A new dawn for Ethiopia?
7 Dec 2018|

In the month before Abiy Ahmed was sworn in as the new prime minister in April 2018, Ethiopia was on the brink of civil war and inching further into the unknown. Unrest led by the Oromo tribe threatened to upend peaceful coexistence among the country’s diverse ethnic groups. When the political crisis deepened, the immediate government response was to declare a state of emergency.

Civil unrest widened, and the government crackdown led to the mass arrest of youths, journalists and dissidents. As the situation continued to deteriorate, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn resigned, clearing the way for change. His decision has helped steer Ethiopia away from worsening instability and towards a new and more hopeful era.

Abiy is the first prime minister from the 25-million-strong Oromo tribe. The Oromo are the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia and represent just over a third of its population. But they’ve long been disenfranchised and have had little representation at all levels of government. Relatively unknown in the outside world, Abiy has been compared to figures such as Nelson Mandela, Mikhail Gorbachev, Barack Obama and Justin Trudeau because of the reforms he’s implemented while defusing the political crisis.

Under Abiy, Sahle-Work Zewde was elected as Ethiopia’s first female president and women’s rights advocate Meaza Ashenafi was chosen as the country first female Supreme Court chief justice. The size of the cabinet was reduced from 28 to 20 and women took on half of those portfolios. They include defence, trade, transport, revenue, and peace and oversight of federal police and intelligence organisations.

While Abiy has focused on stability and reforms in Ethiopia, he is also bringing hope to East Africa more broadly.

Ethiopia has emerged as one of the world’s fastest growing economies, a development largely overlooked by the business sector in the West—which has long been deterred by Ethiopian governments’ centralised control over the economy. Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, is a living embodiment of the old adage that ‘all roads lead to Rome’. Addis Ababa is the headquarters of the African Union, which acts as a platform for conflict management. Many decisions relating to Africa’s place in the world have been made in the city.

While Ethiopian civil unrest was driven by a lack of democratic, economic and social reforms, these challenges aren’t unique to Ethiopia and its people. Disenchanted youth are increasingly taking a stand against repressive governments across Africa. Corruption has damaged African economies and contributed to higher youth unemployment. That brings civil and political unrest and it has also driven many young Africans to flee to Europe in search of better opportunities.

For thousands of young people leaving Ethiopia in particular, the desperate dash for a better life has ended in tragedy, with many drowning in the Mediterranean Sea. Some have fallen victim to people smugglers who have sent them to be sold in Libyan slave markets. Others have been executed by terrorist groups such as Islamic State.

The horrors inherent in the loss of youth—a major demographic shift for many African countries—have, in turn, brought rising anger and calls for equal access to state resources that have been accessible only to ruling elites. With its diverse ethnic groups, Ethiopia reflects many of its neighbours. Soaring numbers of unemployed youth comprise a powder keg on a conflict-prone continent.

Some tension still simmers over his rise, but Abiy has created a legend of his own. His leadership style is one rarely seen in African politicians. Charismatic and conciliatory in tone, he’s a blessing for Ethiopians hopeful for a better country and a region yearning for peace. At 42, he’s the youngest leader in Africa. He was raised in an interfaith family; his father is Muslim and his mother was an Orthodox Christian.

Abiy is a former military intelligence officer, and his political outreach involved traveling outside the country to talk to exiled opposition and religious figures and imploring them to return home for the sake of peace. This resulted in key political dissidents once branded as terrorists returning home.

Abiy’s push for Ethiopian unity and the peaceful coexistence of its multiethnic groups while maintaining the current trajectory of economic growth has provided a welcome alternative to cheap politics exploiting tribal grievances. Along with his array of liberal reforms, his administration has ordered the release of hundreds of imprisoned politicians, activists and journalists.

Moreover, the new prime minister is already working towards regional stability and economic reform by engaging with the leaders of Eritrea, Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia and Djibouti.

A signature achievement was to bring an end to 20 years of stalemate with bitter rival Eritrea. The two countries had fought a bloody conflict over the border town of Badme that Abiy recently awarded to Eritrea in line with a 2003 United Nations ruling. The Australian Defence Force played an observer role in this disputed area with the United Nations.

Abiy visited Egypt to calm tensions with that country and reassure it leaders that their share of water from the Nile would not be affected by the building of Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam. His government has announced that it will loosen its monopoly on vital economic sectors, to allow privatisation and open the market to foreign investors.

He has also authorised the lifting of the state of emergency and restrictions on internet use and broken ranks with his party over the nation’s long history of one-party rule by urging his cadres to accommodate opposition groups and pursue multiparty democracy.

Abiy Ahmed may not be a panacea for all of the problems affecting Ethiopia, but so far his policies have fostered an Ethiopia that is changing orbit away from its oppressive past and towards a far more promising future for its people and the region.