Following Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn’s sudden resignation on Thursday, Ethiopian authorities announced a six-month country-wide state of emergency (SOE), effective yesterday. This order, the country’s second in two years, imposes draconian restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly, while granting extended powers to the country’s already powerful security services.
This decision is counterproductive to the government’s stated goals of political reform and inclusive governance. It undercuts Ethiopia’s security by emboldening those who believe that violence is the only way to achieve fundamental political reform in Ethiopia, but it also negates the national and international goodwill generated by the country’s unprecedented recent release of hundreds of high-profile political prisoners.
A rapid pivot is the best hope for the ruling coalition Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) to preserve prospects for long-term peace in Ethiopia.
The United States should urgently press Ethiopia to walk back this state of emergency and start good faith negotiations. This could include intra-party moderates like Lemma Megersa, the reform-minded, charismatic, and widely-adored president of the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization—one of four ethnically-based regional parties that make up the EPRDF coalition. Lemma is widely considered the sole “acceptable” choice for the prime minister position. But this dialogue must also include credible, longtime political opponents, including the top tier of the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress, Dr. Merera Gudina and Bekele Gerba (both of whom were recently released from prison).
The Ethiopian government first declared a state of emergency in 2016 after months of prolonged anti-government protests. Demonstrations began in a small town in the country’s largest region, Oromia, and quickly spread across the region and vast swathes of western Ethiopia, including the capital Addis Ababa. A complex cocktail of grievances against the government, including inequitable land distribution, uneven economic growth, corruption, ethnic marginalization, and harsh crackdowns by federal security forces, fueled the 2016 protests and have only increased in the past year. The protest movement turned out tens of thousands of primarily peaceful demonstrators, hundreds of whom died after violent confrontations with security forces.
More importantly, as demonstrations spread, competition between two extremes escalated. On one side are fierce advocates of non-violent protest and civil disobedience—Bekele, for example, spent his two stints in prison translating the works of Martin Luther King, Jr. into the Oromo language. His influence on demonstrations in Ethiopia in recent years is evidenced by the widespread use of a gesture—crossed wrists raised above one’s head in an X—of many demonstrators participating in peaceful marches, sit-ins, walk-outs, or commerce strikes. After his release from prison last week, he was welcomed by crowds of thousands, and he urged supporters to refrain from violent and destructive activities. He also called for Ethiopian unity across ethnic lines—an important gesture from an Oromo politician given a recent reported uptick in ethnically-motivated violence.
Advocates of peaceful change, like Bekele but including thousands of other local political leaders, activists, community organizers, and regular citizens, are Ethiopia’s best chance to reform in a way that makes the country more inclusive and, ultimately, more prosperous.
The alternative is far darker.
There are also less patient voices, who believe that the government’s regular and brutal crackdowns on peaceful protesters signaled that the opportunity for peaceful change is over. As the 2016 demonstrations escalated, worrying reports of attacks on ethnic minorities and looting or destruction of foreign-owned property (many of whom are perceived to be beneficiaries of the government’s inequitable land and development policies) spread.
It is the latter, more dangerous group which is bolstered by the new state of emergency. The EPRDF’s abandonment of its promise to negotiate lends credence to their argument that the only way to change Ethiopia is through another revolution—a prospect that should be ringing alarm bells from Addis Ababa to Washington.
The ruling coalition took power in 1991 after a devastating civil war, and its repression is the only style of governance that many of its 66 million citizens under twenty-four years old have ever known. Unlike their parents, these young people don’t remember Ethiopia’s Dergue dictatorship—a period called the “Red Terror” and marked by a chilling campaign of state-sponsored killing of real or perceived political opponents. Many of Ethiopia’s older generation benchmark the EPRDF’s repression in comparison to those darkest of times; their children, on the other hand, have escalating EPRDF repression as their only reference.
If these violent revolutionaries win out in the internal struggle of Ethiopian demonstrators, the results will be catastrophic. The only way to undercut their argument is for the EPRDF to show—through quick and decisive action—that the door is not yet closed to peaceful change.
Ethiopia’s recent release of a series of high-profile prisoners—many of whom were arrested on questionable terrorism grounds or for political activities considered unfriendly to the government—followed a promise last month by the country’s prime minister to do so. The move demonstrated to the Ethiopian public, some 105 million people spread across nine ethnically-diverse regional states, that the EPRDF intended to reform. Considering the near-absence of trust between the government and much of Ethiopia’s population, governmental follow-through was thoroughly welcomed and celebrated. These releases also generated massive goodwill toward a country that has at the same time been a darling of the West on security cooperation while simultaneously ranking as one of the most repressive countries in Africa. Lifting the state of emergency in addition to these prisoner releases could signal seriousness about reform, a goal shared by many US and international organizations who could offer financial and technical support to the country.
Ethiopia’s government is up against a ticking clock. Allowing the state of emergency to stay in place sends a clear signal to Ethiopians that the opportunity for negotiation is over, and that the prisoner releases were just a blip. The United States should telegraph both this danger—but also the dwindling opportunity to change direction—clearly and urgently to the highest levels of the EPRDF. To many in Ethiopia’s restive regions, the alternative is a revolution.
Kelsey Lilley was associate director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center. She tweets @KelseyDegen.