Since he took office in April last year, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has won international praise for his positive political and economic reform measures that he introduced since assuming office. Despite being feted abroad, many Ethiopians largely remain dissatisfied with his reforms which they argue that the reforms do not address the systemic issues that threaten the country's volatile social fabric. For purposes of clarity, Ethiopians do not oppose Mr. Abiy's reforms. By primarily focusing on transforming the country from an authoritarian regime to a democratic one, the Prime Minister has, in turn, neglected other pertinent issues such as security which has angered many Ethiopians.
Abiy's rise to the top office came on the back of three years of anti-government protests. The ruling party thought that he was the best bet in as far as stabilising the country was concerned.
While he has won over much of the country by trying to promote democratic governance, releasing journalists and political prisoners, welcoming exiled dissidents back into the country, making peace with longtime rival Eritrea (which led to his nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize), the following are some of the key reasons why many Ethiopians are upset with the Prime Minister and his administration. This is not an exhaustive list:
1. Increase in ethnic tensions
Ethiopia is a complicated multi-ethnic federation with more than 80 ethnic groups Given the fact that ethnic identity has been over-politicised for the past 28 years so much so that a simple dispute between two individuals can easily escalate into full-blown ethnic-based violence, it is imperative that Abiy's administration puts in place long term measures that can galvanise the ethnically divided population. Piecemeal reactive reforms do not cut it any anymore especially now that the new political atmosphere has allowed long-running tensions between communities to erupt into conflict as hate speech has gained pride of place in many university campuses, regional state cities, zone towns, and districts.
2. Untamed Violence and Insecurity
Security continues to be a major concern for many Ethiopians with many experts warning that it could deteriorate further due to ethnic-based violence. While the Prime Minister has promised to reform the political system, his party is yet to agree on how future power will be shared - a factor that has in part contributed to the ethnic-based violence.
According to Financial Times, more than three million Ethiopians have been internally displaced mainly due to ethnic-based violence which does not seem to be over unlike what many Ethiopians would like to think. Disputes between ethnic Oromos and the Amhara over territory has flared up on numerous occasions with more than 200,000 ethnic Oromos being evicted from the western Benishangul-Gumuz region. In southern Ethiopia, Guji and Gedeo groups have periodically clashed over access to productive farmland, but the recent conflict was marked by an unusual intensity.
With many quick to blame the Federal government for failing to address the insecurity issues, it must be understood that the task of enforcing the rule of law in the regional states that form the Federal government is a rather difficult one which is compounded by the ethnic-based administrative arrangement that is in place. As a result of this arrangement, the Federal government cannot just come into a particular region in an effort to stop ethnic-based violence. The Federal government has to first obtain the permission of the regional states before intervening.
Given the untamed violence, it has become apparently clear that this mode of operation does not seem to be working and desperately needs an overhaul. Even with "people to people" political trips which are essentially inter-regional travels organised by regional governments for region-based political elites to hold meetings in town halls with the aim of resolving inter-ethnic conflict in the country, the situation does not seem to get any better. The "people to people" political trips have veered away from the main objective of peacebuilding to the extent that they have now more or less been reduced to meet-and-greet platforms for fostering alliances that could be used in the event of a power struggle.
3. Restrictions on the Democratic Space
Credit has to be given where it is due and thus far, the Prime minister has held his own in a tough and charged up political environment that has only begun to test his staying power as a leader. That stated, it should be noted that constructive criticism of his administration does not amount to a betrayal of his reform agenda as many in government and his supporters would want others to believe. Given the fact that democratic reform is front and centre of his change agenda, freedom of expression should not be curtailed simply because the opinion given is not favourable.
His building bridges strategy that has created a cordial working relationship with opposition parties had a flip side to it. The flip-side being that with opposition parties seemingly being part and parcel of the government, there is no opposition per se to check the government. This lacuna is inevitably filled by journalists and citizens because it is foolhardy to expect those in government to check themselves.
His administration has been faulted for curtailing democratic space including freedom of expression and press freedoms especially when it comes to those who criticize the Prime Minister and his reforms. Reportedly, two journalists were arrested last week – one in the capital Addis Ababa and the other one in Oromo region – a region that Abiy Ahmed’s ethnic party (Oromo Democratic Party) is governing. And there is now a growing criticism, rightly so, that the Prime Minister's ethnic support base is developing a sense of entitlement and political privilege allegedly on the grounds that the reforms would not have been possible if it was not for the “Oromo struggle.”
4. Government of the Select Few
Arguably, some Ethiopians think that the Prime Minister's government has so far not delivered on their promise to make the government for ALL Ethiopians as opposed to a government for the Select Few. They contend that while they initially supported the Prime Minister, they feel let down by him as he is allegedly still influenced by the radical Oromo politicians in his party and region. They had hoped that the Prime Minister would be his own man and detach himself from the radicals in his party but now they believe that to be an impossibility.
There is no doubt that the Prime Minister has a lot of work to do to win over his critics and given that this is just his first year in office, it would be in his best interests to try and work out a sustainable way to address the inter-ethnic conflicts because other issues stem from it. All the infrastructural development and economic reforms mean nothing without unity in diversity. While we appreciate that he may not sort out the long-standing ethnic-based feuds in a year or even three, he can put in place long-term strategies to achieve inter-ethnic unity long after he has left the Prime Minister's office.
Header Image Credit: Chatham House