Is Ethiopia making a case for dictatorships in Africa?

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Ethiopia’s transformation over the past year and a half has been staggering. Under the rule of Abiy Ahmed, the East African country has turned itself from one of the region’s most crisis-ridden nations into one of its most politically progressive – both domestically and internationally.

The political reforms taking place in Ethiopia have earned the country a new-found status as a pioneer for rights and freedoms in Africa while its international efforts -namely last year’s peace deal with Eritrea – have elevated its power of influence in the East Africa region and beyond.

It’s difficult to think of another example where so much positive change has taken place in such a short space of time.

However, the most remarkable thing about Ethiopia’s political transformation is how damaging it could prove to be for the country. Abiy Ahmed has opened up political freedoms, released thousands of political prisoners and invited rebel groups to voice their concerns through dialogue – a stark contrast to the regime that preceded him.

For journalists and opposition groups in Ethiopia, Abiy’s reforms have turned the country into something of a true democracy where fundamental rights are being respected like never before. But these new-found freedoms are also being enjoyed and exploited by militant rebels, ethnic extremists and ethno-nationalists.

The result has been a drastic increase in ethnic clashes, culminating in a coup attempt in the Amhara Region last month.

Now, Abiy critics are accusing the PM of being too lenient against groups at the more divisive end of the political spectrum and too slow in dealing with clashes. The very reforms that opened up political freedoms in Ethiopia have also paved the way for resurging ethnic conflicts that threaten to compromise all of the progress made under Abiy’s rule.

The topic of democracy vs dictatorship in Africa is a constant debate in nations where political division often results in armed conflict. So, despite all of the positive change that has taken place in Ethiopia over the past year and a half, could the country actually be making a case for dictatorships in Africa?

The paradox of political freedoms in Africa

When you think about East Africa’s most stable nations, Rwanda and Uganda are leading the way. However, they’re also home to the region’s two biggest strongmen with Yoweri Museveni having ruled for 30 years in Uganda and Paul Kagame already securing his third term as Rwanda’s president.

Large-scale political dissidence is almost unheard of in both countries where opposition leaders are targeted by security forces and the government. In Rwanda, particularly, Paul Kagame wields an unrivalled grip on power, which enables his government drive towards economic development – and with great success.

Rwanda is now one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies and most innovative countries.

Rewind five years and Ethiopia had a lot in common with today’s Rwanda in this regard. Ethiopia remains one of Africa’s most promising economies and much of this was achieved under an oppressive government that made political dissent almost impossible.

The problem for Ethiopia’s previous regime is that its grip on power became untenable.

Opposition groups started to team up against the ruling party, paving the way for Abiy Ahmed to become the country’s first leader from the Oromo ethnic group, which was also the most active in widespread protests. As soon as he was named the country’s next prime minister, there was an instant optimism that political reforms could be on their way and Abiy has more than delivered on that front.

His government has arguably overtaken the most democratic nations in East Africa, such as Kenya and Tanzania, which are both dogged by very different political problems.

Unfortunately, the paradox of political freedoms has been more extreme in Ethiopia, too. In its current state, Ethiopia looks nothing like the oppressive states of Rwanda and Uganda but it also has none of the political stability.

Does democracy fuel conflict in Africa?

The growing ethnic conflict in Ethiopia is going to encourage arguments that democracy and political freedoms fuel conflict in Africa. There’s already a loud group of analysts that argue dictatorships and single-party states that focus on economic development and allow no space for political opposition are what Africa needs to progress.

It’s a compelling argument in some ways when you look at the conflicts in countries like South Sudan and Somalia. You also get a sense of this every time there’s election violence in the likes of Kenya and the DRC. However, using Ethiopia as an example of political freedoms in comparison to these countries oversimplifies the complex makeup of the East African nation.

Ethiopia’s ethnic federalism, which divides the country’s ethnic groups by physical borders between ethnic regions, literally splits the nation and segregates its people. These borders also empower ethnic leaders to manipulate long-running fueds for political gains and this has only been made easier by Abiy Ahmed’s political reforms.

To avoid another political crisis, Ethiopia needs to address these divides and this will only happen with further reforms. You only have to look at the political chaos that flourished under the iron fist of the DRC’s Joseph Kabila, the ousting of Omar al-Bashir in Sudan and the ongoing Burundi crisis to see dictatorships that provoke violence and political instability without any economic benefits.

Featured image: By Jonathan Alpeyrie – by user:jalpeyrie (via email), CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4171558

About Aaron Brooks

Aaron Brooks is a UK journalist who wants to cut out the international agendas in news. Spending his early years in both England and Northern Ireland he saw the difference between reality and media coverage at an early age. After graduating from the University of Chester with a BA in journalism, his travels revealed just how large the gap between news and the real world can be. As Editor-in-Chief at East Africa Monitor, it’s his job to provide a balanced view of what’s going on in the region for English-speaking audiences.