Facing the abyss of interethnic civil war, Ethiopia today is on the brink of state failure. Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn shocked the country with his abrupt resignation as head of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition last month, designed to subdue simmering unrest.
While the government scrambles to figure out who will succeed him, this East African country has levied a state of emergency for the next six months, amid a wave of anti-government protests that have rocked it on and off for the past three years. This is the second time in just two years that Ethiopia has declared a state of emergency, which prohibits protests and restricts publications that could be deemed to incite violence.
Ethiopia is the second most populous country in the African continent after Nigeria, and has around 105 million people and more than 80 ethnic groups, the two largest of which are the Oromo and the Amhara. While these two groups make up around two-thirds of all Ethiopians, it is the Tigrayans, who account for a meager 6% of the population, that dictate politics and the security forces. For years Hailemariam Desalegn has grappled with a tide of dissatisfaction from the Oromos and the Amharas, who have felt economically sidelined and politically persecuted by the government.
Earlier this year, in a desperate attempt to relieve the unfolding pressure on the regime and create a sense of “national reconciliation,” the government rushed to free over 6,000 prisoners, mostly incarcerated on political grounds, including the Oromo opposition leader Merera Gudina. In light of mounting upheaval and with political tensions at a knife-edge, it has also shut down a jail accused of torturing its prisoners.
International efforts to quell the latest surge in violence has bordered on the negligent but, amidst growing concern over human rights abuses, pressure has mounted on Ethiopia’s central government. Desalegn’s departure marks the first change in leadership in Ethiopia that hasn’t been triggered by revolution or death of a leader, suggesting the government is making concessions after wrestling with deep wounds among some of the nation’s biggest ethnic groups. As the biggest troop contributor in the fight against terrorist group al Shabaab in Somalia, the United States considers Ethiopia a crucial ally in the fight against Islamist militancy. Fearing that draconian anti-protest bans will cripple the public sphere, it has condemned the decision to enforce a state of emergency.
The EPRDF has been in power for nearly three decades, prior to which Ethiopia was ruled by the ruthless military leader Mengistu Haile Mariam, and during which time the country faced civil war, famine, and a series of unsuccessful socialist development policies. Since 1991, Ethiopia’s political situation has been somewhat stable, and rising living standards have followed.
Ethiopia’s economic growth has been largely due to the government’s laser-like attention on sectors such as energy, infrastructure, and manufacturing, striving to become a regional manufacturing base, unlike other fellow resource dependent economies such as Nigeria. While over 70% of Ethiopians remain employed in the agricultural sector, services have eclipsed agriculture as the chief source of GDP. The 2014 crash in commodity prices, for example, had a trivial impact on Ethiopia’s growth path. The IMF predicts that, from 2000 to 2016, Ethiopia was the third-fastest growing country (of 10 million or more people) in the world, as measured by GDP per capita. Since 2005, this African powerhouse has consistently registered double digit GDP growth, boasting an annual growth of 10.5%.
However, while its far-reaching economic reforms aimed to transform this often famine-stricken nation into a “developmental state” have clearly materialized, the price has been high for Ethiopians, forced to live under EPRDF’s stern grip on power. A lack of effective checks and balances has enabled a crackdown on free speech and civil society, all under the mask of “national security.”
The paradox of this Machiavellian compromise has not been lost on bystanders that expected a better future in exchange for their tactic obedience. Since 2015, the Oromo have been orchestrating mass protests denouncing, among other things, what they claim are land grabs from farmers for an authoritarian government’s planned factories. In the years of turmoil, hundreds of Oromo have been killed, factories have been burned, and many hecklers have been incarcerated.
With an invigorated opposition and schisms within the ruling party, Ethiopia’s ability to maintain consistent economic growth will be linked to its ability to integrate forsaken communities who need to be convinced that they too have a stake in Ethiopia’s new future.