Ethiopian prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn resigned on February 15 amid growing social unrest that has cast a shadow over the outlook of one of the fastest-growing African economies.

“The main reason I have submitted my resignation is because I hold the firm belief that it was necessary for me to tender it as part of a solution aimed at ensuring lasting peace and guaranteeing democracy in our country going forward,” Mr Hailemariam wrote in a note published by the Ethiopian embassy in the UK on February 15.


Ethiopia has bet on big investment first and labour-intensive manufacturing to become a poster child for economic development in Africa. Only China and Myanmar posted faster GDP per capita growth than Ethiopia between 2000 and 2016, according to IMF figures.

Foreign investment played a major role in shoring up growth in the domestic economy. The stock of total foreign investment grew to $13.7bn at the end of 2016, from $3.4bn 10 years earlier, according to figures from Unctad. China contributed heavily to develop the country’s infrastructure and manufacturing base, and through the construction of industrial parks across the country: two of them are already in operation, and another eight are in the pipeline.  

However, behind these numbers, a lingering feeling of unease spread among large parts of Ethiopia’s 102.4m people, particularly in the Oromo and Amhara ethnic groups, which make up about two-thirds of the population. Members of both groups have taken their protest to the streets since 2015, prompting Mr Hailemariam to declare a state of emergency for the first time in 25 years in October 2016 to crack down on dissent. The resulting thousands of arrests only fuelled new protests, eventually forcing Mr Desalegn to backtrack and promise the release of most of the political prisoners in January in a final effort to rule amid dissent. That move did not pay off, and Mr Desalegn eventually resigned.

The powerful Tigrean elite, which has exerted its influence through the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front coalition since 1991, will have to tread carefully to pick a new leader able to keep tensions in check, push through a genuine, shared programme of reforms and add momentum to the country’s economic growth. But the cabinet seems ready to declare a new state of emergency, the Addis Standard reported on February 16, a move that could further polarise divisions.

“The next month and days, will be decisive,” Bronwyn Bruton, deputy director and director of programmes and studies at the Atlantic Council’s Africa Centre wrote a few hours before Mr Hailemariam’s resignation. “The Ethiopian regime will either commit to its current course and expand on its commitment to reform, signalling this commitment perhaps by offering the prime ministership to an Oromo leader. Or it will double down on its previous course, and declare a state of emergency. But this would be a deadly decision, as a new state of emergency would surely be regarded by opposition leaders and the protestors as a declaration of war.”