Aspirations and Realities in Africa: Ethiopia’s Quiet Revolution

Issue Date July 2019
Volume 30
Issue 3
Page Numbers 139-153
file Print
arrow-down-thin Download from Project MUSE
external View Citation

While enormous challenges persist, the ongoing political opening in Ethiopia offers an opportunity for the expansion of democracy and respect for human rights in a geopolitically important state, and is already having significant implications for peace and security in the Horn of Africa. Managing massive expectations, maintaining stability, and instituting a political order in which the country’s divergent political groups and ethnic communities are meaningfully represented and at peace with each other are key tests that will determine the trajectory of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s bold political experiment. With robust citizen engagement and prudent international support, there is reason to believe that the challenges are surmountable.

Ethiopia, at 105 million people the second-largest country in Africa, took an important step away from its authoritarian past on 5 February 2019. That day, parliament adopted new and more liberal legislation on civil society groups to replace a decade-old, highly repressive law that had targeted the work of human-rights advocates and other defenders of a free society.1 This move—it would have been virtually unthinkable just a few years before—marked the first legislative achievement of the man at the center of the quiet revolution gripping the country, reform-minded prime minister Abiy Ahmed. A figure of almost frenetic ambition, the 42-year-old Abiy has moved fast since coming to power in April 2018, pressing ahead with a number of major changes and planning more. If he is successful, he will go down in history as a principal architect of a new and more democratic Ethiopia.

About the Authors

Jon Temin

Jon Temin is director of the Africa Program at Freedom House and a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He has served on the U.S. Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff and as director of the Africa Program at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

View all work by Jon Temin

Yoseph Badwaza

Yoseph Badwaza is a senior program officer for Ethiopia at Freedom House. From 2007 to 2009, he directed the Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCO), Ethiopia’s foremost human-rights NGO.

View all work by Yoseph Badwaza

Abiy has freed thousands of political prisoners, made peace with Ethiopia’s old enemy Eritrea, overhauled the cabinet and other top posts, and committed to economic liberalization and democratic elections. In the most recent Freedom in the World report by Freedom House (FH), Ethiopia joined Malaysia in notching the world’s largest positive score change. Each country rose seven points on FH’s 100-point scale representing the overall state of political rights and civil liberties within a polity (Ethiopia rose from a 12 to a 19, while Malaysia rose from a 45 to a 52.)

Abiy’s flurry of reforms and promises has thrilled—and polarized— [End Page 139] Ethiopians even as it has caught the attention of Ethiopia’s partners and competitors in the region and further afield. The rapid opening of political space is a step into the unknown, and not without risks. Given how central matters of ethnic identity are to Ethiopian politics, the prospect that escalating ethnic tensions could lead to widespread strife is a major concern. Abiy and his reforms have roused enthusiasm, but to date he has mostly gathered the political equivalent of low-hanging fruit. Much taller challenges await. There are many ways in which the reform project could go wrong, while the paths to success are few and narrow. Yet if Abiy and other leaders can enact the reforms and build the institutions needed to drive a transition to genuine democracy complete with individual rights and freedoms, then Ethiopia’s quiet revolution will stand as the most important political transition in Africa so far this century.

Since overthrowing the genocidal military regime of Mengistu Haile-Mariam in 1991—it is thought to have been responsible for up to two-million deaths—the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has ruled with a tight grip. It controls all levers of state power, including the military and security services. Four parties make up the EPRDF: the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the Amhara Democratic Party (ADP), the Oromo Democratic Party (ODP), and the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM). Each claims to represent one of Ethiopia’s major ethnic communities (or, in the case of the SEPDM, a cluster of smaller ethnic groups in one region), and all four are supposed to be equally represented in the ranks of the party leadership.

In reality, however, Tigrayans played a leading role in toppling Mengistu and the TPLF had a hand in founding its sister parties. From 1991 until recently, the TPLF steered the EPRDF and with it the federal government. This was especially so under the leadership of Meles Zenawi, a Tigrayan from the far north who led the EPRDF rebellion and served as president and later prime minister from 1991 until his death in 2012.

