(DAILY MAVERICK) — Ahmed was only 13 when Nelson Mandela was released from prison, but there have already been comparisons between the world icon and the newly appointed Ethiopian prime minister. Abiy’s also a fan and wore a lime-green T-shirt with an image of Mandela in a raised-fist salute, above a slogan that read: “No one is free until the last one is free” – ironically to a rally where there was an attempt on his life.
Both Abiy and Madiba have achieved the near-impossible: Mandela led South Africa from apartheid to democracy, while Abiy led Ethiopia to peace and more openness.
It’s still early days – Abiy was appointed on 2 April – so comparisons might be a little premature. There are also differences. Unlike the 1994 transition to democracy in South Africa, no outside observer knew beforehand that Ethiopian politics would move to such an extent in 2018 that the country would look completely different to the repressive state of emergency it was in January. Also, unlike Mandela, whose international fame grew even more while in prison for 27 years, Abiy was not internationally well-known, although he’d been part of the ruling elite.
BBC reported that Abiy’s reforms should have come as no surprise, as he made his political vision clear in comments made to the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM), a constituent party of the ruling coalition, in October 2017:
“We have only one option and that is to be united, not only co-operating and helping each other, but uniting in order to live together. The other option is to kill each other.”
At the time, however, the world paid little attention, because the chances of then prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn stepping down – in a country where the governing Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front coalition won close to 100% of the vote – seemed remote.
Abiy, who identifies with the previously oppressed Oromo majority group, was born in Agaro in southern Ethiopia on 15 August 1976 to an Oromo Muslim father and a Christian mother from Amhara. He is fluent in the three of the biggest languages in Ethiopia – Afan Oromo, Amharic and Tigrinya – as well as English. He has a doctorate in peace and security issues from Addis Ababa University, and a master’s in transformational leadership from the University of Greenwich, London. There’s also a rather obscure entry in his CV of a post-graduate certificate in cryptography from an organisation called Machine Dynamics, in Pretoria, in 2005.
As a teenager in 1991, Abiy joined the armed struggle against the Marxist-Leninist regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam. After the fall of the Derg, he went on to get formal military training. Abiy became a soldier in the Ethiopian Defence Force and served as a United Nations peacekeeper in Rwanda in 1995, just after the genocide. He also had the first-hand experience of the Ethio-Eritrea border war, when he led an intelligence team between 1998 and 2000 to discover positions of the Eritrean Defence Forces. Twenty years later, he would bring peace in this conflict, which became a cold war after 2000. Abiy was also the founder and director of Ethiopia’s Information Network and Security Agency, responsible for cyber-security in the years in which Ethiopia was known for clamping down on internet use.
He joined the Oromo Democratic Party (ODP) in 2010 and became a member of the party’s executive committee five years later. He served as minister of science and technology for a year from October 2015, and then was appointed Deputy President of the Oromia Region while remaining a member of the Ethiopia Federal House of Peoples’ Representatives. In this role he took care of the million Oromo people displaced from the Somali region during the 2017 unrest, and, as head of the ODP secretariat, facilitated the formation of a new alliance between the Oromo and Amhara groups, together comprising two-thirds of the 100 million Ethiopian population.
Violence was unintentionally sparked in Ethiopia’s most populous Oromia and Amhara regions in 2015 when the government announced it would move people around Addis Ababa as part of an urban development plan. Hundreds of people – mostly poor and marginalised – died in the resulting violent clampdowns on their protests, coupled with human rights abuses. Protesters have tried to bring their grievances to those attending African Union summits in the capital around January each year, but these were mostly suppressed and denied by authorities.
In February, Hailemariam Desalegn unexpectedly announced the release of hundreds of political prisoners, but government news agencies did a U-turn on reports, initially saying he was misquoted. The announcement, however, raised expectations on the ground and prompted a leadership crisis. Soon after, Hailemariam announced his resignation.
It was a peaceful transition. A couple of weeks after his appointment, Abiy addressed an international audience for the first time at a summit on the shores of Lake Tana in Bahir Dar in the Amhara region, flanked by his predecessor. Hailemariam had time to stay the duration of the two-day summit, perhaps making an early bid for a future elder-statesman career like that of former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo or former president Thabo Mbeki. Abiy, who was on a whirlwind tour around the country to introduce himself to the people and spread his message of unity, made a short speech and left shortly after because he had to address a crowd in town. He did, however, pause for selfies with admiring resort and forum staff and attendees before leaving.
Journalists who followed Abiy’s progress said data and WiFi access opened up in his wake during that tour, which saw him confronting troubled hotspots head-on. Just before his visit to the Tana Forum, Abiy went to Gondar, a city in northern Ethiopia famed for its 16th and 17th century stone churches, but which had also been the site of a number of clashes in the past two years. Bahir Dar itself is a site of defiance, where three months before Abiy’s visit, musician-activist, Teddy Afro, held a sold-out concert which drew fans from across the country as well as from the expat community abroad.
Protests in the region that same weekend saw a couple of burnt-out car wrecks littering the highway towards Addis Ababa, with locals, afraid to call the protests by the name, only ascribing it to some “problems”.
Things have opened up since. Strangers in the streets – at least of the capital Addis Ababa – are not afraid to say how much they like their new leader. Women swoon over his likeness to American actor Martin Lawrence, and T-shirts and stickers with his picture have become much-vaunted items in the past few months.
Soon after that April tour, Abiy released thousands of political detainees, including opposition leaders, and at the start of June, he lifted the state of emergency, which he inherited from Hailemariam, two months early. A few days after that, he started a peace declaration with Eritrea when he said Ethiopia would at long last accept the 2002 border ruling which gives chunks of land along the border to its neighbour. On 11 September, the land border between the two countries was re-opened. These steps have also led to the return of many expats.
Once that was done, Abiy started a shake-up in his government. In October he appointed women in half the ministerial posts, and followed it by nominating Ethiopia’s first female president, Sahle-Work Zewde. Lawmakers voted for her unanimously. On 1 November he nominated Meaza Ashenafi as the country’s first female president of the federal Supreme Court. He also appointed a woman, Billene Seyoum, as a press secretary.
Not all in Ethiopia are supportive. Apart from the grenade attack in June, which was aimed at him but killed two rally-goers instead, ethnic tensions remain rife and could still flare up, observers like Stig Jarle Hansen from the Norwegian University of Life Sciences and Yeshitila Wondemeneh Bekele from Hawassa University have argued. They said tensions within the ruling party, the lack of a formal roadmap, as well as a lack of transparency around deals done with insurgent groups, were weak points. There’s also a concern that security forces would not be able to keep up in maintaining order. Former rebel groups were also resisting calls to disarm their soldiers.
It might yet be too early to talk about awarding Abiy the Nobel Peace Prize, but the start of his term represented the best news story that Africa had seen this year.