Ethiopia’s Muslim Activists Pave a Path for Nonviolent Political Activism
By Terrence LyonsA year after Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn came to power following the death of longtime leader Meles Zenawi in August 2012, the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) remains firmly in control. It has continued to govern through a collective leadership that includes three deputy prime ministers from the Amhara, Tigray and Oromo wings of the coalition; Hailemariam hails from the Southern People’s Party. Party discipline and coherence has held, although the lead-up to elections in 2015 may reveal destabilizing fissures. But while older opposition parties and armed movements have been marginalized, a social movement of Ethiopian Muslims is an important new development.
Rapid economic growth has been key to Ethiopia’s stability. The economy grew by more than 10 percent annually over the past decade, and while growth has slowed down it remains higher than the African average. Recent data, however, suggest that earnings from coffee and gold, Ethiopia’s two largest sources of export revenues, have declined. The World Bank also raised concerns that Ethiopia’s boom has relied too heavily upon public investment and that sustained growth will require a significant increase in private investment.
The political opposition to the EPRDF—currently divided into camps based on whether they subscribe to ethno-national or pan-Ethiopian goals and whether they operate in exile or have remained in the country—has struggled to find channels to influence Ethiopian politics. After competitive elections in 2005 and the subsequent crisis that led to the arrest of much of the opposition leadership and the collapse of the main opposition coalitions, the regime effectively criminalized dissent. Restrictions on independent media and civil society limit the ability of Ethiopians to mobilize outside of the structures of the ruling party. The EPRDF’s dominance was evident in local elections this year, in which it and its affiliated parties won all but one seat nationwide.As a result, opposition political parties that challenged the regime in 2005 now play virtually no role in national politics. The Semayawi, or Blue, party organized a notable demonstration in June and has some following among the youth, but its potential to challenge the regime is limited. Berhanu Nega, a politician who had considerable influence in 2005, is now operating in exile without a significant presence in the country. Repression and the use of anti-terrorism laws, as well as weak structures and leadership, limit the opposition’s ability to operate within Ethiopia. Read more