After leading a transitional government into which it gathered a number of smaller ethnic parties, the EPRDF in 1995 adopted a federal constitution that structured Ethiopia along ethnolinguistic lines. This system of ethnic federalism divides the country into nine ethnic states, along with two specially administered cities, including the capital, Addis Ababa. Ethiopia is home to more than eighty ethnic groups. The nine states thus “represent” only the largest groups; smaller ethnic communities live as minorities in each state. In theory, each state enjoys fiscal and administrative autonomy, but in reality the center maintains control.

In the early 1990s, the EPRDF replaced Marxism-Leninism with “revolutionary democracy” as its core ideology, though in practice there is little difference between the two. The notion that there must be a vanguard ruling party to speak unhindered for the people and lead social [End Page 140]development is central to the EPRDF’s revolutionary democracy. The 1995 Constitution and official rhetoric sounded the themes of democratic multipartism, but in truth the EPRDF ran the state mostly uncontested. The EPRDF began to speak of a “developmental state,” but here too the ruling party had a virtual monopoly on making and carrying out government policies, to the exclusion of and undistracted by those not ideologically aligned. Under Meles, Ethiopia saw remarkable economic growth driven by public investment in infrastructure and manufacturing, but the deficit in individual freedoms and democratic governance was massive.

In 2005, as elections approached, the EPRDF allowed the most competitive campaign period Ethiopia has seen. The ruling party let opposition groups form coalitions, rally supporters, and present a robust alternative to EPRDF control. When early returns indicated a strong opposition showing, however, the Meles regime preemptively declared itself the winner. This led to months of disputes and dozens of arrests. As opposition leaders, journalists, and human-rights activists were rounded up, many winning opposition candidates refused to take their seats at both the regional and federal levels. The EPRDF responded by extending its crackdown, changing the electoral law in 2007 to narrow political space and adopting restrictive media legislation a year after that. [End Page 141]

In the 2008 local and municipal elections, the EPRDF ran mostly alone and won more than three-million seats across the country, many of which were creations of the amended electoral law (the layers of elected councils altogether held about 3.6 million seats). In 2009, the government enacted restrictions on civil society organizations that parliament would not lift until February 2019. Under the 2009 proclamation, civil society found itself constrained from receiving foreign funds, setting up networks and consortia, and taking up issues related to democracy and human rights. These constraints, combined with antiterror measures and media regulations, gutted autonomous organizations and stifled legitimate dissent. Citizens were unable to express their views or challenge the EPRDF.

As many Ethiopians lived in fear, a determined EPRDF pushed ahead with its plan to make the country a single-party state. The May 2010 election for the 547-member House of People’s Representatives (the lower chamber of the federal parliament) left the ruling party and its allies controlling all but one of the seats. In 2015, the ruling party’s total domination reached its final pitch of pseudoelectoral absurdity when the EPRDF and its allied parties claimed each of the 547 House seats plus every seat in all the regional legislatures.2 In November 2015, soon after this all-EPRDF parliament began sitting, protests erupted in Oromia, whose 287,000 square kilometers and 35 million people (based on the 2007 census) make it the country’s largest and most populous region.

While the protests were sparked by the government’s plan to expand the capital region of Addis Ababa across Oromia’s border into adjoining farmland, they expressed much broader and older grievances. These included the lack of meaningful political representation and perceptions that national wealth and economic benefits were unfairly distributed. As the protests intensified and spread to other parts of the country, notably the Amhara Region (population 31 million according to the 2007 census), the government in October 2016 declared an emergency and unleashed a massive crackdown.

