Ethiopia Is Falling Apart (Foreign Policy - January 11)

For a brief moment last week, Ethiopia seemed poised to shed its reputation as Africa’s Stasi state. At a press conference on Jan. 3, Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn vowed to free political prisoners and shutter the notorious Maekelawi prison, which has long served as a torture chamber for government critics, opposition leaders, journalists, and activists.

Desalegn’s announcement shocked Ethiopian citizens and observers alike. Initial reports indicated that the Ethiopian regime had finally accepted that mistakes had been made and serious abuses had been committed on its watch. Indeed, the stark admission would have marked the first time ever that Ethiopia had acknowledged holding political prisoners in the country. (Human rights groups have estimated that they number in the tens of thousands.)

The outpouring of optimism did not last long. Within hours, an aide to Desalegn clarified the prime minister’s remarks, saying that “mistranslation” by the media was to blame for the confusion. And indeed Desalegn’s actual comments in Amharic were less clear-cut. He spoke of the need to cultivate national reconciliation and to expand democratic freedoms, adding that “some political leaders and individuals whose crimes have resulted in court convictions or their ongoing trial” would be pardoned or have their cases withdrawn. A week after the press conference, it remains unclear how many people will be freed or when, if at all.

One fact remains clear, however. Following three years of escalating anti-government protests — mostly by the Oromo ethnic group and to an extent the Amhara, who together comprise two-thirds of the country’s 100 million people — Ethiopia can no longer afford to ignore demands for political reform. For years, the regime has sacrificed respect for basic political rights and civil liberties on the altar of economic growth. And its claims of a rapidly growing economy have always been dubious at best. The status quo can no longer hold.

A staunch U.S. ally in the war on terrorism, Ethiopia is seen as a stable oasis in the troubled Horn of Africa region, which is plagued by both extremist attacks and ruthless counterinsurgency operations. This image of stability has been cultivated by well-oiled lobbyists in Washington and by an army of social media trolls on the government payroll. However, despite the outward veneer of growth and stability, all is not well in Ethiopia.

In an effort to boost lagging exports, authorities devalued Ethiopia’s currency, the birr, by 15 percent last October. The country is also struggling to mitigate the effects of massive youth unemployment, high public debt, rising inflation, and a shortage of foreign currency. The economic woes that have beleaguered Ethiopia have fueled the increasing unrest. Amhara and Oromo protesters decry economic marginalization and systemic exclusion at the hands of powerful ethnic Tigrayan leaders. The economic dividends of the country’s modest growth are not broadly shared outside the wealthy business class and associates of the ruling party. To make matters worse, a long-simmering border dispute between the Oromia and the Somali regions has left hundreds of people dead and more than 700,000, mostly from the Oromo ethnic group, internally displaced.

Taken together, these burgeoning crises have raised credible concerns about the risk of state collapse. And there are good reasons to be worried. Western donors and foreign investors alike are increasingly jittery about the political uncertainty and growing popular unrest. In its annual Fragile States Index, which predicts risk of state failure, the Fund for Peace ranked Ethiopia 15th out of 178 countries surveyed, up from 24th in 2016.

Adding to the creeping sense of doom is an internal power struggle that is ripping apart the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which has been in power since 1991. The EPRDF is a coalition of four unequal partners, including the Amhara National Democratic Movement, the Oromo People’s Democratic Party (OPDO), and the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Ostensibly, each party is meant to represent the vested interests of its ethnic region within the EPRDF.

In theory, Ethiopia is a federation, based on decentralized ethnic representation. In practice, the federal system has for years enabled the domination of the country’s political space, economy, and security services by ethnic Tigrayans. The TPLF represents the Tigray region, home to only about 6 percent of the country’s population. Yet the party gets the same number of votes as the OPDO, which represents the roughly 40 percent of Ethiopians who are ethnic Oromos.

This inherent tension broke the surface in October 2016, when newly elected OPDO leaders began to openly embrace protesters’ grievances and calls for reform. This marked the first sign of a split within the EPRDF and set the stage for the ongoing power struggle over how to respond to the increasingly deadly and destabilizing Oromo protests.

