A year ago today, 42-year old reformist politician Abiy Ahmed became prime minister of Ethiopia. Abiy came to power during a deep political crisis with widespread grievances across this country of over 105 million people, and quickly began to enact political reforms. USIP’s Aly Verjee and Payton Knopf discuss Abiy’s year as prime minister and identify the challenges that lie ahead for eastern Africa’s most populous country.

Protestors gather in London, U.K. in response to Ethiopian human rights concerns, October 11, 2016. Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has made strides to ease restrictions on civil liberties since taking office in April 2018. (David Holt via Flickr)
Protestors gather in London, U.K. in response to Ethiopian human rights concerns, October 11, 2016. Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has made strides to ease restrictions on civil liberties since taking office in April 2018. (David Holt/Flickr)

What are the most notable developments in Ethiopia since Abiy came to power?

Verjee: Many analyses of Abiy’s tenure begin with a list of his achievements: among the most commonly cited are the freeing of political prisoners, the rapprochement with archenemy Eritrea, the easing of restrictions on civil liberties, and the appointment of a gender-balanced cabinet. For millions of Ethiopians, these are evidently important, exciting changes. But when I recently asked a young Ethiopian friend of mine what Abiy-era reform had most significantly changed her life, she pointed to the reduction of phone call tariffs in September 2018 by state telecoms operator Ethiotel. My friend’s answer neatly highlights the duality of change in Ethiopia: while there has been rapid progress in political liberalization, economic reforms matter too, especially in a country that remains deeply poor and unequal. Yet there are only so many times that the price of phone calls can be cut.

Although there is much to laud, there are also many inconvenient facts in Ethiopia’s political transition. First, Prime Minister Abiy has been able to rapidly introduce reforms because he can still rule by fiat. In some ways, his management practices resemble those of a freewheeling CEO, rather than those of a consultative, deliberative politician. Such reforms, though far reaching, may not be irreversible nor sustainable. Second, progress has not been linear. There have been serious setbacks because of intercommunal conflicts: 620,000 Ethiopians are now displaced due to fighting in Gedeo, in the Southern region, and West Guji, in neighboring Oromia region. Nationally, more than two-million Ethiopians are internally displaced.

Knopf: As with domestic politics, Abiy has created space for a re-imagining of Ethiopia’s foreign policy. He has relentlessly shuttled around the region—in the last month alone, he has held summits in nearly every country of the Horn, twice with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki at his side, and also traveled to the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. Less clear is how these diplomatic initiatives cohere. Abiy has spoken of a new partnership among Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia as the center of gravity in the region, but it remains to be seen how such a framework would work in practice or provide a basis for defining Ethiopia’s relations with other regional actors, including Egypt, Sudan, Uganda, and the Gulf states.

The Horn of Africa is at an inflection point that will define the region’s future for a generation. The political transition in Ethiopia is a pivotal part of this, as is the developing situation in Sudan, the increasingly assertive engagement of the Gulf states in the Horn, and other developments. One thing is certain: Ethiopia is too big for its political transition to fail, and how its transition proceeds will be one of the main factors determining the stability and security of the Horn of Africa in both the near and long term.

What challenges are ahead for Ethiopia and the Abiy government?

Knopf: The security and economic situations pose the most urgent challenges. As stated above, the magnitude of the internal displacement in the last year, largely due to political violence, as well as the fact that an estimated 150,000 Ethiopians fled to war-torn Yemen are flashing red lights. There are also worrying reports of an increase in illicit arms flows to ethnic militias in various parts of the country.

As with any transition, the risks and opportunities are immense. This is particularly true in Ethiopia given the pace and scope of the transition, Prime Minister Abiy’s seemingly boundless energy and ambition, and the country’s size and complexity. As a recent headline put it, Ethiopia has been “uncorked,” and the present freedom to debate the fundamental questions of governance is a unique moment in the country’s long history.

Less clear, however, is whether there is a blueprint for answering these fundamental questions in a manner that builds an enduring consensus across Ethiopian society around important issues including the basic structure of the state and the relationship between the federal government and the regions, the relationship between the state and the economy, and the social contract. Elections alone, which are scheduled for 2020, cannot answer these questions, particularly when all aspects of the existing political culture are under debate and where the rules and norms for the peaceful contestation of power are relatively undeveloped.

For the transition to succeed, the Ethiopian government led by Abiy must transcend the country’s deep and long-standing ethnic divisions and guarantee the security of all Ethiopia’s citizens. This is no small task given the country’s size, but it is essential for maintaining the integrity of the state and for setting the country on a stable and prosperous course.

Equally important will be heading off looming economic contraction. Economic inequality and the frustration of youth, particularly in the Oromia and Amhara regions, was one of the main drivers of the protests that began in 2016 and ultimately precipitated Abiy’s ascension to power. Ethiopia must add two-million jobs per year to keep pace with population growth, a tremendous challenge under the best of circumstances.

Verjee: I’d highlight two challenges. First, the story beyond Addis Ababa matters. Tensions between the regions have the potential to overwhelm the political management capacity of the center. There are troubles, for example, between Amhara and Oromia regions, between Oromia and the Somali regions, and between Tigray and the Amhara regions. And the list goes on. Ethnic identities matter to many Ethiopians, even if the idea of ethnic fluidity—through intermarriage, for example—is well established for many people. At the same time, Abiy is tremendously popular as an individual, which offers him an historic opportunity to address these inter-regional grievances.

Second, when it comes to the elections, Abiy’s popularity could itself be a paradox. Abiy is offering the right rhetoric about genuinely committing to pluralistic, multi-party politics. Certainly, Ethiopia’s next parliament will look quite different from the current legislature, which is entirely comprised of members of the ruling coalition. There is not a single opposition representative in the body. But at the same time, Abiy enjoys the advantages of incumbency and state power. If he wins the poll overwhelmingly, snuffing out any nascent political diversity, Ethiopia may well continue to be dominated by a limited clique for years to come.

What do you see happening in the year ahead?

Verjee: How the economy is addressed will be critical. Managed well, it could buy Abiy’s government breathing space, and deliver meaningful change to many more Ethiopians. Stagnation could limit the premier’s options.

It is premature to conclude that there are no risks of a return to state repression. Even if today’s state is acting in a less authoritarian manner, perhaps it is more accurate to describe authoritarianism as evolving, rather than having permanently lifted. How the state addresses internal conflicts that have led to displacement, and which undermine the achievements of reform, will come into close focus as the 2020 elections date draws near. While many are focusing on the elections as a key milestone, even their successful conduct will not signal that a political transition is complete.

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