Ethiopia: Growing Uncertainty Marks Abiy's First Year in Power

PM Abiy Ahmed and Eritrea's President Isaias Afwerki (screenshot).

This week marks Dr. Abiy Ahmed's one-year anniversary as Ethiopia's prime minister. Abiy's charismatic style appealed to individuals from across Ethiopia's many ethnic and political divides, no small feat in Ethiopia. It was a remarkable turnaround that followed several years of protests and excessive force by security forces that left over 1,000 people dead. But how his first year will be remembered depends on who you ask.

Abiy's performance has marked a significant departure from past abusive practices. His government has released tens of thousands of political prisoners, rewritten repressive laws, and made peace with previously banned opposition groups. He has increased the representation of women in his cabinet, acknowledged previous administrations' widespread use of torture, and took steps to improve the independence of key institutions.

But for many others, Ethiopia has become a more dangerous place. As political space opened, Ethiopians were finally able to voice historic grievances that they bottled up for decades under an authoritarian government.. Many of these grievances are related to access to land and complex questions of identity and governance. Many Ethiopians have settled these scores, often along ethnic lines, including by forcibly displacing people from land or engaging in violent conflict with rival groups. This has occurred across many parts of the country amidst a serious security breakdown and a vacuum in local governance. Social media became awash with hate speech and insecurity has forced over two million people to flee their homes, and it looks like the number of internally displaced people is only likely to rise as tensions escalate.

At least ten ethnic groups in the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples' Region (SNNPR) have petitioned to form their own states, leading to the possible breakup of SNNPR and increasing tensions in some areas there. Other parts of the country have initiated similar processes. In areas along the Amhara and Tigray regional borders, a proliferation of firearms and entrenched positions from regional government officials over contested borders have exacerbated rising tensions. Long-standing debates over who gets to govern and manage the rapid growth of the capital, Addis Ababa, have not been resolved, fueling growing frustrations in the capital region.

The euphoria over Abiy's initial reforms are fading amidst this backdrop, and frustration is growing with his government's lack of tangible action to deal with these worrying trends. Any transition from authoritarianism to democracy is fraught with many challenges, and the actions, or lack thereof, that Abiy's government takes to deal with these complex issues will go a long way in deciding Ethiopia's long-term commitment to human rights and democracy. With elections scheduled for May 2020, the next year will be a critical test of Abiy's commitment to democracy and his ability to unite an increasingly fractured country, restore law and order, calm tensions, and build on his early reforms that showed so much promise.

Over the next eight days, Human Rights Watch will assess Abiy's progress in eight key human rights areas, outlining the historic challenges for each theme, what Abiy's government has done to address these challenges, and what more his government can do in the next year leading up to elections.

Today in Part I, we will look at Abiy's progress on freedom of assembly.

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