In an atmosphere of mounting crisis, Abiy Ahmed was appointed Ethiopia’s new prime minister by the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) in late-March 2018. The period since has been one of dramatic change, bewildering even seasoned observers. A crucial party congress is about to start.
Ethiopia matters to the UK. It is a major beneficiary of its aid programme. DFID’s approved project budget for this financial year is £288 million, second only to Pakistan. Its economy offers trade and investment opportunities for British companies. Last year, the BBC opened three new Ethiopian language services. Nonetheless, public awareness in the UK of recent developments in Ethiopia is low.
So, what has been happening in Ethiopia over the last six months?
The EPRDF has been in power since 1991, when it overthrew dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, ending civil war in Ethiopia and triggering independence in neighbouring Eritrea. Under Meles Zenawi, prime minister until 2012, a system of ‘ethnic federalism’ was established under which key ethnic groups were granted their own regional states. While in principle regions had considerable devolved powers, in practice their uneven size and leaders’ loyalty to the centre meant few were locally accountable.
Meles was an advocate of a strong central state driving social and economic development forward rapidly. Growth rates rose dramatically and many development indicators improved markedly. Some experts began to talk optimistically about the “structural transformation” of the Ethiopian economy.
There were critics too. The EPRDF was accused of being little more than camouflage for the economic and political interests of the relatively small Tigrayan ethnic group, of which Meles was a member. Some within the two largest ethnic groups, the Oromo and Amhara, complained of being marginalised. Meanwhile, political groups opposed to the EPRDF were often harassed and repressed – particularly after the 2005 elections, when the opposition performed unexpectedly strongly.
In terms of relations with neighbours in the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia and Eritrea fought a bloody border war in 1998-2000, which subsequently languished unresolved, and became embroiled in the internal affairs of Somalia. Several exiled groups claimed to be supporting armed struggle at home, aimed at overthrowing the EPRDF, some garnering limited support among Ethiopia’s vast diaspora in the US and Europe.
Ethiopia in crisis – enter Abiy Ahmed
After the sudden death of Meles in 2012, the EPRDF managed a smooth transition, with southerner Hailemariam Dessalegn taking over at the top. But, although growth continued – it has been around 8% per annum in recent years – Hailemariam’s personal authority couldn’t compare with that of his predecessor; attempts at economic reform were stymied by vested interests in the EPRDF.
Meanwhile, a serious escalation of violent protests in the Oromo region from 2015 onwards led the authorities to declare a series of states of emergency. State repression exacerbated the violence, including in Ethiopia’s south-eastern Somali regional state.
With the EPRDF divided over how to respond to the crisis, the legitimacy of prime minister Dessalegn was increasingly called into question. In February 2018 he unexpectedly resigned in what he has since claimed was a deliberate attempt to break the deadlock. After an unstable interregnum, a majority on the EPRDF’s ruling council eventually voted to appoint Abiy Ahmed as the country’s new prime minister.
Abiy had been a leading figure in the Oromo wing of the ruling party. Many voted for him in the hope that he would restore calm. But the fact that he is Oromo, the largest ethnic group in the country, is only one part of the story.
At only 42 years old, he combines a background in the security establishment with academic qualifications and reformist credentials. Multilingual, his own family embodies Ethiopia’s Muslim, Orthodox and Pentecostal religious identities. He has a highly charismatic speaking style. He has addressed the hopes and fears of Ethiopia’s diverse peoples through skilful use of social media and nationwide Q&A sessions. His articulation of a pan-Ethiopian discourse aims to radically change the vocabulary of politics. The danger now is that he has raised expectations to unrealistic heights.
Regional peace efforts and domestic initiatives
Since taking office he has launched a series of initiatives that have utterly changed the political landscape and consolidated his own authority. He moved quickly to end the long-frozen war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, announcing that Ethiopia would fully adhere to the ruling of an international commission on the disputed border. He followed this up with a visit to Asmara, Eritrea’s capital, in July and a seven-point peace agreement was subsequently signed in Saudi Arabia on 16 September. The two countries have also agreed to enhance cooperation with Somalia and Djibouti.
