On Saturday, hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians rallied in the famous Meskel Square, located at the heart of the capital city, Addis Ababa. Citizen groups and human rights activists had organized the event to show support for Ethiopia’s reformist leader, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed — to recognize Abiy’s commitment to democratic change and encourage implementation.
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.
Minutes after he spoke, a grenade exploded. A rally organizer told The Washington Post the attacker had aimed at the stage, but a demonstrator grabbed his hand and changed the grenade’s direction. If that’s accurate, this may have been an attempt to assassinate a reformer who, since taking office two months ago, has lifted the state of emergency declared in February by the previous administration. So far, the explosion has killed two and injured an estimated 150.
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.
Many criticized Ethiopia’s ethnic federal arrangement, which divides the nation into regions governed by particular ethnic groups — although the Tigrayan minority has run national politics, as I explained here at TMC in February, dominating the ruling coalition EPRDF. Since protests began in 2015, Human Rights Watch reports, security forces have killed hundreds; in 2017, the Ethiopian government admitted hundreds had been killed. Hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians have been internally displaced. Ethnic violence and local evictions of ethnic groups from regions governed by different groups are covered regularly by the daily news.
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
Since taking charge, Abiy has freed most of Ethiopia’s remaining political prisoners. He has attempted to overhaul the security sector, which remains controlled by the TPLF. Abiy forced out long-serving EPRDF elites, and enabled young public servants and technocrats to rise into key posts within his administration. In an attempt to improve relations between the government and the people, Abiy has also traveled throughout the country, listening to grievances.
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.
The old guard isn’t happy, however. In a parliamentary session called by TPLF and its allies, parliamentarians representing the unhappy elites accused the prime minister of releasing “terrorists.” In a surprising response, Abiy acknowledged the terrorist acts committed by the government itself — and insisted that only through coming together and forgiveness could Ethiopia move forward.
That brings us to the grenade attack
After the explosion, the prime minister addressed the nation, saying, “Those of you who planned and executed such an attack against your own people have failed yesterday, failed today and will fail tomorrow.”
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.”