Uncertainty about the health of Ethiopia’s long serving Prime Minister and growing protests by that country’s restive Muslim population brings into question its image as the linchpin to the stability of the volatile Horn of Africa region.
Little is known about Mr. Zenawi’s health. One thing is not in doubt: He is gravely ill. The unknown is whether he would survive his illnesses for his own good, not his return to power. Even if he manages to hang on, his aura of invincibility is so damaged by the sudden and unexplained disappearance that it is only a matter of time before he bows or forced out.
Two questions come to mind. Who would succeed him? And more importantly, would the ruling party’s grip on power outlive his demise?
The fact that the regime held together, even if haphazardly, without its leader of three decades at the helm augurs well for its continuing vitality. In the same vein, the failure of the opposition to even make a stir after the window of opportunity presented by Muslim protesters speaks volumes about its state as well as its preparation.
The problem is that these observations hold only in the short term. There are a number of dynamics at work to make the future less certain than the present.
Peering back a hundred years into the country’s history, one finds not a single presumptive successor that has ever gone on to consolidate power and establish stability. There are few reasons to surmise that the reality will deviate from this beaten path. Reassurances by officials to the contrary, there are no indications that the ruling party has settled on a successor, either. According to one analyst, who is versed in the affairs of the Horn of Africa, “no TPLF successor to Meles would have the power, skills, and cleverness that enabled him to rule for two decades.” He added, “although the TPLF has an amazing ability to thrive under adversity and could patch things up, it is at its most vulnerable stage.”
Another expert on Ethiopia concurring says “the era of Mr. Zenawi is all but gone.” The analyst, however, warned against the tendency by the opposition to equate Mr. Zenawi’s departure with the imminent fall of his regime.
While the immediate danger to the stability of the regime is relatively low, the same could not be said about its long-term prognosis. Even in the short-term, the Ethiopian regime is facing a growing challenge: a highly determined, skillful, and enterprising foe in the form of a group of previously unknown Muslim activists who have galvanized themselves into a movement sustaining an effective protest campaign lasting eight months. The protests represent the most lethal threat the regime has faced in its two-decade rule, more serious than the rural Oromo insurgency of 1992 and the urban Amhara street skirmishes in the aftermath of the 2005 elections.
Long marginalized and considered the quintessential “Other” in the conventional Ethiopian narrative, Muslims make up close to 40 percent of Ethiopia’s burgeoning population of 94 million, according to the CIA Factbook. The ruling elite that dominated Ethiopia for the last two decades with an iron-fist hails from the Tigrean minority community, who make up a mere 6 percent of the country. The Tigreans are 96 percent Orthodox Christians.
Even though the margin is narrower than acknowledged by conventional wisdom, Christians are clearly in the majority in Ethiopia. At the same time, Muslims make up a majority of the population in many urban and rural areas of the country—except in the Amhara and Tigrean North and parts of the Southern Ethiopia Nations and People’s region, which has become predominantly Protestant, 58 percent, especially during the last two decades.
Bitterly resented by the Amhara, who are also predominantly Orthodox Christians, the ruling party rode out the storms following the elections of 2005 on the backs of the Muslim community.
The regime has the coercive powers of the state to suppress the ongoing Muslim protests. But it would have to do so at such a stiff price that the party’s continuing domination of the country could be in dire straights.
The protest as well as the brutal crack down is opening opportunities for the opposition to organize. After years of suppression, the political opposition is currently in total disarray. But it will be naïve to think that this asymmetry will last long. Several alliances have come alive, albeit on paper. Organizations and groups will mushroom.
Supporters of the incumbent regime may dismiss this scenario as far-fetched. They may ground their arguments in the fact that the protests by Muslim activists have thus far been confined to sit-ins and silent civil disobedience measures. Moreover, their demands remain non-political and limited in scope: the right to elect their leaders freely, a halt to the government’s effort to turn the small controversial Al-Ahbash sect into a mainstream faith, and returning the Awolia School to an elected board rather than government appointees.
