While Ethiopia has sustained significant economic growth, this growth has not translated into improving livelihoods for many. Rapid population growth, changing demographics and rural-urban migration have given rise to a substantial informally employed urban population facing persistent poverty and marginalisation, driving substantial dissatisfaction. However, the EPRDF’s strong control over the political and public sphere have long limited the space to express such grievances. Only in recent years have ethnic nationalist sentiments managed to mobilise such popular dissatisfaction to the extent that they can mount a serious challenge to the EPRDF’s position. This chapter thus discusses the rapidly changing political organisational context in which such sentiments could rise to political significance. It covers changes in governance as well as the re-emergence and mobilisation of ethnic nationalist forces.
The ethnic nationalist ideologies gaining salience and forming a driving force behind the tensions in Ethiopia’s political competition are not a new phenomenon. Such ideologies can be traced back to the Ethiopianizing campaign of the imperial regime of Menelik II and the various forms of ethnically exclusionary governance systems that have dominated since. While the explicit political recognition of Ethiopia’s diverse ethnic composition in the federal structure – and the EPRDF’s ethnic sister parties can be seen as an attempt to recognise ethnic grievances and build support from previously marginalised ethnic groups, it should be remembered that actual grassroots ethnic mobilisation was but a limited component in the EPRDF’s mobilisation efforts. To a large extent the central components of the EPRDF regime dominated the devolved, ethnically based administrations. While initially this may have been due to the weak capacity of the newly set up regional organisations, the centralising tendencies and top-down policymaking procedures associated with the EPRDF’s vanguard party model also directly undercut regional autonomy and limited the space for bottom-up initiatives from the regions. In particular, following the (unexpectedly) weak electoral performance of the EPRDF in the 2005 elections and the significant post-election repression, the ruling party significantly restricted the political space and brought political processes under central oversight – centrally, regionally and at grassroots level. As such, the EPRDF effectively monopolised the political discourse and disseminated its own conception of developmentalism with a restricted and subservient role for popular political participation. Meanwhile, religious actors were under strict and at times invasive EPRDF control as well, while legislation increasing religious freedoms significantly fuelled inter-religious competition, thus weakening the traditionally dominant position of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. While inter-ethnic tensions may have remained relatively limited during significant parts of EPRDF rule, it is likely they were a significant factor in the collapse of political mobilisation outside of EPRDF structures, as well as the opposition to the top-down centrally led development ideology shared by different ethnic and nationalist ideologies.
Regardless of the EPRDF’s top-down method of governing, grassroots engagement and mobilisation has not been a neglected facet: the party saw the maintenance of a ‘hegemonic’ position in the political arena as vital to its developmentalist strategy. The state institutions the EPRDF inherited had a strong capacity to govern to the lowest levels of administration. As the EPRDF party became harder to distinguish from these governing institutions, especially following the 2005 elections, its membership base as well as its ability to monitor and shape the lives of its citizens at the kebele (village council) level was systematically expanded. While the state’s extensive repressive capabilities are often cited as a driver of both stabilisation and destabilisation, it should be kept in mind that the central government maintained an increasingly large array of auxiliary organisations in order to build a political base supportive of the party’s aims (especially in urban centres). Many such auxiliary organisations were traditionally associated with the mass-party organisation to which the EPRDF aspired, but the breadth and scale of those set-up in urban centres was not. The wide range of organisations effectively allowed the EPRDF to crowd out other forms of (non-EPRDF) civic debate. For example, in the 2008 local elections, the EPRDF was the only party able to field enough candidates to cover the vastly expanded number of local council seats (approximately 3.5 million), thus reasserting its control at local level. These candidates were to a considerable extent drawn from the Addis Ababa Youth Forum, a young people’s organisation established by the EPRDF in 2006. The Forum grew rapidly as the EPRDF offered loyal members recognition, access to Micro and Small Enterprise programmes, housing and job opportunities in government positions. Additionally, the range of benefits accessible through the auxiliary organisations, as well some religious institutions, made them a significant foundation for many household livelihoods. The development of such institutions tied in well with developmentalist social policy, and the state’s strong administrative capabilities also made it possible to tie benefits to an individual, effectively trading a range of benefits for professed loyalty to the regime.
Unemployed and informally employed (male) youth were of special concern to stability in the fast-growing urban centres, given their 2005 support for opposition parties. As such, the government rolled out a range of measures to tie this group closer to the ruling party across urban centres, most notably Addis Ababa. These measures included job creation programmes, small enterprise development programmes and the registration of cooperatives (reliant on government contracts and licensing) and youth and women leagues, which reinforced the tie between individual livelihoods and at least a marginal expression of support for the state. Wide participation across urban centres shored up the EPRDF’s weakened legitimacy, while at times providing valuable support to participants' livelihood strategies. Yet, it also defined state-controlled channels, rather than self-organised initiatives, as the place for the informally employed to express their demands for social and economic rights and benefits. Additionally, registration and membership structures allowed for a significant degree of co-option, by making access to a range of benefits and licences contingent on members’ participation in state-sponsored political activities, recruitment efforts and other political endeavours. The ability to hand out benefits selectively creates a conducive environment for local officials to extend and reinforce patronage networks in the informal sector. Meanwhile, significant numbers of potential beneficiaries remained excluded from such programmes, as participation and benefits are tied to an individual’s location of registration, thus reinforcing the marginalisation of those migrating from rural areas and small cities into the major urban centres. While the connections thus created reinforced the ties between the state and the informal sector, the livelihoods of a considerable proportion of the target population remain insecure, creating a stark contrast between the government’s development and economic growth narrative and the individual’s own personal fortunes.
