Ethiopia: Will Premier Abiy Ahmed win the battle but lose the PR war?

By Samuel Getachew

Posted on Wednesday, 21 April 2021 21:53
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed addresses the media at the new 32-berth Lamu Port in Lamu County, Kenya December 9, 2020. Presidential Press Service/Handout via REUTERS

As Ethiopians prepare for the belated national elections on 5 June, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's popularity is waning in part due to the ongoing conflict in Tigray Region, a weakening economy, high unemployment and an unresolved dispute with Sudan and Egypt over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

Ethiopia has come far from its past as an aid-dependent economy with rampant extreme poverty. In fact, it has recently been noted as one of the fastest-growing economies in the region.

But the current unrest is causing some international investors to reconsider their investments. The latest is the Bangladeshi textile manufacturer DBL, which supplies H&M and other international brands.

Lured by cheap labour and slew of initiatives such as inexpensive electricity, DBL saw its local headquarters suffer heavy damage in the Tigray conflict, forcing it to pause its operations, laying off all its local workers and moving its international staff out of Ethiopia.

“There was a plan to increase our Ethiopian investment and we have been talking with the government officials, but the endless conflicts of Ethiopia have become a concern. Without security, it would be hard for us to operate and invest more resources. We are now looking at fully moving our operation elsewhere and certainly out of Ethiopia,” a diplomat who asked for anonymity tells The Africa Report.

Rights groups speaking out

Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the UN Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet and the government-run Ethiopian Human Rights Commission have all expressed concerns about the conflict in Tigray. Many partner countries and regions – such as the US, Canada and the EU – have also voiced worries about the involvement of Eritrean troops as accusations of wrongdoing mounts.

The Abiy government long denied the involvement of the Eritrean forces. Finally, he admitted their presence a month ago and promised they would be withdrawn. However, they are said to be still operating within the region.

There have been accusations of sexual violence, including rape, random killings, the looting of properties, such as hospitals. The human rights organisation Amnesty International accused Eritrean troops of committing “an unprovoked attack” and called for an international investigation.

“We are calling for an international investigation into this and other incidents and allegations of human rights violations, including war crimes and possible crimes against humanity, committed in the ongoing conflict in Tigray,” the human rights group said in a statement.

Beyond Tigray

In addition, there have also been conflicts in almost all regions of the country, including in the Oromia, Amhara, Benishangul regions. Internal displacement is a serious concern for the government, and last year, the International Organisation on Migration estimated 1.8 million Ethiopians were displaced.

“Ethiopia’s main problem is its system of three decades where [it] institutionalised tribalism more than citizenship. The nation is harvesting what is planted in its citizens, where lines based on tribes are drawn and even where the upcoming national election is expected to be ethnic-based,” says Obang Metho, a prominent human rights activist.

Abiy and his dwindling support

When Abiy became prime minister three years ago, his support was widespread. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for a peace deal with Eritrea, released all political prisoners, promoted a free press and pushed a feminist agenda at the highest levels of government.

However, there are fears Ethiopia might be heading backward towards authoritarianism ahead of tense national elections. Some of the opposition leadership is boycotting the election, while others are imprisoned.

Just this week, there was a rare protest against the national government in Amhara Region, in major cities such as Debre Markos and Desse over attacks and brutal killings of civilians.

EPRDF legacy

Neamin Zeleke, an advocate of democracy and one-time senior leader of the major opposition movement Ginbot 7, is adamant that the identity politics of the former Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) government is to blame for the current violence.

“The ethnic federal system, which has been the centre of gravity for politics in Ethiopia, has been a fertile ground for virulent forms of ethno-nationalism. Proponents of extreme forms of identity politics are fuelling these identity-based conflicts in Ethiopia since the opening of the political space in 2018,” Neamin tells The Africa Report.

He continues: “The incessant conflicts and carnage of innocents that follow seem to be chipping away the popular support the Prime Minister enjoyed. This comes at a dangerous juncture where we see the convergence of interest by internal and external enemies of Ethiopia who have a destabilising agenda.”

Eritrea alliance

Natnael B. Yifru, a political analyst, argues it is the unlikely partnership with Eritrea that might be Abiy’s ultimate undoing.

“Prime Minister Abiy made a military pact with the dictator of Eritrea, whose soldiers committed some of the most unspeakable crimes, looted and desecrated religious sites. Denying this for a long time, until the international community pressured him to admit, though he admitted only half of what was done, makes him weak and dishonest. With the security situation in shambles, many important political parties are declining to participate in the election, where the Eritrean army is still committing heinous crimes. I find it hard to imagine how a credible election can be conducted.”

Bottom line

Abiy’s Prosperity Party, formed out of the member parties of the EPRDF – except for the regional party dominant in Tigray – will pass its first electoral trial in June. The Tigray and other conflicts continue to highlight the tensions between the federal government and the regions, and also the security challenges that the Addis government has yet to get under control.

Abiy wants a strong mandate to continue with his reforms, and the outcome of the 5 June elections – the first since removing elements of the framework that ensured an EPRDF monopoly – are far from certain at this point.

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