Can Ethiopia’s New Government Keep the Country Together?
Can Ethiopia’s New Government Keep the Country Together?
Ethiopia’s deep-seated tensions are hindering efforts to unify the country. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s stated mission to bring together Ethiopia is not only ambitious but also complicated by a country with more than eighty ethnicities. The conflicts are polarizing almost all the country’s nine federal states. And yet the solutions are right there – embedded within the country’s diversity.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed swept to power last year promising democratic and social reforms. But, Abiy faces major challenges in his bid to unify the country and strengthen the federal system and there are concerns that an increasing number of violent conflicts may imperil progress. To safeguard his reform program, Abiy should strengthen Ethiopia’s nascent national reconciliation program by focusing efforts at the state level.
Greater Challenges Amidst Great Promises
Abiy’s election marked a stunning turnaround for a country that has been riven by repression and has been engaged in several wars. The new prime minister has acted quickly to enact a wide range of reforms during his short time in office.
Observers have noted a possible new role for Ethiopia as a regional peacemaker. To that end, Abiy recently ended the long-running border war with Eritrea and facilitated initial discussions of rapprochement between Eritrea and Somalia, and Eritrea and Djibouti.
At home, his goals have been just as far-reaching. Abiy has restored key national civil rights by lifting the previous state of emergency, unblocking hundreds of websites and offering a guarantee freedom of speech and assembly. He has fought corruption by arresting former powerful security and military leaders for diversion of funds and human rights abuses. He granted political freedom to the opposition by releasing tens of thousands of opposition political prisoners and signing peace agreements with armed groups. Abiy has pledged that there will be multi-party elections by 2020, appointed women to half of his cabinet posts and convinced Parliament to accept his female nominees for President and Supreme Court Justice.
Abiy is facing opposition to many of his reforms. Rifts from within the ruling coalition party (EPRDF) are exacerbating conflict both within and between the federal states. Despite his popular support, Abiy is struggling to get factions within all four parties of EPRDF to agree to his reform measures.
In 1994, Ethiopia adopted a federal system based on ethnicity, a principle enshrined in the constitution. These ethnic-based states can even secede from the federal government through referendum. With more than eighty ethnicities, and as many languages across Ethiopia, hairline-grade political fractures can quickly turn debilitating.
The government should carefully consider where it should focus its efforts at building reconciliation. Past experience shows that combining traditional conflict resolution mechanisms with formal legal state entities and processes is the most effective approach.
The Solutions Are Right There
One promising example of this process is now underway in Oromo state. In late January 2019, a traditional Oromo reconciliation mechanism known as the Abba Gada Council, worked with members of civil society to mediate between the state government party ODP and the former insurgent group OLF. A resulting peace agreement outlined steps and a timeline for the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of the OLF into civilian life.
Building on this success, the newly formed Federal Government reconciliation commission could task the civil society enhanced Abba Gada to mediate other conflicts within the state. Every state in Ethiopia has similar traditional conflict resolution mechanisms which could also be put to work. The Abba Gada had a head start because it’s widely recognized as the supreme body in Oromo. In other states, it may be necessary to bring together many different traditional reconciliation bodies from different ethnic, social and economic spheres.
The Abiy government’s efforts at unification have been a welcome change from past administrations. However, the federal government must continue to act as a unifying force during the reconciliation process. The federal reconciliation commission is crucial to support the formation of state-level enhanced traditional conflict reconciliation mechanisms such as the broadened Abba Gadda and to serve as a catalyst to link these state level bodies to address cross border conflicts. However, the federal efforts must not come at the expense of state-level efforts to foster peaceful change within their own backyards.
Some critical actions can take place with the assistance of international actors:
- Build on the success of the Oromo civil society-enhanced Abba Gada to widen their scope to include reconciliation of political power impasses, internal border disputes and resource based conflicts. Win agreement of federal commission and state level reconciliation bodies on how agreements will be enforced and legal frameworks that are in line with the constitution.
- Support the federal reconciliation commission and gain buy-in for the state level building block reconciliation approach; connect the national commission early to the state level mechanisms, leveraging their focus as listeners and supporters of the state level enhanced traditional structure.
- Support to bring together the federal reconciliation commission and the state level enhanced traditional bodies to mediate conflicts between states, with a focus on border disputes.
- Institute national level reconciliation discussion among each state conflict reconciliation mechanism. These discussions will address national concerns that then are addressed at the state level.
These measures will be necessary to help Ethiopia reaches its full potential outlined in Abiy’s vision as a country which enjoys democratic norms and is free from ethnic and political violence.
Despite the obstacles facing reform measures, the success the Abba Gada proves that enhanced traditional institutions can be instrumental in solving many seemingly intractable conflict challenges within and between states and are crucial for Ethiopia’s national reconciliation process.
In this delicate time of reform, the governance system can unravel quickly. The ethnic conflicts within each state must be addressed in order to retain stability and address conflict between states. The federal government is making significant progress in organizing a national level reconciliation commission. At the same time, state level reconciliation measures should be organized so they can be integrated with the federal effort.
Bronwen Morrison is the Co-Director of Dexis’ Center for Global Security and Stabilization (CGSS). She has worked in stability operations and security sector reform for nearly three decades with a special focus on East Africa and was most recently the national security advisor to the President of Somalia.
- Region: Africa
- Service: Project Implementation
- Sector: Civil Society, Governance, Local Governance