New Ethiopia: The Rock Star Ruler

Ethiopia’s new leader, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, has been in office for barely four months but has already achieved the political equivalent of rock star status. Abiy came to power after months of protests against the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) forced the resignation of his predecessor. While Ahmed comes from one of the four constituents of the EPRDF, he is the first to come from the section representing the Oromo – the country’s largest but politically most marginal ethnic group. Wearing Nelson Mandela T-shirts at rallies and slogans like “One love, one Ethiopia” have made him popular with youth and the large Ethiopian diaspora.

Abiy Ahmed, at 41 the youngest leader in Africa, has begun dismantling many of the more repressive elements of his government. He has released thousands of dissidents, sacked security officials accused of torture, and spoken positively of multi-party democracy.

Abiy has said he intends to end the state monopolies in aviation, telecom, electricity and logistics. His government also plans an ambitious programme of disinvestment and, in some areas like hotels and railway operations, privatisation. A number of foreign investors have already begun testing his intentions: Kenya’s Safaricom has asked to be allowed to introduce its mobile money service M-Pesa.

Abiy’s actions will undermine the pillars of the ruling Front’s political apparatus. Commentators speculate there will be push back by Ethiopia’s military and intelligence agencies which are controlled, as is much of the economy, by ethnic Tigrayans. A grenade hurled at a rally he held last month killed two though this is not seen as an inside job. Abiy will be familiar with these political realities.  He is a former army lieutenant-colonel and once headed the country’s cybersecurity service. His other strength is the backing of an Oromo-Amhar ethnic coalition, representing almost two-thirds of Ethiopia’s population.
What has caught global attention is Abiy’s rapid-fire foreign policy actions. He suddenly announced the acceptance of a 2000 peace agreement with Eritrea, including surrendering a strip of disputed territory.

Abiy flew to Asmara in early July to announce the settlement alongside the Eritrean ruler, Isaias Afwerki.

The two countries have been in a state of near-war for decades. Once a single country, their hostility was often compared to the divided Korean peninsula. Ethiopia and Eritrea have since opened their border, restarted commercial flights, allowed cross-border phone calls and reopened their respective embassies.

The previous month Abiy had flown flew to Cairo and assured Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al Sisi that Egypt’s share of the Nile waters was not in danger. Ethiopia is constructing a dam across the Nile, triggering warnings and threats from downstream Egypt. Abiy also hosted a meeting between the two rival South Sudanese leaders in an attempt to end that country’s five-year long civil war.

On a visit to Djibouti, the gateway for 90% of his landlocked country’s trade, the Ethiopian leader proposed the two countries hold shares in each other’s logistics infrastructure.

Abiy speaks three of Ethiopia’s four languages, as well as Arabic and English – he studied at the University of Greenwich, United Kingdom. His bridge-building reputation is enhanced by a mixed Christian and Muslim background.

 

 July 31, 2018

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About the Author

Pramit Pal Chaudhuri writes on political, security, and economic issues. He previously wrote for the Statesman and the Telegraph in Calcutta. He served on the National Security Advisory Board of the Indian government from 2011-2015. Among other affiliations, he is a member of the Asia Society Global Council, the Aspen Institute Italia, the International Institute of Strategic Studies, and the Mont Pelerin Society. Pramit is also a senior associate of Rhodium Group, New York City, advisor to the Bower Group Asia in India, a member of the Council on Emerging Markets, Washington, DC, and a delegate for the Confederation of Indian Industry-Aspen Strategy Group Indo-U.S. Strategic Dialogue and the Ananta Aspen Strategic Dialogues with Japan, China and Israel. Born in 1964, he has visited over fifty countries on five continents. Mr. Pal Chaudhuri is a history graduate from Cornell University.