At the same time, rifts at the top of the EPRDF were widening. Rising young ODP leaders demanded more power at both the regional and federal levels. Echoing the protests in their respective regions, these Oromo elites and their ADP counterparts coalesced to challenge Tigrayan dominance in party and governmental affairs. After months of internal EPRDF deliberations, the Oromo-Amhara alliance gained the upper hand, and the EPRDF began to initiate reforms. The negotiations went on behind closed doors and took the form of gimgema—evaluation sessions practiced at all levels of the party where gains, shortcomings, capacity, and ethical breaches of leaders and members are assessed, usually through criticism and self-criticism. The reforms included the freeing of political prisoners and the opening of talks with opposition political parties. In February 2018, Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn [End Page 142] resigned in order to facilitate “reforms that would lead to sustainable peace and democracy”3 This paved the way for much-needed leadership turnover within the EPRDF and a move away from TPLF dominance.

Abiy Ascends

The vacancy in the premiership set off a power struggle within the EPRDF. The coalition had to decide whether to make leadership changes that would be sweeping enough to match the intensity of protestor demands, or risk fragmentation and eventual collapse. Abiy, who at the time was deputy president of the Oromia Region, was chosen more out of the EPRDF’s urge to preserve itself than out of any desire to embrace liberalization. The TPLF leaders knew they stood to lose from the changes being pushed by the Oromia-Amhara political alliance and resisted accordingly, but the clear realization that the status quo was no longer tenable won out.

Abiy Ahmed is the son of a Muslim father and a Christian mother, and is himself a devout Protestant. He grew up in the Oromia Region’s Jimma Zone, southwest of Addis Ababa in the high central plateau. Abiy joined a forerunner to the ODP as a young man and then became a military officer, earning a degree in computer science and pursuing a career in communications and intelligence. After leaving the service as a lieutenant-colonel, he held regional and federal posts that included deputy director of the Information Network Security Agency (INSA), Ethiopia’s cyber spy agency. In 2010, he won election to the federal parliament on the ODP ticket. He held the cabinet portfolio for science and technology before assuming the Oromia deputy presidency under a reformist regional president for whom Abiy also worked as the head of urban development and housing, picking up along the way a doctorate in peace and security studies from a university in Addis Ababa.

Abiy was little known outside Oromia when he became premier, and Ethiopians were unsure what to expect. What they got was a whirlwind of activity and reforms that few would have anticipated. Early in his tenure, Abiy ended the state of emergency. This curtailment of the govern ment’s power met a widespread popular demand and freed the EPRDF from the contradiction of talking up reforms while knocking down dissent. He sped the release of about sixty-thousand political prisoners.4 Among them was Andargachew Tsige of the opposition group Ginbot 7, who had been on death row since 2016. Abiy removed the terrorist label that the previous government had placed on Ginbot 7, and held a symbolic meeting with Tsige. The new premier urged exiled opposition leaders to come home, and fired the wardens of the most notorious prisons. Just after taking office, Abiy followed through on an earlier official decision to close the capital’s feared Maekelawi detention center. He not only publicly acknowledged the EPRDF government’s responsibility [End Page 143] for acts of torture and other human-rights abuses, but championed a June 2018 amnesty law that within nine months led to the release of almost forty-six thousand people detained on charges including treason and espionage.5

Abiy’s efforts to improve accountability have landed more than three-dozen former officials in court to answer charges of corruption and violating rights. Among the accused is the ex-chief of METEC, the military-run metals and engineering firm, as well as the onetime deputy director of the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS). The former stands accused of embezzlement, while the latter is suspected of torturing political dissidents.

Abiy’s high-profile hirings and firings have shaken the upper ranks of government. Birtukan Midekssa, a former judge and opposition politician (and Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy in 2011–12) who endured jail and exile, now heads the national election authority. Meaza Ashenafi, founder of the Ethiopian Women Lawyers’ Association, has become president of the Federal Supreme Court. In October 2018, Abiy announced a new and pared-down cabinet comprising men and women in equal numbers. This made Ethiopia only the second country in Africa to achieve such a balance (Rwanda was the first).6 Abiy has been mining the diaspora for talent, focusing more on professional credentials than political leanings.7 Among the officials whom he has relieved have been the heads of INSA and NISS and the military’s chief of staff—all of them Tigrayans, a group that has long dominated the national-security apparatus.

