The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ethiopia’s reforming prime minister runs into a roadblock of ethnic unrest

Displaced people wait for water in West Guji, Ethi­o­pia, in early August. More than a million Ethiopians have been driven from their homes this year, mostly by ethnic violence. (Maheder Haileselassie Tadese/AFP/Getty Images)

Fresh off a successful U.S. tour and a string of daring political reforms at home, Ethiopia’s youthful new prime minister is riding a wave of popularity in this strategic East African nation, the continent’s second-largest.

At the same time, however, the country has been racked by new outbreaks of ethnic unrest, with aid agencies reporting more than a million people driven from their homes just this year, mostly by violent conflict.

Seeking to safeguard his efforts to transform the once-authoritarian nation, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, 42, has departed from his usual rhetoric of love and reconciliation to insist that security is a top priority.

“There are groups that are working in unison to cause chaos in different parts of the country,” Abiy told reporters Saturday. “They are triggering peoples’ emotions to this end.”

Last week, days after Abiy spoke of the rule of law as “the glue and foundation” of social harmony, 300 people were arrested in Ethiopia’s Southern regional state for taking part in violence and 500 more in the Oromia region.

It was three years of anti-government protests spearheaded by the Oromo people, Ethiopia’s biggest ethnic group, that helped bring Abiy, an Oromo, to power in April after his predecessor resigned.

The protests stopped, but they have been replaced this summer by clashes between groups looking to settle age-old disputes about land. The most serious took place in the south between the Gedeo people and the Guji Oromo, precipitating massive displacement.

July also saw clashes between Muslims and Christians in the Bale area of Oromia and mob attacks on ethnic minorities including Tigrayans and Somalis. This month, a man was lynched in the Oromo town of Shashemene by a mob convinced he was carrying a bomb.

A live broadcast captured the sound of a grenade blast at a rally for Ethiopia's new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, June 23. At least one person was killed. (Video: Ethiopia News Agency via Storyful)

Then there was the grenade tossed at Abiy during a June 23 rally and the possible assassination July 26 of the project manager of the landmark dam Ethi­o­pia is building on the Nile River.

Visiting Republican Rep. Christopher H. Smith of New Jersey, who has been critical of Ethiopia’s rights record, said the United States must support the country during this period.

“It’s breathtaking what’s happening here. It’s got to be sustained,” he said Thursday in Addis Ababa. “We have to make sure a flare-up, even a serious one with large loss of life, doesn’t become an undoing of a trajectory that I think will lead to peace and reconciliation.”

Ethiopia is a patchwork of more than 80 ethnic groups whose differences were often smothered by the heavy hand of the state, which since 1991 has been a coalition of parties from the four main ethnic groups: the Oromo, the Amhara, the Tigrayans and the southern tribes.

After years of unrest, Ethiopians ride an unlikely wave of hope. Will it last?

The new government’s moves to expand political freedom and curtail the security services have allowed many of the groups’ old grievances to erupt again, said E.J. Hogendoorn, deputy Africa director for the International Crisis Group.

“This is a very familiar phenomenon when it comes to the democratization process from hitherto relatively autocratic regimes,” he said. “There are a lot of pent-up frustrations with how the country has been managed, particularly with land.”

Compounding the problem, Ethiopia’s economy is in a perilous state. There is heavy foreign debt, and a shortage of international currency is hampering the government’s ambitious infrastructure projects, although Abiy announced Saturday that the World Bank has agreed to provide $1 billion in budget support in coming months, the Reuters news service reported.

Abiy spent much of his U.S. trip appealing to hundreds of thousands of expatriate Ethiopians to invest in their native country and come visit, with hotels and travel firms encouraged to offer special deals for the Ethiopian New Year on Sept. 11.

Even as Abiy’s reforms pile up, including the release of thousands of prisoners, the dismissal of hard-line military and intelligence heads, opposition figures allowed home and a promise to revise the country’s notorious anti-terrorism law, fears are growing that dissatisfaction with the economy could ultimately derail everything.

While there are plans to encourage more foreign investment and liberalize what has long been a state-dominated economy, it will take time to create the jobs being demanded by many of the angry youths.

‘He’s a hugger . . . so I want to hug him’: Ethiopians greet new prime minister

Mohammed Ademo, an analyst of Ethio­pian affairs who founded the Opride news site while living abroad for 16 years, returned to Ethiopia this summer and traveled through the Oromo region. He found frustration rising in the countryside, especially among the “Qeerroo,” the young men at the forefront of the protests that helped bring Abiy to power.

He also noted that despite the dramatic changes at the top level of government, the local officials who were at the center of the protesters’ grievances are still in place.

“The Qeerroo feel that the local administration remains corrupt and unresponsive and that the central government is not addressing their economic demands,” he said.

In many places, groups of youths are acting as self-appointed police, creating the specter of parallel systems of government and threatening the country’s integrity, said Awol Allo, an expert on Ethiopia and a lecturer in law at Britain’s Keele University.

Allo said the government must step up to deal with the new violence, but he acknowledged that authorities are hamstrung because of the security forces’ past reputation for killing protesters.

“If they pass an order for security forces to take measures, and they use disproportionate force against people, that would have consequences affecting the legitimacy and support they are enjoying right now,” he said.

Amid these problems, Abiy’s opponents in the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the party hailing from the north that once dominated the government, have become more vocal. This month, the president of Tigray state warned that if the central government continues on this track, it risks destroying the federal system in place for a quarter-century.

“The country is falling apart, and you cannot keep Ethiopia [together] by patching little holes,” Debretsion Gebremichael said at a news conference.

The TPLF’s criticisms strike many as presumptuous, given its role in creating the current conditions.

Jawar Mohammed, an influential Oromo activist and a fierce regime critic before Abiy came to power, attributes some of the unrest to those seeking to sabotage the reforms.

“This is like the power struggles in Addis Ababa manifesting itself in the street,” he told The Washington Post.

Even former prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn, whose resignation helped clear the way for Abiy’s rise, has publicly said that the TPLF was overbearing and blocked reforms during his tenure as premier and head of the ruling EPRDF party coalition.

But Hailemariam’s deputy, Demeke Mekonnen, whose support for Abiy helped ensure his election and who retained his post under Abiy, said in an interview that reform had always been the party’s plan — it was just a question of speed.

“Previously it was a very, very gradual, incremental process,” he said. “Now it is a very progressive and dramatic approach.”

Demeke acknowledged the new government’s challenges, including replacing the officials unable to manage the conflicts in the countryside, boosting the country’s earning capacity and meeting the sky-high expectations of the people.

Still, he said, there was no question of slowing the pace of change.

“Keeping this momentum and inclusive approach; deepening democracy; improving governance, the services; changing the bureaucracy, the attitudes and response — that is the serious agenda for the upcoming time,” he said.

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Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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