Ethiopia, an opaque authoritarian country where protesters, bloggers and journalists often are jailed, faces uncertainty after the unexpected resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn.
Desalegn’s announcement Thursday came after several years of growing instability and protests in the Oromia and Amhara regions of the country, and what critics call a heavy-handed response from security forces.
Some 800 protesters were killed in 2015 and 2016, and thousands more were jailed, many of them without trial.
Desalegn announced his resignation on television, saying it was “vital in the bid to carry out reforms that would lead to sustainable peace and democracy.” It was unclear how soon he would vacate the office and who would replace him.
His departure as prime minister and chairman of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front coalition comes as Ethiopia faces a crisis on how to deal with the mass protests by members of the nation’s two largest ethnic groups, the Oromo and Amhara.
Despite the arrests and killings, the government has been unable to regain control or to respond adequately to protesters’ demands for freedom of speech and democratic governance.
A state of emergency was declared Friday by the Ethiopian Cabinet, known as the Council of Ministers.
The hard-line approach to the protests has divided the government. Under intense pressure from the Oromo and Amhara parties in the EPRDF coalition, Desalegn announced reforms last month, promising that all political prisoners would be freed and that a jail in the capital, Addis Ababa, known for torture of dissidents would be closed.
Jubilant celebrations, nevertheless, erupted in the streets after the announcement of his resignation, which came on a day a prominent group of journalists and opposition figures was freed from jail.
Desalegn said Thursday the country was at a “gravely concerning stage,” adding that it was important to offer answers to the questions Ethiopians were raising in protests. He said the country would continue with a reformist path, adding that he wanted to be part of the solution.
His departure throws open a succession struggle that will determine whether the nation racked by growing political instability and successive droughts will adopt a more reformist, democratic approach or pursue the authoritarian repressions of government critics.
Several thousand opposition figures and protesters have been released in recent weeks, including an opposition leader, Bekele Gerba, who had been jailed since 2015. But rights groups estimate that 11,000 have been arrested and jailed in the last three years.
Gerba and seven other prominent figures including journalists Eskinder Nega and Woubshet Taye were released in a major breakthrough Wednesday.
Last week, authorities demanded Nega sign a confession admitting to being part of a banned opposition group, in return for freedom, but he refused. Nega and Taye had been jailed for nearly seven years, accused of terrorism. Nega’s 18-year jail term related to a column he wrote in 2011 accusing the government of arresting journalists.
Ethiopia, a nation of more than 100 million in the Horn of Africa and a close U.S. ally in America’s counter-terrorism strategy in Africa, has impressive growth of more than 7%. But critics say the strong economic performance comes at the cost of democracy and freedom, with the current government in power since 1991.
Desalegn took over in 2012 after the death of longtime Ethiopian leader Meles Zenawi, who had ruled since 1991. Critics say Desalegn floundered as protests spread in 2015 and he delegated control of events to powerful intelligence and military chiefs.
The Oromo and Amhara protests calling for greater freedoms have placed the closed, repressive state under unprecedented pressure. Killings of protesters backfired, intensifying the pressure.
In October, video emerged of police shooting unarmed protesters in Ambo, a town 75 miles west of Addis Ababa, killing 11. The footage showed a soldier firing and the voice of a superior shouting orders: “Fire!” and “Finish him off!”
The protests were initially sparked by a development plan that would have involved land seizures in the Oromia region, but the protests soon spread to encompass discontent over government abuses of rights and free speech.
The latest protest over the continued detention of many other opposition figures came this week, just a day before Bekele was freed.
Complicating the unrest faced by the government, the nation has suffered several years of crippling drought.
After his release from prison, Nega said the protests had demonstrated “the potency of unarmed justice to triumph over armed injustice.” He said the struggle for democracy in Ethiopia was not over.
“How long this journey will take no one knows. What we know for certain is what the immediate future holds for us: more hardship, more sacrifice, more tears, more imprisonment, exile and even death,” he said. “But these are deprivations we shall bear with dignity and pride because of the promise which lies at the end: love and peace, justice and equality, tolerance and empathy, and a closure, once and for all, to oppression.”
Analyst Hassen Hussein, an assistant professor at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota, said Desalegn lacked a power base, lacked credibility and failed to make his mark in his six years as leader.
“Prime Minister Hailemariam had literally no political base — hailing from a small ethnic group in the south — in a country where political loyalty is defined along ethnic lines. When he assumed the reins in 2012, many presumed that he would gradually grow out of the shadow of his predecessor, Zenawi, and become his own man. He stayed in Meles’ cocoon till the bitter end,” Hussein wrote in the independent Addis Standard.
He said Desalegn watched “like a clueless clown” as military and security chiefs launched the crackdown on protests by Oromo and Amhara demonstrators.
He said the EPRDF risked being swept away if it failed to elect a credible leader to replace Desalegn, capable of bridging the ethnic divisions and pushing ahead with democratic change.
Mulatu Gemechu, deputy secretary of the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress, called for a new political system in comments to Reuters.
“Ethiopians now need a government that respects their rights, not one that keeps beating and killing them,” he said.