Ethiopia’s Prime Minister was the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, however Ethiopian politics are not entirely peaceful. The national election was originally scheduled for this August, but due to COVID-19 it has been postponed and the country is in a state of emergency.

Tensions and conflicts in the country frequently interrupt the coffee supply chain. How these new delays and restrictions will impact the coffee industry is just one of the many unknowns we’re all living with right now. 

While we wait to see what the world looks like on the other side of the pandemic (however long that takes), you can prepare for future harvests with this primer on Ethiopian politics.

History of Ethiopian politics

One of the earliest kingdoms Ethiopia’s history was the D’mt in the 10th century B.C followed by the Aksumite civilization in the 1st century B.C., then the Solomonic dynasty which dominated Ethiopia until the last emperor, Haile Selassie, was dethroned by a military coup in 1974. That led to a communist government which was later overthrown by guerilla fighters who established the country’s first democratic government, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).

Ethnicity in Ethiopian politics

Ethiopia’s political landscape is strongly influenced by ethnicity.  The current borders of Ethiopia evolved through centuries of wars, conquests and population movements. Menelik II was the emperor who defeated the Italian attempt to colonise the country, making Ethiopia the only African nation that has remained independent throughout history. He is known for completing the unification of modern Ethiopia by offering options of peaceful and forceful submissions. Several Oromo Kingdoms and other Kingdoms in the South, like the Wolayita and Kaffa, were defeated after bloody battles. That is how different ethnicities form Ethiopia in different regions. 

There are over 85 ethnic groups in Ethiopia, but only three have had a strong influence in the country’s politics. These are the Oromo, Amhara and the Tigre. The Oromo is the largest in terms of area of land and population. The Amhara have been the most active in the history of the country’s politics. The Tigre people, from the Tigray region, have also held power in the past, but their most powerful reign came during the rule of the EPRDF. Although the party claims to be a federal democracy, it was considered by many to be a minority rule made by the TPLF (Tigray People Liberation Front), its power fueled by a dominant control of the economy and the country’s wealth. 

Feeling marginalised, despite their dominant numbers, the Oromo people created a movement called the Oromo Protest. Fueled by opposition parties and activists exiled in the U.S, the protests became ever more organised and overwhelming for the government to manage. This encouraged other regions to create similar movements, finally confining the TPLF’s power to the Tigray region in the northern tip. 

Guji, one of the coffee growing areas in Oromia regional state

Modern Ethiopian politics

Dr. Abiy Ahmed came to power in March 2018 after the resignation of Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, considered by many to be the puppet of more powerful members of the EPRDF. In his very first speech Dr. Abiy Ahmed spoke of unity and equality. He made promises of political and economic reforms. He also promised to restore peace with Eritrea. 

In the last two years he has delivered on many of these promises. These include releasing political prisoners, inviting formerly exiled opposition groups back to the country, arresting corrupt officials, economic reforms, greater gender diversity in the cabinet, and forging peace with neighbouring Eritrea, for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize. 

However Abiy’s regime has been beset by issues including assassination of government officials, illegal movement of firearms, displacement of ethnic groups and a surge in crime. Many claim his tolerance has made him soft and that people are abusing their new found freedom. A suspected assassination attempt by government forces of Jawaar Mohammed enraged the prominent activists followers. Many claim the TPLF is behind most attacks intended to undermine the new government. The PM is now in conflict with some exiled militias that returned when he opened the country’s doors. These events have diminished the PM’s once huge support with the people of Ethiopia. 

How does this affect the coffee industry?

Internal conflicts can lead to road closures which cut the supply of parchment to Addis. Moderate instability might cause price fluctuations and make shipment near impossible. Bigger conflicts can cause property damage like destruction of dry mills or even farms. Ethiopia is always, to a degree, an unknown. That’s why we put a team on the ground. We’ll be keeping a close eye on events and politics, and will plan our next harvest carefully depending on when the election is eventually scheduled. Stay tuned.