Ethiopia, a key U.S. ally in the fight against terrorism in North Africa, is again on the brink of chaos following the outbreak of large-scale protests that erupted last week. The demonstrations prompted the government to declare a state of emergency and Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn to submit his resignation amid the worst political crisis the country has faced in years.
Thousands of Ethiopians have taken to the streets to protest exclusion from the country's political system and economic growth. The government's declaration of a state of emergency effectively bans protests, leading the U.S. Embassy to call for "greater freedom, not less."
"The question is, whether the ruling party decides to bring in someone who is more capable of bringing people together -- a more inclusive government -- or doubles down under influence from the military and says, 'No, let's crack down even harder to solve this problem,'" Alex Kliment of GZERO Media told CBSN in an interview. "They've been cracking down for three years, and it has only gotten worse."
In the last decade, Ethiopia's booming economy has grown to become the fifth-largest in Africa. According to the International Monetary Fund, the country has averaged annual GDP growth of roughly 10 percent over the last 10 years, largely due to public infrastructure and agriculture investments. The poverty rate fell from 44 percent in 2000 to 23.5 percent in 2016.
With more than 70 percent of the country's population dependent on agriculture for employment, concerns about climate change are paramount. A recent drought, falling agricultural prices and political upheaval have tempered growth and investment.
On the political front, Ethiopia's government has long been accused of arresting critical journalists and opposition leaders. Similar protests have taken place across the country since late 2015, leading the government to declare a previous state of emergency in October 2016 after hundreds of people reportedly had been killed. A stampede at a religious event southeast of the capital, Addis Ababa, that month claimed the lives of several dozen people. That state of emergency led to the arrest of more than 22,000 people and severely affected business.
The U.S. Embassy in Ethiopia objected to last week's declaration of a state of emergency. "The challenges facing Ethiopia, whether to democratic reform, economic growth, or lasting stability, are best addressed through inclusive discourse and political processes, rather than through the imposition of restrictions," the embassy said in a statement. "Restrictions on the ability of the Ethiopian people to express themselves peacefully sends a message that they are not being heard."
But experts question how far the U.S. is willing to push such long-term reforms at the expense of potential short-term instability in the region.
"There is an intelligence relationship with the Ethiopians that goes back the better part of two decades, and not an unfamiliar story in which backing for counterterrorism enables a government to crack down on its own citizens," Kliment said. "So the United States is having to kind of dance this dance again. Do we want stability in the name of counterterrorism or do we want a sort of more democratic outcome that may undermine stability in the short term?"