Ethiopia’s new chief Abiy is shaking trees: What’s his deal?

Thursday June 21 2018

Rwanda's President Paul Kagame (right) presents a gift to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (left) in Addis Ababa on Mya 24, 2018. PHOTO | URUGWIRO

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Ethiopia’s new prime minister Abiy Ahmed Ali is not giving us time to breathe.

At 41, the youngest head of government in Africa, he has logged a lot of frequent flyer miles already, visiting countries in the neighbourhood, and at home he’s been all over on a charm offensive.

He has supped with once-bitter enemies of the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and released thousands of prisoners, including journalists and opposition politicians.

But perhaps his two most surprising actions were the announcement that, after 18 years of hostility, Ethiopia was finally ready to implement a peace deal with Eritrea, reached after a bloody border war in 1998, and that it would gradually privatise its State-controlled economy, including the tightly closed telecoms and aviation sectors.

Even if it’s weighed down by debt, no one out there thought Addis Ababa would even speak of partially privatising crown jewels like Ethiopian Airlines.

Keeping the airlines firmly in the State’s hands was seen as an idea as entrenched as the Orthodox Church in Ethiopia.


But some of Abiy’s radical announcements are getting lost in the speed with which he is making them — like his revelation that Ethiopia would soon end visa requirements for all Africans.

Considering that he’s done and announced all these things less than three months after he took office following the surprise resignation of Hailemariam Desalegn early this year, it is urgent to hit the brakes and ask, “What the hell just happened?”

A lot. When Ethiopia gets to grant all Africans visas on arrival, that will be huge victory because it will become the largest and most populous African country to do so, giving a major boost to free travel around the continent.

Although at least 20 countries on the continent have considerably relaxed visa rules for other Africans, until now Ghana, Mozambique — and lately Kenya — were only few of the bigger African countries to fully dismantle the pre-arrival regime for Africans. It had been a specialty of the smaller countries like Rwanda, the Seychelles and Mauritius.

The second thing that, in a fell swoop, Abiy has stopped in its tracks is the steamy romance with the “developmental State” model state in Africa.

Because it was the fastest-growing economy on the continent for several years, and is the only African country that is not de-industrialising, it’s example was used to prove the superiority of the commandist economic model for Africa. Now, it is clear that beneath it were feet of clay. In the past few weeks, I haven’t seen any article on the “Ethiopian model”, and the statists have gone quiet.

Youthful club

Then there are the visuals. When Abiy visited Rwanda, he and President Paul Kagame had some old-fashioned high school hugging. You have to agree that the photographs looked great. He had schmoozed with President Uhuru Kenyatta.

A few days ago he broke bread with the telegenic Somalia President Mohamed Abdullahi “Farmajo” Mohamed. He also visited with Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, and the first bloke he checked on was President Omar al-Bashir in Khartoum.

Put the photographs of these visits side by side and you might be shocked by the effect they have and the story they tell. The “leader aesthetic” in the wider East Africa has swung sharply to the youthful. It’s a region where a leader who is in the 70s doesn’t look good at all.

But even among the youthful club, Abiy has disrupted a couple of things. Two years ago, the EPRDF (if you exclude Eritrea’s People's Front for Democracy and Justice) was the regional poster child for authoritarian liberation party. However, since the death of the cerebral Meles Zenawi in 2012, it has had two regular leadership transitions without a bullet being fired. Desalegn also became the first leader of a liberation party government on the east side of Africa to resign.

If you’d asked me three years ago to pick which “revolutionary” regime would serve up all these political surprises, I would not have pegged Ethiopia — if only because its politics often looks Byzantine to outsiders. Yet here we are.

The interesting thing though, is that while Abiy has quickly burnished his credentials as a reformer, in East Africa, fellows are slow to garland him as the big democratic hope.

The reason for that seems to be Tanzania’s President John Magufuli. When Dr Magufuli took office three years ago, and was shaking down things and running down thieves, Africa couldn’t have enough of him. It was the political equivalent of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.

Then he became the honest brass-knuckled autocrat. Now we are too afraid to hope.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of and explainer Twitter@cobbo3.