The government of Abiy Ahmed has taken admirable steps to reform Ethiopia’s political life. It needs to do more in the months ahead, and in a more coherent manner.

By Ann Fitz-Gerald (RUSI) |

In the wake of Ethiopia’s April 2018 political transition, and the jubilation surrounding Abiy Ahmed’s appointment as prime minister, the country appears to many to more stable, peaceful and unified.

But whilst the outside world perceives a pathway to sustainable peace and stability brought about by the new leader and his democratic agenda, the country’s security challenges will get more acute before getting better.

Three key areas of concern will test Ethiopia’s federal government’s post-transition commitment to the population to uphold justice and the rule of law and protect the provisions embedded in the country’s constitution. These assurances have meant that the new administration has felt obliged to acknowledge and respond to crimes and human rights abuses committed by the former regime. In consequence, though not by design, they have unleashed a wave of irredentism in some of Ethiopia’s hugely diverse nations and nationalities. The government has also committed to the reform, depoliticization and professionalization of security and justice institutions. The way in which Abiy’s government addresses these three issues will not only impact on current hearts and minds in the country but also the future shape and vision of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition.

The past 12 months in Ethiopia have witnessed the rise of different forms of nationalism. Beyond ethnic nationalism, clear signs of identity nationalism and civic nationalism have also come the fore. The prime minister’s efforts to widen political space have also featured in the welcomed return of diaspora leaders and the emergence from the political shadows of their local followers. Although much of the dialogue and demonstrations supporting this widened political space have been peaceful, new alignments have emerged among different groups as well as outbreaks of violence led by armed elements. Groups like the Qeerroo youth group in Oromia, whose efforts across the region to support political change were applauded in April 2018 by the new leadership, appear now to have expectations for a more formal recognition and higher representation across society. These groups, together with their diaspora and domestic-based leaders, must therefore make as much of a contribution to the reform agenda and the commitment to peace and stability as they have made to their democratization campaigns.

Identity nationalism is also unfolding in Ethiopia in a way that it was prevented from doing in the past. Within the framework of a constitution which allows groups and regions to become independent or gain special recognition enabling self-rule and self-administration, the country’s new democratic vision removes the bar on efforts to pursue secessionist agendas, moves which in the past were perceived as dissent and dealt with harshly. The outcome of the recent referendum for independence of the Sidama region in the country’s Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ Regional State (SNNPRS) serves as one example. Whilst the Sidama people remain committed to their Ethiopian nationality, their separation as a new political entity will pose challenges for the SNNPRS’s regional capital of Hawassa which, whilst host to many Sidama people, also includes many others from the region’s diverse and high number of ethnic groups. Other sub-regions within the SNNPRS, such as Wolayta and Bench Maji, have also made noises about their own quest for independence.

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