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February 16, 2018

Ethiopia: At the precipice

By Bronwyn Bruton

Ethiopia’s declaration of a state of emergency (SOE) in the wake of widespread protests earlier this week suspends the few democratic rights that Ethiopian citizens enjoy and effectively empowers military decision-making above the civilian leadership of the country. As the ruling party has seesawed between peaceful and authoritarian gestures – first releasing dozens of important political opponents, and then establishing martial law – it has become clear that Ethiopia’s political leadership is perilously divided and in the midst of its own internal crisis. Critics of the regime are describing the SOE as a military coup.

A previous state of emergency was declared in October 2016 and lasted for ten months. That SOE failed miserably to achieve the ruling party’s objectives. It did not stem the tide of popular protests: public uprisings have not only continued, but have spread across the Oromo state and beyond to the Amhara regions of the country, and they have become coupled with growing ethnic conflicts that further threaten the stability of the state. The SOE did not discourage the government’s opponents: instead the brutal crackdown, which involved the arrest of nearly 20,000 people, many of them minors, succeeded only in persuading many previously nonviolent protestors that peaceful demonstration against the regime is futile, and that there is no recourse but the violent overthrow of the state. The last SOE has also fatally undermined the international standing of the ruling party, diminishing its political capital abroad, leading to calls for United Nations investigations into the regime’s human rights abuses, and causing experts and policymakers to question – albeit thus far behind closed doors – the wisdom of ongoing intelligence and security cooperation with the Ethiopian state.

The Ethiopian People’s Democratic Revolutionary Front (EPRDF) must recognize the danger and futility of the declaration of a new state of emergency. To the protestors, some of whom have peacefully campaigned for many years for democracy and who were both encouraged and emboldened by the release, the declaration of martial law will be perceived as an abandonment of the government’s promises to engage in dialogue and reform. It may be regarded as a declaration of war on the people of Ethiopia. It will escalate, not mitigate, the intense political and security crisis that Ethiopia faces today.

It is not too late for the EPRDF to reconsider the decision to declare a state of emergency in Ethiopia. Moderate voices within the ruling coalition have wisely called for the appointment of a prime minister who can represent the aspirations of the Oromo population and translate their demands into real reforms. The wisdom of such an appointment, and the cancellation of the SOE, would be universally applauded and would dramatically enhance the EPRDF’s credibility, both at home and abroad. 

To that end, Ethiopia’s partner nations should act rapidly to express support for the EPRDF’s previous steps towards reconciliation, and their condemnation of the declaration of martial law. Ethiopia’s political unrest has reached its crisis point: inaction now will lead to disaster. 

Bronwyn Bruton is deputy director and director of programs and studies at the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center. 

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Image: Supporters of Bekele Gerba, secretary general of the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), chant slogans to celebrate Gerba's release from prison, in Adama, Oromia Region, Ethiopia February 14, 2018. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri