What could have been a supposed breakthrough of democratic change has led to a more serious threat of backsliding as Ethiopia faces challenges in maintaining their state’s democracy. Although practices done in 2018, during Hailemariam Desalegn’s regime, such as the release of political prisoners and national elections occurred, scholars do not see it sufficient to support that its democracy is not at risk. Hopes were raised as Abiy Ahmed, a Nobel peace prize winner, became the prime minister, however, instead of stability, the country has experienced more authoritarian practices under his regime. Not only dealing with democratic erosion impacts, Ethiopia also needs to address the concerns brought by COVID-19.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took advantage of the unstable leadership of the EPRDF to conduct change without approval from the party. These reforms have started to transition towards democratic platform from authoritarian policies. But as Badzawa described in his article, this approach of Ahmed “had its own dangers”. Although gained popular support, Ahmed failed to seek support from his own party and other political constituents, weakening the reforms he created. With limited policies in facing political opponents, the administration relied on existing practices such as arresting opposition supporters and journalists, communication blockouts, and the use of force. Such practices are used to silence the opposition and criticism of the current administration. Another event that further challenged Ethiopia in maintaining its democracy is the postponement of the August 2020 national election due to COVID-19 following the declaration of state of emergency. The supposed national election was scheduled this June 2021, however, it was again postponed as the opposition party will not take part and there will be an absence of votes from the Tigray region due to the ongoing conflict.
The conflict between the federal government of Addis Ababa and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) has also added to the emerging erosion of Ethiopia’s democracy. For the past months, the Tigray region has been experiencing human rights abuse and sexual harassment and aids are being blocked to reach the residents. Thousands of civilians are believed to be killed and displaced in the region due to the military exchange between the two conflicting parties since it started in November 2020. A report from CNN has described that men, mostly young ones who are part of the displaced population in the region were forced and dragged by Ethiopian together with Eritrean soldiers without reason, eyewitnesses have stated that these men experienced hours of beating – in which are denied by the Ethiopian government stating that it is an ‘orchestrated attack’ by critics. With the Eritrean joining the Ethiopian soldiers, humanitarian aids are becoming impossible for the residents as they are believed to be blocking the entry of these aids through disguising as Ethiopian soldiers, also involved in killing and raping Tigray residents.
Aside from the military conflict between the government and TPLF, the country still needs to control and manage the spread of COVID-19. Like other countries, Ethiopia has also suffered economic and health impacts due to the global pandemic, which should be managed through policy reforms. However, there are incidents where COVID-19 is being weaponized by states to conduct human rights abuse against their critics, activists, and other civilians. As reported by Amnesty International, “COVID-19 has brutally exposed and deepened inequality across Sub-Saharan Africa.” and states should focus on investing in their people and fix the impacts and system that will address poverty and inequality.
With the current situation of Ethiopia – managing COVID-19 and the conflict crisis – it has shown how each actor moves based on their interest. Despite the famine, health crisis, and economic collapse brought by COVID-19, Ethiopia’s government has shifted its focus in a way that made it authoritarian. Revisiting Levitsky and Ziblatt’s indicators of an authoritarian behavior, one can say that the ongoing human rights abuse and violence in Ethiopia is a direction towards democratic erosion as well as its denial on the rights of its citizen, in which is the opposite of what Dahl stated – responsiveness of the government to its citizens will sustain its democracy. Another factor that threatens its democracy is the postponement – for the second time – of their national election, again denying the right for its citizens to choose its governing body and has shown that even institutions equipped with policies, may still be abused for political interest supporting Varol’s 2015 article about Stealth Authoritarianism.
Due to the worsening of the conflict and other issues, US has already made its way to intervene and implement resolutions for the withdrawal of Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers in Tigray, and seeks for accountability. However, it seems that the resolution did not threaten the joined forces of Ethiopian and Eritrean and has shown no signs of withdrawing, stressing that they are not violating any human rights.
If both conflicting parties deny each other’s flaws and violations, more and more civilians will be affected. Will the US still push its resolution? Or does it need multiparty intervention? Will Ethiopia’s democracy fall apart?
Image from: https://www.politico.eu/article/ethiopia-internal-conflict-explained/ | (Eduardo Soteras/AFP via Getty Images)