Can Abiy Ahmed pull Ethiopia out of political turmoil?

 by Aaron Brooks

Ethiopia’s new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, faces one of the most difficult challenges among East Africa’s leaders. He assumed office in early April, following the resignation of Hailemariam Desalegn, who admitted his failure in dealing with Ethiopia’s simmering political crisis. Ahmed was elected by the country’s ruling coalition to succeed where his predecessor failed, at a time when the government’s position is at its weakest for almost 30 years.

After three years of violent protests across Ethiopia – largely driven by discontent in the Oromo and Amhara ethnic groups – Ahmed assumed power with the country in its second state of emergency in the space of a year and demands for political change more resolute than ever.

His appointment brought genuine hopes of progress, though. Ahmed is an ethnic Oromo himself and the first member of Ethiopia’s largest ethnic community to be elected as prime minister. However, optimism came with equal measures of doubt, with suspicions that the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) had simply elected an Oromo face to ease political tensions.

It’s hard to blame the cynics, too, considering the EPRDF’s history of crushing opposition instead of implementing political reforms. Yet Ahmed’s first two months in charge have hinted that significant changes really are on the table. His speeches are filled with convincing pledges and there’s something of an internal power shift taking place within the EPRDF‘s coalition of parties.

The early impact of Abiy Ahmed

While it’s tempting to dwell on the significance of Ahmed being Ethiopia’s first Oromo prime minister and what this could mean for the political demands being made by the country’s largest ethnic group, it distracts from the political impact he might have as PM.

More significant is his role as the chairman of the Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organization (OPDO), one of the four coalition parties that make up the EPRDF. This is bolstered by the support he received from the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM) during his appointment.

Abiy Ahmed gave the representative political parties of Ethiopia’s two largest regions and ethnic groups something in common. Until now, the OPDO and the ANDM had never managed to form a significant unity within the government that could take the key role of influence away from the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which has enjoyed majority power for most of the EPRDF’s recent history.

The attitudes of both the OPDO and the ANDM have changed in recent years, though, as political discontent among the Oromo and Amhara ethnic groups has intensified. With stronger objectives in common, the twp political parties made Abiy Ahmed’s rise to power possible and they also give the new PM genuine influence over the government.

Turning promises into policy

Ahmed’s appointment was celebrated by many as a turning point in Ethiopian politics but detracted by others as yet another survival strategy by the EPRDF. There’s no doubt that the latter is true but hope remains that he can also be the man to start the next phase of Ethiopian democracy.

So far, positive steps have included the release of political prisoners, talks with opposition groups and promises of political change. These all hint of genuine reforms being possible but Ethiopia is still waiting for concrete evidence that Ahmed’s government will pursue the kind of changes demanded by protesters and opposition members.

There have been potentially negative steps taken in the early days of Ahmed’s regime, too – most notably the reappointment of various former officials to key positions and board memberships. While major issues such as Ethiopia’s “anti-terror” laws, which turn government critics into political prisoners, aren’t getting the attention many would hope.

Nobody expects major political reforms within the space of two months, but sooner or later Ethiopia’s new PM will need to prove his promises can materialise.

East Africa Monitor

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