Ethiopia’s reform moves from ‘symbolic gestures’ to ‘specific steps’?


On Saturday, June 23, hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians rallied in the famous Meskel Square the heart of the capital city Addis Ababa, as citizen groups and human rights activists demonstrated support for Ethiopia’s reformist leader, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s commitment to democratic reform, notes Yohannes Gedamu, a lecturer in political science at Georgia Gwinnett College.

Ahmed (left) gave a rousing speech calling for national unity, and preaching love, co-existence, and democratic values. Minutes after he spoke, a grenade exploded. A rally organizer told the Washington Post that the attacker had aimed at the stage, but a demonstrator grabbed his hand and changed the grenade’s direction. If that’s accurate, this may have been an attempt to assassinate a reformer who, since taking office two months ago, has lifted the state of emergency declared in February by the previous administration, he writes for the Post’s Monkey Cage blog:

Since taking charge, Ahmed has freed most of Ethiopia’s remaining political prisoners. He has attempted to reform the security sector, which remains controlled by the TPLF. Ahmed forced out long-serving EPRDF elites, and enabled young public servants and technocrats to rise into key posts within his administration. In an attempt to improve relations between the government and the people, Ahmed has also traveled throughout the country, listening to grievances.

Those suspected in the grenade attack include the deputy head of the Addis Ababa police commission, Reuters reports (HT:CFR)

Some observers are wary of symbolic gestures without specific steps toward the things that critics have agitated for such as opening up space for civil society activities or a national dialogue with opposition groups, the New York Times adds.

“Prime Minister Abiy is the kind of guy who is good at saying the right things to a domestic audience and giving the right gestures to international development partners,” said Tamrat Giorgis, editor of Addis Fortune, an English language weekly paper.

But this week the government unblocked 264 websites and blogs, and it recently stated its intention to establish an independent Legal and Justice Advisory Council tasked with reviewing laws likely to impact the democratization process, including a review of the law curbing civil society.

Abiy emerged from within the ruling party and his reform efforts have met with resistance, particularly from the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, the ruling coalition’s dominant wing of the ruling coalition, which acts as an opposition from within, says Ethiopian analyst Mohammed Girma of the University of Pretoria.

The rally at which the attack occurred was called to disentangle Abiy from the establishment and give him an unambiguous mandate to run the country, he writes for Quartz. People are enchanted with his message of “medemer”, or togetherness, as opposed to ethnic compartmentalization.

Abiy’s biggest drawback is that he represents a ruling coalition, made up of representatives from different groups, that has been in power since 1991. As a young and reformist leader, he may have been chosen by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) in large part to preserve its dominance, Christian Science Monitor suggests. He, in turn, could be trying to win the people’s support in order to fend off resistance from the party’s old guard and achieve real reform.

Ethiopia’s ruling EPRDF adopted a China-style developmental state model “as a way to boost its political legitimacy…… [but] this authoritarian developmental model has backfired and is coming to a dead end,” one analyst recently noted.

Recent protests over corrupt land transactions quickly expanded into a broader uprising: against elite corruption, government inertia and repression. The protests forced the regime to confront a perennial question in Ethiopian politics: ‘how to build a modern nation-state?’

In response, Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed’s inaugural speech to parliament in April – described by the FT as among the more remarkable in Africa in recent times – made a commitment to engage critics, embark on democratic reform, tackle corruption, guarantee rule of law. And embark on a program of national unity and reconciliation.

Ethiopia’s long political transition is a lesson for others, argues Council on Foreign Relations analyst Michelle D. Gavin.

The grenade attack is a sign that the old guard aren’t happy, but Ahmed now has the ammunition he needs to reform the security sector, adds Gedamu (@yohanethio). Observers expect to see old guard elites purged from the governing coalition and Ahmed’s opponents driven out of the police and military institutions. RTWT

Former Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, Lily Mengesha (above) discusses political prisoners and the human rights situation in Ethiopia in an interview with the World Movement for Democracy.

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