ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — In a scene that would have been unimaginable just a year ago, some 200 Ethiopians in the capital debated their country’s politics, economics and expressed their fears over the rise in ethnic violence.
The BBC’s “World Questions” current events program came to Addis Ababa on Monday demonstrating how much freedom of expression has changed in Africa’s second-most populous nation.
After decades of authoritarian governments that tightly controlled the press, the new reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has transformed the country by taking the shackles off the media and promising wide-ranging reforms.
But the loosening of such restrictions in Ethiopia has been accompanied by an explosion of ethnic conflict in the countryside. Millions of people have been displaced as long-simmering disputes over land boil to the surface — and as Monday’s discussion showed, people are frightened. Just in the week before the show, there were reports of tit-for-tat massacres between the Amhara and Gumuz peoples in the northern part of the country that killed dozens.
“I used to be afraid of the government; now I’m afraid of the people,” said one audience member, citing a common concern over the rise in lawlessness. “Before it was dictatorship we were afraid of; now it’s about the [lack] of rule of law.”
The prime minister himself was not spared criticism, either, with some singling him out for the speed and what they called the recklessness of his reforms and a personal style of leadership that often bypasses the country’s institutions.
“I believe that Dr. Abiy is a problem because we want a systematic change that can sustain itself whether there is a messiah or not,” said one man. “We don’t want another messiah.”
Whether it was ruled by an aging emperor, Soviet-backed army officers or former rebels, Ethiopia was rarely a place where you could criticize leaders so openly. Until last year, there were dozens of journalists and opposition politicians in jail or exile.
“It would be quite impossible in this country until very recently,” said program host Jonathan Dimbleby about bringing his show to Ethiopia. “I’ve been coming here for 45 years, and it would never have been possible in that time.”
Dimbleby first became known in Ethiopia when he broke the official silence over the famine raging north of the capital in 1973 with a documentary called “Unknown Famine” that seared itself across television screens in the West. It would be the first time (though sadly not the last) that images of bloated children’s bellies and stick-thin limbs entered Western living rooms and people’s consciousness.
In the years since, Dimbleby has returned repeatedly to Ethiopia — except for when his criticism got him banned from the country. In a way, bringing his famed “Questions” program to Ethiopia represents a kind of culmination of his years reporting here.
“I came first of all in a very, very troubled period, saw Ethiopia decade after decade going through troubles, seeming to emerge from them, slipping back into trouble.," he said. “There is a great deal of uncertainty now, hope, trepidation, that could the country go back again.”
The hour-long program, which travels the world and is produced in conjunction with the British Council — the British government’s cultural outreach arm — will air on May 11 at 2 p.m. U.S. East Coast time.
The panelists included a member of the government, a journalist, an activist and an academic who all fielded questions from an audience that seemed most focused on the instability brought about by the government reforms.
“I think this transition is failing,” said panelist Eskinder Nega, a writer and activist who was repeatedly jailed by the previous government and has emerged as one of Abiy’s most forceful critics. If nothing radical is done soon, I think it’s going to be in a far worse position five years from now.”
He criticized the government for maintaining the same coalition of ethnically-based parties to rule the country, maintaining they were fundamentally undemocratic. He also noted that instability in the countryside meant opposition parties couldn’t begin campaigning for next year’s election.
Ethiopia is made up of some 80 ethnic groups, and past governments generally used a harsh centralized authority to rule. More recently the government has been organized as a federal system of states based along the ethnic lines, which many fear is fragmenting the country.
Tsedale Lemma, editor of the Addis Standard newspaper, described Ethiopia with all its different groups not as a “nation state, but a state of nations,” and she warned about what she saw as the loss of government monopoly on violence.
“We have seen the privatization of political violence, which means private citizens acting as if they are the ones who should have the monopoly on violence,” she said.
While she felt that elections scheduled for next year must go forward to give the government legitimacy and a mandate, the overwhelming majority of people in the audience through a show of hands supported postponing the vote until the country was more stable.
Defending the government that evening largely fell to panelist Mustafa Omar, the president of Ethiopia’s Somali region and a former human rights activist appointed by the prime minister. He admitted that there were problems and that security forces weren’t cracking down on unrest the way they used to. But he said they were working on restoring rule of law.
“I couldn’t have put my trust in any [other] leadership than the current leadership,” he said, arguing that the “country is more stable now that in has been in the last 27 years.”
This assertion led to an audible gasp from the audience, and Mustafa was later attacked during the question period as people noted that nearly 3 million had been displaced in interethnic violence.
“We feel the anxiety in people about the unchecked ethnic violence,” said one woman in the audience. “People need to feel what the government is doing in concrete terms so there can be a little bit of confidence. People are still hopeful and have confidence the institutions can steer this country out of this chaos, but along the way we need reassurance.”
Mustafa countered that the current unrest paled in comparison to the tens of thousands murdered and imprisoned by the previous governments.
Striking a rare note of optimism at the end of the discussion, Tsedale said she felt Ethiopia would not fall back into repression or violence as has happened after past attempts at reform.
“I see light at the end of the tunnel,” she said. “It will be very daunting. We will see a lot of unpleasantness, we need to brace for that. But I think at least we have consensus over what kind of Ethiopia we want to see.”