(Bloomberg Opinion) -- By the Ethiopian 13-month almanac, which runs roughly seven-and-a-half years behind the Gregorian calendar, last Friday marked the start of 2013. The portents for the New Year are grim: For Africa’s second-most populous nation, the future is looking increasingly like the past.
Political freedoms are shrinking in the country that was hailed only recently as the continent’s great democratic hope: Ethnic and regional rivalries are flaring, and an election in the northern-most province of Tigray last week brought the political temperature close to boiling point. Opposition leaders and journalists are being imprisoned, and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is straying from the principles that underpin the Nobel Peace Prize he received last year for his agreement with neighboring Eritrea.
The foreign policy outlook is ominous, too. The dispute with Egypt and Sudan over the giant dam on the Blue Nile is no closer to resolution, and the U.S. has suspended aid to Ethiopia for starting to fill the reservoir before a tripartite agreement on managing water flows. Potentially more damaging, Eritrea is accusing Abiy of failing to keep his end of the peace agreement.
These developments bode ill for Ethiopia’s economy, which could buck the trend among the major sub-Saharan states and achieve some growth this year, despite the coronavirus pandemic. Foreign investors, who are crucial to the success of Abiy’s economic-reform program, will take a dim view of political instability and violence. The prime minister will want to restore calm before the planned partial privatization of Ethiopia’s telecommunications sector early next year.
Managing Ethiopia’s ethnic rivalries was always going to be difficult, the more so for a leader without a proven mandate. Abiy, who was appointed prime minister in 2018, was meant to test his popularity in a general election last month, but the vote was postponed because of the pandemic.
This delay infuriated opposition groups and regional parties, which accused Abiy of using the coronavirus crisis as an excuse to consolidate power. Tigray defiantly went ahead with its own vote, despite the national parliament’s announcement that the results would not count. The 97% turnout is a slap in the prime minister’s face.
On the day of the Tigray election, Abiy announced on national television that the general election would be held “in the [Ethiopian] year 2013,” but this vague promise won’t pacify opposition groups. They have already denounced the Abiy administration as unconstitutional for having failed to hold the vote in August.
The Tigray election will likely start a cascade of political challenges to Abiy. The region’s ruling Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which seems to have scored a comprehensive victory, is a thorn in his side. Even if the vote is not recognized in Addis Ababa, the TPLF will claim greater legitimacy than the central government. Other opposition groups will use the vote to strengthen their own similar argument.
At least the prime minister can take solace from the failure of the Tigray Independence Party, which calls for secession from Ethiopia, to gain much traction. But the TPLF will demand greater autonomy, and other regions will join the chorus.
Meanwhile, Abiy has been struggling to retain credibility with his own Oromos, who make up the country’s largest ethnic group, since the murder of a popular Oromo musician in late June. The ensuing violent protests prompted the prime minister to call out the security forces; hundreds were killed, and thousands arrested, many without charges.
Should such spasms of violence recur, Abiy may have no option but to use harsher measures to suppress them, further eroding his chances in the elections. His best bet is to bring the vote forward, and let Ethiopians decide whether they support his plans, economic and political, for their country. No amount of international acclaim can compensate for a lack of credibility — and a popular mandate — at home.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and Africa.
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