Ethiopia, a country located in the Horn of Africa, has garnered much attention due to its strategic position, its large population, and its role as a security provider within the region. When Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s current prime minister first rose to power in 2018, Ethiopia produced one of the most surprising and important breakthroughs for democracy in the world today. Abiy’s democratic reforms such as the release of political prisoners, the re-opening of a democratic space for political parties as well as his commitment to free and fair elections made him stand out from his autocratic successors. However, these initial reforms were short-lived when Abiy postponed the widely anticipated elections, deepened tensions with other opposition leaders, and started a full-fledged war in the Northern part of Ethiopia, the Tigray region.
When Abiy first came to power, he took impressive steps to open the political space, however, his ruling structure failed to reconcile and reintegrate the Tigrayan political, security, and economic elites, making them feel targeted. Although there were power and ideological struggles between the two, the question of the constitutionality of Abiy’s decision to postpone the national and regional elections due to COVID-19 was the final straw. Shortly after the Tigrayan elites held their own regional elections, the Ethiopian federal government waged a war against TPLF, suspending all federal subsidies to Tigray and halting direct engagement with the regional government. In addition, the death of a prominent singer and activist, Haccaalu Hundeessa, who was shot dead in the capital, Addis Ababa led to a complete internet shutdown that lasted over two weeks. Haacaalu death triggered widespread riots and protests across the country and around the world, becoming yet again, a test of Abiy’s power.
Through these actions, Abiy further polarized an already tense ethnic and political environment and established the breeding ground for the erosion of democracy. So how have Abiy’s actions threatened the stability of Ethiopia and the Horn?
Firstly, Abiy’s postponement of the elections breached not only the constitution but also one of the main tenants of democracy, questioning Abiy’s role as a legitimate ruler. It also forced the Tigray regional government to hold elections in defiance of federal authority. Abiy’s response provoked Tigrayan leaders into triggering constitutional secession clauses in response to what they saw as a steady erosion of their self-rule rights within Ethiopia’s federation. Although regional governments within Ethiopia cannot hold a legitimate general election without the approval of the electoral board and the house, TPLF’s defiance shows that Abiy’s government lacks legitimacy and support from political actors. In addition, Abiy’s government participated in the harassment of Tigrayan civil servants, subjecting them to various forms of discrimination, harassment, and abuse by government officials. By engaging in such behavior, Abiy is continuing practices previously seen during the EPRDF era and making it difficult for law enforcement to conduct investigations without looking at the ethnic element. Such abuse and discrimination could widen the rift among Ethiopia’s increasingly polarised ethnic groups, leading to renewed conflict. Abiy also threatened Tigray’s ability to exercise “regional autonomy”, a pertinent element that characterizes Ethiopia’s federal form of government.
Secondly, during the riots following the death of Haccalu Hundessa, Abiy’s government implemented heavy-handed tactics such as the mass arrest of opposition supporters, using deadly force against demonstrators, arresting civil protestors as well as imposing communication blackouts which were structures previously used by Abiy’s successors to repress dissent. As Bermeo mentions in “On Democratic Sliding”, a defining feature of democratic backsliding is the lack of media freedoms and civil/ political liberties. By impeding on the rights of citizens to engage in peaceful protests, Abiy hindered a critical element of a functioning democracy. The arrest of journalists across the country and the information blackout also contribute to the lack of transparency within Abiy’s government. Many have reported that the government crackdown has included in-person and online harassment of journalists has a chilling effect on the ability of the media to freely and accurately report. Hate speech and the deliberate spread of misinformation on social media are also common in Ethiopia, fanning the flames of violent conflict in several regions of Ethiopia. Although Abiy’s government implemented a hate speech law in 2018 that would make the spread of false information illegal, Amnesty and others have criticized this for being overly vague. The freedom of NGOs to operate within the Ethiopian political climate is also quite difficult as the government consistently limits the realm in which they can work in and places laws that prohibit the free movement of NGOs.
Lastly, the rule of law, which ensures that civil rights and civil liberties are safe and that the equality and dignity of all citizens are not at risk, is not well established. Not only are the various branches of government subject to political interference, but they have also historically impeded on the rights of citizens. Abiy’s government has taken advantage of this and paved the way for force, or the threat of use of force to become the new rule of law. State institutions and their officials are unable and/or unwilling to perform their basic constitutional duties and the constitution has repeatedly failed in its primary task of “keeping political disagreements within the boundaries of ordinary politics.” The displacement of millions of people from their homes, the genocide of Tigrayan citizens as well as the ongoing full-fledged war in the Northern region of the country have been the key elements of Abiy’s rule in Ethiopia. This coupled with the excessive fragmentation of political institutions and the increasing polarization of the Ethiopian people has further shrunk the political space and Ethiopia’s future towards a democratic country.
“Ethiopia: Freedom In The World 2020 Country Report | Freedom House”. Freedom House, 2021, https://freedomhouse.org/country/ethiopia/freedom-world/2020.
“Ethiopia: From Autocracy To Democracy, Remarks By Carl Gershman – NATIONAL ENDOWMENT FOR DEMOCRACY”. NATIONAL ENDOWMENT FOR DEMOCRACY, 2021, https://www.ned.org/ethiopia-from-autocracy-to-democracy-remarks-by-carl-gershman/”I·Connect – Ethiopia’S Continuing Constitutional Crisis”. Iconnectblog.Com, 2021, http://www.iconnectblog.com/2021/01/ethiopias-continuing-constitutional-crisis/..
“Toward An End To Ethiopia’S Federal-Tigray Feud”. Crisis Group, 2021, https://www.crisisgroup.org/africa/horn-africa/ethiopia/b160-toward-end-ethiopias-federal-tigray-feud.