Ethiopia’s Transition at a Crossroad


The democratic transition in Ethiopia is taking a worrisome turn. The sweeping reforms introduced by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in 2018 after decades of repressive rule and three years of deadly protests raised hopes for a more just and free society, one in which power is distributed equally among the country’s many ethnic groups. Worryingly, the failure to reach an inclusive political agreement on the way forward has triggered intercommunal violence and conflicts that have left hundreds of people dead and more than 2.7 million displaced throughout the country. The conflict that broke out in the northern region of Tigray on November 4 follows months of feuding between the federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front—the dominant party in the former ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front. It is also the dramatic result of the Ethiopian government’s inability to deal with the country’s difficult past and engage in an inclusive conversation about the future. 

Ethiopia is home to more than 80 ethnic groups who speak roughly 70 languages. Governing this diverse nation constructively has been a challenge. While ethnic Tigrayans represent only about 6 percent of the country’s total population, they have enjoyed disproportionate power in government for nearly three decades. Under the country’s ethnicity-based federalist system, which is enshrined in the constitution, larger ethnic groups are granted rights to self-governance within their respective states. Although, no group has ever practiced autonomous self-rule. Meanwhile, this federalist system has failed to address satisfactorily the persistent demands of smaller ethnic groups for greater political representation at the national level. In response, Prime Minister Abiy has attempted to reform the system by reducing the autonomy of regional governments. Tigrayans and some other ethnic groups have strongly opposed these reforms.

Military operations are unlikely to bring about a lasting solution to the conflict in Tigray. The Ethiopian government should instead undertake a comprehensive effort to address the root causes of structural injustice in the country. With civil society in the country gradually rebuilding and regaining strength after years of draconian measures aimed at silencing them, Ethiopians must now make their voices heard and decide which governance and transitional justice systems can best lay the foundations for a safer and more just society. This call to action is critically urgent as ethnic clashes intensify, the government returns to arresting political opponents en masse, and allegations of war crimes surface in Tigray. Only a genuinely participatory dialogue will help prevent the recurrence of human rights violations, ensure a more inclusive government, and keep the country from slipping into civil war. Whatever model of transitional justice is adopted and implemented, the key is to recognize the dignity of individuals, acknowledge and redress violations, and prevent these violations from happening again.

PHOTO: Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed accepts the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo 2019. (Bair175/Wikimedia Commons)