Ethiopia is on the brink under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed – Perspectives by Simon Ateba

The Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, the most populous landlocked country in the world and the second-most populous nation on the African continent after Nigeria, is on the brink under Nobel Peace Prize winning Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali.

The powerful East African nation, which shares borders with Eritrea to the north, Djibouti to the northeast, Somalia to the east, Kenya to the south, South Sudan to the west and Sudan to the northwest, has over 100 million inhabitants.

With a strong economy and a reputable airline, Ethiopia has been known in recent years for its creativity, strength and influence. But that is now about to change under Abiy Ahmed who came to power two years ago.

Violent unrest in Addis Ababa and the surrounding Oromia region late last month and early this month left at least 177 people dead and over 5000 others in detention with hundreds of houses set on fire.

All hell broke loose after Hachalu Hundesa, who was renowned for his politically inspired songs, was shot around 9:30 pm on June 29 in Addis Ababa’s Gelan Condominium area. He was taken to a nearby hospital, where he was pronounced dead shortly after his arrival.

On June 22, Hachalu Hundesa was interviewed on the Oromo Media Network (OMN) where he spoke on many controversial issues eliciting public outrage on social media platforms.

Investigation into the killing of Hachalu has not yet been concluded. Police arrested some suspects linked to a militant faction of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the government has blamed the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and certain prominent activist-politicians for inciting ethnic violence and attempting to derail Ethiopia’s fragile political liberalization.

However, Amnesty International noted last month that “there has been an increase in killings of people critical of the government and political personalities in the country since 2019.”

“These include the killing of the Amhara Regional President, Ambachew Mekonnen, and two other top regional officials on June 23, 2019. On the same day, General Seare Mekonnen, the Chief of Staff of the Ethiopian army was killed at his home in Addis together with a retired military Major General Gezai Abera. On 3 June 2020 Bekele Bidra, the head of Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) office in Bole Sub-City of Addis Ababa was killed in his car,” Amnesty International said.

The respected human rights organization’s recent report, ‘Beyond law enforcement: human rights violations by Ethiopian security forces in Amhara and Oromia,’ highlighted impunity in Ethiopia and calls for accountability and justice.

According to Amnesty International, in Addis Ababa and Oromia region, the police arrested at least 5,000 people, many of whom are in incommunicado detention with their whereabouts unknown.

These recent realities have further eroded trust in the government and public institutions, and put into question the Nobel Peace Prize Abiy Ahmed received in 2019. 

When Abiy Ahmed came into power two years ago, he promised to implement many reforms aimed at strengthening institutions and increasing political space. He also promised to respect human rights, uphold democracy and bolster the economy of Ethiopia.

Following Ethiopia’s peace moves with Eritrea, Abiy was awarded the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize. Many also praised him for building peace in the East African region, including in Sudan where former dictator Omar al-Bashir was ousted after decades in power.

However, all that now seems like a distant past as Mr. Abiy has increased human rights violations and failed to address ethnic and political divisions and structural problems in Ethiopia.

For instance, Abiy has failed to address tensions over the division of power between the centre and the regions or even correct tensions arising from Ethiopia’s unfinished federal project.

With Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch as well as a raft of other rights groups warning that Abiy was violating basic human rights, the Nobel Peace Prize winning Prime Minister has put democracy at risk in Ethiopia.

With many groups seeking greater autonomy, especially in the ethnically diverse southern region, and with tensions increasing rapidly by the day between the federal government and Tigray region, many now believe that Ethiopia is sliding dangerously backward with worsening levels of militant ethno-nationalism and inter-communal violence.

The indefinite postponement of elections that were due in August 2020 because of COVID-19 pandemic has made things worse, especially because parliament’s term ends in October 2020.

Worse, the Council of Constitutional Inquiry (CCI), a group of legal experts led by the President of the Supreme Court, gave the ruling Prosperity Party (PP), an open-ended extension of their term with no limits set on their powers during the interim period.

The Chatham House recently noted that “This decision sets a dangerous precedent and is a missed opportunity to achieve compromise and advance the democratic process.”

It added: “The lack of inclusion has angered opposition groups, with whom the government has had little genuine dialogue. Many in the opposition had advocated for a transitional or technocratic government during the interim, despite risks of further divisions and a vacuum of authority, and accuse the PP of manipulating institutions to stay in power.”

The Chatham House noted further that the TPLF, the ruling party in the Tigray region and formerly the dominant national political force, is pushing forward with its intention to hold unilateral regional elections.

“It formed a new regional electoral commission, in spite of objections from the national electoral board and the government, which has implied it could use force to stop the elections. This rising enmity between the PP and the TPLF is extremely worrying and requires immediate de-escalation“.

I agree with the Chatham House that “Ethiopia’s problems can only be resolved through dialogue, compromise and reconciliation. Escalating tensions, particularly between the federal government, Tigray and Oromo opposition groups risk furthering instability and fragmentation.”

Chief White House Correspondent for

Simon Ateba is Chief White House Correspondent for Today News Africa. Simon covers President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, the U.S. government, the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and other financial and international institutions in Washington D.C. and New York City.

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