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.

 

Who’s interested in democracy?

According to Google Trends the answer is Ethiopians. Between 2004 and now they score the highest in the search index for the word “democracy,” at least among the English speaking countries of the world. Ethiopians have lived under successive military and quasi-military dictatorships since the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974.

It is also interesting to see the relative concentration of searches for the word in eastern and southern Africa compared not only to other regions in Africa but also to the rest of the world. Besides Ethiopia, the other countries in Africa with a high search index have recently had somewhat high levels of political contestation through reasonably competitive elections.

Meles Zenawi, Prime Minister of Ethiopia, is dead at 57

The BBC reports:

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has died at the age of 57, state media say, after weeks of illness. A government spokesman said Mr Meles had died in a hospital abroad – but did not say exactly where or give details of his ailment. Speculation about his health mounted when he missed an African Union summit in Addis Ababa last month.

Mr. Zenawi is believed to have died in a Belgian hospital – the Saint-Luc University Hospital in Brussels (where he was allegedly receiving treatment for an acute case of hematologic cancer). The last time he was seen in public was on the 19th of June 2012 at the G20 summit in Mexico.

For now the leadership transition in Ethiopia, Sub-Saharan Africa’s second most populous country, appears to have gone smoothly. According to the BBC report, the deputy Premier – Hailemariam Desalegn – will take over.

Mr. Desalegn is from the south of Ethiopia, away from the political centre of gravity of the country, which for centuries has been to the north – in Tigray and Amhara dominated areas.  

It is not yet clear if the smooth transition will stick. As the Economist reported a couple of weeks ago:

“power [in Ethiopia] has still rested with a clutch of Mr Meles’s comrades from his home area of Tigray in northern Ethiopia, many of them once members of a Marxist-Leninist group that used to admire Albania’s long-serving Communist leader, the late Enver Hoxha. This hard core, including the army’s chief of staff, General Samora Younis, retains a “paranoid and secretive leadership style”, according to a former American ambassador to Ethiopia, David Shinn. Were Mr Meles to leave in a hurry, relations between the young modernisers and the powerful old guard might fray.”

Under Mr. Zenawi (May 1991- Aug. 2012) Ethiopia was a mixed bag. His rule was characterized by one of the worst human rights records in the world. But he also brought some semblance of stability following the misguided and murderous Marxist-Leninist dictatorship of the Derg under Mengistu Haile Mariam; and presided over an economy with one of the fastest growth rates on the Continent.

It is also under Meles Zenawi that Ethiopia invaded Somalia to rid it of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) which was beginning to spread Somalia’s chaos into Ethiopia’s Ogaden region (it helped that the U.S. also wanted the ICU ousted from Mogadishu because of their alleged links of al-Qaeda).

A recent profile in the Atlantic summarizes it all:

“for every Muammar Qaddafi there’s a Meles Zenawi, the shrewd, technocratic Prime Minister of Ethiopia. Inside of the country, he’s known for imprisoning his political opponents, withholding development assistance from restive areas, stealing elections, and cracking down on civil society NGOs. In the rest of the world, he’s often praised for his impressive economic record, though not for his human rights. Zenawi has attracted Western support by being a responsible steward of aid money, a security partner in a rough region, and a G20 summit invitee.”

I remain cautiously optimistic that the Ethiopian ruling elite will pull through the rocky transition period. The next elections are due in 2015. In the current parliament the ruling party, the EPRDF, and its allies control nearly all of the 547 seats.

Beyond Ethiopia’s borders, the absence of Mr. Zenawi will certainly be felt in Somalia (which is presently struggling to get on its feet after decades of total anarchy and whose government partly depends on Ethiopian troops for security) and South Sudan (where Addis Ababa has been a broker in past conflicts between Khartoum and Juba). Ethiopia’s hostile relationship with Eritrea might also experience some change, most likely for the worse as whichever faction emerges victorious in Addis engages in sabre rattling in an attempt to prove their hold on power.