When Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was elected to lead Ethiopia in 2018, overwhelming hope was felt for the first time by his electorate. Ethnic tensions between the Amhara and Oromo groups were reaching a potential all-time high and Ahmed’s predecessor, Halemariam Desalegn, had resigned quickly amidst a recently declared state of emergency. Ahmed’s coalition party, the EPRDF, had elected to choose a leader who had consistently and continuously stood on a platform of unity and strength within a unified state, an idea that was more than appealing to the citizens of a deeply economically and politically struggling country. Hailing from a minority ethnic group, the Oromos, Ahmed pledged to restore economic plights, address human rights abuses, and, above all, bring peace to the state— regardless of his ethnicity. Yet, while his first few years in office were indicative of a genuine, potential change in the horn of Africa, the recent civil unrest turned war in the Tigray region of the country along with its disastrous effects have deemed his original objectives next to impossible. The political culture when Ahmed entered office was hopeful, unified, and ready to participate in a new phase in democracy, in great contrast from the current climate where citizens have resorted to their ethnic cleavages due to Ahmed’s leadership. This gradual yet drastic change in the political climate has significantly impacted the legitimacy of both Ahmed’s government and, more broadly, democracy in the state.
While it can be argued that this civil war was not the only cause in eroding belief and participation in Ethiopia’s democratic system, it was certainly a primary factor. As argued by Almond and Verba in The Civic Culture, durable and balanced democracies require “active democratic [political] cultures” in order to ensure there is open communication and adequate responsiveness between citizens and their governments. Therefore, with the breakdown of Ethiopian political culture based in deep, historical ethnic cleavages stoked by civil war recently arisen, it poses the question, does democracy stand a chance in Ethiopia’s current state?
Regardless of Ahmed’s early efforts, political culture has shifted back into a state of “passiveness” where the only available motivators to participate in true democracy include emphasizing ethnic cleavages. Whether it be various movement leaders speaking out on behalf of their ethnic group or Western intervention on behalf of those in Tigray, Almond and Verba’s necessary “cooperation and trust” of citizens in their government has been severed and citizens remain unmotivated to unite in the name of democracy, much less to save the legitimacy and sovereignty of their government. In a survey conducted in 2013, prior to Ahmed’s leadership, 81% of Ethiopians truly deemed their state a democracy, in spite of the civil unrest under Desalegn’s leadership. Yet, even with the limited information flowing out of the state due to recent censorship, it seems that political faith has drastically eroded from the current government, due, yet again, to the misleading early successes of the Prosperity Party— Ahmed’s coalition party.
While numerous resettlement programs, strengthened diplomatic relations with the West, and positive recognition related to human rights were at the forefront of Ahmed’s successes, the current civil war and its economic effects such as fuel shortages, record unemployment rates and disheartening numbers of displaced citizens, led to the demise and erosion of a political culture desperately needed to restore an active political culture in Ethiopia— a critical aspect to the rehabilitation and longevity of a young democracy. Whether or not democracy can prevail in this volatile state is now left to the discretion of Ahmed’s government and their response to ethnic violence occurring to their people. Active participation in democracy requires consistent motivation from the political leadership and it is more than evident that any incentive for the Ethiopian people has faded, along with Prime Minister Ahmed’s platform of unity.