Can Abiy Ahmed Save Ethiopia?

Abiy Ahmed, newly elected Prime Minister of Ethiopia, addresses the house of Parliament in Addis Ababa, after the swearing in ceremony on April 2, 2018. (ZACHARIAS ABUBEKER/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

The announcement of a new prime minister has led to widespread celebrations, but reforming the country without alienating the army will not be easy.

Written by Nizar Manek | FT

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — In 1990, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) was a guerrilla alliance battling the Derg, a Marxist-Leninist military junta that had deposed Emperor Haile Selassie in a 1974 coup. A year later, the EPRDF took power; it has ruled Ethiopia ever since.

When the Derg fell, Abiy Ahmed, who was recently elected as the EPRDF’s chairman and sworn in as prime minister on Monday, was just 14 years old. But even then, Abiy, who was born to a Muslim father and a Christian mother in the Oromo town of Beshasha in southwestern Ethiopia, was becoming politically active.

“In one way, the world is eagerly awaiting our country’s transition, and in another way, they are waiting in fear,” Abiy said in his maiden speech as prime minister. “We have a country in which our fathers have sacrificed their bones and spilled their blood,” and yet the nation has kept its unity. “This is the season in which we learn from our mistakes and compensate our country,” he continued. “I ask forgiveness from those activists and politicians who paid the sacrifice and youths who wanted change but lost their lives.” He even spoke of applying Ethiopia’s constitution in a way that understands “freedom,” especially freedom of expression and the rights to assembly and association — suggesting that he may lift the state of emergency that has led to the detention of more than 1,100 people.

In the capital of Addis Ababa, people in cafes clapped and cheered in front of television screens.In the capital of Addis Ababa, people in cafes clapped and cheered in front of television screens. At a town on Ethiopia’s porous southern border with Kenya, where Ethiopia’s military last month announced it had mistakenly killed Oromo civilians, locals celebrated by slaughtering camels, cows, and goats. People in Jimma, the largest city in southwestern Ethiopia, were singing; a student at Jimma University told me, “We have got one of our own!”

More than a third of Ethiopians belong to the Oromo community and about a fifth to the Amhara, while Tigrayans represent 6 percent, according to the latest census. Together, the Oromo and Amhara make up more than half of Ethiopia’s population of 105 million. These demographic realities and the distribution of power among these groups are the defining feature of Ethiopian politics.

Abiy joined the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO) and the EPRDF in 1991, according to his official biography. He decided to join the OPDO after his brother, Kedir, was killed, according to Abiy’s childhood friend Seyfu Imam Abamilki. The same year, the OPDO was part of the advancing EPRDF army seeking to smash Derg forces and take Addis Ababa. At that time, the OPDO was a small organization that the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) established in late 1990; it became part of the EPRDF in January 1991.

As a young man finding his feet, Abiy was one of at most 200 OPDO fighters placed under the overall military command of the EPRDF forces, which in 1991 numbered about 100,000 — 90 percent of them Tigrayans. Abiy, despite his Oromo origins, was quick to adapt, starting as an assistant to the military and learning the Tigrinya language. As a Tigrinya speaker, he could get ahead, given the preponderance of Tigrayan soldiers and officers. And it has continued to serve him well; Tigrayans remain preeminent in Ethiopia’s ruling coalition and control the military, intelligence, and security organs of the state.

In 1993, when Abiy was in his late teens, he became a regular soldier. He enrolled in what would become the new federal army — the Ethiopian National Defense Forces — as part of an OPDO division and eventually rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel. In 1995, Abiy had to formally leave the OPDO; the EPRDF’s new constitution would be “free of partisanship” and forbade membership in any political organization. The same year, he was deployed as a member of the United Nations peacekeeping force in Kigali in the wake of the Rwandan genocide.

After nearly two decades of military service, Abiy left the army in his early thirties, became a civilian, and re-entered the OPDO; his final military post was as deputy director of the Information Network Security Agency, which provides technical intelligence to support the government on matters of national interest. A few years earlier, he was posted back to his hometown of Beshasha, where he successfully defused communal tensions following an incident between Muslims and Christians, his old friend Seyfu and a government official in the town, Mohammed Abajojam, told me.

In quick succession, Abiy became a member of the EPRDF-controlled parliament, the OPDO central committee, and then the politburos of both the OPDO and EPRDF. He began a rapid ascent through the corridors of power, serving as director of the national science and technology information center and, briefly, as minister of science and technology under former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, who resigned in February, triggering a leadership crisis.

At 41, Abiy is Africa’s youngest leader — and he is pursuing a different path than many others in the region. “Now more than any other countries of the world, for us, ensuring democracy is about our existence,” Abiy told parliament. “We have to keep in mind that Ethiopia is ours and build a participatory democracy that allows everyone’s voice to be heard and everyone to benefit.”