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Political Transition and State Building in Ethiopia

A Timely Public Discussion

On 6 July, the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP) organized a public discussion on ‘Political Transition and State Building in Ethiopia.’ It addressed the importance of fostering constructive relationships and cooperation among civil society, policymakers, as well as regional and international organisations in order to support a successful political transition in Ethiopia. The discussion was moderated by Mr Adam Koniuszewski, Executive-in-Residence, part of the Global Fellowship Initiative at the GCSP and Associate Fellow of the World Academy of Art and Science engaged in the Future of Democracy project.


Ethiopia is a landlocked country located in the heart of the Horn of Africa. It is also the second most populous country in Africa. In addition to long-lasting conflicts with neighbouring countries it has also experienced mounting social tensions internally. Long-term marginalisation and exclusion of the ethnic majorities by the ruling party has led to popular uprisings, violent government responses, and a national state of emergency that has been in place since 2016. However, in the last few months, Ethiopians have placed high expectations on the new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and his push for reforms. Progress through unity has since seemed possible through the new Prime Minister’s numerous appeals for change to the Ethiopian people.


Action is on the way. The release of thousands of political prisoners, an end to human rights abuses, decreased censorship and the return of independent media into the country have pushed Ethiopia forward. The unexpected peace agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea over long-lasting territorial disputes is welcome news for the region and brings optimism to all of Africa.

Leila Bon-Abajobir, an Ethiopian national, gave details on environmental and social aspects of her country. She described the direction for young Ethiopians as a ‘Pathway to Death’ symbolising migration routes through deserts and harsh lands. She argued that the lack of opportunity for the majority of young Ethiopians mainly comes from the absence of establishing a direct link with the fields of agriculture and education. As a response, she launched the Jifar Association to promote sustainable agriculture, access to water, medical assistance, cultural assistance, and capacity-building.

The Jifar Association focuses on sustainable development. It trains people to launch their own businesses with the aim of improving Ethiopia’s economy and social dynamism. Ms Bon-Abajobir states that many agricultural opportunities could exist in Ethiopia. She commented on the ability to ‘maintain agricultural exports whilst feeding the entire population of Ethiopia due to its favourable micro-climate.’ However, historic droughts caused large-scale famines which triggered Live Aid relief. This has failed to bring long-lasting solutions due to mismanagement and lack of investment in knowledge, training and proper agricultural infrastructure.   

Professor Ezekiel Gebissa a renowned History and African Studies Professor at Kettering University, USA introduced the topic of political transitions in Ethiopia. Through the 20th century, violence has been a key factor in attempting social change. The shift of power from Lij Iyasu to Haile Selassie through a Coup d’État was followed by the overthrow of Emperor Haile Sellassie in a popular uprising in 1974. In 1991, Mengistu Haile Mariam lost power to Meles Zenawi following a guerrilla struggle. More recently, the students’ protests in 2014 called for human rights to be respected, for democratic freedom and for fair elections. Today, Ethiopia is undergoing a political transition with no guarantee that the transition will lead to democratic order.

Professor Gebissa also discussed the issue of national unity. The past refusal to share power in Ethiopia has had long-lasting consequences between the Oromo inhabited areas, and the economically isolated lowland periphery among the Anuak, the Surma, the Somali and the Afar.

This map shows the number of reported fatalities in Ethiopia, November 2015 – October 2016. Image credit: Armed Conflict Location and Event Dataset. 

Jawar Mohammed, Executive Director of Oromia Media Network, aligned his reserves similarly to Professor Gebissa’s point of view concerning the current political shift. Mr Mohammed argues that even though the country feels hopeful toward democracy, people should still be cautious of the chaotic nature of a political transition.

Mr Mohammed listed three options for political reformists and activists:

  1. Compromise and find alternatives in the economic, social and political sectors.
  2. Overthrow of a government, with the risk of returning to authoritarian rule and use of force to restore order.
  3. Replace the “rule of guns” with a rule of law through change and reform.

Mr Mohammed linked the third option with the current activities of Ethiopian youth.  The youth community has developed techniques to disorganise existing political structures.  Political solutions may arise with elites of both the ruling and opposition parties to find long-term stability. It is argued that it is in the best interest of all parties to push for a rapid democratisation process. He put out a call for caution, as a return to authoritarianism in Ethiopia is possible if transition is not dealt with strategically and methodically.

The timely and relevant Public Discussion held at the GCSP assembled approximately 70 participants, mainly from the Ethiopian diaspora in Geneva. Questions from the participants to the panellists were largely focused on change and ‘accelerating political transition.’ The sense of change and political transition strongly impacts the Ethiopian youth community who were present.