Ethiopia’s democratic future is in the making with a new prime minister promising reform, while shifting attitudes in Washington over foreign policy could also influence how the prime minister goes about shaping that future.
Abiy Ahmed is widely seen as an energetic reformer – he is only 42 years old – who can take the necessary steps to calm a nation that has been engulfed in unprecedented levels of political unrest since the end of 2015. But, as everyone knows and agrees, Abiy faces numerous challenges in bringing stability back to Ethiopia and settling a discontented populace that is the second largest in Africa.
Hence the significance, shortly after his inauguration, of the adoption by the US House of Representatives on 10 April of House Resolution-128: “Supporting respect for human rights and encouraging inclusive governance in Ethiopia.”
The resolution – unusually outspoken for US public policy in its criticism of Ethiopia’s government – condemns “the killings of peaceful protesters and excessive use of force by Ethiopian security forces; the detention of journalists, students, activists, and political leaders; and the regime’s abuse of the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation to stifle political and civil dissent and journalistic freedoms.”
But despite the Ethiopian government’s angry response to the resolution, its list of criticisms could actually be good news for Abiy and his reforms. “The resolution could give Abiy a freer hand to deal more decisively with those resisting change,” says Hassen Hussein, an academic and writer based in Minnesota.
Empowered and hindered
Crucially, in terms of legitimacy, Abiy is a member of the Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation (OPDO) party, which represents the Oromo, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, who have spearheaded more than two years of protests against the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition, of which OPDO is a key member.
Abiy, the first Oromo head of government in Ethiopia, has already travelled to several areas of the country, promising to address grievances and strengthen a range of political and civil rights, impressing many. But a major problem for Abiy is the country’s second state of emergency declared in February following the last prime minister’s surprise resignation.
This could hinder Abiy in moving forward with any reform agenda, because the state of emergency reduces the new prime minister’s hold on the state security apparatus, with a group of military officers referred to as the “Command Post” effectively in control of the mechanism of the state.
Also, the historical and ongoing dominance of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in the EPRDF means Ethiopia’s new prime minister will need to deal shrewdly with members of the establishment resistant to reform or reconciliation efforts. Meanwhile, some of those following events have concerns about the sincerity of Abiy’s reformist approach.
“Abiy is a party functionary steeped in the ideology, policies and ethos of the EPRDF – perhaps he was elected to lead the party out of its current predicament,” says Alemante Gebre-Selassie, emeritus professor at the William and Mary Law School in the US. “I have my doubts whether the current public pronouncements about reform are genuine or merely intended as a ruse to weather the storm and to hoodwink the public and the international community,” he continues.
But many seem to be giving Abiy the benefit of the doubt for now, and not without reason. As an ex-army officer Abiy understands the military-security apparatus and its culture; he has a strong party mandate and public support behind him, and he comes to power at a time when those previously in charge are reviled by the populace, thereby putting him in a unique position to potentially resolve many of the country’s problems.
America takes a more critical eye
Ethiopia has long been viewed by the US as its most important ally in the volatile East African region, and hence it receives one of the US’s largest security and humanitarian aid packages among sub-Saharan African countries. This is one of the main reasons behind why the US government, while aware of well-documented problems with regards to human rights abuses, and lack of promotion of democracy, didn’t forcefully act to pressure Ethiopia’s government. Until now.
“The passage of HR-128 by the US House of Representatives without any opposition was a historical achievement,” says Tewodrose Tirfe, chair of the Amhara Association of America, a US-based advocacy group for the Amhara, Ethiopia’s second largest ethnic group. The vast sum of humanitarian aid and bilateral support that Ethiopia receives from the US is not at risk yet, Tewodrose says.
However, he notes that the US Senate is considering a partner bill, which is even stronger in its implications. Senate Resolution 168 calls on the Department of State and USAID “to improve oversight and accountability of United States assistance to Ethiopia and to ensure such assistance reinforces long-term goals for improved governance.”
Essentially, Tewodros explains, this would tie aid to improved governance and more scrutiny, because even though resolutions aren’t laws and are non-binding, if they have strong bipartisan support – like HR-128 did – coupled with the fact that Congress has the power of oversight, then agencies named in the resolutions would seriously consider implementing the terms of these declarations.
“The new resolution is a reminder to the Ethiopian government that should it fail to reform, it can no longer rely on US largesse to contain problems at home,” Hassen says.
Enshrining in law a new approach to Ethiopia
Emboldened by the recent legislative success, the Amhara Association of America and other advocacy partners are now working to introduce binding legislation that would, if signed by the president, become the law directing how the US deals with Ethiopia.
“We believe this is a much easier task now since the Ethiopian diaspora groups are activated and engaged, the [US] policymakers are educated, and we have built strong bipartisan support in Congress,” says Tewodrose. That said, opposition exists in the Senate, and there is still a long way to go before a new law guiding US foreign policy towards Ethiopia emerges.
While HR-128 is an important development, it would take further US legislation to make a tangible impact on the new prime minister’s ability to persuade the power brokers within the EPRDF who control the country’s security apparatus and the intelligence and economic sectors to participate in negotiations for reform.
“The TPLF has ruled Ethiopia for the last 27 years with the support of the US and the UK,” Alemante says. “If it loses this support – financial, military, diplomatic, etc. – it has very little else to stand on.”
Besides its list of condemnations of Ethiopian government practices, the resolution also makes more ambitious demands of the Ethiopian regime regarding reforms that would protect the Ethiopian people’s civil liberties and release political prisoners, views that the new prime minister is also believed to share.
“The Ethiopian-American community is finally understanding how the American democratic process works, and believe they can make a difference in Ethiopia by being engaged in the democratic process,” Tewodrose says.
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