Race to the Bottom: Ethiopia’s Accelerating Crisis

An economy in free fall, ever-deepening repression, a deteriorating security, inter-ethnic violence, and a vicious infighting within the ruling party – Ethiopia is on the cusp of political explosion.

Ethiopia has largely been seen in Western capitals and think tanks as “an Island of stability in a troubled region”. Within the last two years, however, it has become a country that is teetering on the brink of a bottomless abyss. According to the 2017 Fragile States Index by the US think thank Fund for Peace, Ethiopia is the 15th most fragile state in the world, down from 24th in 2016. And also according to the forthcoming 2018 Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Transformation Index (BTI), which evaluates and analyses the political, economic, and governance transformations of 129 developing countries, Ethiopia is on a downward trend. It ranks 113th on the state of political and economic transformation, down from 111th in 2016. What are the reasons for the sharp increase in the vulnerability of the state to collapse?

Since the sudden demise of its all too powerful Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, in 2012, the country has been in tumult, unable to deal with the political crisis generated by escalating levels of ethnic discontent, violent political repression, and crippling economic conditions. A strategic thinker known for being duplicitous, savage, and decisive, Zenawi was a master manipulator with an absolute grip on the country’s political and economic policies. His successor, Hailemariam Desalegn, had neither the adept strategic maneuvre nor the far-reaching control Zenawi had over the party, the state, and the military and security apparatus.

Nation-wide protests

Already during the Zenawi leadership Ethiopians poured into the streets to demand that the government respects its own Constitution, end repression, and respect human rights. The Muslim community began protesting in December 2011 demanding religious freedom and an end to the government’s intervention in the affairs of their religion. In November 2015, the Oromos, the largest ethnic group in the country who make up around 40% of the population, started one of the most consequential protests, essentially redefining the terms of engagement between the state and society. In July 2016, the Amharas, the second largest ethnic group in the country, joined the protest, intensifying the pressure against the government.

Although the nature of the grievances and the demands of these protest movements are not exactly the same, these protests were essentially reflections of decades of humiliation and hopelessness by their respective communities, exacerbated by the government’s contempt to long overdue questions of representation, autonomy, equality, and justice.

The government’s brutal response – complete with a show of force – was to securitize the demands and denigrate protestors as terrorists and anti-peace elements – a common tactic used by the Ethiopian government to justify violent suppression of peaceful opposition. As a consequence the tone and substance of the conversations on the Ethiopian streets suddenly shifted, with protestors demanding a radical transformation of the system. The ruling party has become the symbol of national decay and bankrupt hopes. Shaken to its core, it declared a state of emergency on December 8, 2016, to reassert control. By the time the emergency lifted, in August 2017, more than a thousand people were killed and tens of thousands detained.

Rupture of Ruling Coalition

The ruling party, Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a coalition of four unequal ethnic based parties, is on the brink of unraveling. Alarmed by the pace of changes sweeping the political landscape and the central government’s increasing strategic and tactical incompetence, some of its members are beginning to publicly contradict each other, a rupture that marked a make or break moment for the party and the government. EPRDF is a vassal configuration held together through ideological machinations and a range of repressive tactics. Its members are The Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF), The Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO), The Amhara National Democratic Movement, and The Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement.

The most dominant mother party, TPLF, used the vassals to bolster its legitimacy and squelch opposition from autonomous parties. While the vassal parties were allowed a measure of autonomy on internal matters, the mother party ensured the durability of the vassal configuration by ensuring that vassal parties do not build a social capital and internal party infrastructure that will one day allow it to free itself from this titular arrangement.

Since the death of Meles Zenawi, the vassal configuration has been in tatters, as former vassals began to assert themselves and demand a fair and equal distribution of political power within the party and the state. This is particularly evident within the Oromia regional state, where the governing party, the OPDO, has been publicly expressing its disenchantment with the status quo.

The Violence on the Eastern Front

Elements within the TPLF who saw the OPDO as the greatest threat to their power turned to sabotage to reassert control of the vassal that is abandoning them to side with their sizable constituency. According to several sources, the violence along the border between Oromia and Ethiopian Somali regional state, while executed by Liyu Police, a paramilitary force with a dubious mandate, was indeed, instigated by TPLF generals. The border conflict has claimed the lives of hundreds and displaced more than half a million people.

For over a decade now, the government has been hiding behind the rhetoric of national security and narrative of development to shut down critical conversations of considerable political significance. These narratives have run out of steam and no longer provide the cement capable of holding together the crumbling social and political fabric in the country.

The country is on the verge of explosion and the government has now reached a turning point. It faces a choice between opening up the political process and tumbling into the abyss. The West also faces a choice between supporting an all-inclusive transition or the complete unraveling of a geopolitically significant state with a colossal repercussion for its people and the region.

Indeed, some diplomats with extensive experience of the country and the region have been moving away from the morally and politically questionable position they supported and defended for over two decades. Ambassador Herman J. Cohen, former US Assistant Secretary of States, who played a key part in the last political transition in Ethiopia, recently called on the government to “seriously consider requesting US Government mediation to organize a conference among all parties that will produce new democratic dispensation – before law and order collapse completely”.

Western governments who have been criticizing the government in private and behind closed-doors must take their criticisms a step further and demand concrete action. Most of all, they must demand that the government stops instigating inter-ethnic violence, release all political prisoners, listen to the plight of its people, and take radical steps to halt the race to the bottom.



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