When Hailemariam Desalegn resigned as Ethiopian prime minister on Thursday following almost three years of deadly anti-government protests, he said he did it to be “part of the solution” to meet the public’s demands for “development, democracy and good governance”.
The following day authoritarian regime struggling to contain the greatest threat to its authority since taking power in 1991 imposed a six-month state of emergency rather than reiterate its commitment to reform.
Siraj Fegessa, the defence minister, said the goal of the SOE that would last for six months is to subdue “pockets of areas where violence is prevalent”. Protests and media that incite violence would be banned but he said the move was not the prelude to a military takeover or a transitional government. He did not discuss when a new prime minister might be appointed.
However many analysts regard it is a desperate move by an unpopular government that has failed to fill the leadership void left by the death in 2012 of Meles Zenawi — the leader who dominated the regime for two decades.
Six weeks ago, the leaders of the four parties which make up the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front admitted that oppression was not quelling the protests, which civil rights activists say have left more than 1,000 people dead and seen tens of thousands detained. The government has released more than 6,000 prisoners since early January, including some prominent politicians and journalists.
But their unprecedented U-turn this week is a sign of the growing pressure on the regime from its restless people. A state of emergency from October 2016 to August 2017 achieved little beyond creating a temporary veneer of calm in the restive regions of Oromia and Amhara. These areas are where there is the greatest feeling of resentment towards the ruling elite from the northern state of Tigray.
The governing coalition is dominated by the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) but Tigrayans account for only 6 per cent of the 105m population. The two parties representing the Oromia and Amhara regions — which together comprise more than 60 per cent of the population, are becoming more assertive in their demands for change as the TPLF realizes it can no longer retain its traditional grip on power through force.
Opposition politicians say that the appointment of a reform-minded prime minister would only be a first step to quell the unrest. Mulatu Gemechu, a senior member of the Oromo Federalist Congress, one of the most prominent opposition parties, says calm will only be restored with “real change”.
“We need free elections, adherence to the constitution and a judiciary that is not a tool of the regime. But this regime cannot introduce real change if it wants to survive because it would lose power.”
It will be seen in due time whether the state of emergency will bring calm to the country or it is only delaying the inevitable.