From Kenya to South Africa, Africans are hailing Ahmed’s premiership and celebrating his achievements. After only eight months in office, the young Prime Minister managed to give millions of Ethiopians – and many other Africans – a reason to feel optimistic about the future of their country and the region.
The resignation of the former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn in February 2018 ushered in the most significant transformation of political power in the country since 1991. The new administration, led by 42-year-old Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, has pursued an aggressive, reformist agenda, since his appointment in April, Prime Minister Abiy has released political prisoners, allowed exiled dissidents to return home, decriminalized armed opposition groups and declared press freedom. 2018 marks the first year Ethiopia has no jailed journalists since 2004. At the heart of Abiy’s reforms is a drive for national reconciliation.
In October, Abiy selected his new cabinet, appointing women to half of all ministerial positions. This gives Abiy’s cabinet the highest percentage of female representation in Ethiopia’s history, and includes the country’s first female defence minister. A week after this event Sahle-Work Zewde was appointed as Ethiopia’s first female president, and in November, Ethiopia installed its first female Supreme Court president. Although the presidency is a largely ceremonial role, these moves are significant in a country known for a history of strong patriarchal structures, which Abiy seems to want to change.
Abiy has also proven that is capable of diffusing tension when necessary. In October, around 200 armed soldiers marched to the Prime Minister’s office in Addis Ababa, in a move to push for their low salaries to be increased. Guards at the gates forced the soldiers to disarm, yet Abiy claims he still believed the men were there to kill him. Nevertheless, Abiy managed to diffuse the situation and create laughter among the troops by challenging them to a press-up competition, before pledging he would look into the matter of salaries. In December, 66 of the soldiers were given sentences ranging to 5 and 14 years in prison for “violation of military ethics”.
Abiy does not seek to change everything though, as he seeks to continue Ethiopia’s push towards becoming a regional economic powerhouse. As Africa’s second most populated country, Ethiopia has already been pursuing a number of large-scale infrastructure projects over a short period of time. This year, the economy is forecast to grow by 5%, making it the fastest growing economy in Sub-Saharan Africa, according to the IMF. However Abiy plans plans to push this further by opening key economic sectors to private investors, including the state-owned Ethiopian Airlines. If Abiy’s plans pay off as he hopes, Ethiopia may become an economic force to reckon with.
Alongside his domestic reforms, Abiy has shaken up Ethiopia’s relations with its neighbouring countries. In June, Abiy’s ruling party, Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front announced that Ethiopia would at last implement a peace deal with Eritrea, that the two countries signed in 2000. It requires Ethiopia to hand over occupied territories and paves the way for the end of a 20-year border war with Eritrea. As a result, connections between the two countries have bloomed. For the first time since 1998, the international border is officially open, and commercial flights have resumed. International praise was heaped on Abiy for solving this decades-long issue, and Eritrea has certainly benefited from the peace: despite continued criticism for its human rights record, Eritrea succeeded in having long-standing UN sanctions against it dropped in September.
Onlookers should remain cautious though, and resist the urge to view Abiy’s appointment as the beginning of a new golden age for Ethiopia. Instead, critics have warned of old problems gaining new angles. Key among these is Ethiopia’s delicate balance of ethnic groups and politics. Ethiopia contains a diverse tapestry of ethnic groups. The largest of these are the Oromo, whose traditional lands stretch across much of Ethiopia, and contains the capital Addis Ababa. However, in recent years, the Tigray ethnic group has dominated politics, creating an era which many perceive to marginalise the Oromo people. As a result, Oromos were at the forefront of protests against Hailemariam Desalegn, and had a significant role in the appointment of Abiy, modern Ethiopia’s first Oromo leader, following Hailemariam’s resignation.
This incident has not led to a decline in ethnic tensions. Instead, hostilities have escalated since Abiy took power. Since April, more than a million people have been forced to flee their homes and over a hundred have been killed in inter-ethnic violence across the country. In some cases, the disputes revolve around tribal land disputes between different ethnic groups. However, there have also been reports of Oromo mobs actively targeting members of ethnic minorities, sparking fears that security forces are not doing to enough to combat Oromo extremists.
These tensions have even confronted the Prime Minister himself. In September, Abiy survived a grenade attack at a rally. The five men arrested allegedly tried to assassinate Abiy as they thought he would not secure the Oromos’ interests, despite his background and the role the Oromo people had in placing him in power.
In addition to the ethnic concerns, some worry if Abiy’s faith will impact his politics. Abiy is a devout Pentecostal Christian, frequently appealing to Pentecostal symbolism. Protestantism (of various strains) has grown rapidly in the last few decades, but Orthodox Christians and Muslims still account for over 70% of the population combined. Abiy should therefore beware of causing more fractures in Ethiopia’s already divided society.
Abiy’s appointment has already been a major turning point for Ethiopia after several years of domestic turmoil; and there have already been several significant changes since Abiy took office. Now, wariness has been replaced by genuine enthusiasm as Abiy seems to be transforming the nation at dizzying speed. But as his administration spends more time trying to solve Ethiopia’s problems, the obstacles and perils are also clearer.
Nasra Mahat & Tristan Fleming-Froy