In November 2015, protests began in Ethiopia’s populous Oromia region and gradually spread across the country. The protests, which focused on a wide range of grievances, eventually led to the shocking resignation of prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn in 2018. By 2019, the protests had died down, although ethnic-based clashes continued. The new government’s inability to enforce the rule of law, the rise of ethno-based nationalism, and a splintering of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) are all cause for concern. Nevertheless, under the new reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia is making progress.
This progress presents both opportunities and tactical challenges for civic activists. Since the end of the protests, many activists have entered into formal or mainstream civil society organizations in an effort to work with the grain of government reforms. Others are in a wait-and-see mode to determine their next course of action. As reforms show signs of stalling, some activists might be set to remobilize. Ethiopia’s complicated mix of ethnonationalisms has militated against activists moving into political parties.
From Oppression to Resistance
For two decades after the overthrow of the military Derg regime in 1991, Ethiopia was ruled by the iron fist of Meles Zenawi, the leader of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). This faction was a minority ethnic group within the EPRDF ruling coalition, which also included the largest ethnic-based parties—the Oromo Peoples Democratic Organization (OPDO) (now known as the Oromo Democratic Party, OPD) and the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM) (now known as the Amhara Democratic Party), among others. The TPLF dominated the ruling coalition, as well as key positions in the government.
For many decades, the central government used force and repressive legislation to quell ethnic unrest, forcing a sense of national cohesion while adding to the unaddressed grievances that would erupt into protests years later. The EPRDF’s repressive reign was heightened after the 2005 general elections, in which thousands of demonstrators were killed and imprisoned. In the years that followed, the regime tightened controls on civic activism. Zenawi’s death in 2012 widened the cracks within the ruling EPRDF coalition. Repression continued under his successor, Desalegn. Draconian laws were enacted against civic activists, and many opposition figures were arrested under the pretext of an antiterrorism law.
The mass protests that started in the Oromia region in 2015 soon spread, reflecting an accumulation of years of frustration among ethnic groups that felt marginalized by the TPLF-dominated government. The protesters’ list of grievances expanded from specific concerns related to economic development, land rights, and the like to include criticisms of the TPLF’s disproportionate economic and political power, demands for the release of political prisoners, and calls for greater regional self-rule and shared rule at the national level. The galvanizing effect of youth-led protest movements, such as the Queerroo from the Oromia region, soon started to bear fruit as the government released jailed leaders who had been considered political prisoners.1
The government response was to repress the population even more. In October 2015, a six-month state of emergency was declared. The government branded media houses such as the Oromo Media Network and the Ethiopian Satellite Television (ESAT) as terrorist media. Other directives banned all forms of protests or assembly without authorization. Tens of thousands of young people were detained in military camps in the Oromia and Amhara regions and, after months of indoctrination, were released wearing t-shirts that said “Never Protest Again.” These miscalculations by the government only galvanized the protests. Protesters began to express grave concerns over abuses of the security forces, the government’s slipshod approach to development, and the unequal distribution of power and economic benefits in favor of those aligned with the government.
Before long, leaders within the ruling coalition from the regions where sustained mass protests were happening began to speak against the disproportionate response by the security forces, seen in indiscriminate shootings in areas such as Gondar.2 The progressive parts of the government began to realize that failure to address protesters’ grievances would plunge the country into a deeper crisis. With the ruling EPRDF coalition unable to maintain cohesion or contain the increasingly violent protests, then prime minister, Desalegn tendered his resignation, signaling a beginning of the end of autocratic repression in Ethiopia.
Reforms After Protest
After protests died down in Ethiopia, activists made more substantive demands and pressed the government to allow media and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to operate freely, repeal repressive laws that were used to criminalize citizens calling for reforms, address historical grievances and the marginalization of some ethnic groups, and much more.
Following Desalegn’s resignation, many protesters, especially from the Oromia region where mass protests began, increased their demands and proclaimed, “Enough is enough, down, down . . . TPLF.”3 To many, the only suitable candidates to lead Ethiopia out of the volatile situation were from the Oromia region. However, there was a split within the EPRDF over who to elect as successor. The TPLF-dominant group was not ready to elect a successor from Oromia. Despite this resistance, the ruling EPRDF coalition elected Ahmed from the OPD—a major move that encouraged activists to move off the streets and adopt more gradualist tactics.
The postprotest context also has been greatly shaped by the numerous reforms undertaken by the new prime minister and his commitment to even more profound changes. In less than a year, Prime Minister Ahmed lifted the state of emergency, unconditionally accepted the Algiers Agreement between Eritrea and Ethiopia that had been dormant for nearly twenty years, and opened the land boundary between the two countries after he and his Eritrean counterpart declared an end to their long-standing war. He also closed the infamous Maekelwai prison, released thousands of political prisoners, and removed the terrorist label from opposition parties. This last move allowed opposition leaders to travel freely and enabled them to participate in discussions about broader reforms.
