Following a very promising several years in power, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s reformist image is now in question. His unpopular decision to postpone scheduled parliamentary elections due to the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted significant criticism from the opposition, who believe that Abiy is transforming from a reformist prime minister into an authoritarian leader. Abiy’s speeches are as populist as those of other populists like Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Located in the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia, officially the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, is the 2nd-most populous country on the continent. The country is widely known for its political factionalism and intercommunal violence as well as unpredictable, and potentially dangerous, security conditions (Freedom House, 2021).
Throughout late 19th and early 20th centuries, territories today that fall within the borders of the modern-day Ethiopia suffered tremendous violence under colonial control by European powers. Italians, in particular, exerted control over the country until their defeat by the British and Commonwealth troops, aided by the Ethiopian resistance, in the early 1940s. During World War II, Ethiopia came under British military administration and remained so until December 1944. Although British control remained contentious over the decades, Ethiopians were granted full sovereignty under the Anglo-Ethiopian Agreement in January 1942.
Until Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown by a coup d’état in 1974, Ethiopia, or The Ethiopian Empire, remained a kingdom in which absolute power was concentrated in the hands of the emperor. Alongside his centralized autocratic rule, Emperor Selassie also possessed strong populist features. Throughout his reign, particularly in his early years in power, he initiated a set of progressive social and economic reforms to modernize the country, including the establishment of modern hospitals, language schools, a system of roads linking major cities, and the abolition of slavery (Selassie, 1999).He also consistently utilized populist rhetoric in his addresses. Even following the demise of his regime, he was quoted saying that “if the revolution is good for the people, then I support it too” (Brüne, 1990).
In 1974, the Derg, officially the Provisional Military Administrative Council (PMAC), abolished the monarchy, establishing a provisional government with an aim of building a socialist state. The revolution, however, swiftly gave a birth to a civil war between the military junta governments and Ethio-Eritrean anti-government rebels. The war lasted from 1974 to 1991 (Selassie, 2013). Upon the adoption of the 1987 Constitution, Ethiopia became a unitary Marxist-Leninist one-party republic, under the name “The People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (PDRE).” The Workers’ Party of Ethiopia, founded by the Derg as the vanguard party, became the sole legal political party in the country until it was disbanded in 1991. Throughout this short-lived socialist experience, Ethiopians had three unstable governments under Prime Minister Fikre Selassie Wogderess, from September 1987 to November 1989, Prime Minister Hailu Yimenu, from November 1989 to April 1991, and finally Tesfaye Dinka, from April 1991 to June 1991.
The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), an ethnic federalist political coalition, formally ended so-called Marxist rule in Ethiopia after seizing power from the PDRE in June 1991 (Tuso, 1997). The subsequently formed transitional government led by Prime Minister Tamrat Layne was not populist and promised to liberalize the economy and championed human rights and political reconciliation and reforms (Henze, 1992).
In 1994, a new constitution introduced a parliamentary system, as part of which a president would be ceremonial head of state, while the prime minister became the head of government and chief executive. A year later, the first regular, multi-party election in Ethiopian history was won by the EPRDF and its allies. They won some 82 percent of total votes and a total of 471 of the 547 seats in the Council. Meles Zenawi was sworn in as prime minister and officially took office after Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia was formally established in August 1995. The EPRDF repeated its electoral success in the next three general elections and Zenawi remained prime minister until his death in 2012. In the 2000 election, the EPRDF managed to secure a total of 481 of the 524 seats in the national election, while in the 2005 election, the party captured 327 seats. In the 2010 general election, the EPRDF increased the number of seats it won to 499. Needless to say, these elections were marred by serious claims of illegal interference and widespread voter fraud (US Department of State, 2002).
Throughout his time in the office, Zenawi initiated a set of economic policies that were largely non-populist, such as the privatization of state-owned companies, end of communal farms, and relaxing foreign investment laws and opening Ethiopia to foreign aid and investment. In 2004, his government, for the first time in history, issued radio broadcast licenses to privately owned firms. He also established an ethnic-based federalism, hoping his ethnic Amhara, a Semitic-speaking group indigenous to Ethiopia, would dominate culture, language, politics, and economics.
Zenawi also introduced a set of “pro-poor” reforms that ranged from building educational institutions across the country, to the dissolution of the collective farms and redistribution of land at local levels. Zenawi’s economic reforms delivered economic growth as high as 10 percent per annum throughout the 2000s, a rate that would transform one of the world’s poorest nations into a middle-income country (Mohammad & De Waal, 2012). While Zenawi’s agenda was centred on socio-economic issues, his government largely abstained from falling into the trap of populism, namely providing simple answers to complex questions with the goal of securing political support from large masses.
Following Zenawi’s unexpected death, Deputy Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn Boshe assumed the position of Prime Minister in September 2012. He held the office until his resignation in response to mass protests and unrest in 2018. Hailemariam largely preserved his predecessor’s non-populist stance and relative commitment to pluralism. Indeed, soon after an official meeting with him in 2012, European Parliament President Martin Schulz praised Hailemariam’s desire “to strengthen democracy in the country, allowing for greater pluralism and a freer civil society, to uphold the freedoms enshrined in the Ethiopian Constitution” (European Parliament, 2013). However, amid political crisis and lingering unrest due to the bloody 2014–2016 Oromo protests that left at least 699 dead (BBC News, 2017), Hailemariam ended up resigning as both Ethiopia’s prime minister and chairman of the country’s ruling coalition in April 2018. He said his resignation was “vital in the bid to carry out reforms that would lead to sustainable peace and democracy” (Al Jazeera, 2018).
Following Hailemariam’s resignation, Abiy Ahmed was elected as Prime Minister by the House of Representatives and sworn in in early April 2018 as the 4th prime minister of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. Upon assuming office, Ahmed announced a process of reconciliation and pledged to reform Ethiopia’s authoritarian political system, dominated by the EPRDF since 1991. As a first step, his government lifted a nationwide state of emergency in June 2018 due to improved security conditions (Dahir, 2018). He then approved the release of thousands of political prisoners in an attempt to reveal his commitment to opening the country’s political landscape. Additionally, several months into his prime ministry, he announced a reform package to privatize ineffective state-run firms. In June 2018, he paid an official visit to Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki for the first time in more than 20 years (Al Jazeera, 2018). In 2019, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize “for his efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation, and in particular for his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea” (The Nobel Peace Prize, 2019)
Following a very promising several years in power, Abiy Ahmed’s reformist image is now in question. His government is increasingly reverting back to authoritarian tactics, such as cracking down on media and imprisoning opposition leaders in an attempt to curb the growing regional and intercommunal violence. Often defined as “the African Erdogan,” by his opponents, Abiy Ahmed increasingly face accusations of being an opportunistic populist “jockeying for power on a democratizing platform” (Gardner, 2018). His unpopular decision to postpone scheduled parliamentary elections due to the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted significant criticism from the opposition, who believe that Abiy is transforming from a reformist prime minister to an authoritarian leader whose speeches are as populist as those of the Turkish President Erdogan.
In terms of civil liberties, Ethiopia is a not-free country (Freedom House, 2020). Although Ethiopian people enjoy regular multi-party elections, the country’s weak institutions are a hindrance and leave Ethiopia wide open to domination by establishment politicians. In addition to the poor record of political rights, the country also scores relatively low in many categories such as personal freedom, same-sex relationships, and religious liberties. In the UN’s Human Development Index, Ethiopia ranks 173 out of 189. Nearly half its population chronically live below the poverty line.
December 1, 2021
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