On April 2, 2018, the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) elected Abiy Ahmed, a little-known reformist leader from the Oromo community, as prime minister, setting the stage for dramatic political and economic liberalisation.
A year on, the early euphoria, dubbed Abiymania by the Economist, is giving way to ambivalence and incertitude. But, on balance, Abiy’s accomplishments over the past year are nothing short of a miracle.
Given Ethiopia’s gargantuan societal divisions and the breadth and depth of its problems, sustaining such a trajectory takes supernatural abilities. And no man can measure up to that challenge. However, to stay on this hopeful path, his administration now needs to deepen democratic practices and institutionalise the sweeping political and economic reforms.
Abiy, 42, a former army colonel and intelligence officer owes his meteoric rise to power to four years of street protests mostly by Oromo, later joined by Amhara, youth activists calling for democratisation and an end to economic marginalisation.
Prime Minister Abiy took over a deeply divided coalition and a country facing myriad political, security and humanitarian crises. The second state of emergency in as many years was still in full swing. Tens of thousands were imprisoned in political cases, including journalists. The country had to provide for some 2.4 million IDPs, the highest in its tortured history.
Abiy‘s appointment, following a bitter internal power struggle inside the EPRDF, was greeted with unprecedented optimism and hope across Ethiopia and around the world. Exiled EPRDF opponents, hitherto proscribed as terrorists, were invited to return home and pursue peaceful political struggle. The prime minister set up boundary and reconciliation commissions to address disputes over administrative borders, to end intercommunal violence, and to reckon with the abuses of the past regime.
He quickly lifted the martial law, released political prisoners and apologised for the violence and excesses of the state. He crisscrossed the country touting his bold philosophy of Medemer (Amharic term for synergic unity). He extended an olive branch to neighbouring Eritrea, ending a two-decades-long cloud of war and stalemate.
He laid out plans to partially privatise key state-owned enterprises, including the Ethiopian Airlines, Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation, and the sole telecom provider, EthioTelecom. A range of midsized state enterprises, such as sugar plantations and industrial parks, were also slated to be fully privatised. His office is reviewing the ease of doing business index to improve Ethiopia’s investment climate by streamlining regulation, making it easier to start a business and boosting access to finance.
He has significantly expanded political space. Today there are more private newspapers than at any time over the past 15 years. For the first time in more than two decades, no journalist is behind bars in Ethiopia. Freedom of speech and the press have blossomed in ways never seen before – so much that many are now openly calling for placing some limits, including regulation on hate or inciting speech. For the first time since at least the 1970s, there is no rebel group fighting to unseat the government in Addis Ababa by force.
In the diplomatic arena, Abiy has used his candour and warm personality to woo and dazzle world leaders. He has revitalised previously fraught diplomatic ties with neighbouring states and key Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The World Bank has provided $1.2bn in direct budgetary support 13 years after lending was suspended following the disputed 2005 elections. In February, the prime minister spoke at the annual meeting of World Economic Forum in Davos extolling his historic reforms and making a pitch to potential investors.
Ethiopia is now open for business and visitors. Travellers from all African nations are granted visa on arrival. In March, lawmakers ratified the African Continental Free Trade Agreement.
A country that was on the brink of collapse just a year ago is providing much-needed calm to the troubled Horn of Africa thanks to Abiy’s bold move. In pursuit of regional peace, the Abiy administration has prioritised economic integration as the bedrock of his robust diplomacy.
The premier has hosted nearly all East African leaders, some more than once, to broker peace agreements or for bilateral and trilateral negotiations. As part of a confidence-building exercise, Ethiopia has acquired stakes in Eritrean, Djiboutian, Kenyan, Somali, and Sudanese ports.
Abiy has presided over a raft of major political and economic reforms over the last 12 months. But challenges remain. There are millions of internally displaced people across the country. Sporadic ethnic conflicts and pockets of violence persist. A frightening civilian militarisation, particularly in Tigray and Amhara regions, has many on the edge. Regional states are in an arms race. A bungled peace process with the Oromo Liberation Front had created fear and insecurity in Oromia. Recent efforts at patching things up were to no avail.
The hope and the hype that accompanied Abiy’s dramatic rise to power has led to bloated expectations. Each new crisis, both real and perceived, seems to shake the confidence of his supporters. Many are impatient with Abiy’s extreme tolerance and want him to get tough on non-state armed groups and spoilers who spew divisive rhetoric.
