ECONOMIST– ETHIOPIANS ARE calling it their third revolution. The first was the fall of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974. The second was in 1991, when Ethiopians kicked out the Derg, a Marxist junta that had forced peasants onto collective farms at gunpoint, causing mass starvation. Now, after 27 years of less homicidal but still authoritarian rule by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), Ethiopians are getting their first real taste of freedom (see article).
The seeds of revolution were sown at a phoney election in 2015, when the EPRDF and its allies won an implausible 95% of the vote and every seat in parliament. Furious protesters took to the streets. The government shot dozens and arrested thousands, sparking riots. Young men burned foreign-owned factories and blocked roads. In April, desperate to end the mayhem, the EPRDF named Abiy Ahmed, a 42-year-old reformist, as prime minister.
He has acted quickly, lifting a state of emergency, freeing thousands of political prisoners and vowing to hold fair elections in 2020. He has signed a peace deal with Eritrea, re-opening the long-closed border with what was once a mortal enemy. The atmosphere of amity is spreading. Eritrea has signed a peace accord with Djibouti, and restored diplomatic ties with Somalia. The UN secretary-general talks of a “wind of hope” blowing across the Horn of Africa.
Ethiopia is central to this. With 105m people, it is the second-most-populous country in Africa. Also, since the demise of the Derg, it has been seen by many as evidence that the “China model” of an authoritarian but businesslike state could work in Africa. For the past 15 years Ethiopia’s GDP has expanded at 10% a year from a low base, the government says. Even if its numbers are overstated, millions of Ethiopians have lifted themselves out of poverty. But much of this growth was fuelled by unsustainable public borrowing. The “Ethiopian miracle” has run out of steam. The country’s foreign debt is now equivalent to three years’ export earnings. The government is struggling to service it. Annual inflation has risen to 14%. Sclerotic monopolies such as Ethio Telecom desperately need to be broken up and sold.
Not only must Abiy cope with an economic crisis. He must also stop the country from falling apart. Ethiopia is home to more than 80 ethnic groups. Under the EPRDF, group rights were foolishly written into the constitution. Each “nation, nationality and people” was given the right to secede. For a long time this meant little—anyone who asked to break away risked being shot by a regime dominated by one group, the Tigrayans. However, under the new, gentler dispensation, ethnic chauvinists spy an opportunity. Four groups, some consisting of barely 1m people, have demanded plebiscites on self-rule. Larger groups are conducting pogroms to drive smaller ones from their territory, or what they hope will become their territory. Ethnic cleansing is all the easier because identity papers record ethnicity. In the first half of this year a horrifying 1.4m Ethiopians were forced to flee their homes.
Some are urging Abiy to slow his democratic reforms and bring back the iron fist. This would be a mistake. In the short term he will need the army and police to stop ethnic violence, but under orders to show restraint. In the long run the only peaceful way to hold Ethiopia together is to persuade all its people that they have a voice. Mr Abiy should hold a credible election in 2020, which he will probably win. He should then start a process of constitutional reform to reduce the power of ethnicity in politics.
This means abolishing ethnic-identity cards entirely. It also means reforming the winner-takes-all voting system to allow more representation for minority parties and to encourage them to campaign on issues rather than identity. The details matter. Elections in other African countries have often sparked ethnic violence. For now, Abiy has the popularity and political capital to avert disaster. He should use it.
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