Regardless of the extensive efforts to shore up the state and EPRDF’s relations with the urban population, Abiy Ahmed’s ascension to the position of prime minister amidst heavy popular protests reflected a major departure from the EPRDF’s internal politics and governance approach. The new prime minister’s approach seems to challenge many key facets of the governance system in which the EPRDF thrived over the past three decades, and has challenged a wide range of existing elite networks while lifting the lid on long-suppressed forms of ethnic and pan-Ethiopian nationalism. The roll-back of state surveillance and the partial dismantling and reorganisation of the security apparatus appear to have been effective in breaking up entrenched TPLF patronage networks and cementing the new government’s hold of key institutions, while also signalling a step change from a repression-based relationship with the population. The implementation of the planned release of political prisoners, inviting opposition politicians back into the country from exile and the unblocking of 264 websites and a range of social media channels effectively broke the EPRDF’s monopoly control over the spaces of political debate.
While recent institutional changes may be crucial to allow for the expression of protesters demands that led to the change in governing actor, they also ensure that socio-political demands are expressed outside the institutions designed to handle them and grant access to benefits. The rearrangement of elite networks, the dismantling of several central institutions and the unclear balance of power between central and regional centres has left a range of local and kebele level governance actors in a weakened or delegitimated position. Although large sections of the ruling elite (outside TPLF elites) are still in place, the institutional context around them has dramatically shifted. Rather than reforming existing institutions, the Prime Minister’s office has sought to implement significant parts of its agenda while bypassing existing central institutions formally tasked with implementing the required reforms and creating new ones in their place. As such, ambiguity around direction and mandate significantly has increased among middle and lower governance, delaying service delivery and implementation of new directives. Additionally, with the weakened coherence of the EPRDF party structure following the rift in ethnically based sister parties (and the subsequent creation of the PP), another lever of control has been rendered largely ineffective. In some cases, previously tightly controlled spaces are being liberalised instrumentally. For instance, while public employees are generally prohibited from unionising, recent changes have made it possible for employees working with METEC or the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam to unionize, and for those unions to address corruption issues. Such changes have taken place alongside a wider drive to break TPLF networks.
The reinvigorated ethnic nationalistic demands expressed in the newly opened political space are thus being made in a weakly governed space. Many demands for greater devolution, autonomy and secession have a formal basis in the constitution. Yet most relevant regulations have so far remained poorly developed, as no formal appeal has ever been made on them. The salience of ethnic demands is further pushed by the upcoming elections (originally scheduled for August 2020 but then delayed to June 2021), as the first-past-the-post system incentivises political actors to further polarise the debate, often by presenting themselves as the strongest proponent of ethnically defined regional state constituencies. Debate governed by poorly developed norms and regulations around acceptable political communication and political finance regulations, yet with ample scope and history for repressing debate, fuels incidents and conspiracy theories (see Box 3).
Regardless of the political changes that have taken place over the past two years, the state’s approach to mobilisation to tackle social unrest appears to remain largely focused on economic issues and livelihood support, rather than the political demands voiced in the protests. The Homegrown Economic Reform Plan is largely focused on job creation, as well as maintaining currency stability. The policy aimed to combat the significant rate of unemployment by creating 3 million jobs in the formal sector during the course of 2020 as well as enabling increased and less-exploitative labour migration (mainly towards the Gulf states). Additionally, a new round of privatisation of several state-owned enterprises is being implemented, aiming to improve private sector efficiency by reducing the state’s involvement in business ventures while ensuring currency stability through potentially generated foreign direct investment (FDI). While such reforms are largely in line with financial institutions’ recommended reform agenda for Ethiopia, they are also largely an extension of the economic reforms implemented under the previous administration’s GTP programmes. While such reforms may be effective at continuing to drive macroeconomic growth, it remains questionable to what extent they can deliver short-term benefits to historically excluded and marginalised groups. Additionally, with the liberalisation of the political debate, it is questionable to what extent the EPRDF model of trading private benefits for a degree of political allegiance remains a viable and legitimate option.
