Is Abiy's Liberalization Push Too Much, Too Soon for Ethiopia?

7 MINS READJun 26, 2019 | 10:00 GMT
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed meets with fellow African leaders in January 2019.
(Minasse Wondimu Hailu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed attends a meeting with African leaders in Addis Ababa on Jan. 17, 2019.

  • Despite receiving wide praise, the liberalization of Ethiopia's political and media environment over the past year has also opened the door for more hard-line regionalism and ethnic violence, challenging the country's power structures.
  • With promised free and fair elections slated for 2020, Ethiopia's ruling coalition will struggle to maintain power in key regions, possibly endangering Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's standing.
  • Nevertheless, democratic elections — whenever they are held — will help give legitimacy to the country's next leaders as the current political order erodes. 
  • Meanwhile, Ethiopia's acute shortage of foreign exchange, along with rising inflation and widespread unemployment, will also pose a formidable threat to the country's long-term economic and political stability. 

The past year been one of historic transformation in Ethiopia, to say the least — thanks, in large part, to the country's new youthful prime minister, Abiy Ahmed. After taking office in April 2018, Abiy and his political allies hit the ground running with sweeping political and economic reforms aimed at freeing the country from its former authoritarian regime. For some, this change hasn't come quickly enough. But others worry that this push is perhaps too much, too soon. And as the dust settles on a June 22 coup attempt in the country's Amhara region, the possibility that Abiy has opened a Pandora's box looms ever larger. 

The Big Picture

Home to a growing economy and over 105 million people, Ethiopia is a giant in the Horn of Africa. And with a raft of new economic and political reforms now on the way, the country is increasingly drawing the gaze of foreign investors. But in order to fully capitalize on this newfound interest, Addis Ababa will have to settle some of its toughest challenges ahead of the 2020 elections — namely, ongoing interethnic conflict and deepening political uncertainty.

While widely heralded, the recent loosening of Ethiopia's draconian media and political restrictions has also exacerbated endemic interethnic conflict. Abiy's promise to hold free and fair elections in 2020, meanwhile, has brought new, more hard-line regional parties to the fore who are now looking to compete with his ruling coalition at the polls. Combined with the country's economic troubles, this political risk will make nailing Abiy's next step just as crucial as his first, as his government attempts to complete Ethiopia's democratic metamorphosis

The Road to Today

In order to understand where Ethiopia is headed, and how much it has changed over the past year and a half, it is crucial to first understand the system that underpinned it for more than a quarter century. The country's political order was built upon the rubble of the Marxist Derg regime, which ruled with an iron fist from the mid-1970s to the late-1980s. Anger with the regime boiled over in various parts of the country, ultimately leading to armed revolt. During this time, the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) — a rebel group hailing from the Tigray region in Ethiopia's far north — proved the most formidable fighting force. In time, battlefield victories against the Derg translated into political power for the TPLF. 

As it accumulated power in the late 1980s, the TPLF understood that it represented a small minority in the much larger ethnic sea that is Ethiopia. As a result, it built a coalition comprised of several other larger ethnic groups, forming the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). The EPRDF acted as an umbrella organization from which the Tigray could exercise political power, dominate the security and armed services, and accumulate wealth. This Tigray-dominated system prevailed for roughly a quarter century until long-running anti-regime protests in the Oromo and Amhara regions forced a reckoning within the EPRDF, ultimately thrusting Abiy Ahmed and his allies to power.

Abiy quickly proved adept at outmaneuvering old regime rivals. Shortly after taking office in April 2018, Abiy pursued a slate of reforms aimed at dismantling Tigray dominance of the EPRDF system. This, combined with his relative youth (at 43 years old) and diverse ethnic background (but also as a member of the Oromo ethnic group), initially drove the new prime minister's popularity to sky-high levels. But the excitement over the change in leadership soon waned as it became apparent that the same system (and, in turn, the same problems) remained in place — even as the basis of the ruling coalition came under strain.

