Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed: The leader promising to heal a nation

BBC – Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has been widely praised for introducing sweeping reforms aimed at ending political repression, writes BBC Africa editor Fergal Keane after visiting the country.

The crowd at the airport in Jimma in Ethiopia’s Oromia region was handpicked and universally rapturous.

But these were not the praise-singing party hacks who so often grace the arrivals and departures of powerful men in Africa.

Men
and women, old, young and very young – beaming babies were held above
the crowd – had gathered to witness the arrival of a political
sensation.

“We are so very happy,” an elderly man shouted to me
above the sound of the military band, “it is like a renaissance. We have
waited so long for this.”

Shift from autocracy

Then
Abiy Ahmed was among us, descending the steps of his plane to delighted
cheers, testing the nerves of his security detail as he reached into
the crowd to kiss a baby here, embrace an old man there.

I was conscious of an extraordinary fusion between the driven energy of an individual and the hope of a nation. Africa has rarely seen anyone like him.

At 42 he is the youngest leader on the continent but his impact is far greater than his age suggests.

When
the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF)
coalition elected him prime minister nine months ago the country,
Africa’s second largest in terms of population with more than 100
million people, shifted decisively from a long period of autocracy.

He
ended a 20-year conflict with neighbouring Eritrea, freed thousands of
political prisoners, unfettered the media and appointed women to half
the cabinet posts.

Parliament also accepted his female nominees for president and head of the supreme court.

On top of that, he asked a dissident leader to return from exile in the United States to run the electoral commission.

The pace of change has delighted pro-democracy activists and thrown more reactionary elements off balance.

Fourteen
years ago, Birtukan Mideksa spent 18 months in prison as leader of an
opposition party before leaving for exile in the US.

She was as surprised as most observers when Mr Abiy invited her to return and chair the National Election Board.

“Thousands,
if not millions, of people paid [a heavy price] to see this kind of
change in this country… to see this opening,” Ms Birtukan told me.

“To
have a former opposition leader, former dissident, to lead an
institution with significant independence of action… means a lot.

“For those people who paid a price in the process, it’s really significant,” Ms Birtukan added.

‘Use ideas not weapons’

But change has inevitably emphasised the significant challenges still facing Mr Abiy.

When I caught up with him at a graduation ceremony for medical students in Jimma he appealed to them to “use ideas not weapons” and to follow the example of a nation like Japan, which recovered from World War Two to build a sophisticated economy.

See Also:  Ethiopia Arrests Ex-Head of Army Firm in Crackdown on Security Services

Ethiopia has one of the fastest growing economies in the world but still has a vast number of unemployed young people.

This
is both a reservoir of potential talent and potential dissent if Mr
Abiy’s moves to liberalise the economy and tackle corruption do not
succeed swiftly.

The prime minister was addressing the graduates in Jimma against a backdrop of deepening ethnic conflicts across the country.

Ethiopia has more than 80 different ethnic groups.

The divisions are old and deep rooted, but they flared up with a new intensity in the first half of last year when 1.4 million people were forced to flee ethnic conflict in the west of the country, according to the UN.

Overall, some 2.8 million people have been uprooted from their homes
in recent years. The other major concern is the fighting on the borders
of the Oromia and Somali regions.

Over decades, the central government used force and a whole battery of repressive legislation to quell ethnic unrest.

Predictably,
this merely gave an impression of national cohesion while unaddressed
grievances festered. They erupted into protest in 2016.

‘Steel in Abiy’s voice’

Demonstrations
by members of the Oromo community – Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group –
precipitated the resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn and
the election of Mr Abiy.

Mr Abiy is the first leader to come from the Oromo community but has stressed that he is a leader for all Ethiopians.

When I caught up with him in Jimma I asked if he was the man to unite an increasingly divided country.

He was being ushered away from the crowds by his guards but the question made him pause.

Looking
around he caught my eye and shouted above the noise: “Of course I am.
No doubt about it!” There was steel in the voice. And then the smile
returned.

Last month, Mr Abiy established a reconciliation commission to deal with some of the issues.

This
may provide an outlet for the airing of uncomfortable truths about the
past but the greater challenge is the federal constitution which divides
regional government along ethnic lines.

Respecting ethnic rights while fostering the idea of a nation will demand considerable political and legal sure-footedness.

In the Tigray region, in the north, there have been ominous stirrings.

Although Tigrayans compose only a small percentage of the population they dominated the previous government.

In
recent months, prominent Tigrayans in the army, security services, as
well as business figures, have been accused of human rights abuses and
corruption.

See Also:  Ethiopia: Talk of Peace Fails to Quell Ethnic Clashes

Travelling in Tigray one frequently hears concerns about the alleged marginalisation of the once-powerful group.

A former communications minister, Getachew Reda, told me he thought Tigrayans were being turned into scapegoats.

It was as if only Tigrayan leaders were responsible for past abuses under the ruling coalition, he said.

Although still calling himself a friend of Mr Abiy he believes the young leader risks creating a failed state.

“He symbolises the kind of ambition, the kind of courage to storm the heavens that youth would represent.

“But
he also represents the kind of tendency to gloss over things, the kind
of tendency to try to telescope decades into months, years… to rush
things.”

For the moment Mr Abiy has the momentum and no shortage of energy.

Even in Tigray, the ordinary citizens I spoke to saw him as an inspirational figure.

Elsa
Tesfaye is a small-holder farmer who lives close to the border with
Eritrea and lost a brother to the war between the two nations.

For her Mr Abiy is the man who brought peace “and I thank him for that”.

‘Revivalist preacher’

She
worries about ethnic divisions and whether her son – an engineering
student – will be able to work in other parts of the country if the
situation deteriorates.

“[The reforms] are great. But it still needs a bit of work. If ethnic conflict… and hate could be removed I would be satisfied.”

Mr
Abiy is a devout Pentecostal Christian and there is something of the
revivalist preacher in the way he evangelises for his vision. He has the
energy, the passion and the certainty.

The question is whether he can prevent an escalation of conflicts without resorting to the repressive methods of the past, and maintain his reformist momentum up to the next elections in 2020.

Before he left Jimma I managed to speak with Mr Abiy again.

He greeted me with a traditional embrace and kiss. This was Mr Abiy being the consummate politician.

The
world should look at the example of Ethiopia, he told me, to see how
people can live together in peace. Given the vast numbers of displaced
it seemed more a statement of ambition than reflective of any current
reality.

But on the central question of reform he was adamant.

“Would anything stop you?” I asked.

“Not at all,” he replied with a vehemence that left no room for doubt.

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