The Political Crisis in Ethiopia
African Studies Association Panel Discussion
3 December 2016
David H. Shinn
Adjunct Professor, Elliott School of International Affairs
George Washington University
(Davidshinn) — The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) is experiencing its most serious governance and security challenge since it took power in 1991. It dealt successfully with the Eritrean-Ethiopian war from 1998 to 2000, managed to avoid destruction during an internal party schism at the beginning of this century, and papered over a serious political crisis in the aftermath of the 2005 national elections.
The current situation is different. It is a grassroots protest movement centered in Oromia but with manifestations in other parts of the country. Unlike the 2005 post-election crisis, the protests are not being driven by opposition political parties but mostly by individuals with local grievances and, in some cases, long-standing concerns that the EPRDF does not allow sufficient space to express dissent. Today, there is less freedom of the press and openness in Ethiopia’s political system than when I served as ambassador from 1996 to 1999.
The protests in 2016 have occurred in spite of impressive economic growth and infrastructure improvements orchestrated by the EPRDF over the past fifteen years. However, this raises the question whether these achievements in the economy are benefiting the peasant farmer and urban laborer. Part of the problem is that any government, irrespective of its success in managing the economy, begins to wear out its welcome after 25 years in power. There is also the perception of growing corruption in the political system, another common characteristic of parties that remain in power for so many years.
Ethiopia’s high population growth rate, which adds each year to the population between one and two million people, also creates strains in society. The massive expansion of primary, secondary, and, especially, tertiary education, which should be considered an EPRDF success story, has led at the same time to significant youth unemployment or under employment. Even the rapidly growing economy has not been able to employ many of these young people. Each year, an estimated 600,000 Ethiopians enter the work force. That is more than the population of Luxembourg and not a whole lot less than the population of Djibouti.
The diversity and size of Ethiopia add to the governance challenges. The second most populous country in Africa, Ethiopia has some 85 ethnic groups and important religious divisions among Orthodox, Protestants, and Muslims. While religion does not seem to be a significant factor in the 2016 protests, it has contributed to outbreaks of violence in recent years. In the minds of some, ethnic federalism has played a role in the protests, although others argue that ethnic federalism is a positive force. At a minimum, it is clear that ethnic identity continues to be important in Ethiopia’s political process.
You can add to these challenges the fact that Ethiopia is undergoing a generational shift. This development has a potential positive side because the younger generation appears to be less influenced by the prejudices and shibboleths of the older generation. The question is, however, whether enough new blood can move into positions of power before the political system unravels.
The EPRDF response to the crisis so far has been largely the historical Ethiopian response of repressive security measures. The EPRDF announced in January that it would scrap the Addis Ababa master plan that called for expanding the capital into surrounding farms. This was one of the demands of the Oromo protesters but was seen by many as too little, too late. As the protests expanded, the EPRDF increased the number of detentions and arrests, announced a state of emergency in October, and then released 2,000 detainees at the end of October. A cabinet reshuffle took place at the beginning of November.
In mid-November the EPRDF acknowledged that it was still holding 11,000 persons while one of the opposition political parties claimed the number of detainees was 60,000 and deaths had reached 1,500 over the past year. The response to the protests by the EPRDF has been piecemeal, erratic, and disjointed.
All of these issues are exacerbated by several cultural characteristics that I believe are common in the Ethiopian highlands. The concept of compromise appears to be nearly anathema to highlanders. There is a tendency to believe that you must be 100 percent for a position and, if not, you are by definition against it. There is little or no middle ground. This makes it exceedingly difficult to resolve differences. The EPRDF leadership also operates under a high degree of secrecy. There is little transparency in the decision-making process. This contributes to miscalculations by those who mistakenly interpret what the EPRDF is doing.