In Ethiopia, political prisoners are free and the security services revamped. Women now comprise half the cabinet, and serve as ceremonial head of state, chief justice, and chair of the electoral commission. Significant steps have been taken toward resolving a 20-year conflict with neighboring Eritrea and reforms to unleash the economy—already one of Africa’s fastest growing—are ostensibly on the way. Elections are slated for next year. Under Abiy Ahmed, the nation’s popular new prime minister, Ethiopia is changing in ways long desired by American policymakers, agreed four former U.S. ambassadors to the country. Yet the most the U.S. is likely to do is offer encouragement and a bit of support, they said.

From left to right: USIP’s Aly Verjee; Amb. David Shinn, Amb. Aurelia Brazil, Amb. Marc Baas, and Amb. Donald Booth at USIP.
From left to right: USIP’s Aly Verjee; Amb. David Shinn, Amb. Aurelia Brazil, Amb. Marc Baas, and Amb. Donald Booth at USIP.

In the past 15 months, Abiy has introduced a “blitzkrieg of reforms,” said Johnnie Carson, the U.S. Institute of Peace senior advisor on Africa, in remarks opening the ambassadors’ discussion at the Institute. After 25 years of rule by the coalition of parties known as the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the 42-year old reformist politician has lifted the state of emergency under which it governed and promised to break up and privatize the inefficient state-owned holding companies that strangled Ethiopia’s economy, Carson said.

Despite the positive trends, the ambassadors, whose experience in Ethiopia spanned more than 20 years, concurred with Carson that history in the ethnically divided country has not been erased. The concerns for the future include the possibility that Abiy’s reforms are exacerbating communal tensions, whether the pace of transition is faster than the public can absorb and whether the country is capable of conducting free, fair and peaceful elections in 2020, he said.

Many of the themes implicated in the current round of reforms confronted Ethiopia during the ex-ambassadors’ service in the country, said Aly Verjee, the discussion’s moderator—democratization, elections, economic reforms, political restructuring, federalism, and relations with Eritrea.

“This is not to say Ethiopia faces an exact replica of the past,” said Verjee, a USIP visiting expert in the politics of East Africa. “But it is instructive to see how they, and the United States, dealt with these issues.”

Ethiopian Experience

To illustrate the complexity of Ethiopia, Verjee asked the ex-diplomats what they wish they had known before taking their posts in Addis Ababa and what they learned on the ground.

For Marc Bass, who arrived in 1991, just weeks after the communist regime of dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam was overthrown by the EPRDF, it was the depth of ethnic identity in regions that are “more like nation states.” The intensity of the divisions created a “zero sum politics where if you get something, I lose something.” Aurelia Brazeal, the ambassador from 2002-2005, said getting to know the Ethiopian diaspora would have helped with her mission, given the ex-patriates’ role in the country. As for surprises, David Shinn, who became ambassador in 1996, said he found “compromise came very hard to highlanders on both sides of the [Ethiopia-Eritrea] border. You just have to accept that.”

While Washington shows little interest in Africa at the moment, there are a few things the U.S. might do, realistically, over the next 12 to 18 months to aid the country’s democratic transition, Shinn said. It would start with moral and financial support for institutions that promote democracy including a free press, the electoral commission (which other donor countries are eager to assist) and civil society. The U.S. might also offer technical advice on moving quickly to replace the 2007 census with a new one to apportion representation, Shinn said.

“These are relatively small contributions to the problem,” he said. “In the final analysis the fix has to be Ethiopian.”

Election Prospects

While Shinn said he is far from convinced the country will be ready for elections on any level next year, neither can they be indefinitely put off. Hopeful signs include that Abiy is not using a weakening EPRDF to manipulate the electorate, said Donald Booth, who served from 2010-2013. Brazeal noted that the population is more literate than it was in 2005—the only previous competitive, if disputed, election in Ethiopia’s 2,000-year history—and much better informed through social media. Remote regions once virtually cut off from outside communications are now connected, Bass said. In addition, Abiy, who still rules by fiat, has promoted press freedom, a shift that the former diplomats agreed should help foster a more open electoral process.

The vigorous involvement of U.S., NGO and other national and international observers and mediators helped dampen violence and limit breakdown in the system in 2005, said Brazeal, the ambassador at the time. It did not restrain subsequent arrests, detentions and exiles, however. The EPDRF had been jolted by its failures in the election and was determined not to be surprised again, she said. “I don’t know if they’ve evolved,” she said. “I hope so.”

A Booming Economy

On the economic front, Ethiopia has indisputably evolved. Its broad-based growth is the fastest in the region, averaging 10.3 percent a year from 2006-2017 compared to a regional average of 5.4 percent, according to the World Bank. Still, the country’s approximately 105 million people—the second biggest population in Africa after Nigeria—remain among the continent’s poorest, with a per capita income of $783.

Lifting the country economically became the single-minded focus of Meles Zenawi and the EPDRF after they won elections in 2010 and felt securely in control, said Booth, the U.S. ambassador from 2010 to 2013. Their argument, Booth said, was that they needed one-party control to promote growth and create the middle class critical to developing a liberal democracy. They took the opportunity to mobilize the country to do something unthinkable in the past—build a dam on the Blue Nile with only Ethiopia’s own resources.

Structural Problems

Despite the growth, the economy still faces structural problems tied to the political system, Booth said. There are too many state-owned enterprises, too much involvement by the military through entities such as the Defense Forces-owned Metals and Engineering Corporation—which the government is now trying to break up—and massive projects by the sugar corporation that are huge money losers. Yet privatization faces a huge obstacle: No foreigner will invest in Ethiopian enterprises for domestic sales if they have no foreign exchange to repatriate profits. The ban on operation by foreign banks is a big disincentive for Western and Chinese companies, he said.

Further, the lack of industrial infrastructure creates the kind of difficulties Booth said a Turkish textile manufacturer had described to him: He had to bring in tradesmen to build the plant, import all his machinery, build a cardboard box plant for shipping and create his own bus system to get production workers to their jobs.

Perhaps the U.S. could provide some ideas on how to free the economy from monopolies and oligopolies, foster competition and allow Ethiopian entrepreneurship to flourish, Booth said.

“Today we see Abiy making all these changes and most of them we really like.” he said. “But we have to be a little cautious about how much advice they’ll take from outsiders. They are going to do it their own way.”

The former ambassadors touched on other topics critical to Ethiopia’s future:

On Rising Ethnic Tensions

Abiy’s steps to expand press freedom, free political prisoners, and give civil society and NGOs more latitude are positive, Shinn said, but it can also “take the lid off of the pot,” allowing tensions previously repressed by the security forces and government to boil over. At the local level particularly, ethnic relationships are getting out of control, creating conflict without regard to what the central government is doing or can do about it, he said. “Local and regional nationalism is rearing its head” in parts of the country, Booth added. Even some regional governments in the country’s federated system lack control over all of their territory, he said.

On the Peace Agreement with Eritrea

Abiy’s quick move to end hostile relations with Eritrea by ceding disputed territory is widely viewed as his most important foreign policy initiative. Its significance for the future is unclear however, Bass said. Eritrea’s leader Isaias Afwerki, who Bass dealt with frequently, is erratic and hard to predict.

From Isaias’s point of view, Abiy has sent “the hated Tigrayans off into exile,” Booth said, referring to the ethnic group that had dominated Ethiopia’s government, making him more open to rapprochement. But the border is closed again, he said, after tens of thousands of Eritreans crossed into Ethiopia, threatening to “empty the gulag” of one of the world’s most repressive regimes. While Isaias has improved his international standing, “maybe Abiy got played,” Booth speculated. Landlocked Ethiopia ideally wants access to Eritrean ports, but who will invest in roads, railroads and port development in a country where the leader might shut it all down over a perceived slight, he asked. As welcome as the peace deal is, it may not be the end of tensions between the two countries.

On Ethiopian Demographics

“Demographics is the future that has already happened,” Brazeal said. With 43 percent of its population less than 15 years old, an urbanizing Ethiopia faces the urgent need to create millions of jobs annually, she said. Brazeal said she has been working on starting an American university in Africa, situated in Addis Ababa. It is critical to educate people for jobs in a changing economy as opportunities for emigration shrink, curtailing a long running trend in Ethiopia.

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