Will Abiy Ahmed usher in a new Ethiopia?

Will Abiy Ahmed usher in a new Ethiopia?

Dr Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s reforming Prime Minister, has stimulated outlandish optimism for Ethiopia’s future. However, the country is beset with ethnic tension, economic challenges and institutional corruption. The young PM hopes to bring lasting stability and democracy through social change, relaxing state control and encouraged political opposition. Is that enough?

The reformer

For years, protesters have called for an end to human rights abuses involving government sanctioned murders, false incarcerations, torture and suppression of political opposition, in Ethiopia. The outcry reached a head in April 2018, with the resignation of the then Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, and election subsequent Abiy’s. Thus marking the first Ethiopian head of state chosen in response to popular pressure. Since then Ahmed has been widely praised for his sweeping reforms aimed at ending political repression.

The new PM’s approach to leadership is informal, frank and humble in character. Hailemariam Desalegn, Abiy’s predecessor, did not share these qualities. Amnesty International marks the ex PM’s rule to be smeared with smothered freedom of expression, incarceration of thousands as ‘political prisoners’, institutionalised torture and fake trials.

Two months after assuming power in April 2018, Abiy lifted the state of emergency imposed by Desalegn’s government to counter unrest. Moreover, Several senior prison officials, including the director of the federal prison administration, were sacked after reports of abuse. The head of the security service and the army’s chief of staff were also both replaced soon after Abiy spoke out against abuses of the armed forces.

Encouraged political opposition and female representation

The main factor of Abiy’s reforms is the encouragement of democratic processes. The PM has released thousands of political prisoners, made up of journalists, activists and opponents to the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPDRF) party. Further, three major opposition parties have been removed from the government’s list of ‘terrorist’ groups.

Within Ethiopia’s masculine and patriarchal society, the female opportunity for self advancement can be rare. Women currently make up 47.32% (and growing) of the workforce, despite this on average women still receive a lower annual salary. Females are significantly behind in education, with only 17% being literate compared to 42% of men. Early marriage/pregnancy and gender based violence often greatly hinders educational progression. Furthermore, women have less access to credit and finite market access.

However, Abiy claims he wants to change this. 50% of cabinet posts have been filled with female ministers on Abiy’s recommendation. The PM has also nominated (which parliament accepted) female parliamentarians to fill the President and Head of Supreme Court posts. The latter of whom is Meaza Ashenafi, founder of the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association and has fought for women’s rights in Ethiopia, notably against child marriages. Abiy has even recalled Birtukan Mideska, a dissident leader, from exile in the US to run Ethiopia’s Electoral Commission.

According to Abiy, the appointments were meant to dispel the belief that “women can’t lead”. Though the symbolic importance of such appointments is significant, they reflect a sincerity in Abiy’s desire for change. Positioning women such as Ashenafi in powerful judicial positions will greatly increase Ethiopia’s chances of gender equality in the future. However, it would be naive to believe that gender inequality, as entrenched in Ethiopian society as it is, will go away overnight.

Peace and privatisation

Last Summer, Abiy met with Eritrea’s long running President to end the decades long border conflict. The two nations have also made plans for closer economic relations, particularly around developing cooperation around Eritrea’s Red Sea ports.

In February, Telecoms firm Ethio Telecom became the first of four major state owned corporations to be privatised. This action, designed to stimulate economic growth, marks a softening stance of the EPRDF. They have historically had deep involvement in Ethiopia’s economy. Further privatisation is planned across the telecommunications, aviation and banking spheres.

The move surprised many, as Abiy had previously indicated that the government would continue to play a major role in telecoms, banking and infrastructure. This sudden turn around points to Ethiopia’s dire need for foreign investment. Indeed, despite Ethiopia being Africa’s fastest growing economy, it still has a long way down with a position of 159 out of 190 on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index.

