(DEMOCRACY SPEAKS) — With the resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn and the appointment of Abiy Ahmed in April of 2018, Ethiopia has embarked on a historic political transition. Since coming to power, Prime Minister Abiy announced a series of sweeping political, electoral, and diplomatic reforms that have the potential to spur remarkable change in Ethiopia’s democratic trajectory.
However, significant obstacles must be overcome if these reforms are to encourage lasting change.
The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has been Ethiopia’s ruling autocratic party since 1991. Historically, the ERPDF suppressed dissent and presided over profound economic and political disparities within society. Popular frustration came to a head after the contested 2015 elections, when the EPRDF won every seat in parliament. Widespread unrest ensued and continued into 2018. This turmoil only subsided when EPRDF leadership was forced to usher in a new head of state.
Although Abiy Ahmed came from the ranks of the EPRDF, his sweeping reforms and call for “medemer” or “coming together” inspired praise and “Abiy mania” among the international community and Ethiopians alike. In his first year as Prime Minister, Abiy took swift action to make Ethiopia’s political landscape more inclusive and accountable. This included reestablishing diplomatic ties with Eritrea after decades of conflict, releasing thousands of political prisoners, appointing a cabinet comprised of 50 percent women, and promising free and fair elections in 2020.
PM Abiy and his inner circle not only took quick action to promote inclusivity, but also committed to long-term institutional reforms that promote Ethiopia’s democratic sustainability. PM Abiy established a Legal and Justice Advisory Council to revise Ethiopia’s repressive laws on media, political parties and civil society, which stymied political competition and dissent. Furthermore, an overhaul of the National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE), notable for its validation of Ethiopia’s rigged elections, is also underway.
With the reforms and Abiy’s promise of free and fair elections in 2020, many international actors are aiming to reengage with Ethiopia in the democracy and governance sphere. As a beacon of hope in an otherwise democratically declining East Africa, Ethiopia presents a historic opportunity to not only positively influence the region but inspire democratic sentiment around the world. As a result, the pressure on Ethiopia to successfully transition from one-party rule to a competitive and accountable political landscape is quite high.
But Ethiopia’s shining future is not without potential threats.
Decades of political repression left ethnic tensions and corruption to fester underneath the surface. As of 2018, Ethiopia had more than a million new conflict-driven internally displaced persons (IDPs). These conflicts occurred mostly along the lines of geographic ethnic divisions, and many of these IDPs have yet to return to their homes out of fear for their safety. The mobilization of ethnic paramilitary groups and rise in hate speech has further fueled Ethiopia’s IDP crisis.
Additionally, key democratic institutions integral to free and fair elections were virtually decimated under draconian laws. As a result, independent media outlets and the country’s nascent civil society remain severely constrained. Outlets for communication and citizen engagement are very limited, posing significant threats to the perceived legitimacy of an already fragile government and its reforms. The high expectations prompted by Abiy’s quick actions could fall victim to disillusionment as the long process of building up democratic institutions proceeds.
Other urgent questions also remain. When will the government conduct a new census that is meant to redistrict voters? Can free and fair elections realistically occur in 2020, and what would be the process to postpone them? What is the future of IDPs and their ability to vote in upcoming elections?
Complicated questions and old grievances will take time to iron out. Ethiopia’s transition is unlikely to occur in a quick, seamless and straightforward ascent into liberal democracy. However, key reforms such as the new civil society law, which lifts foreign funding restrictions for local groups working in democracy and human rights, offers a new window of opportunity for the international community to assist in that process. As a result, the critical time for international engagement is now, and will require thoughtful and innovative intervention if Ethiopia’s momentous transition is to remain truly Ethiopian-driven and lasting.
Organizations like IRI can work with Ethiopians and the international community to support and empower crucial components of a healthy democracy, such as a strong civil society, in order to revitalize civic space and strengthen institutions. Assisting Ethiopia’s democratic stability would also reinforce the country’s strategic role in advancing regional peace and security as well as economic growth, which are key interests the U.S. and its allies. With more than 30 years of experience working on governance and democracy worldwide, IRI is positioned to support Ethiopians in this transitional period and ensure that changes are sustainable, freedom of speech and expression is protected, and government reflects the will of the people.