Ethiopia’s democracy has been slowly backsliding. What started as a successful new era for leader Abiy Ahmed with sweeping government reforms and even a Nobel Peace Prize has dissolved into near authoritarianism.
So what happened? In 2018, Abiy Ahmed took office after a snap election due to the resignation of the preceding Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn. Ahmed’s immediate impact was not only strong, but positive. Just that year, over 7,600 prisoners were pardoned, many of them previously charged with political sentences. Not only that, but Ahmed invited previously banned press networks back into the country and solved longstanding tensions between Ethiopia and neighboring Eritrea. At the time, Abiy Ahmed felt like a breath of fresh air, someone who could take Ethiopia to the next level of democracy and guarantee the rights of its citizens. He seemed to be bringing Ethiopia from a barebones definition of democracy popularized through Joseph Schumpeter to something much more robust, one more similar to the democratic theory of Dahl.
Of course, this was all a show compared to the main act. The reason that Hailemariam Desalegn resigned was not just about economic conditions or the Eritrea war. Instead, a combination of political resistance spurred not only by poverty, but heavy ethnic tensions caused his retreat. Ethiopia is extremely ethnically diverse, and still maintains a sense of tribal states within the country that separate the Oromo, Somali, Afar, Amhara, and other smaller tribes. Not only this, the tribes are split along religious lines with around 61.9% of the citizens practicing Christianity and 35.9% practicing Islam. Other than the natural resentment that tribal culture brings, a history of discrimination between these groups has only exacerbated the tension. Before 1991 and the independence of Ethiopia, many tribes were not allowed to practice their customs. And even after, many feel disenfranchised if the leader of the country is not part of their ethnic tribe. This conflict “uprooted some 1.4 million Ethiopians from their homes” in just 2018 alone.
In Ahmed’s first years in office, he was criticized harshly by ethnic minorities who had already believed a wave of Oromo nationalism brought him into power. On the other side, activists like Jawaw Mohammed, a media mogul in the country, bashed Ahmed for not being ethnonationalistic enough. Still, Ahmed was able to bring a historic number of minorities back into the country after fleeing and managed to keep tensions down. That was, of course, until June 29th, 2020.
“Hacaaluu Hundessa’s only weapon was his music. His sentence for singing was death.” writes Seenaa Jimjimo, the executive director of the Oromo Legacy Leadership & Advocacy Association. Hacaaluu Hundessa was a singer and songwriter who sang about the Oromo struggle. He sang about the historic disenfranchisement his people faced, but also about the resilience they had in their hearts. He was shot and taken to the hospital on a fateful day in June, with a crowd of mourners following suit. This was when Abiy Ahmed’s regime took a turn. While many gathered at the hospital, police tear gassed the crowd, leading to widespread anguish within the Oromo community as Hundessa passed away in emergency care. The next day, Ethiopia was in turmoil. In a vye for control, Abiy Ahmed took authority at the expense of democracy. He shut down the internet. While he may not have violated the democratic norms in the eyes of a Schumpeteurian, he surely did for a follower of Dahl. Some of Robert A Dahl’s conditions for a valid democracy include freedom of speech and alternative sources for information. For a wide number of Ethiopian political actors, the internet was the only way to get their speech to their followers, meaning the power grab silenced those alternative sources Dahl requires. Especially when Abiy Ahmed’s most vocal opposition leader was an Oromo nationalist whose favorite form of speech was twitter, this internet blackout was calculated. From that day onwards, it was downhill. Protests clashed with police officers that led to nearly 500 deaths.
While ethnic and political tensions have swirled, the worst came just two weeks ago. Abiy Ahmed and his government has filed terrorism charges against Jawar Mohammed, a prominent opposition voice to the current government. Jawar is already in jail due to being detained after protests turned violent, and 5 supporters who protested about his alleged health conditions in jail have been shot dead as well. These police abuses are even acknowledged by Abiy, as he stated that “given the institutions we have inherited, we realise that law-enforcement activities entail a risk of human-rights violations and abuse”. Not only this, Abiy has indefinitely postponed the election due to what he cites as COVID related reasons, although the debate is still up whether or not the delay is an unnecessary seizure of power.
It would seem from all of this that it is clear Ethiopia should not be garnering national support from the U.S. or many outside forces at all. Yet this is not true. While Abiy Ahmed continues to transition to a power hungry ruler, the department of state defines Ethiopia as “among the most effective U.S. development partners”, and declares Ahmed’s dissolution of many political parties in favor of one larger party “to promote inclusion, economic growth, and development.” Not only does the U.S. blatantly ignore any democratic breakdown in the country in favor of economic relations, they created a $4 million project to improve the rule of law in the country that runs through the corrupt regime. In fact, the only pushback from the U.S. in recent memory with Ethiopia is over a dam construction project involving the Nile.
The U.S. holds a very international and economic view of the current Ethiopian climate. After all, both the U.S. and Ethiopia are members of “the United Nations, International Monetary Fund, and World Bank”. On a global scale, there is very little wrong with the country. They are not at war with any allies nor do they show any hostility towards them. When Ethiopia is evaluated based on international cooperation, they garner a solid reputation. And any solid defense of Ethiopia would be based on this argument. Still, this is a very surface level view. The U.S. openly condemns Zimbabwe’s “state-sanctioned violence against peaceful protestors and civil society” while praising Ethiopia’s current political climate. Indeed, Ethiopia’s commitment to international sovereignty should not be seen as the only basis for the country’s evaluation, and their staunch democratic backsliding should be looked at critically when implementing any U.S. policy concerning Ethiopia.
While the U.S. seems to be blinded to Ahmed’s flaws due to his early policy and international esteem, Ethiopia’s democracy crumbles. Their government has arrested the opposition, murdered hundreds of protestors, and abused military power to gain a sense of power. The terrorism charges against Jawar Mohammed are the pinnacle of the authoritarianism that is rising over the country, and the international community, including the U.S., needs to be better.
I really appreciated the narrative aspect behind this piece in giving background information to help us better understand the current situation in Ethiopia. I would definitely be curious to see how Abiy Ahmed has eroded democracy in other ways, namely changing things constitutionally, in the judicial system, or any other ways he’s polarized such a diverse population.
Currently in Ethiopia, Tigray has a 250,000 strong well-drilled militia that the Central government is fighting, and the central government is continuing to suppress political action in the region. Today, the central government dissolved Tigray leadership and has continued to carry out airstrikes towards military targets. This is another Ethiopian event where the U.S. has turned a blind eye.
What is happening now that is fascinating is that the stated “origin” of the conflict is how Tigray has held its own elections which the central government deemed to be illegal. Nearly all instances historically where a region or minority has held their own elections has led to a swift shut down from the central government. The central government’s basic and singular authority over the process of elections are demonstrated by how they will go to extreme measures to preserve this power which is where it draws respect from the international community as well as its own borders. More fundamentally than quelling local protest is the need to approve all election activity, no matter how local.