At the end of the men’s marathon race at the Rio Olympics in 2016, the second-place finisher trotted across the finish-line, sweats streaming down his face, and solemnly raised his hand to form a cross above his head. The gesture was lost on many of the viewers watching around the globe. The man was Ethiopia’s Feyisa Lilesa.
His gesture brought the protests which racked his home country into the limelight.
More Than a Gesture
The gesture at the Olympics two years ago is even more relevant now. A wave of anti-government protests has erupted after the resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn on February 15th. The government responded by declaring a state of emergency, Ethiopia’s defense minister reported, preventing citizens from protesting, closing businesses, or disrupting public services.
Behind the protests and state of emergency declaration are deep-rooted ethnic tensions. The Tigray minority from northern Ethiopia makes up just 6.1% of Ethiopia’s population, but dominate the political scene. After the border war with Eritrea, which ended in 2000, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) filled Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s inner-circle and assumed control of the government. Their political dominance remains at the heart of Ethiopia’s political landscape today.
According the World Population Review, the Oromo and Amhara make up 34.4% and 27% of the population respectively, but have been politically marginalized.
Feyisa Lilesa’s gesture was a gesture of solidarity with the Oromo protesters.
According to the BBC, it may have been Hailemariam’s weak leadership that prompted the leading coalition to search for an alternative leader. The state of emergency was declared to ensure the transition occurs without incident.
However, there are indicators that there is disunity among the government. For example, when parliament proposed the declaration of a state of emergency, 88 deputies voted against the measure, the Ethiopia news agency reported.
The last state of emergency, declared in October 2016, was passed with unanimous parliamentary approval. So far many western allies have condemned the move against the state of emergency including the US and EU.
A Mammoth Task
The ruling coalition of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) controls all of the Ethiopian parliamentary seats. It has still not chosen its successor. This could mean that there is some uncertainty over the appointment.
The next leader could come from Oromia, representing the marginalized Oromo people. Abiye Ahmed, the current chairman of OPDO (Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organization), would be the logical choice. This may placate the protesters, who want to end the Tigrayan minority’s dominance on Ethiopian politics. However, the TPLF may choose another Tigrayan in order to retain their grip on power.
Whoever gets the nod will have a difficult task on their hands. They will need to unite the country under democracy and begin reforming the ruling coalition to provide an all-inclusive government. If they do not, the protests will continue, and their government will encounter similar challenges as Mr Hailemariam’s.
The ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) will meet this week to name a new party leader. However, there is no guarantee this will bring an end to the state of emergency. After the October 2016 declaration, the country remained in a state of emergency for ten months. It was only lifted in August 2017.
Awol Allo, an Ethiopian lecturer in law at Keele University, said to IPS news that, “there is no guarantee Ethiopia will not descend into further chaos and violence.” He added, “there is no magic formula.”
Ethiopia is at a crossroads. On one side lie ongoing protests, governmental crackdowns and political repression. The other is a no less difficult road, lined with political reform and difficult conversations. But ultimately, only one will bring progress to Ethiopia.