Ethnic tension

With as many as 80 tribal groups, ethnic tension plays a major role in Ethiopian politics. Abiy’s main support base came from the Oromia region. This is where the majority of the country’s protest movements started 4-5 years ago. Abiy is the first Oromo (Ethiopia’s largest, yet most stifled ethnic group) leader. Despite this, ethnic violence is on the rise.

The country’s Ethnic federalism has enabled tit-for-tat evictions of contesting ethnic groups from disputing territories. For example, an estimated 50,000 Oromo were evicted from the Somali region in 2017. In retaliation, many ethnic Somali were expelled from the Oromo region.

In December, Abiy established a reconciliation commission to create a dialogue between conflicting groups. Despite this ethnic tensions continue to plague the country. The largest displacement since the revolution and civil war in 1998, there are currently 3 million uprooted people in Ethiopia. Many are living in extreme poverty; penned up in schools, temporary camps and abandoned factories.

However, efforts are being made to resolve these issues. In March, in collaboration with the UN, the newly established Ministry of Peace launched a national process of conflict resolution. With funding from the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), UN Women, UNDP and UNESCO, the initiative seeks to quell the tension in the Oromo and Somali regions. Enabling representatives and leaders of conflicting groups to create dialogue for social cohesion is a key component of this new action. Such action highlights Abiy’s focused on establishing long term solution to displacement. Although ultimately this may be the wisest route, it is a length one, many thousands of people may not return home in the short term.

Challenges of a youthful population

According to The United Nations Development Program, 70% of Ethiopia’s population is below the age of 30. Such a youthful population brings a good supply of cheap labour and a large tax base. However, it also puts significant strain on the country’s education and health services, as well as food supplies and housing capabilities.

Ethiopia’s unemployment rate is expected to trend at 15% by 2020. Though this is a significant improvement from the record high of 26.6% in 1999, it does not reflect a job market capable of accommodating such a youthful population. Moreover, a youthful population means urbanisation, resulting in increased levels of poverty in main cities when unemployment is rife. Abiy is yet to specify how he intends to supply these new jobs. This somewhat threatens the PM’s ambitious economic plan. Abiy has attested the unemployment to misuse of government funds designed to create jobs for the youth. The premier puts his hopes for job creation on the tourism and irrigation industrys, the former of which generated $3.4bn since last year.

Is the new PM up to the task?

Juliet Nanfuka from CIPESA (Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa) told reuters that:

“It would be too optimistic to expect that the new prime minister’s government will overnight dismantle all the layers of authoritarian control that have for decades been at the center of state power in Ethiopia”.

This statement is justified. However, there needs to be an acknowledgement of Abiy’s complex position. He faces a catch 22 situation. Abiy must relax state control to allow the country to progress. However by doing so, he risks unleashing ethnic violence that was being held in check. Moreover, there are some who believe that Abiy is pushing reform too fast. Former Communications Ministers, Getachew Reda, told the BBC that in order for the changes to last in Ethiopia, they need to be implemented at a gradual rate.

Ethiopian was screaming for a breakaway from the status quo is in its leadership. Thus far Abiy has delivered. The next year will indicate whether Abiy is truly committed to reform, or rather his changes to date were simply the ‘honeymoon’ phase exhibited by many a world promising parliamentary candidate. The 2020 national elections will test the EPRDF coalition’s willingness to jeopardise its power for the sake of democracy. Naturally, this generates a level of scepticism.

If nothing else, The World Bank’s commitment of $1.2bn in support Ethiopia’s budget is a major signal of confidence for the countries reforms. Indeed, Abiy’s political and social changes are certainly creating an environment of stability that stimulates foreign investment. If Abiy’s reforms are successful, Ethiopia will be well on its way to achieve its goal of becoming a middle income country, on par with Nigeria and Kenya.

Categories: Africa, Politics

About Author

William Charnley

William Charnley holds a Joint honours degree in History and Publishing from Bath Spa University. Since graduating William has worked on a number of publications, acquiring a research interest in Sub-Saharan Africa, Eastern Europe and security issues.