ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — When Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn unexpectedly resigned from his position last month, tens of thousands of people flooded the streets of the capital singing, dancing, honking car horns and waving flags to celebrate the end of his autocratic era.
But hopes that a time of economic crisis and political repression was easing may be premature, even as Ethiopia’s neighbors on the tense Horn of Africa wait for what comes next in Addis Ababa.
“We are free,” said Salem Gebre, 30, a street hawker who has led protests in the capital, recalling his jubilation at the time. “He has killed and oppressed many of us. We don’t want him anymore, and we are glad he’s gone.”
More than 1,000 people have died in protests in Ethiopia in the past three years, according to Human Rights Watch and other groups. Disputes over land that arose from urban development around Addis Ababa sparked the first demonstrations. Later, protesters added grievances over political restrictions and other human rights abuses to their list of demands.
As fears mounted that an armed clash or a crackdown was imminent, the government instead began releasing hundreds of political detainees in early February. When those moves failed to quiet the protests, the prime minister unexpectedly said he would step aside.
“Unrest and a political crisis have led to the loss of lives and displacement of many,” Mr. Desalegn said in a televised address to the nation on Feb. 15. “I see my resignation as vital in the bid to carry out reforms that would lead to sustainable peace and democracy.”
Mr. Desalegn is staying on temporarily as prime minister in a caretaker capacity until lawmakers in the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front name a new leader. EPRDF delegates began meeting this week amid extraordinary uncertainty over who will emerge as the next leader, trying to extend the Front’s 27-year grip on power.
The Front is trying to balance the competing demand of its four ethnically based factions — the Amhara National Democratic Movement, the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization, the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement and the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front — while choosing from a slate of seven candidates.
The longtime ruling party faces a delicate choice, researcher Hintsa Andebrhan said in an opinion piece this week on the news website AllAfrica.com.
“If the [EPRDF is] only ready to give us a leader that would continue with the status quo, who is more loyal to his party than the country, then we would have an unfortunate replay of all the sad moments that transpired in the past three years,” Mr. Andebrhan wrote. “If the goal of the new leader is to allow the continued hegemony of the EPRDF, then we would be back to square one.”
There are strong doubts that a replacement at the top can address deep-rooted dissatisfaction with the status quo. The leading opposition party, the Oromo Federalist Congress, wants more drastic change.
“The ruling party has lost the respect of the people, and we cannot allow them to lead this country,” said Mulatu Gemechu, deputy secretary of Oromo Federalist Congress. “Ethiopians now need a government that respects their rights, not one that keeps beating and killing them.”
But analysts said deeper ethnic tensions also must be addressed. Ethnic Tigrayans, who represent only 6 percent of the country’s 105 million people, dominate the ruling party and government. People of the Amhara and Oromo communities, which are among Ethiopia’s largest ethnic groups, have long called for more participation in government and greater autonomy from Addis Ababa.
“I think the government needs to address the fundamental problem of inequitable distribution of resources nationwide,” said Nazlin Umar Rajput, a Nairobi-based political analyst and human rights advocate for minority groups across East Africa. “When a minority tribe gets all the public jobs, government tenders and public land, then you have to expect resistance from [the] majority tribes.”
If the next prime minister is not from Oromia or Amhara, Ms. Rajput warned, then the country could explode into a full-scale civil war.
“The political crisis in this country will be harder to resolve if the next prime minister is from the Tigrayan ethnic group,” she said. “There is no way [Oromia and Amhara citizens] will accept it.”
Protests continue despite Mr. Desalegn’s resignation. The streets of the capital and towns in the surrounding Oromia region are deserted. Shops and businesses are shut down.
The government’s often clumsy response to the continuing dissent has only added to the chaos. Ethiopian soldiers enforcing the country’s state of emergency killed at least nine civilians in what the military said was a botched security operation targeting militants on March 11.
According to state television, troops in the town of Moyale, in Oromia state close to the Kenyan border, acted on a “mistaken intelligence report” in an “anti-terrorist operation.”
As a result, more than 10,000 Ethiopians have crossed into Kenya seeking refuge, according to the Kenyan Red Cross Society.
“The population of refugees from Ethiopia continues to increase,” the Kenya Red Cross Society said in a statement last week. “They are mostly women and children.”
Meanwhile, those celebrating the resignation were disheartened when the government declared a state of emergency the day after Mr. Desalegn made his announcement. In what appeared to be an attempt by hard-liners to reassert control, protests and the publication of material deemed as inciting violence were banned.
“The decree allows law enforcement bodies to detain without court warrant any individual who orchestrated, led and organized as well as took part or is suspected of taking part in criminal acts against the constitution and constitutional order,” said Ethiopian Defense Minister Siraj Fegessa. “The individual will face justice after necessary investigation.”
Still, the resignation showed some locals that people power can have an effect, and some say they will continue fighting for their freedoms.
“We are demanding for our rights,” said Mr. Gebre. “We will continue to demonstrate until the government listens to us and our demands are met. We are not going to be intimidated.”
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