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Fixing Ethiopia Requires More Than a New Prime Minister

Hilary Matfess
Sunday, April 22, 2018, 10:00 AM

Editor’s Note: For years, Ethiopia has appeared to be a relative success story, emerging from years of conflict and becoming a somewhat democratic, pro-Western ally in East Africa. Yet this success is in jeopardy. Yale's Hilary Matfess details the creeping authoritarianism in Ethiopia and its dangers for the country and the United States.


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Editor’s Note: For years, Ethiopia has appeared to be a relative success story, emerging from years of conflict and becoming a somewhat democratic, pro-Western ally in East Africa. Yet this success is in jeopardy. Yale's Hilary Matfess details the creeping authoritarianism in Ethiopia and its dangers for the country and the United States.


Ethiopia’s current State of Emergency, implemented on February 16 after Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalign stepped down from power, is the second time since October 2016 that the government has declared martial law. According to Human Rights Watch, “some of Ethiopia’s staunch Western allies, fearful of what a destabilized Ethiopia would mean for their interests, have spoken openly of their concerns and urged a change in tactics.” What these allies fail to appreciate is that these tactics are not a bug in the system of governance in Ethiopia—they are a feature. The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the hegemonic party that’s been in power since 1991, has tightly controlled the country’s political system, stifling civil society and criminalizing dissent. The selection of Abiy Ahmed as prime minister—marking the first time in 27 years that the EPRDF has had an Oromo has occupied the office, despite the fact that the Oromo is the country’s largest ethnic group—is insufficient to stabilize the country.

Michael O’Hanlon, the co-director of the Brookings Institution’s Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence, has described the country as “one of the most important countries on the continent by almost any measure.” The measure most pressing for U.S. interests, however, is the country’s role as a strategic regional counterterrorism partner. Ethiopia’s contributions to AMISOM, in particular, have endeared it to the U.S. national security community. Terrence Lyons, a professor at the School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University, considers the country an “irreplaceable center of gravity” for the Horn of Africa. As a long-standing U.S. partner in counterterrorism operations in the Horn of Africa, the effects of Ethiopia’s stability extends well beyond the country’s borders. Without legislative overhauls that promote democratic accountability, the country will continue to be beset by instability. Unfortunately, the country’s history suggests that the party will respond to the current crisis with more repression.

EPRDF Hegemony

Though Ethiopia is nominally a democracy and holds regular elections, the EPRDF dominates the country’s political landscape. Since suffering relative losses in the 2005 elections—in which opposition party candidates managed to win 174 seats in parliament, of the 527 —the party has doubled down on its tactics for maintaining political control. Not only did the government engage in a brutal crackdown, jailing tens of thousands of political dissidents and killing at least 200 people, it also implemented electoral changes to shore up its control. During the 2008 local-level kebele and woreda elections, the party essentially stacked the deck: The EPRDF increased the number of local seats up for contestation, supposedly as part of a “good governance” reform plan developed by the government after 2005, then won nearly 100 percent of the 3.5 million positions.

The EPRDF has used its position to intertwine the party infrastructure with that of the state. In 2010, Human Rights Watch noted that local government officials used party affiliation to determine the allocation of services, creating conditions in which refusing the party means being neglected by the state. A political dissident lamented that this attitude has spread to the private sector, noting that “it’s really difficult to get a job when you’re an activist. Every employer wants to be in the government’s favor.” The EPRDF has used this pressure to drive people into the fold. Between 2005 and 2008, party membership “more than quadrupled, from approximately 760,000 to more than 4 million.” This concerted proliferation in party membership, paired with the expansion in seats under contestation, cemented the EPRDF’s hegemony.

After the profound efforts made by the EPRDF to consolidate control following the 2005 election, the EPRDF and ruling parties won every seat in the national parliament in the 2015 elections. In the regional state councils, the government won 1966 of the 1987 positions.

Legislative Framework for Repression

Not only has the government made party membership attractive by connecting it to the provision of services and access to resources, the government has also criminalized dissent. In 2009, the government adopted the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, which defines “terrorist acts acts” as those “intending to advance a political, religious, or ideological cause by coercing the government, intimidating the public or section of the public, or destabilizing or destroying the fundamental political, constitutional or, economic or social institutions of the country.” The government has frequently used the law to imprison political dissidents and journalists critical of the government. One of the most high-profile instances of such an abuse of the ATP was the detention of the Zone9 Bloggers, a group of young writers who were accused by the government of “using social media to create instability in the country.” One of the bloggers recalled that their writing was “mostly on social issues—things like human rights, the issue of political prisoners,” noting that though “the government calls them criminals… we don’t call them criminals, we call them political activists.” During their detention on charges of inciting violence, the activists were subjected to physical and psychological torture. “Everything is humiliation there,” one activist told me. While being held in Maekolwi and Kality prisons, the dissident recalled being accused of being “paid by the Western government,” and said that the prison guards accused them of “doing this activity to get money, that we are selling our country just to get money.” Shrugging, the former blogger said that:

“During the night times, they would call us to make us do heavy sport. They would keep us standing, with our arms in the air for hours. They would force you to sit down, stand up, sit down, stand up, sit down… and they would kick you if you stop… they would slap you in the face. My lips were wounded and scabbing they slapped me so hard.”

It is not just political dissidents that the government has sought to silence. In 2009, the government passed the Charities and Societies Proclamation, which mandates that organizations register as “Ethiopian Charities or Societies, Ethiopian Resident Charities or Societies, or Foreign Charities,” and makes it illegal for any group not registered as an Ethiopian organization to work on human rights issues. The law further stipulates that Ethiopian charities can receive no more than 10 percent of their budget from abroad. The law had a deflating effect on civil society in Ethiopia. A prominent member of civil society told me that, following the passage of the law, their organization “had to have a discussion internally—do we want to be an Ethiopian organization that works on rights without any money, or do we want to have money and not work on rights?” In a recent conversation with me, a researcher based in Addis Ababa estimated that in 2009, before the law went into effect, there were 3,000 civil society organizations; in 2011 when they re-registered, the number had dwindled to roughly 1,000.


The politicization of government bureaucracy, the legislative infrastructure criminalizing dissent, and the party’s co-optation of ethnic and political mobilizations have all left Ethiopia dangerously and fundamentally unstable. The current unrest in Ethiopia is not a phase that will fade with the pronouncement of a new prime minister, but rather a reflection of a system in which modest reform and dissent have been made nearly impossible. Until the government remedies the marginalization of ethnic groups and ceases to perpetrate gross human rights abuses, it will experience protests, potentially escalating beyond the low levels of violence that have characterized the clashes between Oromo protesters and the government thus far. Putting a new face to the leadership of this system will not be enough to stabilize the country—radical democratizing reforms are necessary. Failing this, the country (and its hand-wringing security partners) can expect continued resistance and instability.

Hilary Matfess is an Assistant Professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver and the author of “Women and the War on Boko Haram.” Her research is at the intersection of security, gender, and governance, with a focus on sub-Saharan Africa.

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