Nobody outside the ruling party knows much about Abiy Ahmed beyond his official party biography, but Ethiopia’s new prime minister looks a lot like Magic Man. Three years of mounting protests have suddenly stopped, the state of emergency has been lifted, and
with a single dramatic announcement he has ended 20 years of hot and cold war with neighbouring Eritrea.
He did that on Tuesday by declaring (as only the leader of a tough authoritarian regime can) that Ethiopia now accepts the 2002 ruling of an international border commission and will pull its troops out of Badme, the market town at the centre of the quarrel
At least 80,000 soldiers and civilians were killed in the hot war (1998-2000), and several million soldiers wasted years of their lives on the border during the long cold war (which briefly went hot as recently as 2016). But Abiy has ended all that with a wave
of his hand.
Abiy belongs to the Oromo ethnic group, the biggest in the country, but he is the first Oromo in Ethiopia’s history to lead the government.
The growing protests of the past three years were strongest in Oromia, because the people there felt marginalized politically, culturally and economically. Hundreds of people have been killed in the demonstrations, so the solutions of the ruling Ethiopian People’s
Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) was to put an Oromo in charge, but one who has spent his whole adult life serving the EPRDF.
Abiy is such a man. He joined the army straight out of school, worked his way up to colonel’s rank, then shifted to a senior position in the intelligence and security apparatus and finally moved into politics.
He has been given power to deal with some of the biggest grievances of the population because he is trusted not to let power slip away from the EPRDF. Maybe his appointment as prime minister will calm things down, but don’t mistake it for the start of a democratic
Ethiopia is the only one of sub-Saharan Africa’s three economic giants that is not democratic. Unlike South Africa and Nigeria, it has a single ruling party.
The EPRDF is a permanent coalition of four parties representing the four biggest ethnic groups (Oromo, Amhara, Tigrinya and Somali), but all are part of a highly disciplined whole that has an almost Soviet ruling style. It is not encumbered by Communist or
even socialist ideological obsessions, but elections are no more meaningful than the old Soviet ones were.
During the past decade, this hard-line approach has delivered an annual average of 10 per cent economic growth in Ethiopia, far higher than in South Africa or Nigeria. And while there is serious friction between the various Ethiopian ethnic groups that make
up the EPRDF, it is not significantly worse than the ethnic rivalries that plague the politics of the two big democracies.
It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that some people wonder whether Ethiopia’s model is better for African countries. People do end up in jail or in exile for opposing the regime, or disappear, but not all that many, and the system is delivering the goods economically.
In the short run, authoritarian politics often produces better results than democracy. Orders are given and obeyed, and things get done. But during the long run, opposition builds up, and there is no democratic safety valve to let off the steam.
When the dam finally bursts, you can lose a lot.
The EPRDF will not last forever, because no system of that sort ever does, and when it goes it could be with an almighty crash. That may not happen for a long time, but Abiy is probably not Magic Man.
Gwynne Dyer’s new book is $Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work).