Ethiopia’s new prime minister Abiy Ahmed has been embracing change, quite literally. Last month, in what has become almost a trademark move, the beaming young leader of Africa’s second-largest nation hugged Isaias Afwerki, the autocratic president of erstwhile enemy Eritrea. Mr Ahmed has been similarly intimate with Ethiopian opposition figures released from prison or invited home.
Those gestures symbolise his inclusive approach since becoming the leader in April, on the back of three years of rolling unrest that looked destined to degenerate into intensifying conflict. Although a treacherous road lies ahead, the wildly popular Mr Ahmed has already transformed the political landscape, giving hope to millions of a more harmonious future.
His election by the ruling coalition in late March, after the previous premier resigned, was seen as a victory for reformist elements, but few foresaw the radicalism of Mr Ahmed’s first months, as he used the prime ministerial bully pulpit to engineer rapid change. This involved normalising relations with Mr Afwerki after a cold war lasting 18 years, and opening up domestic politics to banned groups. While Ethiopia has endured violent transitions in the past, this looks like a liberal democratic coup, and brings into question the future role of a formerly omnipotent ruling coalition.
The four-party Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which 42-year-old Mr Ahmed leads, has ruled the Horn of Africa powerhouse as a multinational federation since 1991, after it and Eritrean rebels overthrew a military regime. Eritrea then seceded, but the countries began a vicious two-year war in 1998 after falling out over trading arrangements.
Over the last decade, the EPRDF government was known for impressive infrastructure and anti-poverty programmes, but also for authoritarianism. It prioritised control, rather than pluralism, which meant a restrictive space for journalists, opposition groups and civil society activists. The result was EPRDF monopolisation of all legislative seats in a country of 100 million people, an ineffectual media, and few civil society challengers to the government’s agenda.
The Marxist-Leninist structured party drew its mandate from delivering growth, also arguing the system was democratic as it involved mass participation in development programmes, particularly in rural areas. Meanwhile, the federation granted autonomy and protected the linguistic and cultural identities of Ethiopia’s multifarious ethnic communities, theoretically enhancing its customised democracy.
The destabilising protests by the Oromo, Ethiopia’s most populous ethnicity with around 35 million people, have battered that narrative. And now Mr Ahmed appears intent on upending the EPRDF system from within, in pursuit of conventional democratisation.
The demonstrations in Oromia, which surrounds the capital, Addis Ababa, were driven by the smothering of dissent, historic complaints of marginalisation and more prosaic concerns over unjust evictions as the EPRDF’s growth model bulldozed Oromo farmers’ rights.
Protests started in earnest a few months after a 2015 election when the sole opposition parliamentarian lost his seat. Although the Oromo are represented by Mr Ahmed’s party in the EPRDF, where decision-making is evenly split, opponents said the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) retained control. That party formed the EPRDF, spearheaded the rebellion that brought it to power, and its chairperson, Meles Zenawi, led Ethiopia from 1991 until his death in 2012. TPLF fighters established a new military and dominated the upper echelons of intelligence agencies.
As protests spread in 2016, security forces tried to quell the unrest with lethal force, which only served to energise a youthful movement. Foreign-based activists such as Jawar Mohammed disseminated evidence of the latest outrage. When a botched security operation led to a deadly stampede at an Oromo cultural festival, Mr Mohammed catalysed “five days of rage”. Nationwide, over the three years, more than 1,000 protesters were killed, while farms, factories and government offices were destroyed.
Under former prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn, the EPRDF struggled to cope. That was partly a result of its travails after Mr Zenawi’s death. Some economic momentum remained, but dams and railways were delayed, and the government struggled to manage the stresses of growth. The coalition was increasingly fractious, and concerns over maladministration and corruption festered. Late last year, the EPRDF politburo bemoaned its own leadership failures after a marathon meeting and announced plans to reboot democratisation. That led to some initial prisoner releases.
With the wind at their backs, the Oromo protests surged once more, cutting off Addis Ababa with a strike and road blockages. Mr Desalegn resigned in February and a second state of emergency was enacted to try to regain control. It was then that Mr Ahmed moved.
He had risen to lieutenant colonel in the military and served as deputy administrator of the Information Network Security Agency before becoming a parliamentarian and government minister. But his route to the top was as a leading light in a revitalised Oromo wing of the EPRDF, which capitalised on the protests to press the demands for greater power and autonomy. In March, his party elected him chairperson, partly because of his eligibility for prime minister as a national MP – and within weeks he was sworn-in at parliament.
Mr Ahmed comes from a mixed religious background and speaks three of Ethiopia’s main languages. That diversity is reflected in his governing outlook. Accelerating the EPRDF plan, he released all political prisoners and coaxed rebels from the bush, while activists such as Mr Mohammed have also triumphantly returned. Common themes of Mr Ahmed’s speeches have been love and integration, and the intention appears to be for a hotchpotch of political actors to participate peacefully in elections in 2020.
That requires legislative changes to refine a catchall anti-terrorism law and encourage independent journalism and political activism. And in a delicate balancing act, it also means reestablishing government control of security after the unrest and seismic changes to the EPRDF system created something of a power vacuum.
In the last few months, amid the euphoria, ethnic violence has endured or broken out in various locations; anti-government activity has continued in Oromia, a grenade was thrown at a massive Addis Ababa rally attended by Mr Ahmed, and there has been an uptick in vigilante killings – and possibly two high-profile assassinations.
Opinions vary starkly on the causes. After they lost control of the security apparatus, many blame TPLF-linked agitators, which has contributed to lethal attacks on Tigrayans, creating fear among that community. But it is evident that many disputes are driven by local dynamics, rather than purely resulting from external provocation.
For example, the six million strong Sidama people are pressing a long held claim for their own region. In western Oromia, popular support for the Oromo Liberation Front bred fighting between regional forces and a holdout faction of the insurgency, while territorial clashes continued between the Oromo and neighbouring groups in the east and southeast. The federal government took a forceful step yesterday by sending in the military to assert control of Somali region and its unruly president.
Assuming the security situation soon finally stabilises, non-violent politics will hopefully take centre stage. In recent years, much opposition activity has been focused on campaigning against the TPLF. But with its officials mostly now removed from top federal government positions, other fault lines will emerge. The overarching one is the federation comprising ethnic administrative units, which some opposition groups argue foments sectarianism. Defenders argue it can thrive in a democratised environment, but others counter that it has been the reach and grip of the EPRDF that has held the constitutional arrangement together thus far.
A further major challenge is economic. A vital aspect of the EPRDF operation was channelling financial resources into much-needed infrastructure to build the backbone of a modern market economy. That model is now in question with Abiy Ahmed’s government ramping up a privatisation programme as the state’s capacity for public investment dwindles. It is questionable that this more liberal approach can deliver the growth or the structural transformation that a still poor and agrarian economy desperately needs.
Mr Ahmed wields great power, commands massive support and has achieved a huge amount in a short space of time. But the evidence suggests that the biggest challenges to completing his transformative agenda lie ahead.