Ethiopia's New Direction

Can a new prime minister finally offer a better life to his people?

Ethiopia recently elected Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed: a 42-year-old reformer intent on making Africa’s second-largest country the only true democracy on the continent.  Last week, Prime Minister Abiy’s trip to Eritrea’s capital city Asmara was promising, signaling a thawing of relations with its arch-enemy following two decades of conflict. 

During the historic summit, Abiy and Eritrea’s rebel-turned-dictator Isaias Afwerki agreed to jointly open up shared airspace, to rekindle joint communications, and to re-open embassies.  Importantly, Eritrea will now permit Ethiopia to use its port, which became landlocked as a result of Eritrea’s secession from Ethiopia 25-years ago.  Ethiopia’s trade capital, Addis Ababa, will finally have access to the Red Sea.   

According to Abiy, the two leaders agreed,

To bring down the wall between us. Now there is no border between Ethiopia and Eritrea.  That borderline is gone today with the display of a true love…love is greater than modern weapons like tanks and missiles.  Love can win hearts, and we have seen a great deal of it today here in Asmara.  From this time on, war is not an option for the people of Eritrea and Ethiopia.  What we need now is love.

Since his swearing in on April 2, 2018,  Abiy has promised to reform Ethiopian governance.  During his first speech, Abiy espoused western principles including promoting the idea of Ethipoians’ right to choose their own occupation, supporting protections to ensure human rights, and he extolled the virtues of economic security.   But what raised eyebrows was Abiy’s bold invitation []( to Ethiopian exiles saying, “We will welcome you home,” and promised, “the coming season in Ethiopia is a season of peace and reconciliation.”

As for the Ethiopian economy, Abiy has already given it a shot-in-the-arm by stemming the notoriously high inflation rate that plagued the country.  Abiy’s new economic strategy, and overall optimism about the future, has investors excited about investing in Addis Ababa’s economy.  Ethiopia, a country rich in natural resources, has now been given the opportunity to become an African economic power with potential for broader political influence in the region and beyond.

Less than a year ago, Ethiopia was on the verge of bankruptcy and civil war.  Angry citizens rose up against their government in spite of emergency laws the government instituted.  Since then,   Abiy has earned trust by lifting the state of emergency in the country, and by his appointing a Muslim woman to serve as Ethiopia’s parliamentary chairperson.  He has appointed a generally more responsive cabinet and is engaging with ordinary citizens from around the country to help inform policy-making.  

Most Ethiopians revere this unusual politician, with a few exceptions.  Ethiopian’s rebel group Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) that hitherto dominated the ethnic-based coalition government has been critical of the new leaders’s reforms.  At times, opposition to Abiy has been deadly - at a recent rally, someone lobbed a grenade in a crowd - an attack that left him unharmed but killed “a few people” and wounded many.  

Dr. Abiy Ahmed was born in Agaro in southern Ethiopia to an  Oromo-Muslim father and an Amhara-Christian mother.  As a teenager, he joined the armed struggle against the Marxist Derg regime.  He holds a doctorate in peace and security issues from Addis Ababa University and a master’s degree in transformational leadership from the University of Greenwich in London.  Abiy speaks fluent Oromo, Amharic and Tigrinya, the leading three languages of Ethiopia, and is also fluent in English.  As an officer in the Ethiopian army (Lieutenant-Colonel), Abiy served in 1995 as a UN peacekeeper in Rwanda. He founded the Ethiopian Information Network Security Agency (INSA) in 2007 and served as a board member of Ethiopian TV.  In 2010, he entered politics as a member Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO) and joined the Executive Committee in 2015.  The following year,  Abiy was appointed Ethiopia’s Minister of Science and Technology.

Abiy is Ethiopia’s first Oromo Prime Minister.  The Oromo ethnic group is the largest in Ethiopia’s diverse population of over 102.4 million.  It has also been at the center of a three-year anti-government protest, which left hundreds of people dead.  The Oromo people have complained of being marginalized politically, economically, and culturally.  In the coalition government umbrella called the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), Abiy’s OPDO is one of its four components.  The decision to appoint Abiy as PM had an obvious connection to the rebellion, and demographic weight of the Oromo people. 

Given Ethiopia’s enhanced strategic position in the Horn of Africa as a result of concluding a peace treaty with Eritrea, it now has an opening to the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, where the busiest oil tanker traffic occurs.  For the international community and especially to the European and Asian states, the coastal belt comprising of Eritrea, Djibouti, Somaliland, and Somalia must become secured, guaranteeing the safety of trade from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean.  The newly achieved peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea is a positive step in that direction.  

Former EPRP leader, and renowned activist, Professor Getachew Begashaw says this of the strategic importance of Ethiopia:

It should be noted that the Horn of Africa (or Northeast Africa) is as much a part of the Middle East as it is of Africa.  Consequently, Ethiopia has been directly or indirectly connected with the crises’ that have long characterized the Middle East and the Mediterranean world for most of its history. The Ethiopian highlands catch most of the rainfall – earning the country the label, “the Water Tower of Africa.“ In fact, Ethiopia provides over 86% of the Nile waters.

The potential conflict between Egypt and Ethiopia over the Mega (Renaissance) Nile Dam enhances Ethiopia’s strategic importance in the region (Israel could serve as an impartial mediator).  At the same time, the collapse of state authorities in Somalia and South Sudan, the threat of Al-Shabab (affiliated with al-Qaeda), and political Islam, pose a challenge for the Abiy government. 

The new prime minister holds the promise of a better life for average Ethiopians. Having started the peace process with Eritrea, Abiy can now turn to assure the economic progress, political stability, and regional influence of the country.

Photo: Soman