ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — It was while he was in prison that Ethiopian opposition politician Bekele Gerba first sensed change happening in the world outside. The television news from his native Oromia region had broken from the official line and was suddenly reporting on the unrest flaring around the country.
Soon after, he was released along with more than 6,000 others, most of them imprisoned for political activity, in what the government said was an effort to “to establish a national consensus and widen the political sphere.”
Within days of Gerba’s rapturous welcome home on Feb. 13, however, the prime minster resigned and a state of emergency was declared to restore “law and order.” Now Ethiopia appears to be on the brink of the biggest political crisis since the communist regime was overthrown in 1991.
“There is a huge change in this country, especially the region we live in, the Oromia state,” said Gerba, from his home city of Adama, where people kept stopping him to pose for selfies. “We feel that some kind of air of freedom is here, but this is regarded by the federal government as a threat.”
On Friday, Parliament ratified the state of emergency. Although the ruling coalition controls all 546 seats, an unprecedented 88 deputies voted against the measure, and nearly 100 just didn’t vote. The state of emergency declared in October 2016 passed with a unanimous vote, by comparison.
Hirut Zemene, a senior Foreign Ministry official, told the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva on Monday that the state of emergency is necessary if “wide-ranging political and democratic reform” is to continue
But Ethiopia’s Western allies have condemned the decision. The U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa said it strongly disagreed with it, adding that it “undermines recent positive steps.”
The move is likely to be on the agenda when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visits Ethiopia next week.
Turmoil in Ethiopia couldn’t come at a worse time for East Africa, which includes strife-torn South Sudan and Somalia. With 100 million people, the country is easily the biggest in the region, and given its sizable military, the main guarantor of stability.
If Ethiopia collapses, “it will take down the region’s economy,” said Hallelujah Lulie, a political analyst. “Security will also be threatened.”
Ethiopia is divided into ethnically based states in a federal system ruled by a coalition of four parties — known as the Ethiopian Popular Democratic Front — that is dominated by the Tigrayan minority. It was a Tigrayan rebel group that overthrew the communist Derg regime in 1991.
Over the past few years, as rural unrest over economic and political marginalization has grown, the junior members of the coalition, the parties from the Amhara and Oromo states, have started standing up to the Tigrayans and publicly challenging official policy.
Despite making up just 6 percent of the population, the Tigrayans are perceived to dominate not just the security services, but the economy, as well.
Now, more than two weeks after Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn submitted his resignation, the coalition still has not chosen his successor, apparently deadlocked over which ethnic group gets the nod.
“At least at this point, there isn’t a willingness from the establishment to negotiate a new formula for political decision-making, a new formula for power and economic dispensation,” Lulie said. “So we are at a stalemate.”
Yet Ethiopia’s crisis is not just about elites scrabbling for a larger piece of the pie. Outside the capital lies the vast Oromia region, which has been seething with resentment for the past three years about land seizures and a lack of jobs and, more recently, democratic reforms. The Oromos, who make up 35 percent of the population, have been joined by the Amharas to the north, who make up another 27 percent.
Nearly every day comes news of a clash between young protesters and security services, often resulting in casualties.
René Lefort, an expert on Ethiopia who has been visiting the country since the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974, said the Tigrayan establishment does have a strong faction that is interested in reform but does not want to appear weak.
“As with any ruler of Ethiopia, it is very difficult for them to reform under pressure — they accept to reform only if they can properly, step by step, manage the reforms by themselves,” he said. “That’s the reason why, in my view, the reform process is now blocked.”
While the government sees the state of emergency — the second in two years — as necessary to restore the order required for any reform, critics see it as a way of perpetuating the status quo.
After his release, Gerba, the jailed Oromo opposition politician, toured local towns to meet with the young protesters — who call themselves Qeerroo, or “youth” in the Oromo language.
He hopes to revive his political party, most of whose leaders were jailed over the past two years, by merging it with the Qeerroo and getting them into politics, instead of just protesting. In October 2016, anger over deaths at an Oromo religious festival led to attacks on foreign-owned businesses across the region.
“I was advising the youth especially not to be emotional, to abide by the nonviolent struggle,” said Gerba, who describes himself as a student of Martin Luther King Jr.’s teachings. “The idea is to bring the Qeerroo to power, the good Qeerroo, the educated Qeerroo. This old generation must go,” he said, referring to himself and other party leaders.
On Feb. 24, however, federal police stopped Gerba’s convoy outside the western Oromia town of Nekemte, saying that under the state of emergency, he could not hold a planned rally. The standoff lasted all night before Gerba and his supporters withdrew, but afterward the town erupted into violence, with clashes between youth and police that left at least one protester dead.
Ayele Adamu, a young Qeerroo activist, said the protesters want an end to repression of their people and recognition of the “the need for bread, for work and lowering unemployment.”
What many analysts fear is that the Qeerroo and other disaffected youths elsewhere in the country will step up their protests and provoke a crackdown that could spiral out of the control of even the Ethiopian military.
Turmoil in Ethiopia has also historically been accompanied by increased violence among its many ethnic groups.
But Lefort, the longtime observer of Ethiopia, said there is a glimmer of hope. So far, he said, the Qeerroo and others have not engaged in wholesale violence, and the parties of the ruling coalition still appear to be ready to work together and hash out some kind of new system — probably not much more democratic than it is now but one that will at least address the different groups’ grievances.
“I think a rosy scenario is a little more possible than a black scenario,” he said.