Protestors celebrate the release of political prisoners (OPride.com)
Ethiopia has a new Prime Minister. His name is Abiy Ahmed Ali. He was sworn in on 2nd April. His predecessor, Hailemariam Desalegn, resigned on 15th February. He gave as his reason the desire to open up the political space to greater participation, saying his resignation was key to the bid “to carry out reforms that would lead to sustainable peace and democracy.”
A month before, he had approved the release of over 6000 political prisoners. Most of them – musicians, bloggers, journalists and ordinary citizens – had been arrested during a 10 month state of emergency that ended in August 2017. The cause for their arrest was a drawn-out protest movement that began in November 2015 and only ended early this year.
Most of the protests were centred in Oromiya, the large crescent-shaped state that is the heartland of the Oromo people. Parts of Amhara, the home of the Amhara people, also took part in the protests. The protestors’ demands were that the government should “open up political space, allow dissent, and tolerate different perspectives.”
At about 35 million, the Oromo constitute the largest ethnic group in Ethiopian. The Amhara, at about 27 million, are the second largest. Together, they account for almost two-thirds of all Ethiopians. One would expect that, with such an overwhelming majority, they would be firmly in control of state power without resorting to civil action.
It is a queer thing therefore that it is that these self-same groups, especially the Oromo, that bore the grievances that drove the protests, provided the mass of the protestors, and stood to gain the most from the success of the protests. To find out why, it is instructive to look back at how the whole situation started off.
The Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) came to power in 1991, after overthrowing the regime of Mengitsu Haile Mariam. Mengitsu’s near 20-year rule, which started with the communist Derg (the Provisional Military Government of Socialist Ethiopia), had been characterised by gross human rights violations. He was only driven out once the Cold War ended, taking with it the support the Derg had received from more powerful communist countries.
The EPRDF is a coalition of four ethnic-based political parties. These are the Oromo Peoples' Democratic Organization (OPDO), the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM), the Southern Ethiopian People's Democratic Movement (SEPDM) and the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF). It came to power promising to end the autocracy of Mengitsu.
Yet, in the 27 years since then, the benefits of economic growth have flowed mostly north, to the Tigray, the six million strong ethnic group behind the TPLF. The party, through a cleverly-devised system, retained the greatest influence in the coalition. The only transfer of power took place after Meles Zenawi, the first Prime Minister under EPRDF rule and a Tigray, died in 2012.
The Oromiya region, which entirely surrounds the capital Addis Ababa, started to grow restive. That spark that set off the protests came at the end of 2015, when a master plan for the capital sought to expand the city into surrounding Oromo farmlands.
The brutal response of the security forces and the first state of emergency, which resulted in hundreds of deaths and the aforementioned mass incarcerations, could not quell the protests. As the protestors got nearer and nearer to the capital, the country seemed set up for a bloody showdown.
Then, in January and February of 2018, Hailemariam Desalegn, who took over as Prime Minister in 2012 released scores of political prisoners and tendered his resignation. Never having really been in control – being instead a placeholder as elite coalition doyens waited for the 2020 election to take back the reins – Hailemariam caught everyone by surprise. He forced their hand. Now the country needed a new Prime Minister.
Sensing a crack in the wall, the protestors became more insistent. They surged towards the capital. The next day, another state of emergency was imposed. It has resulted in over 1000 arrests so far (including some of the newly-released prisoners). But it, like the first, had no effect on the resolve of the protestors.
Hunkered down in the corridors of power, the members of the EPRDF coalition must have realised they had to deliver a Prime Minister that, even if he did not represent real change, would symbolise one. This is perhaps the biggest reason why Abiy Ahmed was nominated by the coalition on 27th March to be its Chairman and the country’s Prime Minister; and confirmed by the Parliament on 31st March.
Abiy is an Oromo. The son of a Muslim father and a Christian mother, he will be the first Oromo to lead the country since the overthrow of Mengitsu. Much has been made of it, and it does means a lot indeed. The 42-year-old Abiy also knows it. He has deftly stepped into his role as the bridge into a new, more politically open and representative Ethiopia.
In his speech after being confirmed by the Ethiopian Parliament, he played into this symbolism, proclaiming, “…we have been given so many opportunities at different junctures to chart a new political beginning. Many of them passed… This… is another historical opportunity to start a new chapter. Therefore, it is important that we make use of it appropriately with the spirit of utmost responsibility.”
But it is his ability to deliver real change – including to the lopsided structure of the EPRDF – that will actually define his legacy. And this will depend a lot on the trust he earns from the protestors, who played as big a role in his ascension as the EPRDF itself.
The protestors have learnt the power of insistent protest. They are now more than ready to use it again to push for the resolution of their grievances. Many of them are cautiously optimistic, and have signalled their willingness to give Abiy a chance.
He better take it and use it well. For, in the words of one of the protestors in reaction to Abiy’s confirmation, “It does not mean that we have now gained freedom, just because he is an Oromo. We young people want a fundamental change, and if that does not happen we Qeerroo (Oromo word meaning youth) will rise up again.”
Mathew Otieno writes from Nairobi, Kenya.