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Ethiopia's democratization at risk

Cristina Krippahl
July 6, 2020

Ethiopian prime-minister Abiy Ahmed was once awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for ending a war and raising hopes of democratic change. These hopes are being dashed by his heavy-handed response to anti-government protests.

Erhiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed in military uniform
Image: Ethiopian Broadcasting corporation

Large anti-government protests that broke out last week, following the assassination of popular Oromo musician Haacaaluu Hundeessaa, soon led to a government clampdown. So far, more than 166 people have been killed and almost 2,300 arrested, including leaders of the opposition. Ethiopians have been cut off from the internet for an entire week as soldiers and police continue to patrol the streets of the capital Addis Ababa and other hotspots.

The scenario is reminiscent of similar crises in authoritarian-led countries. Up until recently, Ethiopia was hailed by the rest of the world as a shining example of democratization in Africa. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who came to power in 2018, swiftly made peace with neighboring Eritrea, ending a long and costly war. He also implemented measures aimed at restoring civil liberties like freedom of the press and opinion and promised a new, democratic Ethiopia. In 2019 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of his efforts. But, in view of current developments, was thattoo rash a decision by the Nobel committee?

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

Ethiopian musician Haacaaluu Hundeessaa being laid to rest in Ambo
The assassination of popular musician Haacaaluu Hundeessaa triggered a new wave of violenceImage: Reuters/Oromia Broadcasting Network

Rumors add to insecurity

"This is a very challenging development for the prime minister," Ahmed Soliman, a Horn of Africa researcher from London-based think tank Chatham House told DW. According to the analyst, "[Abiy's] need to try and bring some calm to this situation and to try to resolve it is one of his greater challenges. And it has been [so] since he took over: How he can knit together the nations that make up Ethiopia." Abiy's strategy includes playing down his own Oromo origins in an effort to represent the interests of all Ethiopians.

By Monday, the situation in the capital had calmed down. But rumors contined to proliferate, adding to the lingering climate of uncertainty, according to DW's Addis Ababa correspondent Yoahannes Geberegziabeher.

"It was said that the water was poisoned, which spread desperation," he said. "Authorities had to come out and deny it. Then they said that the prime minister had been killed. The rumors aim at encouraging more people to join the rebellion in Addis."

Geberegziabeher also described the trail of destruction in and around the capital: "Considering who the dead and wounded are, there are clear indications that they were targeted for ethnic reasons."

Abiy Ahmed receiving the Nobel Peace Prize
Some critics derided the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Abiy Ahmed Image: picture alliance/AP Photo/NTB scanpix/H. M. Larsen

Back to the old, repressive ways

On Friday, Abiy blamed "dissidents" for the killing of protest singer Hundeessaa, and for the subsequent violence which he said were "coordinated attempts" to destabilize the country. Soliman sees a connection between the government's reaction to the surge of violence and the political situation.

"There is quite a fractured political scene," he explained. And the problem is not confined to conflict between different ethnic groups. Politicians from the Oromo Federalist Congress like Jawar Mohammed have also been detained. "Jawar is a very prominent Oromo leader and he has been using his profile in order to push Oromo national interests," says Soliman. "He is clearly a political challenger to the prime minister."

Read more: Opinion: Is 'Emperor Abiy' at the gates in Ethiopia?

Abiy's cause at home was not helped by his decision to postpone  elections scheduled for August 2020 for another year due to the coronavirus pandemic. His critics saw the move as an attempt to hold on to power. In the meantime, they say, he is reintroducing the old tactics of the repressive and authoritarian state he promised to reform.

"As a former senior, very high-ranking within the EPDRF's [Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front] intelligence, I think he is using the tactics that he is very well aware of," says Soliman. While he believes that there is no denying that the reforms propelled by Abiy did turn the country around, Soliman also fears that it seems "too easy for the security forces to turn back to familiar tools, like cutting the internet, arresting the overly critical and journalists being accused of violence. None of this is wanted."

Urgent need for reconciliation

Murithi Mutiga, project director for the Horn of Africa region with the International Crisis Group, is one of many observers calling for a swift deescalation of the worsening situation.

''A wiser course of action is to strive to create an atmosphere of reconciliation and dialogue,'' he said, pointing out that the past week represented the most serious challenge yet to Ethiopia's transition to democracy. While the situation seems to have calmed down in Addis and parts of Oromia ''the scale of the violence, the degree of grievance witnessed on the streets and the danger of instability'' was still quite high, he added.

Analysts agree that it was Abiy's push to open political space which gave Ethiopians the opportunity to air their political and ethnic grievances — something they were not allowed to do under former regimes. This has made national reconciliation more urgent than ever. But there is also no denying that abuses are still being committed by security forces, according to reports compiled by several human rights organizations.

On Friday, Abiy said that those responsible for destructive actions would be held accountable. That could cut both ways.