To further address domestic grievances, Ahmed formally apologized to the Ethiopian public for the atrocities committed by the government and established the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission. He also restored mobile internet to the regions where it previously had been switched off by the federal government in an attempt to contain the protest movements. The new prime minister also surprised many by appointing Birtuka Mideksa, a former opposition leader and dissident who had been living in the United States, as head of the Electoral Commission. In forming his new cabinet, Ahmed ensured that 50 percent of his cabinet positions went to women, and he nominated and got parliament’s approval for only the second female president Ethiopia has held in nearly a century. Ahmed also has met with parties from outside the EPRDF, and Ethiopia’s forthcoming 2020 national elections could see a broadened political space.
Further, the new prime minister has won regional and international acclaim and support for his reforms with successful visits and meetings in Italy and with Pope Francis in Vatican City, in addresses to the World Economic Forum in Davos and the European Union Parliament in Brussels, and in several bilateral meetings with international investors. These contacts likely will help keep Ethiopia a top destination for foreign direct investment in Africa. Finally, Ahmed’s ascension was also enhanced by an alliance between the OPDO and the ANDM, two of the largest ethnic-based parties representing nearly two-thirds of the Ethiopian population. Their alliance diminished the influence of the TPLF, which had been a major concern among the country’s activists. The new government looks balanced, in terms of institutional and ethnic dynamics within the EPRDF and key government positions—in particular, members of OPDO hold several important positions.
Despite all these reforms, an increasing number of activists have started to question their extent and sustainability. Interviews with activists suggest that Ethiopian civil society is divided between several pathways.
Near-Term Goals Achieved, Activism Dies Down
The most dominant pathway for most of the protesters is that of moderation. For many protesters, the resignation of Desalegn and the subsequent election of Ahmed provided a sense of fulfillment. The fact that the new prime minister was from the OPD was a bonus for those who had been involved in the large-scale protests that had begun in the Oromia region. Further, the reform promises that Ahmed offered gave the impression that activists had achieved their near-term goals, which led to a progressive slowdown in civic activism.
Federal and regional government reconfigurations and political appointments also demonstrate that the new leadership has been willing to accommodate or at least reflect on some of the protesters’ grievances. This means that, to some extent, grievances stand a chance of being addressed in the longer term if Ahmed can remain on course. A final factor in the remarkable die down of contentious activism relates to the fact that the protest movement was made up of large numbers of university students who quickly returned to their student life after the former prime minister resigned and a new one was elected.
Protesters Move From the Streets to Mainstream Activism
Some activists moved into more mainstream and organizational forms of activism. The evolution of the protest movement into more formalized and officially recognized civic activism includes watchdog bodies monitoring the new government. Some allies of the protest movement, including those in exile, such as the previously banned Oromo Media Network and ESAT, have found confidence in returning to the country. Some of their leaders—such as Jawar Mohammed, an Oromo journalist considered by many to be a remote organizer of the protest movement—are back in the country and actively working with local activists. They are contributing to pressure for reforms and keeping the new government in check. As the protest movement began to shift the struggle from the streets to constructive engagement in mainstream media, their movement naturally increased the hope of protesters that they are now more in charge of their destiny. It also contributed to the further slowdown of contentious protest, though protesters certainly could regroup if they felt that their progress could be threatened.
The political route has not yet been so prominent in Ethiopia as in other postprotest contexts. Given early signals of an opening of political space, several activists are considering entering politics as Ethiopia gears up for the 2020 general election. This election is likely to have an important bearing on the Ethiopian political landscape at state, regional, and local levels. However, there are increasing concerns of the deepening of ethnonationalism, with mobilization and organizing around ethnic-based parties. One activist fears:
There appears to be an emerging tension between the Amhara and Tigrayan communities and regional states. Amhara youth are being mobilized to defend themselves as an ethnic group, and the rise of groups, such as the National Movement for the Amhara (NAMA), sometimes plays to the narrative of superiority of certain ethnic groups and is contributing to the rise of ethnic nationalism.4
The growing insecurity in the countryside has caused the army to take over conventional policing duties amid concerns that the new government may be unable to maintain law and order. The EPRDF coalition therefore seems relatively weaker compared to regional governments.5 This weakness limits activists’ desire to enter politics.
On the civic front, the opening of the civic space means that activists and protest leaders are considering joining or forming new civic groups. A big boost to this pathway was the introduction of a new, much more progressive NGO law in early 2019—a decade after Ethiopia’s infamous restrictive NGO law that pushed many Ethiopian activists underground and led to violent protests later. In the words of one NGO leader, two things happened after the NGO law was passed in 2009. Many NGOs closed and gave up, turning into private businesses or fleeing to exile. At the same time, others went underground and became part of a community that would reemerge as protest movements. Because there was no space to dialogue, many Ethiopians turned to protests as the only way to express their views and engage with the state.6 According to this narrative, the review and passage of the NGO law in February 2019 was a masterstroke by the new government to create space for civic activism in a more civil, measured way.
However, some activists state that they are worried that ethno-based political mobilization is likely to happen in the civic arena as well, especially with several community organizations being formed by the ethnic Amhara across the country. These new movements may be part of a more ethno-based political mobilization, rather than civic mobilization in an autonomous sense.
