EthioPoint: Ethiopians Analysis | Research Articles

Will Abiy Ahmed democratize Ethiopia or take advantage of its vulnerability?

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By: Metta-Alem Sinishaw, Washington, DC

Abiy 6Ethiopia is a multilingual, multiethnic, and multi religion country characterized by a history of intermittent political, religious and ethnic conflicts. While delayed democratization aggravates ethnic conflicts, poor economic policies especially land, causes deterioration of social welfare; making the country more aid dependent. After 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.  Facing mounting security and economic challenges, will the new leadership democratize the country or take advantage of the its vulnerabilities to become the next strongman?

Some argue that ethnic conflict is rooted in the Ethiopian state formation and expansion, but others contend. 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 become the modus operandi, ethnicity emerged as the sole organizing principle with which political actors mobilize their bases. Unclear ethnic 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 democratization and lifted restrictions on media, legalized outlawed political parties, invited exiled politicians, reconciled with Eritrea, promoted gender parity in cabinet, promised for 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 3 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 changes 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 IGAD region where growing radicalism, porous border, transnational crime, conflicts, poverty, and delayed democratization are the key features. Ethiopia participates in AU and UN missions in Sudan, South Sudan, and Somalia and hosts nearly a million refugees, mainly from neighboring countries.

The effect of rivalries among China, Russia, and the recent partnership of Saudi Arabia and 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 ongoing negotiation for comprehensive agreement is reportedly hindered by Eritrea’s agreement with UAE, the trade liberalization required to attract Ethiopian investment, and the difference in currency imbalances. Continued animosity between the ousted TPLF leaders and Eritrea undermines 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 labored to normalize 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 the tension 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 repercussion 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 lack of clarity about reform efforts, Ethiopia has wide ranging vulnerabilities that could be detrimental to the democratization effort. Weak institutions, fragmented opposition groups, proliferated ethnic based media outlets, increasing tendencies ethnic based regional militia, and deep entrenched authoritarian political culture poses a risk of reversal. Divided ruling coalition, fragmented opposition groups, ethnic hostility, lack of democratic culture, and weak institutions together with poor economic conditions are real challenges for Ethiopia’s journey towards democratization.

Domestically, despite the administration promise to hold democratic and acceptable election in 2020, the ruling party remains divided with a much more fractured opposition political party. One year away the election, it is unclear whether the election will be rolled out as planned and opposition groups are demanding for more time to get ready for election as their mobility is compromised due to security concern. A recent increase in publishing costs for print media only adds a pain for the opposition parties and further undermine 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 underdeveloped private sector. Increasing population further depletes its aid dependent economy and worsens social welfare. High youth unemployment, if accompanied by a drought, could become a humanitarian crisis and a fertile ground for radicalism and aggravate ethnic conflicts and instability with a spillover effect to the Horn region.

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

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

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