When I last visited Ethiopia in early 2015 on the last leg of my PhD field research, general elections were around the corner, yet there was little evidence of the same happening soon.
No campaign posters or activities, and very little public debate. The elections (or perhaps, more accurately, selections) took place and the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) won all seats to parliament.
But before long, protests erupted. Initially against planned city restructuring and an expansion plan for the city of Addis Ababa, the protests were relentless, quickly spreading to other cities and regions of the country.
The grievances were not just about also land and livelihoods in Addis Ababa but the economic conditions and political environment in the whole country. It is instructive that protests would erupt only shortly after a 100 per cent election ‘win’ by the ruling party.
As the government turned to declaring a state of emergency to tackle the protests, killing of protestors only further emboldened than ended the protests. In a dramatic turn of events early this year, Hailemariam Desalegn stunningly resigned as prime minister.
Why? He had failed to manage the country and deal with issues over which millions across the country were protesting. It is seldom that an African leader is forced to resign in the face of leadership failures. Hailemariam’s resignation opened the way that has placed Ethiopia on an unprecedented path.
The country may well be on the brink of the most fundamental turnaround in its politics and economics. Ethiopia’s modern political history can be roughly divided into three major periods: the monarchy’s imperial rule, briefly overthrown by the Italians in 1935 but restored after World War II until Emperor Haile Selassie was ignominiously deposed in 1974; the bloody military junta period of Colonel Mengistu Hailemariam who cleverly hijacked the popular revolution of 1974 but was overthrown in 1991; and finally the era since 1991 of ‘revolutionary democracy’ but which in practice was blunt authoritarianism under Meles Zenawi.
In all these periods Ethiopia has been under different brands of repressive rule and all periods ended with popular revolution and protests. The era of imperial rule was buried by a revolution in 1974; Mengistu’s dictatorship crumbled under pressure from guerrillas in 1991; and the era of Meles’ blunt authoritarianism seems to be dissipating due to sustained popular protest.
The end to these three eras sharply contradicts accounts by Western scholars and journalists that present Ethiopians as culturally predisposed to blind obedience of authority and taking orders without question. The current prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, has struck a chord with the public and is a much loved figure.
Euphoria is immense and optimism is perhaps at its highest ever in the country’s long and tortured history.
Speaking to street vendors and shoe-shiners, taxi drivers and bartenders, academics and journalists, there is near unanimous approval for the man’s stance and stature in a country in urgent need of real change. Abiy’s message is simple but powerful: Ethiopia needs a fresh and earnest redirection.
The political status quo of repressive rule is untenable, while the use of development projects to strip citizens of their inalienable freedoms is unsustainable.
He has readily acknowledged official corruption in his party, the problem of ethnic cleavages and marginalization, especially the thorny matter of minority ethnic domination. His message of a united Ethiopia has resonated powerfully with the wider public.
But Abiy also understands that talk is cheap, action is tough. In a charged environment of high hopes and expectations, he has been intense and rugged, working on the basics that can placate the public and reassure confidence to critics. Political prisoners have been freed, including a senior scholar, Dr Merera Gudina, of Addis Ababa University’s political science department.
Merera, like many leading Ethiopian politicians, doubles as an academic and political practitioner. No stranger to Ethiopia’s dreaded jails (he spent more than half-dozen years behind bars during the Mengistu dictatorship), Merera got hurled into jail again at the height of protests in 2016.
Now he and thousands other political prisoners were unconditionally freed by Prime Minister Abiy in his pursuit of rapprochement and dialogue with all domestic political actors. Political groups have been unbanned and websites unblocked. Draconian laws are being repealed.
This quest for dialogue with perceived foes is perhaps most pronounced with respect to neighbouring Eritrea. At one time in a federal arrangement with Ethiopia, but subsequently controversially made part of Ethiopia, the Eritrean question produced a long-protracted civil war by the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) of Isaias Afwerki.
The EPLF and Meles Zenawi’s Tigryan People’s Liberation Front contributed to the overthrow of Mengistu in 1991. But the two erstwhile allies turned foes in a brutal war over a border dispute in 1998. The fallout was socially devastating and economically destructive.
That Abiy recently went to Asmara and Afwerki reciprocated is remarkable. If there is something to learn from Abiy, it is that change of leadership can make a huge difference in a country tottering under authoritarian rule.
For many Ethiopians I interviewed over several weeks in Addis Ababa, the current political march is irreversible.
It is too soon to draw firm conclusions, but today’s Ethiopia is radically different from what I left in 2015.
The author is an assistant professor of political science at North Carolina State University.