Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Shows Knack for Balancing Reform and Continuity

After a turbulent three years for Ethiopia, including large-scale anti-government protests, new prime minister Dr Abiy Ahmed is likely to enjoy a honeymoon period – and seems early on to have persuaded many he can bring stability, unity and reform to the country.

Abiy – an Oromo leader in his early 40s with a mixed ethnic and religious background – is now the youngest leader of any African country, and heads up one of the four ethnically-based constituent parties, the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO).

He faces significant long-term obstacles that will need to be confronted, and the pace of change will create tensions and significant resistance, especially considering Dr Abiy’s rise was partially a direct response to the popular protests which have gripped Ethiopia since 2014, particularly in the Oromia and Amhara regions, which account for almost 60 per cent of the population.

Secretive and complex alliance-building

But despite the popular pressure, the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) went to great lengths to ensure a formal selection process after the resignation of Hailemariam Desalegn in February, involving secretive and complex alliance-building among the four coalition parties.

Dr Abiy was a wildcard candidate, but won the eventual election comfortably – with 108 votes out of 180 – after the last-minute withdrawal of deputy prime minister Demeke Mekkonen. Although subsequently framed by Demeke as being in the national good, his calculation was based on several factors, the most important being that senior members of his Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM) explained that he would not remain as deputy prime minister if he lost the leadership contest. Abiy’s ascension was enhanced by an alliance between OPDO and ANDM which has contributed significantly to the diminishing influence of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the dominant member of the coalition since its inception in the late 80s.

Building a national constituency base

The prime minister reigns over both a divided country and political party and needs to expand his support base to shore up authority and implement national reforms. He will face challenges from elites within the EPRDF who resisted Abiy’s election (mostly TPLF old guard) who see him as a threat to their power base, but also from ethno-nationalists and opposition groups (Oromo, Amhara and others) who believe the OPDO hijacked the grassroots social movement.

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Abiy undertook a nationwide reconciliation tour in the first month of his premiership, visiting the Ethio-Somali, Oromia, Tigray, Amhara and Southern Nations regions, and delivering a message of forgiveness and unity in three languages, Afaan Oromo, Tigrigna and Amharic. Despite his rise to power through an ethno-nationalist movement, Dr Abiy’s message was aimed at all Ethiopians and was strongly against ethnic targeting and displacement. This has undoubtedly increased his support among the urban-based elite.

In addition, the prime minister’s first government is carefully balanced, taking into account existing institutional and ethnic dynamics within the EPRDF, although OPDO do hold a number of important positions including the president, prime minister, foreign minister, defence minister, revenue and customs authority and attorney general.

Dr Abiy’s main challenger in the election, Shiferaw Shigute, has moved to the ministry of agriculture and livestock from the EPRDF secretariat, which is perceived as a demotion. And his replacement, in a government criticised for having too few women, is Fetlework Gebre-egziabher (deputy chair of the TPLF). Another notable appointment is Muferiyat Kamil, the first female speaker of the national parliament in Ethiopia’s history.

Security sector and governance reform

Dr Abiy needs to balance pragmatic power politics with protecting and building consensus, most acutely in the security sector, parastatals and wider governance structures. Oromos now make up a majority on the National Security Council, which gives OPDO significant influence, including deciding when to lift the six-month state of emergency which was re-imposed in February, and opposed by many Oromo MPs.

Dr Abiy does understand the workings of the military-intelligence complex, having served in both the armed forces and the Ethiopian Information Network Security Agency (INSA). Significantly, he has swiftly rebalanced the leadership of INSA and the Metals and Engineering Corporation (the colossal state-owned industrial company run by the military). Their Tigrayan directors have been replaced by civilian directors from other regions, heading off attempts to undermine the new dispensation.

After much speculation, the chief of staff of the Ethiopian National Defence Forces, General Samora Yunis, and Getachew Assefa, the director general of military intelligence, both Tigrayans, retained their positions (though suggestions are Samora could still leave soon). Over the last two decades there has been insufficient effort to ensure the leadership of the security institutions reflects Ethiopia’s diversity. But affirmative action has been taken more recently, ensuring the military and intelligence have deputy directors from different regions – assertive moves that indicate Dr Abiy understands the delicate challenge of balancing continuity and change within Ethiopia’s security state.

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The government has also embarked on several reforms, such as closing the infamous Maekelawi prison, restoring mobile internet in the regions, releasing thousands of political prisoners (some after having been re-arrested), plus allowing opposition leaders to travel and including them in discussions about reforms.

Local elections have been delayed until September to give the government time to settle, remove the state of emergency and implement electoral changes. But parliament has already agreed reforms on the autonomy of the election board, election management practices and to include partial proportional representation.

Abiy Ahmed has met with parties from outside the EPRDF and national elections in 2020 could see a broadened political space, with the inclusion of national and ethno-national opposition parties, and debate on fundamental questions of federalism, economic development, the security sector and establishment of the rule of law. But, while popular, such a political opening would bring significant challenges.

More fundamentally, Dr Abiy has to meet demands for more equitable federalism and autonomy among Ethiopia’s ethnic mosaic, while also protecting the nationally planned and controlled industrialization and infrastructure projects that fuelled Ethiopia’s decade-long 8-10 per cent GDP growth and status as the fastest growing economy in Africa.

Opening up the EPRDF-dominated system may result in demands for greater freedom from marginalized regions – including direct control of development and industrialization policy. But the consensus around ideologies of ‘democratic centralism’ and the ‘developmental state’ that have shaped the EPRDF’s vision for the future may be threatened should its coalition weaken.

The new prime minister’s main task is to unify the members of his coalition and the wider country through inclusive leadership, and balancing reform with consensus-building. In the long-term, much depends on his government’s vision, and whether Dr Abiy can convince members of the EPRDF it is possible to change the country’s governance structures and political economy while renewing a commitment to the party’s national development goals.

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