However, the tenacity, sophistication, and mobilizing capacity of the organizers of the protests have surprised everyone, including the ruling party itself, ultimately forcing it to eschew its wait-and-see approach in favor of a heavy-handed crackdown. It has demonstrated unequivocally a sustained countrywide civil-disobedience campaign is feasible. It has further showed the regime would be impotent to effectively sniff out such a people power as it has done all along.
A counter argument is that the demands are so apolitical that the regime could settle it in a blink if it so wished denying the protesters a cause to rally around or lacking the unity that carrying their demands through demands. The fact however is that the ruling party is unlikely to heed the demands afraid that succumbing to it would open the Pandora box and hasten its downfall. Other sectors, for example Orthodox Christians who resent the appointment of their patriarch by the government, could press similar demands. In a land where ethnicity and religion undercut each other and Tigrean hegemony is deeply begrudged by large sections of the populace, including by the Oromo who make up the majority of the country’s population, it does not take a leap of imagination to see that a minor incident could easily escalate, with sufficient positive feedback, into calls for regime change as the Arab Spring. That is why the regime is taking a hard line position despite the risk that this might stoke a broad-based revolt from multiple angles.
If the ruling party were to face multiple advanced mobilizations by its myriad opponents, its forces, however formidable, would be thinly spread. One such stretcher is the Eritrean regime of Isayas Afeworki acting to take advantage of the situation through its proxies. The problem is that Eritrea has its own set of problems, including an ailing President, and the assets in its possession are of little value sapped by a myriad of internal hemorrhage.
In the event of a multi-pronged security challenge, the ruling party cannot hold down the situation even by relying on its superior military and security forces, which is currently securely in its hands. The problem is that if the conflict becomes protracted, the loyalty of other pillars of power, including that of members of the ruling party, could not be counted on.
All indicators point toward the tensions in Ethiopia growing rather than abating. Neither side is ready to cave in. The government has already dubbed the protesters extremists, hinting at its determination to crack down even harder. It is following a three-pronged strategy: crackdown, isolating protest leaders from the Muslim community through sustained propaganda, and provoking a negative reaction from other sectors and external forces concerned about the rise of radical Islam. The efficacy of these tactics are doubtful—the very same claims were used so often that few believe would believe them.
Likewise, the protesters have vowed to continue protesting. Despite the concerted efforts by the government to sow discord within the Muslim community, between what it called Wahhabis and Sufis, the Muslim community is rallying behind the movement in large numbers. It is true that the ruling party exercises a tighter control on the countryside. Contrarily, it appears the urban centers are totally hostile to the ruling party.
If other aggrieved groups, there are plenty, join hands with the Muslims and press demands for political freedoms, the ruling party’s tight hold on power will be challenged, even if this may not automatically put it in grave jeopardy. However, a serious challenge is sufficient to shatter the fragile facade of stability carefully cultivated and projected by the regime and its benefactors.
Given the regime’s draconian measures against the protesters, the possibility of the tension degenerating into a Yemen and Syria-like confrontations cannot also be ruled out. Such a scenario would be catastrophic for the region. The inherent instability of the Horn of Africa region and the multiplicity and divergence of interests in Ethiopia means that a quick end to the standoff would be unlikely—even under the most favorable of scenario.
The answer to the question of how the uncertainty about the health of Ethiopia’s long serving Prime Minister and growing protests by the country’s restive Muslim population would affect that country’s stability depends on who would out organize, out mobilize, and out lead supporters and allies—a field where the ruling party still enjoys advantages.
The ruling party already controls all the institutions of power–the political system, the media, the judiciary, the military, the security, police, and what not. No room is left for it to maneuver towards squeezing out its opponents. It can liberalize and open up the political space to diffuse the tensions, but this is contrary to its nature. When cornered, it becomes even more jingoistic. Not that it is less so when not corned. But it would be more paranoid as to lash out with all the resources under its disposal.
The opponents of the regime, perhaps for the very first time, enjoy a little more room to chip at the ruling party’s dominance. Even if the ruling party is still the best organized and the stronger side, the right of initiative has slipped out of it–possessed as it is by a march of folly, sapped of its past creativity, originality, and vitality.