Localized Protest Movements and Actions
The third pathway that Ethiopian activists have developed is that of more localized organizing and protest movements focused on specific issues. For instance, in March 2019, hundreds and, in some areas, thousands of people in Ethiopia’s Oromo region took to the streets in major towns to protests the way in which the Addis Ababa city administration allocated condominium buildings.7 Another form of localized protest is seen in sporadic snap actions that vary from visible ones, such as youth roadblocks, to subtle ones, such as market boycotts and other forms of resistance.
There are likely to be more radical variants in this pathway, signaled by tendencies that ethnic extremists from different regions, including pro-TPLF extremists, may be using their youth mobilization efforts to reverse the course the new government is taking. Similar fears have been repeated in other regions where young people are being mobilized—not for a collective enterprise but to defend “us” against “them.” This trend may not only destabilize the government but also could lead to more outright civil conflict that would threaten the unity of the country.
Lying Low, Waiting to Pounce
The final pathway that is discernable for many of the protesters is lying low, watching the developments and waiting to act when they feel the need to mobilize. According to an interview with one activist, many unemployed young people who were part of the protests were demobilized by the message that the protest movement had achieved its desired changes but nevertheless are ready to be mobilized when needed.8 The bulk of this group remain on call through the network of youth that many call the shadowy and leaderless structure of the Queerroo. In this sense, one could argue that protesters are lying in wait, ready to pounce once they feel their aspirations are not being met.
The Ethiopian activism that contributed to the recent regime change has slowed down, largely because the reform actions undertaken by the new prime minister and his government have addressed many of the activists’ immediate grievances. Beyond the remarkable internal optimism and acclaim from the region and globally about the prospects of charting a new democratic pathway for Ethiopia, the new government has signaled its intent to deal with the structural drivers of discontent in Ethiopia, including a possible rethinking of the ethnic-based federalism enshrined in the country’s constitution.
Some critics of Ahmed have raised concerns about the likely marginalization of the Tigrayans—the once powerful and dominant power group in Ethiopia’s ruling EPRDF coalition. They have argued that the prime minister may only be scratching the surface of the problems. A former minister in the Ethiopian government argues that the prime minister “represents the kind of tendency to gloss over things to try to telescope decades into months . . . acting in a rush.”9 These critics convey the strong message that sometimes the reforms by the new government look like personal initiatives of Ahmed. Other critics are beginning to doubt the prime minister’s and new government’s commitment to the rule of law, given the tendencies toward greater anarchism and even mob justice that have been witnessed across the country.
One protest movement activist argued for the need for more time to test the new prime minister’s resolve:
Most of the protests we have seen in Ethiopia in the past have not been against government per se but systemic issues, including bread and butter ones. . . . It is only when we begin to see new protests focusing on the failure of the new government and the leadership of the prime that we may test their resolve and ability to either listen to, accommodate or suppress dissent.10
It is still early days, and some of the Ethiopian economy’s structural challenges—including slowing exports, growing unemployment, and rising debt to China, along with more practical manifestations such as rising fuel prices—could affect many more people. But the resolve of the Ethiopian people and the signals by the new government present prospects of a surprising African success story of peaceful transition and democratization, especially, if in the longer term, the new administration is able to deal with more structural issues, such as the problems of ethnic federalism, youth employment, corruption and resource redistribution, local development, and the expansion of new opportunities in all regions and urban settings.
The most dominant pathways discernable for the country’s activists are a combination of those who have seen their near-term goals achieved and those lying low and waiting to pounce on the earliest signs of backsliding. The future of Ethiopia remains fragile, and contentious activism could still resurface.
Arthur Larok is a federation development director at ActionAid International. He is also a member of Carnegie's Civic Research Network and the Alliance for National Transformation in Uganda.
1 Tom Gardner, “‘Freedom!’: The Mysterious Movement That Brought Ethiopia to a Standstill,” Guardian, March 13, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2018/mar/13/freedom-oromo-activists-qeerroo-ethiopia-standstill.
2 “Ethiopia: General Strike and Protests in Oromia Region for 2nd Day,” Kichuu Info, February 13, 2018, https://kichuu.com/ethiopia-general-strike-protests/.
3 Interview with an Ethiopian social media blogger and activist, 2019.
4 Interview with an Ethiopian civil society leader, 2019.
6 Interviews with an NGO leader in Addis Ababa and a member of the committee working on a new NGO law, 2019.
7 “Ethiopia’s Oromia Hit by Protests Over Addis Ababa Housing Project,” Africa News, March 7, 2019, https://www.africanews.com/2019/03/07/ethiopia-s-oromia-hit-by-protests-over-addis-ababa-housing-project/.
8 Interview with an Ethiopian civil society leader, 2019.
9 “Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed: The Leader Promising to Heal a Nation,” Hiiraan Online, January 3, 2019, https://hiiraan.com/news4/2019/Jan/161755/ethiopia_s_abiy_ahmed_the_leader_promising_to_heal_a_nation.aspx.
10 Interview with an Ethiopian protest movement blogger, 2019.