Since last November, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe, home to two of the oldest authoritarian governments in Africa, have both began to shift dramatically towards democracy. While the initial changes in leadership were peaceful, regional violence in Ethiopia and a contested election in Zimbabwe have made the political transitions increasingly turbulent. For the moment, Ethiopia has been able to overcome these challenges. And although Zimbabwe has shown signs of backsliding into authoritarianism, the country’s recent election had more freedom than any election since independence, and the whole process was less violent than other recent elections in the region.
At a time when democracy appears to be declining globally, the cases of Ethiopia and even Zimbabwe should be studied and cannot be discounted.
On June 23, one of the largest-ever public gatherings in Ethiopia’s Meskel Square transformed into chaos when an explosion erupted near the rally’s speaker, newly elected Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who had recently become the first person from Ethiopia’s majority Oromo ethnic group to hold the position. On the same day in Zimbabwe, an explosion in Bulawayo targeting interim President Mnangagwa occurred in the run-up to the country’s first democratic elections in decades.
For the past 40 years, we would have anticipated a brutal reaction from both governments in response to any act of violence that threatened to undermine state power. Zimbabwe’s dictator Robert Mugabe became infamous for his massacre of alleged members of the opposition party PF-ZAPU in the 1980s. Until recently, any anti-government sentiment in Ethiopia would have been met with an immediate government crackdown, including prolonged internet shutdowns, government-imposed states of emergency, and the arrests and deaths of protestors – more than 1,000 of whom have been killed since 2015.
Abiy’s moves towards liberal democracy are not without opposition. In light of the opening political space, Ethiopia’s more ethnically factious regions are experiencing increased violence as underrepresented groups jockey for position in the changing order. In response to the reforms, the former president of Ethiopia’s Somali Region tested the new prime minister, allegedly supporting dissent among regional paramilitary forces in early August. Abiy responded swiftly by deploying the military, arresting the former president, and working to quell the violence. If Abiy can continue to navigate challenges and inspire trust among constituents that the government will pursue more open democratic policies, democracy in Ethiopia may slowly begin to take hold.
While Abiy is technically an insider, coming from the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization that was part of the former coalition government, President Mnangagwa’s intimate participation in the previous Zimbabwe government makes him a much less believable reformer. Mnangagwa served as vice president under Robert Mugabe, and is implicated in some of the Zimbabwean government’s most brutal human rights abuses; he is also currently under US sanction. Mnangagwa has faced multiple assassination attempts for which he has blamed former first lady Grace Mugabe and her supporters, even though they belong to the same ZANU-PF party.
The way forward for Zimbabwe’s political transition is less clear, especially after the disputed July 30 election. Much of the hope for democratic reform in Zimbabwe rested on the outcome of the election. Mnangagwa won just enough of the vote to avoid a run-off, but the election saw police cracking down on opposition protestors and harassing public figures, leading to opposition accusations that the election had been rigged. All of this made President Mnangagwa look more similar to his predecessor than a genuine democratic reformer. The opposition party has waffled on accepting or rejecting the official court ruling on the election in favor of Mnangagwa, jeopardizing the relatively peaceful transition.
Despite these concerns, it is equally important to recognize that there was an unprecedented level of openness to opposition and opportunity for dialogue in the recent election, and that there was relatively little violence compared to other elections across the region such as those in Kenya and Mali.
In Ethiopia and Zimbabwe, where democracy is perhaps most needed and the fight has been the longest, the political will that sparked recent changes is the product of years of struggle, of people standing up for what they believe in, even when their families and neighbors suffered the consequences. The uncertain future following both transitions is a reminder that the path toward democracy is not a set of rules or a fixed-formula that a country follows. Instead, it is a set of principles and values that represent the interests of the people who live there, and, more than anything, it takes tolerance to allow these values to emerge. Despite the positive changes, it’s not a given that democracy will move forward. But, these countries are moving in a more democratic direction, and it will be up to their citizens and governments to see the transition through.
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