East African regional heavyweight Ethiopia, boasting record economic growth and reporting a five-fold increase in foreign direct investment (FDI) in a decade in 2017, has again been rocked by protests and violence with possible widespread consequences for the region.
Reflecting growing political turmoil parliamentarians on 2 March 2018, passed legislation to keep the latest State of Emergency (SoE), introduced on 16 February, in place for a further six months. This follows ongoing anti-government protests in different parts of the country, which led to the resignation of Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn and the SoE, events which have been described as marking the largest political crisis in nearly three decades. A new Prime Minister is due to be elected next week, following a deadlock over which ethnic group should hold the title with speculation that the post will be filled by a member of the Oromo group.
Prosecutor-General Getachew Ambaye motivated the SoE on the grounds that recent developments in the country have made it necessary to protect the constitutional right to free movement. However, 88 votes against the SoE, described as unprecedented in recent Ethiopian politics, are indicative of wider social and international concerns that the regime is increasingly authoritarian and unstable alongside allegations that parliament tampered with the results.
The escalation of violence in late 2017 had severe impacts on the country’s two largest ethnic communities with mid-December killings of 29 Oromos and 32 Somalis, only a week after 16 people were killed in Oromia. As these two groups comprise 40% of the population and live in the two largest geographical areas, increased violence and heightened tensions between them poses high risks including massive displacement. Continued violence and protests into early 2018 saw the ruling coalition, the Ethiopia People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) announce widespread political reforms, including the release of hundreds of political prisoners and top Ethiopian dissident Bekele Gerba, on 14 February 2018. Jubilation in the country was short-lived however, as the new SoE was imposed, giving the government greater control over the media, the power to prevent anti-government protests and the power to impose curfews at its discretion.
African Union (AU) Commission Chair Moussa Faki Mahamat only made a belated statement in late February, almost a week after the SoE was imposed, expressing confidence in Ethiopia’s ability to overcome its challenges. While warning against any actions that could undermine peace, and encouraging government to pursue reforms and dialogue for the sake of mutual tolerance, the organisation made no statement directly related to the SoE. This is in stark contrast to the US position, which is strongly opposed to the SoE, and European warnings that the SoE should only be used in the interests of the rights of its citizens. Amid widespread international attention and concern, the announcement late last week that United States (US) Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson was due to visit Addis Ababa this coming week is also an indication that the US government is taking the crisis in Ethiopia very seriously. The US has issued a Travel Advisory for Ethiopia, calling for increased caution in areas such as the East Hararge region of Oromia, the Danakil Depression region, and the country’s border areas with Kenya, South Sudan and Eritrea due to increased risk of crime, civil unrest and armed conflict.
Under this new SoE, and amid speculation in regional media that Ethiopia could be headed for a civil war, the country and region appear set for a period of instability and violence if the crisis is not handled effectively. This raises serious concerns for the region as a whole with Somalia likely highly concerned about the potential spill over impacts ‒ especially given the multiple international interests in Djibouti ‒ and developments should be monitored closely going forward.