The resignation last month of Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn has shaken the assumption that the East African state is a ‘bastion of stability’ in an unstable region.

By Michael Jones (RUSI) |

Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn’s departure after five years in power to pave way for political reform was abrupt, but not unexpected. The move followed a ‘do or die’ executive committee meeting of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) in December.

For years, a triad of ethnic federalism, revolutionary democracy and state-led development has underpinned the regime’s claims of legitimate, effective governance. However, this edifice appears to be cracking.

The government is struggling with youth unemployment, high public debtinflation and a shortage of foreign currency. Export volumes are flagging, and despite significant federal government investment, the productivity of domestic manufacturing industries cannot keep up with more efficient global producers.

By framing itself as the indispensable engine of economic development, the EPRDF has been hobbled by an inability to translate double-digit national economic growth rates into higher living standards. For all its hailed dividends, the top-down disposition of Ethiopia’s development with its long horizon-rent centralisation, often at the expense of civil liberties, has been divisive.

The resulting anger has expressed itself in increasingly ethno-centric terms since 2015, with local rallies against the physical urban expansion of Addis Ababa morphing into nation-wide anti-government demonstrations.

Ethnic-Oromos and Amharas, collectively representing more than two-thirds of the population, are in the forefront of these protests, decrying their marginalisation and demanding more commensurate political roles.

While these protests don’t advance a single set of grievances, they all touch on a perennial question in Ethiopian politics: ‘how to build a modern nation-state?’

The political orthodoxy peddled by the EPRDF has always relied on state-led development and ethnic federalism, with the party’s founder, Meles Zenawi, gambling that Ethiopia’s material transformation would ‘cause parochial attachments to wither under a new nation-state identity’.

Nevertheless, it seems ethno-regional loyalties have lost little of their mobilizing appeal, largely because the federal model is widely considered a proxy for minority rule.

As a national coalition, the EPRDF controls Ethiopia’s regions through satellite parties, including the Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organization (OPDO) and the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM).

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