Q&A: Ethiopia Is at a ‘Very Critical Juncture’
After high-level assassinations, the country may still be in danger, says Human Rights Watch expert Felix Horne.
BY JEFCOATE O’DONNELL | JUNE 24, 2019
(Foreign Policy) — Ethiopia marked a national day of mourning on Monday after four government officials, including the governor of the Amhara region and the chief of the army, were assassinated over the weekend in dual attacks in Addis Ababa and Amhara’s capital city, Bahir Dar. State forces shot and killed Brig. Gen. Asaminew Tsige, a former political prisoner, who is allegedly responsible for the attacks, in Amhara state on Monday. Tsige was said to be resentful of perceived maltreatment by the central government, butthere remains some confusion about the nature and precise planning of the attacks.
Amid an internet blackout that has forced many Ethiopians offline and restrictions on cell phone use, the country is still working to make sense of the consequences. Foreign Policyspoke to Felix Horne, an Ethiopia researcher at Human Rights Watch, about the country’s regional politics, the record of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, and what to look out for as Ethiopia confronts a volatile moment.
Foreign Policy: How do the events of the weekend fit into Ethiopia’s broader political landscape?
Felix Horne: Under Abiy’s leadership there’s been a lot of very positive human rights reforms, but one of the ongoing concerns has been the breakdown in security across wide parts of the country. And I think so far that insecurity has manifested itself in a lot of ethnic violence. At present, Ethiopia has over 3 million internally displaced people. Over this weekend, we saw a slightly different manifestation of that breakdown. While Abiy has earned a lot of praise for his human rights reforms, I think it’s clear that some of those actors that are not supportive of the regime have made their mark.
FP: What do we know about Brig. Gen. Asaminew Tsige? What is his relationship to Ethiopia’s broader politics?
FH: He was in the army. He was one of the individuals behind an alleged coup attempt in 2009, and he was released along with many political prisoners in 2018, and then he was quickly appointed to be the regional security head of the Amhara region.
FP: What should we know about the regional politics at play here?
FH: The dynamics of the Amhara region are interesting because on one hand you have the ruling party, so the Amhara Democratic Party who are part of the ruling coalition, and who are closely connected to Abiy. But at the same time you have the rise of Amhara nationalism, which has been very pronounced the last couple of years. So a lot of people ascertain that the appointment of Asaminew to his position as head of the peace and security bureau in the Amhara region was to appease the rising Amhara nationalists, and as part of an effort to make the ADP more appealing to a broader swath of the population. Now over the last couple of months, he has been engaging in a lot of really strong rhetoric, saying that Amharas need to arm themselves—that they are facing a lot of threats. There’s been a lot of negativity toward the federal government. He’s also been actively recruiting people to join local militias. Lots of rhetoric against the Tigrayan government of the neighboring region—there is a lot of tension along those borders. So he’s very much been a divisive figure. So he’s very much at odds with the ADP and with Abiy’s broader reform agenda, and I think the events of this weekend need to be seen in that context.
FP: Do you think that anything like this was on Abiy’s radar, and how do you think his response could shift the situation?
FH: When the incident happened, Abiy went on national television dressed in military fatigues and urged the army to stay united. I think Ethiopia always had a very strong surveillance and intelligence apparatus. I think there’s a question mark over whether they were able to detect these types of threats ahead of time.
FP: And how does the internet shutdown relate to all this?
FH: The internet was blocked last week across the country. A lot of people assume it was because of this. But as the understanding now that these were in fact connected, and perhaps the government had been anticipating some kind of attack like this, and that’s why they started the blackout.
Abiy has implemented a lot of positive reforms … including the release of tens of thousands of political prisoners, the reform of repressive laws, including Ethiopia’s anti-terrorism law. He welcomed all of Ethiopia’s banned opposition groups back to the country, where they’re now operating relatively freely. He lifted restrictions on independent media. He unblocked websites and made peace with neighboring Eritrea.
But there’s still a lack of transparency around many, many decisions. And I think this is a situation where all of the speculation and all of the conspiracy theories could be put to bed quickly if Abiy’s government came out with a statement as to why the internet was blocked.