Abiy’s reforms have gone beyond internal matters. In a dramatic move, he accelerated nascent EPRDF efforts to make peace with Ethiopia’s much smaller northern neighbor Eritrea (population about five million) by accepting the Algiers Agreement of 2000 and the subsequent ruling of the UN-sponsored Ethiopia-Eritrea Boundary Commission. (From mid-1998 to mid-2000, Ethiopia and Eritrea fought a bloody war over a territorial dispute that the Commission later settled in Eritrea’s favor.) Eritrea’s reclusive and long-ruling authoritarian president, Isaias Afwerki, traveled to Ethiopia in July 2018—his first visit in twenty years. In September, the border reopened and families long split by the international conflict were able to reunite (though the border has since been closed again). Details of the Abiy-Afwerki talks remain obscure, but the rapprochement that they produced has gained widespread acclaim and eased tensions throughout the Horn of Africa. Abiy, who wrote his doctoral thesis on resolving sectarian conflicts in Jimma, has sought to help settle separate Djibouti-Eritrea and Somalia-Kenya disputes as well, and has even dabbled in the South Sudan peace process.

Whether or not Abiy continues to make regional diplomatic progress, most significant to his fellow Ethiopians has been his role in opening political space and lifting the burden of fear that the government had imposed [End Page 144] on the country. Ethiopians across the political spectrum increasingly feel free to speak publicly about issues that had been forbidden subjects for years. Cybersurveillance and internet shutdowns—hallmarks of Meles and his successor—have decreased. Radio and television stations carry content critical of the government and the ruling party. The Ethiopian blogosphere is full of divergent views and open debates over once-forbidden subjects. For the first time since 2005, no journalists are in jail in Ethiopia.

The processes for replacing repressive laws such as the 2009 Charities and Societies Proclamation (the law that parliament did away with on 5 February 2019) and the Anti-Terror Proclamation of the same year have been generally transparent and inclusive: Abiy’s government has formed drafting committees of prominent legal professionals who regularly consult civil society. The new Civil Society Organizations Proclamation, while raising some concerns, nonetheless removes the old law’s worst features, including its criminal sanctions and provision prohibiting certain domestic organizations from receiving more than a tenth of their funds from foreign sources.

Abiy’s public speeches suggest ambitious changes to come, including term limits for the prime minister and the promotion of economic integration throughout the Horn of Africa. He points to his privatization efforts, noting the partial breakup of government monopolies in telecommunications (Ethiopia’s telecom company has the largest subscriber base in Africa) and power transmission. Most crucially, he repeatedly avows his commitment to transform Ethiopia into a genuine multiparty democracy. As he put it in a meeting with political parties early in his tenure: “Given our current politics, there is no option except pursuing a multiparty democracy supported by strong institutions that respect human rights and rule of law. This will allow us to mediate our differences peacefully and to ensure lasting progress.”8

A Path Lined with Risks

Despite this lofty rhetoric, the reforms that Abiy and his government have achieved—and the even more far-reaching changes to which they aspire—are at growing risk. The most immediate threat comes from the rising insecurity and ethnic violence that are in part byproducts of the liberalized political climate. An increasing number of ethnic communities are demanding a freer hand in spending and governance matters as well as stronger political representation at the federal level. With more liberty to press such demands, long-simmering intercommunal tensions are heating up. Trade corridors, shared grazing lands, and communal boundaries are among the objects of contention. In the southern part of the country, which has more and smaller ethnic groups, agitation for separate federally recognized ethnic regions is gathering strength. New [End Page 145] ethnic parties such as the National Movement of Amhara (NaMA) are appearing, and their rhetoric can be incendiary.

The International Crisis Group estimates that violent ethnic clashes—among them Amhara against Qimant, Somali against Oromo, Oromo against several smaller southern groups—have claimed thousands of lives and displaced more than 2.9 million people from their homes.9 In recent interviews that we conducted in Ethiopia, some with whom we spoke lamented the role of “too much freedom” in bringing about such violence. Sadly, large-scale violence is hardly new to Ethiopia, but its nature is shifting. Where once it was largely vertical (the government against the populace), now it is horizontal (ethnic groups against one another).

