Never have the stakes in Ethiopia been so high – political tensions are at a knife-edge, and the future stability of the country and its prospects for development hang in the balance.
Up until the last few weeks, most of the country’s opposition leaders and many of their supporters have been locked up as political prisoners. But with the groundswell of popular discontent and burgeoning street protests, the government was compelled to release more than 6 000 political prisoners last month, another 700 two weeks ago, and a further 1 500 on Wednesday. Famous journalists Eskinder Nega and Andualem Arage, as well as prominent Oromo opposition leaders Bekele Gerba and Merera Gudina were among those recently released.
The glue that has held the autocratic ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) together is finally becoming unstuck. The EPRDF has ruled as a multiethnic coalition since 1991 and includes four ethnically based parties.
The Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) is the party which has dominated the coalition for more than two decades despite the fact that Tigrayans account for only 6% of the population. The TPLF was the ethnic guerrilla organisation that brought Meles Zenawi to power in 1991, toppling the communist dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam. Zenawi governed for 21 years until his death in 2012, and while he pushed the country’s developmental agenda forward, he was accused of authoritarian tendencies and presiding over extensive human rights abuses.
The popularity of the Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation (OPDO) within the ruling coalition has continued to rise to the detriment of the TPLF. The Oromos are the most populous ethnic group in the country, based in the largest and richest region - Oromia. The Oromos have historically complained of political marginalisation. The OPDO has been perceived in some quarters as having been a puppet of the TPLF.
The third ruling coalition partner is the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM), representing the Amhara which are the country’s second-largest ethnic group, which has also historically complained that they are under-represented in the corridors of power. The fourth coalition partner is the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM).
The governing coalition started to lose its grip on power in the face mass of protests following the 2015 elections which the opposition claimed were rigged. The government responded with repression by passing restrictive laws, intimidating and imprisoning the opposition, independent media, and civil society leaders. While political adversaries were crushed, the government tried to co-opt the elites.
Hundreds of people were killed in the ensuing two years of protests that rocked the two most populous provinces of Oromia and Amhara. The situation became so grave that the presidents of the two provinces recently announced that they supported the protests, and demanded an end to Tigrayan dominance.
Ethiopia has now reached a point of no return. Even the usually quiet suburbs in the capital occupied by the business and political elite have been rocked by protests. Prime Minister Hailemariam announced on February 15th that he was stepping down in order to create political space, something unprecedented in modern day Ethiopia. Actually, he had been instructed by his party to step down after the EPRDF's executive committee blamed the current leadership for its poor governance, the unrest and failing to protect civilians.
The unravelling of the EPRDF's grip on power was too much for the old guard who supported the declaration of a six-month state of emergency which was imposed a day after the PM's resignation. Far from regaining control, the security measures only served to embolden protesters demanding the release of all political prisoners and fresh democratic elections.
The potential for chaos and ethnic bloodshed in the country is real, and Ethiopia needs a political way out of this crisis. There seems to be only one way forward - for the ruling coalition to call early elections ahead of 2020. Elections would reduce tension and marginalise the extremists that threaten to let the genie of ethnic violence out of the bottle. The caveat, of course, is that they would have to be free and fair.
If Ethiopia is to preserve and build on the developmental milestones it has achieved, it needs to start the process of political rebuilding in order to regain the confidence of the electorate. The window of opportunity to find a peaceful solution could close very quickly, which requires visionary leadership to chart a new path forward.