Ethiopia’s new prime minister named a political ally as defense minister as he seeks to address two years of insecurity that prompted his predecessor’s resignation two months ago.
Motuma Mekessa’s switch to the defense portfolio from the petroleum ministry was among 16 changes Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed made to his cabinet on Thursday. The reshuffle signifies the government’s desire to “solve people’s complaints” and combat corruption, Abiy said in a speech broadcast on state television in the capital, Addis Ababa.
Like Abiy, Motuma is a member of the ethnic Oromo community and the executive committee of the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization, one of four regional parties that make up the ruling coalition. As defense minister, he’ll head up a so-called command post administering a state of emergency introduced when former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn stepped down in February.
“The defense minister has to be extremely close to the prime minister, who heads the military,” said Ermias Tesfaye, an independent consultant based in Burayu, Oromia. “If the defense minister was from a different ethnicity and mind to the prime minister, Abiy may have found difficulties communicating with the military.”
Ethiopia, Africa’s fastest-growing economy over the past decade, has been wracked by sporadic anti-government protests in the Oromia and Amhara regions since 2016. At the same time, a conflict between the Oromia and Somali regions has forced more than a million people to flee their homes.
Motuma’s departure from the petroleum ministry will be filled by Meles Alemu Hirboro, according to a statement published on the Facebook page of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front. The portfolio is gaining importance as Ethiopia develops at least 4.5 trillion cubic feet of gas finds to diversify its $72.3 billion economy.
Meles, an ethnic Hadiya who is the vice president of the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s Region, previously headed the area’s anti-corruption commission, according to a biography Abiy read in parliament. Shiferaw Shigute, the SNNPR’s president who ran against Abiy in last month’s leadership election, becomes agriculture and livestock minister.
The appointments are “about power sharing and proportioning power to different regions,” said Desalegn Tekle, an independent analyst based in Jinka, a market town in southern Ethiopia.
Ethiopia’s ambassador to the European Union, Teshome Toga, becomes minister of public enterprises, replacing Girma Amente, who now heads Oromia’s urban development and housing bureau — a position Abiy held before he became prime minister.
A former vice president of Oromia, Umar Hussein, becomes director-general of the Ethiopian Revenue and Customs Authority.
“He is one of Abiy’s inner circle,” Ermias said. “This reflects Abiy’s priority to crack down on contraband and corruption.”
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