Domestic ripples, regional waves? The future of Ethiopian reforms and their regional implications

The recent visit to Ethiopia by EU High Representative Mogherini – the second in 2019 – has in Europe put the spotlight back on Ethiopia’s reforms since Abiy Ahmed became Prime Minister in April 2018. While his first actions were welcomed both at home and abroad, recent efforts have not had the same impact. As the connection between domestic reforms and wider regional dynamics becomes clearer, whether or not Abiy can maintain the momentum of his reform agenda depends as much on politics between Ethiopia and its neighbours as within Ethiopia.

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      Ethiopia is triggering change within and beyond its borders

      Even before Abiy, Ethiopia was increasingly seen as a hegemon or ‘swing state’ in the Horn of Africa: it recently supplanted Kenya as the economic powerhouse of the region while has played a key role in steering the agenda of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), chairing the organisation since 2008 and playing a key role in shaping mediation efforts in South Sudan.

      Nonetheless, on arrival to power, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took Ethiopians and the world by surprise. Political prisoners were freed and exiled opposition figures were welcomed back home. A string of positive reforms quickly followed, including a government with full gender parity at cabinet level, the nomination of the first female president and supreme court president, and the appointment of a former dissident as chairperson of the Electoral Commission.

      Abiy also vowed to open Ethiopia’s economy to external investment, including through privatisation of profitable public enterprises like Ethiopian Airlines and Ethiotelecom. The economic reforms mark a huge leap from a relatively closed developmental state model to a much more liberal economic view, which is far from consensual within Ethiopia.

      Though ostensibly domestic issues, all of the above have implications for the wider Horn of Africa region. By opening up its economy and a growing market of more than 100 million people, reforms in Ethiopia could have a large influence on trade and investment from the wider region of the Horn and East Africa, thus strengthening the economic links to its neighbours. Deals around access to markets may, therefore, give Ethiopia further bargaining and negotiating power over its neighbours, already underpinned by its security role – something that PM Abiy seems to be aiming at, judging by his busy external agenda.

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      Indeed Abiy’s most impressive feat is arguably beyond its borders: the historic peace agreement with Eritrea. Given that this has been the source of wider tensions in the region, not least in Somalia, the rapprochement implies a potentially big change in the dynamics in the Horn of Africa, bringing an 18-year ‘no-war-no-peace’ stalemate to an end. Abiy is unarguably driving political reform at home and with it impacting on regional dynamics in the Horn.

      Reforms running out of steam?

      However, despite his early achievements, Abiy’s reform momentum may be grinding to a halt. Tensions with Egypt over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (a hydroelectric dam that Ethiopia is building on the river Nile and is set to become the largest in Africa) remain unresolved. The reconciliation with Eritrea and Somalia and accompanying economic reforms, undoubtedly positive developments, risk leaving other countries in the wider region feeling disenfranchised: erstwhile allies like Djibouti, whose port has expanded massively given its role as Ethiopia’s main trade route, see their position threatened by Ethiopia’s alignment with – and investment in – Eritrea and Somalia. The meeting between the Ethiopian PM and Somaliland’s President Muse Bihi Abdi, in which Abiy reportedly tried to mediate talks between Hargeisa and Mogadishu, was praised by the Mogadishu government but was inconclusive with no follow-up since. Abiy also attempted to mediate the maritime border dispute between Kenya and Somalia, though that was quickly abandoned.

      With such a broad reform agenda underway, PM Abiy is calling for external support. However, there are signs that, after the initial enthusiasm, the international community is becoming increasingly concerned about the lack of progress in some areas, even if withdrawing support is not in the cards.

      The main question mark for external actors wishing to support PM Abiy’s reforms is the lack of a clear roadmap or concrete proposals beyond his medemer philosophy (which could roughly be translated from Amharic as be ‘coming together’ or ‘synergy’). There is also growing concern about simmering ethnic tensions in Ethiopia. The number of internally displaced persons is estimated at 2.8 million, higher than Syria’s including reports of forced returns. The fear is that these tensions may come to undermine Ethiopia’s role as a haven of stability in a volatile region.

      Will the international community answer Abiy’s call for external support?

      Overall, external partners still support PM Abiy’s reforms. Federica Mogherini, EU High Representative, has visited Ethiopia twice this year, while other European heads of state have also visited in recent months, not least French President Emmanuel Macron.

      Ethiopia’s recent reforms mark a new chapter for the country and the region. Despite the lack of a clear roadmap, Abiy has pushed for a major revamp in regional dynamics in the Horn of Africa.

      But while stimulating domestic reforms and becoming personally active in the region, it is not yet clear if he can continue these internal reforms and stabilise the growing conflicts, and how this will play out in the elections planned for 2020. Nor is it clear whether Abiy will also seek to further engage in regional, multilateralist approaches through IGAD and other regional fora, or stick to shuttle diplomacy and bilateral meetings.

      Whatever the outcome of these ongoing processes, one thing is for certain: Ethiopia’s domestic politics have major implications for the region, and vice versa. Understanding these complex two-way connections is not easy but will be key to any external actors seeking to support reform and promote stability and development in the Horn of Africa.

      The views are those of the author and not necessarily those of ECDPM.

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