The Oromo protest movement has amplified the OPDO’s voice within the EPRDF. At the press briefing held with Desalegn on Jan. 3, Lemma Megersa, the head of the OPDO and president of Oromia, accused TPLF officials of planting cronies inside his party and viewing political power as their own personal property. He made this claim in the presence of the TPLF chairman — a stunning public rebuke.

On the surface, the ruling coalition now appears open to correcting course. Instead of blaming its failures on terrorists, “anti-peace elements,” or diaspora-based opposition groups as the EPRDF has done in the past, Desalegn acknowledged the need for reform. To stop Ethiopia from falling apart, however, the government will need to go much further than the halfhearted concessions hinted at by the prime minister. It must undertake a host of long-overdue political and legal reforms, including dismantling the fusillade of draconian laws it has enacted over the last two decades to stifle dissent, decimate civil society, and muzzle the opposition.

A number of prominent Ethiopian opposition leaders, activists, and journalists — some of whom are expected to be freed after Desalegn’s remarks — have been unjustly detained and convicted under a noxious trio of laws, namely the Freedom of the Mass Media and Access to Information Proclamation, the Charities and Societies Proclamation, and the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation. To ensure that prisoners who are pardoned do not end up back behind bars, and to truly reckon with the abuses committed during the EPRDF’s 27-year rule, Ethiopia’s leaders should immediately begin dismantling the machinery of oppression by repealing and replacing those laws, which have been routinely condemned for failing to meet international standards.

In addition, to turn the page on its checkered past, the EPRDF regime — which now controls 100 percent of seats in parliament — must also implement a process of national reconciliation based on the principles of inclusivity and genuine political dialogue. In his Jan. 3 statement, Desalegn cited the need for social healing as a reason for the pardon of some prisoners. It was a historic moment. But for it to translate into real change, the country’s leaders must resolve to release all political prisoners without delay or preconditions; fully implement the country’s rarely applied but progressive constitution; ensure the independence and impartiality of the judiciary; end unchecked impunity for corrupt officeholders and security officials; and hold to account those responsible for the death and displacement of hundreds of Ethiopians.

No one expects change in Ethiopia to occur overnight. The reform process will undoubtedly be lengthy and fraught with potential obstacles. But to rescue the country from the undue weight of its own repression, EPRDF leaders have no choice but to change course.

Mohammed Ademo is a freelance journalist based in Washington. He’s also the founder and editor of, an independent news website about Ethiopia. Follow him on Twitter at: @OPride.

Jeffrey Smith is an international human rights consultant and the executive director of Vanguard Africa. Follow him on Twitter: @Smith_JeffreyT

Is Kenya’s Election Debacle a Failure of Technology or Governance? (World Politics Review - October 3)

he technological challenges that seemingly doomed the election from the outset have been a subject of intense debate in recent weeks. But that debate has tended to ignore the lack of good governance and respect for democratic rights that prevail in Kenya—the larger context, in other words, that caused the election to fall well short of democratic standards in the first place.

Remarks by our Executive Director at "The Future of Angola" event (August 31, 2017)

Remarks by Jeffrey Smith, Executive Director of Vanguard Africa

 The Future of Democracy and Human Rights in Angola: Looking Beyond the 2017 Election (August 31, 2017)

Africa has witnessed a spectacular growth in competitive elections since the 1990s. Recall that only three countries held genuine multi-party elections during the whole of the 1980s. Today they are the norm. Importantly, elections are a key indicator of the strength of democracy, which, one could argue has been reflected in Southern Africa.

First, the relative good news for the region:

In all of sub-Saharan Africa, there are currently 9 countries that register as ‘free’ according to the methodology used by Freedom House. Of those 9 countries, 4 of them are located in southern Africa: Botswana, Namibia, Mauritius and South Africa. Similarly, those same countries also feature in the top ten of the Ibrahim Index of African Governance.

On several important indicators, Southern Africa is ahead of other regions of the world – such as the Middle East and Central Asia – specifically in terms of political participation and other democratic advancements. Even Africa’s remaining tyrants, and what I refer to as “dinosaur presidents,” seek popular legitimacy through multiparty elections.

This sounds pretty great, until you start interrogating the issues in-depth.

Here is the bad news that should be cause for concern.

