Date first published: 14/08/20

Key sectors: all

Key risks: internal conflict; civil unrest; political instability; external conflict; terrorism

On 29 June, Haacaaluu Hundeessaa, a popular singer and political activist from Ethiopia’s Oromo ethnic group, was killed in Addis Ababa in what appeared to be a targeted assassination. In the days following, riots erupted in the capital and throughout the surrounding Oromia region. In Addis Ababa, where several bomb blasts were reported on 30 June, businesses and homes were looted and burned. Over 200 people are believed to have died during clashes between protesters and security forces and in attacks by Oromo militants on members of other ethnic groups.

Hundeesaa’s murder and the ensuing civil unrest come amidst what is an already tense state of inter-ethnic relations in Ethiopia. After decades of perceived marginalisation by the Tigraya and Amhara, who have historically occupied most central government positions, many Oromo feel their time has come to claim their stake in national politics. Oromia, Ethiopia’s most populous region, was the birthplace of the anti-government protest movement that swept the country in 2016 and precipitated the ascension of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the country’s first Oromo leader, in 2018.

On assuming the premiership, Abiy set a reformist agenda to usher Ethiopia out of its authoritarian past, promising free and fair elections and a loosening of the government’s grip on public life. These hopes of democracy have diminished over recent months, however, as the government clings to old habits. As calls for devolution grow, ethno-nationalist parties proliferate and concomitant intercommunal violence tears at the country’s social fabric, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented a convenient opportunity to roll back some of the new liberties.

A state of emergency declared in April has given the government extensive powers to carry out arbitrary arrests and silence critical bloggers and journalists. Meanwhile, following a decision in May to indefinitely postpone general elections originally scheduled for August due to COVID-19, parliament approved a measure on 10 June to extend Abiy’s mandate as prime minister until at least nine months after the WHO no longer deems the pandemic to be a public health concern. The move drew widespread criticism from opposition parties, who accused Abiy of using the pandemic to illegally extend his stay in office.

In Oromia, initial enthusiasm about Abiy’s premiership has given way to widespread disillusionment and, in some quarters, overt hostility. Many believe Abiy is more interested in consolidating his own power than advancing Oromo rights, a view reinforced by his merger of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the ethno-political coalition that had dominated Ethiopian politics since 1991, into a single party in December, and by the government’s heavy-handed crackdown on Oromo opposition movements.

The clashes over Hundeesaa’s killing, the largest the country has seen since Abiy’s inauguration, are the manifestation of these frustrations. On Oromo social media channels, conspiracy theories about the government’s involvement in the assassination abound. The government, meanwhile, has blamed Oromo opposition groups, arresting over 1,000 Oromo protesters and activists since early July.

Although violence has abated, the government’s intensified crackdown on Oromo political activism in the wake of the riots threatens to widen the gulf between Abiy’s Prosperity Party and the Oromo constituency. Fresh unrest could erupt at any moment and, given the decay of Ethiopia’s social fabric and the emergence of armed self-defence militia across the country, could quickly spiral into a political and security crisis much larger than the 2016-2018 protests.

GERD dispute

Given Abiy’s role as a regional power broker – the result of his own ambition, the retreat of Western powers and the weakness of neighbouring states – Ethiopia’s domestic problems reverberate far beyond the country’s borders.

On 3 August, Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan began a second round of African Union-mediated negotiations over the controversial Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) along the Blue Nile river. This comes two weeks after Ethiopia announced the dam’s reservoir had begun filling in mid-July. On 2 August, Ethiopians of all ethnicities heeded the government’s call to fill the streets of Addis Ababa in celebration of this milestone, in what Cairo and Khartoum predictably interpreted as a provocation. On 5 August Cairo announced its intention to withdraw from the negotiations.

The GERD has long been a source of tension between the three countries. Ethiopia formally launched construction of the dam in April 2011, hoping the project would lift millions of Ethiopians out of poverty and transform the country into a net exporter of energy. Meanwhile, Egypt and Sudan fear that the GERD will choke off their water supply, threatening food production and public health. While Cairo and Khartoum are resigned to the reality of the dam, the key sticking points in negotiations have been over the dam’s operation. Egypt, in particular, insists on a legally binding agreement on water level management and a permanent dispute resolution mechanism. Ethiopia, while pledging to take its neighbours’ concerns into consideration, rejects both demands, viewing them as an attack on its sovereignty.

