Ever since Abiy Ahmed became prime minister of Ethiopia last April, Africa’s youngest leader has been hailed as one of the most progressive figures on the continent. A former army intelligence officer who has forged peace with Eritrea, packed his cabinet with women and overseen the mass release of political prisoners, he has been greeted as a national saviour by many of Ethiopia’s 105m people.
But enthusiasm for Mr Abiy, 42, stops in Tigray, Ethiopia’s northernmost state and a dominant force in national politics since a Tigrayan rebel army overthrew the hated Marxist Derg regime in 1991.
For many of the 5m-plus residents of Tigray, Mr Abiy is not so much saviour as threat. If the gloss eventually comes off the prime minister’s story, that process will have begun in Tigray.
To the region’s people, Mr Abiy’s shake-up of the Ethiopian state, which has targeted Tigrayans in top positions, is widely seen as biased and vindictive. Even his rousing talk of national unity is viewed as an attack on the federal constitution, which devolves significant powers to nine ethnically defined territories, including Tigray.
“Concentrating on one ethnic group is dangerous,” said Debretsion Gebremichael, acting president of the Tigray region, who added that Mr Abiy’s crackdown on corruption had an anti-Tigrayan bias. Adding that he initially opposed Mr Abiy’s selection as chairman of the ruling coalition and hence prime minister last year, he said: “I told him: ‘You are immature. You are not the right candidate’.”
Mr Abiy’s frosty reception in Tigray has important implications for the prime minister’s ability to steer one of Africa’s most successful economic experiments through treacherous political waters.
Ethiopia’s economy has grown at 10 per cent a year for more than a decade, according to official figures, and recently surpassed Kenya’s as the biggest in east Africa. The government has been implementing a detailed plan modelled on the likes of South Korea and Taiwan to turn Africa’s second-most populous nation into a manufacturing hub and middle-income economy.
The antagonism Mr Abiy provokes in Tigray could portend broader troubles ahead for a leader whose reputation is being subtly recalibrated as the scale of his task becomes clearer in a country that is a mosaic of some 80 ethnic groups, many of them pushing for greater autonomy.
In Aksum, a former capital founded some 2,500 years ago and one of Tigray’s main tourist attractions, Eseyas Kesese, a guide, has nothing but contempt for the prime minister. “He’s talking love, love, love, but doing nothing,” he says. “I don’t even think of him as my leader.”
Gebrehiwot Hadush, assistant professor of law and governance at Mekelle University in Tigray’s buzzing capital, said Tigrayans initially shared the euphoria that greeted Mr Abiy’s elevation last year. He was seen as a unifying figure after his predecessor was persuaded to resign following a wave of anti-government protests that threatened the legitimacy of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, the four-party coalition that had ruled the country since 1991.
“He came to Mekelle and gave a wonderful speech praising the history of Tigray, saying that Ethiopia without Tigray was like a car without a motor,” said Mr Gebrehiwot. “He was respectful of our struggle against the Derg and our hardworking culture. He could not finish his sentences for all the clapping.”
But that appreciation quickly evaporated, said Mr Gebrehiwot, as Mr Abiy had stepped up reprisals against members of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), one of four ethnically based parties in the coalition. As well as overhauling the cabinet, Mr Abiy has sacked the head of the army and intelligence services — both Tigrayans — and arrested top officials linked to the Metals and Engineering Corporation (Metec), a Tigrayan-dominated military conglomerate now accused of corruption by Mr Abiy.
The arrest of Major General Kinfe, former director-general of Metec, caused particular controversy. Televised live and followed by a 45-minute documentary detailing Metec’s alleged wrongdoings, it provoked complaints of trial-by-television. “It’s very clear it was anti-Tigray,” said Mr Debretsion, who is also chairman of the TPLF, referring to the Metec arrests.
Largely as a result, Tigray has been far less co-operative on implementing an arrest warrant for another prominent Tigrayan, Getachew Assefa, the former intelligence chief, who is believed to be hiding in the state.
To Mr Abiy’s supporters, the prime minister is merely cleaning house and correcting the over-representation in Ethiopia’s state apparatus of Tigrayans, who comprise only 6 per cent of the population.
Mr Abiy identifies as Oromo, the largest ethnic group with 35 per cent of Ethiopia’s population. The first prime minister in the nation’s history from Oromia, he is accused of stirring tensions by calling his political opponents “daytime hyenas”, a phrase interpreted by some Tigrayans as an ethnic slur.
Mr Abiy categorically denies any ethnic bias, saying he is governing for all Ethiopians. In a recent interview with the Financial Times, he emphasised the concept of medemer, which roughly translates as strength in diversity. To achieve that, he said, he must resist any tendency towards ethnic ultranationalism and instead promote national unity and national pride.
Mohammed Ademo, founder and editor of OPride, a news website focused on Oromo issues, said the complexity of Ethiopia’s political jigsaw would be Mr Abiy’s greatest challenge. “We need to dial down ethnic tensions,” he added. “I wish Abiy were superhuman and could make that disappear.”