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Questions over army loyalty in Ethiopia

Azeb-Tadesse Hahn
October 11, 2018

Ethiopians have been reminded of life before Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Out of nowhere, mobile internet services were shut down across the capital and not a word about it on the national broadcaster.

Äthiopien Ministerpräsident Abiy Ahmed wandte sich an einige Mitglieder der äthiopischen Streitkräfte
Image: Fitsum Arega/Chief of Staff/Prime Minister's Office of Ethiopia

"The internet blackout (on Wednesday) caused major disruptions in the city. For hours, we had no connection to the rest of the world," DW's correspondent Yohannes Tarake in Addis Ababa said.

This is the new Ethiopia, where Abiy Ahmed, the 42-year-old former intelligence official has introduced sweeping reforms, turning things upside down since he was elected to office six months ago.

Read moreOpinion: Too much, too soon — Ethiopia's reformer has to slow down

Abiy is the first-ever prime minister from the majority Oromo ethnic group in the nation of more than 80 ethnic groups. He succeeded Hailemariam Desalegn after several years of  unrest, in which thousands of people were killed which forced Desalegn's resignation.

Upon assuming power, Abiy pledged to reform the security forces and promote multi-party democracy. He has also reconciled with Ethiopia's former arch-enemy Eritrea.Opinion: Too much, too soon — Ethiopia's reformer has to slow down

Anti-reform agenda?

These sudden changes are shocking in the country of more than 100 million people that tolerated little dissent after the ruling EPRDF coalition seized power in 1991. Abiy's reforms, while welcomed by most, have hit a cul-de-sac of late, with ethnic conflicts popping up countrywide, and partisan politics threatening his reconciliation agenda. Six months down the path of democracy, the honeymoon in Ethiopia appears to be over as political parties and powerful individuals in media and academia jostle for influence. 

But his biggest challenge stems from the military, with some top brass up in arms over his reform agenda and the resulting loss of political influence. It did not take long before Army Chief of Staff Fitsum Arega dispatched a tweet to an astonished Ethiopian public:

Calming the fears

A little while later, the prime minister appeared on local media seeking to calm any fears. "We do not need to resort to name-calling and childish games. We have one state and one government. All citizens are allowed to help strengthening it. And all doors are open to all citizens apart from illegal ones."

Welcome to the new Ethiopia, where several hundred disgruntled elite soldiers are allowed to march, in full regalia and armed, to the prime minister's office to demand a meeting over payment, working conditions and reforms. Wednesday's incident could be seen as a remarkable sign of just how far the young democracy has come in the space of only six months. At the same time it sends a rather disturbing message about the loyalty of the Ethiopian army. According to reports, the marching soldiers had official clearance from their superiors.

"What happened could be seen as part of the challenges the country has been facing over the past few months," Hallelujah Lulie, a security and political analyst in Addis Ababa, told DW. "The army has been taken through major reforms that are changing the culture, composition and leadership of the institution." According to Lulie, only a thorough investigation can determine whether the alleged coup was politically motivated or just an ordinary meeting by disgruntled soldiers demanding better pay.

Reactions on social media

Ethiopians, never slow to take to social media platforms to discuss politics, were left divided in their assessment. While some applauded the new democratic spirit allowing for freedom of speech, others on Thursday pointed to the security vacuum and the general breakdown of law and order.

Read moreViolence ahead of the return of Ethiopia's Oromo Liberation Front sparks concern

Adding to the woes, the return from exile of some radical political parties, long banned by the government as "terrorist organizations," has seriously upset the power balance in the country. Much of the recent trouble has centered around the question of whether the armed Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) is ready to lay down arms and engage in a non-violent struggle for a democratic Ethiopia. According to Kassahun Gofe, spokesperson in Ethiopia's Information Ministry, the issue of disarmament of the OLF is non-negotiable and in fact a red line.

Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) supporters waving flags at a gathering
Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) was considered a terrorist group by the previous Ethiopian governmentImage: DW/Y. Gebreegziabher

Analyst Hallelujah Lulie insists that it is too early to project which way Ethiopia is headed. "The problems the country is facing are typical to any society undergoing transformation. Ethiopia used to be a very repressive state," Lulie said. "Now the government is trying to open up the political space and democratize the state, this in the face of economic challenges, strong ethnic divisions and political polarization."