A theory of Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed

Since getting into office, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has moved swiftly to implement both political and economic reforms. On the political front, he has released political prisoners, unbanned blogs, described violations of human rights by security officers as terrorist acts, and called for term limits for Prime Ministers. On the economic front, he has sounded the alarm over Ethiopia’s $26b foreign debt, wants to privatize important sectors of the Ethiopian economy, and has been working Ethiopia’s neighbors to strengthen economic ties (including ports deals with Somalia and electricity markets in Kenya, Sudan, and Tanzania).

Screen Shot 2018-06-25 at 11.10.38 AM.pngWhy Abiy and why now? It is certainly still early days, but I think he might be a case of a lucky draw at a critical time. In the face of sustained popular protests that began in 2015, Ethiopia was definitely overdue for reforms. But it was not a given that the TPLF (a key player in the EPRDF) would be willing to give power to a popular leader like Abiy. They took a guided gamble with a young former military man and lost (guided because they were somewhat forced to select an ethnic Oromo as Prime Minister).

And as a result the TPLF found themselves with a Prime Minister that is more popular than the EPRDF. That makes him harder to manipulate.

Once in office, Abiy took on the reform agenda with a lot more zeal than they had anticipated. His peripatetic approach to governance can be explained by Ethiopia’s headline economic indicators. The country exports a mere $3b worth of goods (against $18b in imports), which at 6.2% is the second lowest export/GDP ratio in Africa. Ethiopia has also been burning hard cash at a clip, forcing a 15% devaluation of the Birr and a recent $3b lifeline from the UAE. It goes without saying that the country needs to export more if it is going to create jobs at a faster rate for its youthful population. 70% of Ethiopia’s 100m citizens are below 30, and 80% of them live in the countryside.

This is from The Conversation:

The ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front which has been in power for nearly 30 years, is decaying. It lacks the political will to introduce fundamental reforms which would address issues like endemic corruption, the incarceration of journalists and political opponents and widespread economic marginalisation.

These concerns precipitated protests from various segments of society and forced former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn to resign.

Abiy emerged from within the ruling party amid this disarray. His message was markedly different. He spoke the language of the people and tapped into society’s aspirations and fears. While it was expected that he’d be a safe pair of hands for ordinary people as well as the ruling elites, nobody expected him to be as direct and decisive as he has turned out to be in his reform efforts.

These have met with resistance, particularly from the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, which is the dominant wing of the ruling coalition. It’s started to act as an opposition from within to Abiy’s work.

The rally at which the attack occurred was called to disentangle Abiy from the establishment and give him a unambiguous mandate to run the country.

People are enchanted with his message of “medemer”, or togetherness, as opposed to ethnic compartmentalisation. They support his systematic and nonviolent removal of corrupt leaders who thrived on spreading fear and using violence to cling to power.

In what appears to have been an assassination attempt, on Saturday a grenade attack killed two people and injured dozens in a rally addressed by Abiy Ahmed. So who might want Abiy gone?

…… one can say with some level of justification that whoever made this attempt must have felt threatened by Abiy’s popularity, message and reform efforts. Ethiopians are accustomed to fearing their leaders. But Abiy is loved.

And despite his refreshingly reformist record so far, it is also worth highlighting the risk of relying on Abiy the individual as opposed to a system of governance that can survive the man:

There is also good reason to question whether or not he is producing supporters who would see him as a cult hero rather than someone who can be criticised, questioned and held to account when he crosses the line.

While this should be a source of caution, the gravest danger to lasting reforms is likely to come not from personalist rule by Abiy but from the TPLF old guard. There is also the real danger that Abiy will under-deliver and create even greater frustration among hopeful Ethiopians.

 

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