Date: Tuesday, 05 June 2018
Ethiopia recently swore in Abiy Ahmed as Prime Minister. His appointment holds a great deal of meaning for Ethiopia and the region as a whole. His first months as Prime Minister will be closely watched by Ethiopians, neighboring countries, and the world.
Located in the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia is a sizeable state with much history and tremendous potential as not only an African economy but as a global one. A strong player in one of the emerging markets investors around the world are paying attention to, Ethiopia has the ability to leave its mark and pave the way for Sub-Saharan African nations to follow. That is, with the right leadership.
Fracked with protest, accusations of human rights violations, and civil unrest, Ethiopia has been in and out of the global spotlight over the past two years. In February 2018, following two state of emergencies declared by the government, Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Hailemariam Desalegn, resigned from his post, leaving the world watching and Ethiopians with even more uncertainty of their country’s future. Last month, Ethiopia swore in Abiy Ahmed, its 12th Prime Minister, to replace Desalegn. With Ahmed in this new post comes a great deal of suspicion, opportunity, and hope for not only Ethiopia but also neighboring countries.
Abiy Ahmed was born to a Muslim father and Christian mother in the Oromia region of Ethiopia. A young, vibrant, and charismatic leader, one sees much of a resemblance in his demeanor and energy to that of a young Barack Obama. Ahmed is well-educated, having received a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from Microlink Information Technology College, a Master of Arts in Transformational Leadership and Change from Greenwich University, London, a Master of Business Administration from the Leadstar College of Management and Leadership in Addis Ababa, and a PhD from the Institute for Peace and Security Studies at Addis Ababa University. Ahmed’s background ranges significantly, and it was not until 2010 that he entered the political arena.
Prior to joining, he served in the Ethiopian army as a member of the intelligence service, took part in the United Nations peace mission following the 1994 Rwandan genocide, and led the Information Network Security Agency (INSA). Ahmed entered the political arena as a member of the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO). Shuffling through a range of positions over the years, he found himself as Head of the OPDO Secretariat, and by 2015, amid controversy and chaos orchestrated by the besieged Oromos.
What marks Abiy Ahmed’s appointment as revolutionary, noteworthy, or even remarkable is his background and its correlation to Ethiopia’s current political climate. Ahmed belongs to the Oromo ethnic group, the group at the center of Ethiopia’s political chaos. In 2015, a plan was unveiled by the Ethiopian government to expand Addis Ababa, the capital, into regions belonging to the state of Oromia. Protests quickly erupted among the people of Oromia and hundreds were killed. The plan to expand was dismantled, yet unrest and discontent remained, uncovering the Oromo people’s deeply rooted feelings against the ruling party of Ethiopia.
The people of Oromia make up roughly 40% of Ethiopia’s population, yet are not represented as such in the government. Ethiopia’s government is widely governed by the Tigray and Amhara people, with the overruling majority of seats occupied by the Tigray, who ironically represent less than 10% of Ethiopia’s population. It is this disproportionate control over Ethiopia that led to the uprising of the Oromo people, subsequently causing the government to declare two state of emergencies, one in October 2016 and another in February 2018, following the resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn.
Ahmed is Ethiopia’s first Oromo Prime Minister, symbolizing change, or at least the illusion of change. His appointment is a grand gesture to the Oromo people, but whether they accept this gesture remains to be seen. Many Oromos have regained a sense of hope with Ahmed’s appointment, while many remain skeptical, acknowledging that his appointment is meaningful but cannot stand alone. The Oromo demand justice and swift change, and Ahmed’s appointment is just the first step. The Oromo want equality, justice, representation, and to be heard. They want the same opportunities and the same treatment that the Amhara and Tigray people receive. Ahmed has promised change and an open dialogue for the future, impressing hope onto the youth but the question now is not can he deliver, but will he?
Peace within Ethiopia’s border is not the only thing Ahmed has promised. In his inaugural speech, Ahmed extended a peaceful hand to long-time rival Eritrea. Eritrea, a former Italian colony, defeated the Ethiopian government in a battle for peace in 1991. Twenty-seven years later, relations between the two sovereign states are fraught with hostility and finger-pointing. Nearly twenty years ago, a border war ensued between the countries, costing both millions of dollars and thousands of lives. At the heart of this border war is a town called Badme. Following the end of the war in 2000, the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission, a UN founded body, declared that this town indeed belongs to Eritrea.
To this day, Ethiopia occupies the town of Badme, turning its back on the UN body’s declaration. If Ahmed is serious about any sort of peaceful talks and reconciliation with its former rival, his first step should be to evacuate Badme. It is unlikely that Isaias Afwerki, President of Eritrea, will be open to any sort of discussion, rightfully so, until this is done. If Ahmed cares for stability and peace in the region, this will be one of the actions he takes as Prime Minister.
One of the fastest growing economies of Sub-Saharan Africa, there is much weight on Ahmed’s shoulders to alleviate economic inhibitors. The ongoing civil unrest and twice declared state of emergencies have had dire effects on the state’s economic situation, and the risk of doing business in Ethiopia has increased. A casualty of the political climate, media censorship and Ethiopia’s internet blackout are inhibitors to the facilitation of economic growth in the country. Independent media has been nearly non-existent since the 2005 elections, and the political unrest has only caused internet connectivity and media freedom to decline.
If Abiy Ahmed is serious about Ethiopia’s economic growth and leadership in the region, he will make internet connectivity and media censorship a priority during his time as Prime Minister. True and accurate reporting of events taking place in Ethiopia and its progress will make it more alluring to investors as an emerging market. Without this openness, Ethiopia’s choices are to worsen its economic situation by paying a fortune for PR or forfeit significant investments in its economy from investors.
With Abiy Ahmed as Prime Minister comes much opportunity for Ethiopia. Ahmed has the power to create peace within his borders as well as with neighboring countries, bring about equality and representation, foster economic growth, and create a model for other developing markets and nations to follow. Ahmed has quite the task ahead of him and it is in his first year that we will see what he assigns significance and what effect he will have on Ethiopia’s future.