NAIROBI — In the year since Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the country has become increasingly beset by political unrest, dampening some of the lofty hopes expressed by his supporters and the prize committee in Oslo.
A set of crises has instead ensued, slowing the pace of reform and underlining questions many asked last year as to whether Abiy’s award had been premature. Widespread ethnic and other political violence, the detention of opposition leaders and deepening polarization over the schedule of the promised elections — now delayed by the coronavirus pandemic — have created growing instability.
“The committee has increasingly given awards to processes like in Ethiopia, rather than past achievements. The expectation is of course that the award nudges the process along,” said Henrik Urdal, director of the Peace Research Institute Oslo, which closely monitors the Nobel Peace Prize process. “I think the Abiy award was probably the riskiest of their process awards, though it would still be too early to call it a failure.”
In an opinion piece in the Economist last month, Abiy said that his commitment to reform “remains firm despite the numerous obstacles that the country has faced over the past two-and-a-half years,” even if demagoguery and sensationalized media reports suggested otherwise. Still, he acknowledged how difficult the peace-building process has been in the context of a country with a long history of authoritarian government.
“Given the institutions we have inherited, we realize that law-enforcement activities entail a risk of human rights violations and abuse,” he wrote. “The mind-set and tactics of the past are not so easy to unlearn. Security and judicial reforms take time.”
Perhaps the greatest challenge Abiy faces is discontent in his home region of Oromia, whose main inhabitants, the Oromo people, Ethiopia’s most populous ethnic group, were politically sidelined by previous governments. Oromo leaders accuse Abiy of continuing to exclude them from the fold.
Unrest erupted in Oromia after a popular Oromo singer was killed on June 29. More than 200 people were killed, some in clashes with soldiers and police. More than 9,000 were arrested, and nearly two-thirds of them charged with crimes, including the two most powerful Oromo opposition leaders, Jawar Mohammed and Bekele Gerba.
Jawar was booked on charges of terrorism, incitement to violence, a firearms offense and telecom fraud. A member of the legal team representing him, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the ongoing trial, alleged that the charges were politically motivated and meant to prevent the opposition from taking part in the upcoming elections, which he argued it would win otherwise.
“It is about fabricating cases with fake witnesses to keep them out of the political process ahead of the elections, very simply,” he said. “Clearly, we have a very difficult time ahead of us. There will be lots of anger. It will be difficult to contain.”
Other Oromo leaders say they have been closely surveilled and intimidated in echoes of the repressive tendencies of past governments that many hoped Abiy would break away from.
“Opposition parties, including our party, [are] losing confidence in the election board,” said Merera Gudina, leader of the Oromo People’s Congress. “In a nutshell, the transition is heading to a political dead end.”
A political crisis is also brewing with the northern Tigray region, which went ahead with its own elections despite the national election commission’s pausing of all polls due to the pandemic. On Wednesday, Ethiopian lawmakers slashed funding to Tigray — a decision a top Tigrayan official said was “tantamount to a declaration of war.”
“Ethiopia’s opening of political space quickly made way for the polarization of politics, played out along ethnic and religious lines,” said Daniel Bekele, chief commissioner of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission. “That remains entrenched.”
He cited the adoption of legal amendments that safeguard his organization’s financial and operational autonomy as an example of progress in strengthening human rights in the country, but added that conflict, arbitrary arrests, pretrial detentions and continued illegal detentions resulting from the police’s refusal to release suspects despite bail grants by courts were all causes for real concern.
“Are these isolated cases of ‘old habits die hard,’ or have they become the norm?” he said. “It is clear that there is a lot of work to be done.”