Just months after mass ethnic and political protests sent shockwaves through Ethiopia, threatening the ruling party’s decades-long grip on power and provoking the resignation of the prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, his newly appointed replacement Abiy Ahmed took the rare step of meeting with his political opponents. Face to face with civil society activists and opposition politicians, Abiy pledged to consider opening the political system, strengthening civil rights and boosting freedom of assembly.
For the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which has dominated Ethiopia via a dual strategy of political repression and economic growth, the appointment of the reform-minded Abiy represents the dawn of a new era and a sea-change in its calculations. As the country’s first prime minister from the Oromo – Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group and one of the driving forces behind anti-regime protests dating back to 2015 – early moves by Abiy suggest that conciliation could replace confrontation as he tackles the vast challenges of administering East Africa’s largest economy.
Yet while the 42-year-old will draw on his mixed heritage and status as a trusted military and regime insider in a bid to defuse ethnic, regional and political tensions, he will have to tread carefully among more rigid colleagues for whom the new era represents an unwelcome disruption of the status quo.
“This is extremely significant for Ethiopia in having their first Oromo PM. It’s a complete shift and I think Abiy represents more than that, in that he seems to be someone who’s able to bring a true sense of the nation together,” says Ahmed Soliman, researcher on the Horn of Africa at Chatham House.
“He shows he’s capable of building bridges and keeping closer relations within the EPRDF, and he will have to do that because this is a consensus-driven government and one that is very rigid, process driven and hierarchical. He’s extremely young, technocratic, and has shown himself to be ambitious.”
The vital testing ground for this new approach will be Abiy’s home region of Oromiya, where socioeconomic and political marginalisation under the EPRDF exploded into a vast protest movement following the unpopular expansion of the Addis Ababa Master Plan, an urban expansion scheme. The move stoked widespread anti-government demonstrations that led to thousands of arrests and hundreds of deaths.
As an ethnic Oromo with an Amhara mother, and command of the Oromo, Tigrinya and Amharic languages, Abiy could be well placed to hone in on the challenges facing the region while keeping an eye on the delicate balance of ethnic power within the country. As chairman of the Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organisation (OPDO), one of several ethnic parties comprising the EPRDF, Abiy is under pressure from Oromo leaders to push for a comprehensive package of reforms. He has already moved to placate Oromo concerns by releasing political prisoners and following through on Desalegn’s pledge to close the notorious Maekalawi prison. Yet dealing with the systematic economic marginalisation of Oromiya and other regions will require a much more radical economic plan.
“The OPDO have been lobbying for a greater share of foreign investment. The root of the protests as they began was against the Addis Ababa Master Plan, and that needs to be seen as being inclusive of Oromiya and the regions, rather than infrastructure and science parks expanding to the benefit of central government,” says Soliman.
While Abiy’s early moves suggest that he is keen to push on with his ambitious reform agenda, he will have to balance the concerns of Oromo protestors against the patchwork of rival ethnic, military and political interests which make up the EPRDF. Traditionally consensus-based, the EPRDF settles many of its most important decisions at its powerful central committee. The extent to which the central committee will accommodate Abiy’s reformist instincts remains to be seen.
“In some ways I think that’s the key question we know least about,” says Laura Hammond, reader in the Department of Development Studies at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. “Though he’s been selected by the central committee of the ruling party, whether that’s a signal they are happy to change the way they work, or whether they think they can control him even if he represents different perspectives, backgrounds and agendas, is still hard to tell. What’s happened in the past is that the central committee has been strong in determining the paths Desalegn took.”
Nevertheless, Abiy’s ascent to the top job and background as a regime insider – he joined the EPRDF in 1991 and has served in senior party and government roles, including minister of science and technology – means that he has the trust of senior party figures. His visit to the Somali region was seen by many as an attempt to prove that he intends to be more than a conduit for Oromo interests. While the EPRDF have shown a surprising willingness to consider reform by promoting Abiy to party leadership, the extent to which the authoritarian regime will be prepared to open the political process to rivals – and release all remaining political prisoners – remains to be seen.
“He will face difficulties because of the structure of the EPRDF, but incremental progress is what is needed. One of the real tests will be in the next few weeks or so with the conduct of the local elections. If we were going to see change it will need to be in the inclusion of opposition parties and some reform in governance structures at the regional and national level,” says Soliman.
Despite his reformist tendencies, Abiy’s two decades within the powerful armed forces and former role as head of the government’s Information Network Security Agency may help him to assuage the concerns of influential hawks who fear that a reform agenda will erode their traditional power and influence. Yet while sounding a note of caution on the pace of change, analysts say that a rare window may have opened for the first time in years to pursue meaningful and long-lasting reform.
“That central group of people has changed in recent years as the old guard has stepped back to create space for younger voices in the interests of the long-term viability of the party,” says Hammond. “I do think they must see that they have to open a bit. It feels like the lid has been lifted too far open to close again. [But] whether that means multi-party elections and a viable opposition that can operate legally in the country is far down the line I think.”