Abiy's moving so fast, he's making me dizzy

Wednesday March 13 2019

Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (right) is certainly working hard. If he can coax Eritrean President Isaias Afeworki (left) out of his Asmara man cave, he will have done more than enough. PHOTO | XINHUA

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

In the past few days, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has been a busy man, indeed.

He was in Eritrea, to meet the still-reclusive Isaias Afeworki, along with Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta.

Then he flew back to Addis Ababa, to hobnob with Somalia’s President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed “Farmajo.”

He got on his plane, and was next in Juba, together with Afeworki, to meet South Sudan President Salva Kiir.

Hours later on Wednesday, he was in Nairobi, with Farmajo in tow, to meet President Kenyatta, this time to mediate in the latter two’s flap over their Indian Ocean boundary.

The disputed water is a triangular area, measuring 100,000 square kilometres, based on projecting the Kenya-Somali border eastwards. Somalia allegedly auctioned oil and gas exploration rights in the area recently, and Kenya was not too pleased. Mogadishu continues to deny that it did.


There are too many things going on here. The first, is an unlikely silver lining. Just eight years ago, it was nearly impossible to imagine we would today be in a situation where a regime would have been established sufficiently in Mogadishu that, like Farmajo’s, has the sovereign reins to sell of fishing rights off its coast as it did to the Chinese recently, and now flogging its own and, as Kenya would have it, its neighbour’s, oil and gas fields in the Indian Ocean.

At that time, it was still Al Shabaab and an array of warlords, and on the seas, audacious pirates, who were guardians of Somalia’s natural resources and fighting over them.

The Wednesday meeting in Nairobi with Farmajo, Abiy, and Uhuru would not have been public, because in the Somalia president’s place, would have been a hardened warlord in open sandals and a Palestinian keffiyeh around his neck, meeting Kenya’s intelligence chief and the president’s chief of staff, out of view of the prying eyes of journalists.

So, there has been a lot of progress, thanks in large part to the African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia, Amisom, that strange brew of the Turks and Gulf states, and Somali revivalism that we’ve seen in the past 10 years.

Then there’s the figure being struck by Abiy. In reality, since the days of Thabo Mbeki in South Africa and Olusegun Obasanjo, Africa has not had a leader doing Abiy’s kind of shuttle politics.

Our presidents still travel, and a lot too, but outside Africa. When the sporting Jakaya Kikwete was president in Tanzania, he earned the moniker Marco Polo for his wanderlust.

Because of illness, the receptionist at Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari’s London hospital, saw him more often than the one at Aso Rock in Abuja.

In Cameroon, Paul Biya returns only briefly to steal elections, but in practical terms he moved the country’s state house to The Intercontinental Hotel in Geneva, years ago.

There are diplomatic whispers that, among other things, Abiy is seeking to establish a Horn of Africa economic bloc (with Eritrea, Djibouti, the Somalias, and Sudan) fuelled by the competition between Gulf and Chinese money, or to re-engineer the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (Igad) as a common market, thus including Kenya.

Whatever it is, he’s certainly working hard at it. If he can coax Afeworki out of his Asmara man cave, he will have done more than enough.

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