Talks hosted by the United States and World Bank between November 2019 and February 2020 failed to produce a deal. Subsequent efforts by the African Union in June and July to reach an agreement between the three countries fell flat, with Ethiopia’s foreign minister declaring in June that it would begin filling the GERD regardless of whether a deal was reached or not. In response to the declaration, Egypt and Sudan sent letters to the UN Security Council requesting its intervention into the matter and warning of the potential fallout between the three countries if no deal was reached.

The ongoing dispute over the GERD presents a unique security threat to the Horn of Africa. While all three governments have expressed a clear desire to resolve the dispute diplomatically, Ethiopia’s intransigence and unilateral actions have been, and will continue to be, major obstacle to a compromise. Although all-out war remains a remote possibility at this point, the recent flare-up of a long-standing border dispute between Ethiopia and Sudan, and increasingly vitriolic rhetoric signal how far ties have deteriorated and underscore the risk of rapid violent escalation.

The latest developments in Ethiopia further complicate the situation. With his authority, and national cohesion, increasingly under threat, Abiy will be loath to make any concessions on a project as symbolically important as the GERD, prolonging the impasse. Yet, if Abiy’s reputation diminishes further, Ethiopia’s domestic struggles could paradoxically facilitate an agreement, as this would allow Abiy to reclaim his status as the Horn of Africa’s peacemaker, a title that has come to seem increasingly misplaced. This will depend both on how much pressure the international community exerts on Addis Ababa and how much further the domestic situation deteriorates.

Somali elections

In Somalia, as well, Ethiopia plays a key role as the country heads toward another crisis.

A vote of no confidence on 25 July saw Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khaire removed from office three years after he took control of the government in March 2017. Legislators voted 170 to 8 in favour of his removal, citing his failure to provide a clear plan for the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections in 2021.

The 2021 election in Somalia was a flashpoint of tensions between Khaire and President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo. While Khaire believed the election should be held as scheduled for February 2021, President Farmajo has pushed for its postponement. In June Halima Ismail Ibrahim, the chairperson of the National Independent Electoral Commission (NIEC), told the Lower House of Parliament that the elections could not go forward as planned owing to political differences, insecurity caused by the ongoing Islamist insurgency led by al-Shabaab, flooding and the COVID-19 pandemic.

The polls were set to be the country’s first one-person-one-vote, fully democratic election since 1969. Previously, the president and parliament were elected in a complicated electoral college system and offices were distributed to powerful clan networks, a relic of decades of civil war. The NIEC’s call for delaying the election quickly drew the ire of opposition parties, adding to an intensifying power struggle between Mogadishu and Somalia’s powerful federal states. The latter fear encroachment by Farmajo’s increasingly assertive central government and have complained about Farmajo’s failure to adequately consult them in preparing the elections. The southern state of Jubaland, a close ally of Kenya, has spearheaded the anti-Mogadishu movement, culminating in a tense military standoff between Somali national forces and Jubaland forces in the Gedo area bordering Kenya and Ethiopia. Addis Ababa’s deployment of troops to the area in March, evidently in support of Mogadishu, did little to cool tensions.

The recent complications threaten to undo the important progress Somalia has made in recent years to reform its electoral system and transition to representative democracy. Additionally, the removal of Prime Minister Khaire, seen as balancing force in the country’s clan politics, has been perceived as an attempt by President Farmajo to consolidate power and side-line rival clans as well as state government structures, compounding the pre-existing security threat posed by al-Shabaab. Any attempts by Farmajo to unilaterally push ahead with the vote or, alternatively, to unduly extend his stay in power risk exacerbating the estrangement between Mogadishu and state governments, creating fresh instability that extremist groups are likely to exploit.

Under Abiy, Ethiopia has recognised the value of a strong Somali central state and invested heavily in expanding its ties with Mogadishu. As President Farmajo’s staunchest regional ally, Addis Ababa could play a pivotal role in defusing Somalia’s crisis by exerting pressure on his government to engage constructively with important stakeholders, notably state governments. However, Addis’ recent actions do not indicate that it intends to do so. Its troop deployment to the disputed Gedo region has been perceived by Jubaland as a show of unconditional support for Mogadishu, encouraging Farmajo to maintain his hard line and, as a side effect, damaging ties with Nairobi, which has redoubled its support for Jubaland’s regional president Sheikh Ahmed Madobe in response. Yet, with Ethiopia struggling to contain a growing number of separatist movements at home and fearing a resurgence of conflict in its Somali region, Abiy is unlikely to change tack.