A state of emergency was declared in Ethiopia on the 16th February, following the resignation of the Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, a day earlier.
The Ethiopian government gave an explanation for the state of emergency stating three major reasons for declaring a state of emergency; to ensure peace and political stability, to respond to the resignation of the prime minister, to facilitate a peaceful transition of power.
Unsurprisingly, and somewhat characteristically for Africa recently, the country’s leader resigned after his position became untenable following a string of more recent and widely publicised protests.
The outbreak of protests in August 2016 – called for by the leaders of opposition groups – was a reaction to a regime that had proven itself as both violent and repressive. The Ethiopian government vindicated those protesters in reacting violently; killing more than 500 people in the process. Yet the current political crisis in Ethiopia has roots anchored as far back as 2005 when a police massacre of peaceful protesters inspired a wave of fury amongst amongst the Ethiopian people.
Since then a series of other protests have broken out across the country in which protesters continue to be gunned down by their government, in a simply unsustainable situation.
Perhaps the most dangerous element of the political upheaval is its tribal feature. It has almost become a tired trope to speak of tribalism in African political conflict, but we cannot underestimate the prominence of tribalism in this particular case and many others across the continent. Ethiopian political life is dominated by the Tigrayan’s People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), who make up the bulk of the ruling coalition party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). Yet the Tigray are one of the smallest ethnic groups in Ethiopia, representing roughly 6% of the population.
This has been a contributing factor to the uprising. First the Oroma people voiced their discontent over economic marginalisation, political disenfranchisement and the government’s willingness to displace communities to satisfy their own needs. This was closely followed by an outcry from the second largest ethnic group, the Amhara. It must be borne in mind that Ethiopia is a country of around 100 million people and 80 different dialects; finding a ethnically-based political system which does not heavily discriminate against one group or another can make splitting constituency boundaries look like splitting atoms.
The decision to enact a state of emergency has been endorsed by the UN, hinting that the government’s decision is not entirely unreasonable. This is not what the opposition will want to hear, but it is a consideration worth heeding. It has been reported that the Ethiopian diaspora located in various countries has had some hand in stoking the tensions that have led to many of the protests. More sinister, it has been argued that the diaspora’s involvement has inspired tension between ethnic groups. It’s scarily easy to see how this could spill over into real violence, particularly against the ordinary Tigrays, in danger of being scapegoated for the hardships that the larger ethnic groups face.
The government have signalled their intention to choose a new Prime Minister next week. The 180-member council of the ruling EPRDF will decide on who the new PM should be, said Kassahun Gofi, publicity chief for the largest of the coalition parties, the Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organisation (OPDO). Gofi continued to state that the vote is “tentatively scheduled for Wednesday.”
The next Prime Minister is set to be the recently appointed Chairman of the OPDO, Dr. Abiy Ahmed. If this does indeed turn out to be the case then arguably a large swathe of protesters have succeeded in their aims. However, the real challenge presents itself as the country seeks to move forward. The cries for democracy will only intensify and in a bid to avoid the upheaval that has occurred recently, the government will have to find a solution that makes all parties happy. The government had previously brought a ten-month state of emergency to an end following the summer 2016 protests and had dedicated themselves to cultivating a more open and democratic society. We can only hope that this crisis will follow an identical pattern minus any major obstacles in the future.
One cannot blame the opposition for holding suspicion towards the government, particularly considering the government’s past behaviour. However, the government is handling a potentially very volatile situation, and for the time being the ruling elite should be given the benefit of the doubt. Realistically, the state of emergency does give them a better chance at containing any violence that may erupt in the coming weeks and months at a time when keeping the peace is critical.