While the economic policy may represent a large degree of continuity, party relations have shifted considerably. Following the power shifts that occurred within the party throughout 2017, the aggressive breaking up of TPLF patronage networks and shifting ethnic demands placing the ODP and ADP in an increasingly polarised debate, EPRDF decision making became paralysed. In the newly liberalised space of political competition defined by ethnic nationalism, the value of the centralist EPRDF brand and its historical baggage is questionable. Hence, while the administration turned over in 2018, a substantial segment of the political elite remained in place throughout state bodies, but had little incentive to join a centrally pushed drive for liberalisation. The creation of the Prosperity Party (PP) as a merger of (parts of) the EPRDF sister parties ADP, ODP, SEPDM and some regional parties, but not the TPLF, likely functioned as a move to salvage at least part of the EPRDF apparatus reorganised into a new functional structure. Some observers note the party appears to be aimed at the urban electorate taking a Ethiopian nationalist position through the PM’s medemer philosophy (in stark contrast to the various ethnic nationalisms prevalent across the regions). It should be kept in mind, however, that the medemer concept appears to be relatively flexible, and that the PP is to a considerable degree built on components of the EPRDF that have a strong regional and rural presence. While the administration has launched a range of high-profile projects highlighting its vision for the country, its exact platform and appeal (especially in the regions) appears to still be under development.
In stark contrast to the governing parties, the newly opened space available to opposition parties has led to very different mobilisation approach. With the disappearance of the common adversary in the form of a repressive central regime, the protest movement largely shattered into its constituent ethnic nationalist components. The ethnic nationalist opposition parties have since defined themselves in opposition to both Ethiopian nationalism as well as other forms of ethnic nationalism by rallying against ethnic minorities within their own ethnic regional state. With no ability to hand out benefits, and policy being subservient to ethnic identity issues, mobilisation has largely revolved around projecting themselves as the most salient advocates for ethnic nationalist demands. This strategy has resulted particularly in a blossoming of ethnically based media and social media campaigning, stemming from political actors and from independent entrepreneurs spotting an opportunity for ethnically based news and entertainment channels. The absence of a developed narrative and media strategy by state institutions, alongside local state actors’ weakened control in response to rising protests, has fed a media environment in which ethnically biased and fake news have proliferated rapidly, further polarising the debate and raising inter-ethnic tensions (see Box 3 for an example). Facilitated by the recent expansion of network coverage, greater speeds and price reductions, social media has proven to be an effective channel to reach migrating and illiterate segments of the population, potentially further aggravating tensions between marginalised urbanising groups and established urban classes.
Ethnic violence and clashes have been increasing at Ethiopian universities over the past year, and several students have been killed in clashes and conflicts at different universities. The abduction in early December 2019 of at least a dozen Amhara students from the Dembi Dollo University in Oromia sparked significant anti-government protests. It also raised ethnic tension between Oromo and Amhara populations, two groups whose political representatives were instrumental in jointly breaking the TPLF’s dominance of the EPRDF apparatus and bringing the Abiy administration into office. The protests focused on the government’s silence on how the situation developed and alleged poor management of the situation on the side of state and regional state security forces. Numerous students across the country dropped out of university due to the insecurity caused by ethnic clashes on university grounds.
While the government remains largely silent on social media, many opposition voices are very active on channels such as Facebook or Twitter dominating the framing of the event. In addition, government news outlets have remained mostly silent on the abduction and surrounding ethnic tensions and clashes, not commenting on the kidnapping for weeks. Later statements from the government produced more confusion: they noted 21 students had been freed but such reports could not be verified by other media on the ground or by regional state sources. A subsequent statement in parliament raised further questions, as PM Abiy claimed it was not possible for structures parallel to the legal government and the army to exist. The statement referred to the regional government in Oromia, which blamed the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) for the kidnapping and cracked down on their political opposition, despite the recently rehabilitated OLA denying any involvement.
The incoherent messaging and lack of a joint media strategy left a significant space for a range of Oromia nationalist channels (mostly Qeerroo youth movement aligned) running stories framing the kidnapping as a part of a government campaign to suppress opposition in Oromia. Furthermore, they claim the government is supported by and acting in favour of the Amhara people by suppressing and prosecuting Oromo opposition. Some channels go as far as accusing the government of having invented the kidnapping in order to create an anti-Oromo atmosphere, and to legitimise the suppression of Oromo people and security activities in west Oromia.
Meanwhile Amhara nationalist media outlets accuse the government of protecting the Oromo extremists they held accountable for the kidnapping. Amhara nationalist outlets claim that Oromo extremists are targeting Amhara students, framing Oromo movements as terrorists that form a significant danger for all Amhara people living in Oromia. Both sides see their point proved by what is seen as poor crisis management and an incoherent media strategy on the part of the central government. The space left allows social media channels to be a significant force driving anti-government campaigns by mobilisation on an ethnic basis, feeding mistrust between ethnic groups.
While ethnic nationalist cleavages are by no means novel, their rising salience has been both a product of, and an impetus to, the changing form of political contestation and mobilisation over the past few years. The declining cohesion of the governing party has made a strongly repressive response less feasible, yet many of the EPRDF’s clientelistic approaches to political mobilisation and its claim to legitimacy based on economic growth have equally lost purchase. The rising significance of ethnically based mobilisation appealing to widespread economic grievances requires the governing party to reinvent its own appeal, and has facilitated the spread of ethnic tensions outside of the traditional spaces of political contestation and into various forms of non-EPRDF controlled mobilisation.