Something peculiar – and profoundly significant in the broad sweep of African politics – is happening in Ethiopia.
As Ugandans would say, we should “speak on it” before its historical significance disappears over the horizon.
After nearly 60 years of millions of stories and thousands of books on how Africa had failed to germinate democracy, Ethiopia is producing some very strange copy.
Many commentaries on the situation seem to agree that Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed “has moved too fast, too broadly on political reforms” and unleashed the nation-breaking demons that had been suppressed over centuries.
Privately, some Ethiopians say the solution is to end the democracy experiment. Op-eds in the international media lead a discerning reader to the same conclusion—Abiy will serve Ethiopia better as a dictator, not as a tinkering liberal reformer.
We are accustomed to strongmen and their supporters arguing how a particular Big Man’s despotic rule is the best for his country’s “unique circumstances.” It’s rare to hear noise about demanding an end to reform. However, it’s easy to see how we ended up here.
So what are Abiy’s “crimes”?
Just over a year ago, Ethiopia was still in contention as Africa’s leading jailer of journalists, and everything that had the scent of opposition on it.
Abiy came to power after his predecessor Hailemariam Desalegn, who dramatically resigned in February 2018, was in the process of releasing political prisoners to stem the tide of Oromo and Amhara protests that had put the long-ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) on the back foot.
Abiy went into overdrive, flinging the prison doors open and basically throwing away the keys. One of the released people, Brigadier-General Asamnew Tsige, recently staged a failed coup against the regional government in Amhara, in which state president Ambachew Mekonnen was killed.
Separately, at the same time, army chief Gen Seare Mekonnen was shot dead at his residence in Addis Ababa by his bodyguard.
Abiy offered to talk to and granted amnesty to the myriad armed Ethiopian groups that had been fighting the EPRDF. Dozens of them crawled out of the woodwork. Some of them are roaming parts of Ethiopia, spreading violence and mayhem.
After removing the EPRDF boot off the necks of the country, long-oppressed communities are serving up a burst of nationalist xenophobia, hounding others from their lands, which they were previously too powerless to do. Over three million Ethiopians have been displaced by ethnic conflict.
Economic reforms in one of Africa’s most closed, though fastest growing, economies threaten those who have profited from the closed system, and the power of the country’s ancient bureaucracy.
Ethiopia, in its many iterations, has been an empire and a dictatorship.
From the Soviet Union to Yugoslavia, we have learnt that unions imposed by force and held together by terror almost never survive once the tormented people get an opportunity to crawl from under it through a democratic opening or the frailty of the dictatorship.
For over 1,000 years, Ethiopia was an empire in slow-motion collapse. The Abiy reforms – and even Meles Zenawi’s “tribal federalism” that, some argue, only widened the fault lines – in reality are an attempt to save a diminishing empire. Even a reckless betting man wouldn’t put money on how these reforms will end.
But they do seem the only path that could lead to success. By contrast, the previous authoritarian path was well on the way to ending the only way it could – in failure.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is publisher of data visualiser Africapaedia and Rogue Chiefs. [email protected]