Ethiopia 2016: Downward Spiral or Growing Pains?

Ethiopia has been on the rise. For the past fifteen years, Africa’s second-most populous country has posted undeniably impressive marks in various economic development indicators. Aggressive government policies and large amounts of foreign aid have lifted millions out of poverty and improved quality of life to such a point that life expectancy has risen one year every year since 2000. Ethiopia has only recently caught the eye of a wider international audience as a potential success story on the continent, and we should expect this reputation to grow as the country continues cementing itself as one of the larger and fastest-growing African economies. This growth, however is not unconditionally raising the standard of living for Ethiopians. The state continues to fall short of its full potential for development as outlined in United Nations goals, and remains inhibited by multiple internal and external challenges.

Looking outward, Ethiopia finds itself surrounded by instability and violence on its borders in Sudan, South Sudan, and Somalia. To a lesser extent, it is also threatened by conflict in its more-distant neighbors, such as the strife-torn Central African Republic (CAR), the unstable Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and an ailing Egypt. Ethnic conflict in the CAR and DRC are manifestations of what Ethiopia has long attempted to avoid by embracing federalism and carefully managing its diverse demographics. Meanwhile, ideological terrorism along its lengthy border with Somalia is complicated by clan divisions and a split between the al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabaab and an expanding ISIL. This violence threatens to spill over into Ethiopia and wreak havoc upon non-Muslim communities.

Perhaps more notably impeding growth in Ethiopia is the contentious role of the government within the state. This debate rose to international prominence in 2016 when Ethiopian marathoner Feyisa Lilesa spontaneously protested the sitting government’s oppression of the Oromo majority during the Olympic Games. The Oromo liberation movement is a powerful ideology gaining that only continues to gain strength as government plans to expand the physical boundaries of the capital Addis Ababa into Oromo lands spark fears of displacement and oppression by the Amhara government. Lilesa’s act put the Oromo on the map internationally and led to many calls for political reform in the country through the placement of a renewed spotlight on the authoritarian tendencies of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). However, others questioned several aspects of Oromo activists’ arguments. For one, much of the information concerning government conduct coming out of Ethiopia has spread quickly on social media and consequently been difficult to corroborate. Additionally, it should be noted that some members of the Ethiopian diaspora have an outsized voice in political discourse due to the heightened security, social, reach, and education, and social reach afforded to them by living in the West. Examples of confusion surrounding the opposition movement’s claims include the response to an October incident during the holiday of Irreecha, in which a small portion of partygoers waved flags and chanted in support of the Oromo movement. There, a large police presence fired tear gas into crowds and live rounds into the sky in an apparent attempt to disperse the protesters, ultimately leading to a stampede that killed over fifty people. The tragedy immediately prompted a dispute between government officials and various Oromo groups about the nature of the violence. Oromo leaders and opposition figures in the diaspora labeled it a deliberate government massacre and called for violence and upheaval. This led to a spate of decentralized attacks on government facilities in and around Addis Ababa, but little clarity about what had truly occurred.

This specific incident cuts to the root of much of the uncertainty in the country. Due to a ruthless government crackdown on all forms of media and freedom of expression, an information vacuum has developed within the country. Seeking news free of government bias found on many television channels, Ethiopians often look to social media like Twitter and Facebook where opposition activists consider much of the rumors as fact. While communication is important and there is no excuse for such “draconian” policies by the government, there is also something to be said for the responsible distribution of news by certain diaspora figures, who can at times do more harm than good by advocating for violence based on oftentimes unsubstantiated information. Leaders such as Jawar Mohammed yield massive influence with tens of thousands of social media followers and were the first to spread claims that the government gunned down revelers with a helicopter on Irreecha (claims that independent journalists have repudiated). This is not in any way meant to defend Ethiopian government conduct. The EPDRF’s human rights record is abysmal, and the international community as well as non-governmental watchdogs must hold them accountable for this in order to urge immediate reforms within the sitting government. At the same time, the Ethiopian opposition should push a more moderate message aimed at long term progress in freedom of expression and political inclusion, especially in the Ethiopian House of Representatives, which has remained almost unanimously dominated by the EPDRF since 2015. Calling for “days of rage” is counterproductive and especially dangerous in an already fragile multiethnic state, which remains scarred from decades of civil war.

Ethiopia remains economically ascendant, and with growth comes rapid change that carries over into the social arena. These changes cannot be stopped and will most likely have positive outcomes decades down the road, but all of the opposition idealism and mobilization will have been for moot if the country breaks down into a slow, grinding violence. Leaders must continue to pressure the incumbent government in a constructive way in order to avoid a violent rebellion marred by disproportionality of response. Such an event could spell disaster for the country. The country is flawed, but it remains a budding success that can be strengthened through slow, steady reform. Let it not be squandered for future generations based on confusion in the media and panic amongst the people.


Author: Graham Benedict