by Yohannes Gedamu
On April 2, Abiy Ahmed, a young technocrat from the Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation (OPDO), part of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF),was sworn in as Ethiopia’s new prime minister. Ahmed’s inauguration came amid much fanfare and raised expectations about the future of Ethiopia’s democracy. He is widely seen as a reformer who can take the necessary steps to calm a nation that has been engulfed in unprecedented levels of political unrest over the past three years.
But only a little over a week into his tenure, Ahmed’s reform agenda is already facing serious obstacles.
The state of emergency declared in Ethiopia in February, after the shock resignation of Ahmed’s predecessor, Hailemariam Desalegn, is still in place. This means that, in contrast to normal times, a council of military officers referred to as the “Command Post” is effectively in control of the state. As a result, the new prime minister’s hold on the state security apparatus is minimal, making it extremely hard for him to move forward with any reform agenda.
The state of emergency has already resulted in at least nine deaths, thousands of arrests and the displacement of tens of thousands of Ethiopians. And there is no sign that the Command Post is planning to ease its grip on the country anytime soon, having arrested many Ethiopians over the past two weeks, especially in the Oromia region. Amhara activists and scholars have also been arrested in the city of Bahir Dar, although they’ve been released since.
Since February, political dissidents and activists in Ethiopia, as well as many in the international community, have been calling for the state of emergency to be lifted. In his inaugural address on April 2, Ahmed made new commitments on the promotion of democracy, dialogue with the opposition and respect for citizens’ freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly. But, unfortunately, he failed to mention the need to lift the state of emergency that prevents the very reforms he called for from being implemented.
Many analysts believe that his reluctance to push for the lifting of the state of emergency is rooted in the internal dynamics of the EPRDF. Members of the establishment, who are naturally resistant to reform or reconciliation efforts, are still influential in the ruling coalition. Even though a reformist is now prime minister, the historical dominance of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in the EPRDF is not yet waning.
Although there is still some cautious optimism regarding Ahmed’s tenure as prime minister, his perceived slowness in taking meaningful action against the oppressive practices of the regime in power is causing concern. Since he took office, the prime minister has started making constructive, promising engagements with the ever-weakened opposition, but some observers complain that some of the most important voices within the opposition have not been invited to the discussion yet.
Yet, if Ahmed plays his cards right, all may still change for the better thanks to something that happened thousands of miles away, in the United States.
On April 10, the US House of Representatives unanimously adopted a resolution critical of Ethiopia’s government, titled “Supporting respect for human rights and encouraging inclusive governance in Ethiopia”.
Commonly referred to as HR-128 (PDF), the resolution condemned “the killings of peaceful protesters and excessive use of force by Ethiopian security forces; the detention of journalists, students, activists, and political leaders; and the regime’s abuse of the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation to stifle political and civil dissent and journalistic freedoms”.
In a statement issued by the foreign ministry on Wednesday, Ethiopia’s government described the adoption of HR-128 as untimely, inappropriate and disrespectful of its sovereignty. “The move had failed to recognise concrete and positive steps being taken recently in the area of political reforms and deepening the democratic culture in the country,” the statement said.
How much say Ahmed had in articulating the government’s response remains unclear. But, despite the criticism it received from the Ethiopian establishment, HR-128 is likely a blessing in disguise for Ethiopia’s new prime minister and his reform agenda.
What can the resolution achieve?
After the House of Representatives’ unanimous approval of HR-128, if the US Senate also passes a similar bill (S-Res 168) and US President Donald Trump’s signature follows, this resolution is going to become the primary law-guiding US foreign policy towards Ethiopia for a long time to come.
The US considers Ethiopia its most important ally in the volatile East African region. As a result, Ethiopia receives one of the largest security and humanitarian aid packages among Sub-Saharan African countries. Any resolution or law about Ethiopia that the US government adopts would have considerable impact on the actions of the regime and the new prime minister’s reform agenda.
HR-128 places efforts to strengthen democratic institutions and end human rights abuses at the core of US’ relations with Ethiopia. It calls on the government of Ethiopia to “end the use of excessive force, release wrongfully imprisoned protesters, and improve transparency”.
The resolution also makes it clear that Ethiopia’s adopted proclamations, such as anti-terror laws that the regime utilises to stifle dissent and silence critics must be repealed. Moreover, the resolution acknowledges Ethiopia’s further violations of its citizens’ rights that include the forced eviction and resettlement of Annuaks in Gambella, the arrest of journalists and the closing of over 200 civil society organisations, and calls for investigations into the killing of protesters in the Oromia and Amhara regions. The document also expresses Congress’ disappointment with the absence of any “indication that anyone has been held to account for these abuses”.
Therefore, besides condemning killings, detentions, and abuse of the Anti-Terror Proclamation, the resolution also calls on the Ethiopian government to enact reforms that would protect the Ethiopian people’s civil liberties and release political prisoners, views that the new prime minister is also believed to share.
The resolution makes more ambitious demands of the Ethiopian regime that have not yet been voiced by Ahmed: to lift the state of emergency; to end the use of excessive force by security forces, enforce professional discipline, and hold accountable security forces responsible for such abuses; and to conduct an investigation into the killings, detentions, and instances of excessive use of force that took place in response to protests in the Oromia and Amhara regions, hold security forces accused of such actions accountable through public proceedings, and publicly release written findings from such investigations.
Therefore, the pressure applied on the Ethiopian regime by the US through HR-128 could strengthen the hand of the prime minister vis-a-vis less responsive segments within the EPRDF, and pressure the forces that control the country’s security apparatus, and the intelligence and economic sectors to participate in negotiations for reform.
The right time for change
With the passing of HR-128, Ethiopia has entered a turning point in its political history. The regime in power has never faced a challenge like this from Washington before. Although the US government has long been aware of the well-documented problems with regards to human rights abuses, lack of democracy promotion and corruption at the highest levels of the Ethiopian state, it has not forcefully acted to pressure Addis Ababa until now.
In a possible reversal of fortunes for the regime in Ethiopia, the US government finally seems eager to exert pressure on the regime and openly ally itself with Ethiopian youth who have been protesting against government oppression in the country’s two largest regions, Oromia and Amhara. Thus, a reformist leader such as Prime Minister Ahmed – and his allies within Ethiopia’s ruling coalition – has an unprecedented opportunity to enact political and economic reforms and start a much-needed process of national dialogue.
Of course, only time will tell whether the new prime minister will be able to seize the moment and move forward with his reform agenda. But one thing is clear: Ahmed seems to have earned one more ally in his intra-party struggle on top of the massive and unprecedented popular support he is enjoying. HR-128 is indeed a resolution he needs to embrace if he is committed to enacting the political reforms he called for in his inaugural address.