Staying with the Ibrahim Index for a moment, if you look into the declines taking place on human rights particularly, the most significant are occurring in what have previously been and continue to be the region’s democratic standard bearers (for better or worse): namely South Africa and Botswana. This poses a very significant threat to the region. When regional powerhouses begin to stifle basic freedoms and experience significant setbacks, this inevitably provides cover to other countries to do the same.

To be sure, regional standard-bearers are not living up to their responsibilities, helping to solidify the context in which the quality of civil liberties in the region is actually declining, as is the functioning of government, according the Economist Intelligence Unit.

International partners, and global leaders like the U.S., are also failing by not supporting these regional leaders to promote broader democratic ideals. In addition to a decline in low-level support to democratic actors – as evidenced by the massive spending cuts to U.S. democracy and governance programming – the United States has also been missing the mark at a higher diplomatic level, and I think Angola’s a good example here.

To date, Angola remains one of only three strategic African partners to the U.S., along with Nigeria and South Africa. In line with previous administrations, President Trump is poised to maintain the status quo, which includes strong ties with leaders in Luanda, despite its evident lack of respect for the basic political and civil rights of its people. In May of this year, Angola’s then defense minister, and now president, met with Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, during which a new security agreement was signed and the country was praised for its “leadership.” Among other items, the agreement confirmed the continued training of (notoriously abusive) Angolan security service members in the U.S. The current president also touted the need for increased military cooperation, capitalizing on the long-held and entirely counterproductive belief in the U.S. that “stability” somehow trumps respect for basic human rights, civil liberties and democratic freedoms.

A few additional thoughts on what might be causing the regional backsliding and the political volatility that often comes with it.

First: political elites are holding onto power by any means necessary, and doing so in more clever ways that don’t necessarily attract international headlines or condemnation. Generally, a good test for the health of a democracy is whether leaders leave office when the law says their time is up. These days, leaders are increasingly securing longer terms through “constitutional coups,” proposing amendments that allow for additional terms in office. This practice gained particular intensity after 2000, when many postcolonial leaders were nearing the ends of their constitutional mandate. Since then, at least 30 presidents have tried to extend their rule and 17 have of them have succeeded, including in southern Africa: Angola and Namibia being the two primary examples.

In these environments, there is, quite simply, a lack of genuine political contestation. According to a recent Afrobarometer survey, just 40% of Africans (polled in 36 countries) believe that their last elections were ‘free and fair.’ Leaders in these countries have invested significant resources to ensure a favorable outcome by stifling democratic space: rigging the registration process, misusing state resources to dispense patronage, controlling the flow of information (through state media monopolies, for instance) and, if all else fails, directly manipulating the results, frustrating any subsequent legal challenge, or jailing their opponents (ex. Zambia).

It should thus come as no surprise that in southern Africa, no liberation movement turned political party has ever lost an election at the national level. This undefeated streak continued in Angola, and will likely persist for the foreseeable future. To date, the record stands at 35-0. In these environments, the ruling party = state. Where the state and party have become one, the political opposition is typically portrayed by governments in the grammar of security (i.e. ‘enemies of the state’). It also usually transforms into a grammar of violence around election time.

There are dire consequences here; for example, studies have shown a strong correlation between Africa’s entrenched leadership and developmental and security challenges, including conflict or instability, stagnant or declining economies, and democratic backsliding. Overall, extended terms in office have contributed to the slowing down of democratization we saw in the 1990s and early 2000s.

A second reason for democratic backsliding in the region is that we’ve collectively allowed the democratic bar to be lowered to a dangerous and wholly unacceptable level. As a recent report from the Brenthurst Foundation put it: “a crude ethos has developed…that if there was no violence, then basically it was a ‘good’ election.”

Due to a changing global power balance, rigged or outright stolen elections in Africa face fewer international penalties than ever before. The AU, for instance, and the various regional economic communities like SADC, consistently prioritize stability in pronouncing on election processes, favoring the incumbent elite rather than their challengers. The international community, writ large, often appears untroubled by the idea that elections that wouldn’t pass muster in the major powers are somehow ‘acceptable’ in Africa. This is both disrespectful and unsustainable.