The reintegration of armed movements poses a particular challenge. Abiy has encouraged the return not only of Ginbot 7’s leaders, but also of the leaders of the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), each of which had been labeled a terrorist group. He wants them to take part in the political process. The return of the OLF from Eritrea has been especially troubled. Its leader claims that its fighters refuse to disarm and enter reintegration camps, as other former rebels have done. Talks with the government have been lengthy but inconclusive. Troops are now deployed in parts of Oromia Region with the mission of forcing fighters to surrender, and hundreds of former OLF fighters have since laid down their arms and entered rehabilitation camps.10

The perception of a government reluctant to take decisive action against those who take the law into their own hands has emboldened local militias to attack ethnic or sectarian minorities and to disrupt commerce with roadblocks and even bank robberies. Civilians who live outside their ethnic “home areas” have suffered assaults by informal bands of youths. Dismayed by the rise of what they call “mob justice,” many citizens are calling for more forceful government responses.

The state’s response capability, however, is not what it once was. Years of protest in the Oromia and Amhara regions have weakened the EPRDF’s chain of command at both ends, as top officials have become divided against themselves and junior officials have moved into the protest orbit. Local leaders are facing questions about their legitimacy, and some in the government sincerely believe—in a notable break with prior orthodoxy—that strong measures will prove counterproductive and lead to security-force excesses. This all adds up to a government that is less than adept at predicting and stopping ethnic and communal violence. [End Page 146] Abiy and his team will be continually tested as they wrestle with the challenge of how to provide security without jeopardizing liberty or popular support.

Given the unexpected breakthroughs during Abiy’s tenure so far and the pace of reforms, managing expectations is a mounting challenge. After years of stonily unresponsive EPRDF rule, Ethiopians eagerly desire improvements in governance, the economy, individual rights, and accountability for past abuses. If Abiy is to succeed, he must meet these expectations. Given the disproportionate size of the youth cohort in Ethiopian society, the attitudes of the young are especially important. They expect concrete dividends from political liberalization—an easing of their painfully high unemployment rate, for instance—and they will have limited patience. The speed and breadth of the new premier’s reforms are widely acknowledged, but he has yet to make clear his long-term vision, even as expectations multiply and public confidence wavers. Are his encouraging moves part of a larger plan, or improvisations fueled by instinct and expediency?

The reforms are playing out in different ways across the country. The party that ruled Ethiopia with an iron grip remains in power, and in many areas too little has changed: Local and regional officials retain the old mindset and work through the old governance structures. Even in regions not run by EPRDF cadres, the party’s influence is so strong that changes in the EPRDF destabilized the non-EPRDF leadership, prompting federal interventions to oversee leadership changes in the Benishangul-Gumuz, Gambela, and Somali regions. The volatile reality on the ground, meanwhile, has left some Ethiopians outside the capital with whom we spoke wondering how and when Abiy’s “television reforms” (to borrow one interlocutor’s term) are going to help them. This gap between Addis Ababa and some of the regions could turn dangerous, especially if Abiy continues to seem more interested in grand flourishes and glowing international press coverage than in what everyday Ethiopians must cope with.

Adding to Abiy’s problems is the struggle over the future of the EPRDF. His Oromo faction is now in control, and tensions between it and the once-dominant Tigrayan contingent are mounting. Senior TPLF leaders complain that the crackdown on corrupt officials and human-rights abusers disproportionately targets Tigrayans. In volatile parts of the country, rumors abound that the TPLF is stoking instability. Multiple regions have seen attacks on Tigrayans, apparently due to their ethnicity, and there are questions about whether the government is doing enough to protect them. Beyond Oromo-Tigrayan tensions, Amhara-Tigrayan rifts trouble the EPRDF as well. The Amhara and Tigrayan regional administrations have traded harsh words over charges that Tigrayans have usurped Amhara lands. These quarrels—to say nothing of ethnic demands for more autonomy—have caught the EPRDF without [End Page 147] an agreed strategy for dealing with such matters. In February 2019, the federal government set up a Boundary and Identity Commission to address regional borders, but opposition has been fierce, with critics condemning it as unconstitutional. Its ability to be effective is uncertain.

