Will Prime Minister Abiy ably sail Ethiopia’s reform ship through the waves?

Saturday October 13 2018

Ethiopia internally displaced persons

Displaced Gedeo women Birtukan Chuchu (left) and Mariam Shunki sit in a church in West Guji in Ethiopia in August 1, 2018. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s reform agenda has won praise, but analysts warn that it risks exacerbating ethnic rivalries. PHOTO | AFP 

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Over the past six months, many Ethiopians have been rejoicing at the freedoms that have come since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power.

Dr Abiy, a reformist, has won the hearts of millions of Ethiopians despite heading a regime that has been in power for close to three decades.

“When an egg is broken from inside, it is life; but when an egg is broken from outside, it is death,” the prime minister said recently when addressing the congress of the ruling coalition — Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) — in Hawassa city, some 250km south of Addis Ababa.

His statement was interpreted to mean that he gave new life to the EPRDF, which has been criticised for alleged violation of human rights, press freedom and bad governance.

Dr Abiy came to power following the resignation of prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn, at a time when people were outraged at the killings of protesters by security forces.

Dr Abiy eased the tension with speeches calling for forgiveness, love and unity. He also launched reforms in key government institutions including the intelligence, military, federal police and the justice systems.


The reforms also signalled the beginning of the end of the Chinese economic growth model in Ethiopia when the government announced its plan to sell shares in major state enterprises such as Ethiopian Airlines, Ethio Telecom, Ethiopian Shipping Lines and Logistics, and Ethiopian Electric Power.

The government said the decision was made to address the shortage of foreign currency as well as improve the efficiency of the poorly managed enterprises, save for Ethiopian Airlines.

Dr Abiy’s reforms have also brought home leaders of the opposition and armed groups. These include the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), which has been fighting for secession of Oromia region for more than five decades, and the pro-unity and nationalist Patriots G7, who were welcomed by hundreds of thousands of their supporters.


But the Prime Minister has also faced major challenges — from an assassination attempt to dealing with ethnic clashes resulting in the deaths of over 100 people and internal displacement of more than two million others.

His critics have used these incidents to claim that Ethiopia is not yet a haven of peace.

“Why haven’t we seen millions of people displaced in the past 20 or so years? Why now? This shows that people are not happy with the reforms. They want to show that Prime Minister Abiy is incapable,” said Kifleyohanes Anberbir, a political reporter, during a discussion on national television.

Addisu Arega, an official of Oromia Region and central committee member of the rebranded Oromo Democratic Party, one of the four member parties of the EPRD, called on the OLF to disarm its soldiers. At the time, the EPRDF was only a few days away from holding its general congress.

However, OLF leader Dawud Ibsa said they had not agreed to disarm the soldiers.

When the party elected Dr Abiy as its chairman, he got all the votes of TPLF, including from individuals who had publicly opposed his agenda.

“Restoring peace in the country should be the priority of Prime Minister Abiy. But there should be some kind of transitional justice. He should also be smart when dealing with OLF. Because of the ethnic politics of the country, it will not be difficult for these two groups to bring their tribes against the reform,” said Mekki Elmograbi, a political analyst.

New Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed waves
New Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed waves during his rally in Ambo, the centre of anti-government protests, on April 11, 2018. PHOTO | AFP

Speaking to reporters about a month ago about whether armed groups returning to the country to be part of the peaceful political process were going to be disarmed, Prime Minister Abiy said they would replace their guns with ideas that they would sell to get the votes of the people.

“If they are not going to put down their guns, why do they come? Are they going to accept the election result if they win and go back to war if they lose?” Dr Abiy asked.

The prime minister said the government was setting up an institution to rehabilitate soldiers of the armed groups and integrate them back into society.

In a speech following his election as chairman of the EPRDF, Dr Abiy indicated that the government would review any laws that could be obstacles to the reform.

For now, the tension between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front hardliners and Dr Abiy’s reformist team seem to have eased following the party's congress.

The major headache seems to be the OLF and the ethnic conflicts fuelled by hate speech on social media.

Securing support from activists like Jawar Mohammed, who is known for mobilising the youth of Oromo against the regime using social media, remains a major challenge for the reform agenda.