In February 2018, in the midst of ongoing political turmoil, few could have predicted the radical political change of direction Ethiopia would experience within a matter of weeks. The election in March 2018 of Abiy Ahmed as Chairman of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and consequently the country’s Prime Minister heralded the beginning of a major shift in leadership style and approach in one of Africa’s most authoritarian polities.
Within his first 100 days, Abiy had released thousands of political prisoners, liberalised press and freedom of speech, legalised various once-criminalised opposition groups, placed his own stamp on Ethiopia’s military-security complex, committed the country to genuine multi-party democracy and ended 18 years of latent conflict with neighbouring Eritrea. Many expect Abiy, who at 42 is the continent’s youngest leader, to be announced as the next Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
Abiy was a relative newcomer until shortly before becoming Prime Minister. A technocrat within the then Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation (OPDO, one of the four members of the EPRDF coalition), his emergence owed much to two key interlinked elements of the polity built by the EPRDF since May 1991. The first was ethnic federalism: the rationale behind ethnic federalism was to embed the rights of different ethnic groups and peoples within the state, preventing a single ethnic group dominating the rest. To that end, the 1995 Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia provided for a federal political system based on nine regions, whose shapes and boundaries derived from the ethnicity of the majority of citizens living there. The second key element was the leadership style of one of Abiy’s predecessors, Meles Zenawi, who turned into an authoritarian strongman at the beginning of the new century. To secure his position, Meles and his allies purged the TPLF of critics and detractors, and forced out figures in the other three parties who had sided with his opponents during the crisis. In doing so, Meles re-shaped the EPRDF coalition into a body whose leaders owed their loyalties directly to him. The post-2001 Meles government also sought to impose stricter and more personalized control over state and party machinery nationwide.
Meles died in August 2012, leaving a vacuum. With no appointed successor and plenty of rival candidates, a power struggle ensued within the EPRDF. A compromise saw Hailemariam Desalegn, viewed within the movement as a political “neutral”, elected Prime Minister as the various factions plotted their next move. Without a strongman directing from the centre, regional administrations and power-brokers saw an opportunity to flex their muscles.
This growing free-for-all also opened up new space for regional leaders and citizens to reassess their relationships with one another and with the TPLF-dominated government. Several critical flashpoints emerged in this regard during 2015 and 2016 in Ethiopia’s two most populous regions, Amhara and Oromia. In Amhara, the arrest of activists agitating for a reallocation of territory from Tigray to Amhara led to mass protests in mid-2016. Six months earlier, in Oromia, a federal ‘master plan’ to expand the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, into Oromia state had produced a similar result. Over time, and partly in response to the government’s heavy-handed and violent response, the protests spread and shifted from being about the integrity of the country’s internal state boundaries to wider opposition to perceived political and economic marginalization and human rights abuses by an authoritarian TPLF-controlled system. It was in this context that Hailemariam eventually resigned in February 2018.
Abiy’s rise can be explained to some extent by his work in Oromia realigning the OPDO with Oromo aspirations and acting to tackle Oromo grievances against a federal government perceived to be oppressive, anti-Oromo and chauvinistic.
Before becoming Prime Minister, Abiy himself was little known as a leader as opposed to an administrator. He followed a path well trodden by many other Meles-era technocrats and gave little indication that his premiership would be transformative. Instead, he has taken significant risks. He has also shown himself to be a leader with mettle – facing off against some of the most embedded vested interests in the EPRDF state within months of taking office. He has not, however, demonstrated significant interest in building wider alliances to secure a more stable political trajectory for his government, preferring to rely on his own image and message as a mobiliser.
A major criticism levelled at Abiy by some of his opponents is that he is ‘all talk’. While there is some truth to this, the Ethiopian leader has generally proved decisive when necessary. He has taken critical decisions, which have profoundly disrupted the status quo. Within weeks of taking office, for example, Abiy dispatched the two most fearsome TPLF securocrats in the nation – the army chief of staff (Samora Yunis) and the national intelligence chief (Getachew Assefa), two of Meles’ most longstanding and effective enforcers.
Moreover, Abiy has shown himself magnanimous, releasing thousands of political prisoners and decriminalizing opposition parties and armed groups once labelled terrorists, including the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF).
