Abiy Ahmed's Commitment to Democratic Reforms
When the former Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn unexpectedly resigned, his decision to step down marked the starting point of the most significant political restructuring Ethiopia has experienced. On February 15, 2018, Hailemariam announced his resignation via a televised statement, surrendering to the swelling protests among disenfranchised ethnic groups decrying governmental corruption. In 1995, Ethiopia adopted an ethnic federal system of government, separating the disputing ethnic groups into independent regional states in hopes to preserve peace. Despite dividing the country along ethnic lines, during Hailemariam’s reign, his often discriminatory policies galvanized the affected ethnic groups to revolt. In 2015, the government’s proposal to broaden Addis Ababa’s municipal boundary provoked fervent protests among the Oromo, one of the country’s two largest ethnic groups along with the Amhara, who felt the proposal threatened to displace many Oromo farmers. To subdue the protests, Hailemariam declared a state of emergency, lowering the threshold for the use of force by the country’s military and suspending due process for arrested protestors. The government’s adoption of a hardline stance failed to quell the protests and only produced mounting casualties, with reports indicating the Ethiopian security forces killed 140 Oromo protesters after Hailemariam declared a state of emergency.
Cognizant of the previous government’s role in spurring the destabilizing protests, the new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed promised to introduce far-reaching political and economic reforms. Since taking office, Abiy has made good on his promise, unblocking access to blacklisted websites, delisting opposition groups from the government’s terror watchlist, freeing political prisoners, and firing corrupt civil servants. Abiy has also worked to improve relations with neighboring countries, agreeing to formally honor a peace deal brokered between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 2000. Although Abiy has garnered praise for his steadfast commitment to reforms both domestically and internationally, he has struggled to find a way to instill peace among different ethnicities.
When Abiy took office, there was hope he would not resort to the similar type of repressive, knee-jerk policies Hailemariam implemented in response to ethnic unrests. During Hailemariam’s reign, his decisions to tighten internet censorship and deploy security forces to forcefully subdue the turmoil were subject to much criticism. Despite his promise to abandon the punitive practices of his predecessor, when faced with settling ethnic disputes, Abiy has opted to adopt similar practices as Hailemariam. After border disputes between the Oromos and the Somalis, two groups that have been historically competing for territory, started becoming more violent, Abiy shut down the internet in the Somali region without any public justification. Moreover, in September 2018, the Ethiopian government announced the police arrested thousands of people near Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, after tensions between the Oromo Liberation Front and the capital’s residents escalated when members of the Liberation Front started painting the group’s flag on the city’s walls and streets. The government sent many of the detainees to military camps for rehabilitation where they would be “taught how to be peacefully integrated with the community.”
As Ethiopia is a country firmly divided among ethnic lines, promoting peace among feuding ethnicities was always going to be a difficult feat, and there are fears his decision to open Ethiopia’s borders to ethnic groups that were previously ostracized might initially propagate more violence as the disputing ethnic groups learn to coexist. However, Abiy’s hard-line stance in response to that violence threaten to undercut the credibility of his commitment to reforms. Following his decision to sanction mass arrest in Addis Ababa, international criticism from organizations such as Amnesty International and the Human Rights Watch followed. Amnesty International condemned the arbitrary arrests and Abiy’s government for charging the majority of the detainees with “perceived offences...not recognised criminal offences under international law.” Echoing Amnesty International, the Human Rights Watch warned the use of rehabilitation camps “signals a worrying return to a period when the security forces frequently carried out arbitrary arrests.”
Although failures to resolve ethnic tensions exhibit the challenges lying ahead for Abiy’s government, many are cautiously optimistic about the country’s future. Those formerly accused of terrorism for exposing the prevalence of corruption states the changes instituted by Abiy “has been a dream for us.” The majority of Ethiopians recognize large scale changes will not happen overnight, as the “nation is not only awakening but also it's kind of perplexed in a soul-searching process.” Abiy’s struggle to assuage ethnic tensions highlights the need for patience, as he has been devising less punitive ways to improve ethnic relations. In October 2018, the Ethiopian government announced the creation of a new peace ministry that would oversee the peaceful integration of traditionally ostracized ethnic groups. The creation of the new peace ministry was a part of Abiy’s broader effort to diversify the political voices in his cabinet. Abiy’s choices for his new cabinet was noteworthy for the appointment of officials of different ethnic groups that traditionally were voiceless in Ethiopian politics, a decision that could help promote ethnic unity by fostering political cooperation among different.ethnicities.
