A new brand of Autocratic Consolidation: A Case Study in Ethiopia
He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, but Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is now on the cusp of dealing with a civil war. Three weeks ago, the PM sent troops to the Tigray region in the north of Ethiopia to deal with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front or TPLF for short. The federal government accused the TPLF, which is the region’s ruling party, of attacking a federal base. For some context, the Tigray region of Ethiopia is the last bastion for the TPLF which lost the prime ministership in 2018 to the current PM who promptly created new reforms designed to root out corruption and repression. The TPLF have dominated Ethiopia for a quarter of a century, now tensions between the two factions are at a boiling point and Ethiopia could backslide further into an authoritarian regime.
Many western leaders had hoped that PM Abiy would be a change-maker, but instead he has brought a new iteration of authoritarianism to Ethiopia. In 2019, one year after the Prime Minister’s election, The Economist ranked Ethiopia’s freedom at a 3.44, a modest increase from previous years but still an authoritarian state. This latest fighting might[RR1] pull that score down further into an autocratic regime, a huge blow to many western nations, yet this potential downgrade has been likely for many months.
Ethiopia is an example of a new form of autocratic consolidation, where parties win surprise elections in authoritarian states, and proceed to take systematically change the rules, not to have an open society, but to bend them to benefit themselves. These winners solidify themselves and their cronies as the authoritarian party and seek to crush all dissent by any means necessary, and PM Abiy’s actions have shown that he is willing to engage in these autocratic tendencies.
In 2019, PM Abiy removed all TPLF politicians from the cabinet and ordered the elections in Tigray be postponed, but the TPLF held them anyway. This prompted both sides to say they did not recognize the other as legitimate. By August almost all prominent opposition leaders were arrested in the country.  While the Prime Minister’s recent efforts in Tigray were successful and they were able to capture the capital of Tigray, Mekelle, the leader of the Tigrayan forces said the resistance will continue. 
Now the TPLF say that the Eritrean government is supporting them in the conflict against the Ethiopian military leading to further ethnic issues.  Ethiopia is federalized along ethnic lines meaning the situation between the TPLF and the Prime Minister could quickly turn into an ethnically divided civil war. Many minority groups believe that when Ethiopia was an empire the majority Amhara people suppressed other minority groups, and many now fear that Mr Abiy who is also Amhara , will force these ethnic groups to assimilate into a culture that is not theirs.
These various characteristics of the situation in Ethiopia are all harbingers of autocratic consolidation. The removal of various “outsiders” from the cabinet, the arrest of several opposition members, and the use of military personnel to suppress resistance all suggest that PM Abiy is likely to continue his quest to increase his control over Ethiopia and a civil war would be an easy way for Abiy to do it. His tenure has already fractured society into pro-Abiy and anti-Abiy groups. Mr Abiy’s opponents saying he is bringing repression, while his supporters argue he is freeing up the political space in Ethiopia.
With a civil war based on ethnic lines, PM Abiy has the advantage. Abiy himself is half Oromo and half Amhara, together these populations make up more than 60% of the Ethiopian population.  Presuming that all other ethnic groups were to oppose the Prime Minister, he will still probably have a large portion of the population and the military loyal to him. We can already see that based on reports out of Ethiopia that speak of Amhara militias shooting and killing ethnically Tigray peoples. If there were to be a civil war, it is very likely that the PM would resort to violent suppression of the dissenters and a large nation-wide crackdown of other ethnic groups based on his previous track-record.
The case of Ethiopia is another example of how many western nations failed to accurately assess regimes in Africa and Asia. In competitive authoritarian states, where the ruling party has a surprise loss, western countries should not expect the winner will automatically bring democracy. While many leaders promise a free and fair democracy and open society, these statements should be taken lightly, it is more important to watch the actions these new leaders take when they are in power. Western states should remain cautiously optimistic. The same issue occurred in Myanmar, where the ruling military junta lost the elections to Nobel-prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, but she did not bring about change and free and fair elections, she instead aided the military in their brutal campaign to wipe-out the ethnic-minority Rohingya people.
