After anti-government protests erupted two years ago, Ethiopia’s government adopted its traditional approach to dealing with dissent: hundreds of people were killed in clashes with security forces, tens of thousands were detained and a state of emergency was imposed.
But the unrest continued to fester and has escalated in the five months since emergency rule was lifted, once more threatening the stability of the nation and the prospects of one of Africa’s best-performing economies.
Now the rattled government is trying a different tactic — making conciliatory gestures to those who oppose its autocratic rule.
Hailemariam Desalegn, the prime minister, announced last week that the government would release political prisoners and close a notorious prison as the first steps in a process to “foster national reconciliation”.
Analysts say the highly unusual measure was prompted by a belated realisation in the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front that the unrest posed a serious threat to its 26-year hold on power. But the way the crisis has been handled also exposes unprecedented cracks in the unity of the four-party ruling coalition.
“The EPRDF has always had divisions but it’s been very insular and everything has been contained,” says Ahmed Salim, an analyst at Teneo Intelligence. “For the first time we’re seeing some of these machinations play out publicly because of the anti-government protests.”
The decision to release prisoners, which was has yet to be implemented, was taken by the EPRDF’s 36-member executive committee at a 17-day retreat last month.
In a rare bout of self-criticism, the executive committee blamed the crisis on poor leadership at all levels of the coalition and a lack of democracy.
The EPRDF controls all the seats in parliament and all the main opposition parties have been outlawed or emasculated, the country has few independent civil society organisations and the media is muzzled.
The committee concluded that while “on the one hand . . . the situation of our country is delightful”, according to an official translation of a press release, “the conflicts being ensued in different parts of the country . . . posed serious danger to our national survival”.
The “conflicts” erupted in 2015 over opposition to government plans to expand the capital, Addis Ababa. They escalated into a more general anti-government movement as discontent rose, particularly in the Oromia and Amhara regions, where people complain about decades of marginalisation by the ruling Tigrayan elite.
Ethiopia’s prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn said the move to free prisoners would ‘foster national reconciliation’ © AP
More recently, the protests have centred on clashes between people in Oromia and the Somali federal state, prompting fears among analysts that the unrest could become increasingly ethnic.
“It’s a realisation by the [EPRDF], perhaps a little too late, that they need to shift course in their approach to the growing anti-government sentiment,” Mr Salim says. “It’s a tacit acceptance they’ve got it all wrong.”
After its meeting, the EPRDF committee expressed “its earnest remorse for putting the ongoing quarter century [of]development in jeopardy”.
Over the past decade, Ethiopia, an impoverished nation of 100m, has recorded average economic growth of more than 8 per cent, while attracting billions of dollars in foreign investment as it positioned itself as a centre of low-cost manufacturing.
Awol Allo, an Ethiopian political analyst at Keele University in the UK, describes the prisoner announcement as a “major step in the right direction for the EPRDF”.
However, activists’ long-held scepticism of the regime’s reform promises would remain until there was tangible progress, he says.
Arguably the greater threat to the coalition’s survival comes not from the streets but from within its ranks, he says, particularly the Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organisation and Amhara National Democratic Movement parties.
“These parties are becoming increasingly vocal and demanding greater democracy,” he says.
The Oromo and Amhara ethnic groups account for more than 60 per cent of the population, but the EPRDF is dominated by the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front.
Tigrayans comprise only 6 per cent of the population but the TPLF led the armed struggle that in 1991 toppled Mengistu Haile Mariam’s dictatorship.
The fourth party in the EPRDF is the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement, which is led by Mr Hailemariam, the prime minister
Mr Salim says the EPRDF is “clearly not united” but that it is premature to predict what will happen. “Complete collapse is the most unlikely scenario but they’re experiencing threats that are existential,” he says.
The coalition’s challenge is to find a balance between survival and satisfying demands for change, says Befeqadu Hailu, a prominent Ethiopian blogger.
“If the EPRDF does real reform and introduces proper democracy it will perish, because it’s created so many grievances in every citizen’s head it will either split or be voted out,” he says. “But if it doesn’t do reform, the crisis will get worse.”
Source: Financial Times