Former U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia and an Adjunct Professor at Elliot School of International Affairs, David H. Shinn, spoke about the impact of the Arab spring on countries in the Horn of Africa. The following excerpts are his comments specific to Ethiopia. Read the full remarks after the jump.
David Shinn on Ethiopia
Since the beginning of the Arab Spring, protest in Ethiopia has been muted. The government-controlled radio and television have given limited coverage to the protests in North Africa and the Middle East but persons with access to satellite TV are well aware of the issues. There have been reliable reports of increased arrests of persons who support the political opposition to the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). Ethiopia keeps a tight rein on any group that threatens EPRDF control in the country.
The principal legal opposition coalition in Ethiopia—Medrek—composes eight regionally-based parties. While its supporters have experienced arrests since the protests in North Africa and the Middle East, Medrek has apparently not drawn direct parallels to the Arab Spring. The Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) is one of the largest opposition groups dedicated to the overthrow of the EPRDF. It has its headquarters in Eritrea and is designated a terrorist organization by the Ethiopian government. The OLF website does not make a close link between the situation in Ethiopia and the Arab Spring, although one posting from the “Ethiopian Youth Movement” did state that it is “inspired by our peers in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere. There is no reason why we cannot have the Arab uprising in Ethiopia.”
An Ethiopian exile organization—Ginbot 7—dedicated to the overthrow of the government is also considered by the Ethiopian government to be a terrorist organization. In a recent press release, Ginbot 7 argued that “the criminal regime in Addis Ababa must have learned a valuable lesson from the recent two successful popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. Objective conditions on the ground and current political developments in the country clearly indicate that the Ethiopian people are ready for a North African type revolution while Zenawi and his cronies are working hard to avoid the inevitable.” The leader of Ginbot 7, Bucknell University professor Berhanu Nega, recently announced that he is planning to trigger a Tunisia-style revolution against the EPRDF.
There is little evidence so far that opponents of the EPRDF, especially those in the diaspora, have been able to link in the minds of the Ethiopian people the Arab Spring to the situation in Ethiopia. Self-styled democracy activists called for a “day of rage” in Ethiopia on May 28. The cyber campaign seems to have originated in the Ethiopian diaspora. The call to protest was a bust. There was little local interest. The fact that the diaspora probably led the attempt doomed it to failure. There was also concern that the government would crack down on protestors. Finally, it is difficult to orchestrate a cyber-protest as the government carefully controls information and internet penetration in Ethiopia is less than one percent.
Perhaps more importantly, the negative economic factors that affect average Ethiopians have not reached the level where they result in rage. Unemployment is very high, but it is always high in Ethiopia. Unsustainable inflation has returned as a major concern, but it will take more than that to bring large numbers of Ethiopians into the street. Growing corruption could at some point tip the balance if the EPRDF does not reverse this pernicious trend.
All of the active Ethiopian opposition groups predate the Arab Spring by many years. So far, these groups have been able to do nothing more than draw attention to their on-going efforts as a result of the international focus on protests in North Africa and the Middle East. Prime Minister Meles announced last year before the Arab Spring began that he would not seek office again at the end of his term in 2015. I believe he will carry out this promise. (Ethiopia’s prime minister is not subject to term limits.) While this announcement may have taken some of the wind out of the opposition’s sails, the EPRDF will continue to take every feasible step to ensure victory in 2015 so that its candidate can reclaim the position of prime minister.