FP: Tell me more about the kind of nationalisms that the country is dealing with, and how to avoid misunderstanding regional politics in Ethiopia.
FH: The first thing is that Ethiopia has lived under an authoritarian government for many, many years. And so when you try to change that overnight, it’s releasing this pressure valve. At the same time, as the security forces have been reformed and you have seen a security void, people are finally able to express decades-old grievances. Often that means engaging in score settling against other ethnic groups, over complex questions of identity and land, and border demarcation, which are very explosive in Ethiopia, and are finally being expressed again in that security vacuum. At the same, the institutions that would be expected to resolve those grievances—whether it’s the judiciary, or independent media, or civil society, getting more attention on those issues—those institutions are still not independent, and they’re taking steps in that direction, but they’re not there yet. So people believe that there isn’t necessarily any apparent way to resolve these grievances. So there has been flare-up after flare-up, often along the border areas between ethnic groups, which has led to over 3 million IDPs in one year, which is shocking.
FP: There have been such high levels of displacement that the Ethiopian census has been postponed again. Tell me more about how that relates to these dynamics.
FH: Well I think the census is very critical for a variety of things, including the elections, and resource allocation, and things like that. There hasn’t been a census in quite some time. It’s crucial that it’s done. But difficult to do in a situation where there is a lack of security in many places and where there are massive amounts of IDPs. When you talk to any marginalized group in Ethiopia about their grievances, inadvertently the census comes up. “We were undercounted,” or “the other group was overcounted,” or “there was just political manipulation of numbers” these are just some of the accusations, so the census is very politically sensitive. Now the fact that these was postponed again, and I think a lot of people believe that the reasons were valid, is a pretty strong indication that it’s going to be very difficult to have elections in the country, which are scheduled for May of 2020.
FP: What are Abiy’s chances in the upcoming election? Where does he stand after weathering this kind of volatile moment, and after coming into office with such high expectations?
FH: It’s so hard to know. I mean, I think that the ruling coalition and so the [Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front] has been very much splintered—the South and Tigray, I would argue, are not active members of the coalition, and the future of ADP is a bit of a question mark right now after the events of this weekend. Abiy’s support in Oromia is hard to ascertain. And there are various opposition parties in Oromia that have significant support, so I think it’s a really big question mark in terms of how things will unfold for him. But I also think his reaction to the events of this weekend will appear to be an important indicator for him.
This sort of absence of security had been very worrying. But there is a fear that if there is a strong security response put in place that it would be very easy to slide back into the kind of authoritarian ways, and nobody wants that.
FP: I want to ask you more about the terms of nationalism in the Amhara region. What are some of those grievances, and how are they’re presented?
FH: So in the Amhara region, there’s been this rise of Amhara nationalism. A number of Amharas will tell you that they were not involved in making decisions about the last constitution, when the Derg was overthrown, which essentially instituted a system of ethnic federalism. So a lot of people are quite frustrated with that with that constitution. And that’s not simply in the Amhara region—a lot of people are frustrated with the constitution. But similarly, a lot of people tell me that they very much support the system of ethnic federalism, and perhaps the problem is not with the constitution, but just the way that it is being implemented. I think that’s a very politically divisive and sensitive issue.
With the Amhara region specifically, there are a number of disputes along the border with Tigray, so there are different groups of people that live along the border who are governed by one side that perhaps want the right to decide who they’re governed by. There are various constitutional clauses to allow that to happen, and in the past, the government hasn’t permitted them to be implemented. And neither side seem willing to make any real concessions. It’s just been a lot of rhetoric on both sides. A lot of build-up of military force, and a very worrying situation.
FP: What should we be paying attention to in the aftermath? What next?
FH: What we are hearing about Addis today is that there’s a lot of military on the streets, quite heavily armed. That signifies to me that there is a concern that this may not be over. It’s clearly a very critical juncture. And we just hope that Abiy’s response to all of this is not to roll back the reforms, and that he continues to pursue the path of increased respect for human rights and democracy in Ethiopia.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for publication.