The travails of governing a fractured nation with complex political history are taking a toll on Abiy himself. In an unscripted remark at a forum organised by the Office of the Prime Minister last week, Abiy warned “spoilers” not to test his patience and that he would be willing to go to war to protect Ethiopia’s integrity.
The public mood is also less jovial. In fact, there is growing frustration, if unwarranted, that Abiy’s reforms ushered in freedom of expression but not much else. The youth, who have been protesting for change since 2014, see Abiy as the direct result of their struggle and sacrifices. But the economy has stalled, unable to deliver jobs for the vast unemployed youth, who made up the bulk of protesters.
Abiy maintains that his administration is focused on stabilising large macroeconomic imbalances by renegotiating external loans and instituting stringent fiscal austerity measures. However, a bloated bureaucracy, still adrift and beholden to the status quo, scoffs at the fast-paced reforms. Whereas Abiy talks of the virtues of private enterprise and the need to unleash its dynamism to create jobs for the youth, his unreformed bureaucracy still remains wedded to a statist approach. The public grumbles about weak state capacity and wants corrupt local officials to either emulate Abiy or leave public offices. But both will take time to materialise.
Even more worryingly, growing mistrust and schism among Ethiopia’s already fragmented political elite has further polarised the public. The debate over Ethiopia’s future is now dominated by two opposing axes: ethno-nationalists and Ethio-nationalists. The former call for a new social contract under the country’s multinational federation. The latter, perhaps by masking their own tribalism under the cover of an amorphous Ethiopian identity, disparage ethno-nationalists as narrow and inward-looking tribalists.
Splintered beyond recognition, each of them is busy blaming the other for tearing the country’s social fabric apart. Their squabble is fuelled and amplified by disruptive propaganda on social media and highly partisan networks and newspapers that have mushroomed over the past year – taking advantage of the political opening.
Prospects for future
Abiy is somewhere in the middle, trying to pull the two extremes to the centre. He has prioritised holding the country’s first-ever truly democratic election. To demonstrate his commitment, in November, Abiy appointed Birtukan Mideksa, a former prisoner and opposition leader, to head the National Electoral Board.
The 2020 poll will likely be a referendum on two issues that now dominate the political discourse: the contentious status of Addis Ababa, and the future of Ethiopia’s federalism. The all-important issue of the economy, especially youth employment, is all but forgotten, demonstrating how Ethiopian politics is driven by elite interests rather than the concerns of average Ethiopians struggling to make ends meet.
Addis Ababa has taken the centre stage in Ethiopia’s political theatre. The constitution recognises Addis Ababa’s location at the heart of the Oromia state. And it provides for “a special interest” in recognition of this fact. However, Ethiopia’s leaders have failed to determine the details of what that actually entails.
Meanwhile, Addis Ababa has grown outward by displacing farmers, a sore issue that served as the trigger for the Oromo protests. The prime minister has recently set up an eight-person committee led by the Minister of Peace Muferiat Kamil to determine the city’s administrative jurisdiction, a move opposed by his detractors.
Abiy wants to seek an electoral mandate to consolidate his far-reaching reforms and tackle contentious issues such as the type of federalism that requires rigorous public consultation and a possible constitutional amendment.
Ethiopia needs strong democratic institutions and a conducive environment for a free and fair election. Ethiopians need to develop a democratic culture that encourages civil and responsible dialogue, which involves listening to one another, something that is badly lacking today. After years of authoritarianism, it will take a while to change attitudes and tear down prejudices built over centuries of political and sectarian strife.
There are currently more than 107 political parties vying for power. The increasing polarisation of views compounded by the presence of so many actors doesn’t bode well for an orderly election and transition to democracy. Rather than coalescing and cobbling together winning coalitions and broader constituencies, the opposition is busy jostling for power while catering only to its narrow hardcore base of support. No party has thus far offered a coherent and serious policy alternative to Abiy’s EPRDF.
As in all transitional countries, the challenges are many, but even amid the discordant narratives, Abiy remains Ethiopia’s best hope for long-term stability. He is by far the only steady hand who can unite the country and help chart a common future. He should be given more time and support to implement his vision and to institutionalise the important reforms that he has set in motion.
Towards that end, Ethiopians need to overcome the current schism and resist the duelling echo chambers proclaiming an existential crisis. We have a unique opportunity to finally transition to participatory democracy. We must approach the year two of the Abiy administration with extreme vigilance, utmost patience, a great dose of civility, and a sense of responsibility to ensure that the democratisation process does not stagnate or backslide.
The views expressed in this article is the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.