His record with individuals, however – particularly those most strongly associated with the Meles era – is somewhat more ambiguous and in line with the more traditional EPRDF approach. Indeed, Abiy’s medemer posture has not been built only upon uplifting words, progressive acts and reformist pledges. It has also rested upon a more cynical and somewhat irresponsible positioning as the un-doer and opposite of everything EPRDF that had come before. Cynical, because Abiy was himself a part of the EPRDF machinery throughout the 2000s and a senior figure in an intelligence agency. Irresponsible, because in some of his speeches he has deliberately blurred critiques of the Meles/Hailemariam regimes with attacks on the TPLF and, most significantly, slurs on Tigrayans themselves. This has served not only to stoke further tensions between Tigrayans and their Amharic and Afar neighbours but – ironically – to strengthen the TPLF’s legitimacy and support in Tigray at a time when the party’s popularity had been in terminal decline.
Abiy has demonstrated much less interest in building coalitions and networks with the multitude of power players inside and outside the EPRDF than he has in appealing over their heads directly to the people. In the latter regard, he has managed to cultivate genuine affection and support from wide and diverse populations. Shortly after taking office Abiy undertook a tour of the country, where his appeals for unity, reconciliation and change resonated widely and inspired many. The love of the crowd alone is, however, an unstable foundation for genuine progressive change in a country as multi-faceted as Ethiopia. This is particularly so as Abiy’s honeymoon period comes to a close and citizens begin to judge him by his achievements as well as his rhetoric. Moreover, ever since a rally in Addis Ababa was targeted by Abiy’s opponents with grenades in June 2018, with one death and over 100 injuries, these affairs have been more and more tightly policed and uneasy. Increasingly, the Ethiopian leader appears in public behind bullet-proof glass.
Abiy appears to have increasingly retreated into a highly personalized approach to government. Some of his most significant policy decisions were made without reference to wider government stakeholders and were implemented through informal or ad hoc mechanisms. Following the assassination of the Amhara Regional State President Ambachew Mekonnen in June 2019 Abiy replaced him with one of his own closest security aides, Temesgen Tiruneh, while EPRDF officials have openly speculated that the Prime Minister will either transform the EPRDF into a unitary, pan-Ethiopian party. Certainly, the next phase of Abiy’s premiership will require more institutionalization of “Abiymania” if it is to produce sustainable results.
The same is true for Abiy’s leadership in foreign policy, the arena where he has undoubtedly achieved the most in the shortest amount of time. Securing peace with neighbouring Eritrea after an 18-year cold war was a major triumph for the Abiy government, and has profound implications for regional security, stability and cooperation. The normalization of Ethiopian-Eritrean relations has relied heavily on the maintenance of friendly personal relations between Abiy and Isaias, who have undertaken numerous trips to each other’s capitals and beyond. The changed relationship between the two states remains, however, largely bound up with this personal relationship, rather than in a more formal, bilateral arrangement. Despite a declaration of intent signed in Asmara and Jeddah in 2018, numerous key issues including trade, tariffs, currency, security and citizenship remain outside any formal legal arrangement. More generally, a resurgent Eritrea carries both opportunities and risks for Ethiopia, particularly given the growing significance of Gulf powers in the Horn. There is no guarantee that this mutually beneficial arrangement will last, particularly without a more formal legal basis.
Unlike Isaias, though, Abiy enjoys the support and confidence of Western aid donors, who continue to finance a significant part of Ethiopia’s national budget, and its security complex. While to some extent he inherited these ties from his predecessors, they are also founded on a genuine optimism in Western capitals regarding the Ethiopian leader. For decades, Western donors to Ethiopia have awkwardly balanced a stated foreign policy commitment to promoting democratization and respect for human rights with unfailing support to authoritarian regimes in the name of security and stability. Abiy represents an opportunity for donors to support a reformer and a force for regional stability.
A critical appraisal of Abiy’s leadership must also take into account the immense challenges of governing a state as diverse and complex. Ethiopia today faces an acute political and humanitarian crisis, which have made Ethiopia the country with the largest number of internally-displaced persons on the planet.
The Ethiopian leader’s hopeful rhetoric and progressive policies provide much-needed hope and optimism for the following years. Abiy’s early successes as a regional trouble-shooter are impressive, and his preparedness to challenge and overturn some of the most vicious and problematic features of the EPRDF polity shows courage and decisiveness. That being said, a review of his record cannot help but leave one with the impression that he is contending with forces the magnitude and shape of which he has yet to fully grasp. There are pressing issues, however, which will force the matter. The first is the ongoing ethnic violence and the wider political crisis. The second is the forthcoming election, due to be held in 2020. This will be a major test of Abiy’s leadership.