For Ethiopia’s Abiy, big reforms carry big risks

Longtime independent Ethiopia researcher Rene Lefort compared Abiy’s reforms to 1991, when the EPRDF, then a rebel army, stormed the capital Addis Ababa and removed the Derg military junta from power.

“I expected some changes, but only step-by-step. But so fast, and so deep, that’s astonishing,” he said.

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Yet analysts warn Abiy’s pursuit of change may not prove smooth sailing.

A former province, Eritrea’s 1993 vote to leave Ethiopia has always been controversial, particularly among Ethiopia’s so-called “centrists” who believe in a strong, centralised state.

“Centrist” ideology is especially popular among the country’s second-largest ethnicity, the Amhara.

They, along with the Oromos, spearheaded recent anti-government protests and have been seen as generally supportive of Abiy and his reform campaign.

Eritrea has not responded publicly to Ethiopia’s overture and Abiy’s government has not announced a pullout from the disputed border regions.

But giving up land to Eritrea could alienate those who see the territory as belonging to Ethiopia.

This week, a protest against Abiy’s announcement was held by residents of territory inhabited by the Tigrayan ethnic group that Ethiopia would cede under the border ruling.

“The key thing to watch out for is Abiy’s ability to rise over the inevitable disappointment or sense of betrayal, to put it strongest, over the Eritrea decision,” said Christopher Clapham of Britain’s University of Cambridge.


Abiy’s plans for the economy may run into resistance, as ERPDF elites are believed to be entrenched in the state-run industries at the heart of the country’s economy.

“How will the cake be redistributed among these different elites through this liberalisation?” Lefort asked. “Which kind of liberalisation, and for the advantage of whom, remains an open question.”

The secretive EPRDF will hold a key meeting in August, and Lefort said Abiy needs to secure strong support from party kingmakers to make good on his proposals.

Though relations within the ruling party can at times be rancorous, Awol believes Abiy enjoys support both within the EPRDF and on the Ethiopian streets — at least for now.

“The risks are increasingly declining,” Awol said. “He’s consolidating himself, with the support of the people.”

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