(AFP) — In his first speech as Ethiopian prime minister last April, Abiy Ahmed called for an end to the repressive, exclusionary governance that had plunged the country into turmoil.
It was a promise on which he is seen to have delivered dramatically, earning him both international acclaim and domestic popularity so great that his keenest supporters say he deserves a Nobel Peace Prize.
“Before Abiy came, our fear was that Ethiopia would descend into civil war,” said Hassen Hussein, a top official in the Oromo Democratic Front, one of the many banned groups welcomed back from exile.
Yet the new prime minister’s first year in office has also been marked by a surge in ethnic violence that has forced 1.8 million people out of their homes.
While Abiy has remade the public face of the ruling omnipotent Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), diplomats and politicians say politics remains very much as usual at the local level.
“Many people, especially at the grassroots level, are asking, where is the change?” said Merera Gudina, a top opposition politician. “Both the depth and pace of change… people are really doubting.”
As Abiy enters his second year in office, he faces a new challenge: keeping his promise to make 2020 elections free and fair despite rising political violence.
Abiy, who was sworn into power on April 2, 2018, took office following the resignation of his predecessor Hailemariam Desalegn, after more than two years of anti-government protests and growing discord within the EPRDF.
– Negotiating with opposition –
A former science minister, Abiy comes from the Oromo people, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group. He rose up through the military and intelligence services, reaching the rank of lieutenant colonel.
The 42-year-old won over Ethiopians with his rapid, dramatic reforms, often delivered with a personal touch.
He met publicly with newly-freed political prisoners and held repeated meetings with old foe Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki to negotiate a July 2018 agreement re-establishing relations following a bloody 1998-2000 border war.
“For the first time in the country’s history, he is negotiating with the opposition,” said Merera, who was jailed under Hailemariam, then released on the eve of his resignation.
But Merera worries whether the four parties that make up the EPRDF — and especially the old guard from the Tigrayan minority that dominated the coalition until Abiy’s rise — really support him.
“We are not sure the degree to which the EPRDF is committed,” he said.
At the local level, politics has changed little.
“The ruling party is the ruling party; the cadres are the same, the service delivery is the same,” Merera said.
Those who have met the prime minister worry over his tendency to show off his accomplishments while revealing little about his plans to tackle the country’s challenges.
– ‘One-man show’ –
Abiy made headlines last October by appointing a cabinet in which half the ministers were women. But critics say he has taken power into his own hands and sidelined government ministries.
“It’s a one-man show… it’s not a functional government,” one foreign diplomat told AFP, adding that among embassies, “a few eyebrows are now rising.”
Shortly after Abiy took office, a long-running dispute over land in southern Ethiopia’s West Guji and Gedeo zones erupted into ethnic fighting that forced nearly a million people from their homes.
Such violence continued through Abiy’s first year.
Last September at least 58 people, mostly from minority ethnic groups, were killed on the outskirts of the capital Addis Ababa, while aid groups said in December that ethnic violence in western Ethiopia had displaced 250,000 people.
Analysts have blamed rising violence on a slackening of the tight control the EPRDF once maintained on regional security forces and administration.
Abiy has touted his moves to improve media freedom — following in the footsteps of Hailemariam, who released several prominent jailed journalists — but instability threatens this progress.
Elias Kifle, who heads the online news outlet Mereja, believes Oromo police officers sanctioned the February mob beating two of his journalists in the town of Legetafo.
“I considered it not only an attack on the media, but on the reform,” he said, adding that he does not blame the prime minister for the assault.
In a sign of the country’s apparent precariousness, officials in March postponed a national census, which was seen as a precursor to next year’s vote.
“Damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” Hassen said of the elections. “With the level of polarisation that exists now, I’m not sure an election would do any good for Ethiopia and Ethiopians.”