With nobody in charge, Ethiopia declares a state of emergency
As factions jostle, a move to release political prisoners may have stalled
Print edition | Middle East and Africa
Feb 24th 2018 | ADDIS ABABA
THE well-heeled residents of Legetafo are not used to demonstrations. The town on the eastern edge of Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, is home to politicians and businessfolk. Although nearby towns in the region of Oromia, which surrounds the capital, have been hit by anti-government protests since late 2014, these streets have remained mostly quiet.
Yet this month demonstrations broke out there too, as people joined a strike to force the ruling coalition to release more political prisoners (in addition to the thousands it has already freed since the start of the year). “Almost everyone” took to the streets, says Zenebe, a local restaurant-owner. Things quickly turned ugly. People set up roadblocks and burned tyres. The army responded with tear gas and bullets. Faced with spreading protests and ethnic attacks on Tigrayans (who are about 6% of the population but dominate politics), the government announced a state of emergency, giving itself wide powers to ban protests and arrest people.
The declaration appears at odds with recent signs that the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) was willing to allow more democracy. In August it lifted a ten-month-long state of emergency, imposed after protests in 2016. But rather than signalling a retreat from reform, the new state of emergency appears to have been triggered by the resignation the day before of Hailemariam Desalegn, the prime minister.
Hailemariam said he was bowing out to allow for “reforms”, but his departure has opened up a succession struggle within the EPRDF, which has governed Ethiopia since it first seized power as a band of rebels in 1991. It is made up of four ethnically based parties. The Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which represents Tigrayans, has long dominated the coalition. But the TPLF’s power is weakening. The Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation (OPDO), which represents the largest ethnic group in the coalition, was seen for years as a puppet of the TPLF. Under Lemma Megersa, its charismatic new leader, it has rebranded itself as a quasi-opposition party. It now wants to take the helm, backed by a belief among Oromos that it is their turn to have one of their own in charge. A number of members of the coalition suspect that people within the OPDO are encouraging street demonstrations to strengthen their hand in the succession struggle.
The emergency regulations may buy the coalition time to agree on a new prime minister and implement reforms. But they also pose a delicate problem for the OPDO, which has taken to repeating many of the demands of the protesters, including a call for the release of political prisoners. Over the coming days it will need to explain to angry youngsters in Oromia why it appears to have acquiesced again in the suspension of their political rights. If OPDO MPs vote in favour of the measure when parliament meets over the coming fortnight, there may be even more anger.