Abiy must navigate these stormy waters not with a crew of his choosing, but with the government that he inherited. Aside from a few high-level appointments, the personnel of the old government remain in place. Key posts in the civil service, the judiciary, and the security establishment are still the purview of TPLF appointees, not all of whom have the professional training that their jobs require. Easing out these loyalists and detaching the civil service from the ruling party and its networks will be a delicate, intricate task fraught with risks. Old-line EPRDF operatives will be more likely to go quietly if new jobs await beyond official precincts. A transition plan that gives them “soft landings” will be essential, especially when it comes to military and security-service veterans.

In part to circumvent the old bureaucracy, Abiy has put together a kitchen cabinet and policy staff, but this has drawn charges that he makes decisions opaquely and has hired too many Oromos. Critics claim as well that he is besotted with international press attention, governs in a personalized fashion, dwells too much on his religious faith, and is becoming the focus of a personality cult. Many Ethiopians see Abiy as a genuine savior, but as Ethiopia’s history with figures such as Meles Zenawi and Mengistu Haile-Mariam has shown, elevating an individual too far above the government he leads is a perilous course.

Economic uncertainty and stagnation compound the challenges. Severe foreign-exchange shortages and public-spending cuts dropped the economy’s annualized growth rate from its recent highs of around 10 percent to 7 percent for 2017–18, according to World Bank figures. Expanding debt, estimated at US$28 billion, is a significant constraint. Major infrastructure projects are on hold. There have been slowdowns in the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile near the Sudanese border. The ambitious hydroelectric project was begun under Meles in 2011, and is still unfinished.

For civil society, newly opened political space means fresh opportunities to work on human rights and other issues previously off limits, including by directly lobbying the government, monitoring its excesses, and calling for justice and accountability in cases of past and current [End Page 148] abuses. Yet a decade of repression has left civil society short of money, confidence, and talent. Groups that have survived in a weakened state need help rebuilding, while new groups need help getting off the ground.

Hurdles on the Horizon

As if the day-to-day pressures that Abiy and his team must contend with are not enough, the larger tasks of reforming major laws, the electoral process, and the constitution await. These will take years to address, but progress on all three is essential if the cause of making Ethiopia a stable liberal democracy is to advance.

The new civil society law represents the first concrete change to the rules of the Ethiopian state. Additional legislative reforms are critical because they will be harder to reverse than more superficial changes and appointments, and can outlive Abiy or other politicians. The Anti-Terror Proclamation is another key tool of past government repression. A new version without the old one’s overly broad and easily abused definition of terrorism is making its way through the drafting process, and by all indications should be a significant improvement. Similar work is underway on the Meles-era media law, which the EPRDF used to stifle criticism and ensure favorable media coverage. A package of legal revisions concerning judicial independence, the jurisdiction of courts, and the role of the judicial-administration council will help to ensure that judges are qualified to sit on the bench, as well as to provide for easing out those who are not.

Next there is the matter of electoral laws and elections. Ethiopia traditionally holds elections in May, with the next set constitutionally required by 2020. Longstanding opposition complaints about political-party registration, party financing, and the independence of the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) mean that legal reforms in this area will need to happen quickly, before the 2020 campaign and voting. Already there is talk that May 2020 is not a workable date. The problem is not only the pending legal reforms but also the security situation: If ethnic clashes continue at their current pace, it is hard to see how complex electoral preparations can take place throughout the country, or how voters can feel safe in coming to the polls. Currently, multiple armed groups have the ability to disrupt both preparations and the actual voting, while the election’s aftermath could see yet more violence as factions that fail to win with ballots resort to bullets.

