The demonstration was colorful. Many wore T-shirts bearing pictures of Abiy and his right-hand men. Others carried banners thanking Abiy for his agenda of togetherness. The prime minister wore a T-shirt with a picture of Nelson Mandela, which read, “We are not free until we all are free.” Abiy gave a rousing speech calling for national unity, and preaching love, coexistence, and democratic values.
Here’s what these events mean for Ethiopia’s governance — and for the EPRDF, the four-party coalition that has tightly controlled Ethiopian politics for the last 27 years.
Background on Ethiopia’s protests and political reforms over the past three years
Since 2015, the country’s two largest ethnic groups have been protesting their political marginalization, rights violations and economic injustices. More recently, Ethiopians have been protesting repressive treatment of the media and civil society, as embodied in Ethiopia’s anti-terrorism laws. All this boiled over in mass protests earlier this year as citizens chanted for the release of political prisoners and voiced concerns over deteriorating ethnic relations.
This year, on Jan. 3, the governing EPRDF regime finally acceded to protesters’ demands. Under former prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn, EPRDF announced political changes that included releasing thousands of political prisoners. But on Feb. 15, Desalegn announced his resignation — followed by jockeying within EPRDF over who would replace him.
Until now, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) — representing the minority ethnic group that helped end an earlier civil war — has effectively dominated EPRDF, making other parties within the coalition less relevant. But the Oromo Peoples Democratic Organization (OPDO) and Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM), two of four parties that make up the ruling coalition, had been pushing for changes. The two parties won the coalition’s chairmanship for Abiy, who chairs OPDO, effectively making him the new prime minister as of April 2. His election is viewed as the end of the TPLF’s dominance of EPRDF — and therefore of the country.
Despite being part of the establishment, Abiy had been pushing for a new political direction. In his inaugural speech, Abiy called for reconciliation and apologized that peaceful protesters had been killed.
Changes have been speedy, which may have upset EPRDF’s old guard
As a longtime critic of the practice of evicting ethnic groups from different parts of the country, Abiy has suggested establishing a council of experts to study the federal arrangement, which is designed according to ethnic and linguistic lines. My research has shown this federal arrangement has ensured EPRDF’s survival as an authoritarian party.
Beyond Ethiopia’s borders, Abiy has been trying to mend relations with neighboring countries in the hopes of facilitating trade and economic integration.
That brings us to the grenade attack
Immediately after Abiy spoke, state television announced that the government had arrested Addis Ababa’s deputy police commissioner, as well as other high officials within the federal police and intelligence services, so far charging more than 30 people related to the attacks. The U.S. government has sent FBI experts to help Ethiopian authorities investigation of the blast.
Abiy now has the ammunition he needs to overhaul the security sector. Observers expect to see old guard elites purged from the governing coalition and Abiy’s opponents driven out of the police and military institutions.
Yohannes Gedamu (@yohanethio) is a lecturer in political science at Georgia Gwinnett College and is working on a book titled “Ethnic Federalism and Authoritarian Survival in Ethiopia.”