There are signs that the once tightly managed EPRDF entity is indeed breaking down under the weight of Abiy's change. But as the old political order continues to erode, uncertainty about who will fill the vacuum in the next phase of Ethiopia's political transformation has sharpened, as evidenced by the June 22 assassination of the army chief of staff and the failed coup attempt in the Amhara region. 

Opening Pandora's Box 

As part of his push to liberalize Ethiopia, Abiy also promised that the country's next general elections — which are slated for 2020 — would be free and fair, following years of the EPRDF's tight control of the country's political process. While this pledge won global praise, it has also injected further uncertainty amid the country's rapidly evolving political climate. Yet there are signs that the election could be delayed due to bouts of instability and bloody conflict in several regions, making it harder for the government to hold truly democratic elections. 

Both inter- and intra-regional violence have, in fact, soared in certain parts of Ethiopia in recent years — forcing nearly 3 million people to seek refuge in other areas of the country. And while the overall drivers of mass conflict are less acute than they've been in the past, government efforts to foster greater reconciliation continue to lag, as evidenced by the failure to conduct a national census for the past two years. 

In addition to the humanitarian toll, this uptick of ethnic strife also poses a sizable political threat to Abiy and his allies. The legitimacy of Abiy's Oromo Democratic Party (ODP), as well as the coalition's Amhara faction, the Amhara Democratic Party (or ADP, where he derives much of his support), have both suffered significantly in their respective regions due to their intrinsic link to the old and repressive system, as both are member parties of the EPRDF coalition.

As a result, many ethnic Oromo and Amhara citizens — who together represent well over a majority of the country's 105 million people — are clamoring to support new parties that pledge to act more aggressively in their interests. The Oromo Liberation Front in Oromia and a similar hard-line local party in the Amhara region, for example, have continued to gain influence amid the recent thaw in Ethiopian politics.

With promised free and fair elections slated for 2020, Ethiopia's ruling coalition will struggle to maintain power in key regions, possibly endangering Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's standing.

Relatedly, the latest evidence following the June 22 coup attempt in Amhara now suggests that it was orchestrated by ethnic radical factions who accused the local government of neglecting regional interests. To complicate matters, these radical elements have garnered support from several parts of the region. Thus, it's possible that they believed that once they seized power over the region, they would be in a strong position to convince the federal government to adopt more policies favorable to hard-line Amhara interests.

But regardless of the immediate cause, the failed coup in Amhara region testifies to a greater emerging reality: As Ethiopia's old political order breaks down, there will be a fight to fill the vacuum by ethnic interests. In fact, there's a good chance that if fair elections were held soon, voters would hand both the ODP and ADP a sizable blow at the polls — further hindering Abiy's ability to form a stable political base. Within this context, Abiy and his allies will need to negotiate with the more moderate opposition groups in Amhara and other regions in order to bring a more peaceful solution to the situation. 

Can Abiy's New Ethiopia Survive? 

But while regional conflict may be behind the most recent spates of national turmoil, Ethiopia's brewing economic troubles risk igniting further instability. The country's acute foreign currency exchange crunch, for one, is making it harder for companies to import the tools and machinery needed to keep their doors open. Meanwhile, everyday Ethiopians are also finding it increasingly difficult to get their hands on critical foreign shipments, like medicine. Adding to Addis Ababa's financial woes is the country's rising inflation as well as persistent widespread unemployment, especially among the young. 

If these deep economic problems persist and measures are not taken to neutralize them, the subsequent toll on voters' pocketbooks could fuel additional resentment against the ruling EPRDF coalition. The next round of national elections will, therefore, mark a turning point for Ethiopia's political future, as it will grant much-needed legitimacy to whichever parties win. But whether the EPRDF can clench that vote of confidence, and finish off the seismic transformation it got started, will largely depend on its ability to reinstill a sense of both regional harmony and economic stability. 

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