In sum: there is a positive relationship between electoral democracy and development. A report by the Institute for Security Studies last year found that democracy steadily contributes to good governance, development and economic growth. This only happens if the key components of electoral democracy – including genuine political contestation – are present.

Another report by the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE) notes that: Because democracies are accountable to the public rather than the elite, they are more likely than autocracies to produce public goods, maintain rule of law, and protect individual rights. More often than not, autocrats fail to implement reforms to sustain development because they are not held accountable (and because it’s not in their interests to do so). This is where we are with Angola today and throughout much of the region.

Supporting genuine political contestation, consolidating democratic forces and ensuring truly free and fair elections is therefore of paramount importance. Popular support for democracy, for all its imperfections, remains high in the region. It is the supply side that has been sadly missing. By focusing efforts on addressing this evident discrepancy we can help empower citizens to take local ownership over the democratic process that can ultimately lead to a brighter more prosperous and stable future.

The African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) is one existing institution that can and should be utilized to this effect. The AU Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance is another. Adopted in 2007 and entered into force in 2010, only ten African countries have, to date, signed and ratified it. To improve democracy and entrench democratic rights in Angola – and elsewhere in the region – this is the direction we must ultimately head in.

Thank you very much. 

Budget cuts Present Opportunity for US NGOs and the Private Sector (The Hill - May 13)

In light of President Donald Trump's notable shift in foreign policy, US-based NGOs working on African issues can be capitalized on by private donors, while working side-by-side with the Administration, USAID and State Department to create pillars of democratic stability.

To Ensure Its Democratic Transition, Gambia Will Need Justice—and Reconciliation (World Politics Review - May 2)

Gambians hope to collectively overcome a deep-seated national trauma and move forward in a way that satiates the rising call to bring those responsible for past crimes to justice, while also dousing the flames of division that Jammeh had so frequently fanned with impunity. 

Gambia’s Opposition Unites: The Stakes of December’s Election (Foreign Affairs – November 25)

Gambia’s Opposition Unites: The Stakes of December’s Election (Foreign Affairs – November 25)

On December 1, Gambians will vote in their country’s most consequential election since it gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1965. For the first time, a unified political coalition will challenge Yahya Jammeh, Gambia’s longtime dictator, only months after the most vigorous protest movement in the country’s recent history.

The U.S. and Nigeria’s Buhari on the Human Rights Hot Seat (The Hill – August 30)

The many nuances of the situation on the ground in Nigeria – a deteriorating economy, a seeming rise in violence, and a political witch hunt under the guise of anti-corruption – cannot be overstated. In simple terms, aid offered to Nigeria, from any U.S. executive branch agency, should only be provided with a mutual understanding that members of the Nigerian military who stand accused of gross violations of human rights be held accountable.

Increasing Risk of State-Led Mass Killing in The Gambia (Early Warning Project – June 23)

Increasing Risk of State-Led Mass Killing in The Gambia (Early Warning Project – June 23)

Several factors indicate that the risk of state-led mass killing in The Gambia is increasing: a steady deterioration of the Gambian economy due to mismanagement and rampant corruption; the death and disappearances of several prominent opposition leaders; and a recent uptick of inflammatory rhetoric and political violence. 

Gambia’s president is under pressure to step down. Is it time for a change? (Washington Post -- May 17)

 Gambia’s president is under pressure to step down. Is it time for a change? (Washington Post -- May 17)

Today, Jammeh faces a collection of challenges similar to those that ushered in his own regime 22 years ago: an increasingly vocal and inspired political opposition, popular protests demanding change, and armed forces with low morale (including reports that senior officers have refused recent orders). Jammeh also confronts rising international isolation, including the suspension of aid from major donors and the country’s dismissal from several U.S. aid programs, including the African Growth and Opportunity Act and the Millennium Challenge Corporation.

Gambian Protests put Jammeh’s Human Rights Record Into the International Spotlight (OkayAfrica – April 26)

Gambian Protests put Jammeh’s Human Rights Record Into the International Spotlight (OkayAfrica – April 26)

In years past, these abuses committed against the Gambian people, and carried out with absolute impunity, have largely been met with silence. However, that scenario has gradually changed, with Gambia being thrust into the spotlight for several reasons, providing a much-needed complement to ongoing domestic and diaspora-driven advocacy efforts.