was not given needed attention because the security apparatus were claiming they are too close to catch one Getachew Assefa
    thus relocating the security personell to Hawassa will jeopardize Getachew Assefa’s capture.

    When Ambachew , Saere and the other government senior officials got killed the Federal government government of Ethiopia claimed to spend considerable amount of resources to “capture” the killers going around arresting thousands of people. Inturn when the Federal Government was given an early warning about the Sidama/Wolaita people’s demand to get their secession orelse that they are ready to bring chaos the Federal Government didn’t put enough resource to protect Ethiopuans citizens.

    The way it is going next Oromia would put a deadline claiming Addis Ababa is within Oromia and when the Addis Ababa city doesn’t become within Oromia, MOST LIKELY the Oromos would go around killing NON OROMOS and destroying Amara/Gurage/Tigre….. Properties just like what took place in Hawassa on July 18,2019..

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