The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ethiopia’s first shot at real democracy could be derailed before elections are held

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, left, returns to Addis Ababa after attending his Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Norway late last year. (Eduardo Soteras/AFP/Getty Images)

JIMMA, Ethiopia — On a busy back street in the hometown of Ethiopia's prime minister, Nobel Prize-winner Abiy Ahmed, two men sipping coffee and chewing khat tried out a new pastime: having a heated political disagreement in public.

Africa’s second-most-populous country is heading into its first multiparty campaign season after Abiy lifted a ban on opposition parties, dissolved his ruling party that controlled life here with an iron fist for nearly three decades and scheduled elections for August.

Abiy’s promise to transform Ethiopia into a full-fledged democracy has earned him widespread praise abroad — and is why some Ethiopians aren’t as worried as they once were that speaking critically of the government could lead to a knock on their door by the intelligence services.

But the openness has also laid bare a deeply polarized country, riven by political and ethnic rivalries entrenched by Abiy’s predecessors. Rather than uniting the country, democratic politics could derail violently right at their outset in Ethiopia, especially if Abiy’s government denies the opposition space to campaign openly.

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The elections are a high-stakes gamble for Ethiopia’s future. Despite widespread poverty, unemployment and ethnic violence that has uprooted millions from their homes, Ethi­o­pia remains stable enough to broker regional peace agreements — including with neighboring Eritrea — and Abiy’s promise of new economic policies has landed the country billions of promised dollars in foreign loans and investment. Major political violence would scuttle those ambitions.

In an attempt to preempt such violence, officials say, the government has begun to dispatch security forces to clamp down on opposition gatherings and restrict Internet service, phone access and physical movement across a vast opposition stronghold where people have been detained in droves and some killed in custody. Critics see the makings of a crackdown on dissent. Rights groups and journalists have reported cases of arrests and disappearances of vocal opposition leaders and supporters.

In speeches, Abiy has forcefully rejected ethnic politics and re-christened his party the Prosperity Party — an anomaly in a sea of coalition and opposition members whose names explicitly denote ethnicity. (Ethiopia is split into nine semiautonomous ethnic regions.)

The power of the Prosperity Party “in the coming election will draw on the fear of ethno-
nationalism, for people’s personal well-being — and even the survival of the nation,” said Abel Abate, an Ethiopian political analyst. “But there is lots of nervousness, lots of tension, lots of suspicion toward the PP from all corners of the country.”

Abiy’s platform is particularly unpopular in two ethnic regions: Tigray, in the far north, where power was centered during previous governments before he wrested it away; and his own Oromia, home to the country’s biggest group, the Oromo, who make up at least a third of the national population and whose ethno-nationalist leaders helped Abiy gain power but now want Oromo interests to be put first.

Sitting across from each other on this back street in one of Oromia’s largest market towns, Hassen Mohammed Isa, 30, and Isak Macha, 35, enacted a two-man version of Ethiopia’s national political debate.

“Abiy’s ideas are great, but we see that he is surrounded by chameleons of the past regime,” said Isak, who, like an enormous but uncounted percentage of Ethiopians, is unemployed. He gets jobs unloading trucks every once in a while but relies mostly on the largesse of family and friends. He supports an Oromo nationalist party that promises to bring wealth back to Oromo areas that its leaders say was hogged by smaller but more powerful ethnic groups under the previous government.

Hassen is a rare success story in Jimma and holds a degree in laboratory technology. He supports Abiy’s vision of an Ethiopia in which national identity comes before ethnic identity.

“The way [Isak] is thinking — you see, most people in Ethiopia haven’t even passed class eight in school. That is why when you let these groups operate freely, ethnic politics becomes bigger than ever. Every perceived insult raises the possibility of a riot, and every riot can start a war,” he said.

“Friend, this is a country where most people have nothing, absolutely nothing,” Isak shot back. “Only when we figure out today, then we think about tomorrow. How do we get the best tomorrow? We are ready to believe anything. I want to live a life just like you.”

Both the ruling party and the opposition will have to rely on coalitions of ethnic parties to prevail in the election. But while the Prosperity Party has a unifying figure in Abiy, the opposition is more scattered.

Jawar Mohammed, an Oromo media baron who spent years in exile in Minnesota before Abiy came to power, recently returned and is fashioning himself as Abiy’s main foe — though he has not publicly announced his candidacy and has been locked in battle with the government to recognize his Ethiopian citizenship after he said he renounced his U.S. citizenship.

His supporters are deeply devoted to him, and when security forces tried to arrest him in October, riots broke out that resulted in almost 100 deaths. That spark looks likely to be ignited again and again over the course of the campaign season, but Jawar says he preaches nonviolence to his supporters and claims clashes have been instigated only by security forces under Abiy’s orders.

“If the army is deployed, there will be blood. And that, well, it comes down to Abiy. If there is violence, it will begin at his command,” Jawar said on a recent Sunday at his residence in the capital, Addis Ababa, where he ate a meal of injera and lentils while scrolling through Facebook, where his Oromia Media Network has more than 1 million followers.

Jawar’s anti-Abiy argument has gained steam among new supporters because local officials from the ruling party have prevented his Oromo Federalist Congress party from holding numerous public meetings. Last month in Jimma, for instance, the opposition party was denied permission to use a stadium for a rally on the grounds that the campaign season hadn’t officially begun, but then the Prosperity Party was allowed to hold a rally in the middle of town on the same day.

“They brought oil, sugar, T-shirts and had a rally on the same day we had requested ours,” said Samira Kamil, a local Oromo Federalist Congress leader. “Preaching democracy but being a dictator — that’s Abiy for you. We’re not even able to introduce ourselves to the people, and this election is meant to be free?”

In the days after the rally, she said, she began getting phone calls from unknown numbers — raspy voices issuing veiled threats — and was followed on the street by suspicious men. She was arrested Feb. 26, charged with “disrupting a meeting” and released on bail two days later in what she said was an attempt to intimidate her.

Taye Dendea, spokesman for the Prosperity Party in Oromia, said that the Oromo Federalist Congress was denied permission for a meeting in part because they “engaged in inciting conflict, saying that if they win, they would retaliate the previous misdeeds.” He also said that the Prosperity Party had not organized its own rally but that supporters of Abiy had come out onto the streets on their own volition.

Abiy and Jawar were once friends and worked together to usher out Ethiopia’s old political guard and build the cornerstones of democracy. Now Jawar says Abiy is a would-be authoritarian.

“I came to the opposition side not to create chaos,” Jawar said, “but to make them competitive, to make the election a real election, to make Abiy feel like he has to run for the money.”

The concern over deepening ethnic divides seems to portend a future at odds with the plaudits Abiy received after initiating his raft of policy changes.

“The government will apparently continue to do what it has done in the past: restrict public space while allowing the ruling party to use them abundantly,” said Abate, the analyst. “Instead of an opening of political space, it may ultimately be a narrowing.”

Ermias Tasfaye Daba contributed to this report.

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