The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

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

Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn announced Thursday that he has submitted a resignation letter. (AP)

In the latest twist in Ethiopia’s current political dramas, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn formally submitted his resignation from his position as the nation’s premier and as chairman of the ruling EPRDF coalition. That’s a dramatic development — and no one knows where it will lead. Hailemariam was elected as a compromise candidate who could balance the interests of various factions within the ruling coalition and maintain the status quo. He appeared to manage this well — until recently.

So how did autocratic Ethiopia, a U.S. ally and Africa’s second-most-populous country, end up in its current tumult? Here’s what you need to know.

This brief history explains why Ethiopia has been in upheaval since 2015. 

In 1991, years of civil war came to an end and Ethiopia’s communist dictatorship toppled. Meles Zenawi stepped in as a strongman, backed by his ethnic guerrilla organization, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, and ruled for years as part of the multiethnic coalition called the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). While the coalition included parties that represented three other ethnic groups — the Amhara, Oromo and the southern nationalities — the minority Tigrayan ethnic group was firmly in control.

EPRDF set up a relatively inclusive system of ethnic federalism to manage the country’s more than 80 different ethnic groups, which I describe in my latest book (co-authored with Ragnhild Muriaas) as an inclusive autocracy. Africa’s inclusive autocrats have strategically used decentralization processes and reforms to strengthen their power. They use decentralization as a means of co-opting elites and crushing political adversaries.

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Meles and other Tigrayan leaders controlled this system carefully, ensuring that no other groups managed to challenge central power. After attempts of liberalization in the 1990s and early 2000s, controversial national elections in 2005 resulted in the opposition taking one-third of the seats in the national legislative assembly. But the opposition accused the EPRDF of election fraud, and protests resulted.

In response, the Meles and EPRDF government became more authoritarian, attempting to control resistance to the regime by passing new restrictive laws; intimidating and imprisoning the opposition, independent media and civil society leaders; and developing a finely masked system of control at the grass roots. Meles died in 2012 — but to observers’ surprise, that was followed by a peaceful succession in which Hailemariam took power. Hailemariam, an ethnic Wolayta, represented the conglomerate of groups from southern Ethiopia that had never been represented at the center of Ethiopian politics before.

But the power vacuum left by Meles’s death and the increasing authoritarianism erupted into popular protests in 2015, and since then the ERPDF’s cohesion has been severely challenged. The two presidents of the largest regional states in the country, Amhara and Oromia — home to the two largest ethnic groups (the Oromo being the most populous, the Amhara the second) — this summer announced that they partly support the protests, and have demanded genuine regional self-rule and an end to Tigrayan dominance.

Since the last rounds of the protests in 2017, the EPRDF has gone through what it calls a “deep reform.” To try to relieve the pressure on the regime and aim for “national reconciliation,” over the past weeks Hailemariam released more than 6,000 political prisoners, including the Oromo opposition leader Merera Gudina. In doing so, however, the ruling party did not clearly admit that it had ever detained political prisoners at all. The delay and uncertainty about the party’s intentions prompted renewed protests across Oromia. In an attempt to calm the unrest, on Feb. 13 the ERPDF released new rounds of roughly 700 prisoners, including the journalists Eskinder Nega and Andualem Arage and Oromo opposition leader Bekele Gerba.

Why did Hailemariam to resign — and who will replace him?

The ERPDF’s internal reform processes had already signaled displeasure with the central leadership of the party. A December 2017 statement from the party’s executive committee blamed the current leadership for a lack of good governance and for failing to protect civilians in the unrest. The statement encouraged the coalition’s four member parties to replace their leaders, something the TPLF did shortly. Similarly, the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Front has asked its leaders, including Hailemariam, to step down.

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But who will replace him as prime minister? The ERPDF’s central committee is currently meeting, discussing this question with what are surely heated ethnic debates. Given the protests in the Oromo region, it might seem natural to appoint an Oromo to lead the country. This will, however, require the support of the second-largest ethnic group, the Amhara, the traditional elite of pre-EPRDF Ethiopia.

Members of the committee are surely motivated in their discussions by knowing that if they cannot unite behind the same candidate, the coalition risks a real split along ethnic lines and a battle over which faction will control the government. To avoid a split, they may end up selecting Hailemariam’s deputy in the southern party, another compromise candidate, in a desperate attempt to keep the status quo.

There is still another alternative, which the Oromo regional leaders have suggested: Allow in opposition parties from outside the ruling coalition, for a genuine national reconciliation. This could address protesters’ demands for more democracy and human rights. But given that the government introduced a new state of emergency on Friday, the ruling party appears to want to continue to hold the monopoly on power. Perhaps the government intends to take harsh preemptive measures to contain continuing protests throughout the country.

Lovise Aalen is research director at CMI, the Chr. Michelsen Institute for Science and Intellectual Freedom, in Norway.