Johannesburg - The recent clashes in Ethiopia’s Sidama region between Sidama activists, who recently declared independence from Ethiopia, and security forces highlights the multi-faceted problems the country faces as it transitions towards democracy.
This is despite the widening of the democratic space and the liberalisation of the country by reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed who unblocked hundreds of news web sites, released thousands of political prisoners and unbanned numerous political parties when he took office in 2018.
Several days ago, at least 25 Sidama activists were killed, with the actual death toll possibly as high as 60, after they unilaterally declared that their region would be ceding from Ethiopia following the failure of the government to follow through on a promise to hold a referendum on the issue shortly after Ahmed took office.
Several other ethnic conflicts, fueled by demands for self-determination and proportional representation - costing many lives and resulting in massive displacement of ethnic minorities - have also rocked the country since the new premier took over its leadership.
Ethiopia comprises nine semi-autonomous regions and is ruled by a federal system aimed at providing ethnic self-rule in the hugely diverse country comprising dozens of different ethnic groups.
Furthermore, a number of political and military assassinations have also dashed hopes that the country’s transition to democracy will be smooth sailing.
The irony of Ahmed’s reform agenda is that he has opened up a Pandora’s Box of previously repressed issues when the country was ruled by an iron fist under several successive regimes which managed to keep the lid on any potential disturbances.
“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,” said Semir Yusuf, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in Addis Ababa.
After defeating the previous military regime, the current Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), prior to Ahmed's leadership, 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, explained Yusuf.
So what exactly are the challenges ahead and how should they be dealt with?
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.
“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," said Yusuf.
Furthermore, the conundrum facing Addis Ababa is that the path to democracy is now under its control while simultaneously it needs to enforce law and order for the safety of its citizens.
Ahmed’s government also needs to negotiate a new balance of power between the federal government and its constituencies in the wake of the new political dispensation.
However, the ISS researcher says the prerogative of the federal government to influence politics and security in the regions is far from clear.
And this may be due to the fractious composition of the EPRDF which is divided over philosophy and methods while 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, said Yusuf.
The EPRDF needs to be reorganised to achieve internal agreement on a new democratic vision which will necessitate negotiating with all major political leaders on how to secure the country.