Ethiopia’s ruling party unlikely to reform amid economic growth

Ethiopia’s ruling party unlikely to reform amid economic growth

With next month’s election looming, the ruling party in Ethiopia will continue to retain power. As the country experiences massive economic growth, it also plays a crucial role in the region. Political freedoms, however, remain dismal.

The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) is the ruling coalition of four political parties that has been in power since the overthrow of the Derg regime in 1991. An essential part of East Africa’s security cooperation, Ethiopia is also a center of economic and diplomatic activity.

Although the EPRDF finds its early ideological roots in Hoxhaism and Marxism, it has wholly embraced the China Model. The country’s economy is skyrocketing. GDP growth is expected to remain around 7% in 2015.

But as Ethiopia closes in on becoming a Middle Income country by 2025, the issue of human rights and democracy will continue to haunt it.

Following the passing of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in 2012, human rights advocates hoped the transition would mark a possible opening of political freedom. Meles had overseen a period of economic reform and growth. Between 2004 and 2011, the Ethiopian GDP grew 10.6% per year, double that of the rest of Africa. The EPRDF under PM Meles is credited for providing the stability necessary for foreign investment.

The torch was passed on to the late PM Meles’s deputy prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, who gave assurances with regards to political reform. Described as a technocrat and a party apparatchik, Hailemariam was instrumental in the reorganization and expansion of the EPRDF in the wake of the 2005 post-election unrest. He is also the first PM from the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region (SNNPR) in a party that is largely made up of ethnic northerners.

Voting irregularities, intimidation, and fraud prompted demonstrations and a subsequent crackdown by security forces following the 2005 election. Approximately 200 people were killed and thousands of protestors and opposition members were arrested.

The EPRDF’s efforts to silence critics and sideline opposition were rewarded again in the 2010 elections.

The worrying trend is continuing. Last July, the government sentenced 10 bloggers to jail for allegedly plotting terrorist attacks. Eskinder Nega and Reeyot Alemu are two such journalists who are still languishing in prison. The widely condemned 2009 anti-terror law is used by the EPRDF to keep dissent at bay due to government fears of a “color revolution” or a replication of the Arab Spring uprisings.

The Semayawi (Blue) Party is regularly accused by the government of harboring radical Islamists. The new opposition party was founded in 2012 and is primarily enthusiastic young people connected through social media, one of the last places of refuge from government control. The older, more established opposition party, Unity for Democracy and Justice, has seen its sole MP ostracized and even ridiculed in the rubber stamp parliament.

Despite this, Ethiopia remains a strategic partner for the international community.

As East Africa’s regional military and diplomatic power, Ethiopia is an essential part of US security policy in the region. The country’s intelligence agency and military have been an ally in the fight against Al-Shabaab in Somalia. In 2010, a $50 million project upgraded the Arba Minch International Airport close to the Somali border as an expansion of the US drone base.

The Ethiopian military is also a part of AMISOM (African Union Mission to Somalia), with 4,000 troops as part of the peacekeeping contingent. Just as in 2010, the US government is not in any hurry to pressure the EPRDF into transitioning to genuine political pluralism and loosening restrictions on speech.

Ethiopia is one of the largest recipients of USAID’s Africa budget. It remains to be seen how ongoing USAID human rights programs at the grass-roots level will play out. $534.4 million was spent in 2014.

The capital of Addis Ababa is the headquarters of the African Union and PM Hailemariam is currently the chair of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA). Across Addis Ababa, construction projects are everywhere.

China is a close partner and has major investment and infrastructure development underway in Ethiopia. China’s manufacturing sector is taking off rapidly, despite a sometimes testy relationship with local workers.

In a recent sign of growing regional trust and cooperation, a $4.8 billion deal was struck between Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan for the water resources that would power the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. The stability brought by the EPRDF has brought foreign aid and prosperity which, for now, ensures widespread public support.

The legacy of Singapore’s late Lee Kuan Yew has won praise internationally, but it is precisely this model of economic reform coupled with authoritarian tactics that is put into practice by developing countries. The demonstrations seen in 2005 could appear again after May’s parliamentary vote. The bleak aftermath of the Arab Spring, however, may have left many Ethiopians with little appetite for democracy.

As the Ethiopian ruling party celebrates their economic success ahead of May’s election, they should be mindful that the growth of the middle class comes with an increase in education, a population with a global outlook, and desire for a say in how to share the wealth. The EPRDF would be wise to begin implementing reform, whether it faces a color revolution next year or in 2025.

In the meantime, the region’s security needs and the coinciding economic boom will fail to make any attempt of political reform a reality.

About Author

Chris Solomon

Chris Solomon is a Middle East Analyst and works for a U.S. defense consultancy in the Washington DC Metro Area. He has presented at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy, on the U.S. strategy to combat ISIL. Chris’ writing has also appeared on NATO's Atlantic Treaty Association, Raddington Report, Small Wars Journal, and Syria Comment. He holds an MA in International Affairs from the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA). You can follow Chris on Twitter @Solomon_Chris