With increased hope for a more democratic future, it is vital Abiy remains committed to his reformist agenda, since the outcome of his efforts could have profound political and economic implications for Ethiopia and the greater Horn of Africa. Over the past decade, Ethiopia underwent impressive economic growth and modernization, and even though growth slowed in 2018, the IMF projects accelerated GDP growth for 2019. Since Hailemariam ruled Ethiopia for the majority of the years in which the economic data showed a sustained positive trajectory, it might appear economic wellbeing is decoupled from political reforms. However, African countries that experience increased economic prosperity sans political reforms have historically hit an artificial ceiling. In “The Non-Sustainability of Rwanda’s Economic Miracle,” George B. Ayittey emphasized the importance of political reforms for sustainable economic growth in Rwanda, drawing on historical analysis of the Ivory Coast and Madagascar. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, Ivory Coast received international praise for their impressive economic growth under Felix Houphouet-Boigny’s dictatorship. Although the international community hailed Ivory Coast’s achievements as an economic miracle, the government’s refusal to heed the protestors advocating for political change after the collapse of the Soviet Union ushered in a thirty year long period of economic stagnation punctuated by civil wars in 2005 and 2010. Another country that showcased the importance of political reforms for sustained economic growth was Madagascar. The country’s government reaped significant economic dividends from their decision to accept foreign investment and to privatize failing state-owned enterprises, until the failure to introduce political reforms plunged the country into a state of chaos from 2003 onward. Although the article uses the examples of Ivory Coast and Madagascar to demonstrate the need for democratic governance in Rwanda, the economic histories of the Ivory Coast and Madagascar also provide a cautionary tale for Abiy. In the IMF report that forecasts accelerated GDP growth for Ethiopia in 2019, the main reason for optimism is the sense of political stability Abiy introduced with his reforms. However, Ethiopia’s public debt burden, large external imbalances, and an unprecedented rise in the workforce in the near future, with an estimated two million young adults soon entering the job market, will continue threatening to constrain growth and underscores the importance of reforms to maintain sustained economic growth in Ethiopia.
Independent of the domestic economic benefits, a successful move towards political liberalization in Ethiopia could generate positive momentum for reforms in the neighboring countries. Ethiopia yields considerable political influence in Africa. The country’s capital serves as the home to the African Union headquarters, and Ethiopia’s significant contributions to regional peacekeeping efforts showcase the stabilizing role Ethiopia can play in the region. Considering Ethiopia’s influence in African politics, significant progress Abiy achieves with his reforms in Ethiopia could yield positive momentum for democratization in neighboring countries, as democratization often comes in succession of waves. In the early 1990s, a wave of democratization swept across sub-Saharan Africa, and multi-party systems replaced unitary military regimes in many of the countries. Although different factors such as ethnic discrimination, civil wars, and corruption have led to a reversal of some of the progress, studies suggest the positive progress has helped the countries in the region on par be more democratic than in the 1980s. There have already been signs citizens of Ethiopia’s neighboring countries hope to utilize Ethiopia as a model for political liberalization. In Eritrea, where President Isaias Afwerki has held power since 1993, after Abiy and Isaias agreed to end the “state of war,” the country’s residents have expressed renewed impetus to demand sweeping governmental changes.
Abiy Ahmed’s vision for a more democratic, inclusive Ethiopia is ambitious, but Abiy’s continued dedication to his vision is necessary for Ethiopia to build a sustainable economy and could also usher in another wave of democracy in the region. The recent violent outbreaks demonstrate ethnic tensions pose the most daunting roadblock for Abiy. Because of the historical roots of the animosity, Abiy has to ensure the reintegration of traditionally-oppressed groups come gradually to prevent similar types of violent outbreaks that forced Abiy to forcefully and arbitrarily detain prisoners in military camps in Addis Ababa. Although ethnic tensions will be difficult to resolve, there are reasons for cautious optimism. The creation of a new peace ministry, the inclusion of government officials from often marginalized ethnic groups in his new cabinet, and other concrete reforms instituted by Abiy, ranging from establishing peace with neighboring countries to releasing political prisoners, demonstrate his commitment to instituting sweeping changes in Ethiopia.