The NEBE has a new, Abiy-nominated leader and is gearing up to operate under the upcoming legislation. The election authority still needs fresh board members and more institutional capacity, however. The technical and logistical preparations that it must complete are daunting. Before the drawing of electoral-district boundaries and the registration of voters occur, a nationwide census must reach completion. The twicedelayed [End Page 149] census was rescheduled to start in April 2019, but in June the government postponed it by an additional year. This was owing in part to security concerns, and in part to a decision to prioritize addressing the situations of the more than two-million internally displaced people. The taking of the census is a highly politicized process, and Ethiopia’s sensitive ethnic balance means that the possibility of violence cannot be ruled out.

Suggestions to delay the voting for months or even years are widespread in Ethiopia. Abiy and his government have made no public comment about election timing. In Ethiopia’s parliamentary system the prime minister’s name will not be on most ballots, but he is currently popular and so may view a May 2020 vote as a welcome prospect. Ethnic parties including the OLF, NaMA, and the EPRDF itself may also welcome a “sooner rather than later” balloting, since their respective ethnic bases give them ready-made mobilizational capacities that issue-based parties or parties seeking a broader “pan-Ethiopian” appeal will not be able to match. With more than a hundred political parties active today, Ethiopia has a party scene replete with groups that will need time to establish themselves and define their platforms.

Delaying elections would raise questions about compliance with the 1995 Constitution and risk a legitimacy gap. Current options under discussion include the naming of a transitional or national-unity government, or an extension of the EPRDF’s mandate tied to a clear timeline leading to elections. All these options will require dealing astutely with numerous actors and their complex interests. The buy-in of both those needed to govern and those able to act as spoilers will be key.

Finally, there are the constitutional questions of how the Ethiopian state is structured and the future of ethnic federalism. Some favor keeping the current model. They believe that it offers the best mechanism for maintaining relative peace and stability, and they associate it with Ethiopia’s substantial attainments in human and economic development since 1991. Others favor federalism based on geography rather than ethnicity, or a stronger form of federalism that grants existing regional states greater autonomy and resources (most of the ethnicity-based political parties lean toward the latter). A third option, preferred by some political parties not organized by ethnicity, is a unitary state that would seek to elevate Ethiopian national identity over other forms of association. Abiy has not publicly shared his views, though his ODP is on record saying that the current federal arrangement—in which it holds the upper hand—is not up for renegotiation.

Embedded within these foundational issues are concerns relating to regional borders; the status and chains of command for federal police and regional special forces; and the rights of people who reside outside their ethnic homelands in a climate where protecting minorities or settlers [End Page 150] is becoming harder. The idea of switching from a parliamentary to a presidential system has also come up, and may appeal to Abiy given the “presidential” aura that surrounds him.

The timing of any national discussion of these fundamental issues is sensitive. Abiy has made clear that he would prefer any constitutional-reform process to wait until he and the EPRDF have secured a fresh mandate from the voters. Others, including the OLF and NaMA, are eager to consider changing the constitution now. They may fear that if Abiy and the EPRDF do secure a new mandate, reform discussions will lose urgency.

A National Dialogue?

The 2018 and 2019 reforms have opened political space and given Ethiopians much greater freedom, even though the old authoritarian ruling party remains in power. Yet the rapid changes have raised questions that have yet to find answers, and the new space creates room for ethnic tensions to reassert themselves.

Abiy faces major challenges before possible elections in 2020. He draws positive headlines around the globe, but is not always helped by his messaging at home. He and his government need to do more to lay out their vision of a comprehensive reform process with clear benchmarks and goals, and they need to set up mechanisms that can monitor progress and ensure accountability. Responding to crises and making exciting but piecemeal changes are not enough. Ethiopians want to understand, in detail, the big-picture reform plan and how Abiy envisions reaching the end state—including multiparty democracy and respect for rule of law—about which he talks so enthusiastically. It may be that a formal process of national dialogue would help all sectors of society to evaluate possible reforms thoroughly and transparently, especially as these touch on the state’s basic structure and the future of ethnic federalism.

