ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Ethiopians of all stripes cheered and hoped for calm after years of political turbulence and ethnic violence when Abiy Ahmed was sworn in as prime minister last year.
Within a few months, the 42-year-old onetime military intelligence officer moved to release thousands of political prisoners, signed a peace agreement with neighboring Eritrea, widened press freedoms and pledged to repeal laws suppressing civil rights. He earned raves internationally as one of the world’s most dynamic new political figures.
The state-owned airline has been partially privatized, and a panel has been selected to guide the country into its long-delayed entry into the World Trade Organization.
Mr. Abiy appointed women to fill 50% of his Cabinet posts, a surprising move in a highly traditional country where women had little visibility in political life.
Just over a year later, the bloom is off the Ethiopian rose. Many worry about the faltering pace of change and political liberalization. Although many embrace the changes, the new political freedom is allowing some groups with sectarian interests to flourish and undermine the reforms, analysts say.
“The new prime minister has good intentions for the country. He has opened political space for opposition groups and departed from decades of oppressive government,” said Peter Wafula Wekesa, a political scientist specializing in East Africa at Kenyatta University in Nairobi, Kenya. “But there are some individuals who are taking advantage of the reforms to destabilize his government and pursue their own interests.”
Analysts say the prime minister is under increasing threat as he rolls out ambitious reforms in Africa’s second-most populous nation. In June, his army chief of staff and close ally, Gen. Seare Mekonnen, was killed in an attempted coup in the Amhara region. The assassination led to a wave of arrests and protests that slowed Mr. Abiy’s reform process.
“The events of June were very dangerous. Had they not failed, they could have averted the democratic process we have embarked upon,” a sometimes defensive Mr. Abiy told reporters last week. “If it was not aborted quickly and the [killings] were executed as planned, it could have created unprecedented destruction.”
The prime minister justified a temporary cutoff of the nation’s internet service as a necessary move to curb divisive and incendiary messages.
“As long as it is deemed necessary to save lives and property damages, the internet could be closed for good, let alone for a week,” he said.
Trouble in Sidama
Another simmering issue is Sidama, a part of the Southern Nations regions. Ethiopia has nine regional states, drawn mainly along ethnic lines, with considerable autonomy. Sidama, in the heart of the country’s crucial coffee-growing region, wants to become its 10th.
The Sidama have threatened to declare their own federal state if the government fails to call a referendum. Protesters and security officials have clashed in Hawassa, the city the Sidama want as their capital, resulting in more than 30 deaths last month.
“If [Mr. Abiy] really calls himself a reformer, then he should recognize us and stop killing our people,” said Yihona Yalew, a Sidama resident who leads the protests. “He should listen to the voice of the people. We are already prepared to be declared a regional state, and failure by the federal government to do so will automatically lead to a crisis.”
The country’s constitution gives ethnic groups the right to vote to form a new state. When the regions achieve the requisite status, they are allowed to collect their own taxes, run their own security, choose their officials and enact laws for their region.
The problem for the federal government is that the plan to declare Sidama a region would be a direct challenge to Mr. Abiy’s administration and could encourage the eight other ethnic groups that lack a state to make similar demands, analysts say.
The Morsi precedent
Mr. Wekesa said it is the leaders of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front who are pushing the Sidama to revolt against the federal government. The Tigrayans, located in the country’s north along the border with Eritrea, feel sidelined since Mr. Abiy came to power. In the past year, some accused of abuses of power under prior administrations have been investigated and imprisoned.
Tigrayans, the fourth-largest ethnic group in the country after the Oromo, Amhara and Somali, have dominated power structures since 1991, when the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front drove a Marxist military regime from power.
As a result, Tigrayans who are serving in the reformist government are trying to destabilize the country, said Ahmednasir Abdullahi, an analyst specializing in East Africa in Nairobi. The analyst said Mr. Abiy made a critical mistake when he came to power by not cleaning house of military and other Tigrayan officials.
Mr. Abiy “should learn from the fatal mistakes made by President Mohammed Morsi of Egypt,” Mr. Abdullahi said in a post on Twitter. He was referring to the Muslim Brotherhood-allied Egyptian prime minister who was ousted by the army in a 2013 coup and who died in June while on trial. “When you take power and replace a dictatorial order, you must clean up the political elite and purge the entire army, police, judiciary, etc. of the old and replace them with loyalists.”
Tigrayans, meanwhile, accuse the prime minister of discrimination.
“We feel we are under attack from this government,” said Hana Berhe, who owns a hotel in Mekelle, the capital of the Tigray region. “They are targeting us. They want revenge because they think Tigrayans discriminated against them when [Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn Boshe] was in power.”
Although Mr. Abiy was widely praised for the swiftness of the reform program and policy changes he put into motion after taking office in April 2018, critics say his support for pluralism and change is undercutting his own agenda. The failure to take the time to build a broad popular base is coming back to haunt the government, particularly in a country where ethnic and tribal concerns are central.
“Abiy can actually lead the country better as an autocrat, not as liberal reformer,” Mr. Wekesa said. “His predecessors survived because they were dictators and were able to control the communal tensions and deal with any threats ruthlessly.”
Meanwhile, some residents are torn between freedom and stability and want those who oppose the government to be dealt with harshly, as under prior regimes.
“We feel free since Abiy came to power because we can express ourselves without any fear of being arrested and detained without charge,” said Yikeber Bekele, a taxi driver who operates in the capital, Addis Ababa. “But other people are not happy with his reforms. They are fighting him in order to take power and marginalize other ethnic groups. In such cases, Abiy should silence them by all means because they are not patriotic.”