Abiy Ahmed has a chance to lift the lid on freedoms in Ethiopia
The new prime minister offers fresh hope of democratic reform
Ethiopia's new prime minister Abiy Ahmed has appealed to national unity and reconciliation, offering an olive branch to Eritrea © AFP
Abiy Ahmed has one of the most precarious balancing acts to perform of any leader in Africa. He was sworn in as Ethiopia’s prime minister on April 2 after the surprise resignation of his predecessor, Hailemariam Desalegne, two months earlier. Mr Abiy’s ascendancy owes much to a crisis that has been brewing in the country for the past three years. The government needed to present a new face to confront a revolt that threatens to upend the 27-year rule of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front.
Since defeating the Marxist Derg regime in 1991, the EPRDF has kept the lid tightly sealed on all forms of political expression. This has been especially so since 2015, when demonstrations broke out in Oromia, the region surrounding the capital, Addis Ababa. Security forces have used the crudest methods to suppress dissent, killing and jailing thousands of protesters and government opponents. The population has been cowed, in some areas, but not persuaded.
There are genuine risks associated with opening up too quickly and allowing the public to vent. Continuing repression — and the prolongation of a state of emergency — will, on the other hand, quickly erode the hope that Mr Abiy’s appointment has raised the capacity of the EPRDF to change. That way also lies chaos.
Ethiopia’s ruling coalition has racked up genuine successes over the years. Eschewing liberal market orthodoxy, and giving the state a central role in development, it has presided over some of the fastest economic growth in Africa. It has also engineered significant improvements in education and healthcare, especially for the rural poor.
But it has done so largely at the expense of political freedom. For some time, this authoritarian development model has been running up against its limits. Protests which started over corrupt land deals have quickly morphed into a much wider uprising: against corruption, bureaucratic inertia and repression. There was also an ethnic component. Tigrayans form about 6 per cent of the population, but made up the vast majority of the guerrilla force that took power in 1991. Although they have joined forces with other Ethiopian groups in coalition, they have continued to dominate state institutions to the growing frustration of other ethnic groups.
Mr Abiy’s appointment is in part recognition that this needs to change. He is Oromo, the group which has been protesting most volubly and which makes up about a third of Ethiopia’s 105m population. At 41, the new prime minister is also Africa’s youngest leader, representative of another marginalised demographic — Ethiopia’s youth.
The prime minister’s inaugural speech to parliament this month was among the more remarkable in Africa in recent times. He apologised for recent loss of life, promised to engage opponents and open up to democratic reform, tackle corruption and ensure the state, as well as citizens, is respectful of the law. With Obama-esque eloquence he also appealed to national unity and reconciliation, offering at the same time an olive branch to Eritrea, Ethiopia’s northern neighbour with whom the country has been in a constant state of near war.
But Mr Abiy must perform an almost impossible tightrope act. In order to keep Ethiopia’s development experiment going, he must persuade the EPRDF to loosen its grip and open up the political process to genuine plurality. If not, he will quickly be seen as a puppet who gives the appearance of reform without the substance. He has made a hopeful start. But now he must match his words with action.