For civil society, elections present an opportunity. If properly resourced, civil society groups can engage in civic education, observe electoral processes, and press candidates to state clear policies and plans rather than rely on ethnic ties. As we write in May 2019, a new generation of civil society leaders is coalescing. It includes Ethiopians who have returned from the diaspora since Abiy took office and who know how to use technology to good effect. Nurturing this new generation, supporting their growth, and building strong links between generations of civil society leaders will be vital. Under Meles, the EPRDF controlled much of civil society (including professional associations and trade unions), so these groups will also need to build public trust. The more they can do at the grassroots, the better. Including community representatives on their management boards and other decisionmaking [End Page 151] bodies would be a wise move. Developing a voluntary civil society code of conduct that will enable a degree of self-regulation would also be advantageous.

For the international community, Ethiopia may present one of the best opportunities seen in a while to support the transition of a large and geostrategically significant country from authoritarianism to democracy. If ever there were a time to surge support to such a transition, this is it. So far, such support has been more of a trickle than a flood. In part this has been because Abiy’s speedy reforms have come as a surprise that has left large aid bureaucracies struggling to catch up. Encouragingly, the U.S.-based Millennium Challenge Corporation has recently added Ethiopia to its Threshold Program, which is designed to support governmental reform efforts in areas that will mean the most for economic growth.

International support for Ethiopia’s democratization needs to be substantial and sustained. Much of that support should focus on developing the capacities of civil society, the media, and the legislature to check executive power. Providing technical assistance and diplomatic encouragement to key legislative reforms and electoral preparations will also be critical. Comprehensive revamping of the legislative framework and key governance institutions (the judiciary, the NEBE, and the security services) can make the rule of law more firmly founded and improve the chances that political competition will be peaceful.

While Abiy has been a remarkable and surprising leader so far, international support should not focus too much on any one individual. Temptations to lionize him should be resisted, especially given the continent’s history of seeming reformers who reach power and turn into autocrats. Reforms to laws and institutions are the key. While talk of a new “scramble for Africa” pitting the United States against China and Russia is overblown, the world’s democracies should see the value of having a strong foothold in Ethiopia and of acting as partners and backers of reforms that will improve the lives of millions and dramatically enhance their freedoms.



1. The House of People’s Representatives adopted the Civil Society Organizations Proclamation to replace the Charities and Societies Proclamation of 2009. For criticism of that earlier proclamation, see “Ethiopia: The 2009 Charities and Societies Proclamation as a Serious Obstacle to the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights in Ethiopia,” Amnesty International, 11 June 2012,

2. Leonardo R. Arriola and Terrence Lyons, “Ethiopia: The 100% Election,” Journal of Democracy 27 (January 2016): 76–88.

3. As quoted in “Ethiopia Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn Resigns,” Al Jazeera, 15 February 2018,

4. David Pilling and Lionel Barber, “Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed: Africa’s New Talisman,” Irish Times, 22 February 2019,

5. “Ethiopia Pardons More than 45,800 Prisoners over Past Nine Months,” Xinhua, 14 February 2019,

6. “Ethiopia’s Abiy Gives Half of Ministerial Posts to Women,” BBC, 16 October 2018,

7. Eager to attract talent and investment, Abiy has courted the world’s large and influential Ethiopian diaspora. Early in his premiership, he made a trip to the United States—home of the largest and most vocal diaspora community—that proved pivotal in shoring up his domestic and international support. Among the exiles whom he successfully invited to return were figures from Ethiopian Satellite Television and the Oromia Media Network, both U.S.-based outlets that had been critical of the old EPRDF government.

8. Samuel Gebre, “Ethiopian Leader Calls for a Multiparty Democracy,” Bloomberg, 22 July 2018,

9. Tiril Skarstein, ed., “The World’s Most Neglected Displacement Crisis,” Norwegian Refugee Council, 5 June 2019,

10. Aaron Maasho, “Ethiopia Says Launches Offensive Against Oromo Rebels,” Reuters, 16 January 2019,


Image Credit: Alexandros Michailidis/Shutterstock