Ethiopia’s most prominent activist and media owner has accused prime minister Abiy Ahmed of increasing “authoritarianism” just weeks after the leader was awarded a Noble Peace Prize for his efforts to build stability in the Horn of Africa.
Elected in 2018, Mr Abiy has been celebrated for a peace deal with neighbouring Eritrea and sweeping domestic reforms enacted during his first months in office. But a year later, those reforms have been followed by an increase in intercommunity violence across the country, provoking strong criticisms of his leadership.
“Abiy did liberalise the political sphere in the first six months but I think he has become increasingly authoritarian,” Jawar Mohammed, the 33-year-old founder of the Oromo Media Network, said in an interview. “Ethiopia needs to move towards a concessional democracy and that happens by facilitating dialogue, negotiation and bargaining among the elites of the country — he hasn’t done it all.”
Mr Jawar’s public criticism of the prime minister followed an incident last month at his house in the capital, Addis Ababa, when a government security detail guarding the property was told to stand-down and a second police force surrounded the building.
Mr Jawar described the incident on Facebook, triggering protests by members of his Oromo ethnic group who clashed with other communities and state security forces, leaving at least 78 people dead. “I am now convinced, one hundred per cent, [the incident] was an assassination plot,” Mr Jawar said. “I cannot say for sure whether it was officially coming from [Mr Abiy] but it was orchestrated by individuals who were at the top of the food chain on security.”
Earlier in the day, Mr Abiy, also from Oromia, appeared to threaten his former ally in parliament, promising the government would “take measures” against media owners undermining “the peace and existence of Ethiopia”.
The public battle between Mr Abiy and Mr Jawar has focused attention on the stark challenges of reforming Ethiopia and risks of further violence. The prime minister’s office declined to comment on Mr Jawar’s allegations.
Mr Abiy’s Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front and its allies control all 547 seats in the national parliament. Designed as a coalition of four parties from Ethiopia’s most powerful regions, the EPRDF is supposed to allow power-sharing between different ethnic groups but has became a mechanism for some regions to dominate others.
Mr Abiy ascended to party leader in 2018 after two years of anti-government protests, promising to reform the coalition and usher in multi-party democracy. He released political prisoners and unbanned opposition groups but failed, Mr Jawar said, to engage in a national dialogue, relying instead on his own judgment.
“When you permit all these politicians and political parties, it is like allowing ten, twenty soccer clubs into a single field without clear referees, without clear rules, and any clash between these players manifests itself in violence among the spectators in the stadium,” he said.
Since 2018, hundreds of Ethiopians have been killed in politically-charged clashes between different communities and millions displaced.
Mr Abiy wants to turn the coalition into a single national party and allow more space for other political groups ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for May.
Mr Jawar says the prime minister is taking unilateral decisions to consolidate his position. “His campaign is to reduce the autonomy of the federal groups and centralise decision-making,” he said.
The disagreement strikes at the heart of the question of how much power to vest in Ethiopia’s nine ethnic regions, and how best to democratise the country of 105m people after decades of authoritarian rule.
Mr Abiy has made progress but the recent violence demonstrates the extent of the challenge, said Mehari Taddele Maru, analyst and adviser to the regional body IGAD. To avoid further conflict Mr Abiy must build a national consensus, he said.
But with national elections seven months away, and political opinions diverging, there is significant risk of more violence, according to William Davison of International Crisis Group.
“While the goals of Abiy’s government are laudable, the transitional process to move out from the old system and into a new more democratic one is not going well,” he said. “It has been very violent so far and it threatens to get worse.”
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