Ethiopia Situation Report - October 2016

An African Leader Sliding Into Chaos

Since Prime Minister Zenawi’s death in 2012, disagreements between the government and other ethnic groups in the country have begun to boil over. The new Ethiopian prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, was an unknown before he ascended to office. The various ethnic groups represented in Ethiopia still play a large part in politics, and Desalegn is from the southern part of the country -- opposite from the beloved Zenawi, a northerner.

Economic Growth in Ethiopia

Ethiopia’s Tigray population, in the north, makes up less than 10% of the population but enjoys disproportionate influence in the government. When the Tigrays within the government wanted to develop Oromo farmland, riots have been breaking out across the Oromo region since November 2015. Although the government eventually decided to abandon the farmland development plan, the protests did not subside. Soon the Amhara ethnic group joined in and the focus shifted from development to demands for political equality within the government.

Earlier in October, the prime minister declared a six-month long, nationwide state of emergency. At least 500 people have been killed in protests since last year in Oromia, the region that surrounds the capital of Addis Ababa. The Ethiopian attorney general says the state of emergency allows the government to stop and search anyone on the streets, detain them without court involvement and search any house or building. Just last week, dozens of people were killed in a stampede that started with the police attempted to use tear gas to break up anti-government protesters.

A Historic Western Ally

Ethiopia, the second-most populous nation in Africa, is historically known for resisting European colonial rule and becoming the only African country to retain its independence. It is the first independent African country to join the United Nations. Ethiopia is home to over 80 ethnic groups, each with its own language.

For most of the 20th century Emperor Haile Selassie ruled the country, undertaking an ambitious modernization campaign -- abolishing slavery and creating the Organization of African Unity. The global oil crisis in 1973 turned popular opinion against Emperor Selassie, and a new Communist dictatorship under the Derg was formed in 1974, a Soviet-backed military dictatorship led by Mengistu Haile Mariam. The Derg was in power until the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, suffering military coups, drought, uprisings, and refugee problems during its leadership. During this traumatic time, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) was created and, in 1991, advanced on the government in Addis Ababa and officially established the federal democratic republic that still rules the country today.

Mr. Meles Zenawi, the leader of the EPRDF, was elected president and would later serve as Prime Minister under the new government. Zenawi was credited with many reforms in Ethiopia and was a close ally of the United States until he died of a mysterious illness in 2012. His death was a great loss to Ethiopia, as he was seen as a peacemaker and a uniting force for the country. He was well known for detecting potential dissent and tried to address problems before they became full-blown uprisings.

In many ways, Ethiopia is one of Africa’s most stable countries and has been considered a strong ally of the West. In the past decade, that stability and trust has been tested. Although the branches of government are intended to be independent of each other, many international critics have questioned whether the Ethiopian government is truly democratic. In 2010, the Ethiopian government was labeled an authoritarian regime by an internationally-renowned NGO, and due to the government’s crackdown on opposition, civil society organizations and media outlets, many now consider it a one-party state.

Unrest Unhinges the Economy

Before the uprisings began, Ethiopia was one of Africa’s fastest growing economies, experiencing economic growth of more than 10% between 2004 to 2009. Although the growth is robust, the GDP per capita is one of the lowest in the world and the economy faces many structural issues.

However, this march forward could be stopped in its tracks due to the violent protests. Many of the successful economic endeavors -- sugar factories, flower farms, textiles -- are now destroyed after the uprising, which included many attacks on businesses. Just recently listed as one of the fastest growing economies on the globe by McKinsey & Company, Ethiopia could be facing major economic woes in the future.

The Ethiopian government has recently pursued another threat to the economic growth: shutting off the internet. Experts say it could drain millions of dollars from the formerly robust economic growth, let alone cut off sources of information and hinder the rights of its people. This week the government expanded the shutdown to a ban on all social media sites in an effort to quell the uprisings. Many international groups have criticized this ban, which comes at a critical time in Ethiopia’s growth as a nation.

In the 1970s and 80s, Ethiopia was ravaged by civil war, drought and economic instability -- but it managed to recover. If unrest escalates and the government is unable to address the economic consequences, Ethiopia’s once-bright future may be tarnished.

For current news and to find out safety, security, and health risks in Ethiopia, check out the Clements Ethiopia Risk Assessment Country Guide.

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Ethiopia Country Risk Assessment Guide