Ethiopia Takes a Deep and Foreboding Breath

Smart phone users in the Ethiopian capital are rejoicing. After a two-month blackout the Ethiopian government has permitted the return of mobile data. Most Ethiopians who access the Internet do so through their phones, and previously the government had singled out social media activity as a major influence in agitating unrest that has doggedly seethed across the country since breaking out a year ago.

But now, more than two months into the six-month state of emergency declared by the government on Oct. 9, protests previously rocking the country’s two most populous regions appear to have subsided, and gangs of young men are no longer prowling the country setting fire to buildings, blocking roads and clashing with security forces.

But despite the appearance of order being restored, no one seems to know what may happen next, or whether this calm will hold.

The current situation may simply serve as a temporary break in Ethiopia’s most sustained and widespread period of dissent and protests since the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) ruling party came to power following the 1991 revolution.

“The protests have shaken the EPRDF regime in ways not seen in more than two decades and a half,” says Mohammed Ademo, an Ethiopian journalist in Washington, D.C., and working alongside diaspora activists following events. “It did more to challenge the regime’s grip on power in one year than what some opposition groups have done in years.”

For up until now, the political gamble underpinning the EPRDF’s developmental state project—similar to China’s strategy—has been that the material transformation of Ethiopia would ultimately satisfy the divergent populations comprising Ethiopia’s ethnic federation.

With months of the state of emergency still to run, however, the EPRDF now has a critical opportunity to forge a sustainable route out of the mire. The big question is whether it will seize the opportunity or is capable of doing so.

Because since 1991, dogged by criticism over its authoritarian style and human rights record with Western observers and governments calling on it to deepen its commitment to democratic reforms, it hasn’t shown much interest in listening.

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By James Jeffrey