The Ethiopian government is looking increasingly unstable, and the security environment in Ethiopia is looking more dangerous. Opposition protests over the past few months have been larger and more frequent than any in Ethiopia since the end of the civil war. The ethnic nature of these protest movements means that a mutiny within the police or security forces is more likely than in recent years.
We also warn that higher impact scenarios, like a change of prime minister, or a coup, are both credible scenarios in the medium to long term. This is because, other than these demonstrations, there are underlying indications that the government’s position is increasingly precarious. The ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front’s (EPRDF) grip on power appears to have been weakening in recent years, and the country’s economy has unresolved structural problems.
Despite restrictions on local and international media operations in Ethiopia, social media users have reported on the protests. Attendance at weekly protests in cities and towns countrywide over the past few months has tended to vary, but we have seen images of rallies with what appears to be several thousand protesters in Addis Ababa, Dessie, Mekele and Gondar. The scale of such public opposition to the government is unprecedented.
Analysis of protests
The motivations behind the recent protests have varied widely between regions of the country and between organising groups. But a common theme has been opposition to the government. In Oromia, protests were originally against a plan to expand Addis Ababa into surrounding areas but have turned into a broader anti-government movement. In Amhara, protests have been against the purported mistreatment of the Amhara ethnic group. We have also seen images on social media of Muslim groups protesting outside mosques in the past month, reportedly against government interference in religious affairs.
The government has blamed the protests on “people with terror links” and overseas activists who they claim are trying to destabilize the country. This approach has in some cases, exacerbated the risk of protests. Earlier this year, government heavy-handedness in response to protests in Oromia prompted other groups to join the demonstrations. So far, the various recent protest movements appear to have remained organisationally distinct. But they do seem to have become less single-issue oriented and converged on a more broadly anti-government stance.
Although it is unclear how these protests will play out in Ethiopia, we think that there are several credible scenarios in the coming months that point to increasing risks in the country. If the protests persist at their current size and frequency, the EPRDF may attempt to replace the current prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn. Such a move would probably be an attempt by the ruling party to appease protesters, but would be likely to result in little tangible political change.
We also think it is credible that the security forces might mutiny, or the army may attempt a coup. This is particularly likely if the current protests escalate into a more widespread and sustained anti-government movement – a development similar to the popular protests and subsequent coup in Burkina Faso last year. An early warning sign of this would be the government ordering local military units to violently suppress demonstrations related to ethnic grievances.
The nine regional states of Ethiopia are in part divided along ethnic lines, and the government claims that the security forces in each region are predominantly made up of members of that ethnic group. Given that the protests in Amhara, Oromia and Tigray appear to be at least partly motivated by perceived ethnic-biased issues, a mutiny, in which the police or soldiers refuse to follow orders to use heavy handed tactics against protesters of the same ethnic group, is a credible scenario in our view.
Despite this risk, we anticipate that the Ethiopian government will use more forceful tactics to suppress the protests, particularly if they continue to spread, grow and intensify. The use of heavy handed tactics by the security forces is already commonplace. Human Rights Watch claims that more than 400 people have been killed at demonstrations by the security forces since late 2015. This response suggests that there is a high level of concern in government about the effect the protests will have on its stability.
We have seen several indications that the EPRDF has been losing public support in recent years, especially since Hailemariam became prime minister in 2012. He is widely seen as less charismatic than his predecessor, and anecdotal reports suggest that he is generally perceived by the population as having failed to move to a more democratic and inclusive style of government.
One of Hailemariam’s central claims to legitimacy is his government’s handling of the economy. Over the past decade, the Ethiopian economy has grown by an average of 11.7% per year, according to the World Bank. But the country’s GDP per capita is still amongst the lowest in the world, and it appears that the high growth rate is not benefiting the growing youth population.
None of this points to an improving outlook. The US government estimates that 71% of the population is younger than 30. But Ethiopian labour ministry statistics from 2015 show that 25% of under 30s in Ethiopia are either under- or unemployed. Such high rates of joblessness significantly increase the risk that protests movements will become more frequent and intense in the coming months.
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