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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.

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