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Ethiopia’s Democratic Challenge

Updated: Apr 16, 2020

Editors’ note: In our second post on Ethiopia and the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, guest blogger, Doreen Gordon, provides a rich analysis of the democratic challenge currently facing Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.


Ethiopia – a country in the Horn of Africa known for its ethnic and religious diversity – is regarded by many scholars as “never colonized,” despite Italy’s occupation of the country from 1936-1941, which did not result in the establishment of a lasting colonial administration. Today, Ethiopia has emerged as the second-most populous nation in Africa after Nigeria, with one of the fastest-growing economies in the region. However, poverty, political corruption and repression, insecurity and ethnic conflict have threatened to undo important gains made in recent years. Yet – amid the grim global events of recent times – the world received the hopeful news that the Nobel Peace Prize has been bestowed on Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, for his efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation. As Ethiopia appears to move along the path of democratic transition, how the country responds to the challenge of popular mobilization will be an important factor in determining what happens in the future.

The violent crackdown of protests in 2015 and 2016 in Ethiopia have not vanished from memory. Protesters demanded a range of things - including an end to human rights abuses, land reform, the release of political prisoners, a fairer distribution of wealth, and open discussion of the government’s master plan for the expansion of Addis Ababa, the capital city. More recently, news coverage briefly focused on the mass protests, which led to the resignation of Ethiopia’s former Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, who led the country from 2012 during a difficult political period. Attention quickly shifted to his replacement, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Assuming the post in April 2018, Abiy Ahmed quickly cast himself as a democratic reformer, though he was supported by the long-standing ruling coalition. He has accomplished much in a very short time amidst complex challenges. One major issue is ethnic federalism, which is enshrined in Ethiopia’s constitution, which has proved to be challenging for moving forward.

Constitutionally, Ethiopia is a federal democratic state although, in practice, it is dominated by one political coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (henceforth, EPRDF), made up of four parties. The 1994 Constitution, introduced by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and the EPRDF governing coalition, recast the country from a centrally unified republic to a federation of nine regional ethnic states and two federally administered city-states. In this context, key rights are not based on Ethiopian citizenship but on being considered ethnically indigenous in constituent ethnic states. This situation has, at times, been likened to South Africa’s Bantustans (1) by Opposition parties.

Ethnic federalism has some inconsistencies. For example, Ethiopia’s census lists more than ninety ethnic groups, but there are only nine ethnically defined regional assemblies with rights for the officially designated majority ethnic group. Furthermore, such ethnic groups do not live only in a bounded “homeland” territory but are dispersed across the country. Ethnic federalism unleashed a struggle among the three main ethnic groups for political supremacy – the Tigray, the Amhara, and the Oromo. Since the 1991 revolution in Ethiopia, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front has been at the helm. Before that, the Amhara dominated, and the Omoro, the largest ethnic group in the country, complained of being treated like subordinate minorities. On the other hand, many Ethiopian ethnic groups have traditions which that may offer more satisfactory and culturally acceptable foundations for a “sovereignty of the people,” through time- honoured ways of voicing political ideals, observations, and vital interests. These practices may offer viable political and social alternatives to a concept of democracy that reflects European philosophies.

One of Abiy Ahmed’s most notable achievements is that he has brought 20 years of conflict with neighbouring Eritrea to an end. The history of the Ethiopia-Eritrea war is dark and bloody as the countries waged a vicious battle over land, politics, and ideology. Eritrea and Ethiopia previously had deep ties, but when war first broke out in 1998, families spanning both sides of the border found themselves split apart by violence. The conflict cut off most travel, communication, and trade. An estimated 80,000 died in the first two years of conflict, and the war drained significant amounts of wealth from both countries. Shortly after taking office, Abiy Ahmed initiated a peace process in June 2018, handing over a disputed border town to Eritrea. A few weeks later, Abiy Ahmed and the Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki declared an end to the war and re-opened crossing points, allowing for trade and travel.

However, peace has moved slowly in Ethiopia, and it is not perfect. Abiy Ahmed’s transformative politics, while well-received, have also led to increased ethnic mobilization for justice and equality. His tenure as Prime Minister has been rocked by eruptions of ethnic violence. In a significant effort to reconcile Ethiopia’s past and overcome ongoing ethnic competition, he has invested in an expensive project called Unity Park – which originated from a nineteenth-century palace that belonged to Ethiopia’s Menelik 11. According to an official statement from the Prime Minister’s office, Unity Park is supposed to be a manifestation of the “Medemer” idea (which means “political thought”), inviting Ethiopians to take stock of their positive capital from the past and build on it for future generations. This kind of vision and symbolic practice is important for a leader governing in a context where ethnic division and conflict are never far.

Abiy Ahmed’s most significant promise is his commitment to reforms in Ethiopia. He started off ending his country’s state of emergency, welcomed back opposition leaders in exile, freed political prisoners and fired the Head of the prison system, over allegations of torture. More recently, Abiy Ahmed announced a merger of three of the four ethnically-based parties in the governing coalition, insisting that this is crucial to a shared vision for the country. However, some of the reforms, including those ending crackdowns on speech, have unleased tensions and resulted in tens of thousands being displaced. Indeed, Ethiopia’s transition away from authoritarianism has unleashed peoples’ dissatisfactions and frustrations that had long been crushed by the ruling party. Ethiopians have increasingly formed themselves into non-governmental organizations, and advocacy groups representing political and social alternatives and an independent press has slowly been taking shape. Social media has also grown in popularity, opening spaces for debating ideas (though it has also allowed for a proliferation of hate speech). These developments have the potential to give voice to the “view from below” and could lead to more genuine participation of Ethiopians in democratic decision making. Hopefully, Abiy Ahmed will find ways to address the causes of citizens’ anger without repressive measures. Foreign countries can continue to offer praise for reforms but also need to ask the difficult questions about how Abiy Ahmed will address inter-ethnic rivalries and remedy underlying issues.



(1) Bantustans (also known as Bantu homelands, black states, or simply homelands) were territories that were set aside for black South Africans and inhabitants of South West Africa (now Namibia), as part of the policy of apartheid. According to the Bantu Homelands Citizenship Act of 1970, blacks were stripped of their South African citizenship - which deprived them of their few remaining political and civil rights in South Africa - and made them citizens of their designated homelands. The Bantustans were abolished with the end of apartheid.



Doreen Gordon is a lecturer at the department of sociology, psychology and social work at the University of the West Indies. She was a Linnaeus-Palme exchange scholar at the School of Global Studies in 2018.


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