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Reflections on the New Leader of Ethiopia, One Month In

June 8, 2018

Ann Fitz-Gerald, a Professor of Security Sector Management at Cranfield University, gives insight into Dr. Abiye Ahmed, Ethiopia's new head of the federal government. He's already making moves which challenge past norms, but could those same moves create additional tensions?

Dr Abiye Ahmed has already approved a motion to lift the national state of emergency and released an Ethiopian-born British resident and passport holder. But might these positive developments be precursors to tensions that could be emerging across this ethnically diverse federal state?

Since its April leadership transition, Ethiopia already feels like a slightly different country. Internet access has been reasonably strong, social media is functioning, the cafeĢs and restaurants in Addis Ababa are buzzing with relative optimism – and all owing to the arrival of the new leader of the longstanding governing party, Dr Abiye Ahmed. For despite his membership of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and service to the federal government, he has been perceived as a ‘different’ sort of leader. For a start, he is from the Oromo region, whose regionally-based party has traditionally been the underdog in the governing coalition. He has, as his name suggests, Muslim roots in a country which, though admirably plural, sits in the Horn of Africa, where religious tolerance is hardly the norm.  

Abiye’s first 60 days have been marked by energy and engagement. He has asked parliament to lift the national state of emergency; he reshuffled his cabinet and increased the number of women holding senior posts; and he has pardoned and freed thousands of those detained for suspected so-called ‘anti-peace crimes’, including diaspora opposition leaders such as British citizen Andargachew Tsige and US resident Berhanu Nega. He has hosted dinners with opposition and business leaders, in contrast to the closed coterie of political insiders close to the former administration.

Abiye has also pursued significant engagement at the regional state levels. In addition to delivering compelling speeches in the major regional capitals of Jijiga, Hawassa, Gambella and Gondar, he prioritised a visit to the Tigrayan regional capital of Mekelle. There, he demonstrated his commitment by delivering his speech in Tigrinya – not his mother tongue – and underscored in his speech the critical role that Tigray played both in the country’s historical struggle for peace and in moving forward as a federation. He has visited neighbouring Sudan, Djibouti and Kenya, and hosted a visit by South Sudanese President Salva Kiir. Beyond Abiye’s inaugural speech to parliament, his forceful 15 April address delivered to a gathering of thousands of youths at the Millennium Hall in Addis Ababa gave the country’s largest, and most potentially restless and disgruntled, constituency real hope for change.

As the much more difficult work of applying these well-meaning sentiments begins, so does the challenge of communicating the indicators that will evidence whether Abiye can deliver on his promises. The promises include, among others, job creation for the young, security and justice sector reform, a more open and plural political system, a properly qualified and professional civil service, and a credible democratic electoral process. Underpinning these and other commitments are Abiye’s call for a unified Ethiopia.

But while applauding the gains, one must also appraise the challenges, as well as the new security issues that have arisen as a result of Ethiopia’s new political settlement. Whereas the biggest threat for Ethiopia remains an economic one – with a 16% unemployment rate in a country with a population of just over 100 million and with 22% of the unemployed between the ages of 15 and 29 – the rise of political and ethnic-based divisions across society may also cause further turbulence.

As a result, Ethiopia’s new leader faces some very clear challenges. The first is that political reform will need to be measured and well-managed. The emergence of splits across the coalition members suggests that the EPRDF could evolve into a different sort of party in the near future. With such internal party pressures, Abiye’s government can ill-afford to allow a polarised and antagonistic relationship with the opposition to continue. Once meaningful dialogue has been initiated, this gap may begin to close, and opposition groups may gain traction.

Secondly, there is the question of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Following admissions of leadership failures in 2017, and the bruising charges of TPLF dominance circulating through social media since protests erupted in 2015, the Party needs to regroup and rebuild – and transform from considering itself as a ‘vanguard’ into considering itself as a player within an electoral democratic space.  Whereas the issue requires acceptance on the TPLF’s side, it also requires a show of willingness on the part of Abiye to embrace and honour the TPLF’s contribution to date. Such engagement would also send an assuring signal to Tigrayan business groups, the future contribution of which is critical to the country’s much-needed foreign exchange and foreign direct investment.

The last challenge concerns the potential for ethnic divisions to be exacerbated in the country. Abiye’s efforts to re-emphasise pan-Ethiopia sentiments could be robustly supported by a national dialogue, used to inform the national interests that define and unify Ethiopians. However, with the combination of ethno-nationalist sentiments being at their peak and historic mistrust between various ethnic elites and political groups, the state’s limited ability to provide incentives to cushion painful compromises and the difficulty of finding facilitators who are trusted and perceived as politically neutral all present significant challenges. But if Ethiopia’s national interests and vision could become agreed and codified, these foundations could usefully serve as the pinnacle of new federal, regional and sectoral strategies.   

The energy and engagement that Abiye has demonstrated in his first 60 days in office gives us hope that Ethiopia is moving to a better place. However, the new security threats that have emerged with this political transition should not be underestimated. With ongoing regional conflicts, such as those in South Sudan and Somalia, including hydro-tensions with Egypt over contested Nile water resources, the de facto regional hegemon faces testing diplomatic challenges. The political honeymoon is now over and the government in Addis Ababa has a mountain to climb.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and are not necessarily those of RUSI or any other institution

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