The 29 June murder of popular Ethiopian singer Hachalu Hundessa from the Oromo ethnic group has reignited ethnic violence in the country. Over 200 people have died and businesses and personal property have been destroyed mainly due to mob attacks with largely ethnic overtones. The government has arrested several opposition leaders, accusing them of fuelling unrest. Political divisions have also escalated.
These political and security developments following Hundessa’s murder have amplified existing fundamental problems facing Ethiopia’s democratic transition. In a presentation in March, Institute for Security Studies (ISS) Senior Researcher Semir Yusuf highlighted three major challenges: the contradictory nature of the Ethiopian state; the fragility of opposition parties and civil society organisations; and increased competition between nationalist groupings.
First is the contradictory nature of the Ethiopian state. Historically governance structures have been both unusually strong, while also having weaknesses. On the one hand, successive regimes have built a robust state machinery that could repress and control citizens. Coercive local government apparatuses have also been used to mobilise people into wars of unprecedented levels.
On the other hand, the state has also experienced a legitimacy crisis, where its very existence has been questioned, especially by some ethno-nationalist detractors. More recently, the state, once known for its internal coherence and autonomy, lost some of both.
Among other things, informal groups in certain regions infiltrated administrative and security structures, leading in the latter to a broken or loose chain of command and control. According to informants, the divided loyalties of officials threatened the legitimacy and stability of the political system, leading to the complicity of state personnel in creating conflict.
Internal disputes among government and party officials have contributed to incoherent state and party structures. The ruling party has been reconstituted as the new Prosperity Party, but a fully coherent and stable party structure is yet to be achieved.
Both international human rights groups and many in the opposition have accused state agents of frequently violating citizens’ human rights, making a smooth transition difficult. Such concerns have increased over the past two years. Since the arrest of major opposition activists and politicians, and in the unrest following Hundessa’s death, the number of allegations has spiked.
At the same time, state fragility continues to hamper attempts to achieve political stability and effective rule of law. Diverse reports document the lack of police action in the face of impending ethnic violence after Hundessa’s murder, as has been the case in several conflict situations before. Even the government has acknowledged the inaction or complicity of its officials and security personnel.
Informants say that when people asked the police to stop the violence, some officers claimed they weren’t given orders to do so. This suggests the lack of a centralised and effective national security system. So both excessive and insufficient police and military action coexist in Ethiopia.
Restraints facing the state are also evident in the challenge the Tigray Region poses to the power of the federal government. After political disputes between the two, their relationship has deteriorated to a new low with the Tigray Regional Council’s (TRC) declaration to hold regional elections before its five-year term ends.
The declaration negates the House of Federation’s (HoF) ruling in June to extend the terms of the federal and regional governments, postponing all preparations for national and regional elections until COVID-19 is deemed under control. The TRC’s decision has infuriated the ruling party.
The extension of the ruling party’s term has also sparked opposition countrywide, mostly in Tigray, whose ruling elites and some opposition parties consider it against the spirit and letter of the constitution. Tigray’s sense of autonomy is fast advancing, constituting a clear affront to the juridical and political order the federal government wants to impose nationally.
The fragility or recklessness of opposition parties typifies a second major challenge to a smooth transition. Responding to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s call for national forgiveness, political reform and opening of the civic space, opposition parties re-entered the political scene in 2018. Several had clear deficiencies, partly of their own making, and partly a legacy of past government repression. Most were organisationally weak, with vague positions on various issues.
COVID-19 and the state of emergency put in place to contain it have further diminished their power. The weak parties have mustered the capacity to incite popular agitations, most recently based on disagreement about the HoF’s decision regarding governing Ethiopia after September. But they haven’t developed the capacity to communicate clear political goals or coordinate opposition movements. And so activists and opportunistic elites are organising protests that lead to more disorderly and chaotic protests.
The third major challenge is the increased polarisation of nationalist politics in the country since 2018. Contending nationalisms have been a hallmark of Ethiopian politics for five decades, but the degree of competition has peaked in recent years.
Rivalry between nationalist groups over control of land, self-administration, security concerns and other issues have led to violence. The latest surge in ethnic clashes in Oromia is partly a continuation of this trend, intensified by Hundessa’s death. It is also a trigger for further divisions along ethno-nationalist lines.
Bringing the troubled transition back on track requires government efforts to enforce the rule of law while professionalising and depoliticising the justice system and security apparatus. To ensure effective law enforcement, the ruling party needs to establish a negotiated vision and plan. Strong command and control within the security sector also needs to be restored.
An all-inclusive genuine national dialogue should start urgently. This could help bring consensus on some critical and controversial political issues. These include: governing a post-September Ethiopia; ensuring free, fair and peaceful elections and fixing their timing; cultivating trust in public institutions; incorporating the visions of all stakeholders into a new constitution; and shaping an accommodative political destiny for Ethiopia.
The national dialogue process would also symbolise inclusivity in the transition process. This could help generate trust in the approach to democratisation and help give it the wide political legitimacy it needs.
By the Institute for Security Studies
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