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Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn’s departure after five years in power to pave way for political reform was abrupt, but not unexpected. The move followed a ‘do or die’ executive committee meeting of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) in December.
For years, a triad of ethnic federalism, revolutionary democracy and state-led development has underpinned the regime’s claims of legitimate, effective governance. However, this edifice appears to be cracking.
The government is struggling with youth unemployment, high public debt, inflation and a shortage of foreign currency. Export volumes are flagging, and despite significant federal government investment, the productivity of domestic manufacturing industries cannot keep up with more efficient global producers.
By framing itself as the indispensable engine of economic development, the EPRDF has been hobbled by an inability to translate double-digit national economic growth rates into higher living standards. For all its hailed dividends, the top-down disposition of Ethiopia’s development with its long horizon-rent centralisation, often at the expense of civil liberties, has been divisive.
The resulting anger has expressed itself in increasingly ethno-centric terms since 2015, with local rallies against the physical urban expansion of Addis Ababa morphing into nation-wide anti-government demonstrations.
By framing itself as the indispensable engine of economic development, the ruling party has been hobbled by an inability to translate double-digit national economic growth rates into higher living standards
Ethnic-Oromos and Amharas, collectively representing more than two-thirds of the population, are in the forefront of these protests, decrying their marginalisation and demanding more commensurate political roles.
While these protests don’t advance a single set of grievances, they all touch on a perennial question in Ethiopian politics: ‘how to build a modern nation-state?’
The political orthodoxy peddled by the EPRDF has always relied on state-led development and ethnic federalism, with the party’s founder, Meles Zenawi, gambling that Ethiopia’s material transformation would ‘cause parochial attachments to wither under a new nation-state identity’.
Nevertheless, it seems ethno-regional loyalties have lost little of their mobilising appeal, largely because the federal model is widely considered a proxy for minority rule.
As a national coalition, the EPRDF controls Ethiopia’s regions through satellite parties, including the Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organization (OPDO) and the Amhara National Democratic Movement.
However, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) has long been dominant, co-opting its ‘partners’ as vehicles for making Tigrayan hegemony more palatable. Representing only 6% of the population, ethnic-Tigrayans under both Zenawi and Desalegn have disproportionately benefited, seizing positions in government, the security services, and EPRDF-sponsored endowment companies.
So, rather than defusing inter-regional tensions, Ethiopia’s federal configurations have institutionalised a frozen conflict.
Galvanised by mass protests, the TPLF’s nominal ‘partners’ are flexing their own muscles. Under the leadership of Lemma Megersa, the OPDO has rebranded itself as a quasi-opposition party, advocating Oromo nationalism and localised forms of identity as an ideological panacea to the EPRDF’s unpopularity.
Even nostalgic references to the pan-Ethiopian nationalism of the Derg military regime, which took over the country after the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974, are circulating as an alternative to the status quo.
Desalegn’s resignation last month has triggered a succession struggle and created space for debate. This should be welcomed; doctrinal rigidity has hampered the EPRDF for years and new leadership may introduce needed reforms.
But, the process also carries risk. The imposition of another state of emergency creates latitude for a violent pushback by TPLF hardliners. Centralised rent allocations under its developmentalism ideology also leave Ethiopia vulnerable to the same temptations of patronage, cronyism and corruption as suffered by its neighbours.
Desalegn’s resignation last month has triggered a succession struggle and created space for debate. This should be welcomed
Similarly, belligerent expressions of regional identity may tip into ethnic chauvinism or open conflict. Ethnicity has already been securitised through lethal crackdowns on protesters, but emerging reports describe attacks on Tigrayan civilians, and violence in the Somali Region between Oromos, Somalis and ‘Liyu’ (Amharic for ‘Special’) paramilitaries. Political rabble-rousing will only accentuate tensions, particularly if expectations of change are frustrated.
Crucially, the resulting lack of clear leadership coincides with pressing regional challenges. Ethiopia’s National Defence Forces (ENDF) are a critical partner in peacekeeping interventions, including the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). AMISOM’s territorial gains against the militant group Al-Shabaab remain precarious, relying on less than half the required manpower to bolster an underperforming Somali National Army (SNA). Constituting roughly 4,400 of AMISOM’s 22,000 troops, there simply aren’t any replacements for ENDF personnel.
Analysts also fear the ENDF is becoming politicised, with ethnic tensions stoking infighting between Oromo soldiers and Tigrayan officers. Tigrayan hardliners in the EPRDF have already deployed the ENDF in domestic policing roles, and these measures are likely to persist under a renewed state of emergency.
Given the limited capacity of the SNA and a destructive competition for regional influence from the Gulf, any withdrawal of Ethiopian troops risks severe strategic setbacks. There is a reason why the US and European governments often overlook the EPRDF’s authoritarian leanings: the political expediency which comes with harnessing Ethiopia as a critical partner in the ‘War on Terror’.
However, if the Ethiopians can no longer satisfy their part of the bargain, this international leniency may start diminishing.
The $4.8 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is another strategic concern, with work on the biggest hydroelectric project in Africa set to finish in late 2018. But its position at the head of the Blue Nile is liable to restrict downstream flows to Egypt, a ‘fatal’ threat for an agriculturally dependent economy already experiencing water shortages.
The prospect of absolute water scarcity is considered a ‘matter of life and death’, and, in the absence of a diplomatic settlement, Cairo’s contingency plans for a military action against Ethiopia’s project must be taken seriously.
And time is running out. Negotiations stalled last November after Ethiopia refused to recognise Egypt’s self-declared right to 55.5 billion metres3 of Nile water annually.
However, forthcoming Egyptian presidential elections leave incumbent Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi little leeway for further comprises. And, if this were not enough, disputes over the Hala’ib Triangle between Sudan, Egypt and Eritrea raise additional complications.
Desalegn’s resignation jeopardises the handling of all these issues, for it raises the stakes for all concerned, and restricts Ethiopia’s own room for compromise.
The political crisis may give Ethiopians an opportunity to tackle their deep-rooted structural problems. But it could also result in the unravelling of the region’s bigger problems.
Banner image: Addis Ababa is likely to be less of a stabilising influence in East Africa. Courtesy of Sam Effron/Wikimedia
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.