Ethiopia is Africa’s wobbly giant

Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (centre) welcomes Eritrea's President Isaias Afwerki upon his arrival at the airport in Gondar, for a visit in Ethiopia, on November 9, 2018.

Photo credit: Photo | Eduardo Soteras / AFP

What you need to know:

  • Ethiopia is an African giant in many respects.
  • But some of the policies that are being pursued by its current leadership, promising and applauded as they were initially, might actually prove to be a threat to its national security and stability.
  • Critics say that ethnic federalism was not genuinely designed to dispense power to all the regions but was meant to consolidate power in the hands of the federal government.
  • Ethiopia might just wither the challenges of developmental and democratic reforms, but only if it recognises that politics is almost always local.

The Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia has demonstrated its resourcefulness, resilience and dominance in the Horn of Africa. Despite numerous challenges facing it, be it the stories about its Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), the diplomatic row over it with Egypt, which have recently dominated the news headlines, or the security threats in its Oromia, Tigray and Somali regions, Ethiopia remains the envy of neighbors on numerous counts.

But some of the policies that are being pursued by its current leadership, promising and applauded as they were initially, might actually prove to be a threat to its national security and stability. The uncertainty surrounding the future of “ethnic federalism,” the suspicion surrounding the federal government’s commitment to full implementation of a reform programme, and the insistence on holding parliamentary elections in 2021, despite the fears that holding these elections before conducting a census, necessary for redistricting, could inflame ethnic competition. The country’s major political parties are also ethnic based and such competition could undermine the developmental and democratic gains of the past few years.

Ethiopia draws its power from being the second-most populated country on the continent and also from its 162,000-member strong active duty military force, the size and steady growth of its economy, its people’s industriousness and a history of political leadership that has had relative success in instilling in their people a sense of collective Ethiopian identity and national pride. But the ambitious reform agenda that the country’s 10th Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, has introduced since 2018, has concurrently raised expectations that he cannot deliver on and have revealed a degree of reluctance about the reform programme. This has betrayed either a lack of confidence in the reforms that were announced and started or a resistance by the elite power base.

Ethiopia is as ethnically diverse as the rest of black Africa, but although many of its regions have always expressed dissatisfaction with the way the central government has perfunctorily included them in the corridors of power and development services along ethnic or regional lines, there is no mistaking their pride in Ethiopia, often expressed in songs and by glorification of its name, even by regions most critical of its government. It also has the advantage of a uniquely long history of literacy in a local language, Amharic, which symbolises a degree of unity among many of its people and a source of strong connection to its roots, unlike the cultural dislocation that colonialism has fashioned in much of the rest of Africa.

Serious problems

However, Ethiopia is beset by serious problems that threaten its stability, its unity and cohesion. For example, while its massive population has been its most important asset, its most valuable resource, it is also a liability in terms of general discontent with the country’s ability to provide equitable services to all of them, to meet the needs of the many youth and rural poor who are flocking to the cities in ever larger numbers. Climate change, land degradation, landlessness and lack of basic services, are all pushing massive and unsustainable urbanisation, complete with all its attendant complications of congestion, housing problems, poor public health services and unemployment.

The federal government has tried its best to improve urban infrastructure, partly thanks to Chinese investments, and has provided low-income housing, affordable public transit system and expanded tertiary education, including the creation of 11 new universities in the past five years alone. But this is not likely to tackle poverty, the biggest problem facing the country, with over 22 million people living below the national poverty line. Also, it has not kept pace with the influx of young and poor people to the city, and Addis Ababa, the capital, is plagued by the usual problems that confront African metropolis like crime, inadequate water supply, especially into the sprawling high-rise structures in the suburbs. This has made for a restive population, both in federal regions and in Addis Ababa, and will most likely become new threats to the peace that the country has enjoyed in varying degrees since the war with Eritrea (1998-2000).

But the biggest threat to Ethiopia’s stability in the near future is its system of governance itself. Its “ethnic federal” system has produced mixed results and sentiments, just as the country’s leadership that is managing this system does not seem entirely convinced that it is the most effective way to administer such a vast and diverse country. There is the dilemma of pursuing ethnic federalism more vigorously at the risk of keeping the Ethiopians divided and defined by ethnicity and not by what is common between most or all of them, or phasing it out over time at the risk of the regions protesting their return to stringent controls that Addis Ababa imposes on regional governments. There are no straight answers to this dilemma, but it remains the one thing that could lead Ethiopia down the path of regional rebellions, if the country does not weigh these options with care.

Critics say that ethnic federalism was not genuinely designed to dispense power to all the regions but was primarily a mechanism for consolidation of power in the hands of the federal government by creating in the regions a loyal clientele out of state governments, but remaining unable to resolve the fundamental governance issues such as equitable resource sharing between the states. Ethnic federalism was the brainchild of the late Meles Zenawi, the 8th Prime Minister, who managed and implemented it with a combination of an iron fist and ideological developmental persuasion of the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). The system has never been challenged in a way similar to what we have seen since Mr Ahmed came to power in April 2018.

Unprecedented energy

Mr Ahmed came with unprecedented energy to change things, perhaps owing that to his Pentecostal faith, with an ambitious reform agenda, which saw him free up civic spaces almost unknown in Ethiopia’s recent past, releasing jailed journalists, turning the old imperial palace into a culture park and museum, and offering an olive branch to Eritrea’s Isaias Afwerki to end the war between the two sisterly countries. And above all, he was applauded for forming a cabinet with a gender balance, giving half of all ministerial portfolios to women. For the first time in Ethiopia’s history, women took the top security posts, including the ministry of defense and ministry of peace, which oversees the federal police, the intelligence services and the information security agency and has taken the lead in tackling much of the ethnic unrest that keeps cropping up in different regions of the country since the reforms started. How long these actions can last or how fast they will materialise as part of a stabilising agenda is as good as predicting their capacity to cause an implosion in the country, be it along ethnic-based political parties, religious confrontation or rural rebellions.

Ethiopia, however, is not just a regional power to reckon with. Although it has found itself in a struggle for dominance in the Horn and East African regional affairs, particularly against Kenya, it has also exhibited leadership within the regional trade bloc, the Inter-Governmental Agency on Development (IGAD), especially on matters of peace-making and peace-keeping in South Sudan and in the African Union’s efforts to combat Islamic militant group, al-Shabab, in Somalia. In reading both the domestic and regional dynamics, Ethiopia might just wither the challenges of developmental and democratic reforms, but only if it recognises that politics is almost always local, and so long as ethnic groups remain the strongest fall back position for citizens when the state fails to protect them, the country cannot afford an empty talk of ethnic federalism.


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