The situation in Ethiopia provides a valuable lesson about the
fall of authoritarian states in the world. In recent years people have found
that authoritarian states fall and give rise to democratic states, but this is
not always true, some state merely change their authoritarian leader. Countries
around the world should be more cautious about the fall of authoritarian states,
and not immediately assume that democracy is next, autocratic consolidation is
always a possibility.
[RR1]In the Tigray region with TPLF
Hi Reshi, I appreciated that you took a strong stance in recognizing the atrocities going on in Ethiopia under PM Abiy, especially when he was recently heralded as a peace-bringer. I would, however, be more hesitant about positioning this narrative as a cautionary tale for western countries and their related humanitarian/human rights agencies. Yes, the west definitely called this one wrong, but I think we do a disservice to countries striving towards democracy in other parts of the world when we reinforce this “the west knows best” kind of rhetoric. Just some food for thought!
Ethiopia is a good example of the misconception that elections equal democracy. You mentioned Western countries’ miscalculation about the Abiy government, and I think that there is a pattern of ostensible peace and elections being interpreted as political liberalization. It is understandable; stability and electoral processes are vital for a democracy. However, Western states are too quick to legitimize and praise a country for achieving these benchmarks without ensuring that the democratization is legitimate. As you wrote, despite holding elections and reaching a peace agreement with Eritrea, he is removing opposition members from his cabinet, arresting opposition members, using the military to repress dissent. Heralding Abiy as a peace bringer gives him international legitimacy and makes it more difficult for domestic opposition to oppose him. The domestic opposition is already being suppressed by Abiy, and without international pressure on Ethiopia to be a genuine multiparty state, the domestic opposition is forced to turn to violence. However, as Boihitta commented, assuming that Western states must guide developing countries to political liberalization does a disservice to countries striving to build their own democracy. Foreign interference is bad for democracy; the government becomes more responsive to external actors than to its own people. Western states do not know what is best for Ethiopians. Nevertheless, if Western states are going to praise democratic successes, they should also criticize democratic failures. This includes democratic failures that are not as apparent. If Western humanitarian and human rights agencies want to be successful (or appear successful), they must take stealth authoritarianism seriously.
You mention that “Ethiopian is an example of a new form of autocratic consolidation where parties win surprise elections and proceed to systematically change the rules.” However, it is important to note that Abiy came to power not through a surprise election but through an internal reform of the incumbent party after months of protests in the country’s largest region, Oromia. He was already part of the ruling coalition specifically Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO) and was selected to ease the growing tension and address the concerns of the protesters.
Even though it was a huge miscalculation, I think the expectation that he would bring change was valid. He needed to bring change or at least say that he would in order to address the demand for greater political rights and ease the tension in the country. Unfortunately, robust democratic institutions such as an independent judiciary that serves as a check on power barely exist. Thus, he was able to dissolve the incumbent party and rush to create a new party without general consensus. He gained executive power to rule the country as he saw fit by suppressing any and all criticism.
I do agree that watching the actions of these leaders rather than their words is far more important to determine genuine commitment to democracy. But I also think assessing the structure of governance that leaders are coming into will help accurately determine if they will be held accountable for their words and if their commitment to democracy will come to fruition.
Hey Reshi, I like that you acknowledged how Ethiopia’s imperial past plays a part in the ethnic tensions behind the current conflict. As one of the few African nations exempt from decades of European rule, it can be easy to assume some of the post-colonial consequences that befall other states would not apply to Ethiopia. However, it is clear from your writing and presumably your research that the country is no stranger to ethnic heterogeneity and friction. I am not as knowledgable about this region of the world, but I wonder if the involvement of Eritrea increases the chances of escalation toward civil war, given the earlier independence war between Ethiopia and Eritrea.