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What’s behind Ethiopia’s recent political violence?

Prime Minister Abiy faces a serious test: Preparing the country for the 2020 elections.

- July 14, 2019

In Ethiopia, a wave of assassinations has renewed fears of political turmoil. On June 22, gunmen burst into a meeting, killing the president of the Amhara region, Ambachew Mekonnen and two aides. Shortly thereafter, a bodyguard killed the army chief of staff, Gen. Seare Mekonnen, along with retired Gen. Gezai Abera.

Two days later, Ethiopian special forces killed Gen. Asaminew Tsige on the outskirts of Bahir Dar. The government alleges that Asaminew was the ringleader of this violent conspiracy and released a tape recording of Asaminew saying, “we have taken measures . . . because the regional ruling party leaders have sabotaged the people’s demands.”

The political reforms Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed initiated in 2018 created an opening for liberalization but also provided opportunities for divisive ethnic politics. The “mini-coup” attempt in June raised questions about these reforms — particularly the elections scheduled for May 2020 — and how newly reestablished institutions will manage escalating political volatility.

What guides Ethiopian politics?

The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has been in power since 1991, winning 100 percent of the seats in the 2015 election. As Terrence Lyons argues in his recent book, Ethiopian politics over the past 28 years have been shaped by the centralizing logic of a strong authoritarian party that grew out of the victorious rebel movement, on the one hand, and a constitutional system that emphasized ethnically defined regional states and political parties, on the other.

Ethiopia’s ethno-federalist system has contributed to tensions within and among the country’s regions. Though Asaminew held a high position in the EPRDF-controlled regional state, in recent weeks he had been echoing a surge in hard-line Amhara nationalism — including calls for Amharas to arm themselves.

Other regions also mobilized along ethno-nationalist lines

In Oromiya, the armed wing of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), an insurgent group seeking “self-determination” for the Oromo people since the 1970s, broke with the organization’s political wing. That makes it more difficult for the Ethiopian government to demobilize OLF combatants — and for the OLF’s political wing to negotiate credibly on political matters.

In the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region (SNNPR), ethnic sentiment has driven the Sidama zone’s bid to become a separate regional state. Officials in the Sidama zone are threatening to unilaterally declare statehood on July 18 — the constitutionally mandated one-year deadline for the federal government to organize a referendum on self-determination after a petition for statehood is submitted. Analysts at the International Crisis Group caution that the Sidama bid for statehood may “catalyze a violent unraveling of the Southern Nations.” Other groups, including Wolayta, Hadiya and Gurage, have also started to advocate for statehood.

Why is Ethiopia in upheaval? This brief history explains a lot.

When Abiy came to power in 2018, he advanced a number of political reforms. Ethiopia normalized relations with Eritrea, released political prisoners and allowed opposition leaders to return from exile. However, the next stages of reform — institutional changes that embrace a more liberal order — are slower and harder to implement.

The government has taken a number of steps in this direction. For example, Abiy has reached out to civil society in making appointments to the Federal Supreme Court, the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia and the Human Rights Commission.

But reconstructing the security and intelligence services has proved more difficult. As a result, significant insecurity has escalated in many parts of the country, leaving nearly 3 million internally displaced people. The government faces the challenge of anticipating and mitigating ethno-nationalist violence, particularly as the country prepares for elections next year.

Will Ethiopia be ready for elections in 2020?

Prime Minister Abiy’s reputation as a reformer will face a serious test in getting the country ready in time for the 2020 elections. The appointment of Birtukan Mideksa, a former opposition party leader, to head the country’s election board demonstrates Abiy’s recognition of the symbolic and political importance of the 2020 polls. The government has also appointed a new, professional electoral board, after consultations with opposition parties.

Abiy and opposition officials insist that elections will take place on time — though many analysts and Ethiopians expect some delay. The problem is that postponing beyond 2020 would run afoul of the constitution. And an election delay would risk inflaming tensions, and result in ethnic and political violence.

Ethiopia just pardoned political prisoners. Could that signal a shift to real democracy?

Though many observers anticipate that the 2020 polls will be the most competitive in years, the EPRDF is likely to retain its parliamentary majority. The ruling party, with some 7 million members, remains the dominant institution across the diverse states. The EPRDF controls the distribution of central resources, the endowment funds that own a significant portion of the economy and the distribution of key agricultural inputs such as fertilizer. Its power may have diminished since the 2015-2018 mass protests, but the EPRDF retains an integrated network of cadres across Ethiopia. The opposition parties remain at odds with each other on specific issues, making a broad counter-alliance to compete with the EPRDF unlikely.

Many Ethiopians both within the EPRDF and the opposition recognize the need for a national discussion on issues relating to the constitution — and in particular the nature of its federalism. Similarly, the EPRDF is considering changes to the party and has floated the idea that it may transform itself from a coalition into a party that individuals join directly rather than through membership in regional party affiliates. These questions, however, are fraught with controversy, and open debate is unlikely before the next round of elections.

Heading into 2020, the EPRDF remains the dominant party in Ethiopia. The process of liberalization has provided the space for other political groups to mobilize around polarizing narratives and divisive attacks, however. While the June 22 violence indicates the fragility of the reform process, slowing these reforms or pushing back the 2020 elections could risk increasing violence and instability.

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Terrence Lyons is associate professor at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University and the author of “The Puzzle of Ethiopian Politics” (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2019).

Hilary Matfess is a PhD student at Yale University and the author of “Women and the War on Boko Haram” (Zed Books, 2017). Follow her on Twitter @HilaryMatfess.