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Ethiopia: rocked by opposition at home, locked in opposition abroad

The East African nation is fast approaching a defining moment in its embryonic history of liberalism and continental arbitration

By Charles Moody-Stuart

For a country which merely 35 years ago was engulfed in a famine that claimed the lives of over one million of its people, the success with which Ethiopia has unshackled itself from its impoverished chains has been remarkable. Infant mortality has dropped by 87% since the 1990s, and the economy has seen annual growth consistently between 8-10% over the past decade as gold and textiles exports soared. The fastest non-energy driven growing economy in Africa, Ethiopia is now considered one of a pack of ‘African Tigers’, forecast to join their Asian counterparts in Middle Income Country status by 2025.

The politically authoritarian environment surrounding this rapid growth mitigated much of the warranted praise from the international community, provoking instead the same accusations of ‘authoritarian developmentalism’ that were levelled at the Asian Tigers. However, this autocracy has loosened with the election of Abiy Ahmed to Prime Minister in 2018: thousands of political prisoners have been released, he has appointed women to over half of the cabinet positions and ended a twenty-year long conflict with neighbouring Eritrea.

Mr Abiy must show more restraint in resorting to arms when confronted by opposition.

Mr Abiy himself embodies much of the new, exciting Ethiopia. A former UN peacekeeper who served in Rwanda, this is a man who, at 44 years of age, is the youngest leader in Africa. This is a man who in 2019 won the Nobel Peace Prize after just twelve months in office. This is a man whose Oromo heritage (the largest, though until recently the least politically represented, ethnic group) and split Muslim-Christian parentage leave him well equipped to embrace the diversity of this nation. A man who describes his vision for the country by simply stating that one day “the world should look to Ethiopia [to see] how people can live together in peace”.

Attempting to incur such drastic liberal change so quickly has, however, opened the lid on simmering ethnic tensions. Ethiopia’s system of ethnic federalism means that its nine states are already vulnerable to ethnonationalist demagoguery. Whereas authoritarian rule had previously stifled any political expression in these states, Mr Abiy’s reforms have opened the door to exploitation of this new freedom.

The warning signs have been there from the start: four months into his tenure Mr Abiy was the victim of a targeted attack at a rally which killed two. Two months afterwards, several hundred armed soldiers stormed his office grounds to demand a pay rise; though Mr Abiy deftly defused the situation (by doing press-ups with them), the fact that they were even allowed in the grounds shows that military and intelligence officials were not willing to serve their new leader or the reform he represents. In June this year, an attempted coup in the second most populous state, Amhara, resulted in the death of the army’s Chief of Staff who was a close regional ally and friend of Mr Abiy’s, another worrying event raising many red flags.

Most worryingly, however, have been recent events in the state of Tigray. Here, civil war is looming after the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) held regional elections in spite of their coronavirus-induced national postponement, before proceeding to seize a government army base. Mr Abiy’s patience – already worn thin on account of senior TPLF officials fleeing charges of corruption and human rights abuses – has finally run out, with the Prime Minister having rejected peace talks and having launched a military offensive as a consequence.

The challenges facing Mr Abiy abroad are similarly precarious. The construction of the Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam (GERD), situated on the Ethiopian Blue Nile, is now three quarters complete and filling the reservoir behind, prompting an escalation in pre-existing tensions with Egypt. The Egyptian government has described the dam as an “existential threat” to its 100 million strong population, 90% of whom rely on the Nile’s water. Sudan too are opposed to the dam, stating “millions of lives are at great risk” if it is completed (as it is forecast to be by 2023). The escalation has seen Ethiopia build anti-aircraft batteries around the dam and declaring the region a restricted airspace. Moreover, President Trump has exacerbated the situation, last month declaring that Egypt will “blow up” the dam, before cutting $100 million in aid to Ethiopia. Both actions have angered an Ethiopian government who maintains that the dam is fundamental for economic development. “We will not cave into aggressions of any kind” said Mr Abiy. The dialogue between the Nile nations is becoming less constructive and increasingly vitriolic.

Attempting to incur such drastic liberal change so quickly has [...] opened the lid on simmering ethnic tensions.

This sort of rhetoric has received condemnation from the UN secretary general Antonio Guterres, as has Mr Abiy’s decision to launch a military offensive against the TPLF. This, along with the 250 arrests he made after the attempted coup as well as his cutting of internet and phone cables to the Tigray region, has been used by his critics (most of whom are political rivals) to suggest that he is far more authoritarian and corrupt than he purports to be. Such accusations are false - Mr Abiy is a progressive and inclusive Prime Minister, as his actions have generally proven thus far. However, if he is to retain this image – and his office – then he will need to adopt a more patient approach in his dealings at home and abroad.

Ethiopia’s socioeconomic progress has earnt it substantial regional and international prestige in the Horn of Africa; not only does it have the second largest population in Africa, but also the capital Addis Ababa holds the African Union headquarters. Its role in the fight against Islamic extremism in Somalia (not only in deploying troops, but also in its intelligence co-operation with the US), and the maturity shown in ending the Eritrean war, certainly seems to justify Guterres’ assertion that Ethiopia is “crucial to the stability” of the Horn region.

With this power comes responsibility – Mr Abiy must show more restraint in resorting to arms when confronted by opposition. It is now up to him to fulfil the role of regional arbitrator and to maintain the socioeconomic progress that his country has earnt itself. Civil war at home would fatally upset that progress – and with it, what political stability exists in the Horn region.


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