When African rulers south of the Sahara are under discussion there is usually an irrepressible tendency to reach for stereotypes; but in the case of Ethiopia’s new Prime Minister such stereotypes are more misleading than ever. Abiy Ahmed, who has been at the helm of his country for only eight months, has lost no time in making his mark as a new broom. No-one can say how long it will last – every reformer always encounters interests and forces pushing in the other direction – but the way this young leader is shaping up is undoubtedly exceptional.
An almost uninterrupted succession of resolute initiatives is making Abiy, at just 42 years of age, the bravest and most innovative leader in Africa today (followed at some distance by Angola’s new president João Lourenço, who is likewise determined to disassemble some big components of the system he inherited and get the country going again). In the space of a few months, the Ethiopian PM has agreed a historic peace deal with Eritrea – more of that below – and reopened the border between the two countries for the first time in twenty years; he has ended the state of emergency; he has freed thousands of political detainees (and allowed opposition supporters to return from exile) and abolished media censorship; he has replaced the heads of the army, the police and the intelligence service; he has put women at the head of half his government departments and given the republic its first ever woman president, Sahle-Work Zewde; the tricky task of chairing the Electoral Commission has gone to another woman, a former judge and leader of the opposition who has returned from seven years of exile in the United States. He has announced a gradual liberalization of industries until now subject to strict state monopoly, including telecommunications, airlines and energy; and to cap it all he has promised – as head of a government which controls 100% of the parliamentary seats – to hold free elections at last in 2020.
It is not only these numerous initiatives, though, which have caught the imagination of Ethiopians and international observers: his carefully chosen language, too, offers domestic and foreign reconciliation in a novel way, and has contributed to his extraordinary popularity. The term most often applied to him is the Amharic “medemer”, not easy to translate, but connoting a bringing together, combining, creating synergies, harmoniously reconciling – if fact, an encouragement to move beyond the tensions caused by identity politics and its differences which haunt this country of 105m or more, the second most populous in Africa.
Within the Horn of Africa, the history of this huge country is unique: a multi-ethnic kingdom that managed to resist European colonization, apart from a brief Italian interlude. Its domestic and international tensions never truly resolved, today’s Ethiopia has been deeply marked by two revolutionary changes of course. The first, in 1974, overturned the emperor Haile Selassie and was the start of a dramatic experiment with military government by the Derg under Mengistu Haile Mariam. The second, in 1991, saw that government removed in turn by an armed rebel movement, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and its Eritrean allies. Since then the EPRDF has held power in Addis Ababa without a break, as a party/federation of four separate ethnic/regional organizations (Oromo, Amhara, Tigray, and the communities of the south).
The charismatic Meles Zenawi, former rebel leader and then Prime Minister of Tigrayan origin had been responsible for conceiving and advancing the country’s economic rebirth. He died of illness in 2012 and Hailemariam Desalegn took over the reins; but more than three years of popular protests – in particular among the Oromo in the central districts – which even the tough response of the authorities failed to stop led to Hailemariam’s surprise resignation at the beginning of 2018 to enable the transition to a new phase in the country’s politics. That is when, against all expectations, Abiy succeeded in bringing together the country’s two biggest ethnic groups – Oromo and Amhara – into a winning coalition, ending the long predominance of Tigrayans within the EPRDF. The new Prime Minister’s own father is Oromo and his mother Amhara, and that was an important factor in his success. Though not well known outside the country, Abiy had long been high up in the intelligence service and is thoroughly familiar with the governing coalition’s internal mechanisms. His rise was to some extent facilitated by the formal parliamentary arrangements – an anomaly in the region – which, though not democratic, make it a far easier matter to change Prime Ministers since there is no fixed term of office as in the presidential constitutions of most countries in the region.
It is his foreign policy, however, that has done most to put Abiy in the international media spotlight. As recommended by a special international commission he agreed, without conditions, to recognize Eritrean sovereignty over the border area that had been disputed for two decades, and in so doing succeeded in healing an extremely deep rift between Addis Ababa and Asmara. “Peace broke out”, indeed: there is no more suitable expression for the speed with which it all happened, and the implications will be huge throughout the Horn of Africa, their echoes heard far beyond. Within that region, the new relationship between Ethiopia and Eritrea lays the foundation for ending their proxy struggle in Somalia, where the former has for years been supporting the fragile government in Mogadishu and the latter its jihadist enemies of al-Shebaab. That is an important piece in the laborious task of pacifying and rebuilding Somalia. Eritrea and Somalia have now re-established diplomatic relations and, what is more, Isaias Afwerki, the Eritrean autocrat who has allowed himself to be carried along by Abiy in this process of rapprochement, has seen the dismantling of the main reason for his regime’s closed and defensive stance – political and economic closure – and its consequent international isolation. The chain of effects continues: the tide of migrants fleeing Eritrea and swelling the number of refugees not only within the region but also on the borders of Europe will without doubt be strongly affected and in time, there is reason to believe, reduced. In the shorter term, however, the main effect has been to “turn on the taps” and the opening of the border has caused a very great increase in the number of Eritreans arriving in Ethiopia. Nor is the number of migrants the only reason for international interest in developments in the Horn of Africa; considerably more important, having risen up the agenda in recent years, are the Red Sea approaches and the geostrategic significance for many countries including the United States, Europe, China and the Gulf states like the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
Abiy’s new leadership, then, is another sign of Addis Ababa’s central importance nowadays in Africa, especially East Africa. Though some contradictions remain and there are signs of a slow-down, the 7.5% growth of GDP estimated for 2018 still puts Ethiopia at the top of the region’s league table. Politically, we may now expect Addis Ababa’s previous Chinese-style “development authoritarianism” to get a little less Chinese – Beijing will no doubt take note – and a little more democratic. Abiy’s leadership, democratic openings and the pace of development will continue to be tested not only by the many unknowns of this country – one of the region’s most complex – but also by the great expectations raised by his coming.