The rapprochement with Eritrea, if sustained, is a potential game-changer for the wider Horn of Africa. Ethiopian access to the Red Sea via the ports of Assab and Massawa is also set to resume, bringing major economic benefits. Potentially set to gain as well are Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, key sponsors of regional peace efforts but also heavily involved in ongoing military action in Yemen, just 30 km from Eritrea’s coastline.
At home, Abiy has weakened the power of the Tigrayan ‘old guard’ within the party, army and intelligence services, appointing reformist allies to key positions. After violence intensified in Ethiopia’s Somali region, largely due to escalating state repression, in early August the head of Ethiopia’s Somali region was arrested and replaced by a reformist ally.
Abiy has released thousands of prisoners, relaxed controls over the media and ordered investigations into official abuses, vehemently denouncing atrocities committed by the state itself. More broadly, he has talked of the need for democratisation and accountability in the run-up to national elections in 2020. He has also floated the idea that party and state should be separated; at present EPRDF membership is in practice compulsory for senior officials. There has been an abrupt reduction in the power of the army and party-affiliated companies in the management of key projects.
Reconciliation with a wide range of exiled parties and armed groups based abroad, including the Oromo Liberation Front, has advanced very rapidly; by September almost all of the EPRDF’s opponents in exile had returned. He has also pledged to further liberalise the economy, including allowing foreign capital into key industries, but so far few concrete measures have been announced.
All eyes are now turning to the full Congress of the EPRDF, which is scheduled for 3-5 October. An indication of the likely depth of impending political changes came when Abiy’s Oromo wing of the EPRDF met on 21 September and announced a name change, becoming the ‘Oromo Democratic Party’ (ODP). It could be decided to turn the EPRDF into a loose alliance of regionally based parties, a radical break with the rigid, centrally-controlled party that it has been since 1991.
Although there is clearly discontent – Abiy has survived at least one assassination attempt – so far, the momentum behind reform has been maintained. However, as the new premier has dismantled the harsh grip of the state, inter-communal violence has flared, causing large-scale internal displacement of southern, Oromo and Somali populations. In mid-September there was a major outbreak of extreme violence against minority groups living in the western suburbs of the capital, Addis Ababa, leading to over one thousand arrests.
While the ascent of the Oromo to a powerful position within the ruling party has partially stabilised the political situation, this renewed violence and volatile configurations of returned opposition factions, along with resistance from the EPRDF old-guard, could yet undermine Abiy’s reform efforts.
Political expectations among both the public and opposition figures have been raised dangerously high. For all his undoubted skill and commitment, Abiy cannot deliver substantive change alone. On the economic front, for all of Ethiopia’s ‘developmental success’, it remains very poor indeed and rising inequalities have been feeding discontent.
So, while it is certainly cause for optimism that Ethiopia has shown ‘home-grown’ capacity to resolve its crisis, caution is warranted – so much appears to rest on one man. An Ethiopian analyst argued recently:
“There is much to celebrate in Abiy’s honesty, energy, sense of social justice, and his advocacy for economic parity and political liberalization […] In the absence of institutional limits to his power, Abiy appears to have little choice but to surround himself with the proverbial “yes men and women,” and serve a public disarmed by his charm and rhetoric. This is a cautionary tale in the annals of history that has led many to their demise.”
Michael Woldemariam, “Can Ethiopia’s Reforms Succeed?”, Foreign Affairs 10 September 2018
Alemayehu Weldemariam, “Domestic despair shadows Abiy’s diplomatic waltz”, Ethiopia Insight, 18 September 2018
Written by Jon Lunn, Senior Research Analyst at the House of Commons Library, and David Styan (Department of Politics, Birkbeck College, University of London).